Chapter 34: Breakdown

The three of them trudged up the mountain trail, a chill wind whipping off the peak above. At a fork in the path Risawal stopped to study his map, only to lose his grip. Howngthirr had to grab his collar to prevent him from falling off a cliff.

“Nice one,” he muttered, dropping Risawal against the rock wall. “Which way, monk?”

“Forward,” Risawal replied, refusing to make eye contact. “It’s not much further now.”

“Good,” Kialiki said, her teeth chattering, “don’t know how much more of this cold I can take.”

Howngthirr sighed, taking the lead now that their guide had lost his guide. They continued up the trail, passing a small branching path leading into a gap in the mountain face. Not far from the intersection he caught sight of a light in the distance.

“What’s that?” he murmured, pointing at towards the dim glow.

“It’s a light you idiot,” Risawal retorted.

“I know that, I meant who lit it.”

“That’s a fair question,” he said, “I have no idea.”

“I was speaking rhetorically.”

“Good, then you’re not a complete fool.”

“Why didn’t I just let you fall?”

“Because you’re a better man than he is,” Kialiki snapped, “now let’s get a move on.”

“I’m hurt,” Risawal said, looking between them. “You’d prefer a stinking savage to me?”

“Yes,” she sighed. “Now let’s get a move on.”

As they neared the light it turned from an indistinct glow into a lantern, held by a cloaked figure. Out of the mist emerged the entrance to a cave, which the stranger stood beside, standing vigil. When they were within spitting distance Howngthirr realized who the man was.

“Zhar’oth,” he said, uncertain what to make of his appearance.

“Took your time getting here, didn’t you?” Zhar’oth murmured, looking them over. “Come, let us not dally. The cold is starting to seep through my coat.”

“Wait,” Risawal said, fingering his sword, “what are you planning?”

“To make one final attempt to end this madness before it claims another young life.”

“What does that mean?”

“You’ll find out when we reach the end.”

“Stop talking in riddles,” he roared, draing his sword.

“Careful,” Zhar’oth warned, “Or I might let slip a secret that cannot be unsaid.”

“What secret might that be?” Risawal asked in an icy tone.

“How you got the map that lead you here, for starters.”

“What does he mean?” Kialiki asked, turning to a now suddenly still Risawal. “Risawal, what did you do?”

“Unimportant for the moment,” Zhar’oth said, “Now let’s move.”

“How can we trust you?” Howngthirr asked quietly.

“I’ve never lied to any of you, not once.”

Kialiki nodded and moved after him. The two of them walked across the threshold, Howngthirr running to catch up. Risawal hesitated the longest, though in the end he rushed in to join them. A woman dressed in black dropped down from the ceiling, throwing knives visible on her belt.

“My colleague,” he explained, sweeping the lantern around the cave. “And this is where it all began.”

With that, he led them down the long corridor and into the sprawling, ancient temple. The rough cave walls merged seamlessly into the squared off blue brick walls of the ancient structure. Soon they were in a labyrinth of crisscrossing tunnels and vaulted rooms, which seemed to stretch one forever.

Grotesque statues stood sentry at many an intersection, while murals of long forgotten men and their deeds decorated nearly every inch of free space.

“Wow,” Howngthirr murmured, as he looked into a domed room the size of an amphitheater, a waterfall crashing down from the centre of the dome into the largest fountain he had ever seen. “What is this place?”

“A long forgotten tomb,” Zhar’oth replied, “a tomb of ideas, of a civilization lost to time, and for my friends, of course.”

“What?” Risawal asked.

“Nothing,” he muttered.

“One could become lost in here forever,” Kialiki murmured, sending a blue glowing orb down a side corridor. “Or so I suspect.”

“Indeed,” Zhar’oth said, “and many have. Best stick close.”

They plunged deeper into the structure until at last, after descending a spiraling stairwell into what seemed to be the heart of the world, they arrived at the heart of the temple.

A semicircular room materialized before them, a crescent pool of water dominating the back half. In the heart of the pool of water was an irregular block of ice, with a waterfall cascading over it. Zhar’oth inhaled audibly as they reached the bottom of the stairs. Desiccated flowers were strewn across the floor, in various states of decay, while a pair of forlorn statues stood by the side of the pool, staring at the block of ice with stone eyes.

