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Chapter 31 - Aoife

Isha slapped Moswen’s pointing finger down.

“And stop staring at her!” she whispered to the rest of them. “Don’t need to bring more attention to her. You’re gonna give her away and get her caught.”

Neera was crouching along the balcony above them, somehow avoiding the gazes of a tavern full of eyes. She was getting lucky, that was all. Had to be. And her luck would surely run out any minute. And when it did, did Aoife really want to still be there? If it were anyone else, even the lumbering giant that was Kyrill, she could trust in their abilities to handle themselves, but Neera?

“There’s no way she’s making it past them.”

“Have some faith in our girl,” Isha assured her. “She’s more talented than you know.”

“You gotta admit,” Moswen added, “it’s pretty courageous of her, going up there all by herself like that.”

“Courageous?” Aoife asked, incredulous. “That’s not courage. It’s stupidity.”

“Well, a small part of courage is stupidity.”

“Party foul!” screamed several of the people above. Someone must have knocked a drink over or something, but they were distracted. Aoife held her breath, watching in anticipation as Neera took advantage of the fortuitous situation and made a move towards them. Somehow, against all odds, she made it under cover without any of them taking notice.

It’s luck, pure and simple.

Neera disappeared further into the room, the party above making no signs of noticing. She was in. She actually fucking did it.

“Two choices,” Isha said, grabbing their attention once again. “One: we wait here. Let Neera do her thing and stay here so she has us waiting once she makes it out. Or two: we go after her. Find our own way in and give her some backup.” She turned to face Aoife directly. “She’s a capable kid, but if she runs into any real trouble, I’d feel a hell of a lot better if we had her back.”

It was instantly unanimous, hardly even a conversation.

“But how do we get in?” Kyrill asked. “I don’t think I can sneak nearly as well as she did.”

“Maybe we should head outside? Look for another way in?” Moswen asked.

“Probably our best bet,” Isha said. “This place is enormous. There’s bound to be a crack to slip through somewhere.”

Like a goblin perched upon her shoulder, jealousy overtook Aoife, pointing its gangly finger towards the guarded staircase and whispering schemes into her ear.

“Not just yet.”

Without waiting for so much as a response, Aoife removed her cloak, tossed it to Kyrill, and unbuttoned the top of her tunic. His reaction only ensured her success. With determination boiling inside of her, Aoife took off towards the staircase. As she passed through the crowd, she relaxed her shoulders, slowed her pace, let her hips sway as she sauntered past the tables, turning heads and gathering stares. With an eyebrow ever-so-slightly raised, she approached the two guards. They stood at attention as she got near.

“Hello, boys. You don’t mind if I slip past you to join the party upstairs, do you?”

“Sorry, ma’am,” one of the guards responded, “but invited guests only. I need you to step away from the staircase.”

She leaned in close to him, nice and comfortable, tracing her finger against his breastplate. “You could always invite me. I’m sure we could work something out, no?”

“I’m gay,” he responded with the bluntness of a cudgel.

Taken aback but undeterred, she turned her attention to the other guard. “Well, how about your equally-attractive fri—”

“He’s my husband.”

“Oh, you two work together?”

“Yes, we’re adorable, we know. Now kindly step away from the staircase.” He shifted his body, causing his armor to clank and thud, punctuating his demand.

When she made it back to the group, she let out a big, disappointed sigh. “Let’s head outside.”

The Hawk’s Roost was a massive building comprised of several blocks worth of stitched-together walls, an undertaking that spanned generations and continued to this very day. With the uncountable number of crews behind the renovations and expansion, surely there were a number of vulnerabilities to be found. Gaps to slip through, walls to scale, holes to uncover, all they had to do was find them.

With the buildings joined to the lodge via walkways the spanned above streets, there was no distinct perimeter for them to walk around, but multiple perimeters. That, and the sheer size of the lodge meant there was ample surface area to inspect. Even with all that opportunity to find a crack in the armor, their search seemed more and more fruitless as they made their way around the lodge. They checked every corner, every lock, every inch of wall they passed, and had come up empty-handed.

Their half-assed plan seemed hopelessly futile, but they continued on until eventually rounding a corner where they spotted a group of people with mud-soaked clothes unloading crates and barrels from a cart and carrying them through a large, wide-open doorway on the side of the lodge. As far as ways in went, there wouldn’t be a more obvious choice.

