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Chapter 32 - Isha

Between the near slave-like conditions the refugees were pressured into and the strange goings on in the butchery, Erryk and the rest of the Whispers—however dwindling their numbers may be—were sure to find the information interesting. Isha had no clue what they would possibly do with the information, but it was valuable just the same. For all she knew, the two things might not even be related. The state of things among the refugees was dire, no doubt, but the oddness in the butchery could theoretically be nothing more than scientific curiosity, an attempt at learning more about the so-called monsters. It could also be just the tip of the iceberg, a hint at a more devious plot being undertaken while the empire is distracted and recovering from the loss of Everspring. She had no way of knowing for sure.

None of that mattered while Neera was still all on her own.

Isha put up a good facade, but truth be told, but she was scared shitless when she realized Neera was sneaking into the lodge all on her own. She wasn’t the helpless little girl she sometimes came off as. If anything, she was becoming more and more capable as time went on. That still didn’t stop Isha from worrying.

She didn’t want to tell the others, but she cared about the girl enough that the thought of her alone in a potentially dangerous place made her feel incredibly uneasy. Caring about people hadn’t exactly worked in her favor in the past. Aside from Roegan, who she was practically forced to befriend upon joining the Everguard, she didn’t really have friends. There were people with whom she was friendly, but none she could truly confide in. It was why her romantic life was nothing more than a string of one-night stands and flings. Fun as they may have been, it didn’t offer her any real comfort. Fun, but fleeting. Unfilling in the long run.

Neera had become like a little sister to her. She was practically family. As were Kyrill and Moswen. Even Aoife was growing on her. And that scared her. Those who you let get close become opportunities to be hurt and disappointed.

Too late for that.

She had to find Neera.

They continued on deeper into the lodge. The next room they discovered was long and narrow, clean as the last, and bare except for a string of tables stretching down the middle. On the far end of the room, a staircase was cloaked in shadow, the only apparent exit.

“The Hawk’s Roost sure does love their balconies, huh?” Aoife commented.

“Or whoever originally designed whatever building this room used to be a part of,” Moswen said as he walked through the doorway, careful not to stub his toe on the short curb that separated the two rooms. For a guy who could probably walk over hot coals with no problem, the makeshift transitions from room to room seemed to irritate the hell out of him.

The group split in two as they walked along either side of the long row of tables, headed towards the staircase. Each side of the tables were mirrored with those across from them, work areas adorned with identical tools and instruments like a production line. But for what?

The chiming sound of glass clinking against glass pulled their attention above them. On the balcony stood a man wearing a butcher’s apron over a white longcoat, eyes wide and frozen in place, holding a crate full of bottles and beakers. Isha slowly raised her hand to the man before speaking.

“Pardon us, sir, but—”

As soon as the words hit his ears, his spell was broken and he took off running. From their spot on the lower floor, there was little any of them could do. Kyrill took off towards the staircase, but it was clear on the other side of the room. Isha reached for her spear, but the man ran through a doorway and vanished from view.


It sounded like he ran headfirst into a wall, followed by a thump as he hit the ground and the sound of shattering glass as his crate crashed to the floor. Whatever he did, Isha could practically feel the wind get knocked out of him.

She held her arms wide, palms back as if she were holding the entire room quiet. Kyrill stopped on the balcony, Aoife held daggers in either hand, and Moswen kept an arrow nocked and ready. They held their breaths as the sound of crunching glass underfoot crept closer. A figure in the darkness slowly made their way towards the balcony.

“Neera!” she said, thrilled and relieved. She ran up the staircase, Moswen and Aoife in tow, to meet their little mage.

“Oh, hey!” Neera said, equally delighted. “What are you guys doing here? I was just trying to figure out a way back out to find you.”

“We came to help!” Kyrill said as he bounded along the balcony, scooping Neera up and off her feet in a big bear hug.

Having Neera back was a weight off Isha’s shoulders for sure, but she was still hesitant to share the fact. Luckily for her, Moswen was talkative as ever.

“We were worried about you!” he tried not to shout.

“You don’t need to worry about me,” the words barely capable of squeezing out from Kyrill’s grasp. “I know magic.”

“Yeah, it looks like you have things handled,” Moswen said, motioning towards the unconscious man surrounded by the colorful array of shards of glass.

“Duh! You don’t need to be worried about me all the time. I’m here to protect you.”

She was finally starting to gain a bit of confidence it seemed. Isha wasn’t sure if she should be proud or concerned. Probably both.

She doubted she would ever not worry about the girl. That much was only natural. But she realized Neera was more than capable of looking out for herself. She was still a naive kid, but the things that Isha seemed to worry about were physical dangers: monsters and men. Those, she knew, Neera could deal with.

