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Chapter 24 - Moswen

The room wasn’t half bad. It’d clearly seen better days, with a stale smell that clung to the air, but it was clean and quiet. Moswen couldn’t ask for much more. Immediately upon entering, Isha began stripping the sheets from the first bed, throwing the bundle into an unused corner of the room. Maybe it wasn’t as clean as he thought.

The stone walls bore little decoration. Wooden support beams separated the patchwork of lightly-colored stone. A small mirror was hung above a simple wooden dresser on the wall opposite the beds. Heavy drapes hung over the windows, drawn open and held in place with a short piece of decorative rope. Both were a deep burgundy, hinting at a time when effort and style existed within the Sa’ara Inn’s walls.

The two beds did little to spice the place up, even before Isha had torn the sheets off. Simple mattresses sat atop plain bed frames. No headboards, no frills. Between the beds sat a solitary side table with a single candle, half-melted.

Neera ran for the bed furthest from the door and leapt into the air, spreading her arms and legs wide as she dove into it, ripping the sheets from Isha’s hands as she stripped the bed. “Dibs!” She hit it with a hard thump. “This one’s our’s, Ish. The boys can share the other.”

“Alright, just make sure you stay wrapped up. This mattress is probably disgusting.”

“Actually,” Moswen said, “Kyrill can have the bed to himself. I think I’ll just set myself up over here.” He headed to the other bare corner of the room, pulled out his hammock and set it on the ground, then began tacking two pitons into the wooden beams on either wall.

“Thanks, buddy,” Kyrill said. “From the look of things, I’ll need the space.” He plopped himself down on the bed, his feet hanging far off the end.

“Speaking of disgusting,” Isha said, “I’m gonna pop into the bath before any of you muck it all up.”

Moswen was standing right next to the bathroom door, a clear view of the tub. Even someone as unaccustomed to baths as Moswen could clearly understand it was a shoddy excuse for a tub. A large heating pot hung over a recessed fire pit with a water pump just next to it. The tub itself was shallow and lined with wood, discolored and stained with rust. Better than nothing, he guessed. He’d heard of fancy, high-end private baths for the rich that are connected to pressurized, pre-heated drums of water. Just open the valve and piping hot water would pour right in. Some even supposedly had water that was already infused with herbs.

“Before you hop in,” Neera said as she leapt to her feet, “do you mind if I wash Kyrill’s hair?” Kyrill propped his head up from the bed, looking towards the girl questioningly. “Oh yes, you’re getting the full spa treatment, big guy. No backing out now.”

Neera heated up some water and washed his hair over the edge of the tub. Moswen, having finished setting up his hammock, relaxed in his little corner and watched as Neera got to work. She sat Kyrill on the edge of his bed, grabbed her satchel and hopped up behind him, drying Kyrill’s hair using a small towel, letting errant strands spill over his face. She thoroughly combed it straight back, the waves in his hair unrelenting even under the scrutiny of the brush. With her thumbs just above Kyrill’s ears, Neera drew a horizontal line straight back and pulled his hair tight, letting the hair on the lower back of his head hang loose. She took out a hair tie from her satchel and secured the top bunch into a short ponytail.

“Don’t be mad at me, okay?”

“You’re not cutting anything off, are you?”

“No, no, it’s just...”

“Then I trust you, Neera.”

Neera hesitantly reached into her satchel again, but this time she pulled out something that already belonged to Kyrill. He turned at the clicking and clacking sounds to see what she held in her hands: a string of beads made of iron and bone. His discarded necklace.

“Why do you have that?”

“I know it’s not really my place, but...”

He took the beads into his hands, inspecting them as if he had forgotten what they looked like. He rolled the strand of beads over his fingers, each one indistinguishable from the next, but indicative of a specific moment in his past. His pride. “Don’t worry, I’m not angry. I’m... actually glad you kept these. It was impulsive of me to get rid of these. And foolish.” He let out a long exhale. “But I’m not wearing it. I’m no longer a part of Shaded Seed, Neera. It feels wrong now. Like I don’t deserve it.”

