August 16, 2022

Chapter 27: Aftermath

A loud ringing echoed through Howngthir’s head. He pushed against a slab of something pinning him to the floor. A streamer of blue light came into view, wrapping itself around the stone and pulled it off him. A figure dressed in blue emerged behind him, guiding the stone to the floor. Kialiki turned around and reached her hand down, pulling him to his feet.

“T-thanks,” he said gruffly, the dust clogging his throat.

“Don’t mention it,” she said brightly.

He coughed, picking his way through the debris. The sounds of groaning and the sight of shifting blocks met him as he looked for the one who’d gotten them into the whole mess. Near the back of the room he spotted him, Risawal, slouched on the floor with his head drooped low, leaning against an intact column.

Blood boiling, Howngthirr marched up to Risawal and glared at him. When no response came, he grabbed Risawal by the shoulder and gave him a shake. Risawal tilted his head back, eyes glazed over.

“What’s happened to Virpan?” Howngthirr demanded, “Tell me. Tell me now!”

“Hey, stop that,” Kialiki said hastily, stepped between them, “he’s in shock.”

“Grr, he’s the one who got her involved in all this,” Howngthirr said through gritted teeth.

“That’s no excuse for shaking him,” she said crossing her arms. “Besides, how do you know that?”

“She made a promise, that’s what kept her going.”

“What promise?”

“One she made when this madness began.”

“Oh, so all this happened because she refused to break her word?” Kialiki asked, glancing at the ceiling. “Huh.”

An ominous crack echoed through the chamber. Howngthirr looked up, spotting a widening gap in the ceiling above them. Another crack reverberated through the chamber, a stream of dirt falling down upon him. He dropped his gaze, looking right into Kialiki’s eyes.

“Let’s get out of here!” They exclaimed in unison, each grabbing one of Risawal’s arms.

The two barreled up the stairs, dragging their compatriot up into the temple proper. Once in the main chamber they dropped him onto the marble floor, their eyes transfixed on the impressive new skylight that had been punched through the roof. Cautiously, Howngthirr and Kialiki approached it and the crater below, unsure of what to make of the damage. The bright sunlight seemed to snap Risawal back to reality.

“W-where, w-what happened?” he asked, dazed. “How’d I get here?”

“Glad you’re back with us,” Kialiki said, “it was a, uh, fairly unique spectacle.”

“Huh?” Risawal mumbled, staggering to his feet.

“Virpan put on that damned helmet and blasted a crater into this temple,” Howngthir growled, advancing on him.

“Whe-where is she now?”

“I haven’t a clue you twit,” Howngthirr snapped. “F-for all I know she p-perished.”

“But I was the chosen one.”

“Screw you!” Howngthirr spat, “Virpan’s dead, and it’s your fault, and all you can think about is yourself!?”

“Take it easy,” Kialiki said calmly, laying a hand on Howngthirr’s shoulder. “I’m pretty sure Risawal is not right in the head.”

As though on cue Risawal straightened up, a cold expression appearing on his face. He spun around to glare at Howngthirr, his eyes now sharp once again.

“I am fine in the head, heathen,” Risawal snapped.

“Great, what do we do now?” Howngthirr asked, hearing an ominous noise outside. “Pretty sure there’s a mob forming out there.”

“What we do now, heathen, is find Virpan,” Risawal declared, “The Helm of Valtor must be recovered at all costs.”

“If it even exists,” he muttered.

Ignoring him, Risawal marched out onto the front steps of the temple, brushing past a pair of robed priests. Howngthirr glanced at Kialiki who simply shrugged. He followed Risawal though they did not get very far. An angry mob had gathered around the base of the temple, a dozen lightning priests barely able to hold them back. To Howngthirr’s horror Risawal reached for his sword, utter contempt written across his face.

“You’re not serious,” Howngthirr gasped.

“Risawal, stop!” Kialiki cried.

“Stay back, heathens, for…”

Blaring trumpets prevented Howngthirr from hearing the remainder of the insanity. The mob parted as a gilded horse drawn carriage rode up, a column of soldiers marching in its wake. The men whore light colored tunics and carried spears, which they were now using to make room for the dignitary to disembark.

The lead soldier wore a brightly colored turban and shouted at anyone who was not moving away fast enough. “Make way for Emperor Bhima! Move, move!”

Moments later, the Royal Carriage came to a stop at the base of the stairs. Several guards were positioning themselves around the door when it burst open. A portly man wearing white robes and a purple turban jumped down, staring in horror at the smoke coming up from the temple. He grabbed at his turban, several grey hairs poking out from beneath the fabric. Just as tears began rolling down his cheeks, one of the lightning priests approached him and began whispering into his ear. The emperor’s face turned red, and he looked right at Howngthirr.

