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Prologue - Ana

Birds are assholes.

It should have been this perfect, serene tableau. Shafts of warm morning light illuminated the gentle flow of the idyllic brook. From her seat in the still-dewy grass, Ana watched the light move and shift through the water, highlighting the mossy stones at the bottom. The gentle sound of the water coupled with the cool breeze was the perfect background for what could have been a relaxing break from the hustle and bustle of the city.

If it weren’t for this godsdamn bird.

For the past few days or so, Ana’s usual morning routine had been repeatedly interrupted by a single aggressive bird. She had no idea what kind of bird it was or why it was being such a dick, but it hadn’t always behaved this way. When she first started using this spot, she actually wanted to get the birds’ attention. She tried to goad them down with bits of bread, but to no avail. The birds all tended to stay up near the treeline, their collective chirping a chorus for the song of the brook.

Now any time she got too close the bird would go apeshit. Darting through the air like an arrow, a warning shot just past her head. Circling around from behind to catch her off guard. Fluttering side to side, trapped behind an invisible wall that if she were to cross would surely only enrage the bird further. It was just a little bird, but Ana would be lying if she said she wasn't scared by the damn thing.

Was it her hair? Ana had long, brown curls that probably would have made for a comfortable place to nest. No, that couldn’t be it. She’d been visiting this place for quite some time and the bird only started acting differently in recent days. Maybe this was just normal behavior during the springtime?

Oh, gods, I hope it’s not a mating thing, she worried.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t going to stop her. She seemed to have found a safe distance, close enough that the bird swooped down to perch on the lowest branches, presumably getting a more advantageous position, but far enough away that it stayed there. It was a tentative agreement at best, she knew, but she tried not to worry too much. Her nervousness was masked only by her embarrassment over it. At least no one else was around to judge her.

Ana reached into her bag and pulled out her breakfast: a cactus apple, some cheese, a sweet roll, and a pair of fresh sausages. One of the perks to having the best butcher in town as a father was snagging a couple sausages while he was preparing the day’s offerings. Today’s specialty was a sweet sausage with herbs and little bits of apple inside. Hers were still warm and absolutely delicious. “Well done, pops.” she caught herself saying aloud. She motioned towards the bird, holding a sausage in its direction.

“You know, if you could just calm down a little, I might be willing to share some of this with you.”

The bird fluttered its tail and hopped to a different low-hanging branch, showing zero intention of taking her up on the offer.

“Your loss, little guy.”

After finishing her breakfast, she pulled out a book a friend had loaned her, a romance novel with the cheesiest title she’d ever read: Forty and Horny. It was terrible and outrageously filthy and she loved it. The descriptive use of various types of meat could have been a little off-putting, what with being a butcher’s daughter and all, but her ironic appreciation of the book was only strengthened because of it. She made sure not to let herself get too engrossed in the story—or the lack thereof—and always kept an eye on her avian nemesis.

After several more chapters worth of progress into her book, she dog-eared the start of the next and put the book back into her bag. It was about time she checked her lines.

What made this spot so perfect was the little path of stones nearby that jutted out from the water and stretched from one bank all the way across to the other. On either side were two thick palms that Ana had tied a rope between, as taut as she could manage. Tied to the rope were eight strings, like that of a great mandolin. She disliked that comparison; she was certainly no musician. Not for lack of trying, she just didn’t have an ounce of musical talent. She preferred to think of herself as a tailor. And this was her great loom, weaving the brook itself, spinning water out of thin air with such speed and finesse as to create the current itself. Anything a bit more dramatic than what it really was: basic manual labor. Labor that was also kind of gross.

At the ends of each of her lines were affixed small, metal hooks. Earlier that morning, she had baited each line with a fresh piece of still-bloody meat, the refuse bits nobody wants to eat. Yet another perk of having a butcher for a father. Like a farmer planting her crops, she had sunk each line into the water. And now it was time to check the day’s harvest.

She grabbed her wicker basket and a heavy sheet and headed to the edge of the brook. The water couldn’t have been more than waist deep, but a part of her always worried about falling in. Oasis or not, the irony of living in a desert and being scared of drowning to death wasn’t lost on her. Especially when you could easily stand in said water. But fear isn’t rational. Fear is the voice in the back of your mind that reluctantly thinks “well, this is it” when you cough while drinking a cup of water too quickly.

She soaked the sheet in the water, curled it up in her basket and headed out onto the path of stones. She kneeled down next to the first line, sat the basket on the stone ahead of her and put her gloves on. The water was so crystal clear she could already see the first harvest of the day before she even finished pulling the line in. Grasping onto the now-slimy refuse meat were two long, slender leeches, each roughly the size of one of her fingers. She unhooked the meat and tossed it into her basket. Careful not to lose her balance, she picked it up and continued down the stone path. Much to her dismay, the next three lines had only a single leech between them all. Probably just a bad choice of bait. She didn’t like to think about it, but the bloodier and more fleshy the bait the better. She moved on to the next stone. Once again, she carefully kneeled down, placed her basket on the stone in front of her and began gingerly pulling the line in.

