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Chapter 11 - Isha

Neera reached into her satchel and pulled out a book.

“I think this might have been what he really wanted to protect.”

It was an unassuming book. No title, plain cover, nothing that really caught the eye. Which, of course, was the point.

“Is that... his ledger?” Roegan asked. “Why do you have that?”

The last surviving Cleric’s ledger, by default one of the most important books in the entire Empire. The kind of thing you set up an elaborate ruse to help hide. And then entrust to a child, apparently.

“He gave it to me,” Neera said, still shy but wholly truthful. The girl likely couldn’t lie even if she wanted to. “To hold on to. He told me to not let it out of my sight until we reached Rah’qet. He told me it was important.”

“Important how?” Isha asked.

“Aside from it being a Cleric’s ledger?” Roegan said.

“He said it was a warning,” Neera clarified.

Roegan looked at her with curiosity. This Cleric had entrusted this little girl with quite a lot. “Bring it here.” He motioned for her from his seat against the tree. He hadn’t moved since Isha had patched him up earlier in the day. She worried about him. He’d never been in rougher shape or further from a real doctor. He needed help.

Neera brought the ledger to Roegan, but when he reached for it, she pulled away.

“It’s alright,” he said, raising his hands. “I don’t bite.”

“I’d prefer if I held onto it, if that’s alright with you.”

“I promise I wo—“

“No. I made a promise. Erathos gave his life to protect me. So now I’m making sure I keep his book safe.”

“Alright, alright. Nobody touches the book but you. Can we have a look, though?”

She turned the book towards Roegan and opened it to the first page. She began to hold it out to him, but before she did she looked him right in the eyes.

“You saw what I’m capable of. Don’t test me.”

The girl had a fire in her that Isha hadn’t seen before. Aside from, she guessed, when the girl melted a man alive. She couldn’t help but admire her, like the little sister she never had.

“So this is what a Cleric’s ledger looks like, huh?” Roegan said.

“Looks like a whole lotta gibberish to me,” Isha added.

The page was filled with a language that none of them recognized, line after line of neat and orderly handwritten notation. Care had been taken to ensure legibility, yet the strange script was entirely indecipherable to any of them. Neera flipped from page to page, each filled top to bottom with more of the strange language, until several pages in when the lines of the ledger were quickly disregarded. Notes were written through columns with no regard for the ledger’s structure, drawings and diagrams filled huge portions of the page, and what looked like mathematical formulas were scrawled in the margins and boxed off areas of several pages. She closed the book and tucked it back into her satchel.

“Okay, that’s definitely something,” Isha continued. “No idea what, but it’s something.”

“Something important. And if anyone can figure out what it means, it’ll be the Sages in Rah’qet.” Roegan turned to look at Neera. “Let’s make sure the ledger finds its way there.”

“Thank you,” she said.

“What’s the plan then?” Isha asked. “We taking an entire camp of injured refugees across the empire to a city none of you have ever been to?”

“No,” Roegan admitted, a tinge of despondency in his voice. “They’d never make it. I’d never make it.”

“Yeah, that arm is fucked.”

“Thank you, Isha. It’s true, though. I’m all kinds of fucked up. I need real medical attention, as do many of the other survivors. Rah’qet is just too far to travel. I’m not really sure where we even are.”

“The edge of The Shelf,” Moswen commented.

“And only a day’s travel south of Shaded Seed, my home.”


Isha awoke to the scent of crisp forest air. She was used to spending her days amongst the bustling streets of The Knot. Perhaps it was the absence of that familiar stink that made the forest air feel so fresh. Even if that weren’t the case, it was a noticeable and welcome change. She breathed it in deep.

The previous day had been nothing but the long, slow march north towards Shaded Under the Canopy of a Sprouting Seed. The trip was only supposed to take a day, but trying to corral so many people, many of whom were tired or injured, proved a slow process. Roegan was one of the worst. While he never said a word about it, never complained, he was clearly in constant pain while they were traveling, drenched in a sickly sweat as he trudged along. Isha hoped the cooler climate would help.

