Chapter 33: Apples

The town of Kamtilg was dark when Howngthirr arrived, the streets empty and covered in a light dusting of snow. The sleepy little hamlet appeared peaceful, almost beautiful; moonlight shimmering off the ice encrusted roofs. Yet the town seemed dead and hollow, a palpable silence permeating the air.

Near the heart of town, just off the main square, they found the tavern. It was the only building which had any sign of life. A curling tail of smoke wafted from the chimney, while light shone from beneath the door.

Inside it was warm and stuffy, a few patrons still in the common room. Kialiki let out a relieved sigh when they crossed the threshold. Howngthirr glanced at her realizing that she was barefoot and wearing nothing but a thin, blue robe. He hastily pulled off his coat, and handed it to her. She tried to push it away, shaking her head.

“Go on,” he said, smiling, “I’m used to the cold.”

“Thank you,” she said, pulling it on, “I’m not too prepared, it seems.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he replied. “Now we just have to find you some shoes.”

She smiled, then leaned forward and kissed him softly. Howngthirr blushed scarlet, unsure how to react. A moment later someone tapped his shoulder.

“Can we get on with our mission?” Risawal hissed, pointing at the barkeep.

“Sure, sure,” Howngthirr said, baking away from her.

“Thank you.”

Still reddish, he walked up to the bar, tapping to get the old barman’s attention.

“What can I get yah?” he asked, giving his customer a toothless grin.

“I’ll have a cider,” he said, “Oh, say, do you know where we can find Rvopteg?”

The old barman blinked, rubbing his bald head. “Sorry sonny; don’t know anyone by that name.”

“Come on, cut that out,” Risawal said, shoving past Howngthirr. “Will you help us, or not?”

“Haven’t the foggiest what yer on about,” he said, “now you going to order, or are you going to get out?”

“I have it on good authority that you can help us,” Risawal insisted.

“Then you’ve been misinformed, sonny,” the barman spat, “get out, now.”

“Uh, I’d like to order something,” Kialiki said quietly.

The barman ignored her, staring at the trio until they retreated back outside. There Howngthirr rounded on Risawal. “What was that about?”

“What, I thought he was just jerking us around,” he said defensively. “Besides, if he’s not the guy, then we were just wasting our time in there.”

“We might have missed our chance,” Howngthirr retorted. “Sheesh, what is wrong with you?”

“Maybe there’s another tavern in town?” Kialiki suggested.

“I doubt it,” Risawal said, “no what?”

“I guess we find somewhere to sleep and try again tomorrow,” Howngthirr replied, shivering. “Maybe should go back into the monastery and sit by that fire Rvopteg lit.”

“That would be nice,” Kialiki murmured, her teeth chattering.

“Psst!” Someone hissed.

They all turned, spotting the barman poking his head out a behind the tavern. Not wanting to screw up again, Howngthirr rushed over to him. Once around the corner, the old man pulled him through the back door into a small, frigid room. He quickly gestured for the other two to enter, snapping the door behind them.

“What were you thinking?” he hissed at Risawal. “Give the sign, and then wait.”

“Sorry, Id didn’t know,” he mumbled.

“Didn’t know?” the barman moaned, “By Dwirshol, what was that idiot thinking?”

“I apologize for my, erm, friend,” Howngthirr said, “but this is fairly urgent.”

“Fine, fine, just get on with it.”

“We’re here in search of the supposed Vessel of Valtor,” he explained, “a girl, named Virpan, with wings and fire.”

“What?” the barman asked, blinking, “is this a joke? Is Rvopteg going to jump out or something?”

“We’re seirous,” Risawal snapped, “she might have come through here recently, perhaps in disguise.”

“Please, did anything unusual happen in the last few days?” Kialiki asked.

“There were the twins coming through here the other day,” the barman replied, “come to think of it, some of the customers were taking about a maiden dressed in fire the other day. I assumed they were drunk.”

“Where were they taking her?” Howngthirr asked quickly.

“Liunthiz, I’d bet.”

“Can you take us there?” Kialiki asked, “hopefully in something warm?”

“Look at you three,” he muttered, shaking his head. “You’ve got guts, but nothing else. Fine, I’ll  scrounge up a way to get you there. But you have to do exactly as I say, no questions, understood?”

“Yes,” they replied simultaneously.

“Very good. Until then, there’s an old hunter’s cabin just off the road. Hold up there until I send for you.”

“Alright,” Howngthirr said.

“Is it warm there?” Kialiki asked.

“Yes, and there are probably better clothes too,” he replied. “Oh, and of course, if you get caught, you don’t know me and I don’t know you.”

