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Chapter 23 - Isha

Perhaps it was monsters, perhaps it was bandits, perhaps it was the land itself revolting against the virus that is humanity. Or maybe it was simply the natural breaking point as the empire slowly deteriorated and society began to collapse around her, everything going to shit during its final death throes.

All Isha knew for sure was that a pattern was starting to emerge.

With the Everguard effectively gone and a number of desperate refugees now struggling to get by, the empire was overrun with ill-willed people looking to survive by any means necessary. She’d seen firsthand, on more occasions than she would like, the increased frequency of bandit activity. Coupled with what she personally witnessed at Corinth and Hillsedge, regardless of those two things being related or not, it added up to the same conclusion: people were vulnerable.

She never would have thought Rah’qet would also be at risk. And now it was Everspring all over again. The city was gone. A hole in the ground.

“Umm, guys?” Neera said, her gaze fixed to the night sky. She raised her hand and pointed a finger towards an ominous shadow in the sky. “I think I found the city.”

“Fuckin’... shit.” Apparently it wasn’t Everspring all over again after all, because there was Rah’qet, safe and sound. Floating in the sky.

Clearly safer in the air than it is down here.

It wasn’t easily noticeable against the night sky, the entirety of the spires cloaked in shadow, black on black. The few spots of light they could see didn’t look much different than the stars behind it. What was noticeable, however, were the clouds in the sky. When they suddenly disappeared behind a blanket of darkness the silhouette of the city began to emerge, the sharp corners and straight lines becoming so obvious once you knew what you were looking for. It was like those stupid ‘magic puzzle’ pictures. If you stare long enough, something will click and the hidden image will just suddenly pop out at you. Supposedly. They never fucking worked for Isha.

Before whatever the fuck it was they did to make the city float up into the godsdamned sky, Rah’qet was a city not much unlike Everspring. An affluent city that, as it flourished and grew, had spread outwards beyond its walls. A city surrounded by sand—or, more accurately, dry, rocky dirt—that thrived despite its desolate surroundings. Where Everspring’s prosperity had centered around the oasis, Rah’qet had something more ethereal: knowledge.

Founded by sages and scribes, Rah’qet sought to understand the world around them. Where Everspring had been the gauntlet of the new empire, Rah’qet was the mind. They had been the designers of the Conclave, the founders of modern astronomy and mathematics, the most prominent proprietors of true innovation. Rich from trade and pregnant with invention, Rah’qet had quickly become the epicenter of technological advancement and intellectual thought of the entire empire.

Their most substantial contribution, however, came long before all of that. When Rah’qet was little more than a collective of men and women with a nice collection of books and scrolls, they had been the ones solely responsible for hiding all assortment of precious knowledge that the Empire had wanted destroyed. They played an integral part in the rebuilding of an ordered society after the uprising.

But now all that knowledge was held onto with an undiscerning, unwavering discrimination. No longer were they simply the keepers of knowledge, guarding it from enmitous tyrants. They now kept that information all to themselves. Over time, innovation had become quite the profitable venture for their little collective of bookworms. Knowledge had become a commodity.

And as with any other commodity, it was exploitable.

Darkness had descended upon the ring of Rah’qet. And while it might have been night, the city was alive. They passed through streets bustling with people, just as lively as Isha remembered. The shops had shut down, but the restaurants were still going strong and the taverns were just getting started.

The city had been sundered in two, but truth be told, the residents of the Outer Ring of Rah’qet didn’t seem to be living much differently than they had been before the rest of the city uprooted itself. For people who had never seen past the walls that surrounded the spires—most of the citizens and visitors of Rah’qet—it was almost like the spires were never there to begin with. To them, the inner ward has always been a crater.

Their lives continued on almost without interruption.

Vendors peddled their street food from wheeled carts along the road. People sat huddled around tables that spilled out from stone buildings with wide open exteriors, mugs of beer splashing to the ground, plumes of hookah smoke billowing into the open air. The lingering smell of various spices mixed with it all.

It had been such a long time since Isha walked the familiar streets she had grown up in, but it smelled the same. She used to hate the smell, but for some reason she found it pleasant, welcoming. It was like an old friend embracing her return. Things may have changed—some things more dramatically than others—but underneath it all she found the same old dirt roads, the same stone buildings, the same people, all just a little bit older than she remembered.

“Oh my gods, it’s still here,” she exclaimed. She pointed down the street towards a thin storefront with an awning long stained brown. It had no seats or tables in front of it, but there was a growing line of people. “That was my favorite old food joint. Looks like people have finally caught on. Best shawarma in the entire city. Looked as good as it tasted. Picturesque. Run by a little, old lady and her husband. They even made their own white sauce. Secret recipe.”

She stopped, turned around, regained her bearings, turned again back towards the shawarma lady’s shop, pointing past it.

“That means that further that way is where I stashed the loot after my very first job went haywire. Getting it back was even more difficult than the actual job was.”

