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Chapter 41 - Moswen

The parts of ourselves that scare us the most, the things we’ve been running from for as long as we can remember, they scare us because we know them to be true. They help define us, for better or for worse, core to who we are. Our ideals and values, the things that drive us, the people we love and the people we hate: even when we try to hide or deny them, we cannot escape from the influence of our own personal truths.

Deep down, Moswen had always known who he was, but had long denied it. Embracing his truth had saved The Howl, but now he was forced to confront the thing he had so desperately and for so long hoped was false.

He remained motionless, deep in thought. He stared down at the body of the man at his feet, his stark white hair streaked with blood. It had taken but two arrows: one in his shoulder and one in his eye. Two arrows and The Howl had been saved.

Could it be him? His father? Or was it the man he shot in the narrow streets below? Maybe Kyrill had killed him back in Skye. Maybe he was still alive. He didn’t know if that would be better or worse.

Moswen’s focus was broken as he turned to see Kyrill come barreling into the room. It wasn’t until then that he realized the wind had fully died down and the barrier was gone. Things were calm once again, stable.

As Kyrill scooped Moswen up off the floor into a tight bear hug, tears began to stream down his face. It was a confusing cry brought on by a number of factors, but mostly relief. The Howl was saved and he was back by the side of his best friend. Or, at least currently, being crushed against the man’s chest while his feet dangled in the air.

Kyrill had run off on his own to find Moswen, but peering over the big man’s shoulder, he saw the rest had followed shortly behind. Even a groggy Neera, whom Mosen was glad to see was doing alright. The only one missing was Camden. From the varied emotions on Wil’s face, Moswen didn’t need to ask what happened.

Anders seemed especially relieved to find that Moswen was also alive and well. It must have been hard for the man to have left Moswen all alone, but Neera’s wellbeing was at stake. It all worked out in the end. Plus, Moswen was able to confront his innermost fears and do what needed to be done to save The Howl. He didn’t know if he would have been able to go through with it if he hadn’t been alone.

But he wasn’t. Kyrill had seen it all. That was definitely the weirder element of the near-literal whirlwind of a day, a surprise that he had thankfully been forced to compartmentalize and had been dulled by the weight of the escalating situation throughout the city. Moswen and Kyrill’s bond was even stronger than they had realized, but there had been too many other factors at play for him to focus his attention on it. What could have easily resulted in an existential crisis was diverted merely due to being overwhelmed with a number of other crises.

Having successfully dealt with said crises, Moswen was now free to think, left with the certainty that he was different. But he had always been different. It was one of the major reasons he didn’t like being around people. The more people there were, the more likely someone would take notice of him, question his mannerisms or see through the facade, realize he didn’t belong. It’s how he was raised, a habit that became so ingrained it was no less a part of who he was than his fondness for storytelling.

Anders, having fulfilled his obligations in ensuring Moswen wasn’t dead, turned his attention to the room beyond. Specifically, the thing he was truly most interested in: the wellspring. Sure enough, his hypothesis had been proven correct. In the center of the room was yet another eruption of roots like tentacles breaching the hull of a ship. Until now, he’d only seen poorly sketched drawings and heard Aoife describe what she had seen. This one, however, he was able to see in person. He was enthralled.

They still had no idea how any of it worked or how it was even started, but it was safe to say the wellsprings were somehow connected to the unnatural disasters, possibly even the source themselves.

Beside the wellspring, the body of the Drae laid dead, his hands slick with blood from long gashes in the palms of each. Nobody seemed put off by the morbid sight, or at least not put off enough to not still celebrate their victory. What was one dead body when they had already witnessed a city littered with dead and orders of magnitude more wounded?

They were all together, safe and sound, embracing one another with open arms. They were happy. Still, Moswen couldn’t help but imagine how the rest of the city must have been reeling from the chaos of the day. A weight was certainly lifted from his shoulders, that was certain, but even inside a space that was purposely detached from the rest of the city, he couldn’t not think of the actual residents of The Howl. They survived a near disaster, but hadn’t come out of it unscathed. They would surely be mourning for a time to come. With all the misery he knew surrounded them, Moswen couldn’t help but wonder:

Is this what winning really looks like?

“He even deflected my last arrow mid air,” Aoife exclaimed. “Like it was nothing.”

“Holy shit, really?”

Moswen needed a distraction from the nagging worry weighing down his thoughts. And what better distraction than sharing stories. Even if those stories were nothing more than retellings of what the rest had gone through in Skye, it was something.

