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Chapter 5

“I really don’t know,” Isha said. “The Whispers? Gotta admit the name sounds cool, but joining some MC so secretive I’ve never even heard the name before? I guess that’s kind of the point, yeah, and maybe it’s just me, but that almost sounds like a scam itself.”

She paced back and forth, hands clasped behind her back, head hung low, deep in thought.

“And why me? I’m no mercenary. I’m not a hunter. I’m a kid. Isn’t that what MCs usually are? Bunch of retired mercs and their hunter friends looking after the new blood? At least the legit ones are. The others aren’t much more than gangs of thieves and bandits, just with a logo.”

It dawned on her that there was a very real possibility that they were one of the bad ones. What if she hadn’t heard about them because they weren’t legitimate? What if her recruiters were just a couple of murderers?

She raised her head and took a deep breath.

“What do you guys think?” she asked her rats.

They scurried around their cage, occasionally looking up in her general direction, though that was more due to the fact she was slowly dropping more food scraps through the side hatch. Still, they made a good sounding board.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. You’re obviously biased, but I am pretty great.” She gave herself a little laugh. “And Faerris was complimenting me a lot. ‘Oh, Isha, you’re so punctual. What admirable work ethic you have.’ He even said I had a good heart. And then his test, of course. He said sneaking a few of you guys in showed my resourcefulness. And ensuring you survived the potential scam safe and sound showed my loyalty. Not like I could ever sacrifice any of you for a little coin. He even commented on having my hidden knife at the ready, saying that apparently showed my preparedness, though I think that was more me shitting my pants, but I’ll take it, I guess. He called me clever.”

Isha was smart enough to know she was more clever than most, but also smart enough to know she had to be an atypical recruit for any mercenary club, secretive or not. Perhaps, again, that was the point. Maybe they went unnoticed so well because they weren’t a bunch of muscle-bound thugs wearing their pride on their backs.

“I really thought I was a goner. But they explained the situation, their test, told me they wanted to see how I acted under pressure. And then they invited me to join them. Just like that.”

Her rats snickered and squeaked, but not in response to her or anything. That’s just what rats do. Still, she took it as part of their back and forth conversation.

“Well, no, not at first. Apparently I’ll be initiated into their ranks, but won’t be a full-fledged member until I finish a pledge trial or whatever. Understandable, really. What worries me, though, is it all kinda sounds too good to be true. But if they’re telling the truth, it’s a big step up. What if I don’t accept the invite, though? Or fail the initiation? I know things about them and that puts me at risk. Whatever decision I make, it’s a risk!”

She finished emptying her bag of scraps and closed the latch, her rats squeaking as they squabbled over the last bits.

“I guess you’re right. If they’re bad news, it doesn’t matter which choice I make. In which case, why would they have bothered going through all the effort with me in the first place? But if they aren’t lying, if everything they say is true, I only stand to benefit by seeing what they’re really all about, right?”

Their food gone, the rats dispersed to the empty corners of the cage. All excpt Chunks. He let out a small chirp, looking up to Isha with hungry eyes.

“It’s tomorrow night. And I guess I’m going.”

History, as the saying goes, repeats itself.

Over time, patterns inevitably begin to emerge. Human behavior, with all its entropic predictability, dictates the continuation of the cyclical nature of life as we know it. The wheel of time spins unending.

History, as molded by its own momentum, repeats itself.

The entire realm, from coast to coast, mountain to desert, is referred to as the empire, though no single person or governing body rules over it. There is no Emperor. Not anymore. But the name kind of stuck.

Back when the empire was referred to as the Empire, the days when the Fifth Pinnacle lorded proudly over the barrens of the land, life hadn’t been so vastly different. Like modern day Rah’qet, the Fifth Pinnacle was a place of high regard. As such, it was largely closed off to the outside. Where Rah’qet had the Spires—literal shafts of rock jutting out from the ground to enclose the city within—the Fifth Pinnacle built walls and towers, as decadent as they were defensive. A show of power.

Such blatant disparity is a breeding ground for contempt.

