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Chapter 17 - Isha

Isha stood at the outskirts of the barren with Neera in tow, as was the plan, but they found themselves with unplanned company: Kyrill, suddenly forced to leave; and Moswen right by his side, who had already made it clear he hadn’t intended to stay. After the events of the morning, it was an unspoken assumption the four would be leaving the barren together. Oh, you guys are leaving the barren, too? What a coincidence, so are we! But only Isha and Neera had an actual destination planned.

“They don’t have to come with us, Neera. It’s not either of their responsibilities.”

“I’m not asking them if they have to. I’m asking them if they want to.”

Isha was already feeling extremely guilty about getting Kyrill kicked out of Shaded Seed. It wasn’t the first time her impulsiveness had gotten her into hot water. She was a woman quick to react, hasty with her actions, not one to consider consequences in the moment. Or after even. Those consequences didn’t usually come with third party casualties, though. Kyrill hadn’t even been able to participate in the tournament. And it was all her fault.

“Kyrill, Moz? Obviously I’m in. You wanna join us to Rah’qet?”

They turned to each other, both looking for approval.

“I’ll do it if you do it,” Moswen said, almost making it a question.

“Our schedules do seem to have opened up recently. I’m in. Let’s do it!” Kyrill proudly proclaimed with a sense of confidence and honor. There was not an ounce of reluctance in his voice to be found.

“We’re in!” Moswen cheered.

“Are you sure?” Isha asked.

“Yeah, why not! Besides, you don’t want to venture across the empire without a navigator, do you?”


“Alright, fine, I guess I’m in as well then.”

“Good,” Neera said, “because it was already three against one, so your vote wouldn’t have mattered anyways!”

Fuck fuck fuck.

Looking after Neera terrified Isha from the moment she was tasked with doing so. And now Kyrill and Moswen were joining up with them? It worried her even more. Everyone she has ever gotten close to somehow gets hurt. Even Roegan. She used to jokingly call him indestructible with how many close calls he’s narrowly avoided, how many deadly situations he’s walked away from unscathed. And now he’s bedridden for who knows how long because the job they took together left him on the brink of death.

Now with three people to worry about, things could only get worse. It wasn’t as if she didn’t like Kyrill and Moswen or appreciate their company. She did, very much. That was the problem. They’re just more people to care about. More people to eventually disappoint. To get hurt.

“That settles that then,” Kyrill exclaimed as he walked past Isha, giving her a friendly slap on the back.

“Before we go!” Moswen said, giddy, jumping at the opportunity. He reached into his pack, pulled out a Treeseer cookie and cracked it open. Without a word, he handed the shards of cookie to Kyrill before unrolling the piece of paper inside.

“You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.”

Well ain’t that just poignant as fuck.

“In bed?” Kyrill asked.

“Ehh, I don’t know about that one.”

“Yeah, not as fun if it doesn’t make it weird. That one just... doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

“Whatever! Onward!” Moswen shouted, the two triumphantly leading the way.

Isha breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth, twice, three times. It did nothing to quell her worries. Breathing wasn’t going to help.

Isha knew she was no leader. Talented, yes, but she had always relied on the directions of others. Rah’qesian street kids when she was young, then the Whispers, other street kids in the Knot, the Everguard, Roegan. Now she was on her own, the reluctant leader of their little ragtag group.

Decisiveness. That’s what she needed. Make plans, give orders, believe in her every decision. Fake it till you make it. She would be the pillar of their group, the foundation upon which their accomplishments would be built. She could do no wrong.

She puffed up her chest and turned to follow their newfound guides, only to find Kyrill had stopped in his place. He was looking down into his hands, his necklace of beads, his accomplishments, piled up in his palm. He gripped the beads and ripped them from his neck, tossing them to the ground.


Before their journey had even begun, she had already let him down. Living with the consequences of her actions was no big deal when they only affected her. But this time, that was not the case. Devastatingly so. She needed to be redeemed, to attone.

She approached Kyrill, laid a hand on his shoulder. “Kyrill, I don’t know if words will ever make up for the—”

“Isha, don’t. You have nothing to apologize for.” She only then realized he was smiling. “I feel better than ever. Nothing felt right in Shaded Seed. This right here? This feels right.” His decisiveness caught her off guard. It was how she needed to start acting.

Hearing him say the words was freeing, a weight lifting off her shoulders. She knew she would continue to struggle with keeping everyone safe, but at least guilt was something she no longer had to worry about. She felt free, or at least freer, appreciating for the first time the beautiful, lush forest of moss, feeling how Neera must feel traipsing through a veritable wonderland.

