Chapter 35: The Void
Shortly after dawn Risawal awoke beneath a pile of blankets, staring at the young woman he had laid with. Feeling guilty, he quickly dressed himself and retreated from the tent. He sat by the smoldering fire, Kizuâ€™a giving him a nasty look. An hour later it was rekindled, and the rest of the strew was reheated for breakfast.
Kijiâ€™a emerged from his tent, looking at him oddly. He could not find any words and remained silent, instead focusing his gaze on the rising sun before them. She sat down beside him anyway, apparently quite pleased with herself.
â€œItâ€™s a beautiful sunrise,â€ she murmured.
â€œYeah,â€ he muttered, â€œIâ€™m, not sure what to say.â€
â€œThatâ€™s fine,â€ she replied, smiling, â€œjust, try to think of something good for later then.â€
She kissed him and then began pulling down his tent. Or was it their tent, he wondered, digging into his stew. After breakfast he helped pack, Kizuâ€™a staring daggers at him the entire time.
When the column reassembled Kijiâ€™a tried to ride between him and her brother, while Kizuâ€™a tried to get between him and his sister. The two shoved against each other until the leader of the expedition broke them up. Risawalâ€™s heart sank when he placed a triumphant Kizuâ€™a between him and Kijiâ€™a.
They exchanged glances during their descent into the jungle, Risawal cursing himself for not speaking to her earlier. Regret flowed through him. Regret for more things than he could count. So lost in thought was he that he barely noticed when they made the transition from rocky foothills to dense foliage. The old trail wound through the jungle, hours dragging on as Risawal waited for the end to come.
Corn fields and small hamlets began appearing as the road grew wider and more traveled. Near dusk the city of Politlapitlo emerged in the distance, the craggy pyramids looming high above. The gates were open, and guarded by a pair of men wearing recently dyed red and yellow ponchos bearing a crude depiction of a winged woman wreathed in fire. The larger of the two stepped into their path and brandished a spear.
â€œWho are you?â€ he demanded.
â€œWe messenger of the order of Valtor,â€ the leader said gruffly, â€œand we are here to meet visit the Lulnaâ€™ap Monastery to discuss urgent matters.â€
â€œThe monastery has been closed on our ladyâ€™s orders,â€ the guard replied, â€œValtor is not welcome here anymore.â€
â€œWhat madness is this?â€ Kizuâ€™a creied, riding out of line and confronting the pair of them, â€œwe demand entry immediately.â€
â€œValtorites are forbidden entry without permission,â€ he said, â€œI will have toâ€¦â€
Kizuâ€™a raised his hand and blasted the two men out of the way with a ring of blue light. Several of the other men jumped down and bound the stunned guards, the procession marching into the run down jungle city. Risawal looked down at the pair of fallen guards, unable to summon pity for them.
â€œThey were in the way,â€ he muttered.
A moment later he noticed that Kizuâ€™a was not longer between him and Kijiâ€™a. Heartened, he rode up beside her, managing a weak smile.
â€œHow are you feeling?â€ she asked.
â€œIâ€™m feeling, fine,â€ Risawal replied, uncertain what to say. â€œHow are you?â€
â€œUgh, too hot,â€ she replied, â€œthis jungle is miserable.â€
â€œHopefully weâ€™ll be out of here before too long.â€
â€œYes, once we meet with, wait, where are we going?â€ she called, the procession passing the monastery, â€œKizuâ€™a!?â€
â€œThere monastery is empty,â€ he shouted, â€œSo now weâ€™re going to the palace.â€
The train of mules stopped as he spoke, the palace looming beside them.
â€œErr, or weâ€™re at the palace now, rather.â€
â€œGreat,â€ Kijiâ€™a muttered, sliding to the ground. â€œLetâ€™s get to the bottom of this mess.â€
Fifteen of them marched through the ruined doors of the palace, walking down a darkened corridor. They shoved passed the ragged locals who got in their way. At the end lay a pair of burned, ruined doors. Behind was a throne room bustling with activity. Scribes had set up tables near the door and were scribbling in ledger books, while ragged people lined up before them listing grievances.
Behind them other scribes worked on tablets or even the floor, a familiar figure lording over them from atop a partially melted iron throne; a winged woman dressed in sheets of fire.
â€œVirpan,â€ Risawal cried, stepping forward.
Instantly six spear carrying guards jumped out from around the door and barred his way, the largest hissing at him to stop.
â€œWait,â€ Virpan boomed, rising from her throne. â€œLet him pass.â€
Reluctantly the guards disengaged, one shaking his head. Risawal pressed between the tables and crossed the floor, barely able to understand what he was seeing. Then, at the base of the dais, surrounded by scribes, he saw a large scroll of ancient parchment. His heart stopped at the sight, the world seeming to slow.
â€œWhat is that?â€ he asked, knowing the answer.