“Her one arrow gets a ‘holy shit’,” Isha complained, “but him deflecting attack after attack from me and Kyrill and Wil didn’t get so much as a ‘woah’?”

“What? It’s impressive.”

“Bows are the superior weapon,” Aoife added.

“Superior? A bow may be safer if all you wanna do is hide in the back, but face to face? Can never go wrong with a spear.”

“If it really came down to it, I could put a couple arrows in you long before you ever got close enough to use your pig poker, believe me. Then I'll have a bow AND a spear!”

“Except when you can’t, like the swordsman. Besides, if you had a bow trained on me, I’d just stick to cover. You can’t pressure me if I just stay away. In a fair fight, my pig poker would clearly be the victor.”

“When are fights ever fair?” Aoife said with a playful smile and a sly wink.

Moswen was terrible at reading into these sorts of things, but he could swear Aoife was flirting.

“Okay, first of all,” he intervened, “neither of you refer to Heartpiercer as a pig poker. Secondly, though... I don’t think you’re gonna convince the archers to agree with you on this one, Ish.”

“Yeah, well, everyone who’s me agrees with me.”

Aoife sucked in through her teeth. “She makes a good point, Moz.”

They all shared a hearty laugh.

News of their success against the attacking forces had spread rather quickly amongst the populace, thanks mostly to Wil’s bragging. It didn’t come across negatively, nor was it done incessantly. That’s because he wasn’t bragging about himself. Wil spent most of his time telling people of both Malcolm and Camden’s courage and valor. He was stretching the truth, sure, but he did so in service of his deceased friends, men who died protecting the people of their city. He was honoring them with a eulogy fit for heroes. Because they were.

Moswen also knew it just made for a more interesting and engaging story.

Wil had long since returned to his family, but not before he helped secure a place for the rest of them to stay for the night. The Howl was a fairly insular city and didn’t get much outside traffic, but the city wasn’t completely devoid of inns and rooms for board. Wil had done even better: a guest house in a small villa located just beyond the cluster of buildings that connected to the pillar. Their residence for the night came complete with a luxurious balcony blessed with a view of the entire cavern. As the night went on, the lanterns and fires that illuminated the curving landscape before them went out, blanketing larger and larger swathes of the cavern in darkness.

The villa was owned by an older retired couple who now spent their days making their own wine from grapes one of their sons grew in the Loch. Like the room, the wine was on the house. They insisted even though the Drae had destroyed whole fields of crops and their source of ingredients could very well be at risk. Judging by how quickly Aoife and Isha were emptying their bottles, it was damn good wine, too.

“You haven’t even told them the scariest bit!” Isha proclaimed with excitement.

“Oh, yeah! The swordsman was bad, but...” Aoife leaned in like she was about to tell everyone a secret that she didn’t want others to hear. When she spoke, however, she seemed to have forgotten to lower her voice. “We saw the giant bird thing! Way too up close and much too personal.”

She went on to describe the beast and it’s odd amalgamation of features. That seemed to be a recurring theme amongst the monsters they had encountered. They were recognizable, but different. Altered. Or mutated. Whatever it was that caused it sure seemed to enjoy making them as terrifying as possible. The stuff of nightmares, they were. Someone was going to need to give the things names or classifications or something if things kept up like they were. Perhaps Rotwater already was.

“That’s how the swordsman got away. Just leapt off the ledge and the bird caught him in his claws and flew away.”

“What an exit,” Moswen said.

“You’re telling me.”

“We were at least able to kill one of the Drae before the rest made their grand escape,” Isha said proudly.

Neera had been uncharacteristically quiet, her head buried in her drawing pad. She had been listening intently, but hadn’t so much as raised her eyes since she had sat down. Until then, that is.

“Only one? We got three!”

“Four, technically,” Moswen corrected her.

Her boasting finished, Neera returned to her drawing pad. The edges were dirty with charcoal smudges and fingerprints, but in the center of the page was the beginnings of something truly inspired. Isha had finally decided on what her next tattoo was going to be: a phoenix. And Neera was designing it. The mythical bird of lore was quite the apt artistic representation of the things they’d all been through. The landscape of the empire had drastically changed in recent months. For many people, their old lives had ended and new ones had begun. A rebirth. Isha counted herself among them, now driven with a fiery passion. She was the phoenix.

Also, it looked really cool.

“You’re both forgetting a very important detail,” Kyrill said. He was calm, yet somber. He paused, every one of them waiting for him to continue with whatever revelation he wanted to remind them of. “The swordsman called out to the man riding the bird, said his name.” He paused again, hesitant, not wanting to be the bearer of bad news.

