Chapter 28: Blinding Light

Chains clanked around Risawal’s ankles as the guards marched him into the dank dungeons below the Registanan Imperial palace. Cells lined the walls, a few hollow eyed prisoners staring at him as he walked past. The sight sent a chill down his spine. Near the end of the hall he arrived at his new home: a cell the size of a large crate. A bucket in one corner and a slab of wood against the wall were the only amenities provided.

The guards unceremoniously shoved him in, the door slamming shut with an ominous ring. Risawal looked around his new surroundings, pacing from one end to the other. A loud cough echoed through the hall. As the sound faded a terrible silence took hold. Risawal felt his defiance fading as reality struck home. Tears welled in his eyes and he collapsed onto the hard bed, his hands shaking uncontrollably. Time ticked by with an unbearable slowness as he contemplated spending the rest of his existence in the dismal little hole.

He regretted not standing and fighting on the steps, of making a final stand. It would have been preferable to die there in the light, he thought, than waste away in endless darkness. Waves of bitterness and desperation washed over him, his grief turning to anger and then back again. Only the appearance of a bright light in hall ended the cycle. Barely able to care, Risawal glanced out the door. The visage of King Shvalax appeared before him.

“What are you doing here?”  He asked quietly.

“I wish to have a word with you, lad,” Shvalax replied softly. “Your, companions have told me their sides of the story. I now wish to hear yours.”

“Why should I tell you anything?” Risawal asked, his defiance flickering back to life.

“I might be able to secure your release,” he replied, “if you tell me everything that you have experienced since leaving Wanevap, your own words.”

Risawal remained silent, stunned.

“If you wish to rot away in here, then, be my guest,” the King sighed, rising to leave, “I shall not interfere.”

“Wait, wait,” he exclaimed, jumping to his feet.

“Then you will speak?”

“Yes, yes!” Risawal exclaimed.

“Excellent,” Shvalax said, clapping his hands.

The doors opened with a screech, Risawal feeling light headed as he stepped through. He looked back and forth down the corridor, his hands shaking again.

“This way,” Shvalax commanded, starting towards the entrance.

The trek back into the light of day seemed much shorter than his decent, each step outside coming as a massive relief. He breathed deeply of the clean air, feeling once again like a fee man. “So good to be out of that cell.”

“I take it you did not enjoy your stay in the emperor’s dungeons?”

“No, it was like a never-ending nightmare down there,” he shuddered, “how long was I down there, anyway?”

“Perhaps thirty minutes.”

Shame washed over Risawal, silencing him. With a contingent of guards at their back, he marched around to the front of the massive, domed palace, through the front gardens and into a large entry hall. He was lead into a small, well furnished sitting room just off the main hall. Soft cushioned sofas ran along the walls, bookshelves protruding above them, while the middle was dominated by tables laden with fruit and pitchers of drink. Still under the watchful eyes of the imperial guards and a surly looking scribe seated in one corner, Risawal settled uneasily onto a sofa.

Instantly a pair of servants moved a table before him, another placing a high backed chair for the King to sit in. Once seated, Shvalax poured them each a goblet of chilled wine, remaining quiet the entire time. Risawal hesitantly took up a goblet and drank. The wine was pleasantly cool and refreshing, easing his tense muscles. Shvalax smiled at him and grabbed a slice of fruit off the plate, munching it absentmindedly.

“What do you wish to know, your majesty?” Risawal asked, breaking the quiet.

“Your friends, Kialiki and Howngthirr, described at length the event they witnessed, as well as the journey leading them here,” he replied in a kind voice. “I suspect, however, that I am missing a large portion of the story, which I am certain you can fill in.”

Risawal cleared his throat, trying to organize his thoughts.

He started at the beginning, telling the King about his early days at the monastery. He quickly moved on to his first meeting with Virpan, and their run in with Zhar’oth and the assassin Ja’eshuk. From his march to the sea, to the pirate town, to the library, to their descent into the crypt, everything was laid bare for the King.

It was when he tried to describe the events in the temple they had at last ran out of things to say. His story sputtered out, and he simply stopped talking. King Shvalax stroked his beard, looking at something hovering over Risawal’s head.

