Chapter 26: Denouncement

Virpan awoke bright and early, the rays of the dawning sun playing across her bed sheets. She rolled off onto the floor and quickly got dressed, eager to begin the day. After awakening the less than eager Kialiki, the two made their way downstairs into the main room. Just as when they had arrived, the inn was strangely empty.

Three men were huddled around a table, some large piece of parchment lying between them. One looked toward the stairs and spotted her. It was Vutuk from the previous day. He smiled, walking over to greet her.

“Glad to see you up,” he said beaming. “The planning has been completed, so there isn’t a moment to lose.”

“Shall I awaken Howngthirr and Risawal?” Kialiki asked yawning.

“Yes, yes roust them, quickly,” one of the other old men said hurriedly. “Now, Virpan, why not get yourself some breakfast? There’s food on the bar top.”

Famished, she rushed over to the bar and began serving herself. Fruits and bread were stacked across the counter, many of which looked quite familiar. Soon the others filed down stairs, Risawal appearing quite tired. They ate under the watchful eye of Brother Vutuk who paced around behind them. Once Virpan was finished he clapped his hands.

“Eh-hem, may I have you attention? You have all done an extraordinary task in the service of Valtor. With the Chosen One here, and the location of the Helm revealed, we will soon bring his light back into this vile world. Please, would you do one more task for us? Would you…”

“Yes, yes, we’ll help you break into the Temple,” Howngthirr said quickly, hopping to his feet.

“Me too,” Kialiki chimed in.

“Erm, splendid,” Vutuk said, taken aback. “There will be a great reward for you all, I can assure you.”

“That’s what I like to hear,” Howngthirr replied, “So what’s the story?”

“Eons ago, at the inception of our age, the elders of Hishne’s lineage inscribed…”

“No, no, I meant what are we about to do? What’s the plan? The Temp…”

“Silence your heathen tongue!” Risawal spat.

“His what?!” Vutuk gasped, looking at Howngthirr. “Is this true?”

“Is what true?” Howngthirr asked shaking his head. “Honestly, you people…”

“He denied Valtor before by very eyes,” Risawal snapped, looking triumphantly around at the assembled elders.

“Oh, no,” an elder moaned.

Howngthirr blinked, the entire atmosphere changing instantly.

“I just tried to explain…”

“I said quiet!” Risawal snapped.

“How could you bring someone like him into our midst?” Vutuk demanded. “The company of one such as him is shameful.”

“Hey, it’s not like I’m a worshipper either!” Kialiki said quickly, “but…”

“For shame!” Vutuk cried, “for the chosen one to associate with heathens on the day of the order’s triumph.”

“Well, if that’s how you feel about it, I’ll be leaving,” Howngthirr said crossly, “I’m certain there’s a friendly district here.”

“And it sounded like such an adventure,” Kialiki sighed, “clearly I’m not wanted here.”

With that the two threw the doors ajar, and walked out into the street.  Virpan blinked, the sound of the slamming doors finally hitting home what had just happened. She sprang to her feet and ran after them.

“Wait, no, you cannot leave,” Vutuk yelped, leaping into her path.

“Then you’ll let me go get him,” Virpan snapped, “and then you’re going to apologize to him in front of everyone here.”

“You can’t be serious,” he breathed. “Virpan we need you; we’re desperately short on numbers.”

“Desperately short on numbers?” She repeated incredulously. “Then why did you insult a skilled warrior and a powerful sorceress willing to join your cause?”

“It is not so simple…”

“Yes, it is. Howngthirr saved my life, and if he’s not welcome here, I’m not welcome here.”

“Virpan, see reason,” Risawal said marching towards her. “He and Kialiki cannot be among those who reclaim the helm and bring back the light of Valtor. T-this is the way it must be, I’m sorry, but they are not true believers.”

Virpan gave him a look of disgust. “No, this is the way it’s going to be,” Virpan retorted, her hand on the door, “I’m going to go get Howngthirr, and then we’re going to come back to this pub. And if we don’t hear an apology then we’ll keep right on walking.”

Helplessly, Vutuk watched as Virpan marched out into the street, the doors slamming behind her. She sprinted to catch up, finding them just around the next corner. Howngthirr was fuming, flexing his hands into fists while Kialiki appeared more saddened than angry.

“Howngthirr!” Virpan called to him. “Howngthirr, Kialiki, slow down! I need to talk with you.”

