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Chapter 2 - Aoife

History is a fickle thing. If it isn’t written down, it’ll be forgotten. If it isn’t written down accurately, that perverted rendition becomes the truth. Common knowledge can even be dictated by those with power and means, revised and redacted, molded into a more pleasing form. And all that history—the living memory of what once was, the accepted version of events—can be erased with a single match.

As such, there are numerous aspects of the world that nobody seems able to explain or understand. At least not anymore. The monoliths surrounding the oasis of Everspring, the beasts of the Mazewilds, Chameleon trees. Scholars and sages have dedicated their lives to uncovering—or recovering as it were—much of this lost knowledge, but any understanding has been lost to time, replaced with nothing more than speculation and rumor, untestable hypotheses and hearsay. Some things, however, don’t really need to be explained or understood to be appreciated.

Holy fucking shit, I’m on a fucking airship.

Wind whipped out Aoife’s coat as the ship sliced through the air like a knife. She had plenty on her mind, but kept finding herself distracted by the sheer childlike enthusiasm of it all. A real working airship! She had anticipation to sate, worry to quell. Brooding. Yet here she was, her inner child kicking down the door and screaming with a joyous fervor.

She’d only heard of airships in folk tales of heroes and adventure, stories from a time long past. And now not only was she witnessing one with her own two eyes, but she was aboard one herself. She was flying. She’d never felt a sense of freedom more pure.

That said, it was also a little cramped. The ship was filled with other travelers, mostly refugees from Everspring. She was practically surrounded. It wasn’t shoulder-to-shoulder, but the ship was packed so tightly it was impossible to carve out a place just for herself. Even with the cool wind rushing past her, she found it hard to breathe at times. Claustrophobia is an unexpected and deeply uneasy feeling to experience while flying through the air.

The ship was shaped like a wedge, coming to a knife point at either end. Wing-like stabilizing fins on the sides provided extra lift while one long fin pointed straight down on the bottom of the vessel. Gold-plated engines near the rear on either side of the boat helped compensate for the Y-shaped sails that arced out sideways. It was an impressive feat of engineering, to say the least. It was also currently in a state that can best be described as makeshift and cobbled-together, which only accentuated Aoife’s unease.

Whoever originally built the ship had many more resources at their disposal. The engineers behind the ship’s revival were merely doing whatever they could to keep the old girl together, sourcing parts and equipment from a variety of sources. The deck was a mishmash of different types and sizes of wooden boards, reinforcements of varying material littered the ship’s hull, and the sails were a patchwork of various fabrics stitched together to resemble some kind of enormous quilt.

Aoife was leaning over the handrails, this particular section made from brass and bolted directly into the frame. The scenery below had changed quite dramatically since their departure. Sand had given way to more grassy, forested lands, which meant they were close. Shouldn’t be much longer now. As soon as she’d heard they’d be passing over the Mazewilds, she wanted to make damn sure she didn’t miss it.

The Mazewilds is one of the more nebulous wonders of the Empire. Unlike the curiosities too old to be remembered, the origins of the Mazewilds are well known, but nothing else about it is. Everyone knew the story: the Seat of the Empire was wiped out—somehow—during the uprising, and in its place grew a forest so dense and dangerous nobody dared enter it anymore. Nobody, except for Rashida.

She had been an integral part of Aoife’s life throughout her formative years, and continued to be well past them. Rashida had been her mentor, but it was more than that. They were friends. She was like a cool aunt who introduced you to whiskey and taught you how to shoot a bow even though your father forbade it. And boy could she shoot.

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

Rashida had been a highly skilled hunter and a treasure trove of invaluable wisdom, dispensed bit by bit. Everything Aoife knew, she learned from her.

“Shooting a moving target dashing between trees and foliage isn’t impossible, but it’s certainly not the most intelligent approach. The smart hunter waits, stays hidden, and strikes once they have the upper hand. Prey only acts like prey if they know they’re being hunted.”

That had been her first lesson: finding advantages and exploiting them, the beginning of something Rashida often referred to as ‘control of information.’ Aoife came to learn it was something that didn’t just stem from her hunting expertise, but was core to her personality. Rashida had been an extraordinarily private person and kept up a sturdy wall she built around herself. The two were practically family, but even then she rarely mentioned her personal life. So on the rare occasions when Rashida opened up, Aoife made damn sure she listened.

