The Island of Mist: Part Two
"That doesn't look much like any temple I've ever seen," Del said, tilting his head to the side at extreme angles. "And I've seen a surprising amount of temples for my age. Are you sure this is the right place?"
"Yeah..." Logan replied absentmindedly, trying to remember every detail of the picture the Aisha Elder had drawn in the sand before he'd left them about two miles ago. The long bungalow-style hut in front of them, nestled between dozens of palm trees and other trees they had no name for, had to be it.
"Did you see any other big structures while you were on the lookout?" asked Sareece. Del's ability to fly meant that he was given the job of keeping them on track by occasionally flying over the trees to check their direction.
"No." Del shook his head definitively. "I'm sure of it."
"Well, let's quit talking about how strange the temple looks and actually go inside and explore it, shall we?" Tarin cut in.
He led the way up the stair steps to the door, which was hanging wide open, tilted on its hinges. Vines with red flowers wrapped themselves around the hut and sometimes even through it.
Sareece swatted distractedly at a massive spiderweb.
"You can tell no one's been around here for quite some time."
"In my experience, zombies aren't the best at housecleaning," Del replied, dodging the wisps of web that had floated backwards towards him. He wiped beads of sweat from his brow. It was even stuffier and more humid inside than it was outside. The temple smelled of dust and the scent of the dried plants and trees used to build the hut.
"So where's this 'ancient map that holds the key' supposed to be?" he asked, impersonating the Elder's deep voice and solemn look before cracking a grinning.
Logan playfully swatted him on the back of the head. "Cut it out. Feel around the sides of the walls."
They searched, felt, scratched, and got splinters that looked vaguely like bamboo for what felt like hours. Nearly every square inch of the surprisingly thick walls had been covered, but their rough exterior remained intact. No secret switches. No hidden cubbies.
"My great-aunt used to hide things in her floorboards," Sareece put in, after quite some time. "We should check there, too." She dropped to her knees and began checking for cracks or trap doors.
"Your aunt always was an unusual woman," Tarin, who had grown up near Sareece, observed as he felt around the walls.
Sareece shrugged one shoulder. "Yeah. She was. But she was never poor. Drought? No problem. Famine? There's a great-great-something's necklace in the floorboards we can use for that. No work to be found at the Employment Agency for two years? Not an issue."
"I thought she'd go crazy that time when the Employment Agency shut down for a while." Tarin flashed a smile. "Miss Eva did always hate sitting at home. Though she could've just lived off tha-"
Four things happened in quick succession.
Tarin's eyes went wide, and he felt a fear he hadn't ever felt before the hurricane - a fear he had hoped he would never feel again. Sareece came at him from the side, tackling him to the ground. And an arrow shot straight over his head.
There was complete and utter silence for a few beats, as if the world had sucked all sound out of Neopia.
And then Del and Logan were rushing to Sareece's and Tarin's sides.
"Are you guys okay?" Del shouted, bending over them.
"I would be more okay if you'd stop shouting in my ear," Sareece grunted, rolling off Tarin.
Tarin sat up and rubbed his back where he'd hit it on the floor as he'd fallen. "I'm fine," he said, in wonder. "Thanks to Sareece." He gave her a frightened half-smile, his eyes full of gratitude.
Logan put both his hands out to help them up. They rose, Tarin still rubbing his back.
"So, how do we approach this now?" Logan asked aloud to everyone and no one in particular. "Getting the map is important to the island, but I'd rather everyone stayed safe."
"I think I have an idea," Sareece said after a moment of thoughtful silence. All eyes turned to her. "I'm going to search the cavity that the arrow came out of. Now, hold on!" She raised a hand to stop Del from bursting into protest. His open mouth snapped shut. Logan and Tarin were quiet, but neither looked happy about it. It makes sense.
"I'm sorry if I'm failing to realize how," Tarin said, crossing his arms. "You saw what just happened. I think it's best if we stay far away from there."
"I think I get where she's going with this, actually," Logan said. Tarin shot him a look. "No, really. Look at it this way: this entire place looks deserted. There's no furniture. Nothing set up on a pedestal like you'd imagine in any regular temple you'd read about in a book or see at the Neopian cinema. That leaves us to the conclusion that it must be hidden in either the walls or the floors. We've been walking back and forth, and the floors haven't given way or blocked us in any way. They're old, but sturdy. We've felt all along the walls. No danger, no protection. If you were to hide something important, you'd want to make sure it was hidden well. You'd want to make sure anyone who came looking for it didn't have a chance to get to it. So, where would you put it? What's the least likely place a person is going to mess with again?" He crossed his arms and nodded towards the cavity in the wall where the arrow had come hurtling from. "Right there."
"Exactly," Sareece said, striding towards the space. "So, you see," she began, sticking her hand in, "This makes..." she felt blindly up and down the wallspace, "Perfect sense." Her grin was huge as she pulled a weathered scroll from the wall. "I told you!"
Tarin let out a gusty sigh. He hadn't realized he'd been holding his breath. Sareece poked him in the chest. "You were worried about me."
Tarin gave no response but to roll his eyes and swat her hand away like a younger brother that couldn't be brought to admit he cared for his sister.
Del slapped her on the back. "Job well done! You even managed to stay safe. Which is good, because these guys aren't nearly as fun to pick on, and I'd feel bad picking on you if you got hurt," he said, pulling a strand of her hair.
Logan remained silent, but his features relaxed from the worried mask he'd been wearing, and his muscled were considerably less tensed. Sareece smiled at him, and he smiled back. No words were needed.
"Don't know where I'd find another first mate on such short notice," he joked, trying to give levity to the situation. I don't know where I'd find another you, is what he was thinking.
