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Chapter 38 - Isha

It was a bloodbath.

At least a dozen bodies carpeted the sandy ground, the surface slick with pools of black blood. Javelins and spears sprouted from the ground like hellish reeds growing from the recently fertilized soil. Discarded weapons and shields peppered the battlefield, as useless now as they had likely been in the hands of those now dead before them.

With just a glance, it was clear to Isha that the Drae had been behind it. Many of the dead had clearly been killed by a number of beasts, some torn to pieces by razor-sharp claws, others trampled and crushed under the weight of something much larger. One man’s chest seemed to have been impaled with a large horn or something. But other bodies were killed more surgically and precise, the work of finely-sharpened blades.

“H-h-halt right there!” a voice yelled out from the ridgeline above them.

They looked scared shitless. Two men, partially hidden behind the wall of stone, looked down upon Isha and her companions, their eyes darting from one to another, unsure of who to direct their attention to.

“Greetings, gentlemen,” Anders called up to them as he took a step forward. “Are you hurt? We’re here to—”

“S-stop where you are!” the man shouted again, raising his spear while he trembled in his boots. A mess of shallow scratches crisscrossed over his face, blood mixing with the sweat drenching his heavy brow. He looked beyond beaten. Under normal circumstances, Isha would be threatening the man to stand down, but she trusted Anders to handle the situation with a bit more tact. He was proving himself to be a welcome addition to the group more and more. Isha was more than capable of handling a few men with sharpened sticks, but these were the people they were supposed to be helping. A gentler hand was probably for the best.

Ander raised his arms in submission. “We do as you say, but I assure you we mean you no harm.”

“They clearly ain’t with them,” the other guard said.

“Tell us who y’are,” the man with the scratched face demanded, his tone growing less fearful.

“My name is Anders. My friends and I are here to help, though it appears we may have arrived too late. We’ve traveled from Rotwater, hunting the very beasts responsible for all this.”

The man lowered his weapon and wiped his brow with his forearm, leaving a faint streak of blood and sweat now mixed with dirt.

“Weren’t just beasts. Men, too.”

“We know,” Anders replied, his head lowered in sullen disposition. “The Drae.”

“Drae?” his friend asked, incredulous. “Like them children’s books?”

“It’s a long story, but that’s not important. Can you tell us what happened here?”

“Look around,” the scratch-faced man said, still clearly afraid, but not of Anders and the rest of their party. “Speaks for itself.”

Anders was, of course, looking for details not readily discernible at a glance from simply looking at the aftermath. One detail was apparent, though: it all happened quite recently. It hadn’t even been long enough for the blood to dry.

The Drae were inside, Isha was sure of it.

“Was just the beasts at first,” the man continued. “Whole lot of ‘em attacked from the ground. That big cat there,”—he pointed towards the corpse of what looked like another ridgeback cougar like the one mounted on the wall of the Hawk’s Roost—“a huge hairy elephant-looking thing, a bear with a big ole bird’s beak, a whole mess of actual birds...”

“They weren’t actual birds,” his friend interrupted. “You had a close enough look at ‘em...”

“Whatever. Those of us guarding from the ridgeline up here were safe, but as soon as we started chuckin’ spears down below, that flock of birds came right for us. Like they was coordinated or somethin’.”

“That what happened to your face?” Isha asked.

“Yeah, clawed me up some’in’ fierce. Woulda killed me, too, weren’t for Malcolm caught it with a spear. Nearly got me with it. Skewered the bastard like a kabob.” He gave a little laugh as his words trailed off, lost in thought.

“Mal didn’t make it,” his friend said. “He was young, new to the patrol, looked up to us, you know? He was still scared o’course, like all of us were, but he was lookin’ so proud, heroic even. He was smilin’ when he turned towards me, for a second at least. His eyes went wide and he pushed me to the ground, not a word uttered. Another bird came swoopin’ in, but much, much bigger. Grabbed Mal in its talons and just carried him off. Kid saved both our lives today.”

“And it weren’t no bird like I ever seen,” the scratch-faced man continued. “If you even wanna call it a bird. Bigger ‘an all hell, like a giant hawk or somethin’, but with a mane like a lion. Ain’t no little bird legs, neither. Big, muscley ones. And a long tail, but not with feathers or nothin’. Like a cat or a monkey.”

“That was around the time they showed up, the men with white hair.”

“White hair?” Isha asked. She looked to Aoife for some kind of confirmation, but she merely shrugged in return.

“Ain’t proud to admit,” Scratchface said, “but we got hidin’ quick at that point so didn’t get a great look at ‘em all, but yeah, white hair, all of ‘em. And not sun-bleached or nothin’, but white like an old man’s beard.”

