The masked cultist’s hand wrapped around the metal of the gauntlet then he jerked and screamed out from searing pain. Talik ripped a part of his shirt off and wrapped it around his hand before grabbing the piece of armor from the screaming man, then pulled him to his feet and shouted for him and the other two cultists to run out. Poison lathered on the metal seeped through the cloth and began scathing at Talik’s skin.
Dust of the ruins kicked up under their feet as they ran for the light of the entrance. Talik had dropped his torch while the man reached for the armored glove, but it didn’t bother him as he thought only to keep his feet moving and his mind off the pain. They reached the entrance and ran out into the sunshine and the cult which waited them outside.
Talik unclutched his hand and the glove fell onto the rocky ground. He heard small gasps, but the poison ripping at his skin overshadowed the noise. A robed woman in the mask bent down to pick it up, but Talik shouted at her.
“Don’t,” he said then took a canteen from his pack which he’d left by the tomb entrance and poured the water onto his hand. “It needs to be washed off first.”
Several of the cultists rushed over with water skins and canteens then proceeded to wash it off. Once it was clean the robed woman leaned over and picked it up as if it might still burn her. Talik looked to the masked man who’d grabbed the armor. He washed his own hand as well.
“I told you not to grab it,” Talik said to him, but before the man spoke, the robbed woman helped Talik to his feet and walked him away from the gathered cultists. They walked up the path to where they could see the rounded mountain tops stretched out for as far as anyone could see. Though smooth topped, they stood much higher than any hill’s reach and were covered with thousands of needles, the land’s pines, and evergreens. The sweet scent of newly blossomed flowers coated the air as the second bloom of the warm season arose.
Masked individuals walked amongst the amphitheater which nested in the mountainside away the tomb’s entrance. Each of them covered in the same black body wraps and wearing white masks with a red symbol on the forehead which Talik assumed was from an ancient language. There was an equal amount of male and female among them.
He felt uneasy working with a group such as this, some fanatic religious cult, but he assured himself that they were just looking for an old idol to light candles near and the reward was high enough to pay for the price of traveling with such a group. A woman walked up to his side from behind him, she too wore the mask, but she wore a black cloak rather than the body wraps.
“It is quite amazing that you found this place with such ease when we have been searching for it for years.” The woman, who referred to herself as Eliana, said to him with a hint of bitterness. “You must be blessed by the gods.”
“I’m not blessed by anything,” Talik returned, “My skills have been handed down to me by men greater than I.”
The masked woman turned her attention to the group gathered near the tomb, Talik could tell by her slightly heavier breath that he had offended her. He thought to apologize, but he reminded himself that all these people were fanatics.
“Talik, you looked upon the arm of Asteris, the Dead God,” Eliana said. “You may not wish to show any dishonor.”
Talik smiled when he spoke, “I assume all the gods have something against me. What harm could a dead one do?” Although he wanted to claim, all gods are dead.
Another cloaked individual this time a man, Jarrius walked to the group to one of the bowing men who wore a pack. From the pack, they took a long black wrap and enshrouded the armor piece before placing it into the pack. Eliana placed a hand on the man’s shoulder while saying a small prayer to him.
“We will make camp for the night,” Eliana announced after removing her hand, “And in the morning, we will return our sacred prize.”
Talik retrieved his bag which he’d placed above the amphitheater and began making his small tent so that he could have a view from above. He spoke no more to the group as they set up their tents in a gathered heap and prayed through most of the evening. His small fire roasted the rabbit, which he’d snared earlier with a makeshift trap, as the sun’s colors changed from orange to purple and the stars took over the night sky.
The group, The Loyalists as they called themselves, spent the night differently than they had the prior nights. They celebrated which Talik found strange because all of them seemed so emotionless, as if as lifeless as the Dead God which they spoke of constantly, but tonight they drank, they talked, and they remained awake longer than any night he’d spent with them.