“So, uh, I think I found the sage.”

“You think?” Isha asked.

“Well, I didn’t get an actual peek inside, but I... felt inside. There was someone chained up in a locked room at the end of a fancy hall with a bunch of nerdy books outside.”

“He’s a prisoner?”

“That changes things,” Aoife remarked.

“I think this little endeavor just became a rescue mission.”

Their initial assumption wasn’t terribly far from the truth: Rotwater had a sage and was secretly conducting business to further their goals with his help. That much was still likely true. Being forced into servitude, much like the refugees in the camps, was a minor detail in the grand scheme of things, but one that changed their entire gameplan. The nagging worry at the back of Isha’s mind had remained ever since she learned of the man’s existence: what if they find the sage and he simply refused to help? The voice had grown stronger as they chose to sneak and fight their way further into the lodge. Antagonism isn’t exactly a good starting point when asking someone for help, especially when you were coming into it without any leverage. Another barter with nothing to offer in return.

If he were being kept here against his will, however, they would have quite the enticing offer. He had the expertise they required, but they could offer him his freedom. More than a fair trade, Isha thought.

Neera led the group back through the twisting hallways, giving directions between fistfuls of Kyrill’s trail mix. The girl had worked up quite the appetite.

“Are you sure we’re heading the right way?” Aoife asked.

“I think so? This place is really confusing if you haven’t noticed,” Neera said with a hefty amount of snark.

As they turned a corner, two feet stuck out from another corner down the hall.

“Aha!” Neera gasped. “See? I told you we were on the right track.”

Guards. Two of them. And well-armored. Neera casually stepped over their unconscious bodies and beckoned the rest to follow, a shushing finger to her lips.

“What a badass,” Moswen whispered.

You’re not wrong, Moz, Isha thought, swelling with a surprisingly-placed pride.

The hallway wasn’t unlike the others in the area, but it did lead to a lone door at the end. That wasn’t saying much in a place where hallways sometimes led nowhere at all, but this particular hallway seemed deliberate. Isha couldn’t point her finger on exactly why—the layout of the lodge was much too confusing to make heads or tails of without an actual floor plan, if such a thing even existed—but she was sure this room was one of the most secure rooms in the entire multi-block complex.

Aoife pulled out her lockpicks just as Isha did. They shared a silent laugh and the two went back and forth in alternating “no, you” motions, not wanting to step on each other's toes. Neera brushed past them both, reached into her bag and closed her eyes. With a soft click, the door was unlocked. Neera turned and curtsied before stepping aside to allow the more physically-inclined to barge in.

Isha threw the door open and Kyrill went charging in.

“We’re here to—” he yelled, before a lump in his throat caught his words. His face went bright red as he stopped dead in his tracks. Before him stood a man, alone, fully nude.

“The fuck?” Aoife said, confused at the scene.

Isha scrambled to cover Neera’s eyes.

“I’ve seen a dick before!”

“Umm... hello,” the man said, both hands covering said dick.

The few times Isha had been surprised by the sight of a man’s naked body, that man either subsequently received a hearty pummeling from Isha’s fists or he was making a fool of himself in public, which is its own form of punishment. This was a first, as the man was clearly just as surprised as she was.

Standing before them, it was difficult not to take notice of the man. He was pale and quite lean, not very muscular, without an ounce of fat on his body. His light brown hair hung in long hardened strands well past his shoulders, so long it must not have been touched in years. The man being completely naked, Isha was understandably distracted, but still took notice of the finer, more telling details. His face was hidden behind a long, wild beard, but Isha could still tell the man was quite young. Something about it made it seem like it was part of a disguise, like he was hiding behind the hair. His tired, dull eyes hung with heavy bags underneath. He seemed as exhausted as the refugees outside, but clearly hadn’t done a day of hard labor in his life. His hands were delicate, his fingernails trimmed, his hands smooth and clean.

So not at all Isha’s type.

Kyrill cleared his throat. “We’re... here to rescue you.” There was no exclamation behind the words. He spoke slowly, uncertain and deflated, merely going through the motions. The room remained silent, not one of them stating the obvious: this man didn’t seem to be in need of saving.

The room was no prison cell. In fact, it was luxurious. Decadent, even. Nice. In the fancier inns, those who could afford it would often forgo renting a room, instead opting for an entire suite. Multiple rooms, private baths the size of pools, the works. This place put even those to shame. The spacious foreroom contained matching couches at the center, a fully-stocked personal bar and a beautifully-carved wood desk in the corner. In the opposite corner sat an ancient-looking grand piano, pristine in its condition.

Sitting on a table between the couches was an elaborate tray decorated with flower motifs. A long, slender pipe laid across it next to a small oil lamp.

Poppysmoke. Fucking great.