“But you earned each and every one of those beads!”

“I did. And I’m proud of those achievements. But I didn’t earn the right to wear the necklace. It’s the hallmark of Shaded Seed, and I foreited that when I left the barren.”

She didn’t immediately respond, taking her time to collect her thoughts. “Maybe wearing the necklace feels wrong, but those beads are yours. You wore the necklace for the benefit of others.” A smile grew across her face. “Wear the beads for yourself.”

Kyrill finally put two and two together. “You want to braid the beads into my hair.”

“It doesn’t even need to be all of them! I don’t think I could fit all of them, honestly...”

“Neera.” He held his arms wide. Neera leapt into his embrace. “You’re a sweet kid. Thank you.”

“What the fuck, you guys,” Moswen said from his hammock. “You almost just made me cry, you jerks. I’m trying to relax!” Kyrill and Neera shared a laugh as they finished their hug. “Being all thoughtful and sentimental and shit.”

“That’s not all!” Neera exclaimed. She reached into her satchel yet again and brought out a small grey bead. “It’s a shell from the beach. It already had a hole in it, so I just chipped away the excess and smoothed it out a bit.”

“Oh come the fuck on,” Moswen blubbered from his corner, his eyes glassy with tears.

“You’ve been planning this for a while, haven’t you?” Kyrill asked.

“I have,” Neera said with a smile and a shrug.

Neera took the hair she left hanging at the back of Kyrill’s head and began weaving it into tight, slender braids. Every now and then, she would randomly add beads at varying points. She made sure to add the shell bead right in the center, though. It wasn’t his necklace anymore, but something new. Still a part of him, still tokens of his accomplishments, just not as obvious to the uninitiated. It fit him. Much better than before.

Isha stepped out of the bathroom wearing a clean tanktop and form-fitting shorts, her tattoos on display, drying her hair with one of the two towels afforded to their room.

“Kyrill! That looks great!”

“All her,” he replied, pointing behind him with his thumb at Neera.

“Moz, if you want your hair done as well...” Neera suggested. He gave a very defensive “no” in response.

Kyrill turned his head away from Isha and shook his beaded braids around.

“Are those...?”

He turned back towards her and nodded. “Again, all her.”

“What can I say? I’m ‘all thoughtful and sentimental and shit,’ as Moswen said.”

“And shit,” Isha repeated with a laugh. “We’ve been spending far too much time together. You’re all starting to sound like me.”

A slight knock came at the door, two taps. If they had been any more gentle none of them would have noticed. Their attention was brought to a piece of paper sitting on the cold stone floor, slid underneath the door.

Isha walked over, casual as could be, unfolded the note and read it to herself. She smiled.

“What is it?” Neera asked. “What does it say?”

“It’s an excuse for you to spend some time without me tomorrow.” She lowered her voice as she read the note out loud. She wasn’t whispering, but definitely kept it low enough that only they could hear. “Welcome home, little bird.”

Unbeknownst to the rest, Isha had made contact.

It would come as no surprise that the sages of Rah’qet, those few who actually inhabited the spires, were an insular bunch. As such, few were ever granted access past the walls, even as the Outer Ring continued to grow around them. The Spires were sealed off from the outside, creating such a drastic division that it practically created two totally separate cities. Doing so had been simple. Before becoming the city of Rah’qet, the site had been a simple settlement within a massive cluster of rock pillars like those found across The Shelf, except much, much bigger. The razor-like mountains offered a natural border. Reinforcing the few gaps had been a relatively simple job.

This division, the purposeful exclusion of those outside the walls, had ignited a shift within the populace, inadvertently creating a literal underground. What better way to sneak past high fortifications than to dig right under? Access to the Spires proved impossible now that the city was floating high in the air above the Outer Ring, but the alliance spurred by the division between three of the most powerful and influential mercenary clubs in the city still remained. And one of those mercenary clubs was the Whispers.