"So, what are you waiting for?" Del asked, bouncing a bit on his feet like an excited kindergartener. "Let's take a look at that map."
Sareece unrolled the crumpled scroll. Her face fell.
"What is it?" Tarin asked. He glanced over her shoulder. "...Oh."
"Oh what?" Logan came to take a look himself. "Oh. This is problematic."
Del crowded in around the rest of them. "Ah." On the scroll in front of him was not a map, not exactly. There were what looked like paths, but none of them were clearly marked. Instead, there was a jumbled mess of letters, numbers, and shapes. He saw what seemed to be a legend of sorts at the bottom of the ancient parchment.
"At least there's some sort of hint there," Tarin said, reaching over to point at the legend. "We've just got to break the code."
Del took the paper from Sareece and laid it on the floor so that they could all see more easily. "Time to get crackin'!"
The code wasn't nearly as easy to break as they'd hoped. Minutes passed, and then hours, and then days. Sareece, Tarin, Del, and Logan paced the floors, muttering to themselves. They debated the historical significance of various symbols, and the parallels between numbers and letters.
In between studying the map, they took turns gathering Bin-yan berries, which were the only things they recognized this far in-land. There were other fruits, but none of them dared eat anything other than they'd been told were safe. Gone were the fruits and other provisions, which had been mostly used during the trek to the Temple of Salzar. Del was frequently caught eyeing the red flowers that grew on the vines which intertwined with the Temple, wondering whether or not they'd taste any better than the strange berries. He'd almost eaten one, too, until Tarin had grabbed it from him at the last moment.
On day three, Logan ordered that each person work on only one part of the puzzle. Sareece chose the letters, Tarin picked the numbers, Del took over the strange symbols, and Logan took on the parts that appeared to be a foreign language. On the fourth day, after much more pacing, communicating, and grumbling, they cracked the code.
"So it's more like a set of directions than an actual map," Logan remarked. He was standing in the middle of the room, poring over the newly-translated scroll. There were geographical marks indicating hills, forests, mountains, and lakes, but the main instructions were given in word form.
"Turn left at the Winding River and continue forward for five hundred paces..." Sareece stood next to Logan and read pieces of the directions aloud.
"It's a good thing those are labeled," Logan said. "Look at all these rivers." He pointed out five without even looking closely. "There's a lot of power to be gathered here."
"What do you mean?" Tarin asked from across the room. He had packed up his own things, and was starting in on the others' belongings. It was swift work, given that they had so few provisions to pack. Most of the weight now was attributed to the bags of water that the Elder had cleansed for them with a few short words of an incantation before he'd left. The bag was green and slightly difficult to hold on to. The best any of them could guess was that it was made out of some sort of seaweed, woven together and closed at the top with a string made out of yellow fibers from some strange underwater plant.
"I've heard that water channels magic," Logan replied. "There was a crazed man in my hometown that always said it. He'd spend time muttering about how the entire island was in danger, how we needed to learn to harness the water before someone else did. I never put much stock in it, obviously, because he was... well, insane. But this map reminded me." He carried the map over to where Tarin was packing. "Look." He traced the rivers and where they met. "This would be the perfect place to harness magic, if what the man in my hometown said was true." He tapped the drawing on the scroll.
Del, who had been gazing longingly at the red buds, abandoned that task for the more interesting one of discussing the map with the others. After he'd squinted at it for a moment, he pointed out what looked almost like a smudge. "What's that? Right there, in the center of all the rivers."
Logan squinted at the place Del was pointing. "I can't tell."
"It almost looks like it's been smudged on purpose," Sareece said.
"How so?" asked Tarin.
"Well, look. The rest of the map is old, yes, but the drawings and markings are all legible. They're very precise. There's not another smudge anywhere on here."
"Good eye," Logan said to both of them. "If we come close to this area, let's keep an eye out. For now, we need to get started." From the sounds of this map, it'll take us at least seven hours to get to where we're headed. Wherever that might be."
"I just hope it's somewhere that's never grown a Bin-yan berry in its life," Del said as he shouldered his pack. "If I ever see one again, it'll be too soon." They each gathered their packs and headed out the door, still creaking on its hinge.
Several hours later, Del stopped abruptly. "This is it," he said. He craned his neck to see the top of the mountain. It stretched to the swirling clouds above. There's no going around it.
He took another look at the map. He'd been leading the way from it as best he could, once again stopping every so often to fly above the trees, which had become less and less tropical as they'd gone on. These trees were more easily named and, to his great delight, so were the fruits that grew on them. In the two or three hours since they'd come across the first Florange tree, he'd filled his stomach so full of them, he was bloated. Behind him stretched a long string of peels.
"If we go any farther, we'll run into..." Del checked the map. "Mount Ru'un." He pronounced it 'ruin' for lack of a better guess. He didn't like the sound of it. "And if we try to go around it, it'll lead us so far off-track that it'd take hours to get back here."
"Then we climb," Logan said. He was suddenly immensely grateful for the calluses he'd built up over time from being on the ship.
He was the first to begin their ascent, and the rest followed shortly behind. Every now and again, someone would lose their footing, but since they weren't spaced far from one another, whoever was below simply reached up and provided the slipping foot a bit of balance with their own hands until the one falling could find their hold again. Their climb didn't follow a straight line to the top, but instead followed a zig-zagging pattern when there was a lack of places for them to place their hands or feet. In this way they went on for longer than any of them cared to count.
Occasionally, one of them would shout encouragements to the others. This stopped as they grew increasingly out of breath. Their hands grew slippery with sweat. The sun shone down on them, burning their arms and scalps. But there was no way to go but up.
To be continued...