At one point a masked man in wraps walked up to Talik and sat beside him. He thanked him for aiding them in finding the artifact and offered for Talik to join them in a few drinks, but Talik kindly refused and the man clumsily made his way back down the hill to the small palace of tents.
As the night went on, Talik fell into a deep slumber, but the group remained awake as the morning approached and with a few exceptions, none rested but began to pack their belongings for the journey home. Dark slumber took Talik with no dreams and he woke to the singing of the native wrens above his tent.
As his eyes adjusted through the morning grog he noticed that the birds perched above him all looked in the same direction, towards the disassembling campsite of the Loyalists. He curiously watched the delicate light brown creatures jump from branch to branch while keeping their gaze fixed on the tents and motion below.
Deciding that they probably only stared because of the commotion and waited for a chance to get at any food left behind, he packed his own equipment up and stared down as the last of the campsite was packed and the group of masked people looked back to him. He took this as his incentive to begin moving and he directed the group back up the mountainside where at the top they followed down their old footsteps.
The trees enclosed them and shaded them from the rising sun in the cloudless morning, but they also trapped in the heat. Talik smiled to himself as he noticed his wrapped and cloaked followers were soaked with their sweat, they all refused to remove the clothing claiming it would disrespect their god.
Plants in the undergrowth made their travel difficult, but they made good timing while they descended downwards taking little breaks and each person excited to be heading back towards civilization. Once they reached the valley, however, their pace slowed to a saunter and the heat bogged them down while high in the noon.
Talik began to notice that the birds and the insects would become quiet around them as they neared but would continue on after they had passed. The few birds that he could see, looked as if they watched him, but the more he saw the more he noticed that they kept their eyes on the man with the pack carrying the artifact.
He figured that he was beginning to suffer from overheating and as he looked back to all the sweating bodies trudging behind him, he called for everyone to stop for rest and water. Silence surrounded them and no one spoke as they tried to regain their strength and energy. Talik began to fret that a few of them might become unable to function, the wraps and robes weren’t ideal for this kind of hiking in the warmth, nor any kind of hiking.
“Might I suggest to you all to uncover your faces, let your bodies have some air,” Talik said to the group as he stood and grabbed up his pack.
They looked to one another and all returned a look of disapproval, they were growing angry with his nagging about their apparel. Their walk once again had a little more speed to it, but they quickly slowed as two of the members began to fall behind and eventually succumbed to the heat.
Talik constructed two slings to drag them along with, it lost them daylight and caused their slow walk to become an even slower crawl. Only another hour passed when they came to a halt as two more fell unconscious, both soaked from their entire bodies sweat. The cult members grew anger with Talik as he tried to remove the masks from the fallen in the slings even though he explained that they need to cool themselves somehow. They remained fully clothed.
“Let’s make camp now,” Talik spoke to the robbed ones in charge. “They should all recover by tomorrow morning as long as we can get some water into them.”
The Loyalists set up their small palace of tents once again and Talik remained to himself, but only for a moment as he decided to check on those that had succumbed to the heat which led him to enter their traveling temple. Inside, placed in the center of their construction, they set up an altar to worship their discovered piece of armor. One of the wrapped women held it above her head while she remained as still as she could, several lit candles circled around her feet.
All the others laid silently on the floor in a motionless prayer, none of them acknowledged Talik although he made plenty of noise as he gave the heat exhaustion victims enough water. They thanked him with what energy they could as he left, he glanced back at the people laying down, their eyes had fixed on the living alter.
Though he hadn’t felt threatened by anyone in the group since their escapade began, Talik fell asleep with his hand on the hilt of his knife and his eyes fixed on the encampment as exhaustion forced his eyelids shut.
It took him a moment, to realize it was a dream, as he stood looking in his house at his loved one. He entered the wooden structure looking for her only to find a shadowed silhouette of a person standing near the bookshelf. Feeling uneasy, Talik back stepped through the door and turned not finding the city he’d purchased a house in, but a long stretching beach under a clear and moonlit night.