“Fascinating. Torvipan believed that resurrecting the chosen of Valtor would save the order. Still, questions remain.”

“Such as?” Risawal asked, fearing he had made a mistake somewhere in his retelling.

“The testimony of Torvipan himself,” Shvalax replied. “The good father has not uttered more than three words since his imprisonment.”

The words stung, the image of his master rotting away in a cell was almost more than Risawal could bear. He bit his tongue, trying to hide his feelings.

“That is why I need you,” Shvalax said, looking down at Risawal, “one of the few things that Torvipan speaks of is you.”

“Me?”

“Yes, he murmurs your name from time to time.”

“I must see him,” Risawal said, standing up. “Please, your majesty.”

“Quite right,” The king said, clapping his hands together. “We shall depart at once. I am certain your friends will be glad to see you.”

“They’re not my friends,” he murmured, though the king did not seem to hear. “Father, hang on, I’m coming to save you.”

-#-

“…then I crashed through the garden into the spring,” Virpan said quietly, “I guess that, the water did something, because the pulses of power have subsided.”

“I imagine the spring water, coming from Nlitprig herself, finished what her necklace started,” Degrnuud said nodding. “What a fascinating experience it must have been, the essence of two potent beings flowing through your body.”

“I would have rather experienced any number of other things,” she said, slouching forward. “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do now, with, this.”

She held out her clawed hand, tucking the blanket close to her chest as she did so. The Sorceress looked at her in wonder, clearly beyond fascinated with whatever Virpan had become. She sighed, struggling to think clearly.

“Is there any way I could get you to come to my old university?” Degrnuud asked. “I know several prominent figures who would give their right hand to examine you.”

“Thank you, I think,” Virpan replied, “What sort of examination?”

“Perhaps some scrying into the Jewels in your body, a few measurements would be informative as well.”

“You mean like your friend there?” Virpan sighed, pointing over her shoulder.

“Err, Krakthirr, what are you doing?”

“Taking some measurements, making observations,” he replied, sighting up Virpan’s wing. “About, say, three feet four inches along the upper rib.”

“Must you do this now?”

“Yes, Lieutenant, because in a thousand years people are not going to read about the fifty foot long dragon that destroyed the Wanavap monastery,” he replied, feeling the small horn protruding from the end of the rib. “Defiantly not bone, though I hesitate to say-”

“Is this really important?” Degrnuud asked, shaking her head.

“You read those reports, looked over the father’s notes,” he replied, running a finger down Virpan’s spine. “Definitely small protrusions form the vertebrae, though nothing through the skin. Soldier, add that to the illustration.”

“Aye sir,” the artist replied, adjusting his pad of paper.

“Hey, don’t I get a say in this?” Virpan asked, pulling away. “And what notes are you talking about?”

“Uh.” Krakthirr stammered, exchanging a nervous glance with Degrnuud. “You see, when Wanavap fell, a number of documents were captured,” Krakthirr explained. “Among them were speculations as to the true nature of the helm, what the chosen one’s fate would be.”

“And what were they thinking?” She asked hesitantly, uncertain if she wished to know.

“Several sited an ancient legend that the helm would evaporate the wearer and create a being of pure fire,” Degrnuud replied, “the head librarian believed a great dragon would be born, tearing the flesh from its host body.”

Virpan gripped the charm in her chest, shuddering. A new feeling began growing within her, a new wave of fear flowing through her. For a few moments she stared around the encampment, unable to imagine how people could have sent her or Risawal to suffer such a fate.

“They, they sent Risawal to, sent me, to, to become this?”

“Not this, exactly,” Degrnuud replied, “Father Torvipan himself thought you would become a half dragon creature, possibly fusing with Risawal into a two headed, thing.”

“Which is clearly not what happened!” Krakthirr added hurriedly, “People are going to know the truth, I’m making sure of it.”

“Oh, father,” she whimpered, laying her face into her hands. “What happened, why am I like this?”

“Most sources agree that the Helm of Valtor transformed worthy wearers into a dragon, or dragon like form,” she said, “Apparently, the Charm of Nlitprig countered the helm and ultimately extinguished the essence of Valtor, stopping the process.”

“You really think that’s what happened to me?”