“So that’s where I’m going,” Isha said. “If the people we came here to talk to have fucked off into the sky, my old MC is our next best option.”

“Are you sure it really is our next best option?” Neera asked. “The Rah’qet criminal underground is hardly what I would call a close second to the group of historians and sages I was meant to get in contact with.”

“First of all, they aren’t criminals. Okay some of them are, but it’s not like some organization of bandit gangs out to loot and murder. The Whispers, at least, are all about uncovering hypocrisy, bringing truth to light, holding those in power accountable. Sometimes those things require subterfuge and thievery, but it’s for the greater good.”

Neera nodded, a reluctant admittance.

“Secondly,” Isha continued, “We’re only meant to get in touch with the sages because we thought it was what we should do at the time. Way I see it, they’re not to be trusted. They up and abandoned the city without warning and killed a bunch of people in the process. I have way more faith in my old MC than I do a bunch of selfish, exploitative nerds with a skewed moral compass.”

“I guess you’re right. Things here do feel a little off.”

“A little off?” Moswen asked sarcastically. “Half of the city is floating above our heads and nobody knows why. Or how! And they’re the only ones we know of capable of translating the weird journal we have of the last Cleric, hoping it might shed some light on what happened when an entire city was destroyed.”

“We’re a little out of our depth here,” Kyrilll added.

“And that’s exactly why I need to talk to the Whispers,” Isha continued. “I trust them. And if anyone is gonna know anything that can help us, it’s them.”

“You sure you wanna go alone?” Kyrill asked.

“I’ll be fine. It’s what I do.”

“It’s kinda her thing,” Neera explained.

Isha had stayed behind when Kyrill, Moswen and Neera left the following morning. Apparently thieves and scoundrels aren’t morning people. Until Isha met with her people, the rest of them were more or less left to their own devices. Much like after arriving in Shaded Seed, it was their first break since trudging through the wild. All they had was time to kill. Luckily for them, the streets of Rah’qet offered ample opportunity to do just that.

While night on the Strip was dedicated to casual unwinding and debauchery, things were starkly different while the sun was out. The hustle and bustle in the streets was even busier and more hectic than it had been when they arrived.

Two rows of tents, stalls and tables peddling all sorts of various wares seemed to stretch unending along either side of the street, disappearing behind the mob of people. Crowds swarmed around various spots, some vendors more popular than others. They didn’t have much money left, so actually buying anything was out of the picture, but the bazaar was still a great excuse to people-watch and sightsee. They really needed to figure out a way to make some coin, though.

Above them loomed the Spires, blanketing a swath of the city’s streets in shadow. The sun was still hours away from reaching its zenith and the angle cast a shadow from the spires that resembled a misshapen, crooked crown. It would have been an ominous and fitting omen had anyone not been so preoccupied with not giving a shit.

A jovial, bearded man at one of the nearby tables offered a variety of different kinds of apples and nothing else whatsoever. Only apples. His simple table garnered a line that stretched past the neighboring stall and into a second. The sight was not uncommon among the vendors. Some seemed irritated and jealous at this, but the smart ones took the opportunity to sell their less popular goods to the people waiting in line, no choice but to hear their pitch.

Various stalls selling olive oil sported little bits of bread on a plate for passersby to taste test. Beautiful flowing silks and fine rugs were hung on display like pieces of art, some of which might as well have been. One man thought it would be a good idea to get people interested in his hookah flavors by literally blowing smoke into people’s faces, claiming it was better then spreading germs by letting stranger after stranger smoke from the same tip.

All around them, their attentions were being vied for, mostly via yelling. One man had actually set up an entire stage where he barked at and beckoned for passersby. “Whip show! Whip show! Come witness what a genuine Jeroen leather whip is truly capable of!”