On one such occasion, she wished she hadn’t.

They had been sitting around a campfire one evening, staring at the stars and enjoying the sounds of the nighttime forest, when Rashida began telling a story. Years prior, she explained, Rashida had begun investigating the Mazewilds. She had always been an exceedingly curious person. A place cloaked in mystery like the Mazewilds was just begging to be explored. And a forest no less, practically her second home.

Over the years, there had been countless numbers of people who had gone missing without a single account of anyone making it back out. If she was going to indulge her curiosity, a careful approach was of the utmost importance. She began with observation. It was necessary to understand as much as possible before stepping even one foot inside. The smart hunter, gathering information.

Her first solid clue came when a flock of birds flying overhead seemed to become disoriented as they passed over the threshold. One by one, their formation broke as confusion spread through the flock. Rashida equated it to a bunch of drunks leaving a tavern, stumbling their way home. This time, however, ‘home’ was just further into the woods. The birds, their direction lost, winded and floundered in the air until they disappeared beyond the treeline.

This became the catalyst for a hypothesis that started brewing in Rashida’s mind, which she immediately set out to begin testing. No time wasted, no hesitation. Once she felt confident enough, into the wilds she went.

This was the turning point for Aoife. Before this, the story Rashida had described seemed a little odd and not particularly exciting, but at least believable. Rashida was a natural storyteller, delighting Aoife with lightly embellished accounts of past escapades and adventures. What followed seemed too impossible to be true. What followed was the most ridiculous love story she’d ever heard.

It all seemed too far fetched, but she recounted the story with such remorse that it was difficult to discount the tale as fiction. That she claimed to have actually entered the Mazewilds and survived was hard to believe, but it was Rashida after all. If anyone would’ve been able to, it was her. But to claim she met a man inside, one of the mysterious Drae from the children’s stories? That was a bit much.

She swore there was an entire Drae barren hidden within the Mazewilds. At least she didn’t say they had green skin or antlers sticking out of their heads or any of that nonsense. Did kids even believe any of that? Also unlike the stories, they weren’t ‘good’ or ‘heroes’ by any definition. According to Rashida, they were downright evil. Except her Drae, of course. The one she fell in love with. But just like every other tale of great romance, this story too had the obvious, inevitable twist: their love just could not be. She couldn’t stay. It wasn’t safe. They would kill her. He couldn’t leave. Lo, the heart, it yearns.

Come the fuck on.

Embellishing a story is one thing, but this was too fantastical to have even the seed of truth. The story concluded with Rashida escaping, having survived the dangers of the Mazewilds. The End. It had been, conveniently, exactly one decade since her so-called breakout, but she said she still thought of the mysterious Drae man she fell in love with all that time ago. She wasn’t even sure if he was still alive or not. Jokingly, Aoife suggested she go back and see for herself, a proposal clearly not meant for Rashida to take seriously.

Except she did.

“If you survived once, why not again?”

Had Aoife not half-heartedly suggested it, Rashida never would have gone back in, inciting a series of events that ultimately led to her death. And now here Aoife stood—looking over the railing of a genuine, bona fide airship on a path headed directly over the doomed forest—waiting, perhaps, for some unexpected insight to guide her, to show her the path like Rashida had so many times before.

The weight of her words had haunted her ever since. Guilt had settled deep within her chest. With the looming reminder on the horizon, the only thing she could do was wait. She focused her attention to those around her, eavesdropping on their conversations. Beside her, a gruff old man bickered with his equally gruff husband about nothing in particular. In the makeshift seating area, a kind woman comforted a little girl who was feeling ill. Inside the on-deck cabin behind her, a small crowd of a dozen or so people had amassed, one man’s voice captivating the crowd like a performer with an audience.

“So while you may have been born in Everspring, that, my dear, is how I can safely assume your lineage actually originates in Rah’qet.” His voice was rich and confident, spoken like a practiced orator. “Which leaves me with one final question for you: will you depart in Rotwater with the rest, or would you care to accompany me a little further and return home?”

