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Chapter 42 - Aoife

While her personal revenge-fueled quest was far from over, it had been quite a successful day. Not only had they successfully thwarted the Drae’s plans and saved an entire godsdamned city, but they had killed several of the Drae in the process. They were heroes. She felt alive, more so than she could remember in recent times. The bottle of surprisingly excellent wine she had all to herself probably helped, too. As did spending time around the fire with her new friends, aside from Anders, whose curiosity had led him back to the site of the wellspring.

“I think I might actually go check on him.”

Aoife stood, catching herself as she did.

Haha, wow, I am DRUNK.

Her bottle of wine was still half full, but it had definitely done its job. She hadn’t really felt all that drunk until she stood up. Strange how that works. With a casual swipe of her hand, she grabbed the bottle and strolled back inside the guest house.

The “house” was really nothing more than one large room, but it was still far and beyond any inn she had ever stayed in. And for someone who had spent longer than she could recall sleeping on hard dirt without so much as a tarp over her head, the room was a godsend. Two sizable beds sat against a beautiful accent wall of white stone, illuminated by several finely-crafted wall sconces holding candles that smelled of elderflower. There was no bath or kitchen, but that was more than made up for by the balcony and fire pit.

One of the beds had already been claimed by Kyrill. The big guy needed it. The other bed was to be shared between Isha and Neera. Aoife had no qualms taking the wool-covered lounge chair and footrest as her own. It was no bed to stretch out in, but it was still a significant step up. Besides, she was drunk. She could fall asleep in a bathtub if needed. Moswen had already set up his hammock in one of the corners, leaving Anders as the sole person left to make a claim. His options had all but dwindled, but he seemed so preoccupied it was likely he might not even return. And now she was on her way to find him. She grabbed a blanket to wrap around herself and headed downstairs.

She found it difficult to keep track of time ever since the whirlwind of her journey began, but it couldn’t have been longer than a tenday or two since she had met Anders. Yet she had found herself impressed by the man more and more. That wasn’t saying much, seeing as her first impression had set the bar incredibly low. But he’d definitely proved himself since. She was looking forward to some one-on-one time with the man.

Through the streets of the Pier she walked, appreciating the sights while she continued drinking her wine. With the chaos subsided, the streets were no longer deserted. It was late in the evening and no businesses or shops seemed to be open so it paled in comparison to the hustle and bustle of the Outer Ring, but people all around were bonding with their neighbors, congregating on balconies and porches throughout the cavern. After going through something like what The Howl just had, people tend to want to connect with one another and appreciate the connections they already have. Aoife had no way of knowing if she was witnessing the result of surviving a shared traumatic experience or if it were just par for the course, but it was endearing either way.

She had walked these very streets mere hours earlier, but finding her way back to the pillar still proved difficult. The bottle of wine, now only a third full, probably didn’t help. The confusing maze of streets almost seemed like they were purposely engineered to be difficult to navigate. It reminded her of her brief time spent in Everspring, specifically the Knot. The Outer Ring could be confusing at times, but nothing like the Knot had been.

What is it with big cities and their insistence on the most confusing street layouts?

The Pier would have to carry that torch now: most confusing streets of the empire. It dawned on her that, with Everspring gone and Rah’qet effectively split in two, The Howl was the only city left in the entire empire. It was a sobering realization. So she took another swig from her bottle of wine.

She hadn’t spent a tremendous amount of time in Everspring, not enough to really miss the place. She felt a tinge of guilt at the thought, but it wasn’t due to a lack of caring. It was a devastating loss, of course, but she just never really grew a fondness for the place. The two were not mutually exclusive. It was as if she learned that the shop she worked at over Trading Season that one year had suddenly gone up in flames or was destroyed in some terrible accident. It would be sad news—and it wasn’t like she had hated working there or anything—but she held no special affinity for the place.

She continued to meander through the maze until she eventually found her way to her destination.

Even across the walkway, Aoife could see the pillar room was still quite a mess. The bodies had been taken away, but blood still stained the floor and ruined furniture and the contents of several wrecked bookcases littered the room. It seemed like it might have once been a small, private library or perhaps even a parlor room where intellectuals would gather. She wondered if Anders had spent much time in rooms like that, surrounded by other people of intellectual distinction.

