Chapter 32: Sanja’s Tale

Cold fog settled over the dense woods before Risawal. Strange rustling noises and hisses kept him on his toes. Rvopteg confidently lead the way through the colorless forest. Despite the urgency, Rvotpeg strode at a rather leisurely pace. Several times he tried to move ahead and get the man to move faster, but only succeeded in getting lost. Dusk was settling over the woods, the dim glow of the sun fading quickly.

Risawal shivered, wondering how much further they would have to walk. Barely able to see, he lifted up a torch and began searching for a match. Instantly Rvopteg snatched it away and tossed it into the darkness. Risawal blinked, a confused expression crossing his face. Still silent, Rvopteg turned and continued leading the way at his slow pace. Soon only the sound of his feet and the rustling tree branches guided them through the night.

Howngthir and Risawal stumbled over roots and stones, now appreciating their guide’s slow pace. The sound of rushing water soon filled their ears as they approached a great river. Howngthir stopped as his feet touched the unseen water. Carefully he began making his way along the bank. A loud splash informed him that Risawal had not been so careful. A hand landed on his arm in the darkness. Howngthir spun around and lost his balance, toppling into the damp riverbank.

“Oops sorry,” Kialiki said timidly.

“Quiet,” Rvopteg hissed, “Not much further.”

Then Rvopteg’s footfalls stopped. Concerned that something had happened, Howngthir quickly walked up to where he thought the sound had stopped. He stumbled into Rvopteg who pushed him off in a flash. A dull thud reverberated through the small clearing. The other two stumbled into Howngthir and the three fell forward into a hole in the ground.

They splashed into waist deep water, another thud reverberating above them. A light suddenly pieced the darkness, Rvopteg holding a match to a torch. He held it aloft, allowing them to get a look at their surroundings.

“Where in the world have you led us?” Risawal asked coldly, springing to his feet.

“Waterway,” Rvopteg replied, waving the torch around. “Leads to the cistern under Ki’atevir monastery.”

“Oh, that’s great,” Risawal murmured.

“It sits on the border, we’ll make it through.”

“What about the people inside?” Howngthir asked concerned.

“Gone, abandoned during the war,” Rvopteg assured him, “Through here then the catacombs, done it dozens of times.”

The four trudged through the cold water, a feeling of unease settling over them. The floor sloped downwards as they went, the water pushing them from behind. By the time the floor leveled out they where shivering in nearly chest deep water. Finally they reached the cistern, the ceiling arching high above in a vaulted dome.

Rvopteg thrust the torch into Howngthir’s hands and began fishing around in the water.

A ladder emerged which he hoisted up to a small hatch at the very top. It latched into something and hung in midair for a moment. Then Rvopteg took hold and climbed up.

“Careful,” he warned, “Very slick and dangles at an odd angle.”

When he reached the top Rvopteg turned and beckoned the others to follow. Riswal stepped forward and took hold of bottom rung. After only a few feet he lost his grip and tumbled back into the water below. After several tries all three managed to pull themselves into the chamber above. A roaring fire awaited them, kindled below a large cooking stove. They quickly gathered around it, though Howngthir looked back confused.

“An internal room, no windows,” Rvopteg explained, “no chance we’ll be seen.”

“So that’s why you threw his torch away,” Kialiki said quickly.

“Precisely.”

“Catacombs?” He asked. “You mean we’ll be going through a burial chamber?”

“Doubt the residents will mind,” Rvopteg said dismissively.

“You seem to know your way around here pretty well,” Howngthir noted.

“Came through here several times during the war,” Rvopteg replied, “think you’ve had enough time to warm up.”

With that Rvopteg strolled over and slammed the stove shut, plunging the room into darkness. Rvopteg held out a lone candle, guiding them through the monastery by its dim, flickering light.

Up a steep flight of stairs from the kitchen was a small cloister filled with broken furniture. Outside this was the main camber of worship, rows of benches fanning out from a raised plinth. The podium was long gone, the seats broken and covered in dust. Rvopteg lead them up the main isle to the front of the hall.

Behind the plinth was another set of stairs leading into the burial chambers. Risawal tensed, hesitating before the hole. The special place of torment for those who defiled graves flashed through his head. He dismissed the notion, quickly ducking after the others. The ceiling was low in even the main chamber, large cracks appearing on all sides.

They wound around the labyrinth of tunnels, low creaking noises emanating from all around them. The walls were lined with small arches, each one a small doorway to a forgotten grave. Finally they reached the end of chamber. To the right was a large section of broken stones which Rvopteg nodded at.

“What’s this?” Howgnthir asked.

“Mineshaft, the workers dug right into the catacombs. Abandoned the mine shortly thereafter.”

“Ok, so, we go through here?” Risawal asked.

“Precisely,” Rvopteg confirmed, handing the candle to Risawal.

