With the conclusion of the battle, Kaus was eager to return to the Titan’s Blight and check on his crew. Ayodeji remained a gracious host and his sailors thanked Kaus’ own retinue for assisting in the fight against the amphibious creatures.
“Have one of your sailors keep watch on the lantern hanging from the center mast of my ship,” Ayodeji instructed before they left. “If I feel the creatures returning, I will order one of my men to put a piece of red glass in front of the flame. It may not be much of a warning, but it is better than no warning at all.”
When he was once again on the deck of his own ship, he saw that Zeero had the situation well in hand. Four of his crew had been slain by the vile creatures from the depths, and there were a dozen or more minor cuts and bruises among the others. Overall, however, the sailors had accounted well for themselves.
Kaus set double watches and retired to his cabin for the night. Sleep was long in coming, however, and when he finally drifted off his dreams were filled with dark shadows and ragged teeth. He was up at the dawn, greeted by a cloud-filled sky and the strange sounds of an island jungle floating across the water.
He spent an hour inspecting his ship before taking a quick meal and meeting with his first mate, his quartermaster, and his helmsman.
“As soon as Ho’gheysh is ready, we’ll return to the island to meet with Ukalu to find out if we still have permission to search for the lost temple,” he told the others. “I think we’ll be safe during the day, but I’m not sure I trust the islanders. Keep the crew on board and maintain the rotating shifts. I want us to be ready for fight or flight at a moment’s notice.”
“Are we going to have to fight the Charnai?” asked Zeero. There was no eagerness in her voice, but neither was she worried about facing those skilled warriors. As always, Kaus was impressed with her self-control.
“I doubt we’ll come anywhere close to that. Ayodeji seems like a reasonable man, and he’s in a position of strength here anyway. I don’t think he’ll attack us or do anything to provoke a confrontation.”
After the meeting, Kaus returned to the deck and found Ho’gheysh emerging from the lower level.
“Are you ready to go across?” the alchemist asked, and Kaus nodded, motioning to his sailors to ready the rowboat.
“Do you still think there’s any point in meeting Ukalu?”
Ho’gheysh looked across the water at the Namafu Emvula and heaved a sigh. “We’ve come all this way, we might as well see it through to the end.”
Kaus helped the older man into the boat and the crew pushed off and began to row toward shore. Kaus watched the jungle behind the small buildings at the top of the beach, noting how the green turned nearly black under the dark clouds that hid the sun. There was a menace behind those hanging vines and twisted boughs, and he felt as if something watched him back across the open space.
Supressing a shiver, Kaus leaped from the boat as it touched the beach and waded ashore. Moments later, Ho’gheysh joined him and they retraced their steps from yesterday. He noticed the people of the island watching him from the corners of their eyes, and muttering to each other as he passed. He wondered if the Charnai had received a similar reaction when they ascended the beach to meet with Ukalu.
This time, when the two guards met them on the road, they were immediately led to a building far back from the beach, tucked in behind a group of smaller huts. They were ushered inside by the guards, and Kaus entered first, his body tensed for an attack of some kind.
But the interior of the building was open and spacious, with a wide table in the center and a small man seated on one side. His skin was the same light brown as the rest of the Yinaki, and his close-cropped hair showed grey at the temples. He was thin, and very short, but he had a vitality to him that was reflected in his eyes and his smile. The man stood and bowed to Kaus, and then again to Ho’gheysh as the alchemist entered.
“Welcome, my guests,” he said in a light, trembling voice, and Kaus realized the man was far older than he looked. “I am Ukalu, and you are Ho’gheysh of Ryatheria and Kaus Kagunvar of the seas. Join me and let us be at peace.”
Kaus bowed to Ukalu. Ho’gheysh, in characteristic fashion, gave little more than a nod.
Ukalu returned to the table, and a small boy brought out a wooden platter with a jug and three cups on it. After it was settled on the table, the boy scurried off, his eyes never leaving the floor. Kaus and Ho’gheysh seated themselves, and Ukalu poured what appeared to be watered wine into each of the cups and handed one each to his guests.
“I must apologize for the matter of your greeting yesterday. I was with another guest, and we were deep in discussion when you arrived.”
Ho’gheysh, scowling more than normal, opened his mouth to speak, but Kaus cut him off before he could make the situation worse.