The people all looked exhausted, struggling to lift the cargo, trudging through the mud like it was glue. One man was leaning against the cart, tired and out of breath. His raggedy shirt hung heavy over his thin frame, damp with sweat and mud.

A loud cracking sound rang out—not quite like thunder, but impressive nonetheless—and the man reeled back in agony before falling to his knees. From the doorway, out strolled a man holding a long whip. Aoife instantly recognized him: the taskmaster, Dorian. It was hard not to remember the man’s name, what with him talking about himself in the third person like some kind of asshole.

“Get up, slog!” he spat the words. “You wanna eat tonight? Then get on your feet!”

“You touch him again and I’ll bury your face in the mud till it fills your lungs!” Aoife yelled from down the alley.

“Look who it is! I never got your name, but I never forget a face. Especially one I’ve been thinking so long and hard about. We’ve got unfinished business, you and I.” He casually turned towards the door. “Boys?”

The tired man on the ground crawled his way back behind the cart as a handful of bruisers, all wearing the same matching MC hides as the two that had been guarding him before.

“These are the ones I was telling you about,” he explained to his men. “The ones that attacked me earlier.”

His clothing was still stained dark. Crusty patches of dirt clung stubbornly amongst the folds of his tunic and cloak. Aoife wondered if her altercation with the man earlier had put him in such a mood that he had been taking it out on the workers. His borderline slaves. The thought only made her more determined to end the man’s reign once and for all.

“Despite your friend’s threats,” the man continued, his friendly facade a paper-thin transparency, “I do not seek revenge. Just due process. We aren’t looking to spill any blood here. Just as long as you’re willing to give her up.”

“Fat fucking chance,” Isha yelled. The woman usually laughed when making threats, Aoife had noticed, but there wasn’t an ounce of glee in her voice now.

Without a word, Kyrill took a long step forward, interposing himself between the taskmaster’s men and the rest of the group.

Dorian stepped towards him. “A poor decision, then.” His facade dropped. “That bitch is mine.”

He cracked his whip towards Kyrill, wrapping the end around his arm. He pulled the whip back, but Kyrill planted his feet and did the same.

A poor decision, then.

The man was already tipping forward when the whip ripped out of his hand. He was instead met with Kyrill’s forehead crashing down into his own. Kyrill grabbed a handful of his shirt and sent him careening behind him towards Isha. She tripped him with her spear and jammed the blunt end into his back sending him sprawling to the ground. He scrambled to get up, the threat of drowning in mud fresh in his mind. A swift kick to his face from Aoife’s boot sent him spinning onto his back, knocked out cold.

Isha leapt to Kyrill’s side, Moswen pulled out his bow, and the melee commenced.

Aoife hadn’t the good fortune of witnessing her new companions in a real fight. She knew Kyrill and Moswen were capable hunters and Isha hadn’t hesitated to back her up when she assaulted the taskmaster earlier, but none of that really compared to a real fight. Hunting is methodical and more about patience than any sort of aggression. And subduing a couple thugs was nothing more than posturing. A real fight is dirty, chaotic and usually over faster than one can think or plan for. Snap decisions dictate the short sequence of events and then it’s over. Action, reaction, the end.

Luckily for her, it seemed she was in very favorable company. Kyrill and Isha held off most of the bruisers on their own, working in tandem, allowing Moswen a clear position to let his arrows fly.

Oh, right.

She pulled out her own bow to join Moswen, but it was too late. A man wielding only a shield had broken free from the skirmish, leaping against the wall near Kyrill and flipping past his reach. He rushed the two archers, leg muscles rippling under his taut leathers. The man was quick and agile, deflecting every shot Moswen and Aoife could launch at him.

Without a word, they split off towards opposite sides of the street, putting as much distance between them as possible. The man was masterful with his use of the shield, but no amount of skill could stop being shot in the back. He quickly moved to the side as well—disadvantaged by the angle, but not totally exposed—and rushed towards Moswen.

Aoife held her breath, waited and took a shot. The arrow made contact, not precise enough to pierce flesh, but enough to graze his side and cause the man’s charge to falter. Her next arrow struck true, but his momentum sent him crashing into Moswen. The two went tumbling to the ground while he grasped at his shoulder in pain where blood met mud.