That was an odd detail to discover. And surely not coincidental. Could that be some sort of side effect of their magic abilities? If so, were all of the Drae capable of some sort of magic? Whoever was controlling the beasts certainly was, but all of them? An uneasy chill crept up Isha’s spine at the thought. But Neera didn’t have white hair. Neither did Chione or Leven. It must have been something else then. At least it would make it easy to spot the good guys from the bad once they were in the shit.

“There’s no shame in surviving an unwinnable fight,” Anders said. “Your survival means you’re still here to help us now.”

“I guess.”

“Did you get a good look at their numbers?” Isha asked.

“Briefly. Wil pulled me down under the ridge after the bird scratched up my face, but I caught a quick glance down below. Hard to say how many exactly, but couldn’t’ve been more than I can count on my two hands. Maybe a dozen tops?”

“Strange thing is,” the man apparently called Wil said, “before any of that started, the portcullis was raised, but nobody came out.”

“And it ain’t supposed to open ‘less we give the okay first, and only then for a short time.”

“We was waiting for someone to leave, but not a soul came. That’s when we noticed the beasts approaching. Like even that was coordinated.”

“Our calls to close the doors must ‘ave gone unheard.”

“Either that or we’ve got some backstabbin’ assholes in the ranks that need talkin’ to.”

So maybe it wasn’t going to be easy to spot the good guys from the bad after all.

“Whatever it was,” Wil continued, “as soon as the gates went up the beasts arrived and all hell came rushin’ out to cut our boys down. I tell ya, it was coordinated.”

Isha had to agree. She had stopped believing in coincidence when it came to anything that had to do with the Drae. Even with that coordination, though, it hadn’t been a total massacre. The Howl’s guards had taken out a few of the attacking beasts during their defense: the large cat and a couple birds. It may not have been much, but it gave Isha a good indication of the strength and ability of the attacking force. If they were to survive an encounter with the Drae, they had to be careful and pick their fights, but it didn’t seem impossible.

“So, you’re really headin’ inside to fight?” Scratchface asked.

“We are,” Anders said, brimming with assuredness. Doing so hadn’t exactly been their first plan, but they knew it was a possibility. Isha just hoped the rest were all as ready as Anders seemed to be.

“I’m comin’ with you then.”

He threw a rope ladder over the ridge and began climbing down to join them.

We are,” Wil corrected him, standing proud and determined. “They may’ve caught us off guard before, but now we know what to expect.”

“Besides, ain’t like we can let you rush in and save the day while we sit out here twiddlin’ our thumbs like a couple o’ swingin’ dicks.”

“We’re joinin’ ya.”

Scratchface—whose real name was Camden, Isha learned—and Wil led the way inside. They followed the trail of carnage, slow and careful. Isha was tempted to go charging in headfirst, but held back. Barely. They were already too late to warn the people of The Howl ahead of time so every moment they hesitated felt like more people were being needlessly slaughtered. And she likely wasn’t wrong, but they needed to remain smart about their approach.

From the mouth of the cave, jagged pillars of stone followed the downward slope before diving into the crystal clear lake at the end. A winding, but solidly-constructed bridge snaked its way through the rocky gaps, suspended over a natural chasm. It ended at a bridge platform just above the water that split in either direction, two leaning palms creating the perfect frame for a lookout point. Under normal circumstances, it would be quite the romantic spot in the waning light, the giggling of shy lovers and the concealed sounds of pleasure filling the atmosphere. As it were, the stretching shadows and dim light felt only ominous, their soundtrack one of agony and pain and sorrow.

The bloodbath outside was fresh, but the chaos inside was even more recent. People all around were hurt, scrambling to flee. To help. Panic. Past the lake, farmland was trampled and demolished. Crops were set ablaze, dozens of people desperately trying to quell the flames with bucket after bucket of water from the lake.

Isha was moments away from confronting the Drae, surrounded by people who could all use her help, but her mind was focused on one person: Gavin Rhames, the Lord fucking Chancellor of fuck all. It was on his orders that the Silver Hammers chased them down in the forest. It was his pettiness that had forced them to waste precious time. It was his bruised, little ego that desperately needed mending. And what did their subsequent confrontation even result in? A broken leg for Samwell, Neera temporarily poisoned, and at least two members of the Silver Hammers splitting from the team. The time wasted was the most significant loss, more than enough to have made a difference. If Rhames hadn’t been so petty and just let them go, they might have been able to warn The Howl of the oncoming threat.

But he didn’t. The asshole.

And now they were surrounded by carnage. It was mayhem. Those who fought back laid dead or wounded in the streets, others precariously made their way to them to help, most remained in hiding, huddled and praying for safety.

But the gods won’t help you here.