“Fine, you’ve got my attention,” He sighed, his expression softening.

“Honwgthir, Kialiki,” Virpan began. “What happened back there was inexcusable. If I hadn’t made a sacred promise to help Risawal complete his task for the brotherhood of Valtor then I’d be here to join you leaving.”

“I see why you’d value a promise to them,” he snorted, leaning against a wall.

“I wasn’t finished,” Virpan snapped. “Even though I made that promise, I will stand with you if you give them a chance to apologize.”

“It’s that simple,” Kialiki said quietly, “these people, I feel something from them, and I don’t like it one little bit.”

“Is that a no?”

“You’re going to go into that temple with them if I refuse, aren’t you?”

“I believe that’s a given,” Kailiki mused, “no harm in giving them chance to say sorry, I suppose. Might be fun to see.”

“Yeah, Risawal apologizing would be fun.”

“You’ll do it then?”

“Yeah, let’s go make them grovel; what do you say?”

“Oh yes, lets.” Kialiki said, clapping her hands, “and then we’ll name our price.”

“Come on, let’s get back. Don’t want to Keep Risawal waiting, do we?”

Virpan and her friends were nearing their destination when they heard a loud argument ahead of them. They picked up their pace as the altercation peaked in volume. Near the door of the inn stood Vutuk and one of the other elders, grappling with a rather angry looking Risawal.

“…could not get past the patrols on your own!” The elder holding Risawal called, looking nervously around the street.

“I am the Chosen One,” he snarled, finally breaking free, “With Valtor on my side, I cannot fail.”

The elder looked exasperated. “Oh, Virpan, thank goodness,” Vutuk cried, spotting her approaching. “Please help us. Our young brother here is going to get himself killed!”

Virpan shook her head. “Ugh, you fool,” she sighed, marching up to Risawal. “Listen; if you apologize I will accompany you.”

“Of course, of course,” the elders said in unison, turning to Howngthirr and Kialiki. “We sincerely apologize for our behavior, please help us complete this vital mission.”

Risawal glared at them as if they’d grown horns from the tops of their heads, but then saw the seriousness of their expressions. He sighed, knowing they needed all the help they could get.

“Really, so I have to?” Risawal murmured, turning towards them as well, “Yes, I am sorry you took offense to what I said earlier.”

“Um,” Howngthirr stuttered, glancing at Kialiki, “that didn’t sound…”

“There will be a handsome reward for you all,” Vutuk chimed in, “enough gold and silver to weigh down four mules.”

“Apology accepted!”

“Splendid, now, there is not a moment to lose,” Brother Vutuk said breathlessly. “The temple will never again be less guarded. Now is our chance. To recover the helm, fulfill destiny, and save the Order of Valtor.”

With preparations settled, the six of them departed for the temple down the now bustling streets of Abhetallqames. People dressed in rags and those dressed in silks brushed past them in chattering crowds. All heading in the opposite direction, Virpan noticed. Not long into their journey the tide of humanity ebbed until the streets around them were virtually deserted. It was in the middle of this desertion that they found their goal.

The grand temple was a splendor to behold. Ornate marble columns soared into the sky supporting a gleaming roof of polished gold and chiseled marble. They marched up the enveloping stairs past an imposing statue of Tamazjele. The stone god eyed them suspiciously. Inside a few white robed priests were milling about. The Elders broke away to distract them. Seizing their opportunity, Risawal lead them around the main altar and down a short set of stairs.

At the base of the stairs they encountered an elderly priest emerging from his cell. He walked forward to greet them. Risawal silenced him with a smack to the wind pipe and then knocked him out cold. Ignoring a pang of guilt, Virpan continued down the hall. There, at the end of the room, they found a long winding stairwell to the sacred vaults below.

“Our path is clear,” Risawal breathed, taking a torch from the wall. Long strings of bizarre images plastered the walls they passed. The Karuzat Charm pulsed, its soft orange glow making a strange pattern on the wall. Virpan studied it, an odd feeling creeping over her.

The cavernous crypt appeared before them, the walls lined with generations of Hanesttaalan Emperors. At the far end of the room was the Chamber of Treasures. To her dismay, Virpan saw that it was already open. A glow of torchlight flickered through the open doors. In an instant the weeks of nightmares flashed before her and she blanched in fear. Eyes wide, she hissed, “C’mon! We’ve got to stop him!”