Moswen kicked and struggled to free himself from under the man’s weight. A quick glance showed Isha and Kyrill were faring much better, handling the bruisers with ease. It seems like they were handily dealing with the encounter.

Moswen’s eyes, wide in fear, told another story.

Thick fingers wrapped around Aoife’s neck from behind. Another set ripped her bow from her hands, snapping it in two. A deep voice bellowed out from above her.

“Stand the fuck down or I snap the bitch’s neck.”

Isha sent an elbow into the nose of the last man standing before turning her attention to the demanding voice. Aoife didn’t recognize the man’s voice, but she sure as shit recognized the man’s armor. Or the lack thereof. The gladiator from the lodge, the champion, had deemed them worthy to grace them with his presence. And now he had a powerful grip around Aoife’s neck.


“Your men are already eating dirt,” Isha yelled. “Not much to stand down against.”

“Maybe you didn’t hear me when I said I’d snap this bitch’s neck?” Aoife tried to squirm from his grasp, but to no avail. “She’s a feisty one. Would be a shame...”

Kyrill took a nonchalant step forward and raised his voice. “Picking on someone you tower over? Making threats? That’s not what I’d expect out of a real champion.” That got his attention. “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”

“You challenge a champion with such cliches?”

“You are challenged by a champion... with such cliches.”

His awkwardness aside, Kyrill didn’t seem at all worried. If anything, he was excited. Skilled as this champion may be, he was a champion amongst hunters. Kyrill was a warrior. He turned his head to show off the beads in his hair, but before he had a chance to describe what they were for, he was met with an explosion of laughter.

“Greig wears the Hawk’s Belt. You wear queer little braids in your hair.” He let loose another powerful guffaw. “Does your girlfriend here do them for you? Do you cry because it’s such a touching moment?”

“You talk an awful lot. You’re not scared of a fair fight are you?”

“Scared? No. But I am practical. If we clash, what’s to stop your friends from shooting me in the back?”

“Because I say so. My friends have honor, though I can’t say the same for you and yours.”

Greig threw Aoife to the ground and rushed Kyrill.

With no weapons yet drawn, he barreled forwards and sent his shoulder into Kyrill’s raised shield. Kyrill went flying, landing with a splash and sliding back across the mud. With Kyrill on the ground, the man made no move to take advantage of the situation. Instead, he casually unsnapped the loops that held his twin axes at his sides.

“You’re not worried are you?” he asked.

Kyrill righted himself and pulled out his axe.

“Let’s dance.”

The man was Kyrill’s exact opposite. While not much bigger, his size lent a dangerous power behind each of his long, arcing swings. His style was almost feral, hyper aggressive, an unending assault of blows with no regard to his own safety. Kyrill was much more defensive, relying on his shield and quick reflexes.

When they finally clashed, Greig rained down blow after blow, each connecting with Kyrill’s shield, sending him backwards again and again. Kyrill was entirely on the defensive. Either he was waiting for an opening or for Greig to tire out, but neither seemed to be happening.

Aoife could see why the ridiculous lack of armor wasn’t quite so ridiculous after all. Who needs armor if your opponent never gets the chance to strike?

Kyrill wasn’t finding any opportunities to strike between the flurry of axe swings, but Greig also wasn’t able to connect with any of the countless attacks. His frustration was palpable. Furious, he lifted both axes above his head and brought them down in a single powerful blow. It was just the moment Kyrill had been waiting for.

Kyrill sidestepped the swing, bringing his shield to bash Greig in the face, sending the man off balance. He lifted one of his axes to shield himself from another blow and Kyrill hooked his own axe around it, pulling him close. Grieg swung his other axe wide, but was easily blocked. Kyrill kicked the man hard in the stomach, sending him backwards. He pulled back on Grieg’s axe, yanking it from the man’s faltering grip. Kyrill let it fall beside him in the mud. Grieg regained his composure, blood trickling down from his nose, rage in his eyes.

“You’re not worried are you?” Kyrill asked playfully between quickened breaths.

The fight was already over, Grieg just didn’t know it yet.