â€œThe old scroll from the temple,â€ one of the scribes said, straightening up. â€œMy mistress demanded that it be studied and I obey.â€
â€œNo, no this cannot be here,â€ he said, falling his knees.
â€œThis is blasphemy of the highest order!â€ Kijiâ€™a and Kizuâ€™a cried in unison.
â€œBah,â€ the head scribe said dismissively, turning to Virpan, â€œMistress, how do you wish for these foreigners to be dealt with?â€
â€œDeal with this!â€ Kijiâ€™a roared, raising her arms. The tables before her flipped over, spilling paper, ink, and scribes to the hard floor.
Virpan took flight, raising a ball of fire above her head. â€œGoing again are we? Shall I burn off your other arm?â€
Fear flashed across Kijiâ€™aâ€™s face and she backed away, Kizuâ€™a shoving in front of his sister. â€œYouâ€™ll have to get through me first!â€
The soldiers arrayed themselves before the twins, pikes outstretched. Risawal felt a final crack in his mind. He smashed his elbow into the head scribeâ€™s jaw and grabbed the scroll of fate form the floor, running back through the stunned soldiers and passed the twins like a madman. Outside he threw it onto the ground and hurriedly tried reading the archaic and bare intelligible language recorded on its surface.
A crushing sense of futility washed over Risawal, tears welling in his eyes. Heat washed over his back as a flapping noise flooded his ears. He looked over his shoulder, watching as Virpan soared through the palace entrance and began hovering above him.
â€œWhat are you doing!?â€ She demanded.
â€œSaving my god,â€ he replied, wrapping the scroll of fate around himself like a suit of armor.
Unable to form complete thoughts he rushed to the chest where the frost crown was sealed and broke it open. A gust of frigid air blew up into his face. He grabbed it; his fingers almost immediately went numb, a chill spreading up his arm.
â€œWhat are you doing?â€ she asked again.
He had no real answer. Instead he turned around and faced her, trying to formulate his next move. The soldiers emerged a moment later, followed by the twins, all eyes focused on him.
â€œRisawal,â€ Kijiâ€™a said, bewildered.
â€œI have to use this on her,â€ he muttered, â€œI have to.â€
â€œPut it down,â€ Kijiâ€™a said, taking a step forward. â€œPlease.â€
â€œIâ€™ll burn you!â€ Virpan roared.
â€œNot if I freeze you first,â€ Risawal snarled, putting the crown on his head.
Virpan screamed, blasting Risawal with everything she had. Two poor mules standing behind him were cooked alive, while the rest scattered in fright. So intense was the heat that molten metal began leaking out from the centre of the inferno. When at last she had exhausted herself, Virpan relented, certain that nothing could remain.
As the flames died down however she saw that something had survived. A stark white figure stood at heart of the blaze, burning blue glyphs of the scroll of fate covering him from head to toe. He stared at Virpan with ice blue eyes, a cold mist surrounding his form. Four feathered wings unfurled behind his back, sending a wave of frigid air over the scene.
â€œRisawal?â€ Kijiâ€™a squeaked.
He paid her no mind. He had work to do. The creature that had been Risawal leapt at Virpan, his touch searing her skin. She tried to throw him off, the two falling onto the roof of the palace. An anemic blast of fire was met by an arctic wind that lifted her into the sky.
Risawal flew up to meet her, only to get a punch across the chest that sent him cart wheeling several hundred feet into the jungle. Virpan took the initiative and dive bombed him, lighting up the trees around where he had crashed.
The blaze lasted only an instant before a cold wind extinguished the flames. He took flight again, gradually getting the hang of aerial maneuvering. The two clashed again, Virpan ripping at his wings with her claws. Risawal knocked her back, climbing higher into the sky.
â€œYou evil bastard!â€ Virpan cried, sending a column of flame after him, â€œthat scroll was my last hope of recovery!â€
â€œGood that it is in me now,â€ Risawal replied, circling above. â€œNow the resurrection is assured.â€
â€œIâ€™ll rip off your flesh to get it back!â€
â€œThen come and get it.â€
Flames rising around herself, Virpan soared up at him. After sending up a false attack to the left, she grabbed him around his waist and carried him upward, forming a sheet of flames around his frigid form.
In response he filled his chest with air and blew her off himself, Virpanâ€™s skin turning dark where the wind blasted it. In rage she summoned a ball of white hot fire into her hand, pressuring it until it was ready to burst at which point she shoved it against Risawalâ€™s chest. The explosion sent him sailing into the air, ears ringing.
At the apex of his trajectory Risawal regained his senses enough to arrest his fall, goading Virpan to fly up to him.
She did so, flailing at him with her fists. He deflected her blows before grabbing hold of Virpan, sending a freezing cold through her being. Her attack slowed and then stopped, before flight failed her and Virpan tumbled from the sky.
Victory it seemed was his. Risawal clenched his fists, feeling a rush of excitement. He looked down at the falling vessel wondering if he should let her fall to the ground or intercept her in midair.
