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Chapter 37 - Moswen

Moswen sat on his knees and held a sizable chunk of dark rock against his thigh, rough and dusty in appearance save for the smooth, glassy edges where he had already been chipping away at it. It was the first step towards making new arrowheads, a painstaking process, but a soothing one as well. Focusing on the intricate task calmed him, allowed him to forget about his worries, letting the noise around him fade away.

Cracking flint into slender flakes, chipping away at and shaping the flakes into sharp edges, grinding out notches at the ends to help attach to his arrow shafts: each step was laborious and delicate and exactly what he needed to take his mind off the impending anxiety of entering The Howl.

Moswen had never once been to The Howl. In fact, Anders was the only one amongst them who had. The curious man had described it as a huge underground city. It wasn’t exactly a revelation—everyone knew The Howl as the City in the Mountains—but Anders spoke of the city with such reverence and wonder, highlighting details big and small that he personally appreciated. The man clearly held the city with the highest regards. It also seemed that he was worried if they didn’t make it in time, all those details would be lost, gone the way of Everspring.

“When we get there,” Anders said, “let me do the talking. It’s not as easy to gain an audience as it might have once been.”

They had already been walking for quite some time, stopping momentarily in the shade of a tall dune. The dry desert air was oppressive and made the hike to the mountains all the more difficult.

“I hope you can at least charm your way inside first,” Aoife replied. “I’ve heard it’s hard to even get through the front door as of late, what with the... well, everything.” She spread her arms wide, motioning to the world around them.

“Don’t worry about that. Just try to not soil your britches once we’re inside.”

The City of Caverns, as it was also so aptly referred to, consists of three primary massive caverns interconnected by a series of smaller caverns and tunnels. While the layout of the cave system had been altered and refined over the years, the rough, natural stone remained more or less untouched. It was a sense of gratitude, reverence for what the caves initially represented to the runaway slaves and the resulting insurgency. Living spaces were carved into the stone walls, streets were paved with the discarded stone, and buildings were erected using the natural materials of the caves. And all to an exquisite standard. But the cavern walls, the natural bridges and ledges and overhangs, the core of their city—their identity—remained unchanged.

“I still remember the first time I ever set eyes on the city,” he continued. “Right as you enter, it’s truly a sight to behold. One oftens thinks of caves as damp and cold and nothing but jagged rock, not lush and green and brimming with life.”

Isha scoffed at the remark.

“The first cavern is called the Loch, named after the small freshwater lake near the entrance, the reason it’s one of only two areas in the entire city capable of supporting plant life. The layout of the cavern is... strange at first. Beautiful and grand, but peculiar. For a city designed to celebrate the natural cave formations, the layout of the Loch was oddly geometric. City streets twisted and turned and hugged the curving cavern walls, but a stark line carved right through the middle of the cavern, perfectly straight on either edge, slowly expanding as it stretched further towards the back of the cavern.”

Anders held his hands flat and slowly widened the gap between them as he extended his arms, mimicking the shape.

“The middle section was dedicated to farmland and produce, meticulously designed and sectioned off, with short stone walls separating it from the streets and buildings beyond. It was as if someone plopped an exacting strip of farmland down into the naturally chaotic flow of the cave, like two gods collaborating during creation, except one of them was obsessively particular. But it all made sense as the doors at the cave mouth were opened and the sun came into view, passing over the farm areas, perfectly following the geometric lines of the stone walls. A shrine to the god of the sun.”

“They designed the place to make use of every bit of sunlight they were afforded,” Kyrill said, suddenly knowledgeable about the topic. “Back in Shaded Seed, a good friend of mine had a lush and bountiful garden.”

“Camilla,” Moswen said.

Kyrill shook his head. “She was always concerned about how much water her plants were getting. Too little and they wither and die. Too much and they actually drown. If a heavy rain came, she would worry to no end. But as she would sometimes say, she could always rely on the sun. To the people of The Howl, she probably took it for granted. Living in a cave, that small window of sun is their lifeline. And without it, they starve.”

“It’s no wonder they hold it in such high regards,” Anders continued. “My favorite thing about that first cavern—the part I find most beautiful—is the back of the cave where the sun hits the wall, that lush greenness climbing up to take advantage of every bit of surface in the cave lucky enough to be bathed in light. And on either side of it, the cavern splits off into two separate tunnel systems, connected by a gorgeous, arching bridge that spans the entire gap above the greenery as to not intrude on the sun whatsoever.”

“Do you think I would be allowed to draw it?” Neera asked. “It sounds really pretty.”

“Of course. And it is! And there’ll be plenty more for you to see as well. As long as we get there in time to warn them. So let’s get moving. No time to waste!”