Virpan pushed forward into the long Chamber of Treasures, where shelves of plunder lined the walls. Gold and jewels sparkled at them from all directions, but their attention was focused squarely on the opposite end of the room. There on a raised plinth with a cache of powerful artifacts sat the Golden Helm. Standing over it was the man who had haunted her nightmares, who it appeared was about to make those nightmares come true.

“Stop!” Virpan yelled.

“Oh, my dear, you should have taken your vacation.” Zhar’oth sighed, looking back at the intruders. “Now I’m afraid something unpleasant must happen to you.”

In a swift motion he plucked up the Helm and held it up to examine it. The Karuzat charm pulsed as a wave of fear flowed through Virpan. For a terrifying instant it seemed her dreams were about to come true.

Then Zhar’oth dropped the Helm unceremoniously into a burlap sack that he slung over his shoulder, shaking his head at the lot of them. “You’re going to be arrested, and then charged with the theft of a priceless artifact.”

A loud crash echoed through the chamber. Four suits of armor lying amongst the treasure piles came to life, the mercenaries within raising maces and swords. “Shame you won’t be able to keep those suits, isn’t it lads?” Zhar’oth called, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a dangerous trophy to stash away.”

Out of nowhere a figure burst through the open doors and landed on the first man, sending him to the floor. A second later his head was rolling away. A black clad assassin stood over the man’s corpse, flashing his twin blades. Zhar’oth’s face turned white. He turned and dashed down the plinth.  A dart flew from the assassin and impacted his shoulder. There was a cry of pain as Zhar’oth tumbled down the stairs, the sack dropping away from him.

Howngthirr raised his hammer, taking a step forward to join the fray when a bolt of lightning flew through the door. A man in long purple robes stepped across the threshold, holding an iron staff topped with a glowing blue gem. Kiallki threw up a shield between them and the lightning priest.

“Damn you!” Risawal called, barreling for the mercenary between him and the helm. The two clashed blades.

“Fool,” a female voice scolded, echoing through the helmet. “You’ve been blinded by those whom you trusted most.”

“Shut your heathen mouth!” Risawal roared, striking at the mercenary again. “You’ll burn for this.”

“Not likely,” she kicked Risawal in the gut and sent him sprawling to the floor.

Virpan stared at the melee, feeling oddly detached. The Order, Karriv, Zhar’oth’s mercenaries, nothing seemed to matter anymore. She watched as the assassin dispatched a second mercenary, only to be struck by a dart launched from Zhar’oth’s wrist. The figure staggered, receiving a slash across his arm from the last mercenary. Virpan blinked, realizing that she was moving.

The Helm was calling to her. The Karuzat charm pulsed as she approached the abandoned relic. She heard the voice of the Helm in her head, and in an instant Virpan understood. She was the Chosen One, the one to wear the Helm of Valtor. A shout echoed through the room as she reached for the sack, but it did not matter.

The bag itself burst into flames, a circle around it burning away the fabric. The charm pulsed more quickly now, a strange ringing echoing through her mind. Compelled by forces beyond her control Virpan seized the Helm and slid it over her head.

-#-

“Damned fool!” Zhar’oth shreiked, making a break for the door, “Get out, everyone get out!”

All eyes turned towards the plinth. Risawal gasped at the sight, his mind going blank. Virpan was standing at the head of the room, the gleaming helm atop her head. Sheets of flame emerging around her, the room heating like a blast furnace.  A cold realization struck him. Either Virpan was really the Chosen One, or she was about to be destroyed. He took a step toward her. Then an arm wrapped in golden armor clocked him on the head.

“Run if you value your lives!” Zhar’oth called, grabbing hold of Howngthirr.

“Get off me!” He protested, “Virpan!”

“Girl! Close the doors!” Zhar’oth urged Kialiki in desperation.

Hesitantly she obeyed. Blue tendril extended from her arms, slowly pulling the doors shut. Zhar’oth and the last mercenary threw Howngthirr and Risawal clear, before diving into the chamber. A wave of nauseating heat flowed from the closed doors.

“No, Virpan!” Howngthirr cried, getting one last glimpse of her before the doors slammed shut. “You, you shut her in that assassin!”