“At a certain point we just have to try and pull together everything we do know, like what happened to you, and use reasonable assumptions to fill in the rest.”

“And if you’re wrong?”

“If new evidence comes to light, then, that conclusion will be reexamined,” she said shrugging, “I’m afraid that’s the best we’ve got.”

“Great, this is just great,” she murmured. “How many knew? Who agreed that this be done to me?”

“We are not certain how many in the monastery knew of this,” Degrnuud replied. “None of the survivors were talkative when we took them into custody.”

“Hah, maybe you should let me speak to them,” she replied, leaning back on her seat. “I’m sure I could loosen their lips.”

“You seem to be taking this oddly well,” Krakthirr noted, stretching out her arm.

“I didn’t, or, couldn’t return home, and I had nowhere else to go. I figured the reward money could help, but, maybe there will be some good in all this.”

She held out her other hand and summoned a column of flame, holding the ball of fire aloft. The soldiers looked in awe as she made it dance at her fingertips. The artist quickly added to his drawing, Krakthirr inspecting his work. In the soft light of the flame Virpan noticed a chalk line drawn across the stone. Her eyes followed it, spotting intricate patterns drawn across the ruined garden.

“What is this?” she asked cautiously, tapping the line with her foot.

Degrnuud shifted her gaze, fidgeting uncomfortably. Krakthirr straightened up, looking to the spot indicated. “That? That was almost a terrible mistake,” he replied, “something meant for, uh, someone else, so to speak.”

“I see,” Virpan murmured, “What happens now?”

“We were ordered to kill or seal the helm and its wearer,” Krakthirr whispered, remorsefully, “but, those orders were made under insufficient information. Wouldn’t you agree, lieutenant?”

“Indeed,” she said. “Perhaps you would accompany us to the capital city? I am certain there are a number of scholars and doctors who could help us get to the bottom of this.”

“Tell me one thing first: where is Father Torvipan now?”

“He was taken to the capitol, and though his crimes were grave, King Shvalax ordered that he should not be put to death,” Krakthirr said, shrugging. “Unless age has taken him, he should still be there.”

“Then that’s where I’m going,” Virpan said determined. “Someone is going to answer for this.”

-#-

Krakthirr marched up and down the wagon train, making certain that his notes were stashed in safe nooks. The soldiers were more interested in Virpan, many convinced she was a goddess. After making a final check that his notes were secure, he held up the drawing of her and made a final comparison.

“I think you’ve got it,” he chuckled, patting the artist on the back. “Now, let’s tell Glusdan the good news.”

As the soldiers loaded up, he turned to Virpan. She hesitantly took a step towards him, aware that all eyes were on her.

“And, how are you going to accompany us?” he asked, shifting his feet. “I doubt you’ll want to ride in the wagons.”

“No, I don’t think I would enjoy that,” she replied, eying her admirers.

“I could cram them all in one wagon, so you could have your own. Would that be acceptable?”

“I’ve got another idea,” she replied.

In a flurry of motion she dropped the blanket and sent a sheet of flame around herself. For a moment everything was going well and Virpan began flapping her wings. Then the fire fizzled out, sending the men reeling back before it extinguished. The surprised soldiers blinked before giving up a cheer, clearly thinking it part of a display. Virpan blushed scarlet, quickly wrapping her arms around herself.

A moment later she had rekindled the fire, concentrating hard to keep it stable. Slowly she was able to make a garment for herself from pure flames. Once satisfied, Virpan flapped her wings and took flight.

At first merely remaining aloft took all her concentration, her dress threatening to extinguish once again. Then Virpan began to feel at home in air. Her need for concentration faded and she was able to control her altitude without much effort. She grinned wide, finding the sensation exhilarating. Suddenly feeling powerful, she swooped down through the air laughing at the soldiers below.

“I think I’ll follow you from up here,” she called. “Show me the way.”

“Krakthirr, you think it’s a good idea letter her be up there?” Degrnuud called.

“As though we have a say in the matter?” He replied, mounting the wagon. “Aright men, let’s get underway.”