“Ha hah, heeello!”

She stood triumphantly and held the line in front of her to get a better view. The slimy meat glistened in the sun as it slowly spun on the line, proudly displaying the whopping six leeches that clung to it. Six! A warmth grew in her chest, replacing the disappointment from earlier. She couldn’t help but smile.

“Well, my gross little babies, you just made momma—”

She was interrupted as an irate blur of feathers whooshed past just above her head. Her attacker, possibly seizing an opportunity to cut off the enemy’s supplies, employed expert use of hit-and-run guerilla tactics. This motherfucker just dive bombed her! Again! She spun just in time to catch the bastard screeching back towards her. Instinct had taken over and she quickly ducked out of the way, avoiding the attack, but she lost both her balance and her grip on the line. The meat-leech ball splashed back into the current, slowly floating away and pulling the line taut once again. She tried to catch herself on the rock behind her, but her foot landed awkwardly on the curve of the stone, sending her bare leg into the water.

Having succeeded in the attack, the bird flew back to perch on the low-hanging branches of the nearby trees, satisfied but vigilant still. Ana landed sprawling on the stone behind her, her leg soaked, her harvest lost, the warmth in her chest long gone.

“Son of a bitch bird!” she wailed, utterly defeated. “You godsdamn bastard! You are a bastard, you son of a bitch! Your mother is a bitch. And you are her son. But you have no father, because you are a bastard. You bastard son of a bitch!”

She let herself cry. No point in trying to hide it. She eventually lifted herself up and out of the water. Begrudgingly, she balanced herself on the stone once more, this time keeping a keen eye towards the trees downstream. She gently pulled the line in again. Surprisingly, two of the leeches had remained clinging to the bait. Stubborn little bastards, she thought. She unhooked them and tossed them into her basket. The remaining lines garnered four more. Not a terrible haul, all things considered.

As she placed the last of her harvest in the basket, she noticed a trickle of blood had winded a path down her leg. Oh no, she worried, please just be a scratch. Of course it wasn’t. She couldn’t help but laugh. An incredulous laugh, but a laugh just the same.

“You make an even ten, little buddy.”

She winced as she pulled the leech from her thigh and tossed it into the basket.


Ana’s sandal had finally stopped making squishing noises with every step by the time she made it to the Southern Gate. Sand caked the sole, clung to her foot, speckled her calf, and wedged itself between her toes and under the nails. One annoyance replaced with another.

The city of Everspring was a bustling metropolis, a celebration in stone of man’s determined spirit. Any settlement in the middle of the desert required a certain resolve amongst its people to survive. Everspring flourished. At its heart lay the anomaly of the desert, the oasis from which it gains its namesake. The first great wall was built aligned with the three equally-peculiar, massive obelisk-like structures encircling the oasis, each with the same symbol marked on them: a triangle entangled in a circle. Perhaps those of the Old Empire knew what they meant. Like so many other things, their meaning and any understanding of them were lost to time, swept away into the sands of history.

Constantly expanding—“Upwards and onwards!” had become the city’s de facto motto—newer walls were constructed as the city grew in size. Eventually, walls stopped being built, but the city continued to expand nonetheless and three wards were formed. The epicenter of the city, everything held within the oldest wall, was simply known as the Inner Ward. Similarly, everything outside of the last wall was known as the Outer Ward.

Passing through the gate, Ana entered the ward between these two, a labyrinth of streets intersected by layers of walls known as The Knot. With its twists and turns, corners and shadows, it was prime real estate for those with less-than-legal proclivities. She was on her way to meet just such a man when out of the shadows of an old guard tower she was greeted by a slender kitten, all black, with a head much too big for his body.

“Hey there, little buddy.”

“Brrreow!” it cooed.

“I’m sorry, I know you probably smell my goodies, but you don’t really want any of it. It’s kinda gross now. And covered in leeches.” she apologized. “Oh, but what’s this?”

She reached into her bag and pulled out a cloth from her breakfast. The cat purred as it rubbed it’s head against her sandy leg. Ana unwrapped the cloth to reveal a small piece of sausage she had saved.

“You know, if you could do something about a certain bird that keeps harassing me, I’ll bring you a whole string of this stuff. Whaddya say?”

The cat let out an annoyed meow. Ana reluctantly tossed him the bit of sausage with a sigh. He caught it and scampered off, back into the shadows once again.