With that he shoved them back out into the snow. Without any other option, the trio obeyed, departing up the main road. A mile or so outside of town they founding a trail which lead them to the promised hunter’s cabin. A fire quickly set Kialiki right, and Howngthirr found a pair of boots that more or less fit her.

Better prepared and with a tangible goal, Howngthirr felt much better then when they had departed. He settled in beside Kialaiki, the two of them curling up by the fire. Risawal though sat in a chair by the window, watching the trail. Hours passed before he at last fell asleep, the three of them lost in far different dreams.

-#-

A loud knock echoed through the hunter’s cabin. Howngthirr blearily staggered to his feet, still blinking the sleep from his eyes when a young man in a garish scarf opened the door.

“Get a move on,” he hissed in a horse voice. “Up, up!”

“Who?” Howngthirr mumbled.

“Your ride,” he replied shaking Risawal awake. “Now get up, we’re burning daylight.”

“Bargh!” Risawal exclaimed, falling to the floor. “Who are you?!”

“Oh for crying out loud,” he snapped, kicking Risawal’s sword away. “I’m here to take you to Liunthiz; understand?”

“And just why should we trust you?” Risawal snarled.

“Fine,” he muttered, turning to leave, “have fun walking.”

“Wait, wait!” Howngthirr exclaimed, “don’t listen to this idiot; give us a minute or two and we’ll be ready.”

“Three minutes,” he said, marching back outside.

Clock ticking, Howngthirr got Kialiki to her feet and then they both dragged Risawal through the door. A hay wagon was waiting for them, the driver waiting impatiently beside it. They piled into the back, finding a blanket and a small pot of stone cold soup waiting for them.

The ride to the capitol was bumpy and uncomfortable, time dragging by slowly as they rode through the countryside. Risawal was virtually silent, speaking only twice during their trip.

It was overcast and gloomy when they finally arrived at Liunthiz. The city itself matched the weather; the neglected buildings around them crowded together along narrow, winding streets. The few people on the streets were bundled up and rushing along, never giving their wagon a second glance. It was a far cry from Ernbrattash, with its bustling streets and renewal.

Near the centre of the city the wagon at last came to a stop. Their anonymous driver did not speak a word; he simply pointed to the street. Immediately after Kialiki slid off the back the wagon trundled back into motion, vanishing around the first corner.

“Alright, now let’s find Virpan,” Kialiki said brightly.

“How?” Risawal asked.

“Let’s ask someone,” she said, walking up to a bearded man strolling down the street.

“Wait!” Howngthirr and Risawal exclaimed together, though it was too late.

“Hello,” she said in a pleasant voice.

“What do you want girl?” he asked, glancing at her.

“I beg your pardon, but we’ve only just arrived in town, and I was wondering if anything interesting had happened recently.”

He turned around slowly, staring at her. “Interesting? You mean the fire girl who flew over the city the other day?”

“Yes, that sounds interesting,” she said, nodding.

“How could you not have heard about that before?” he asked, flabbergasted, “what, were you living under a rock?”

“I tried that once; it was rather unpleasant,” she replied, moments before Howngthirr grabbed her arm and dragged her into a nearby alley. She frowned at him. “What was that for?”

“We need to be discrete,” Risawal hissed, glancing back down the street.

“Hey, I got us the information we wanted,” she said, “Virpan was here, and now she’s gone.”

“Great,” Howngthirr sighed, “this was all a huge waste of time.”

“Don’t say that,” she said, shaking her head. “We know she was here, at least, and we can find out the rest.”

“Ok, Kialiki; lead the way.”

-#-

Over the next two hours they gathered a rough approximation of what had occurred, though the important fact remained. Virpan was gone. And no matter how many people they conversed with, the best information on where she had gone was east over the mountains.

“I guess we should go east over the mountains,” Kialiki said after talking to the fifteenth person in as many minutes.

“Those mountains are over two thousand miles long,” Howngthirr pointed out, “we’ll never find her by just wandering that way.”

“He’s right,” Risawal said, clapping his hands together, “we must go to the library and research this. Perhaps one of the many tomes will clue us in as to which direction she went.”

“The library?” Howngthirr asked.

“The great library of the ‘ivapne monastery,” he replied, “I’ve always wanted to go there.”

“Sounds neat,” Kialiki said brightly, “I love books.”

“Alright, fine,” he muttered, “lead the way, monk.”

“Gladly.”

-#-

The library of the ‘ivapne monastery stood in the shadow of the pyramid, the two story structure appearing quite plain compared to the other, ornate buildings of Valtor Cult that stood around it. It was mostly square and unadorned, the second story set back from the edge of the lower wall, creating a slightly terraced appearance.

Risawal approached the doorman confidently and gave him the ritual greeting.