She found the man sitting on the roots of the newly-formed wellspring, ruminating on the unexpected whirlwind of a journey he had just been taken on, the discoveries he had made, their implications and what that meant for the future of The Howl, the empire as a whole, and himself as an individual. He was so lost in thought he didn’t even realize she had entered the room until she sat down on the roots beside him.

The wellspring appeared to be similar to the one she’d found in the Mazewilds save for two major differences. First and foremost, The Howl’s wellspring wasn’t empty, but instead filled with water clear as glass. Interestingly, the water also gave off a faint glow. Not reflecting light, but a source of light itself. From it, phosphorescent motes floated up into the air and faded away like embers of a fire. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Where the wellspring in the Mazewilds had seemed somehow inert, this wellspring felt active and alive.

The other difference was that of the roots. Those of the Mazewilds wellspring seemed like typical tree roots, aside from the whole growing up out of the ground in reverse. Wood in soil. But when Aoife sat down next to Anders, she couldn’t help but notice the roots of The Howl wellspring were much harder to the touch, almost as if they were petrified. Curious, she attempted to stab a dagger into one of the roots to no avail. It was as hard as the solid stone floor it grew from.

Instead, she returned the dagger to the sheathe attached to her thigh. She had changed to the light blouse shirt she wore under her blanket, but had nothing suitable to swap her pants for. Returning from the airship crash only to rush off to hunt down the Drae hadn’t exactly left her much room to consider her wardrobe. And she could only be so comfortable while remaining acceptable for the public.

“Strange, isn’t it?” Anders asked.

“That’s an understatement,” she let out with a laugh. Circumstances being what they were, “strange” had become her new baseline.

“How’s everyone faring? Neera doing alright? Moz seem okay?”

“Everyone’s great, honestly. Neera was even doodling away in her sketchbook while we shared stories by the fire. Missed you, though. You just been here the whole time?”

“Yeah. Thinking mostly.”

Aoife pulled her shoes off and rolled up the legs of her pants. She spun and dangled her feet into the wellspring’s waters. She expected the water to be colder. It was certainly no hot bath, but it was pleasantly warmer than she expected. She wiggled her toes in the clear, illuminating pool and let herself relax.

Anders, now almost facing her, was admiring the blanket she held around her shoulders, it’s soft feel and bright colors contrasted by the sharp, angular pattern.

“Not used to seeing you with so much color. It’s a good look on you.”

She looked away, unable to hide her shy smile.

“So I talked with the leadership,” he said, changing the subject. “They want me to stay and help run the city.”

“Wow, that’s...” She was at a loss for words. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, though. The Howl clearly needed help and he was likely the most qualified person in the entire city at the moment. “Must feel pretty special, both Rotwater and The Howl asking for your guidance.”

“The thing is, do I really want to do either of those? I told Samwell—not that his word means much of anything at this point—that I intended to come back and help Rotwater get things in order. And now The Howl wants my help to basically do the same thing. Yet all I can think about is the Drae, you, the rest of our little ragtag group...”

Aoife felt her heart yearn at the mention of “you.”

“And that makes me feel like I’m running away from my responsibilities yet again. At least its for more altruistic motives than last time, which was nothing more than a drug and sex-fueled haze to hide within.”

“Oh, I know. I witnessed it first hand,” she said with a laugh. She played coy, her eyebrows raised so high they practically disappeared behind her swooping bangs. “What was it Neera had said about shackles or restraints?”

They shared another laugh.

“Who are we to deny our greatest desires?” he asked, looking towards nothing in particular like he was quoting some great philosopher. He returned his gaze to Aoife’s waiting eyes, a smile on both of their faces.

“Well said, Andrissian Ghenn.”

Aoife leaned in close, put a hand on his cheek and kissed him softly. She could taste the hint of wine left on her rose-stained lips as they did. He rested his hand on her thigh and she instantly wanted nothing more but to feel his touch against her skin. When her lips left his, their eyes met for but a moment before they lunged back towards one another. Their lips met once again, more passionately and firm this time. Their hands explored each other’s bodies as they twisted to face one another from opposite sides of the wellspring’s edge.

Aoife pulled back, stood, the smile never leaving her face as she bit her lower lip. She held Anders’ face in the palm of her hand and stepped up onto the roots of the wellspring, planting a foot on either side of him as he looked up at her with lustful eyes. She lowered herself into his lap and their lips met once again.

