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Chapter 18 - Aoife

I am a godsdamn moron, Aoife thought to herself as she stood at the precipice of the Mazewilds. This might very well be the dumbest idea I’ve ever had.

It had made sense at first. On paper. In theory. Now that she was here, however, she was having second thoughts. The prospect was much more frightening that she realized. If she was really going to pursue this act of vengeance, she didn’t really have a choice. If she really were to seek revenge on Rashida’s behalf, there was only one thing for her to do. With the Conclave gone, the mysterious Drae were her final target. And to get to them, she must enter the Mazewilds.

Having never witnessed the Mazewilds herself before, the image she had constructed in her head from the various stories and descriptions—hearsay and tall tales, most of which focused on what was supposedly found inside the mysterious forest—paled in comparison to the real thing.

Surrounded by grassy plains and rolling hills, the Mazewilds began at a treeline so instantly dense it felt more like the remnants of an old log wall. The trees were taller and thicker and more imposing than any she’d seen before, the unnatural behemoths even growing right through rock and stone at times. In several places, the trees grew in sporadic clusters ever closer to one another, through each other, twisting and overlapping to form impenetrable wooden walls completely untraversable save for a few gaps you could maybe squeeze through. And through it all, fog meandered past massive roots and around trunks, clinging to the air like a stagnant, disorienting haze. The Mazewilds had more than earned its name.

Aoife’s plan, or at least the first phase, was fairly simple: recon. Get in and get out. Learn what she could and plan for the next steps. That first step, getting in, proved much more daunting than she anticipated. Rashida had successfully entered the forest and returned, though she hadn’t exactly explained how. All Aoife knew was she would need to take precautions.

If Rashida survived—twice—why not her?

She imagined her old mentor standing beside her, stoic and sure, her cloak billowing in the cool breeze. She wished she had Rashida’s confidence. She wished she had Rashida.

Part of her also wished she hadn’t discarded her cowl and cloak as the cool wind sent a shiver down her spine. It was necessary to truly sever her ties with the bandits she once called her companions. Besides, they were covered in blood. If there really were beasts inhabiting these woods, it was better not to make herself even more noticeable with such a powerful scent.

Above her, a small flock of birds, spooked by something beyond the treeline, flew out past her and away from the forest. For the faintest of moments, Aoife’s worried mind immediately jumped to all the stories of monsters and beasts, convinced some startled birds were proof of those stories.

This is how rumors begin. It could have been anything. Doesn’t mean it was some monstrous beast.

Even if all the stories turned out to be bullshit, that doesn’t mean the forest is empty of threats. A wolf or bear might as well be a monster if you meet one face to face. But Aoife was prepared. She had a plan. The birds reminded her of when Rashida spoke about her own investigations and the disorienting nature of the forest. Aoife was also prepared for that. All she had to do now was step inside.

She took a slow, deep breath in through her nose, held it. Now or never. She knew there was nothing holding her back except herself. It was inevitable. She didn’t really have a choice. There was only one thing for her to do.

With a quick exhale, in she went.

Aoife tied the two ends of rope together with a simple fisherman’s knot, taking her time to do it right and make damn sure they were attached as securely as possible. The ropes were literally her lifeline; she couldn’t afford for something to happen to them. Satisfied with her work, she looped the rope around a branch, pulling the line taut and continued on her way.

One might expect the logical starting point for entering a labyrinth like the Mazwilds would be the most open area possible with the fewest obstacles. Why bother risking getting lost right off the bat? While it isn’t a bad line of thinking, you’ll eventually have to traverse the maze regardless of where you begin. Starting in an open area is just delaying the inevitable. More importantly, though, it means you’re traveling on foot. That, in Aoife’s mind, was the real danger.

So Aoife took to the trees.

The Mazewilds is not a place you want to encounter a threat of any kind, either animal or monster. At times, traversing through the forest felt more like a cave system. Branching paths allowed for a myriad of directions to choose from while also feeling entirely closed off from the outside world. It was claustrophobic. It was also a death trap if you turned a corner and found yourself staring down a predator of any kind. The only direction to feasibly get to safety would be up. So Aoife did the smart thing and assumed she was, in fact, being hunted the minute she stepped foot into the Mazewilds.

“Prey only acts like prey if they know they’re being hunted.”

She found a particularly dense area and climbed up to the weaving latticework of branches. The trees in the Mazewilds were so thick that the branches were more than enough to easily support her weight. And even in the more sparse areas, the trees grew close enough together that there was always a bridge, an intersection, a causeway from one tree to the next.

Climbing through tree branches was slow progress, but it was safe. A careful approach. It was also much more direct, offering a far less obstructed and direct route. No twisting paths or dead ends, just a slow climb to the heart of the forest.