Stalls that sold usable items like tools or knives seemingly loved to showcase their products in action. This man was clearly no exception, apparently going so far as to put on some kind of show. “It slices! It dices! It cracks like THUNDER!” he cried as he cracked his whip. Not quite thunder, but impressive, Moswen thought.

And then the man made eye contact with him.


Moswen averted his gaze, but it was too late.

“You there! Come, come over and wonder at the exquisite Jeroen brand whips!”

He pretended to ignore the man as best he could.

“I know you can hear me!”

He gave the man a wave and a polite half-smile, as if to say “I acknowledge your presence, good sir, but I just want to be left alone.”

“Yes, hello, come see the whip show, my friend!”

Mother fucker.

Moswen continued to walk, simultaneously ignoring the continued prodding and feeling both guilty for not watching and annoyed that the man was able to make him feel guilty in the first place.

“I hate people,” Moswen muttered under his breath.

Some stalls didn’t require screaming or guilt to gain the attention of potential customers. An almost overwhelming mixture of smells bombarded Moswen’s senses as they passed by a double-wide stall selling all sorts of various spices. Bright oranges, stark whites, deep reds and browns, a gradient of earthy colors filled pot after pot, each with a little flag to denote the contents. Neera ran over to the tent next to it selling an array of curious-looking fruits and vegetables. She picked one up, a fruit or vegetable it was difficult to say. It had a yellow, bumpy texture and segmented ridges that resembled an elongated gourd of some sort, except those finger-like segments separated from one another at the end opposite the stem, curling every which way like the tentacles of a squid. Even with the stall of spices so close by, the powerful aroma of the strange-looking produce had grabbed her attention almost as easily as its odd appearance.

“Ah, I see your curiosity has drawn you to the squidfruit, my dear,” the man behind the booth said to Neera.

So a fruit it is. A fitting name, too.

“It looks so weird! But it smells wonderful,” she replied.

“That it does. In fact, its fragrance is used in scenting rooms more often than the fruit is eaten normally. It’s not a very juicy fruit, but the smell is divine. Perhaps your father there might be interested in bringing one home? Only two lira!” He motioned toward Kyrill, still standing back in the crowd, but obviously looking after the girl. Neera didn’t correct the man.

“Oh, we’re not from around here. We’re staying in one of the cheap inns nearby.”

“Even more important then! I know all too well what state some of those rooms are kept in. Masking the smell with something more preferable might just save your sleep from the uncomforts of the unfamiliar!”

The man was a natural salesman. Kyrill pushed and bumped his way through the crowd and approached the table, playing up the role of Neera’s father.

“Sorry, kiddo, but we just don’t have much to spare,” he said as he patted the bulge of his coin purse in his side pocket. Or, at least, where the bulge should have been. “The money!” he said, exasperated, but not raising his voice. He had been holding onto all of it. Not just his own, but the sum total of everyone’s money that was left over after paying for the inn the previous night. And now every last coin to their names was gone.

His eyes were wide when he spun back towards the crowd, scanning for the thief. His eyes stopped as a man not too far away looked back and made eye contact with Kyrill. That alone wouldn’t have been reason enough to expect the man was the thief, but when he took off running he kind of gave himself away.

Kyrill took off after him, with Moswen not far behind. Neera paused for a second to give the vendor back his weird fruit before bringing up the rear. The thief pushed past crowds of people, ducking between stalls and tents, then headed down a narrow alley, narrowly dodging between a fruit cart and a woman with a baby carriage as the two rolled past each other.

He vanished around the corner. Kyrill, running full speed and mere steps away from the sudden blockade, leapt to the side, pressed his foot against the uneven bricks on the side of the building and leveraged himself up and over the cart.

The cart and carriage came to a stop as Kyrill came soaring over them. As babies tend to do, the little youngster grabbed at the cart and got hold of a plum, immediately discarding it and dropping it to the ground. A man, startled by Kyrill’s display, staggered backwards, slipped on the plum and crashed into the fruit cart, sending an explosion of color spilling to the ground.