She straddled him, holding him close, pressing her body into his. She could feel the heat radiating between them, the tension building like static on the surface of their clothes. The thin layers of fabric were all that was keeping her from feeling his skin against hers. That needed to change, she decided. Aoife tore off her shirt and stood as she began unbuckling her belt, motioning for Anders to follow suit. As he started to pull his tunic up over his head, Aoife pressed her foot against his bare chest and pushed. It was gentle, but enough to send him toppling over backwards and splashing into the wellspring.

Anders sat up and flipped his hair out of his face, looking at Aoife in silent disbelief until a single mote of light floated out from his beard. His eyes traced it’s path mere inches away from his face. He returned his gaze to Aoife, standing half naked in front of him.

They both laughed.

Aoife stripped her pants off and leapt into the wellspring after him.

Anders collected several cushions from the wrecked seating still strewn about the room and arranged them into a makeshift pillow nook against the wellspring’s roots. There the two laid together, basking in the afterglow, their bodies wrapped around one another under the safety of Aoife’s blanket. Anders’ arm curled around Aoife’s shoulder, her head resting on his chest, their legs weaving together like a loose braid. Their clothes laid in piles beside them, Anders’ still sopping wet.

“So that haze you were hiding in... what was it you were hiding from?” Aoife asked.

“Quite the heavy question for pillow talk.”

“Making this little nest of cushions was adorably sweet, but these aren’t quite pillows and this is certainly no bed.” Her words were sweet, the smile never fading from her face, but they carried a demanding tone in the underlying current. “Answer the question.”

“Guilt,” Anders responded solemnly. “I was hiding from guilt.”

She was surprised by the answer. Aoife had asked the probing question because she wanted to get to know the man she had just slept with on a deeper level, but it seemed his answer was veering towards territory quite a bit heavier than she had intended. She rolled over on top of Anders to look him straight in the eye and give him her undivided attention. She sat astride his legs, her hands resting on her thighs, patiently waiting for the man to continue.

He took his time.

“Sages often write about death and morality, but none offer any words on the guilt one is subjected to after surviving a devastating event when others did not.” He let out a long exhale, readying himself. “I was supposed to be there, Aoife. In Everspring. The day the city was destroyed.”

Well, shit.

It was somehow even heavier than she had imagined. Thousands upon thousands had died in Everspring’s destruction and countless more lives were affected. It was difficult to comprehend what was sadder: entire families being wiped out or being the sole survivor left to weep over the loss. They were stories that Aoife could only imagine, yet far too many others had experienced firsthand. And now she knew Anders was counted amongst them.

“I would have died that day along with the rest of them. Should have. But I didn’t.”

His words were confusing to hear. “Should have?” He was too smart not to understand how lucky he had been by not being there, but from the sound of things he had been beating himself up about it ever since anyways. Aoife wanted to say something, anything, but felt it best to just let Anders talk. Let him get it all out. He had opened up the floodgates. Best to just let the rushing current flow.

“And before you say I was lucky, I’ll let you know I damn well don’t feel lucky. I only survived because I was up to my usual bullshit, caught up in another drug-fueled situation of my own design. I’m working towards righting that wrong, but every day is still a constant reminder. I’m not lucky to have survived. I’m being punished for it.”

Naked and vulnerable, Anders let out another long exhale, pausing like he was gauging the distance of a gap between two cliffs.

“I left Rah’qet, fucked off and ended up in Rotwater. I was a mess. But Gavin saved me. His motives were questionable at best, I know, but it doesn’t change the fact that he was the one to pull me out. And now I’m considering leaving all of Rotwater behind as well. It’s selfish. I’m not a good person, Aoife.”

“Nobody is,” she finally spoke up. “Not by this bullshit purity test you seem to be comparing yourself to right now. You’re a philosopher, right? Then you know nothing is so black and white. I’ve done some horrible things, some worse than others. We’ve both hurt and killed people, but done in the pursuit of justice and the greater good.”

She hadn’t read any of the sages’ words on death and morality, but she had spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the topics. It was her newfound area of expertise. She realized something: in this moment, she was exactly the person Anders needed. As he was her’s. Their individual histories were what drove them forward in their pursuits, whether that be vengeance or atonement. Just two fucked up people holding onto some incredibly heavy baggage trying to do what they think is right.