In the short distance they’d traveled, their surroundings had changed drastically. The entire forest was covered in a blanket of moss and fern. It climbed up tree trunks, engulfed rocks, and hung from branches overhead. A light mist hung in the air and the dewy moss glistened like crystals when hit by the light. It was delightful.

The camp was on the move again, mud squishing under their boots as they walked, sucking at their heels. There were fourteen in all, counting Kyrill and Moswen. Isha didn’t know how many were originally on the airship, but she knew it was more than fourteen. Much more. Between the hijacking gone wrong, the crash and the fake mercenary attack, they had lost so many. Kyrill found himself at the head of the group, leading them to his barren. Another promise of salvation that would hopefully pan out this time.

As could be expected, Moswen was right by his side. When Isha first met him, she assumed his sparse excuse of a mustache was just the result of being unable to shave for a few days, but it was now several days later and it hadn’t grown a bit. Maybe he wasn’t as old as Isha had assumed, but she honestly couldn’t tell. Teenager or not, he had a shitty teenage mustache. It was complemented by his wispy beard, all five hairs of it.

He was busy enthusiastically retelling a highly embellished version of how Isha found her lost spear to a captivated Neera.

“As we approached the clearing, we saw a single tree stump sitting in the middle illuminated by a shaft of light coming through the narrow break of the tree canopy. It was like a spotlight, drawing our eyes towards... the spear!”

Neera squealed and clapped her hands in excitement. The story was bullshit, but it was a great distraction. Neera needed it. Seeing the girl smile was worth a white lie. Or forty. Several others were listening to the story as well, but none seemed as enthralled as Neera.

“It was an incredible sight, like something out of a fairy tale. The spear pierced the stump right in the center and stood straight up. Of course, I ran over and tried to pry it out, but the thing wouldn’t budge. But Isha, she walked over and gripped it with one hand, the sun reflecting off the rippling water, and—”

“What water?” Neera asked.

“Oh, uh, the tree stump actually sat right at the edge of a small pond. You could see its dipping into the water, little fish swimming between them. Anyways, Isha grabbed the spear with one hand and pulled. And just then, the forest went silent. All the birds and animals stopped whatever they were doing, witnesses to this fated event. With ease, Isha pulled the spear from the stump. She turned, victorious, and held aloft... Heartpiercer!”

Neera laughed with excitement and applauded Moswen’s story, as did a few others. Isha politely joined in.

“Heartpiercer?” Roegan whispered to Isha.

She shrugged. “I guess she’s got a name now.”

Roegan hadn’t left her side for the entire journey, weary from his injuries, inadvertently setting the pace for the rest of the camp. They moved through the densely-packed forest even slower than before, but at least the scenery was beautiful. The particular type of trees that grew in the area were massive, but didn't grow deep roots, instead getting their nutrients from the moisture-rich air and regularly rainy weather. Because of this, they fall easily. Littered throughout the forest laid the moss-covered remains of these once-great behemoths like miniature, sandless dunes. In the roots of many of these upturned trees grew smaller trees, life anew in the remnants of old. It reminded Isha of the settlements formed around the rubble that is now Everspring.

They pushed onwards, Roegan looking worse and worse as time went on. The wound in his neck was starting to swell, his increasingly sallow skin turning red around it. Isha had hoped the cool air would help soothe him, but she caught him shivering every now and again. Luckily, before the sun had even reached its zenith in the sky, off in the distance Shaded Seed came into view.

“Oh my gods, we made it,” one of the refugees said. She looked to Kyrill, then Isha, Roegan, Moswen, even Neera. “Thank you. All of you. We’d all surely be dead several times over if it weren’t for you.” She had tears in her eyes, but continued unfalteringly. “Because of you, we have a fighting chance. You are truly our heroes. Thank you.”

They were gracious, Neera excitedly so. The girl was beaming when she heard the word “hero.” But Isha noticed Kyrill breath in deep and let out a long exhale. He seemed uncertain, hesitant. But about what? Isha really hoped he wasn’t nervous about bringing along a bunch of refugees. They had put all their eggs in this one basket. They couldn’t afford to be turned away now. Not many barrens would refuse outsiders, especially those that needed help, but she had come to learn that a lot of things had changed after Everspring.

