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Chapter 22 - Aoife

The superdense treeline ended at a curved wall constructed of stone that continued up well past the branches Aoife stood atop. The wall was haphazard at best, uneven and shoddily put together. If necessary, she might be able to scale the wall. She decided it was better to look for more obvious entrances if there was one first.

She circled the perimeter, staying up in the branches of the surrounding trees. Even though she found herself following a wall, she continued to bring her rope line with her. The rumors, nonsensical as they were, still worried her. It was said that once inside, you can never leave, always lost. Always, somehow, finding yourself venturing deeper in. She knew this wasn’t true. Rashida made it out. Twice. But the rumors did hold some truth to them.

When finally opening up and admitting everything to Aoife all those years ago, Rashida had described being in the forest as disorienting, but more than just that. She equated it to doing a mundane task you’ve done hundreds of times before and that sudden moment of realization where it feels like you haven’t been paying attention. Once you’ve walked the same path enough times, you “zone out” while doing it more and more. You know you were fully cognizant of your actions during that time, but you can’t actually remember. It’s no longer a unique enough experience to register in your memories. Do that in a twisting, maze-like forest you’ve never been in before and things could get worrisome fast.

In the Mazewilds, at least according to Rashida, that’s what it felt like all the time.

It tricks your mind somehow, making you forget where you’ve been while simultaneously drawing you further in. It wasn’t as if the Mazewilds weren’t unique or memorable, but something about the place had clearly deceived countless travelers that came before. Rashida was no different, but she ventured in with a plan. And now Aoife was following in her footsteps, though she had to admit, she never really felt the disorientation to the levels Rashida had described. Perhaps the simple act of having her rope line was enough? Whatever the case may be, Aoife had no intention of risking it. She tied another knot between the ends of two ropes and continued on her way.

Judging by the curve, the area inside the walls wasn’t incredibly large. Good, she thought, less likely there’s an army or barren full of families and kids inside. Aoife continued to follow the wall until she came to just the obvious entrance she had hoped to find. Two huge wooden doors were left sitting wide open, stretching just high enough to reach her in the treeline.

Inside the walls was a stark difference to the surrounding forest, a mini paradise sequestered away from the rest of the world. No longer were the trees so dense and broad, the air choked with rolling fog, a permanent dusk-like atmosphere even in the middle of the day. Instead, Aoife had discovered a serene hamlet that looked like it had been plucked out of a painting and dropped into the middle of the lost, desolate forest.

Approximately a dozen or so buildings were scattered around the pastoral enclave, a sizable central tower dominating the circular clearing. The structures were spread throughout the clearing and sat facing the tower, almost as if it were a bonfire they had all gathered around for warmth.

While it wasn’t nearly as dark as the forest had been, the area was still shaded by the canopy of trees outside the wall, so thick and broad they formed a ceiling overhead that stretched to cover the entire clearing. Shafts of light snuck through, giving the place an added ethereal quality while simultaneously concealing it from prying eyes above.

I wonder if I would have even noticed this was here if the airship had made it this far.

When Aoife had taken her first steps into the Mazewilds, she had done so with no idea what she might find, but she never expected it would be so nice. The Drae, at least to her, represented pure evil. They were the ones whose vile insidiousness was responsible for taking the person that mattered most to her. They were the living embodiment of her need for retribution, her vengeance given form and come to life. It wasn’t fair that they lived in such a beautiful, little wonderland.

Evil was supposed to be all about spikes and chains, fire and skulls and blood. The Drae, much to Aoife’s chagrin, had style. She already hated them for what they did, but it would have been easier to psyche herself up to do what she came here to do if they had turned out to be cartoonish caricatures of evil instead of a bunch of Suzy Homemakers. Living in tranquility humanized them. Aoife didn’t like it.

Even as she was slowly traversing through the Mazewilds, she wondered if she would really be able to go through with it all. She had never killed someone before the airship and the thought of methodically killing off a whole group of people still sat uneasy in her gut. Luckily for her, she didn’t have to worry about it any longer.

The barren was completely abandoned.

Aoife was glad it wasn’t a huge barren full of families, but it didn’t seem like it ever had been. It reminded her more of an army encampment. But those were temporary and the Drae barren looked like it had been there for a long, long time. The structures were all constructed of the same misshapen stones as the outer walls. However, in this more pleasant environment, they looked less haphazard than before. In fact, it gave the buildings a kind of cute, rustic charm.

Aoife hadn’t moved from her perch high up in the branches. She laid flat on her stomach, concealed in shadow as well as she could. Just in case. She stayed like that, surveying the area until she convinced herself it was safe. She eventually climbed down and carefully rounded the wall’s edge as she made her way to a building that stood out from the rest. Situated at the far end of the barren, opposite the entrance, the building was isolated from all the others. Multiple thick shafts of bamboo had burst up through the roof and now loomed above the building like empty flagpoles. A stockpile of discarded stones were piled up on one side of the building, again the same kind used in the walls and buildings. On the other side was a tall wooden bin of some sort.

She approached from behind and began walking the perimeter of the building, listening closely for anything inside. Even if the barren really was abandoned, the front door was left wide open. The not-mammoth was much too big to seek shelter in any of these smaller buildings, but who knew what else could have made this their new home.