“My fruit cart!”

Kyrill hit the ground, rolled and jumped to his feet, but stopped in his tracks as he scanned the area. The thief was nowhere to be found.

“Up around the corner! On the roofs!” Neera yelled behind them, her hand shoved into her satchel.

Kyrill and Moswen both looked up just in time to see the man leap across the narrow gap between the buildings. Kyrill took off, heading in the man’s general direction. Moswen, however, found the staircase of stacked crates that led to the fire escape the thief had likely used to climb.

He spotted the thief two buildings over, the man constantly glancing down at Kyrill pursuing him from below. He turned to change directions, stopped as he noticed Moswen, and ran in the opposite direction. It proved futile as the man came to a gap too wide to easily jump. He considered it for a moment, looked back as Moswen got closer and nocked an arrow.

“Damn, dude, you put up quite the chase.”

“Hey, alright, you caught me.”

The man raised his arms in surrender and began slowly walking towards Moswen. In a flash, he quickly turned, ran, picking up speed with the added distance he gave himself when pretending to surrender. Moswen considered firing, but held off. He’s never gonna make that. The man pushed off the edge, jumped, his arms spinning.

Moswen was right. One of the man’s feet grazed the edge of the building as the rest of his body contorted and slammed against stone, bouncing off the wall and falling to the street below. Judging by the splash of blood against the building, he was likely dead before he hit the dirt. For his sake, Moswen hoped that was the case.

It wasn’t as easy getting down from the building as it was getting up, but Moswen made it back to the street just as Neera caught up with Kyrill, kneeling over the body.

“What are you waiting for?!” a voice behind them yelled. “Grab the bag and run! Quick, before any guards get here!” It seemed as if Neera had been followed by another young girl, around her age if Moswen had to guess. Her dirty blonde hair was dirtied even more with dust and grime. Her pale face was equally caked with dirt, a stark contrast to her piercing blue eyes. “You want ‘em to pin ya with a murder?! C’mon! This way!” She motioned for them to follow her and she ran around a corner, the sound of her bare feet slapping against the hard dirt.

“But we didn’t murder him!” Neera said, panicked.

“Godsdammit,” Kyrill mumbled, grabbing the man’s bag.

They ran.

Around the corner, they saw the girl standing down the alley at another corner, waving them towards her. Corner after corner of tight alleys and less-trafficked streets, they eventually found their way to a set of short stairs that led to the entrance of a basement. She pushed the heavy metal door aside and directed them inside, one by one. The room was half filled with kegs and smelled of spoiled beer and stagnant water. When the door closed behind them, it was pitch black.

“Everyone alright?” Kyrill asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” Neera responded between gasping breaths.

“Yeah, I’m good,” Moswen added.

“Hey, thanks for help, uh, girl,” Kyrill said.

“Eh, don’t thank me yet. Special delivery!” she yelled. A set of double doors opened across from them, bright, blinding light spilling into the room. By the time Moswen regained his sight, he saw a row of men with bows pointed in their direction or daggers in their hands. He turned to see Neera had a knife held to her throat.

This little bitch led us into an ambush?!

“The bag, if you don’t mind,” the girl said, motioning towards a man approaching them with an outstretched hand. “And the rest of your things, please.”


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Posted by Matt on 09.02.20
I slip references into the story every so often. This chapter, however, is CHOCK FULL of 'em. From Chuck Wendig as an apple vendor to the annoying whip guy at a Ren Faire I attended, half of this chapter is basically paragraph after paragraph of "writing what I know." Even the name of the whip vendor, Jeroen, is named after one of my old Twitch stream regulars. The actual Jeroen was not annoying, nor did he ever pressure me into buying a whip.
Posted by Anonymous on 09.03.20
I'm almost certain the guy whose fruit cart got destroyed is a reference to the cabbage man from The Last Airbender.

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