“What kind of job were you working as?” Neera asked, confused.

“Not that kind of job, kiddo,” Isha replied with a smile, ruffling Neera’s hair.

Not everything was as familiar as she remembered. Many places had changed, some gone entirely, others with something new in their place. But it was still the Rah’qet that she once knew. It was still home. Somewhere on the other side of the city was the place where she caught rats when she was young for use in her first childhood con. Somewhere, the spot where she had her first kiss.

Somewhere, her first kill.

Somewhere, she assumed, he was buried.

“Seeing as how you know the place so well,” Moswen interjected, “mind showing us where we’re gonna be staying tonight? Unless you plan to set up a bonfire and camp out... here.” He gestured at the clamor of people passing through the busy walkways and alleys around him. “Get us off these busy streets?”

Isha hadn’t noticed, too distracted by her return home, but Moswen looked deeply uncomfortable. Right. People. The lights and sounds and general commotion were a cacophony, overwhelming to the uninitiated. For Moswen, this place was probably hellish.

Neera, on the other hand, seemed absolutely entranced. From her brief mentions of her old barren, Isha knew it was a fairly sizable place, modern, the kind that gives you a taste of what real city life is like. Now that she was in such a city, she was enamored. Isha was just glad she kept her sights up towards the signs and fanfare, not down at the dirt and trash that littered the streets.

Still, it was good to be home.

“First things first.” Isha said, turning towards Kyrill and Moswen. “Important question: y’all have any money? I don’t have much and I know Neera has even less.”

“Not a lira to my name!” Moswen said, almost proud of being flat broke.

“I don’t have much either, I’m afraid,” Kyrill admitted.

“We can find an inn,” Isha said, “but it’ll need to be cheap then. Nothing fancy.”

“Good,” Moswen said, totally uninterested in the fanfare of the city.

“In the meantime, don’t you all wanna know what the fuck happened with the rest of the city floating up into the sky and all? ‘Cause I sure as shit do.” She grabbed the collar of a woman as she walked past. “Hey, you. What’s with the crater?”

“Fuck off,” the woman said, almost sounding like she was asking Isha a question. The woman grabbed Isha’s hand and forcibly removed it from her collar. “It’s up there now,” she said with attitude, pointing vaguely into the night sky as she turned and briskly continued walking away.

“Yeah, but how?” Isha asked, not quite yelling to her as the distance between them continued to stretch.

Her pointing finger was replaced by her middle finger. And then a second.

“Mhm. I like her.”

“I don’t think she liked you,” Moswen commented. “Maybe a more gentle approach wouldn’t drive away everyone? Not, you know, brash?”

Isha was enjoying letting her guard down for once, having a little fun. She’d spent so much time in the forest, defending her companions from bandit attacks and self-inflicted poison, sleeping on the ground and eating way too many oats. Arriving in the city, her home, had been a breath of fresh air, even though the air was far less fresh within the walls than out.

“Fine, fine. No more messing around.”

The ringing bell of a passing food cart vendor caught her attention. Perfect, Isha thought. A man about town, talks to all kinds of folks, surely he’d know something.

“Excuse me, kind sir, but—”

“Chicken or beef?”

“Oh, no, I’m sorry. I just wanted to know what happened with the crater and the floating—”

He threw his arms into the air, tongs in one hand, a dirty mitten in the other. “Why does every godsdamned refugee ask me about this shite? Is there something about me that screams helpful know-it-all? Does my cart look like a visitor information booth on wheels or something?”

“No, I just figured—”

“It’s a hole in the ground. A big one. Rest of it’s up there.”

“Yeah, but how? Why?”

“How the fuck should I know? I sell meat on a stick. I ain’t no scholar, dear. Now buy somethin’ or piss off.”

“Sorry, we barely have money for a place to stay tonight.”

“Fucking hell,” he grunted as he pushed past her, ringing his bell once again.

She didn’t seem to be getting a lot of information from anybody. Surely, someone would be more informed, more forthcoming. But she commanded no authority when trying to come off as a native. And with the number of refugees and visitors from around the empire that have come into the city recently, she just blended right in. It dawned on her that she did have one more trick up her sleeve, but it would have to wait until tomorrow.

They continued down the Strip, looking for a place to stay the night, nothing too flashy or expensive-looking. They settled on an inn, quaint and quiet. Situated right in the middle of everything, just off the main thoroughfare known as the Strip, the Sa’ara Inn was deceptively mellow inside. The thick walls almost completely muffled the sounds of the city beyond. Given one of the city’s lesser known monikers, the City That Never Sleeps, it would prove to be a godsend. Given recent developments, perhaps the name would be changed to the Half-City That Never Sleeps. The patrons, few that they were, consisted of exactly the type of folks you’d expect. The least pretentious tavern attracted the people least interested in the superficiality of the rest of the Strip. They were an older crowd mostly, regulars, the tavern their second home. Some looked like it might actually be their first. Their seats at the bar were their seats, always had been. The kind of commitment you don’t just give up. They were family.