“The past is the past,” she continued. “Whatever we’ve done, it’s all led us here, to this moment. You and me. In this room. It’s how we choose to move forward that we should judge ourselves.”

“Our choices are what define us,” he repeated his own words of wisdom. “But are we not beholden to our obligations? Choosing the pursuit of one thing is no different than running away from another, is it not?”

“You don’t owe anybody a damn thing. Neither of us do. Our obligations are only what we choose to make them. You had a choice to stay in Rotwater. If you had, you wouldn’t be here. The Howl wouldn’t be here. Sounds like a damn good choice to me.”

“And it’s all led us here, to this moment,” he echoed back with a smile.

“You and me.”

“In this room. It is fitting, I guess. Even if all the interesting stuff actually happened in Skye and the Loch, this room was where the council meetings were held. Where decisions were made. Choices. How to move forward.”

Anders closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wellspring. “Maybe I’ll stop feeling guilty some day, but I know I’ll never stop missing them.”

“Missing who?”

Like a changing of the winds, she somehow knew what the answer was before he said a single word, but she needed to hear him say it.

“Erathos wasn’t the last Cleric,” he confessed. “I am.”

It was all so obvious in hindsight. Of course he was a Cleric. How else could he have been able to read the ledger? How else did he know so much about the bureaucracy of running an entire godsdamn city? And how had she not seen it before? The questions raced through her mind in an instant, but still long enough to distract her from what her body had done.

Anders grasped at the blade jammed into the side of his neck. He held another hand around the wound, blood pouring from between his fingers. He gasped for air, unable to breathe. His gaze met hers, his eyes wide with confusion, as if to ask how she could have done something like this. After what they just shared, both physically and emotionally. He’d opened himself up to her. And at the moment he let himself be most vulnerable, she’d betrayed him.

Much like when she was aboard the airship, she surprised herself with her own actions, but deep down she knew it had to be done. Whatever affection she felt towards the man, whatever he could have done to help in her pursuit of the Drae, none of it was enough to match her need to seek vengeance on each and every person responsible for Rashida’s death.

Anders’ hands dropped limp to his sides. His struggle ended.

Once again, a strange mixture of emotions brewed inside her. The churn. Guilt, but not. Like Erathos, his death was justified in her eyes. But it was still an odd feeling, almost as if it had been two different people. Anders and the last Cleric. She would genuinely miss Anders, but she was glad the Cleric was dead.

Part of her wished they really were different people. Or if he’d at least just kept his mouth shut about it. Things could have been different if he hadn’t been a Cleric. If he hadn’t been complacent in the murder of the woman she held so dear.

Considering hypotheticals was pointless. She was here, in the moment. Just her now. In this room. She suddenly felt the cold cavern air against her bare skin and reality snapped back into focus. She couldn’t stay. She leaned against the wellspring and began to wash the blood from her hands, the waters transforming it into an expanding red mist. Another mote rose into the air, tinged with red until it faded away like the others.

She quickly got dressed and gathered her belongings, as few as they may have been. Before she left, Aoife pulled the blanket up to cover Anders’ face, a departing kindness, a gesture of dignity in their final farewell. She stood and walked towards the exit, pausing briefly in the doorway but not turning to look back. She had been fond of the man. She would probably have moments where she thought of him, missed him. Perhaps she would even regret his death at times. But not then. She wouldn’t allow that. Standing in the doorway, she felt no regret. She felt righteous. Empowered. Even faced with the challenge of killing a man she felt so fond of, she was still able to do what needed to be done.

And her journey was just beginning.

“As before, once more.”


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Posted by Matt on 01.06.21
And with that ends the first book of the Leeches Loom! Next week will start the first novella of the series, a much shorter but more focused story in the same universe with a few familiar faces.

I've already finished writing it and working well into the second novel as we speak. Having gone through the process now, I've decided to break up each novel of the main series with smaller novellas. I know it's planning way long term, but I like having a solid plan for a project of this size. The novella breaks give the story some room to breathe and makes the writing process a little easier for me.

It feels right, you know?
the empire
The Howl
The Mazewilds
The Shelf
Shaded Seed
Wayfarer's Ridge
A Gentle Scar
Tiller's Hamlet