As they entered the barren, it was a little difficult to tell where the forest ended and it began, the only real indication being the lack of moss on the ground from foot traffic. The buildings and structures all held a raw and simplistic elegance, blending into the natural surroundings, elevated by it. It still felt like they were in the forest, not a community.

Seems fitting, for a bunch of nature-loving hippies.

And the animals! An abundance of different creatures roamed freely throughout the barren. At first Isha had only noticed a few dogs and cats around the outskirts, but as they entered the barren proper they were treated to a veritable menagerie. Several birds, a monkey, a couple horses, a man with an owl perched on his shoulder, a woman with a snake wrapped around her arm. It was a zoo, living harmoniously amongst one another.

Under normal circumstances, a man carting around his pet bird on his shoulder would be an attention-seeking asshole, but here it was perfectly normal behavior. She might have even felt bad about staring if not for the fact that everyone was staring right back. A group of beaten and tired strangers was much more unusual than an old woman slowly walking beside an even older tortoise.

The residents of Shaded Seed that came out to witness the parade of the beaten seemed to have mixed emotions towards Kyrill: surprise, confusion, pride, joy, even contempt. Weren’t these his people? Either he was quite the polarizing figure or, like Isha was already worried about, they didn’t approve of him bringing home refugees. While Kyrill garnered reactions that were clear and easy to discern, it was hard for Isha to say how the onlookers felt toward the rest of the group. Some seemed like they were eyeing a kill or sizing up an opponent.

There was a game Isha used to play when she was younger. Whenever she was out in public and had the chance to sit back and people-watch, she would choose strangers out of the crowd and invent some elaborate story for who they were and what they did.

Based on a particularly gaudy headscarf and a look of discomfort, perhaps the lady was given it as a gift and felt obligated to wear it. Maybe she was wearing it because relatives were visiting from out of town and she didn’t want to seem ungrateful. Maybe she just had bad taste and a resting bitch face.

If a person used a cane, but had no limp, maybe they thought it would give them an air of importance. Or maybe they just stole the cane from someone who actually needed it. Either way, they were an asshole.

Someone walking quicker than most could mean a number of things. Maybe they were late for something important. Perhaps they were constantly late. Maybe they had an interview, or a big date, or they had just soiled their pants and were trying to quickly get home before anyone noticed, trying not to seem too conspicuous by running at full speed. Maybe it was a number two and they couldn’t run.

It became both a skill and a hindrance later in life. She grew quite capable of inferring a lot about people at a glance, which came in quite handy when she joined the Everguard. To an extent. When investigating a crime or interviewing witnesses and suspects, the last thing you want to do is assume a story. That just leads to trying to find evidence that fits the narrative you’ve built up in your head, rather than interpreting the evidence on its own. It was a habit she was forced to break.

That game, Isha felt, was being played by everyone they walked past. And of course they were. Isha and company were outsiders. Everyone in Shaded Seed was used to being able to simply glance at someone’s beads and know quite a lot about them. But Isha and the refugees, aside from their recent bruises and wounds, wore no such history. The locals were playing the game, trying to guess and gossip about who these people were, what they did, and what the hell they were doing in their home with a man they all seemed very divided about.

If they’re all gonna stare, might as well give ‘em a show.

She dropped her spear and bag at her feet and began undressing. She removed her long-sleeved leather armor, revealing a dizzying collection of tattoos. She turned to Neera, “Well? You coming or not?” Down to her undergarments, she took off in a full sprint and ran towards the shore.

The beach was unlike any she’d seen before. Even in the middle of the day, it was dark and gloomy. The sand was a deep, somber grey that stood in contrast to the vast seas of beige she’d become accustomed to. It was darkened even more by the ever-present mist and indecisive rain. In place of seashells, deep grey stones of varying sizes littered the beach. Giant felled trees cast their remnants along the shore, a graveyard of driftwood. It was cold, but not harshly so, and godsdamn if it wasn’t somehow breathtakingly gorgeous.

There were worse places to be stranded.

(1/8)


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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