Wil and Scratchface rushed to peoples’ sides to help. They weren’t just people, not to them. They were their friends, family, neighbors. They knew these people, even if they didn’t. None were strangers at a time like this. They tended to who they could, helping the people in desperate need of attention. Seeing them up close, Isha realized how sloppy the Drae had been. Dozens upon dozens of people were maimed and injured, but very few had actually been killed. And almost none suffered more than surface wounds.

Isha imagined this was what it must have been like in Everspring. There was still a small part of her that regretted not being there. It wasn’t like she could have made any significant difference. If anything, all that would have meant is she likely would have died with the rest. She was lucky to have been outside the city walls when everything happened.

People all around Isha were preoccupied with tending to the wounded, putting out fires, getting people to safety. But just beyond them, the fight was raging on. It wasn’t over. The Drae had cut a clear path through the Loch to the back of the cave, towards the tunnels that led to Skye. From them could be heard the sounds of clashing metal and the wailing cries of fear echoing faintly in the distance. Hard as it was to turn and leave those they could immediately help, Isha knew the real fight was further in. They had no choice but to follow.

Skye would be a beautiful setting for the bloody fight to come.

“We need to move!” she yelled. She held a commanding presence, calling the attention of the now seven people under her wing. And the attention of several civilians as well. Neera looked up to her, waiting for guidance and direction. She wasn’t the only one. They all were. Isha realized she was standing at the top of a staircase, looking down to everyone like a commander addressing her troops. Wil and Scratchface stopped what they were doing, Kyrill and Moswen stood side-by-side awaiting instructions, even Anders was deferring to her command.

“It’s time to be a leader, Isha,” Roegan’s words echoed in her mind. It seemed like so long ago. She missed him, wished he were fighting alongside her.

Time to make the old man proud.

“Through those tunnels lies Skye,” she shouted, not a scream, but loud enough for her voice to carry above the hectic noise of a city in panic. “And within it awaits a group of shitty, little assholes hellbent on the complete destruction of this city. We will not. Let. That. Hap—”

Her words were cut short as she winced at the pain of a sudden and powerful heachache. It wasn’t a sharp pain, but a tension, a pressure. Like a weird inner ear thing.

“Sorry, I—”

Every one of them had a similar look of discomfort. Neera even dropped to her knees as she gripped the sides of her head. Whatever it was, they all felt it, too. Definitely not a coincidence, then.

“You felt that, too, huh?” Aoife asked her as she bent down to help Neera to her feet.

“Fuckin’ hell,” Wil said, rubbing his brow with the ball of his palm. “Think we all felt whatever that was.”

Isha surveyed the surrounding area to see dozens of other people all rubbing their temples and shaking their heads. Everyone had felt it.

Everyone but Moswen.

The young hunter didn’t look in pain, not affected whatsoever. More concerned and inquisitive than anything else. He turned his head and made direct eye contact with Isha, his expression now one of realization.

“We need to go this way,” he said, pointing across the bridge towards the tunnels that led to the Pier.

“Headache mess with yer ears or somethin’, kid?” Scratchface asked. “She just said Skye. That’s down this way.”

“You hear all that bangin’ an’ wailin’ come out the tunnels?” Wil added. “Action’s clearly down this way.”

“No— I mean, yes, they’re fighting in Skye, but something else is happening down there towards the Pier. I can feel it.”

“I think Moz is right,” Neera added, still wincing and holding a hand to her head.

A sudden, rushing breeze swept past them, rustling the trees and crops as it moved through what greenery hadn’t been destroyed. With it came a deep whistling sound that echoed through the cavern.

Impossible as it may be, the city was howling once again.

“It’s a distraction,” Isha said, everything so immediately clear to her. It was almost as if she had known what the Drae’s game plan had been all along. It was the same as Everspring, she was sure of it. The Drae didn’t need to concern themselves with actually killing anyone, not really. They were killing time. “Skye, I mean. It’s a distraction. They’re drawing the city’s attention away from the Pier. However they destroyed Everspring, they’re doing it again. Right now.”

“It’s the wellsprings,” Anders concluded. “Has to be.”

“So we just abandon all those people in Skye?” Wil argued. “Let ‘em just get slaughtered?”

“If we don’t stop whatever they’re doing in the Pier, everyone is as good as dead,” Isha yelled. Scratchface and Wil didn’t fully understand what was at stake. They couldn’t. But there wasn't time to explain it either.

“And if we don’t help them now, they’re dead just the same.”

“And that’s why we’re splitting up,” she said. “Moswen, Neera, you’re with Anders. Moz seems capable of tracking down whatever is causing this. Anders, you know things. Neera knows magic.”

“We’ll stop them,” Anders said. “The rest of you, go save some lives.”

“Are you sure?” Kyrill asked, the question directed more at Moswen than Isha or Anders.

“We’ll stop them. Now go.”

“You heard the man,” Isha said. “The rest of you are with me. Let’s go kill some fucking Drae.”


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