Kaus dragged himself to his feet and staggered over to Ayodeji, who slowly raised himself to a sitting position on the pebbled beach. The others were coming around and slowly regaining their feet, two of the Charnai helping Ho’gheysh stand.
“Is it dead?” Kaus asked the magician.
“No. It is too powerful to kill, at least by us. But I have sent it back to sleep for now.”
Kaus did not find the answer reassuring.
“For how long?”
“Until some other foolhardy soul comes down here to recover the emerald and breaks the web of power we managed to establish with the ritual carved into the walls.”
Kaus thought about that for a moment.
“Didn’t the creature swallow the gem?”
Ayodeji looked up at Kaus and smiled.
“I did not say it would be easy.”
Kaus could not help but chuckle.
“So we’re safe for now,” he concluded. Ayodeji’s smile faded.
“I would not declare us safe until we reach the village. We should leave this place as quickly as we can…just in case.”
Kaus looked out at the water and saw that the reflection in its surface was…fuzzy. He squinted his eyes and tried to figure out what was wrong, and then realized that the entire visible surface of the lake was vibrating.
He grabbed Ayodeji and dragged him to his feet, and yelled an alert to the others. But by that time the vibration coming up from the ground had gotten strong enough for the pebbles on the beach to start jumping. The group began to move toward the passage entrance when they heard a great cracking sound, and the rumble became very loud for a moment.
A cloud of dirt billowed out of the mouth of the passage as Kaus realized the spiral ramp was collapsing, cutting them off from the outside world. Everyone halted in their flight toward the opening and hunkered down near the wall of the cavern, but the rumbling soon subsided until it could be felt no longer.
Kaus grabbed the torch and checked out the passage, but it was choked with rubble.
“We’re not going back up the same way we came down,” he said to the others.
“Does that mean we’re trapped down here?” one of his crewmembers asked, and Ayodeji shook his head.
“I believe there is another opening to the outside world. But it may take us some time to find it.”
The group took the time to bury their dead under the pebbled beach before they gathered together, lit a second torch, and began to walk along the outer wall, searching for any sign of another passage that might lead them back up to the surface. They had gone through two more torches by the time they discovered a smaller opening on the wall, about two person-heights above the surface of the beach.
They boosted Kaus up so he could check it out, and he could feel a warm but fresh breeze coming from the passage. They used their rope to hoist the rest of the group up to the opening, and then proceeded onward.
When they finally emerged from a cave opening on the side of a low hill, the sun was just rising above the horizon. The clouds were no longer black and had begun to break apart, revealing blue sky once again. With the strange darkness gone, they could see the top of the temple above the trees off in the distance.
“What about the batrach?” Ho’gheysh asked.
“If we’re right about them trying to stop us from taking the emerald, they might let us leave in peace now,” Kaus replied.
“I am not so sure their intentions toward us have suddenly become peaceful,” Ayodeji said. “We should move as quickly as we can.”
“If we take the same trail that we made coming here, we should be able to make good time,” Kaus said. “Assuming, of course, that we don’t have to fight the whole way back.”
They made their way toward the temple clearing, keeping among the trees as they worked their way around until they found their path. They formed up in a line and marched back along the path, weapons drawn and everyone alert for any warning of attack.
It was late afternoon when they stumbled out of the jungle, exhausted and filthy. Ukalu came out of his home to greet them, and his eyes widened at their appearance.
Ayodeji approached the shaman and bowed deeply.
“You were successful?” Ukalu asked the magician.
“We were successful in finding the temple. But the gem of power is…gone.”
“It was not there after all?” Ukalu asked in surprise. He looked from Ayodeji to Kaus to Ho’gheysh and back.
“The gem was there. But it was a trap of sorts. It is now gone, and your people should avoid the temple. Darkness dwells in the depths below, and it is not something you wish to awaken.”
He bowed once again to Ukalu.
“Thank you for your hospitality. I believe we will be setting sail immediately.”
Ayodeji turned and walked toward the beach, his people following. Kaus also bowed to Ukalu but said nothing. Ho’gheysh leaned on his arm as they made their way down to the beach.
By the time they reached the shore, both ships had sent out their boats.
Ayodeji turned to Ho’gheysh.
“It was my honor to meet you, Ho’gheysh. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey. I could not have prevailed against the creature without your knowledge, and for that I owe you my life. Should you ever wish to visit Charnai, please write to me and I will make all the arrangements. We have some of the greatest libraries in the world and I would treat you as an honored guest.”
Ho’gheysh wasn’t sure how to respond. His scowl finally disappeared for just a moment and he bowed to the magician, muttering his own thanks and oaths of friendship.
Kaus stepped up and clasped Ayodeji by the arm, and then was pulled into a great hug. The magician laughed and released Kaus.
“It is a great pleasure to know you, Kaus Kagunvar. We will meet again out there on the seas, I am sure of it! And of course, you are also a welcome guest in Charnai whenever the fancy takes you.”
Kaus thanked the magician and then the two groups split and went to their separate boats. Soon enough, Kaus once more stood on the deck of the Titan’s Blight. Zeero came forward and greeted him.
“Looks like you had another adventure,” she said, eying the crewmembers who had come back with him. “Some faces are missing.”
“We have lost some of our comrades,” Kaus told her gravely. “We will pay them due respects tonight, for they died valiantly and their names should be spoken with honor.”
Zeero nodded and ordered some of the crew to see to the health of their returning fellows.
“Are all of the crew aboard?” Kaus asked her. She nodded.
“The village isn’t much of a port-of-call for this group.”
“Then we sail immediately. I want some open seas between us and this island before I can take any rest. We’re returning Ho’gheysh to Ryatheria.”
Zeero turned began shouting orders, and Kaus stepped over to Ho’gheysh.
“Well, it seems as if your only treasure on this trip is the friendship of a Charnai magician. Not that such a thing is easy to get, and it does have great value in itself.”
The alchemist snorted and scowled at Kaus.
“Do you think I would come all this way and leave empty-handed?”
The old man drew something from his robes and, using his body to shield it from the prying eyes of the crew, showed it to Kaus. It was a seashell, of a rich golden color and with strange markings that made Kaus’ eyes water.
“What is it?” he asked the alchemist.
Ho’gheysh quickly slipped it back into his robes.
“I don’t know yet. But I found it on the shore of that underground lake, and it has power of some sort, I can tell you that.”
The alchemist turned and departed the deck, returning to his quarters below. Kaus watched him go and then turned to regard the village on the beach one last time.
It took no time at all for the Titan’s Blight to get moving, and Ayodeji’s Namafu Emvula was shortly behind. Once out of the cove and into the open water, the Charnai ship changed tack and headed away. Kaus ascended to the foredeck and looked out at the endless sea stretching out in front of him. He said a silent eulogy to his fallen crewmembers, knowing that he would have to repeat it aloud in a few hours.
Then he turned back to his ship and watched his crew as the late afternoon began the long fall into night.
© 2017 Andrew J. Luther