And godsdamned if the girl couldn’t traipse up a storm. Guided by her childhood curiosity, Neera bound from tree to tree, stump to stump, dune to dune. She had just been traveling through this very same forest not a day prior, yet she looked about it with a wide-eyed wonder. She was enamored.

“You ever think about how different the forest is compared to a barren or city?” she asked nobody in particular. “Like, even Kyrill’s—err, uh, even Shaded Seed feels like... like a place, you know? Everspring was huge. Buildings and people and stuff. Out here, there’s nothing. It almost feels like if the world ended.”

“In a way,” Isha replied, “the world kind of did end, for some, after Everspring was destroyed.”

Unaware of the depth of what she was thinking, the girl continued to skip along, stopping in front of an especially peculiar tree. Every inch of the tree was covered in moss, like a huge, thick fern. She inspected the surface with the same wonderment she gave the rest of the forest, but Isha noticed it, too. The tree was... weird.

“What are these?” Isha asked.

“These are what we call trees,” Moswen sarcastically replied. “You see, when you’re not surrounded by nothing but sand, life actually has a chance to—”

“I know what trees are. This?” She knocked on the tree. “This isn’t wood.” The plant made no sound when she knocked on it, it’s soft bark absorbing the light impact. It wasn’t a tree covered in moss. The entire thing was moss. Denser than usual, but moss.

“Oh, hey! Wow, a chameleon tree,” Kyrill said, astonished by the discovery. “I’ve never actually seen one growing in person. They’re pretty rare.”

“Eh, you come across ‘em from time to time,” Moswen said dismissively. “They seem to adapt to where they grow. Coarse trees in the desert, slimy trees in swamps, trees like stone in mountains...”

Isha studied the plant, admiring it. A tree that adapted to its surroundings, the lone species in a vast forest. She respected it, understanding all too well how difficult adapting to an unfamiliar situation must be. As the group continued to walk, she gathered some stones to place around the tree’s base.

“Grow some armor, little one. You’ll need it.”

That night, atop the cold forest floor, lacking all the comforts they had only just returned to, they slept. Isha longed for the embrace of a wide bed and the company of a warm body, perhaps even another if she had been feeling particularly friendly.

Kyrill was the first to fall asleep, deep and peaceful as if he hadn’t slept in days. Isha swore she caught him smiling. Who the fuck smiles when they sleep? With Kyrill out, the others followed suit shortly after. Moswen hung his cocoon-like hammock from the trees. It was no bed one could sprawl out in, but Isha was still a little jealous at his preparedness. Neera was still wearing Moswen’s cloak and wrapped it around herself, along with her oversized scarf, curling up into a ball.

Isha, the last to fall asleep, was also the first to wake the next morning. She stood, slowly, trying not to wake the others. She stretched her arms upwards and breathed in deep, savoring the crisp morning air. Like most things in life, she knew it wouldn’t last, but she appreciated it while she could.

A pile of unused firewood sat next to the pile of char that was the campfire from the previous night. A small, comforting fire would be a pleasant morning greeting for her traveling companions to wake up to. Hot tea and fresh oats even more so. Before she started, there was one thing she wanted to do first. From her bag, she pulled out a leather pouch the size of her palm and a small, dull knife. Carefully, trying not to make too much noise, she crouched down over the pit and got to work.

Shrik, shrik, sh-shrik, shrik.

Slowly and methodically, Isha scraped the black soot that caked the inner sides of the rocks encircling the pit. Careful not to chip off any pieces of the rocks, she went from rock to rock collecting as much of the black powder as she could in her little pouch.

“Whatcha doing?” Neera whispered, still wrapped up like a little ball.

Isha gave her a smile and beckoned her closer.

“Soot is one of the main ingredients for making ink. Tattoo ink. It's not exactly easy to get unless you make it yourself. And, uh, I use quite a lot.”

Even though Neera had already seen Isha quite bare while they were swimming, she hadn’t had a chance to take a close look at the tattoos. Both shoulders, a large piece on her back, both thighs, her left forearm, likely something large on her chest, all hidden when she was wearing her armor. For now, with just a sleeveless shirt on, at least some of them were visible. Isha held out her forearm, a patchwork of smaller unconnected designs, and pointed to a crude tattoo of a spider.

“This was my first.”

“Aren’t spiders supposed to have eight legs?” Neera asked.

“Yes,” Isha laughed. “Yes they are. That boyfriend I told you about? He did this one. Some of the, let’s say, senior members of the Whispers had cool nicknames. The Canary, Spoons, Chameleon.”