“Seize them!” he screamed. “Seize those accursed infidels!”

Instantly his soldiers fell upon them. Before he could react, Howngthirr was thrown to the ground and bound, the others receiving the same treatment. The soldier on this back pulled his head up by his hair, Emperor Bhima slowly striding towards him.

“Wh-what, have you done?!” He screamed, eyes bulging. “What happened to Tamazjele’s sanctuary?”

“The Helm activated,” Kialiki said, pulling her binding off easily. Everyone turned to face her in astonishment. “Virpan put on the Helm of Valtor, which unleashed magical flames so hot that they melted the gold. It was magic like I’ve never felt before.”

A blue bolt of lightning struck the ground at her feet, a sorcerer priest appearing at his emperor’s side. Kialiki gulped eyeing the crowd of magic users surrounding her.

“You shall all answer for your crimes!” Bhima spat.

“Bhima, can you tell me what has happened?” A new voice asked.

A large man stepped from the carriage, dressed in a fine red tunic and gleaming leather boots. His head was topped with a crown, a curtain of black hair hanging down to his shoulders. The man paused at the sight of the prisoners, stroking his thick beard thoughtfully. Howngthirr inhaled, realizing who it was.

“King Shvalax,” he whispered, looking in awe at the monarch.

“I was just seeing to that,” Bhima replied, signaling the soldiers. “A few hours of interrogation should

Realizing that this was his only chance, Howngthirr reached his head down and yanked his hammer amulet out into the open, hoping the king would see it.

“Hang on a moment,” Shvalax said, stepping up to Howngthirr. He knelt down at grasped Howngthirr’s amulet, rolling it around in his hand. “Who are you lad? Where do you hail from?”

“I’m from Larngthaosh village, in the mountains, erm, great king majesty.”

“Hmm.” He rolled it over in his hand twice more before turning to his friend. “This lad here, I shall be taking him.”

“What!?” Bhima cried.

“By law his village, and thus his people, are under the protection of my kingdom.”

“But what if he is lying? How can you know this boy is who he says he is?”

“He shall be interrogated, by me, and if his answers indeed prove unsatisfactory, he will be returned to you, my friend.”

“Very well,” he said, shaking his head, “a scribe shall detail every letter of your conversation for my personal review.”

“Of course.”

“Wait,” Kialiki said quickly, rushing to Howngthirr’s side. “I’m with him.”

“No you’re not,” A lightning priest snarled, trying to grab her shoulder.

“And her too,” Shvalax sighed.

“Shvalax, be reasonable.” Bhima said exasperated.

“You shall have all the answers, or they shall return to your custody,” he replied, giving Kialiki a warning glance, “no trickery, you hear.”

“I hear,” Kialiki said, nodding.

“Aye,” Howngthirr replied.

“Excellent,” the king said, clapping his hands together. “This way.”

Howngthirr stole one last glance back at Risawal, gritting his teeth as a fresh wave of hatred washed over him. For him there was no last minute save. He stared, defiant, as he was hauled away by Bhima’s soldiers. Howngthirr shook his head and then hurried onto the street. When he reached the carriage, a man in black robes grabbed him by the arm, promptly cutting off Howngthirr’s bindings with a skilful slice a scimitar.

Unburdened, Howngthirr wedged himself beside Kialiki in the Emperor’s imperial carriage, sinking into the satin cushion. Across from him sat King Shvalax and a robed man with a turban on his head. The turban man, apparently the previously mentioned scribe, was unfurling a long scroll. He then drew out a brush and licked the bristles, dipping it into an ink jar held in his left hand before tapping the king lightly with his elbow.

“First, please tell me your names, young ones.”

“Howngthirr Uonkshrailson, your majesty,” he said quietly, bowing his head.

“I’m Kialiki,” she said brightly, saluting. “Nice to meet you.”

“As it would appear I saved you a trip to Emperor Bhima’s dungeons, I am certain it is.” The King replied, leaning back in his seat.

“Heh, guess you’re onto me mister Shvalax,” Kialiki replied, glancing out the window.

“Shall we get down to business?” the scribe asked in a humorless tone, licking his ink brush. “I am wasting paper with this daisy gazing talk.”

“Quite right,” The king replied, clapping his hands together. “Explain how it is that you two wound up involved in all this.”

“That’s quite a long story,” Howngthirr murmured, unsure where to begin.

“Please, take your time,” the king said reassuringly, much to the scribe’s chagrin.

“My brother and I were traveling with a caravan, my first caravan, actually. Nathlit, that’s my brother, he’s a pretty interesting guy sometimes, made a comment about snowfall that I just have to repeat.”