He walked up to the pile and began working his way through. There was a thud on the other side. A light came on as Rvopteg waved a torch at them.

“Not so tough.”

“Easy for you to say,” Howngthir murmured, climbing over the pile.

Kialiki took her turn next leaving an uneasy Risawal to stand in the darkened tomb. All his fears welled up as he stood waiting from her to get through. Once it was clear he dove through the gap and emerged moments later into the mineshaft. Rvopteg clapped a hand to his shoulder, nodding his approval. On the last leg of the trek, Rvopteg led them down the winding mineshaft, his pace much faster than before.

They clambered through the derelict tunnels, hopping over abandoned mine carts, before finally arriving at a ladder. Rvopteg extinguished the torch, plunging them back into darkness before mounting the ladder. The others made their way by sound, climbing after him. At the top was a wooded area, the hatch disguised in a decrepit well. Rvopteg helped them out one by one before starting back down.

“Due east, the only tavern in town,” he whispered, “Ask for me.”

“Who do you mean?” Howngthir asked, their guide slipping away before he could finish.

“Right then, we have our direction,” Risawal murmured, marching out of the clearing.

“Um, that’s west,” Kialiki said quietly. “I think you want the other way.” Howngthir snickered, and Risawal met Kialiki’s eyes sheepishly.

“Ehem, thanks,” Risawal replied blushing. “This way then, forward.” He managed with an authoritative air in his voice.

“Of course leader,” Howngthir chuckled, starting the next leg of their trek.

-#-

Two guards rushed out of the dungeon, a ragged prisoner in tow. Still terrified of their new employer, they emerged into bright throne room, hoping they had brought the right person. They pushed him towards the girl before backing away. The prisoner staggered forward before falling to his knees.

With a shaking hand he pulled the hood from his head, staring in shock at the pale, winged figure dressed in fire. She approached him, fear flowing through his body. The creature’s claws clacked on the stone floor as she appraised him.

“Wukkar?” Virpan asked confused. “You two, what is the meaning of this?”

“I told him you wanted the old one!” the guard on the right shouted.

“Go get him then,” Virpan commanded through grated teeth, “and let everyone else out while you’re down there.”

“A-are you Virpan?” Wukkar asked stunned. “H-h-how?”

“I am,” she replied cautiously, “Can I trust you?”

“What do you mean?” he asked confused. “What’s happened to you?”

“Hopefully I’m about to find out.” She replied, “Tomalsa, please go and help the guards get the right persons.”

“At once,” Tomalsa replied, “Shall I do that before or after I finish cataloguing your mass pardon?”

“Before,” Virpan snapped.

“Of course, of course, I’ll go immediately then.”

The scribe scampered down the stairs, waving the guards to follow. Virpan tapped her foot impatiently, a part of her fearing what he would say. A figure staggered into view, a boy around Wukkar’s age dressed in rags. His gaunt eyes stared at her in fear. Hesitantly he advanced into the room, another similar figure arriving behind him. A frail, toothless old woman followed him, lead by a small girl missing her left hand.

Soon more than thirty people filed into the throne room, all in various states of decay. Though a few hobbled out the door without a backwards glance; most remained in the chamber, circling around Virpan. Some looked fearful while others appeared awestruck. Virpan looked upon the pitiful bunch, starting to regret letting Kariv live.

A fit looking young man, who appeared healthier than the rest, stepped forward and nervously cleared his throat.

“Are you the one who, who deposed him?”

“Yes, I did,” she replied nervously, “I uh, I was getting some payback.”

“Praise you,” the old woman murmured. “Praise her.”

The crowd began murmuring. “We are in your debt.” “You are our savior.” “Glory to the flame goddess.”

“No, please, I’m not, I don’t think,” Virpan stammered as the crowd bowed down before her. She blushed, shrinking back from them.

“Her name is Virpan,” Wukkar said, rising to his feet. “She was a Jungle Crawler from Avuk’ashu.”

“Praise Virpan.” “She has ascended to save us.” “Virpan, goddess of fire.” “Erm, here’s the prisoner you wanted ma’am.”

Virpan blinked, her eyes flashing to the dungeon doorway. There Father Sanja stared back at her, beaten and dejected.

He was disheveled, stained bandages wrapped around his arms, a scabbed over wound on the bridge of his nose. The two locked gaze for a moment, the father’s sunken eyes filled with shame and confusion.

“Everyone, please, I need to speak to him alone.”

The crowd was unmoved. Frustrated, Virpan sent up a pillar of flame toward the ceiling. The worshippers remained where they were, though some clapped at her display. She sighed, clearly missing something.

“Please, could you all, uh, move?”

“Goddess, can you heal my son’s wounds?” “Why have you waited so long to reveal yourself?” “We need food.” “Yes, please, can you provide us my lady?”

