Virtue’s Forge – ch 11 – by Ulf Berht – narrated by Asclepius
Hello everyone, this is Asclepius, with another chapter in this great story by Ulf Berht, entitled
Background music by Smartsound
Chapter 11, “The Climb”
Cook pointed toward distant sand-colored hills. “This is as close to the Sequanna Colossus as we dare venture. The place is infested with well-armed bandits ready to split any one they can catch.”
“Why there?” asked Merlin.
“There have been whispers of ruins lost to the shifting sands, buried treasure, and Obsidian secrets. Lurking behind every boulder are unnaturally huge corpions whose ancestors, some say, carried Obsidian warriors into battle. A very dangerous place, to be sure.”
Kaia packed away her navigation equipment and showed her map to Merlin, Abrams, and Cook. “This is our current position, far off any marked trail. We must go here,” she said, pointing to another spot on the map. “We must be into the Northern Barrens before sunset tomorrow. Get some water into your bellies, gents, then we must get underway. Remember, voices low and no fires tonight.”
The long walk, much of it in silence, provided Merlin with ample time to reflect upon his situation.
People see what they expect to see and believe what they have been told to believe, he thought. They see miracles in the mundane and fail to see the miraculous. Are we truly seeking to rescue Ulf, to save him from a gruesome fate at the hands of an old enemy, or are we just playing along until an opportunity arises to enact secret agendas? Sunstones, as described by Kaia, must be incredibly powerful. The mere presence of one in this world has put in motion plans and events beyond my understanding. Ulf is here because of one. I am here because of one. Ancient enemies vie for one, and enigmatic adventurers seek to meddle in the outcome. Without a doubt, my return to Avalon rests with my acquisition of this stone. I loved Nianne but she betrayed me, and now she is free to manipulate King Arthur for her own ends. Once it is in her hands, will Kaia part with it? I must have that stone at all costs and return to Avalon before the witch corrupts the young king.
“Three Palms Oasis,” Cook announced, pointing to a miserable cluster of palms and struggling green shrubs. “Our rendezvous. There is plenty of water, but we must dig for it.”
“Excellent,” said Kaia. “There is plenty of time to get to the top before sunset. We can rest for an hour before Cook and I begin the climb. Merlin, you may join or wait with Abrams, as you wish.”
“Climb? Climb what,” asked a bewildered Merlin.
“Why, that tiny pile of stone over there,” she said with a grin.
Merlin took a glance at the nearby towering mesa. “We scurried through this inhospitable place for two days, hurrying to recover my friend, and now you will take time for a climb? What madness is this?”
“It will be time well spent. Atop yon rock we have a friend who will give us an accurate accounting of the comings and goings from Desolis. We will come to know whether Ulf is indeed held inside or is still in transit. Besides, if what Cook tells me is true, there is a panoramic view second to none in all Novia. You may wait here with Abrams. We will be back tomorrow before noon and continue our quest. The choice is yours, but I must have this intelligence.”
“I will join you, if only to keep abreast the truth. I fear there is much more afoot than the comfort of one man.”
“You are not a simple man, Merlin but while you are at risk for capture, there is much I cannot reveal. The simple truth is that Outlanders operating outside of the Oracle’s ken and in the hands of the Obsidian Cabal present an intolerable risk.”
“Aspirations of acquiring the Sunstone do not influence your actions then?” challenged Merlin.
“The Sunstone is Ulf’s. I have no plan to own it,” said Kaia looking straight into Merlin’s eyes.
“Enough chatter. We must be at the summit before nightfall. Pack only food and water for the climb—and warm clothes. We will find adequate accommodations at the top. Cook, outline the route for us.”
“There is but one route to the top and it is not easy. On the west face of the mesa, we must first find and scramble up a rock scree. The crumbled broken rock is loose and easily set into motion, so it may take several attempts before we reach the actual cliff face. Once we are all on the ledge, we are faced with a difficult northeasterly traverse until we reach the gap between the two peaks. In my youth, it took me many tries before I successfully made it up both peaks, including the taller easterly one.”
“There we have it. Cook leads, Merlin in the middle, and I bring up the rear. Let’s get underway.”
As predicted by Cook, getting up the broken rock proved very difficult, but persistence paid off. After several attempts, the trio achieved the ledge. The traverse was not difficult in spite of the steep drop to the desert floor. They carefully made their way along the ledge to the large flat area between the mesa peaks.
“My agent will not leave his post until darkness obscures the desert below, so we have several hours to wait. Until then, feel free to accompany Cook. He has a particular interest in planetary movements and their influence upon this wretched globe, “ said Kaia.
“Indeed,” said Cook. “Cabalists are known to time their raids and sieges according to celestial events. I have observations to make that will aid those defending settlements. Are you with me Merlin?”
Again Cook proved to be an exemplary guide. The duo was atop the peak within an hour, and the entire western half of Novia was laid out before them. Due west, Cook pointed out the fiery glow of the Hilt in the Blackblade Mountains, the placid blue of Lake Equitas, and the sweeping light of Elad’s Lighthouse. In the north, Spindrift Bay and the glow from the newly risen volcano of Blood Bay could be seen. Above them, the whole of the night sky was unblocked by anything, no buildings or trees or mountains, just sky.
“There is much I could teach you, Merlin, and even more to learn. But duty calls. We must descend.” Cook said, packing away his astrolabe. “The Captain will grow impatient if we dally any longer. These torches will light our path.”
No one waited at their departures spot, and Merlin feared some misadventure or abandonment had occurred. Then he made out an entrance to a cavern. “This was not here earlier,” he said. Cook merely grunted and indicated that they should enter.
Captain Kaia could be seen crouched near a small fire, seemingly talking to no one. The pair approached the fire. Suddenly, what Merlin had taken for boulders resolved themselves into a gigantic being, daintily munching on what must be the carcass of an entire sheep.
“Ahh, Merlin. I’d like you to meet Bently. He is an ogre, my spy I told you about. Have no fear. He only harms outlanders who deserve it.”