Depending on what she found, Aoife’s plans could take drastically different routes. Yet all would lead to the same destination: the Drae were to die by her hands. She imagined she would find a small encampment, like a gang of bandits or group of mercenaries taking a camping trip. If that were the case, it might be possible for her to slip in unnoticed under the cover of night and simply assassinate the lot of them.

She didn’t exactly have a tremendous amount of experience with subtlety and infiltration, but the element of surprise was possibly never more prevalent. They would have no reason to expect such an attack. They barely have reason to expect the presence of outsiders at all.

If it was more than a simple encampment and the numbers proved to be too much for a lone assassin to simply slip in and slip out unnoticed, what then? Starting fires might help thin their numbers, but a fire gives them time to react and would put everyone on alert. Sabotaging the water supply and poisoning them would be a more subtle approach, though that would take a considerably longer time.

But what if it turned out there really was an entire barren hidden within the forest? Not just a large number of people, but an honest to gods barren full of families, not all of whom could possibly be guilty. Was vengeance worth massacring an entire barren of people? Was she even capable of that? She imagined her childhood barren. Most of the folk in town were merchants, farmers, tradesmen. Children.

She would have to play it by ear, decide the best course of action once she had more information. That had been the plan all along: recon, preparation, strike. Gather as much intel as possible and use it to her advantage.

“The more you know about your prey—and the less they know about you—the more exploitable they become.”

Reaching the end of her rope once again, she pulled another coil of rope from her pack and laid it on the branch as she tied one end of it to the last rope with another fisherman’s knot. She continued to take her time with it, just like her father had taught her many, many years ago. He wasn’t much of a fisherman himself, but he did value a good knot when tying down his crates of vegetables in preparation for a trip to Rotwater. “The time you spend tying a good knot is worth just as much as the time it took to grow the produce itself,” he’d often say.

It was proving to be valuable advice, though he had originally given it thinking that Aoife would eventually take over the family business. As if her wild heart could ever be tamed enough to be content selling potatoes. No sailor in the whole world knew a knot strong enough to keep her tied down.

The sound of snapping branches in the distance caught Aoife by surprise. Not as calm and collected as she’d like to be, she accidentally bumped the coil of rope as she turned towards the sound, nudging it off the branch and over the side. She reached for it, her efforts futile, as it unfurled towards the forest floor. With a heavy crunch, it crashed into the debris of sticks, leaves and shards of bark that littered the ground.

A loud huff of air, like that from the nostrils of a warhorse, redirected her attention back towards the source of the sounds. Could that be one of the Drae out on patrol? She had assumed there wouldn’t be a patrol, or any sort of typical defense. Nobody comes to the Mazewilds, so they should have no need for patrols. Maybe those patrols are exactly why nobody comes here.

Instinctively, she ducked down low, pulled out her bow and nocked an arrow, keeping her eyes trained in the general direction of the sound. It was difficult to tell exactly where it had come from. Sound carried strangely through the forest, sometimes echoing all around her. She surveyed the area until she caught a sudden movement out of the corner of her eye.

Was that a fucking buffalo?

It was a large animal, possibly the size of a bear, but covered in much longer fur. It was difficult to discern its shape behind all the hair, especially from the fleeting glimpse she got when it passed by a gap between the trunks of two towering trees. Whatever it was, it was big enough for Aoife to know her bow would likely only serve to piss the thing off.

One of the more worrisome aspects of Aoife’s plan, aside from going through with any of it in the first place, was the very real possibility of getting captured. She was literally leaving a trail behind her. Granted, it was somewhat hidden up amongst the tree branches, but if the Drae found the rope, it would lead them right to her. And now that trail was dangling down to the forest floor.

If the thing was intelligent or, gods forbid, had been tamed by the Drae and used as a mount, the rope could very well give away her position.

Delicately, slowly, she began to pull the rope back up, all the while keeping a keen eye on the spot where her new furry friend was last seen. The forest floor was covered with a thick layer of sticks, leaves and shards of bark where the rope had fallen. Every pull of the rope, gentle as they were, stirred and shifted the forest debris below, causing light but noticeable noise.

Through the trees, from around the corner, she saw it. Or at least part of it. A long trunk and two curved, ivory tusks. What the fuck is an elephant doing out here? It couldn’t be an elephant, though. It was covered in long fur. She’d heard of mammoths before, but they all died off long ago. She was sure of it. This couldn’t be a real living mammoth, could it?

Before she could finish her train of thought, what looked like a bear walked right up beside the mammoth, practically nuzzling up to it, standing perfectly still. Were mammoths and bears... friendly? Aoife would have almost thought it was cute had she not been worrying for her life. And if that weren’t enough, another bear appeared, brown and white like the other, this one nudging right up to the mammoth’s other side.