She rounded the final corner and approached the bin, a faint smell emanating from the inside. The bin was empty, but the stench still lingered: compost. It infuriated her. Pretty houses, the practicality of composting their waste, the Drae were living fine, respectable lives and she couldn’t stand it.

Hearing nothing inside, she opened the door at the front of the building and discovered a different kind of refuse. Along one side of the building were a number of caged cells. Across from them were tables, hollow in the centers, with bands and restraints attached. The bamboo that had burst through the ceiling was growing right through the middle of three of the tables. The growth was no accident. It was deliberate. The remains of presumably one of the many victims of these barbaric torture devices still laid on one of the tables, not much more than bones and a dark stain on the wood, it’s ribcage pried open and still clinging to the bamboo near the roof.

Forget about their pretty houses, these people are animals.

If she had needed proof of the Drae’s savage cruelty, here it was. They could pretty up their surroundings as much as they wanted, but behind closed doors their darkness was waiting to be found. Aoife left the building in a hurry, slamming the door behind her. Her breath was quick and she felt her fists clenching. She no longer felt at all apprehensive about killing each and every one of the Drae.

It really is a shame they aren’t here.

She continued circling the wall, listening for movement, looking for tracks, finding neither. The place was abandoned by the Drae, but it seemed that nothing else had moved in afterwards. It really didn’t make sense that no other beasts had made this place their own. Perhaps there weren’t any others? The rumors had always been that the Mazewilds were filled with monsters, but what if the not-mammoth was the only one? Or the only survivor? Whatever the case may be, Aoife was truly alone within the walls.

She checked several of the buildings nearby, all basic living quarters, all very similar and utilitarian. Lines were strung across walls to hang clothing, some of which was still there: intricately detailed leathers, fine silks, all very old looking. Emptied out storage containers and fancy chests were laid bare. Desks were lined with dust and the fading, discolored shapes of where various objects once sat.

Each house had their own bit of character and flair to them, the individuals making each their own home. But they lacked some of the basics one would expect in a home. The most glaringly obvious being the lack of a bed or any area meant for sleep. There weren’t even bedrolls or hooks to hang hammocks. Some of the houses had space set aside for what Aoife recognized were meditation rugs, but others didn’t even have space for that, the floors and walls too cluttered. The second obvious omission was that of a kitchen or any food storage. It’s possible they prepared meals and stored food elsewhere, but for all the time and effort they had put into adding little personal comforts, how could food not be included in even a single one?

Having made it around the entirety of the barren, there was only one building left to check. The tower was situated perfectly in the center of the clearing. Aoife only now realized how odd the clearing was. It was a perfect circle. Sure, they could have built the wall like that on purpose, but the trees the wall was erected next to were impossibly big and the mere thought of cutting even one down was laughable.

Aoife approached the tower, once again made of the same stones as the rest of the buildings in the clearing, except the construction of the tower seemed much more refined. Had it taken a dozen buildings to perfect their methods? Was that what the pile of unused stones was? Failed attempts that had been dismantled?

For all the insight Aoife was gaining, she found herself with even more questions. And they only got more confusing and numerous upon entering the tower.

The rounded pillar of a structure stood approximately four times as tall as the buildings that surrounded it and consisted of three floors, each less interesting the further up Aoife went. The third floor looked like a simple watchpost. With more windows than walls, the room had a spectacular view of the entire barren. Along the windowsill, someone had been keeping count of something. 16 notches were carved into the hard stone.

The second floor made the third seem tame, boring by comparison. All around the room was an assortment of alchemical supplies: measuring tools, mixing instruments, lots of beakers and shit. The numerous tables in the area showed signs of experimentation. Several old books were left in stacks on the floor. And at the far end, a single room that looked like a jail cell. The lower half of the wall was made of stone with metal bars the rest of the way up. Inside, several shackles were attached to the back corners of the room. We’re people experimented on here? Again, Aoife was left with more questions than answers.

The first floor had been the most bewildering by far. The entire room was almost completely bare, a grand cathedral-like entrance into disappointment. One might expect draperies, paintings, chandeliers and exquisite sculptures. The place oozed with the architectural decadence one would expect of high society, the kind of foyer used to make guests jealous upon entering, yet the room was devoid of any such pleasantries. Aside from the staircase that wound up along the wall, the room seemed to exist for the sole purpose of housing or displaying the... thing in the center of the room.

Aoife imagined it was some kind of pool or large bath, shallow and empty. The bottom was made of a single piece of solid glass, perfectly smooth and slightly concave. Beyond it, Aoife could see nothing. No stone, no dirt, just darkness. Not the kind of aesthetic she’d want in a fancy bathtub. Like a hollow tree that had grown upside down, dozens of roots grew up and out of the ground from the edges of the glass, engulfing the stone floor as they spilled outwards. Much like the trees in the Mazewilds, the roots grew so tightly together there wasn’t a single gap between them until they twisted outward and shrank to points. These roots, however, were hard to the touch, like stone. In a way, it kind of looked like a stylized drawing of a sun from above.

It was impossible to tell just what the pool was used for, but she didn’t imagine it was a relaxing sauna or kiddie pool. The way the roots grew out of and encapsulated the glass, though, it didn’t seem like they made it themselves. Especially considering their poor construction skills on the wall and the rest of the buildings in the barren. It was important to them, that much was certain, but it wasn’t made by them. No, this was something else.

This place is fucked.


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