“Greetings Brother,” he whispered, bowing, “my I ask for your name?”

“Risawal,” he replied, not seeing a point in lying. “And you, brother?”

“Litrom, brother. And who are your companions?”

“Sheni, and Na’a,” he said without missing a beat, “They hail from across the mountains, and have taken a vow of silence.”

“How odd,” Litrom said, stroking his chin, “Though who I am to judge the customs of the eastern monasteries. Welcome, Risawal, and Sheni, and Na’a.”

The three of them swept inside, Kialiki and Howngthirr both glaring at Risawal. Once they were amongst the rows of wooden bookshelves Howngthirr broke his vow.

“Silence?” he hissed.

“To prevent you from giving us away,” Risawal murmured, “You don’t know the customs of the order well enough.”

“Admit it; you did that to get at me.”

“Maybe a little,” he admitted, shrugging, “now silence, we have research to do.”

With that he ushered his two companions down a side aisle before breaking off to do his own research. Near the far wall he found a section of very old scrolls that he hoped held the key to getting out of their dilemma. As Risawal unfurled one of the musty old rolls of paper, a sense of uselessness washed over him.

Everything he had done during his quest had been a failure. Now he was working for the enemies of the god he was no longer certain he believed in. Tears leaked from his eyes as he fell to the floor, unable to carry on.

“You look terrible,” a soft female voice cooed.

He turned around, coming face to face with a young woman in a robe. “Who are you?”

“My name is Kiji’a,” she said, “and you are the chosen one.”

“What?”

“You are Risawal. I recognize you from our visit to Wanevap.”

“No, that’s not me,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m a nobody. Virpan is the chosen one, if one exists.”

“Correction,” a young man said, sliding in from the other side, “she stole the helm and has become a prison for Valtor.”

“And this is?” Risawal asked, turning to Kiji’a.

“I am Kizu’a, a pleasure to meet you chosen one.”

“Am I, truly?” he asked, doubt flooding back through his mind. “What do you two know?”

“That the heathen charm she was wearing has trapped Valtor within her,” they said in unison. “Now we must employ the powers of frost to free him.”

“How?” he asked breathlessly.

“The crown of the frost goddess,” Kizu’a said.

“We can show you the way,” Kiji’a said, producing a map.

“What about Kialiki and Howngthirr?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder.

“Forget about them,” Kiji’a spat, “They’ll be taken care of shortly.”

With a heavy heart Risawal nodded. He took the map and turned to leave, feeling rejuvenated.

-#-

Howngthirr quickly flipped through a tome written in an alien language, shaking his head. He sighed and shoved it back into the shelf.

“Yep, that’s a book,” he muttered, glancing at Kialiki, “you got anything?”

“The fourth regent of the boy King Unthul, Wulkagan, was drowned in the palace fountain, allowing the courtier Gresdin to rise to prominence and assume the regency, which allowed the order of Valtor to at last oust the last of the heathen priests,” Kialiki replied, snapping a book shut.

“That’s a no, then?”

“Yeah,” she sighed, putting the book on the shelf. “It would help if we had any idea what we were looking for.”

Their contemplation was interrupted when Howngthirr noticed a pair of hooded figures approaching. Without warning they drew swords, murmuring something under their breath. Thinking fast, he grabbed hold of the nearest bookshelf and pulled it over. It fell between them, and then knocked over the shelf it fell upon. As the chain reaction spread across the library, he seized the initiative and turned to run, grabbing Kialiki by the arm.

“Run away!” She exclaimed, grabbing him back and hauling him down the aisle.

At the next junction they encountered a pair of smug looking magic wielders, a brother and sister by the look of them. Before the tow of them could react Kialiki summoned a blue force field and knocked them both over.

The doorman tried to get them closed before they could escape, but Kialiki smashed through them all the same, trampling the robed man in the process. Just outside they caught up with Risawal, who was walking across the square.

“Time to skip town!” Kialiki exclaimed.

“What are you doing out here?” Howngthirr demanded, glancing back at the library doors.

“I uh, I found a map,” Risawal replied, brandishing a sheet of paper at them. “It will show us the way.”

“Are you sure?” Howngthirr snarled, narrowing his eyes at the document.

“No, but it’s all we’ve got,” he retorted, “Unless you found something?”

“We’re empty,” Kialiki admitted.

“Good, then let’s go.”

“Fine,” Howngthirr murmured, “Let’s move.”

The three of them ran from the square, dodging down side streets for an hour. When Howngthirr was satisfied that they were no longer being trailed, Risawal presented his map. After a few minutes of going over it they laid out a course and made their way from the city, Risawal assuring them that Virpan would soon be found.

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