Even with only a single axe, the man was still a force to be reckoned with. But Kyrill had the clear upper hand. There was now only one axe to defend against, giving him ample opportunity to attack. After wrangling the man’s arm into an armbar, Kyrill held him in place and sent his shield bashing against the man’s face. Once, twice, three times. Greig reeled back, and with one final blow from his shield, Kyrill sent the man spinning to the ground, knocking him out cold. He hit the ground like a great felled tree, collapsed and defeated by a man with an axe.

Once it was clear things had settled, two faces poked out from the doorway to survey the scene. A man and a woman spotted their friend behind the cart and rushed to his side. The whipping had ripped through his shirt and opened a bright red gash across his back. Luckily for him, it wasn’t terribly deep. It was difficult to tell whether they were thankful for the intervention or not, but Aoife approached them just the same.

She stopped at Dorian’s unconscious body and rooted around in his cloak pockets until she found what she was looking for. She pulled out a coin purse. It was hard to say how much was inside, but it had a pleasing heft to it. She approached the whipped man, now back on his feet, and held out the coin purse for him to take.

“You deserve this more than he does.”

They said not a word, took the money, turned, and fled.

Isha was waiting at the doorway, beckoning the rest to enter.

“Shall we?” she said with a pep.

They crept through the confusing maze of hallways and rooms as quietly and carefully as they could manage. While finding Neera was their first priority, discovering any information about the sage or what concealed enterprises the lodge had its fingers in could also prove invaluable.

“But all we’ve found out so far is that they’re shit at architecture,” Isha whispered. “I mean, gods, who designed this place? It’s like some mad mage’s dungeon in here.”

Eventually, once they wound their way past the numerous storage and delivery rooms, they found themselves in a large butchery. Hooks hung from rafters that stretched from wall to wall overhead, racks were filled with an assortment of knives and cleavers, large woodblock tables were stained and chipped from years of use, and in the air lingered a scent of smoke, iron and death.

Against one wall were a dozen or so animal hides being stretched and tanned. Across from them sat crates filled with dried meats, barrels full of fresh apples, and sacks of salt, pepper and a number of spices. Isha stopped at the barrels as she rummaged through to find the perfect apple.

“Don’t mind if I do!”

The ceiling was a maze—an even more confusing one than the hallways they took to find the place—of tubes and ducts from the various smokers and fire pits that littered the room. Aside from the grand scale, it was fairly typical of what one could expect in a butchery.

Through an opening in the back wall was a much more unexpected sight. The room was much smaller, clean to the point of sterility, with a row of tables across the longer wall covered with an assortment of fine tools: knives and scalpels and the like. Small racks were filled with a meticulously-labeled assortment of salts, chemicals, herbs and reagents. Tubes and funnels and an entire apothecary worth of alchemical wonders. A dozen jars were filled with a murky, viscous liquid. In several of the jars floated eyes and brains and the various innards of what could only be guessed.

These were not things one typically found in a butchery.

Spread out on one of the tables was another hide, the sand-colored fur accentuated with a handful of stripes that struck across the sides like knives. Down the center of the hide was the most peculiar bit: a scale-like ridge, similar to the skin of an alligator. Each piece was hard as a rock, but independent of the others, layered one atop the other like shingles on a roof. The hide clearly hadn’t been cured or tanned, but instead appeared as if it were being studied. Calipers and a ruler sat atop a leatherbound book beside the hide as well as another chunk of innards floating in a jar of the same thick fluid.

“Psst! Hey, guys? Probably should take a look at this,” Moswen whispered from the corner of the room. He was gently holding a drape aside to peer behind it.

It was a body. A man, not young, not old, but definitely dead.

“Well that certainly doesn’t bode well,” Aoife said. “What do you think happened to him?”

His vest and shirt were ripped open to reveal a gaping wound in his chest, the flesh that surrounded it necrotic and rotting.

“It kind of looks like a sting,” Kyrill said, confused. “Like from a scorpion, only if the stinger was the size of my fist.”

“Had to be a monster then, right?” Moswen asked.

“Better question.” Isha took a crunchy bite of her apple and continued to talk while she chewed. “Slain by a monster or not, why’s some dead guy being kept in a butchery?”

“How can you eat with all... this?” Aoife asked, motioning towards the body of the man who likely died a horrific and agonizing death.

“My question wasn’t rhetorical,” Isha said before taking another bite.

No one had an answer.

“They’re doing something here. I don’t know what it is or for what purpose, but I’ve got a feeling in my gut it ain’t good.”


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