The water gently brushed the shore attempting to pull the island back into the sea, but the noises of a jungle overcame that of the waves. Talik found himself drawn to one sound particularly, one which wasn’t natural, the beating of a drum. He glanced back to see if the house with the shadow was still there, to his assumption, it wasn’t. One step forward into the sand caused the drumming to elevate and grow more aggressive.
Torches began lighting along the tree line, each one getting closer to him. The drums grew louder. He woke to the unblocked sun beaming into his eyes. The Loyalists had already begun to clean up their camp, the few that were exhausted from the heat the day prior, now walked amongst the others, although at a sluggish pace.
Talik completed his clean up faster than the others and ate his breakfast while he watched them finish. Everyone moved slower from the days of exhausting travel. One more day and a half, then they’d be in the town at the base of the mountain range where they would continue by riding on horseback.
The heat of the day seemed worse than the prior few, but Talik knew this was just because fatigue and exhaustion worked against everyone. The cultists remained in good spirits regardless, they all were still excited from their find, what Talik had found for them.
Although they didn’t follow a path, they had reached the area of the mountain range which Talik knew best. The woodland area had been the first location where Talik was taken into the forest to learn survival skills from his father and his uncle. He honored their memories in the silence of his own thoughts.
The day came and went in a haste and to Talik’s delight they had made great progress and they would reach the small mountain town early in the morning, but he decided it best to camp out one more time rather than to try and hike into the night even though he considered it for a moment.
For the last night, Talik set his tent up so that he could see the small pavilion created by the Loyalists. They were silent and Talik could only imagine that they did the same thing as they had the night before, worship the artifact as someone tries to remain as motionless as a statue while holding it. He knew that once they’d reach the town, he and the group would split ways after paying him the other half of his payment.
They seem rather trusting, he thought to himself as he carved at a stick, such an odd group to dedicate their lives to such a strange idol. He observed the small totem of faces he’d created, each with a different expression, then tossed it into his small fire that he made to cook yet another small animal he’d snared, he was growing tired of eating rabbit with such lean meat.
This night, his dreams were dark and void. He thought of the island as he fell asleep, to perhaps reimagine it in another dream, but nothing came to fruition. In the morning, they packed quickly and made for the town with more haste than any day before. Soon the trees opened and the small town they all were thinking of appeared in its usual spot, tucked up against the base of a cliff face.
The town made of the same trees surrounding it was quaint yet active with life. Most in the town made a living off of mining and the sawmills built along the small river running along the town border. It wasn’t a wealthy town, but its people lived well and always had work since most of the cities around purchased raw materials from the secluded town.
The townsfolk greeted Talik with a smile since he was a familiar face, but as they saw the group which followed behind him they grew anxious and weary. The World Teachings were prevalent in the small labor town, but it wasn’t nearly as fanatic as the city dwellers, so the sight of an entire group of religiously dedicated individuals wasn’t a common sight to the people.
“Talik,” Eliana stopped him only a few steps into the town, “We thank you for leading the way, but from here we part ways.”
“I understand,” Talik responded while feeling a sense of relief, “And I hope that you all have safe travels.”
From a pocket in her robe, the woman handed Talik a pouch. He glanced inside of it to find three chunks of uncut diamond and several coins of gold with bits of gemstone embedded in them, the rest of his payment. She bowed to him with the group behind her following her lead and then they made their way into the town leaving Talik behind. He chuckled as the townsfolk made a great effort to stand clear of the cult by standing on the edge of the walkways as the group passed.
He placed the pouch into his pack and made for a small tavern he knew resided a few buildings down. There he rested with a drink and food while saying hello to the patrons within, then he made for the horse master of the town. A short conversation with the horse master and a few good laughs led to a free horse as long as he took it to the stables in Iora, Talik’s home city.
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