The man Ana was on her way to meet wasn’t a criminal. He did, however, employ one from time to time. And that man was waiting outside the front door. That meant two things: the physician was late and she would be stuck conversing with the last person she ever wanted to spend time with again. Fucking Deion. As she approached, she was hit with a sudden and powerful headache. Not a sharp pain, but a tension, a pressure. Deion had a hand in his grimy hair as he turned to her.

“You, too?” he asked.

“Yeah.” She had to really try to not be short with him. “Funny, it only started as soon as I saw you...”

“Hilarious.” He was not amused, but he smiled anyway. “I think it’s just this weird weather. Humidity and heat are not my friends. More of a night person, you know. So, whatcha got in the basket?”

She lifted the lid of her basket, showing off her harvest. They were still comfortably damp thanks to the coiled sheet in the bottom. Now that she thought about it, though, Deion was right; the weather was a bit odd. She suddenly noticed how oddly muggy it felt, as if it had just rained.

“Seem awfully small,” he remarked.

“That’s the idea, actually. Don’t want ‘em plump.”

“Either way, gross.”

“And digging up dead bodies isn’t?” she playfully accused.

It caught him off-guard, only for a moment, like a lump in his throat preventing him from speaking. He angrily shushed her, looking around to make sure nobody else was within earshot. He already knew there wasn’t a single person around to hear; his line of work demanded him to always keep a keen sense of when people were nearby. It was more for show. Ana also knew there was nobody nearby, but she didn’t care if there were. Or at least she liked to think she was brazen enough that she wouldn’t.

“So what do you even use those for?” he asked, trying to change the subject.

“Never gotten sick from your job? Got cut while handling the merchandise and it just wouldn’t heal right? The doc uses leeches to suck out bad blood. Calls it bloodletting.”

“And there are so many other applications!” yelped an excited, scrawny man precariously carrying an array of herbs and liquids in small glass vials. “Potentially.”

Jabari was like Deion, a lighter-skinned man with wavy light-brown hair and an ashen complexion, though Jabari obviously cared for his hygiene more. They say you can learn a lot about a man by looking at his hands. The old man kept his soft, delicate hands extraordinarily clean—he even had his nails manicured. Deion’s hands were covered in dirt and calluses.

“There is a... power in blood,” Jabari explained, still very excited about his research. “I’m currently interested in how leeches are capable of consuming diseased blood and processing it as if it wasn’t diseased at all. You see—”

“So you’re studying leech... poop?” Deion asked.

“It’s actually quite fascina—” Jabari began to correct him, only to be cut off once more.

“Gross.”

“Might I remind you of your choice of profession,” Ana interjected, just as a detachment of Everguard came barreling around the corner.

Guards always made her feel a little uneasy, though she wasn’t sure why. She wasn’t doing anything illegal. Aside from, she realized, witnessing the payment for a delivery of a dead body. A stolen dead body. She wasn’t sure if that made it worse or not. It wasn’t like Deion had a corpse slouched over his shoulder, hawking his newly-exhumed wares to passersby, so there was really nothing to worry about.

The guards ran right past the trio, spears at the ready, a more pressing issue clearly at hand. Their gauntleted fists held buckler shields prominently displaying the symbol of the Everguard: a gauntleted fist holding a shield. So redundant. So dumb.

The physician had really tensed up at the presence of the guards, but the actual criminal played it off more relaxed than either of them.

“What do you say we head inside?” Ana suggested.

“Oh, yes, of course,” the physician replied. He turned to Deion and shoved the assortment of reagents and ingredients into his arms. “Hold these.”

The old man pulled out a jingling set of keys, thumbed through them until he found the right one, then opened the door and walked inside.

“Wouldn’t your research be easier to pursue in Rah’qet?” Ana asked the old man, who looked less worried now that he was indoors. “Or at least looked at more favorably? Why stay in Everspring?”

“And put you out of a job, my dear? I think not.” The old man flashed her a little smile. “Set those down right there.” he politely ordered Deion, motioning towards an empty table.

“Must be stressful keeping everything under the radar, huh?” Deion chided.

“You would know!” Ana barked. “And he’s learning how to save lives! Though I wouldn’t expect you to appreciate that, seeing how it cuts directly into your bottom line.”

“Now, now, now,” Jabari intervened. “Deion may not have come into this line of work with the best intentions, but he provides a valuable service at tremendous risk. I don’t even pay him that well.”

As if he were just remembering that yes, he has to pay them, the physician departed into the back of the shop. The room they were left in was fascinating, always had been. Shelves upon shelves were lined with peculiar instruments and curios, a colorful array of jars and vials filled with she could only imagine what, a collection of herbs more expansive than any kitchen she’d ever seen. And in some secret room in the back, or perhaps downstairs, was a recently unearthed corpse.

“So what do you do with their stuff?” she asked.

