Chapter 31: High Mother
The wagon train trundled down the main road of Liunthiz. Rough hewn houses and shops of stone lined the road, topped with soggy straw. People scurried around the holy procession, all looking at the cloaked prisoner. Weary and frightened murmurings passed through the crowd.
Virpan was uncertain how to react, shifting uncomfortably where she stood. Despite most of her form being hidden from preying eyes, the people could tell something was off about her. As the wagons made slow progress towards the central temple, Virpan had the urge to burn off the chains and cloak so she could simply fly to the temple.
A tingly feeling emanated from the jewel in her chest, drawing her attention to a pair of men in dark cloaks standing at a nearby street corner. A feeling told her that they were sorcerers, and would bind her with magic if she got out of line. The two men looked up at her, surprise written across their faces. They knew she knew. She giggled at the thought, raising her hand and waving to them. This seemed to alarm the sorcerers even more, a third cloaked man joining them moments later.
Soon the houses began looking statelier, the straw roofs giving way to shingles. Finally they arrived in the central district, where whitewashed manor houses surrounded the largest temple Virpan had ever laid eyes upon. The great mountain of stone rose above the city, the temple at the top barely visible.
The wagons abruptly halted, the twins looking uneasily up the stairs. Dreading the ascent, Kijiâ€™a gingerly slipped to the pavement while cradling her arm, Kizuâ€™a coming to her aid. The end of the chains were unlatched, several guards leading Virpan down the wagon bed. Fighting the urge to take flight and see how many she could pull up with her, she calmly hopped down to the ground.
The procession started up the steep stairway, Kijiâ€™a batting away her brotherâ€™s helping hand. Up and up they marched, Kijiâ€™a starting to feel ill. The second time she accepted her brotherâ€™s helping hand, leaning against him for support. The stairs leveled out and the procession arrived in the temple plaza.
Virpan looked around the place, feeling underwhelmed. Though the pyramid was massive, the temple itself was perhaps the size of a regular house. The doors of the temple flew open, masked guards in hooded white robes rushing out in advance of a new figure. Everyone except Virpan fell to their knees in respect.
A stately woman in flowing robes emerged from the interior; her face pained a ghostly white. Though the makeup gave her a face of twenty, the flecks of grey in her dark hair betrayed her true age. The emotionless mask of thick paste looked over the twins, both of whom tried not to look into her eyes. She approached Kijiâ€™a and tapped the stump of her arm, pain flashing across her face. The woman shook her head, glancing momentarily at Virpan.
â€œSuch a pity,â€ she whispered. â€œIt would seem I was mistaken to entrust you with the resurrection.â€
â€œM-mother Washunu, I assure you,â€ Kizuâ€™a began in a trembling voice.
â€œYour assurances are unnecessary,â€ she said, in a calm voice, â€œI have seen the results, or rather, lack of results, with my own eyes.â€
â€œMother, I must explain,â€ Kijiâ€™a said quickly, â€œthe Ceremonyâ€¦â€
â€œFailed,â€ she finished, strolling around the bowing mass. â€œYou have failed, this is plainly obvious. I assume this creature is the result?â€
â€œIâ€™ve got a name you know,â€ Virpan protested.
â€œCertainly you once had a name,â€ she replied, her voice unnervingly emotionless. â€œBut you have been transformed into the vessel of Valtorâ€™s essence, and as such, are a now nameless.â€
â€œBah, who do you think you are?â€ Virpan demanded.
â€œWho am I?â€ She asked in a polite tone, â€œI am Zulvimo Washunu, High Priestess of Valtor in Liunthiz, mother of â€˜ivapne Monastery, love of King Pinglitshol, and Head of the Western Order of Valtor.â€
â€œThatâ€™s mouthful,â€ Virpan said bluntly, â€œIâ€™m Virpan, of the Jungle.â€
â€œYou are a vessel, my child,â€ Mother Washunu corrected, â€œNow, would you please remove your clothing? I will perform the ceremony properly myself.â€
â€œMother,â€ Kizuâ€™a began.