Moswen packed up his arrowheads and they continued on their trek towards the City of Caverns. He had become quite accustomed to leading the way, partial to being the one to help navigate his companions through the wilderness. It was how he felt he could contribute the most. He never felt like he was a very proficient fighter. He just stood in the back firing off arrows most of the time. And he wasn’t exactly a savvy talker, but he knew his way around the wilds. Until now. He’d never been south of the Inner Sea. And why would he? It’s all just desert and dry mountains. But at the southernmost end of those deserts, tucked away inside those dry mountains, sat an unwelcoming city bristling with unfriendly people. Or so he imagined.

This part of the empire was unfamiliar territory to him. He still paid attention to the direction of the sun, mentally making notes of their route, but it wasn’t enough to take his mind off things. It was the same old story all over again. The closer they got to any city or barren, the worse his anxiety became.

“You said there were three caverns, right?” Neera asked.

Anders nodded his head. “There are.”

“Well?” She motioned with her hands for him to hurry it up, as if he were telling a story and had stopped half way through.

“All right, all right.” Anders laughed. “Well, of the three caverns, the only other one I’ve really spent a significant amount of time in is Skye. And even having experienced the awe-inspiring views of the Loch, Skye blew me away just the same.”

Neera seemed visibly pleased with the continuation of the story. But it wasn’t even a story, though. It was hardly even an anecdote. There was no action, no decisions, and definitely no heroes or villains. Anders was just describing the place. It was just a setting. All that being said, it didn’t stop Moswen from feeling jealous towards the man. First Anders took over navigation and now he’s regaling the group with tales of decreasingly-far-away lands. Those were his things. Moswen might have been angry if he wasn’t so preoccupied with dread.

“Now I wouldn’t recommend trying to climb the outside of the mountains The Howl is held within. A number of people have died trying. But if you did, you would find a gap somewhere between the two tallest peaks of the range where the cavern ceiling has long since collapsed.”

He paused for a moment, looking for the right word.

“Some call it the sinkhole... though I’m sure that’s not the correct term. I’m a historian, not a geologist. Anyways, Skye is the only other area capable of supporting plant life due to the sinkhole being a great source of sunlight. And let me just say it is stunningly beautiful, like the light of the gods shining down from on high. And the sinkhole itself is ringed with trees and draping greenery that hangs down into the cavern, oftentimes dripping with water like a constant light rain. Through the shifting angles of light from above, it’s quite the sight to behold.”

“I thought The Howl was supposed to be this impenetrable fortress,” Isha commented. “A giant hole in the ceiling doesn’t seem all that safe.”

“True. Aside from the front door, the sinkhole remains the single opening to the outside of the city that hasn’t been barricaded or collapsed. But remember, climbing the treacherous mountain range is nearly impossible, and certainly not a viable option for any sort of invasion. Still, every way out of the cavern has been reinforced, and doubly so. Even with the seeming impossibility of being attacked from above, they spared no precautions.”

“Okay, number three! Last one!” Neera exclaimed with excitement.

“I’m afraid this one isn’t gonna be as exciting as the others, Neera. In fact, even though it’s just as sizable as Skye or the Loch, it bears a similarity closer to the smaller out-of-the-way caverns found throughout The Howl. It’s mostly just calm and quiet. Ironic, given that it was once connected directly to the sea, the source of the howling sound the city was named after. That connection to the sea is why they named it the Pier. That and the humongous twisting pillar of stone in the center of the cavern that supports the surrounding network of bridges and causeways like a huge dock piling.”

“A giant pillar sounds cool, I guess.”

“It’s kinda hard to see, to be honest. The whole place feels more like a real cave, cloaked in darkness save for the light of burning torches and lamps throughout. The Pier is mostly residential, with a spattering of shops and markets thrown into the mix. For those that call The Howl home, it’s likely not a big deal, but as a newcomer I found it to be incredibly confusing. It’s the one area that might have been better off had they not stuck so closely to the natural formations of rock. Deep and equally wide natural channels wound through the ground floor like trenches, the beginnings of what is now a multi-level street system. Buildings grew tall and connected to the dwellings carved into the cave walls. Think of it like the streets of Rotwater at night, but several layers high and stretching up the walls.”

All this focus on describing the grand vastness of The Howl wasn’t helping Moswen one bit. Even the calming act of chipping away at new arrowheads wouldn’t have been enough to quell the sense of unease growing deep in his gut.

“As if all those people weren’t gonna make it feel claustrophobic enough already.”

“You alright, Moz?” Anders asked. “Sound worried.”

Shit, did I say that out loud?

“Oh, he’s just whining,” Isha said. “He hates big cities, that’s all.”

Anders looked at him closely, examining him, trying to eek out what laid beneath the surface.

“No, it’s more than that. Right?”


“You’ve been looking more and more uncomfortable the closer we get,” Anders continued. “Just the thought of being surrounded by people makes you uneasy, doesn’t it?”

Godsdammit. He’s gonna make me talk about it now, isn’t he?

“Yes. It does,” Isha answered for him. “It’s not like he doesn’t care or isn’t listening, but he gets really quiet, not nearly as talkative normal.”