“I’m going home!” the woman cheered.

The crowd burst into cheers and applause, like the man had just performed a magic trick or something. She could just imagine him bowing to his grateful audience, drinking in the admiration like he needed it to live.

“In my experience, most are unaware of their true heritage. My companion Merrick, for example, might think he is an Everspring native as well. But that is simply not the case, my friend. While he may not share the stereotypical lighter skin attributed to the people of The Howl, his eyes tell me they are more his kin than any of us.”

Merrick let out an awkward, but boisterous laugh. “Now how in the world?! All that from lookin’ at my eyes?”

“It’s more of a combination of things, but the eyes are the most telling. The people of The Howl have spent hundreds of years acclimating to the dark. Their eyes—your eyes—are simply better suited than the rest of ours. Without even realizing it, you’ve been molded by your environment, adapting to it over the course of generations. This is what we call evolution. The world around us shapes us into who we are, preparing us—and future generations—to better survive.”

“Hey, Erathos. I think I know where you’re from,” casually claimed another voice from the back. His voice was deeper, grizzled. Probably that Everguard, she guessed.

“Oh?” the man apparently named Erathos responded, a keen interest in his voice.

“Everywhere.” He sounded so smug, like he was so clever to have unraveled some great mystery. “You’re not a traveling merchant or an adventurer or anything, but you’ve clearly been all over. And yeah, of course you were born somewhere, and your parents were born somewhere... but you’re not allowed to claim that heritage anymore. Because you’re one of the Conclave. You’re a Cleric!”

At this revelation, Aoife perked up. Maybe the guy had earned that smugness after all.

“I was under the impression the Conclave was wiped out along with the destruction of Everspring...” He let the words linger for a moment. “Yet your exquisite insight proves the contrary. Yes, I am a Cleric,” he admitted. “Or, was, I suppose. Well done.”

Like the itch of a limb she no longer had, a voice filled her head, a phantom reminding her of the lessons she had been taught so many years ago. While Rashida had always spoken in terms of hunting, Aoife knew she was also talking about people.

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

The next thing Aoife knew, she found herself walking into the cabin. The hood of her fine, silk cloak was down and her long, wavy hair was flowing behind her. The Cleric greeted her, neither of them noticing the knife in her hand until she was already slashing his throat. She looked down at her hands, as surprised as the Cleric likely was, the whites of her knuckles camouflaged by a fresh spattering of blood as she gripped the knife’s handle.

Roegan lunged at her, but it was already too late. He grabbed her by the arms, her body limp, her gaze unfocused, the knife falling effortlessly from her grip. The Cleric fell to the floor, eyes wide, bloodied hands around his neck as he gasped and sputtered. The crowd of people ran screaming out of the cabin. Roegan yelled something, though she couldn’t understand what, the words too muffled to understand. He looked her right in the eyes, yelled something incoherent again, but was cut short as another knife appeared in his neck. He released his grip from her arms, grabbed at his neck, stumbled backward, and fell.

“I told Erathos he was too trusting,” said a self-satisfied Merrick. He turned to Aoife. “So much for doing this without killing anyone.”

She didn’t answer.

“Helloooo?” he shouted, snapping his fingers in her face. He was getting tense.

She wasn’t listening. She couldn’t. Memories flooded her thoughts, sudden and violent. Rashida’s return from the Mazewilds. Her capture and subsequent relinquishment to the Conclave. Everspring.

Merrick looked out of the cabin, his face worried. “Time to get to work, girl!” he said, frustrated. “Snap out of it, we ain’t got much—”

A blade burst from out of his stomach, sending another stream of fresh blood to cover her already spattered coat. Roegan was on his knees, barely, one hand gripping the hilt of his sword. The other held his tilted neck, the knife still sticking straight up from his collar. The snarling grimace across his face was a mixture of enmity and pain.

That was finally enough for Aoife to snap out of her daze.

“Isha!” he coughed. “We may have a situation here!”

(1/7)


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Posted by Matt on 04.01.20
Before anyone asks, because I'm sure there will be people who would, it's pronounced EE-FUH.
 
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