“Spoons? I thought you said these were cool nicknames.”

“Okay, maybe not Spoons. Anyway, he desperately wanted a cool nickname, too. Tried to get people to call him Spider, but it never caught on. After this tattoo? They started calling him Seven.”

“That actually still sounds kinda cool.”

“Right? But it was still a joke and he was the punchline so he hated it.”

Isha finished scraping soot from the rocks, folded up her pouch and returned it to her bag. She pulled out a small tin and the teapot she had found among the airship wreckage.

“Go grab that idol of yours, will you? I wanna try something.”

Neera was hesitant, but curiously obliged. Isha made a bed of kindling in the center of the campfire and arranged a few pieces of the unused firewood on top. She fished a few coins out of her purse: several lira and a single drachma. She took one of the lira and flipped the coin around in her hand, dropping the rest back into her purse. She wasn’t being cheap, but she figured iron would work better than copper, if copper would work at all. It still wasn’t an insignificant amount of money, but she should be able to grab it once the fire died out. Or at least she hoped.

“So here’s the question. Can you heat up this coin without touching it?”

Neera held the idol in her hands and focused herself.

“Yeah, I think so. Sure you wanna use a lira, though?”

“Copper’s better?” she replied, disappointed.

“No, iron should be fine. Better, actually. I just figured... I’m sorta still getting used to all this, but I can kinda feel the metals around me. The blade of your spear, the thin pendant you wear under your shirt, and your rather small collection of coins.”


“I figured I shouldn’t literally burn a hole in your pocket.”

“I can spare a single lira.”

“Can you? You’re almost as poor as I am. And I’m literally a penniless child.”

“You most definitely are not.” Isha motioned towards the idol. “You’re carrying enough gold right there to feed an army. If worse comes to worse, you could pawn that thing off and live comfortably for... years.”

Neera instinctively clutched the idol closer. The mere thought of the idol being worth a significant amount of money was a threat in itself.

“But that’s beside the point. Money means nothing in the middle of nowhere, which is exactly where we are. Money can’t buy you a warm meal out here.”

“Maybe it can,” Neera said with a smile.

Isha flicked the coin up into the air, ringing as it spun, and snatched it on the way down. She carefully placed it atop the kindling, right in the center. Neera focused on the coin, staring intently, with purpose. From within its nest of kindling, the coin began turning red with heat, a light trail of smoke rising around it. And then fwomph! The kindling practically burst into flame.

“Hey, it worked! Man, that was quick.” It was a lot faster than the last time. Last time... Isha could see that Neera was having conflicting thoughts, likely also remembering the last time she had used her ability. She gave Neera a light punch to the shoulder. “Good job, kid. My hero,” she said in a tone that was somehow both joking and sincere.

Neera smiled at that. “So what’s on the menu?”

Shaded Seed hadn’t sent them off with nothing. Banishment was one thing, but banishment without supplies would be a death sentence for some. On their way out, they were given a fresh bag of oats, a few loaves of bread and a dozen apples. Kyrill restocked his supply of trail mix with a fresh collection of dried fruit, nuts and cured meats.

His friend Camilla, the only one that had been brave enough to speak up for Kyrill when the hammer dropped, had given them a collection of travel-ready vegetables from her garden: carrots, potatoes and one fat red onion. She heard of Isha’s propensity for tea and included a baggie of various flowers and some sticks of cinnamon. She even snuck in a bottle of that delicious spiced cider. Good woman, that one.

“I hope you like oats, ‘cause we’re gonna be eating a lot of ‘em. We can cut up a couple of the apples and shave off some cinnamon.”

“Make it three apples. I’m starving.”

“Three it is. If you wanna take care of that, Moz actually found some honeycomb a few days ago that would be a nice addition, but I wanna scavenge the wax from it first. For tattoo ink. But first...”

Isha pulled a slender stick from the pile of unused firewood and used it to flick the coin out of the flame. The momentary contact was enough to cause the stick to produce a faint trail of smoke as she pulled it from the fire.

“Neera, can you also cool metal off?”

She hadn’t ever tried before, but grabbed the idol and focused on the coin. And just as easily, the coin cooled, returning to its normal color, though it had clearly warped from the extreme heat. Neera picked the coin up. It kept its shape mostly intact, but lost any semblance of engraving that signified it as an actual lira and not just a round piece of metal.


“Ah, whatever,” Isha said as she placed more wood on the growing campfire. “Still pretty cool. Hang on to that thing for the future, though.”