“Raaz,” Isha said, who seemed to have instantly sobered up. She clearly hadn’t forgotten. Was she trying to forget? Or merely procrastinating from addressing it just yet. Whatever it was, it was too late now. “He called him Raaz. And he seemed to be controlling the beasts.”

“You don’t think...?” Moswen began to ask as he let the words trail off.

“He’s the Raaz?” Kyrill finished for him.

“There’s no way,” Isha said, incredulous. “That would make him hundreds of years old. He’s probably just named after the guy. From what Anders has said, the Empire seemed like the kind of egomaniacs to name their kids and their kids’ kids after themselves.”

“Where is Anders anyway?” Aoife asked. “We should ask him about it. Seems like the kind of thing he’d really wanna know.”

“He still talking to the leadership?”

“He’s probably still at the wellspring. I think I might actually go check on him.”

Aoife stumbled as she stood, giving a little laugh as she did. Was she drunk? She bent down to grab her half empty bottle of wine and strolled back inside the guest house towards the staircase down to the streets.

“Leadership” was a bit of a misnomer. They had no real leadership, not really. They had people in charge of various aspects of city life: the leader of the guards, those responsible for the city’s agriculture and architecture, etc. But they had no oversight, nobody in charge. In the past, The Howl had mostly relied on the guidance of the Conclave for such things. In the almost year since the Conclave was lost, however, they hadn’t changed a single thing. They hadn’t readjusted to their very different circumstances whatsoever.

Now they’re just disorganized, guided by the same council of people who answered to the conclave, but with no one to lead them. The Outer Ring of Rah’qet might be run by a trio of shady MC leaders now, but at least it’s something. The Spires are the Spires. Even Rotwater at least has the Hawk’s Roost. The Howl needed someone to step up.

It was exactly what Anders had left to talk to them about. A sage was exactly the kind of person they needed to help get them back on track, set them on the path. The Howl was already a self-sufficient city, they just needed someone to take charge and make those big decisions every city must, lest they remain even more vulnerable than before.

With Aoife gone to join Anders, Moswen was left with only Kyrill, Neera and Isha. Their original four. It was strange to think, but this tight knit group of strangers had become family to Moswen, the only family he really had.

“So,” Isha said, breaking the silence. “It’s nice to be able to rest for once, bask in the light of a fire and not have to worry about what’s next. I would prefer to find some perfect time to say this, but I doubt there ever will be. And I don’t wanna ruin the moment or anything...”

“Isha, just spit it out.”

Neera set her drawing supplies down to give Isha her undivided attention.

“It feels good to have accomplished everything we have, but the Drae are still out there. We may have saved the city, but they are far from done. No way about it.”

“So what happens now? What do we do?”

“None of us are obligated to do anything. I didn’t ask to join this fight. And neither did any of you. But I’m in it now. And I intend to see it through. I don’t want to put any undue pressure on anyone... but I’d feel a hell of a lot better with all of you by my side.”

“You can count on me!” Neera enthusiastically cheered.

“And us,” Kyrill said, with Moswen giving a quick nod of affirmation.

“Good,” Isha said with a smile. “Good. I’ll chat with Aoife and Anders later, ask if they want to join us, figure out what we do next.”

“For tonight, though, we can finally relax.”

“Absolutely. We deserve it. Now lemme see how that phoenix is coming along.”

Moswen lifted himself off the floor and began walking back inside. “I’m gonna go take a leak.” He stopped in the doorway and turned to point an accusatory finger at Kyrill. “And don’t you dare try to look through my eyes or whatever!”

They all shared another hearty laugh as he walked further inside.

He found the bathroom, closed the door behind him and let out a deep exhale as he slumped down to the floor. His usual trick. He could still hear laughter from the balcony, muffled like the worry he had been trying to ignore. He focused on his breathing. In through his nose, out through his mouth. Inhale, exhale.

It helped, but he still felt concern looming over him.

Even as a child with his mother at his side, Moswen had never felt truly at home. Amongst his newfound family, though, he finally did. He finally belonged. And that was what scared him the most. He was finally starting to come to terms with his social anxiety, only to find himself with an entirely new source of worry: family.

He lost his mother long ago, but his father might still be out there. He might be one of the very people they were pledging to hunt down. And he had no way of knowing. Every future encounter with the Drae would be a question. The question. Was his father among them? Killing was difficult enough already, even when they were just—“just”—moronic bandits taking advantage of desperate people in dire situations. Now, the people they planned to hunt would come with baggage. It was the potential, the unanswerable question, that made him worry.

In through the nose, out through the mouth.


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The Howl
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