Overwhelmed, Virpan backed away, looking around the room at the desperate people.

“Perhaps there are some food supplies laying around,” Virpan said, looking to Tomalsa.

“Err, why yes, there was a banquet in planning stages,” Tomalsa said quickly. “You, thug, go collect a few cakes from the baker.”

“Virpan, what are you going to do now?” Wukkar asked.

“Talk to father Sanja, I need to do that next. He’s the only one who might know what has happened to me.”

“Ok, that sounds reasonable.”

“Boss, can we get these people to queue up? Perhaps I can issue them their pardons and update the records while passing out food.”

“Fine, do that. And give them new clothes while you’re at it.”

“Of course. Boy, you seem to have your head about you, how about lending me a hand?”

“Sure,” Wukkar said, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Everyone listen up; please form a line along this wall. Food will be handed out in a few minutes.”

The circle of followers began forming the line. Virpan was relieved to be out of the centre, and turning to face Sanja, who had retreated from sight. She walked through the door to the dungeon, finding Father Sanja leaning against the wall.

“Please, father, I…”

“Don’t call me that,” he hissed, leaning against the wall. “I am not a Father anymore, nor should I have been.”

“Sanja, then, I need answers.”

“I doubt you will find them satisfactory.”

“Tell me, what happened? Why am I like this?”

“Apparently, you were found worthy of wearing The Helm. You were the chosen one.”

“But I thought I had the wrong sign?”

“You were born on the cusp, a day before, and calendars can vary a bit over such great spans of time, so I decided to take that gamble.”

“Take a gamble, are you mad? Tell me, in full, what happened.”

“The scroll was written in an ancient dialect, barely legible to even my trained eyes,” he said, staring at the floor. “I knew that several past readings had generated less than satisfactory outcomes, so, I supplemented the scroll’s prophecy with potions of another ancient text.”

“Eh, what does that mean?”

“I made it up,” he whimpered.

“You what!?”

“The Helm was the key, all the sources agreed on that. The scroll gave the birth sign and the year that the chosen one would be born, but not specifically what it meant to be worthy.”

“Is this a twisted joke?”

“Perhaps, this is Valtor’s punishment for our ignorance.”

“Stop that!” she snapped. “What did you do to me? Surely I’m not the first to don the helm.”

“Not, the first. Though, the last few have been less than successful.”

“Hang on, are you saying you sent me out without knowing what would happen?!”

“I read a few lines from an old commentary on an instance where the helm was used successfully. Mentioned a talisman. I wrote to Torvipan, who believed it was the Karuzat charm, and hoped for the best.”

“I-I can’t,” she stammered, “Does anyone know what the hell happened to me?”

“You fared better off the last three who were chosen.”

“They died, didn’t they?”

“Consumed in flame, the helm destroyed them.”

“Great. This is just great,” Virpan murmured, frustration bubbling through her. “Did you expect me to become this?”

“No, I expected the Dragon of Valtor, what many believe to be his true form, to be born from your body. But, this has not come to pass and now the helm is lost forever.”

“Oh, what. A. Shame.” Virpan mocked, finally losing her temper. “The helm is gone; the artifact with powers nobody has figured out and apparently killed its last three wearers, is gone.”

“You don’t have to be that way,” Sanja snarled, “Do you know how many people suffered and died for nothing?”

“Maybe if they hadn’t pinned their hopes on a poorly understood ancient artifact that wouldn’t have happened.” Virpan cried, “Oh, I deposed Kariv and freed his prisoners, by the way.”

“At least some good came of it,” Sanja replied bitterly, “But the Order is finished. The Helm was our most important relic and now it’s gone.”

“I don’t care Sanja, I really don’t.”

“But the Order was supposed to regain power after Kariv’s fall,” Sanja moaned, “Now who will lead the people back to prosperity?”

“Not you, that’s for sure.”

Filled with loathing, Virpan turned and walked back into the throne room, leaving old man to wallow in self pity. Nearly all of the freed prisoners where now wolfing down pieces of cake and bread. All looked upon Virpan with reverence now, knowing she had freed them from the terror of Kariv. Several approached her with small scraps of their food. She waved them off, knowing they needed every morsel they could get.

“Tomalsa, I’m thinking of making a few changes around here.”

“Yes mistress, uh, actually, what should I call you?” Tomalsa asked uncertainly.

“Mistress will be fine, I guess.”

“Excellent. What will you have me do, mistress?”

“Send whatever guards are left and get the rest of the prisoners from the dungeon at once.”

“Already in progress.”

“Good, now, is there a Mahlapren ambassador by any chance?”

“Why yes, the King recently dispatched one after the last obstacle was cleared away.”

“Have him brought here as soon as possible; I have some ideas for some civic improvements.”

“It will be done.”

“Good to hear. It’s nice to have someone I can trust.”

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