Neera slipped the coin into her pocket then grabbed the cinnamon and two apples. Perhaps she realized she wasn’t quite as hungry as she thought she was. Isha filled her kettle with water and hung it above the fire, just slightly out of reach of the flames.

Moswen and Kyrill both woke up while Isha and Neera prepared the meal. Moswen was his usual chipper self, but Kyrill looked uncharacteristically well-rested and refreshed. While they prepared and ate breakfast, Moswen regaled the group with the story of how he and Kyrill fought the monstrous bear, embellished even further this time.

“We were safe. But for how long? With it’s unnatural healing capabilities, it’s possible the beast survived. We have no way of knowing for sure if it’s alive or dead. It could still be out there, stalking the forest, waiting for another potential victim. Maybe it’s out for revenge, tracking us, the hunters become the hunted. Or perhaps it has returned from whence it came: the mysterious forest of the Mazewilds.”

“You think that thing came all the way from the Mazewilds?” Isha asked, incredulous. “And it’s just gonna saunter on back?”

“Moz tells some fairly... exaggerated stories,” Kyrill interjected. “Especially when it comes to our heroics, but the rest is all true. Or true enough. The thing we fought? That was real.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that. If you asked me a tenday ago if I believed in monsters or whatever you wanna call these things, I’d have laughed in your face. But I’ve seen some weird shit myself recently, though that was back out in the desert.”

“So you agree that monsters exist, but...?” Moswen trailed off, struggling with what he saw as a jump in logic.

“All the stories about the Mazewilds are about people who venture inside and never return. Nothing ever leaves. Why do you think they call it the Mazewilds?

“Okay, I’ll admit we can’t assume the thing we fought came from the Mazewilds, but it does seem an awful lot like the stuff we hear about in all the stories about the place.”

“Not all of them!” Neera piped in. “Some say the Drae live there, hibernating until the world needs them again.” She stood up, put a hand on her chest over her heart and began quoting a speech of some sort. “These brave warriors, defenders of the land, returned once again to defeat the Empire. Toppling their towers and growing trees in their place, the Drae retreat back into nature, asking not for praise or fortune, but equilibrium. They are the keepers of the balance. And when they are needed, they will return once more.”

“Yeaahhh,” Moswen said, stretching the word in disbelief. “I don’t buy that. The Mazewilds are dangerous, not some heroes’ sanctuary. I’ve actually been near the edge of it and got a really uneasy feeling, like the forest itself was luring me in. It felt like a trap.”

Moswen placed his breakfast to the side, suddenly very serious.

“Of course you’ve all heard how those who venture inside are lost forever? Well, some intrepid folk had the brilliant idea to tie a rope to someone as they entered the enigmatic woods. That way, they could just pull their friend out if things went badly. A solid if simple plan.”

He stood, acting out the action in his story. From the day that Isha met the guy, Moswen had been a very animated speaker. He talked with his hands in normal conversation, but when retelling stories, he became a one man stage play.

“The group was still able to talk to him, yelling from beyond the trees, but almost immediately, their guinea pig got disoriented and confused. Soon, those confused yells turned to cries of fear and pain. They began to pull, but the rope went tight. They pulled and pulled, but it wouldn’t budge, try as they might. And then just like that, the rope went slack and they all flew backwards. They got to their feet and began pulling again, even harder than before, fueled by worry and fear.”

He sat back down, his voice slower and somber.

“They managed to pull his body back, or at least what was left of it. It had been ravaged and torn to pieces by some unknown beast from within. A massive bite mark was all that was left of where his shoulder once was, the rest of his chest torn in half. Their friend was dead, just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “And they didn’t even have the satisfaction of knowing what killed him, a target for their anger. If they knew, they could hunt it down, but that’s the scariest thing about the Mazewilds: nobody really knows what’s in there.”

“I don’t know if you were aware of this, Neera,” Isha said. “But Erathos specifically requested the airship’s course head over the Mazewilds. Would’ve been interesting to finally catch a glimpse of what’s inside.”

“Maybe he wanted to see if the Drae really live there!” Neera chimed in with her usual enthusiasm. The girl was obsessed with her fairytales.

“Do you think the detour might have been important?” Kyrill asked. “Maybe it wasn’t just a passing interest. Maybe it was research or something? Had something to do with Everspring’s destruction?”

“Whatever the reason,” Moswen said, “we’re not going. Entering the Mazewilds is suicide. You’d have to be a moron to waltz into that deathtrap.”


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the empire
The Howl
The Mazewilds
The Shelf
Shaded Seed
Wayfarer's Ridge
A Gentle Scar
Tiller's Hamlet