As he looked down upon the world, he suddenly realized how small the isthmus he and his companions had been running around on was. A vast globe stretched out in all directions below him, beyond the bounds of any map he had ever seen. Slowly he expanded his vision towards all the corners of the world, his powers allowing him to see further than he had ever been able to as a human.
The crowd at in the city below became as clear to Risawal as the fingers on his hand. He saw the tears on Kijiâ€™aâ€™s face, the fear and confusion of the crowd. Beyond them was the jungle, the heathen Howngthirr and pretty Kialiki bathing nude together in pond on one end, while a wandering sorcerer boarded a boat on shore of the inland sea at the other side.
Then he saw more. He saw clearly a young shepherd leading a troop of goats across an arid plain. In the distance stood a brightly lit village that him offered shelter and safety. On a far peninsula, south of Registana, he saw an older man entered a room full of cushions where a pretty young woman waited. She looked pleased to see him, and accepted a silver coin.
Far across the sea he saw a school girl and her friend chatting as they waited beside a cobblestoned street, the taller of them nervously checking the clock. An oblong wooden platform rolled up to them, propelled by a cable below the street, the pair rushing onboard. Far to the east in the middle of inland sea he saw a schooner foundering in a storm, a mustachioed captain in a storm clock shouting at his crew, trying to batten down a broken hatch.
None of these people, nor the thousands upon thousands of others he could see had ever heard of Valtor, or his order. The prophesy was unknown to them, and all his struggles and sacrifices had not effected them in the slightest. Unable to bear it he turned away from the world and looked up into the dark sky, now able to perceive the vast void above them all. It stared back at him, uncaring and as frigid as his frozen flesh.
A great heat approached him, a revitalized Virpan approaching fast from below. He turned to face her, feeling utterly hollow inside. She drew even with him, fiery hatred in her eyes. Her skin had turned the color of charcoal. She slammed against him, Risawal giving a final burst of power to push her away. Her burnt skin split and fell away, revealing a being of pure, roiling fire.
She engulfed him inflames, burning his form painfully. Risawal felt no will to resist. Instead he let himself fall from the sky, tumbling into the inland sea. Though ice formed around him as he sank, he made no attempt swim or float. Instead he simply stared upwards as he sank into the depths, cold darkness closing in around him.
Exhausted, the fiery goddess descended from the sky, knowing she could not return to the city. Instead she flew down to the temple of fate, back through the secret passage she had used a lifetime before. In the old scroll of fate chamber she found a place to rest, the sarcophagus in the middle of the room.
Out of the shadows emerged a familiar figure, though he was no longer threatening in any way. She settled down into the coffin for a rest, the fires subsiding into the twin jewels at her core.
â€œSleep well,â€ Zharâ€™oth murmured, sliding the lid into place.
The doors opened off schedule, rolling aside despite the lack of a cosmic alignment. Zharâ€™oth let out a sigh, reluctantly walking from the chamber.
â€œIâ€™m sorry,â€ he said, looking back at the sarcophagus.
â€œDonâ€™t be,â€ whispered a voice from around him, â€œGo forth, and make sure this never happens again.â€
The door slid shut with a low rumble, sealing the chamber of the goddess until the next alignment. Zharâ€™oth sighed on last time, making a mental note to close up the secret passage into the central room.
Cold mountain air flowed down off the peaks, pushing clouds passed at a startling speed. Kialiki and Howngthirr walked beside each other down the mountain trail, trying to keep the otherâ€™s spirits up. He pointed out little landmarks to her, while she spoke about anecdotes from her time on the isles.
Still, Howngthirr felt a deep sense of wrongness. Virpan was gone, and there had apparently been nothing at all he could have done. He sighed, spotting a column of smoke in the distance. The thought of returning home dulled the ache, and he hoped that perhaps a good meal and time in his room would put him right.
As they neared the gates Kialiki put her arm around his shoulder, appearing quite cheerful despite everything that had happened. It warmed him, her cheer infecting him as he walked back into the square.
His father was working the forge, and it was only when Howngthirr walked to within spitting distance that Waongkshrail noticed his son.
â€œHowngthirr!â€ he exclaimed, jumping to his feet, â€œhow are you my boy?â€
â€œIâ€™ve been better,â€ he replied noncommittally.
â€œOh, what troubles you?â€
â€œItâ€™s a long, complicated story, and Iâ€™m not sure I know all of it myself.â€
â€œYour mother is making some stew, perhaps you can tell us all over a piping hot meal.â€
â€œThat sounds nice,â€ he said, smiling.
â€œHow rude of me,â€ he said, glancing at Kialiki. â€œWho is your new friend here?â€
â€œSheâ€™s Kialiki,â€ he replied, â€œa large part of that story.â€
â€œAch, so, did this one take your virginity?â€
â€œI did,â€ she replied brightly, pulling Howngthirr into an embrace.
â€œYes, dad,â€ he sighed, blushing scarlet, â€œLetâ€™s go inside.â€