Hownghthirr peered around the chamber, confused, while Kialiki remained near the stairs, a worried look on her face.

“What is this place?” She whispered.

“Where the frost crown lies,” Zhar’oth replied, tapping a silver relic laying between the two statues. “That is what you are after, is it not, Risawal?”

“What?” Howngthirr exclaimed, rounding on the monk. “Is that true?”

“Err,” Risawal muttered, averting his eyes. “Sorry.”

“Wait,” Zhar’oth said, grabbing Howngthirr’s arm.

“Give me one good reason I shouldn’t pound his skull in!” Howngthirr roared.

“I can give you one,” Kizu’a called, marching down the stairs.

“I can give you a second,” Kiji’a said, walking up behind him.

Kialiki glowed in the darkness, apparently ready to fight them. Then behind the twins came a troop of a dozen soldiers, armed to the teeth with crossbows and swords. Risawal backed up and took his place between the twins in the ranks of the enemy.

“So this is how it is,” Howngthirr breathed. “Traitor.”

“Heathen,” the monk spat, “Valtor will rise and set the world right, mark my words.”

“Look around you,” Zhar’oth said, motioning towards the statues and the block of ice, “Risawal my boy, this is the price we paid for the order’s folly.”

“Pipe down you thug,” he said, “I’m going to enjoy tying you up. Turnabout is fair play, after all.”

“Please, stop this.”

“Never.”

Zhar’oth let out a heavy sight. Then he turned anr ran to the back of the chamber, splashing through trhe frigid waters. There he came to a drain that flowed deep into the mountain’s heart. “Come on!”

“What, are you crazy?!” Howngthirr screamed, “You want us to swim through a mountain.”

“It’s this or them,” he replied, “I’ll leave the choice to you.”

Then he slid down into the opening and vanished. His colleague joimed him a moment later, leaving Howngthirr and Kialiki to face down the order’s troops.

“Fool,” Kizu’a muttered.

“Come, let’s end this folly,” Risawal said, extending his hand, “Come Kialiki, you have done nothing against the order.”

She hesitated, then ran for Howngthirr, dragging him towards the back of the chamber.

“No!” Risawal screamed, “Don’t kill yourself!”

“Take your own advice,” she retorted, before plunging into the frigid darkness below.

-#-

A procession of men riding on mules made their way up the mountain trail, the leader bearing a red banner of Valtor. Just behind him rode a man with an ancient chest tied to his mount, covered in glowing magical glyphs and wax seals. Near the middle rode Risawal, between Kizu’a and Kiji’a. One of them was trying to engage him in conversation, but he barely noticed, as he was too lost in thoughts. The sight of Kialiki vanishing into darkness haunted his mind, along with a dozen other terrible things.

The day dragged on, cold and dreary, the sun never making an appearance through the overcast. More miserable than ever, Risawal looked back at Kiji’a and at last broke his silence.

“How interesting,” he murmured.

“You really think so?” she asked, smiling. “I think contrasting the styles of magic glyphs to be a rather dull topic myself. Though we all have different interests.”

“True enough.”

“Anyway, what I was getting at, is how…”

“Hang on,” Risawal interrupted, “May I ask you a question?”

“But of course.”

“What happened to your arm?”

“Oh, this,” she said, holding up her porcelain right hand. “It was a stupid mistake, really.”

“Some magical accident?”

“You could say that,” she muttered. “Actually, it happened when I grasped the jewel in Virpan, err, in the vessel’s head.”

“Her forearm burst into flames,” Kizu’a said.

“Hey, I’m telling the story,” she snapped.

“Well sorry for caring.”

“Ugh,” she sighed, shaking her head. “Sometimes you make me wonder about you brother.”

“So, you have a replacement now.”

“You could call it that, I guess,” she muttered.

“Is it any good?”

“It works, I suppose,” she replied, lighting up several glyphs on its surface. The fingers moved in unison, snapping into a fist.  “I can grip, sort of, but mostly that’s for show. Only the magic in it is of any real use.”

“Fascinating.”

“I guess, though, it certainly doesn’t beat the real deal,” she said, waggling the fingers on her good hand.

“Sorry,” Risawal muttered, looking away, “I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable.”

“No no, it’s fine,” she assured him, “Whatever you want to talk about is fine, chosen one.”

“It’s Risawal.”