The scribe sighed. “Of course you do.”

-#-

In the valley below the ruin of Wanevap a pair of Mahlapren soldiers sat on opposite sides of an overturned crate. They studied each other, cards scattered before them. After a few moments of silence one spoke. “Got any fours?”

“Go fish,” the other replied, smirking.

Disheartened, the loser drew out another useless card. The sound of approaching hooves put an end to their epic game. The two rose to their feet, saluting as Captain Krakthirr rode up.

“What are you doing?” he asked, adjusting his spectacles.

“Same as we’ve been doing the last two weeks, sitting on our asses,” the soldier replied bitterly.

“Would you prefer to be stationed on the northern front? I can have that arranged.”

“Sir, with all due respect, this seems like a massive waste of time,” the other soldier said, rising to his feet. “I know what the notes said, but have you considered that it might have just been a ruse?”

“Or the ramblings of a half crazed monk,” Krakthirr murmured. “I know this may seem a tad pointless. However, we all know the Sheriff’s orders.”

“Indeed we do,” called another voice.

“Degrnuud, ma’am,” Krakthirr sputtered, “I was just discussing with these fine…”

“We’ve had a sighting to the south,” she said quickly, “men, get to your posts.”

The soldiers grabbed their spears, shouts echoing through the valley. Krakthirr paled, turning to the lieutenant.

“Is it Simkagale?” he asked breathlessly, “Or worse?”

“Worse.”

“Tell me your sorcerers are ready.”

“It would be a lie.”

Fear spread through the troops as a glow appeared in the southern horizon. Something terrible was approaching. Everyone braced themselves for the worst, knowing full well the father’s notes.

The treetops burst into flames as a figure flew overhead. Krakthirr looked up, a small sense of relief flowing through him. The rumors of Valtor’s mighty dragon form were unfounded. He drew out his sword anyway, knowing too well what happened to those who were unprepared. The being, wrapped in a sheath of fire flew over ruins of the monastery before crashing down into what remained of the structure.

-#-

Virpan smashed through the roof, through the floors and into the yard of the inner sanctuary. Feeling drained, she staggered to her feet and gazed around the ruins. A feeling of hopelessness came over her.  The one person she hoped could help her was gone. A spasm of power from the jewel sent her reeling backwards.

A burst of fire rose all around her, setting alight to what was left of the garden. Feeling as though her very essence were being pulled apart, Virpan screamed into the sky and an otherworldly howl echoing through the ruin. The charm lit up again, the light falling on the middle of the floor. A thought struck her. She approached the spot, now convinced that it was not Father Torvipan who had called her to this place.

With a powerful punch she smashed into the ground, the garden shaking. A hole had formed, the stones falling into a chasm below. The light of the charm fell though the hole, lighting a path into the darkness. The jewel on her head recoiled, trying to knock her back. Undeterred, she jumped down wafting down only a short distance.

Below her was a cave filled with water, steam bubbling through the rocks. For a moment she feared that it would quench her. When her feet hit the water she knew it was not true. She could still feel the fire within her ready to spring forth.

With a sigh, Virpan sank into the water, the fires on her body dying back. Despite a protest from the jewel she let the water completely cover herself, an immense relief flowing through her. She remained under for a long as she dared, the jewel settling down somewhat. Finally she rushed back up to the surface and took in her surroundings.

The cave was covered in ornate carvings, the memory of the ones that Howngthirr had showed her rushing back. Behind her was a well shaft, apparently built to keep the garden watered. She looked down into the water, a familiar face returning her gaze. Some of her fears dissipated. Her complexion was dark, almost sooty. Several strands of golden hair fell past her eyes. Real gold, she knew, infused by the helm.

Virpan raised her hands out of the water, a nauseous feeling spreading through her. Long black claws protruded from the ends of her fingers. The jewel in her forehead pulsed, an echo spreading through the room.

She splashed spring water upon it, the power subsiding. In the most bizarre sensation she had ever felt Virpan flapped her wings hesitantly, running her palm across the leathery surface.  She then ran it along the rest of her body, most of it feeling the way it should. Her eyes fell onto an ornate carving of Nlitprig, spring water falling from her hand. The light of the Charm played across it, the sapphire eyes glowing in the light.

Sensing that she needed to drink it, Virpan hurried to the falling water. The jewel in her head protested, flashing red across the wall. She dove under and surfaced beneath the falling water. The sweet nectar soothed a pain in her mouth and throat she hadn’t been aware of. A final spasm of power emanated from the jewel. She gripped the wall, feeling her transformation staggering to a halt.

Uncertain whether to be frightened or relieved, she leaned back and floated in the relaxing waters. She held up her clawed hand and examined it more closely, a new feeling coming over her. She began laughing.