“We understand, Ukalu, and we were not terribly put out. In fact, we dined with Ayodeji aboard the Namafu Emvula last night. At least until the attack.”
He watched Ukalu’s eyes as he mentioned the attack of the creatures, seeking some sign of guilt or at least awareness.
“I did hear the battle from my sleeping quarters,” Ukalu answered smoothly. “I trust the attack was repelled successfully.”
“Other than the sailors who were killed by those creatures, we’re all fine!” Ho’gheysh snapped. Kaus put his hand on the alchemist’s shoulder but spoke to Ukalu.
“I noticed that the attack didn’t rouse anyone in the village. It is almost as if you expected it and knew your own people wouldn’t be targeted.”
“The batrach have learned not to come into our village, and there was nothing any of us could have done to assist you out on the water. So there was no need for our people to rouse themselves from their slumber.”
“You know what those creatures are?” Ho’gheysh asked, intrigued despite his irritation. “Are they native to this island?”
“Oh, yes. We have stories going back generations about the batrach. They were here on this island long before our own people settled here. But even back then, they were seldom seen, and in my lifetime they had only been spotted twice before this past year or so. It was only after I received your missive about the lost temple, and I invited you to come here, that they appeared to rouse themselves from their dormant state.”
“Why do they avoid your village?” Kaus asked.
“Our warriors have slaughtered them both times they tried to attack us. That was at the beginning of the last season, and they have avoided our village since then. But they have been spotted in the jungles further inland.”
“You believe they’re related to the temple, then.” Kaus said. “Have your people found the temple itself?”
Ukalu shook his head slowly. “I have told no one of the letter from Ho’gheysh and my response. I do not know the true location of the temple, and my people are still unaware of its existence.”
“Then how did Ayodeji find out about it?” Ho’gheysh asked. “That’s why he’s here. Did you invite him, too?”
“There was no need. You said a reference to the temple, and its prize, was found in an ancient text by a scholar friend of yours?”
“Ayodeji is a traveler, a scholar, a magician, and a hunter of artifacts of power. He has friends in the greatest cities across the world, and I believe there is little knowledge that can be uncovered on certain subjects without him learning of it in due time. I would expect that by the time your letter reached me here, he was already aware of the temple and planning his own trip.”
Ho’gheysh was silent, and Kaus watched Ukalu’s expression change as he considered his next words. The leader of the Yinaki people was about to deliver some news that would not be in their favor.
“Ho’gheysh, you must understand that our people have avoided much of the interior of this island for as long as we have been here. We did not know of the existence of the temple, but we understood there was a great darkness out there in the jungle. As I said, it seemed to be dormant and we believed if we stayed away, it would not awaken.”
Ukalu sat forward and rested his hands on the table.
“Now I know that an item of great power rests at the heart of the temple, and I believe it may be the source of that darkness that haunts the center of the island. Its removal would be a great benefit to my people.”
“That is why I am here,” Ho’gheysh answered. “I intend to remove that item and it will never trouble you again.”
“But I am not so primitive to believe its removal will be easy, or without danger. And I must consider the well-being of my people. I must consider all the candidates and choose the one I feel has the greatest chance of success without bringing harm to all of us on Yinak. And that is why I have given my blessing to Ayodeji.”
Ho’gheysh sat there for a moment, his mouth open. Kaus tensed, waiting for the torrent of rage to erupt from the alchemist at having traveled so far only to be denied his prize.
At that moment, a shadow fell across the table, and Kaus turned to see Ayodeji standing in the doorway. Ho’gheysh also turned, and his eyes flashed as he regarded the man who had stolen his chance at retrieving an item of legendary power.
“Ukalu, please forgive me for interrupting your meeting, but I wish to make an offer to Ho’gheysh before he leaves.”
Kaus waited, but Ho’gheysh said nothing, only glaring at the Charnai magician.
“Ho’gheysh—and Kaus, of course—I wish to ask you to join me in the search for the temple. I do intend to claim the sapphire for myself, naturally. However, I have little interest in what other treasures might be found there. And together I think our chances of successfully recovering the temple’s treasures are much greater than if we each try it alone.”
Ayodeji stepped forward and placed his hand on Ho’gheysh’s shoulder.
“You must be curious about the temple itself, and there is a great chance of other items of value being present. Join me and you can see it for yourself.”
He smiled at the three men and Kaus understood why Ukalu had decided to take his chances with the Charnai.
“What say you both?”