Aoife was frozen in place, rope still in hand, the excess spilled across the debris below. She didn’t dare move. A lone beast was worrisome enough, but three? What kind of bullshit interspecies hunting party was this? Fearful of being spotted, Aoife snapped herself out of her panicked daze and dropped to her stomach, laying down flat on the branch. It was wide enough to give her total cover from the forest below. In doing so, however, some of the slack rope rustled the debris below her again. It was then Aoife realized two important things.

Fact #1: What she had assumed was a mammoth being accompanied by two bears was, in fact, a single gigantic beast. She couldn’t tell if that was better or worse anymore.

Fact #2: She was absolutely fucked.

Alerted by Aoife’s rustling, the trunk had turned towards the sound of stirring debris and moved from around the corner. Where the head and ears of an elephant were expected, there was nothing. What she thought was a trunk was actually the long, slender head of the awkward looking beast. It’s tusks were two long horns, like that of an ox, jutting out along its slender face. The bears, its confusingly-colored paws. It was no elephant, though it was certainly the size of one. And it was headed her way.

Aoife laid perfectly still, listening for the beast’s movement below. She couldn’t see it, but it couldn’t see her. It was a fair trade, though she wasn’t sure if it made any difference. From the way it slowly lumbered about, sliding along the sides of trees, she wondered if the thing might be blind. Even if it just had poor eyesight, it might not even be able to see her if she were jumping and waving her arms at the thing. Not that she was remotely inclined to test the theory.

Instead, she peeked her head past the edge of the branch to catch a glimpse of the beast below. Its body was covered in thick, coarse hair, matted and in dire need of a trim. She spotted its eyes behind the wavy bangs of a shy, angsty teenager. She hoped to the gods this wasn’t a teenager. She was extra screwed if Mama Monster decided to show up.

The beast’s trunk was very similar to an elephant’s: tough like cracked leather, but agile. It’s mouth, again like that of an elephant, sat directly under the trunk with a smaller set of tusks. It lifted its trunk, huffing and snorting the air, and Aoife realized just how much trouble she was in. It could very well be blind, but this thing seemed to rely mostly on smell. Hiding wasn’t going to do her any good.

It saddled up right against Aoife’s tree and slid it’s trunk up the side. It’s sniffing had gotten more rapid and energetic, like when a dog catches a scent. Except in this case, the scent was her’s. And instead of a dog, it was a mammoth-bear-monster-thing. She pulled out her knife, knowing it wouldn’t likely do her much good, but she wasn’t one to go out without a fight.

Fuck me if I don’t at least try while my life is on the line.

She gripped the handle tight as the beast’s trunk slithered along the surface of the tree like a constrictor snake winding its way closer to her. It’s trunk darted from side to side, the end pulsing open and closed as it aggressively sniffed at the area until it came to an abrupt stop. It found her. But as large as the beast was and as far as it’s trunk could reach, Aoife was quite high up in the trees. It couldn’t reach her.

Thank the gods.

The thing about gods, they’re fickle. Prone to mocking those that offer their thanks, turning tables and pulling rugs. Tricksters, the gods. Aoife’s momentary reprieve was quickly dashed as a tongue shot out from the trunk, revealing hundreds—no, thousands of tiny barbs and hooks. Lines of thick, gooey saliva stretched and dripped from the pink, alien-looking appendage as it darted towards her.

She rolled away, almost falling off the other side of the branch. The barbed tongue flailed around in the air, searching for the source of the scent, searching for her. She held her knife out in front of her, another futile effort, but her other hand was still holding onto the rope. She shook it with an aggressive fervor, side to side, sending waves of motion down the rope, tossing about the debris on the forest floor and making a fair bit of noise. The beast pulled its whipping tongue back in as it turned its attention to the sound, not distracted for long, but enough to buy her some time.

Aoife leapt to her feet, grabbed her bag and began hopping from tree to tree, branch to branch, faster and less careful than she had been, just to get some distance between her and the beast. She quickly made her way towards a long wall of trees, but had gained the beasts undivided attention. Past the wall she went, the beast unable to follow, thrashing against the trees, lashing its slimy, whip-like tongue against the branches.

Aoife kept far enough away to ensure her safety, but stayed close enough to keep her eyes on the beast. And, just as importantly, stay within line of sight of her rope line. She would have to eventually backtrack to retrieve her rope and continue the line, but until the beast left all she could do was wait. She turned around, surveying the area, when she saw a different kind of wall, one made of stone.

Is that it? Holy shit, it has to be.

She found it. The Drae barren.


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