“So, this is what being the chosen one is,” she murmured, relived to hear her own voice echoing off the walls. “I wonder what happens now.”

“Attention, erm, creature!” A voice called from above.

Virpan looked up spotting several archers standing nervously above her, all peering down into the spring. Their leader hesitantly leaned closer. “Can you understand my human speech?”

“What’s it to you?!” Virpan called, her fear now completely gone.

“My goodness, erm, to whom am I speaking?”

“I’m Vir-Va-Valtor, Valtor the god of fire and destruction,” she called up mockingly. “Fear me, err, mortal!”

She waved her hand upwards, sending a weak flash of fire upward. At least, she intended it to be weak.

The assembled soldiers leapt back as a column of fire roared through the hole. Krakthirr paled, for a moment wondering if the notes might be truer than he had thought. With the rest of the men looking towards him for guidance, he nervously approached the hole again. He looked down at the creature; something about its form seemed familiar.

“What, are you still there mortal?” she called up, throwing a handful of water into his face.

“That voice,” he whispered, knowing he had heard it before.

“If you’re going to just stand there mortal, make me an offering! A wheel of your finest cheese and the blood of a-a, um, virgin horse!”

“You’re the girl from the bridge,” Krakthirr said dumbstruck. “The one the rebels almost killed.”

“Guh, you’re thinking of the wrong, err, you’re mistaken mortal!” She cried, dodging out of sight.

“It’s her, I know it,” he said breathlessly.

“Krakthirr! Get away from there!” Degrnuud called advancing into the ruin. “We’re going to seal that thing in, just like we planned.”

Two cloaked sorcerers moved silently towards their appointed positions, Kriakthir paling as they did so.

“Stop! Stop right there!” he called, waving his hands frantically.

“What?” everyone said in unison.

“Krakthirr, have you lost it?” Degrnuud demanded, “I saw the flames, you know what…”

“J-just, just hold on,” he pleaded, marching to the nearest sorcerer. “Get out of that circle, now.”

“Are you mad? This is our one chance to stop that, that thing or god, or whatever it is.”

“Hear me,” Krakthirr said, pointing at the hold. “The thing down there is not what you think it is.”

“We’re going ahead with the ceremony,” she called, “Begin the incantations.”

“Lieutenant Degrnuud,” Krakthirr said forcefully, “I am in charge here, and I am ordering you to stand down.”

“But, this could be-if we fail here, Krakthirr, it’s the end.”

“I know, lieutenant, and I take full responsibility for tonight’s action,” he said softly, looking right into her eyes, “But we are not dealing with the embodiment of Valtor, nor his slave, and especially not Valtor himself.”

“Really, you know this?”

“I know I will not be able to live with myself unless I know for sure,” he murmured. “Please, send a sorcerer down and examine her. I am confident that he will find a frightened young lady down there.”

“Krakthirr.” She muttered. “Fine, alright, Renkwith, please go down into the spring.”

He looked uneasily at his commander, eying the hole suspiciously. After a nasty glare from Degernuud he sighed and moved towards the gap. A soldier lowered a rope into the chasm. Pleased, Krakthirr walked over to inspect the goings on.

“Listen, we’re sending down a sorcerer to inspect you,” he called, “Renkwith here will determined your divinity or lack thereof.”

“Uh, wait, mortal!” Virpan called, hastily folding one of her wings across herself. “I am unclothed.”

“Oh this is a waste of time,” Degrnuud said exasperated, marching forwards. “How about a sorceress then?”

“Ok,” Virpan said. “You may approach me, I suppose, mortal.”

The figure dropped down into the pool, soaking herself in the hot spring. She rose up, inspecting the odd creature. The rumored “dragon” of Valtor was quite human shaped, Degrnuud noted. She approached her cautiously, spotting the golden hair and red ruby embedded in her forehead. The lieutenant halted, recalling the description in Torvipan’s notes. This was the source of Valtor’s power, the residence of his essence, or so the old man had believed.

She focused all her concentration into her palm, silently cursing Krakthirr. Against her better judgment she reached out and touched the jewel of Valtor. Several moments passed, Degrnuud stunned at the sensation. The jewel still pulsed with a great power, but she could feel no thought or consciousness. Virpan strummed her claws against a stone, wondering what was supposed to happen.

“Boo,” she exclaimed, dropping her wing and lurching forward. “Who are you anyway?”

“That, in your chest,” Degrnuud murmured.

“Oh, you mean the Karuzat charm?”

“That must have been what did it. Professor Zirthalz speculated…”

“Degrnuud, what’s going on down there?” Krakthirr called.

“Unless I’m mistaken, Valtor is dead.”

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