The Sa’ara clearly used to be something, but had grown old with age and slowed down alongside her patrons. As other attractions along the Strip had grown grander and more eye-catching and outrageous with time, the simple sign for the Sa’ara was quaint by comparison. The inside wasn’t much different. The tavern floor was large, but every table and chair was given more room than needed to fill the space. A discolored corner of the walls hinted at where a stage used to be. In its place, nothing.

Behind the bar was a woman who looked just as old as the building, and just as modest.

“Why don’t you all head over to the bar and ask grandma about getting us a room or two?” Isha said, not so much asking as directing. Without waiting for a response, she tossed her coinpurse to Kyrill and walked directly to a table where a man sat alone. He was younger than the rest of the crowd, but that wasn’t saying much. The hair on the sides of his head and patches of his beard by the corner of his jaw showed the beginnings of grey, not quite enough to call him salt-and-pepper just yet.

“Hey there, Salt and Pepper. You mind?” Isha gestured towards one of the empty seats, sitting down before the man had a chance to respond.

“Salt and Pepper, huh?” He played with the hairs under his chin. “That wasn’t one of those flirtatious insults, was it? How would your husband feel if he heard you talking like that? Or your kids?”

Okay, now that was an insult, and not even the flirtatious kind. Her kids? She wasn’t old enough for Neera to be her kid. Or maybe, barely. She would have had to get pregnant when she was really young. Like, scary young. But definitely not Moswen. That would be just biologically impossible. Also, she and Kyrill, if they were the parents, wouldn’t have a kid with skin as light as his, with hair so different. He looked nothing like either of them. Neera, sure, but no way could Moswen ever pass as being that closely related.

“Not my husband. Not my kids.”

“So who are they then?”

“Traveling companions.”

“So you’re not from here then,” he said, matter-of-factly.

“Oh no, I am. Born and bred, though it’s been a while.”

The man shook his head. “Lot’s changed, huh?”

That was an understatement.

Isha leaned forward and held a finger to her lips, whispered, “Just between you and me, not for the better it seems.”

His finger to his lips, he jokingly whispered back, “Our little secret.” He gave her a little wink as he relaxed back into his chair.

“Secrets aren’t meant to be kept,” Isha said coyly. “Which is why it’s been so frustrating trying to ask people what the hell happened with the crater and everything out there.”

“Quite out of the loop, aren’t we?”

“I’ve been... predisposed as of late.”

The man looked at her with an inquisitive curiosity.

“Everspring,” she added.

He nodded in response, understanding but deferential. Even with half the city being ripped out of the ground, even with the stories from the unending stream of refugees, he couldn’t really know what anyone from Everspring had truly been through. Couldn’t know what she’d endured since.

“Noone’s talking with you ‘cause most nobody knows. Everyone has the same questions. One day, seemingly out of the blue, the whole city started shaking. People thought it was an earthquake.” He looked up towards the ceiling, knowing what loomed past the floors above him, past the ceiling, floating in the air far above. “They didn’t even offer a warning or anything, the bastards. People died. A lot of ‘em. And they were totally innocent, victims of what felt like a natural disaster, at least at first.”

Isha knew all too well what that felt like.

“It was like a tooth being pulled, ripped whole right out of the ground. Collateral near the surrounding area was devastating for some. Entire blocks were demolished by falling debris and unstable ground giving way.”

She hadn’t seen any such results herself yet, but the Outer Ring was a big place. Perhaps things were worse off here than her immediate surroundings suggested.

“But you know us Outer Ringers!” he said, his demeanor suddenly changing to a tone more friendly and jovial than he’d even been at first. “We’re a hardy bunch. Not ones to let a little misfortune stop us. Relax with some hookah, have a drink, or five, and it’s back to business tomorrow!”

Isha was confused at the man’s about-face until she realized Neera was skipping up to the table, a key dangling in her outstretched hand.

“They have baths!”

“Don’t get too excited about that,” the man whispered to Isha.

“And Kyrill said he would let me braid his hair!”

Neera tossed Isha the kay, attached to a big stone tag with the room numbers engraved into it.

“Just the one room?”

“Yeah,” Neera admitted. “We figured we should save what little money we have. They have other cheaper rates, but they’re by the hour for some reason.” Isha looked at the man, who offered only a knowing shrug. “Good if you just wanna take a nap, I guess.”

“Well, 103 it is!” She stood and turned to the man once more. “It was a pleasure.”

“The pleasure was mine. Enjoy your stay at the Sa’ara Inn.”


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Posted by Matt on 08.26.20
"Enmitous" might not be a word, but I'll be damned if I'm not gonna still use it. Writers have invented a bajillion new words. Like "bajillion."
the empire
The Howl
The Mazewilds
The Shelf
Shaded Seed
Wayfarer's Ridge
A Gentle Scar
Tiller's Hamlet