“I’m not trying to be rude or anything,” he said. “It’s just...”

“Overwhelming,” Anders finished for him.

“Yeah, overwhelming. When I’m in a city I feel surrounded, like I’m hyper aware of everything going on around me. I hear everything in sharp tones, see everything in bright colors, smell everything as if they were right there in front of me. It’s too much. I can’t focus.”

“And it feels hard to breathe. You’re describing an anxiety attack.”

“Gee, thanks, doc. I had no idea,” Moswen snapped back, his words coated in sarcasm and agitation. “Sorry. The whole thing makes me irritable. Used to be if I wasn’t careful, it would spiral out of control, the anxiety feeding into itself and causing even more. All I can think about in those moments is being alone, somewhere private. As much as I hate to admit it, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in latrines and outhouses.”

Anders laid a soft, gentle hand on Moswen’s shoulder. His eyes were patient and caring. When he spoke, he did so like no one else was around to hear.

“Moz, I’d like you to try something for me. Just for a moment.”

Moswen shook his head, awaiting the potentially life-altering insight about to be bestowed upon him.

“Consider the possibility that we live in a meaningless universe and life has no inherent value. It just is.”

“The fuck, Anders?” Isha said, surprised as he was.

“For a second, I thought you were trying to make me feel better.”

“I am, just... hang with me for a second. If life has no inherent value, then direction and purpose are what gives it meaning, two things heavily lacking in the chaos since Everspring’s destruction. You as an individual are an agent of choice free to do as you please, but responsible for the consequences of your actions. Our choices are what define us.”

Seeing his audience wasn’t totally buying his proposed line of reasoning, he elaborated.

“We have collectively made the choice to pursue the Drae and put a stop to their plans. That is the choice we made. That is who we are. In the wake of Everspring, others have taken the opportunity to lie, cheat and steal. And from your stories, it sounds like you’ve met a lot of them. They made their choices and suffered the consequences of their actions. Our choices are what define us,” he repeated the words, slowly, clapping his hands to punctuate the sentence. “With such freedom, though, comes fear and anxiety from a lack of control in a world much greater than yourself. What you’re feeling is not uncommon.”

“And how exactly is knowing that supposed to help me?”

“Because common problems have common solutions. And I just so happen to know a way to help temper those feelings. You already have direction. You have purpose. The goal then is authenticity. Living in the moment and acting as you believe in that moment. Let the rest just fade away.”

Like carving arrowheads, he thought.

“When you start to feel that anxiety starting to build up again, I’d like you to try something.”

Anders went on to teach Moswen a meditation technique. It was simple enough. By regulating his breathing—in through the nose, out through the mouth—he could re-center himself and calm his mind. Feel the energy as he breathed in, rising to the head then flowing down over his shoulders and across his back, dissipating into the ground below him. By making the breath itself the object of his focus, he could let everything else, all that outside noise, just fall to the wayside. Live in the moment. Mind over body.

“It’ll take practice, but it helps. Believe me.”

Moswen breathed in through his nose, out through his mouth, repeated it. It was hard to say if it actually worked or if it was due to the fact that someone was extending a helping hand, but he was feeling better.


“You know, Anders,” Aoife said, “when we set off for Rotwater, I imagined the sage we were seeking was going to be... well, old. You’re quite wise for being so relatively young.”

"Insight comes not with age, but experience. And I've experienced quite a lot."

“Sex, drugs and academic research, was it?”

“Amongst other things,” he laughed. “To grow is to experience yourself, both your triumphs and your shortcomings. Use that understanding and allow yourself to be vulnerable, open, accepting, naked.”

“Oh, we’ve already seen you very naked.”

Anders blushed, but they all shared a hearty laugh, lightening the mood.

They continued their trek south, the dry desert air not quite as oppressive as it once was. The range of mountains in the distance was clear as day, dark browns and tans and the faintest outline of green creeping along the ridge. Their angular, rocky faces were growing ever nearer. After some time, they reached the crest of a rocky dune high enough to catch sight of their entrance: a slender ravine that cut its way through the rock wall and ventured deeper into the chasm.

The craggy walls of the ravine were tall and entirely untraversable, the perfect defense for the entrance to the mountain citadel. It was claustrophobic, but Moswen practiced his breathing technique, focused on the breath and let everything else fade away. Even if it was all bullshit, it was a nice reminder that he was in the company of people he could trust. People who cared. That alone was a relieving reminder.

At the end of the ravine stood their grand entrance: a huge, reinforced cave mouth ringed with detailed stonework. But the portcullis was raised, the doors were wide open, and bodies laid strewn about the entrance.

They were too late.

In through the nose.

Out through the mouth.


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Posted by Matt on 12.02.20
Our choices 👏 are what 👏 define us 👏
the empire
The Howl
The Mazewilds
The Shelf
Shaded Seed
Wayfarer's Ridge
A Gentle Scar
Tiller's Hamlet