“Whatever you want to talk about is fine, Risawal,” Kiji’a said, offering another smile.

“When are we making camp?”

“Hopefully soon,” she replied, looking around the barren landscape. “I’m getting a chill.”

He tried to think of something else to say, but came up empty. The conversation died away, leaving Risawal to stew in his thoughts. A few hours later they arrived on the far side of the mountain pass, the rolling foothills now barely visible below them. The mule train came to a halt just above a steep descent in the trail. They all dismounted and lead their mounts into a flat area at the base of a cliff, sheltered from the wind and devoid of snow.

Risawal mechanically pitched his tent beside an old fire pit, then sat within it and stared at the growing stack of wood. Kiji’a put her porcelain hand in the heart of the firewood and with a few muttered words set it alight. She brushed a few bits of ash from its surface before sitting down beside Risawal.

The two of them stared into the fire, Kiji’a leaning gently against him. A caldron was hoisted over the pit and filled with water, flour, and salted meat. After it was brought to a boil the second in command of the expedition ladled out piping hot stew for everyone. Kizu’a took two bowls and handed them to Risawal and Kiji’a, pausing as he looked them over.

“Are you sure that’s appropriate?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

“What?” Kiji’a asked, putting her arm around Risawal’s shoulder. “He’s the chosen one, and quite a nice looking one at that.”

“But, we’re accolades of the order,” Kizu’a said, shifting uncomfortably. “We’re not supposed to, you know.”

“Supposed to what?” she asked derisively. “Not take after our mother’s example?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Kizu’a, we would not be here if mother had obeyed the rules to the letter.”

“I know that,” he murmured, turning red.

“So shut up, and leave me alone. I know what I’m doing.”

“Fine,” he sighed, wandering off to his tent.

“That’s better,” Kiji’a said, glancing at Risawal. “Now, then, how are you feeling?”

He slowly turned to face her, looking into her friendly face. Suddenly he was seized by a feeling. He grabbed hold of her and pressed his lips to hers. She squeaked in surprise, her cheeks turning red. As quickly as the feeling had come it vanished and he pulled back, turning reddish himself.

Still red, Kiji’a leaned in and kissed him back, pulling the glove from her real hand and ran her fingers across his neck. All of the terrible memories and feelings were forced from his mind, leaving only her. He closed the flap on his tent as a frigid wind flapped the canvas above them, blocking out the cold, dark world outside.

-#-

A spring in the jungle poured from a rock formation into a pool below. The flow suddenly chugged and a man emerged from below, gasping for breath. Soon he was followed by three more people. The four of the staggered out of the water, Howngthirr coughing out a lung full of it.  Beside him was Kialiki, who promptly pulled off her clothes and began ringing them out.

“Err, what are you doing?” He wheezed, turning red.

“Drying off,” she replied, “What did you think?”

“I don’t know what to think,” he murmured, trying not to stare at her. “Most girls in my village don’t take off their clothes out in the open.”

“That is the last time I swim through a mountain,” Zhar’oth muttered, starting to wander off.

“Hey, wait a minute!” Howngthirr exclaimed,” trying to run after him. “Where are you going?”

“Away,” he said, shaking his head. “There is nothing more to be done.”

“You’re giving up?”

“My boy, listen to me well, there is nothing good about getting mixed up this business. I tried to stop this, fought long and hard to avert this outcome, but this time it was in vein. Now the die is cast, and there is nothing more we can do.”

“There must be something,” he muttered.

“There are times when nothing can be done. No matter how hard we wish there was a way, sometimes things are simply out of our hands.”

“What should I do then?”

“Remember what happened, and what is about to transpire, and pass the message on to anyone who needs it,” Zhar’oth replied, “And don’t waste your life blaming yourself, like I have done.”

“But, but, what about Virpan?”

“You can’t help her anymore. She has more power now than any of us, and will soon put it to use.”

“So, what’s going to happen?”

“Destruction,” he said, turning away. “I hope we meet again someday, my boy.”

With that he vanished into the jungles, his associate already gone. Howngthirr took several steps after him, but soon stopped, knowing there was no use following him. He looked around the jungle clearing, realizing that he had no idea where they were. With a heavy sigh he turned to Kialiki. “What do we do now?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “Maybe we should have a nice swim to refresh ourselves?”

“Why not?” he sighed, pulling off his soaking coat.

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