â€œPlease, be silent my son,â€ Mother Washunu said. â€œEveryone, back way form the vessel. Vessel, remove your clothing.â€
â€œFirst, explain what has happened to me,â€ Virpan snapped, taking a step towards Washunu.
â€œThe resurrection will unfortunately destroy you utterly,â€ she replied, â€œmaking any explanation I can offer pointless. Please, follow my instructions.â€
Knowing somehow that the ceremony was doomed to failure, Virpan complied and waited for the inevitable fizzle.Â With a burst of flame she burned off her cloak as the sorcerers dashed about, her dress of flames now feeling quite natural. Soon lines of salt were drawn to the motherâ€™s exacting specifications. Satisfied she began the incantation from memory, great power emanating from the words.
This time the salt began levitating, Virpan momentarily doubting her conviction. The salt swirled around her, flames jumping from the candles at the enchanterâ€™s feet. A colorful display danced around her, incense smoke giving it a pleasant aroma. Then it fell away and left Virpan standing in the centre of circle of confused sorcerers. The twins exchanged vindicated looks as all eyes turned to Mother Washunu.
â€œTroubling,â€ she whispered, stepping towards Virpan. â€œVessel, I must have use of your head.â€
â€œWhat?â€ Virpan asked before Washunu grasped the jewel in her forehead. In an instant the high priestess scied into the red jewel. For a moment Zulvimo Washunu felt a cold holy terror run though her being. The presence she had been searching for was completely gone.
She moved her fingers, now scying the vesselâ€™s whole being. The only spark she could detect was a dark power emanating from the chest. She slid her finger over the orange jewel, feeling a spark of pain. It was clear that Valtor was not in her.
â€œOr, at least not evident,â€ she assured herself.
â€œWhat are you whispering?â€
â€œWe must bring her to the central chamber at once,â€ Mother Washunu commanded.
â€œThis is a Mahlapren trick of some sort, I am certain.â€
â€œFirst you tell me whatâ€™s happened to me,â€ Virpan demanded.
The guards grabbed the end of the chains and gave them a yank, the ankle cuffs sending her to the ground. Virpan had had enough. She pushed off from the ground with all her might. Several lackeys were dragged up by the chains. With one hand outstretched she summoned a curtain of fire and crashed it down around the temple. Several of the guards were set alight, forcing them to roll on the ground. Virpan stoked the flames around her body to emphasize her mastery of the fire.
â€œI mean it this time,â€ Virpan exclaimed, â€œyou tell me whatâ€™s happened, or things start catching on fire. Err, besides them, I mean.â€
â€œVessel, please come down from there,â€ she said quickly, â€œdo not force my hand.â€
â€œYouâ€™re crazy,â€ she retorted, â€œWhy am I like this? Why did this happen? Explain this to me now.â€
â€œIt would require some research, and much time to be wasted,â€ she replied. â€œPlease, act sensibly vessel, and come here to accept your honor.â€
â€œMy. Honor?â€ Virpan repeated incredulously, â€œUgh, one more chance or Iâ€™m out of here. Why. Am. I. Like. This?â€
â€œI do not know why your transformation halted during the implanting phase,â€ Mother Washunu replied, â€œIâ€™m certain it is a Mahlapren trick of some sort, but firstâ€¦â€
â€œGoodbye,â€ Virpan called flying upwards.
The sorcerers formed into a column and began chanting. An invisible force tugged at her. After a few moments of struggling Virpan turned around and sent wave of fire at them. Two attempted to shield themselves, but found their defenses inadequate. The rest of the crowd scattered for cover leaving only Mother Washunu to stare up at her prize.
â€œYou will return here,â€ Mother Washunu called, â€œan overwhelming force will compel you to complete your destiny as the vessel. The Helm sealed this fate, and it will be concluded here.â€
Feeling compelled to do the exact opposite, Virpan shook her head as she gained altitude. For a few moments she circled the city, feeling a slight tugging sensation to return. Aware of one other person who might know what had happened to her, Virpan turned towards the east. She sighed, hoping at least one member of the Order of Valtor wasnâ€™t out to do something awful to her.