“Sooo, uh, two questions. Who are you and do you mind if I put my pants on? I’m feeling a little on the vulnerable side here.” He spoke with a slow, delayed cadence like he was only half awake.

And clearly still high.

“Yeah, please,” Isha quickly responded. “Put some pants on.”

He reached down with one hand and grabbed a pair of loose cloth pants from the floor, staring back at his too-captive audience with a look of growing impatience.

“Turn around,” he gently suggested.

“Mmmmm, no,” Isha immediately responded. “Not happening. We don’t know if we can trust you yet.”

“Trust me?” he said, holding his pants with one hand and awkwardly stepping into them. He struggled to pull them up while also concealing his manhood and coin purse. “You all bear weapons, armed to the teeth. I’m literally naked. Also? You’re the ones breaking in.”

“We thought we were rescuing you!”

“What?” he said with a laugh. “Lady, the door locks from the inside. Pretty sure I can leave whenever I want.”

“What about the shackles and restraints?” Neera asked. “If he wasn’t in ‘em, then who was?”

“No, that was me. I, uh...” he began, looking at Neera, then back to Isha. “The Hawk’s Roost has afforded me... certain indulgences for my assistance.”

Neera looked up to Isha with a confused look in her eyes. Isha brushed it off. Now wasn’t the time for a frank discussion on sexuality. Nor did Isha hope it ever would be. She may see the girl as a little sister, but she wasn’t prepared for that kind of advice. She wasn’t prepared for the talk. Especially if the talk would involve the details of particular kinks.

You see, when a man and a woman love each other, that’s where babies come from. And sometimes they tie each other up and torture each other, but playfully, until one of them says the magic word that means ‘stop,’ except the word isn’t actually ‘stop’ because they like being able to say it without actually meaning it.

“Wait. How did you know about those?” he asked. “And how’d you get in here anyways?”

Isha waved her hand, dismissing his words. “We’re asking the questions here. Not you.” Much to Isha’s discomfort, he almost seemed to enjoy the response. “You’re no prisoner, but you said you’re assisting The Hawk’s Roost. How? What are you doing here?”

“Sex, drugs and academic research. I’ve overheard some call it a bender, but—”

“You’re not answering the question,” Isha interrupted. “Why are you important? Who are you?”

“Andrissian Ghenn, philosopher, historian—oh, wait, you mean to Gavin and the Roost?” He puffed up his chest in mock importance. “Advisor to the Lord Chancellor,” he said with bravado. “Or whatever. Call me Anders.”

Aoife took a menacing step forward. “So you’re the one responsible for helping him exploit refugees?”

“Woah, exploit? We’re barely scraping by. Every MC under the roof of The Hawk’s Roost is barely scraping by. We’re struggling to stay afloat under the burden of looking after all the refugees. We’ve had to tighten things up quite a bit just to stay above water. Or mud, as it were. It’s one of the reasons getting a city charter in place is so important. The hundreds and hundreds of merchants within Rotwater are overflowing with coin, but the Roost doesn’t see a single lira of it. If we enacted even a light tax, there would be enough to support every refugee and MC in the city tenfold.”

“You’re telling me the guy hogging the spotlight in the gaudy robes is doing all this out of a philanthropic desire to help a bunch of refugees?”

“Ehh, not exactly. The man’s kind of an ass, to be honest. His goals might not be driven by the best of intentions, but he’s doing good things because of it. At first, all he wanted was for Rotwater to join the Conclave and become an actual city. Just ego. Things have changed since Everspring.”

“Are you a sage?” Neera asked, butting in and cutting straight to the chase.

“Was. I used to be a lot of things. Now, I’m just a man who’s read a lot of books trying to steer powerful idiots in the right direction.”

“Well, wanna help us save the world?”

He laughed at the audacity of the question.

“That’s cute. You know, I used to work trying to solve the bigger problems, but none ever as serious as saving the world. I’m still trying to do some good, but I know enough about the past to understand nothing I do now will ever really have any lasting impact.”

“Sounds pretty fatalistic,” Isha said.

“Actually, fatalism is more of a belief that everything is predetermined. You’re probably thinking of nihilism?”

Neera approached the man with determination in her steps. She held the ledger in her hands and opened it to a random page, shoving it in Anders’ face.

“Can you read this?”

“The hell? This is a cleric’s ledger.” Upon recognizing the ledger, Anders seemed to sober up instantly. He reached for the book, but Neera pulled it away, causing the man to stumble and almost trip. So maybe not that sober. “Why do you have that? Where did you get it?”

“So you know what it is. Can you read it?” Neera repeated, punctuating every word. Maybe it was her newfound success, but the girl had fight in her.

“I can. But you’re going to have to answer some of my questions now.”


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