“Huh?”

“Their stuff. You rob graves and take all their stuff. What do you do with it?”

“Well, first of all, I don’t take all of it.”

“What a saint.”

“Some stuff’s clearly sentimental and not valuable, so I leave it. Some people get buried with, like, coins placed on their eyes? Not worth nothing, though. I’m mostly looking for jewelry. For that, I have a guy.”

“You have a guy?”

“I have a guy. Makes moving the merchandise smooth and painless. Plus, if I’m just taking a necklace or something it’s easier to cover my tracks. That’s why I was hesitant about helping the Doc. Lot harder to hide. Wouldn’t have much of a chance if everyone knew I’m checking their corpses after they’re buried.”

She paused. “Um, everyone?”

“Well, not everyone. But there are a number of other people that do what I do. And people aren’t dying left and right like it was another uprising or nothing. Odds being what they are...”

Ana considered the implication, felt it shudder up her spine. This man—and men like him—were desecrating the graves of generations of people all over town. Pillaging the final resting places of mothers and fathers, teachers and saints. And for what? A little coin?

As she contemplated the content of his character, Deion reached into the air and caught the surprisingly large sack of coins the old man had tossed his way. Ana flinched, instantly reliving her bird-trauma from earlier.

“Thanks, Doc,” Deion said with a smile. “See you ‘round, jumpy.”

Ana stared at the hefty coin pouch, confused. “I thought you said you don’t pay him that well.”

Deion was already on his way to the door. “Risk-reward. And even with this”—he shook the bag of coin—“I’m doing Doc a favor. Seems leeches just aren’t quite as lucrative as bodies.”

“Cost of a clear conscience, I guess,” she said, defeated by her own good will.

The old man, a small coin purse in his hands, walked up to inspect Ana’s goods. He lifted the cover. “Wonderful. Wonderful specimens. These will do just fine.”

“Uh, Doc?” Deion had stopped in the open doorway. “Is this normal?”

An ominous, dull fog had enveloped the interlacing alleyways of The Knot. Where the streets once were filled with the comings and goings of the residents of Everspring, there now billowed a nebulous haze, snaking its way through the maze of corridors and intersections, meandering slowly towards the Outer Ward, engulfing everything in its path.

“I may only be a physician, but I can safely say no, this most definitely is not normal.”

The three stepped out of the shop, curious, surveying the bizarre circumstance before them. And it truly was bizarre. The fog couldn’t have been much taller than Ana, but it was thickening by the minute, obscuring her vision. It had been a warm, sunny morning not moments earlier and soon enough she’d no longer be able to see the blue sky above.

“That old guard tower down the way, it still has a ladder, right?” Ana asked the old man.

“I believe so, yes, but—”

“I wanna go get a better look.”

“Hey!” Deion grabbed her hand. “Be careful.”

She squeezed and gave him a polite, but kind smile. Part of her still cared about the prick, but things were never going to be the way they once were. She turned and vanished into the mist.

What sounded like a crack of thunder rumbled in the distance behind her, unceasing and growing louder. By the time she had made her way to the tower, the fog was so thick she could barely see more than five steps ahead of herself. The thunderous rumble had become a roar, but she found the ladder and began climbing, her heart and head pounding. As she breached the fog, realization punched her in the gut. The cacophonous sound wasn’t thunder, but a wall of water rushing through the streets, a torrential flood that cared not for the labyrinthine structure of her home, a plague wiping out everyone and everything in its path. This was the end of Everspring.

It was a difficult scene to comprehend, but the voice in the back of Ana’s mind said nothing, an unexpected calmness in its place.

She closed her eyes and the water swept her away.

(1/11)


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Posted by Matt on 03.18.20
Hey! Welcome to the Leeches Loom!

Thanks for taking the time to stop by and read the beginnings of what will hopefully grow to be an epic sprawling tale. I'm honestly so excited to be sharing this story and can't wait to keep giving you more. And how about that cover art, huh? Done by the super talented Ben Jackson, who was an absolute pleasure to work with. I'm still just so blown away. I can't stop staring.

I've said it elsewhere, but I'll say it again just to reiterate. While this is a fantasy novel, it's not being published like a typical novel. It will follow the webnovel/webserial format (similar to webcomics), with new chapters being posted every Wednesday. And they will always be free. I am giving patrons access to chapters a week or two in advance, but nothing will ever not be made available to all.

So enjoy, tell your friends if you like it, and leave a comment now and then!
 
the empire
Everspring
Rah'qet
The Howl
Rotwater
The Mazewilds
The Shelf
Shaded Seed
Corinth
Hillsedge
Moormount
Browbury
Wayfarer's Ridge
A Gentle Scar
Fesmere
Gauston
Amara
Tiller's Hamlet