The wagon train started down the forest road, Virpan making sure to keep them in sight. She reached out and tapped at the treetop branches as she flew past, starting to feel giddy. A pair of startled owls toppled over themselves to get out of her way. She circled around them, brushing one on the back. She was free as she’d never been before. She laughed in pure joy, continuing her aerial maneuvers.

Below the soldiers stared skyward in awe, all craning their necks to get a glimpse of their golden haired goddess. Degrnuud rode past them in disgust, shaking her head at their infantile obsession. She looked up herself, wondering if a rational explanation could be discovered and spread before the rumors had taken hold. A quick look at the soldiers dashed any remaining hopes.

“The higher-ups are not going to be happy about this,” she sighed, grating her teeth as their speculations flew.

“She’s Nlitprig’s daughter, I’m certain of it,” one soldier breathed.

“No, she’s the worldly embodiment of Our Lady,” another said, flashing his Nlitprig charm. “Her decent signals a long winter, my grandfather spoke many times of her coming.”

“Either of you have anything other than baseless assertions to back that up?” Krakthirr growled.

“Baseless?” The first soldier cried. “Look up there, there she is. How can you deny that?”

“How do you know she’s a goddess?”

“Well, I mean, look?”

“Lieutenant Degrnuud has magical powers, is she a goddess?”

“That’s a good point, I uh, I suppose.”

“Let’s not jump to any conclusions, alright? Alright.”

Glad to have a moment of silence to think, Krakthirr pondered how he was going to explain everything to his superiors. A supposed goddess, orders disobeyed, lives put at risk, leading an unknown entity to the provincial capital. No matter how he thought about it, he knew there was a paperwork nightmare in his immediate future. It was almost a relief when a flaming arrow sailed past his face.

He recoiled, another shooting over his head. Around him the forest lit up as a band of unknown assailants descended on them. The stunned soldiers piled out of the wagons and ducked for cover, a few grabbing their weapons. Above them, Virpan noticed the commotion and swooped down to investigate.

The attackers stopped as she came near, several falling to their knees. Slightly disturbed, Virpan shot a few warning streams of fire at them. A large bush along the road lit up, the men squatting in it jumping away in fright. Two archers shot at her. Uncertain if she was arrow proof, Virpan dodged away. The attackers bit a hasty retreat, Krakthirr jumping onto one before her could evacuate.

“Who are you?!” He demanded, pinning the squirming man to the dirt.

“Get off me you treacherous heathen!” The man spat, reaching desperately for his weapon. Krakthirr kicked it away and fixed the fallen man with a steely glare.

“Well, well, seems we’ve got an invader,” he replied coldly. “Are you acting alone, or is this a declaration of war by Simkagale?”

“You declared war when you renounced the religion!” He roared.

“Heard it before,” Krakthirr snapped. “Now answer my questions or I’ll put you out of your misery.”

“Let me have him,” Degrnuud said, stepping down to examine the prisoner. “Tell me, how does it feel being the first captive in a war?”

“You have lost already!” He cried, “Valtor has been reborn this night!”

“Hey what’s going on?” Virpan asked, landing a few feet away. “Are you alright?”

“Ahehwhwa,” The capture soldier gasped, “W-what is this? A girl? Valtor is a goddess?”

“They’re fine, the idiots missed every shot,” Krakthirr replied, looking up. “Oh dear.”

Out of the darkened woods, from all directions, appeared an army descending upon them. Scores of troops advanced, the Mahlapren soldiers huddling together by the wagons. Several began praying to Virpan. She looked uneasily at them, then towards the advancing soldiers.

“Give me that prisoner,” she said quietly, “I’ve got an idea.”

“Thank you,” Krakthirr breathed.

“If you really want to thank me, I need you deliver a message.” She replied, taking the deeply confused man into her claws. “Find a young man named Howngthirr. Tell him everything you’ve learned tonight. Let him see and read everything.”

“I will,” he promised, stepping back onto the wagon.

“Wait, we cannot just leave her here,” Degrnuud cried, looking angrily at Krakthirr.

“Do we really have a choice?” he retorted, “We have to warn Glusdan, and Kehfrek, and the other generals.”

Degrnuud looked uneasily at the numerous enemy soldiers, knowing he was right. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” she whispered to Virpan, turning to the men. “Load up, we leave now.”

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