The wagon trundled northward out the palace gates and down the main avenue of Ernbrattash. As they rolled up the street, Risawal sat huddling in one corner. Across from him sat Rvopteg, who appraised the young boy cautiously. Beside them sat Howngthir and Krakthirr, both playing cards with the rear guard. Still feeling drained, Risawal leaned back and looked over the world as it raced by.
The sight of Torvipan breaking down had caused something in Risawal to break. He ran his fingers down the rough wooden deck as trees flitted past his eyes. The sights and sounds seemed wrong to him now, the world a different place. Trying to ignore the dark thoughts in his mind, Risawal stared up into the blank empty sky.
â€œNothing looking right now,â€ Rvopteg said quietly. â€œEverything is the same, yet, off, is it not?â€
â€œWhat are you talking about?â€ he groaned his voice horse.
â€œThe look in your eyes,â€ Rvopteg replied, â€œBeen there, done that. You should be glad to chuck Valtor in the bin.â€
â€œOh, I thought Dwirshol is your high god now?â€
â€œMaybe, I just, I donâ€™t know anymore,â€ Risawal murmured. â€œWhat does it matter to you?â€
â€œWas in your shoes once,â€ Rvopteg said, â€œServed the Order for many years, raised in a monastery, only to learn the old father had been, heh, using a higher truth as he called it. Lies I called it; not that many agreed.â€
â€œWould you make your point?â€
â€œThings are going to look better in the coming days, believe me,â€ Rvopteg said, a genuine smile crossing his face. â€œForget Dwirshol and Valtor, nonsense the both of them. Youâ€™ll be happier when you do.â€
â€œThere must be something,â€ Risawal said defiantly, â€œIâ€™ll find it, search for meaning.â€
â€œMeaning? Bah, nonsense to confuse people, including those spouting it.â€
â€œYou seem pretty sure of yourself.â€
â€œHardly. Donâ€™t get sucked into anything, be mindful. Youâ€™re in vulnerable place and strange ideas might take root.â€
â€œIf you say so,â€ Risawal muttered.
Still uncertain how to feel, Risawal shifted his gaze to Kialiki. She sat next to the driver, chatting to him naturally. A pang of jealously flowed through him when he realized the driver was maybe twenty and had his arm around her shoulder. Shame followed, Risawalâ€™s training coming through. He buried his face in his knees.
Soon the road grew busy, wagons and horses passing back the way they had come while others joined them from side paths. Before the sun sank below the trees they arrived as a bustling supply depot, soldiers marching to and fro as tents popped up everywhere. Their wagon slowed and came to a stop before a large command post.
The four disembarked, following Rvopteg through the camp. Near the back of the command tent sat an elderly looking man dressed in a large coat and cape. He immediately looked up from his book as Rvopteg approached.
â€œKrupah, good to see you,â€ Rvopteg said jovially.
â€œRvopteg you mischievous bastard,â€ Krupah replied, grasping Rvoptegâ€™s outstretched hand, â€œI was afraid theyâ€™d send some unqualified ninny out here to second.â€
â€œFew people Iâ€™d like to introduce,â€ Rvopteg said, sweeping his arm towards the youngsters.
â€œSome schoolmates of yours?â€ Krupah laughed.
â€œHardly, these volunteers are going behind enemy lines.â€
â€œHuh, you sure theyâ€™re up to the task?â€ He remarked, sizing up the newcomers.
â€œNo great loss if theyâ€™re not.â€
â€œLet me see you, hmm, a strong one here,â€ he said, grasping Howngthirrâ€™s arm. â€œQuite certain you shall be fine.â€
â€œUh, thanks I guess,â€ Howngthir replied, pulling his arm back.
â€œYouâ€™re welcome lad,â€ he replied, patting him on the head. â€œSo, Rvopteg, going to take them forward?â€
â€œKnow the perfect place to sneak across,â€ Rvopteg replied. â€œThis way.â€
Two eagle warriors stood atop a lookout tower on the outskirts of Abukâ€™ashu. The quiet village was as uneventful as ever. The elder of the warriors looked over the square, almost wishing for another disturbance like the two Valtorites all those days before. Anything to break the monotony, he thought, yawning.
A shadow passed overhead. He looked up, shielding his eyes from the sun, trying to spot the bird. By the time he realized that there was another source of light besides the sun, his tower was engulfed in flames.