“My boy, you have it backwards,” Zhar’oth breathed, backing away from the door. “That idiot is shut in there with her-stupid! Damn! Stupid! Damned girl!”

Another wave of heat emanated through the chamber, the crack below the door filling with molten gold. They backed towards the entryway, the temple itself starting to shake.

“W-what is going on?” Risawal cried, his mind about to break, “You, thief, what do you know?”

“Perhaps you should ask your Order buddies,” Zhar’oth retorted, a look of despair filling his face. “Your worthless, cowardly, bastards.”

Risawal turned around, Brother Vutuk and another elder descending into the chamber. They looked excitedly at the assembled crowd, Vutuk walking up to Risawal with a wide smile. “Did she don the Helm? Did she fulfill the Prophecy?”

“So, so Virpan is the Chosen One then?” Risawal asked, his voice quivering. “But, why?”

“She has donned the Helm!” the other elder cried, “This is truly a glorious day for Valtor.”

“I apologize, Brother Risawal,” Vutuk said calmly, “the deception was necessary. With the enemies of Valtor out in force, the true identity of the Chosen One had to remain a secret. One cannot lie about something one does not know.”

“W-what’s happening to Virpan?” Kialiki asked. “Anyone? I’m getting a strange feeling from that room.”

“She’s fulfilling her destiny,” the elder said knowingly, the structure rumbling once again.

“What do you mean by, ‘fulfilling her destiny’, exactly?” Howngthirr asked advancing on him.

“Yong lad, we must put faith in Valtor…” Vutuk began.

“Shut up! Tell me exactly what’s happening, now.”

“You see, there, uh, are certain gaps,” the elder stammered.

“He has no idea,” Zhar’oth said in a deadly tone. “Or perhaps, he has, as I do, a vague idea. Which would explain why he is standing so far back from the doors, near a load bearing column.”

“Please, everyone, you must understand,” Vutuk said defensively, “Some knowledge has been lost to time, but the important parts remain…”

“Bastard!” Howngthirr howled, lunging for Brother Vutuk. “Tell the truth, what’s happening to Virpan?!” The temple shook to its very base, stones dislodging from the ceiling as something moved skyward.

-#-

A chill flowed through Virpan the moment the Golden Helm touched her skin. A sheet of yellow flame erupted from the helm, wrapping itself around her. Steams of red flame burst from the Karuzat charm, flashing across the room. The fire twisted and intertwined heating the room like a blast furnace. She caught one final glimpse of her friends before the doors slammed shut. The lightning priest and the assassin drew closer, smoke starting to plume from their clothing.

The assassin threw a blade at her and made a lunge. The weapon melted in midair and the flames enveloped him in turn. The whole room was set alight, Virpan now stranded alone in a sea of flames. The Helm melted away, and the great red jewel sinking into her forehead. The Karuzat Charm glowed and sank into her chest, powerful forces cascading through her body. She recoiled, and the fire echoed her movements. Still shaking, she waved her hand before her, the fire swirling at her command.

A spasm wrenched through her body, and she fell to the floor. She gasped, spitting out a mouthful of molten gold. In stunned fascination she grabbed up a handful of the liquid, unable to feel any heat. Another spasm came. Power emanated from the jewel of the Helm and the Karuzat charm through her body, but the two were pushing and pulling against each other. Virpan staggered to her feet, suddenly aware of a new presence.

The image of Tamazjele on the roof awakened. Lightning crashed down towards her, Virpan flying out of the way. Running on instinct she lashed out at the image, the temple shaking. She summoned power and blasted it at the ceiling. The stones groaned and finally gave way. As the chamber began to collapse, she launched herself out the hole into the sky above.

A tower of flames emerged into the sky, frightened onlookers staring in shock. Virpan stared at the surroundings, realizing that she was flying above the city. Hoping to get a better look at her surroundings she tried to push the flames away. It was another moment before she realized the flames where coming from her. A flapping noise filled her ears and she spun around, sending jets of fire in all directions.

Oddly detached from the whole affair, Virpan reached back and felt a pair of wings emerging from her back.

Clouds gathered overhead as another wave of power issued from the jewel of the helm. A great lightning bolt struck her, the jolt rocketing her from the cloud of fire. A searing pain spread through her, finally bringing home the horrors of what was happening. Another lightning bolt sailed past, driving her away. She flew in panic, a feeling guiding her northward, away from the stunned city and ruined temple far below.

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