Kariv was pacing in his hall when without warning the doors burst open, a breathless scout charging into the throne room. â€œSire! Thereâ€™s a flying creature approaching from the south; our advance runners are reporting that all resistance to it have been incinerated!â€
â€œIncinerated?â€ Kariv repeated, frowning. â€œWhat does it look like?â€
At that moment the wall of the chamber exploded, spraying flames and sparks in all directions. The few servants attending him fled the chamber, the scout himself turning and running back whence he came. As the smoke cleared he got his first look at the intruder, startled when he realized she was a young woman.
As she walked inside, he could see she had an enormous set of wings folded against her back. Her skin was dark and her hair shined like gold, an intricate dress of living fire wrapped and twisted around her body.
â€œWho are you?â€ Kariv demanded in a booming voice.
â€œMy name is Virpan,â€ she replied. â€œAnd Iâ€™ve come for Father Sanja.â€
When she received no response, Virpan raised her hand towards his throne. An intense heat enveloping Karivâ€™s throne, smoke and then flames pouring out as it was quickly reduced to slag. Kariv gulped, glancing between the ruin and the intruder.
â€œHaiwthash!â€ He screeched.
The sorcerer calmly strolled into the chamber, looking nonplused upon the scene before him. â€œYes, my lord?â€
â€œExpel the intruder!â€
The sorcerer considered for a moment, waving his staff through the air. A small puff of magic flew at Virpan, the blue light disintegrating at it neared her. She shook her head, unfazed.
â€œDonâ€™t try it, magic-man,â€ she warned, summoning a towering swirling column of fire around herself.
Haiwthash took a step back. â€œMy lord, I am afraid that I cannot carry out your order. This creature possesses power far beyond my capabilities. The only help I can give you now is advice. Give in to her demands and you may live through this night.â€
Without another word, he turned and walked from the chamber for the last time. Virpan turned to Karriv, grating her teeth. â€œYou will bring me Father Sanja. Now!â€
â€œGuards!â€ He shouted, terror in his voice.
Virpan narrowed her eyes and the flames around her turning a wicked blue color.
â€œGuards!â€ He screamed, sweat running down his face. â€œGuards!â€
â€œKarriv,â€ Virpan said quietly, approaching him. He cowered away from her, terror in his eyes. â€œI have decided to let you live.â€
â€œI will?â€ he mumbled, finding his voice at last.
â€œYes, you to live, if you follow my orders.â€ He nodded several times, falling to his knees. â€œFirst, youâ€™re going to free all the boys you kidnapped from my village. Then youâ€™re going to bring me Father Sanja, and then, once that is done, you will depart from this continent, never to return.â€
â€œI am to be exiled?â€
â€œI wonâ€™t ask you again,â€ she said. â€œNow move, before I change my mind.â€
Nodding, hunched over, Kariv scrambled to his feet and made a run for the door. Virpan sighed, looking around the dank chamber. She decided that it needed redecorating. The tapestries of Karivâ€™s ancestors were set alight one by one, the images of bloodshed vanishing into smoke.
Once the chamber was clear, Virpan stood back to admire her handy work. Light shone through the hole she had made as the brazier fumes began clearing out. At that moment another figure entered the room.
â€œAh, I see youâ€™ve done some redecorating,â€ Tomalsa mused, wandering into the chamber.
â€œWho are you?â€ She asked, amused at his calm demeanor.
â€œA scribe, formerly in Karivâ€™s employment,â€ he replied, giving a low bow, â€œhowever it seems that Iâ€™ll be looking for work elsewhere now.â€
â€œYou seem to be taking this rather well,â€ Virpan said smirking.
â€œDuring my years in Karrivâ€™s service I have witnessed far too much to be surprised by anything now,â€ Tomalsa replied, â€œErr, who are you anyway?â€
â€œIâ€™m Virpan,â€ she said, â€œI was once a villager in Avukâ€™ashu. Now Iâ€™m, not sure what I am.â€
â€œInteresting,â€ Tomalsa said stroking his chin. â€œWould you have any use for a scribe?â€