Not everyone opposed the Empire’s rule. Many were swept up in rhetoric, convinced they stood on the right side of history. Others were simply too afraid to stand up for themselves. Of those that did, many were vocal in their opposition, but never brought themselves to act on it. And their numbers were many. Too many. They’d disavow the Empire’s action and condemn their practices, but never act on their outrage, allowing the Empire to continue unabated until it was too late.

And so it remained for centuries.

While the sages within the Spires of Rah’qet were nothing like the despots of the Fifth Pinnacle, those that lived in the Outer Rings weren’t entirely happy with their situation either.

The distant barren of Rotwater had become the hub for hunters and mercenaries, but Rah’qet wasn’t entirely unaccustomed to the idea. A handful of MCs had set their roots in the Outer Ring, some more public than others. Not many outside of the club knew of the existence of the Whispers, but their goals required it. They saw the inequality between the Spires and the Outer Circle. Saw the gap widening, slowly but surely. Saw how lies and secrets kept the status quo, and how revealing those secrets could break the bonds entirely.

It always seemed to be a small minority that took up the mantle when it came to toppling inequality. And as underground movements went, they often seemed to take the label quite literally, with a natural predisposition to secret tunnels and caves, hidden cellars and subterranean bunkers.

Those that revolted against the Empire came from varied walks of life: slaves, outsiders, the bedouins of the desert and tribes of the forest, all people who strived and struggled to live free from tyrannical rule. They did what they could, freeing other slaves, taking the Empire’s resources, crippling their opposition whenever they saw the opportunity. But it wasn’t enough, mere scratches against the veneer of the Empire’s shining metal armor, a game of cat and mouse that stretched on for years.

Then something happened. In an instant, everything had changed.

The Fifth Pinnacle was destroyed.

The Empire was no more.

Nobody stood up to take the credit. It could have been an underground cell, a rogue group, someone on the inside—nobody knew who, but they were praised just the same, the heroes that truly tipped the scales.

In the wake of the Empire’s fall, new cities grew in its place. Most people went their separate ways, forming small barrens and tribes, but the escaped slaves turned their cave hideaway into a veritable fortress. The nomads of the desert settled around the oasis in the west. And the scholars that had stayed hidden amongst the eastern desert spires stayed right where they were.

Rah’qet quickly grew into the powerful city it was today, founded upon the ideal of knowledge being the key to one’s own freedom. The power of information, of understanding, of education. They swore to use their knowledge to never again let dictatorial rule take root.

Yet even with all of their initial good intentions, the balance began to shift over time. It wasn’t immediate, but it was inevitable. Even a trickle of water erodes hardened stone over time.

And thus the cycle began anew.

Isha made her way back to Field and Forest, this time at the dead of night rather than the crack of dawn. Much more fitting for a secret underground meeting.

From what Isha had been assured of, what she had been promised, the Whispers were the good guys. Faerris admitted that, yes, doing the right thing sometimes required unethical means, but the ends were always justified. They didn’t go around needlessly killing and stealing. If anything, that kind of behavior was detrimental to their anonymity.

That was the one thing keeping her sane. You can’t trust the words of a self-professed liar, but you can trust logic.

Faerris’ explanation had been calming, not just because he chose the right words to say, but because the alternative made no sense. The entire MC had remained anonymous for who knows how long. It would have been downright impossible to do that if they had been committing egregious crimes with no regard. There was no room for chaos in the Whispers. Their secretive nature required order absolute.

Faerris stood in the doorway of the tea shop. He wasn’t smiling, but Isha could see the smugness in his eyes, the confidence. While Isha had spent hours fretting and debating over her decision to take him up on his offer, there seemed to be no doubt in his mind as to whether she would show up. With only a nod of his head, he greeted her and beckoned her inside, locking the door behind them before uttering a word.

“Glad you could make it, Isha.”

“Wasn’t sure I was gonna come or not, if we’re being honest.”

“If we’re being honest, your reluctance only proves that you’re exactly the kind of person I thought you were.”

Isha tilted her head, questioning the man’s words.

“You wouldn’t have been recruited if I thought you needed another test, but the internal debate you’re still kind of weighing in your head? A common thief wouldn’t be struggling with that one bit. It’s what differentiates us from them: compassion.”

Isha didn’t know what to be more impressed by, his insight into her thought process or the willingness with which he looked down on thieves. Wasn’t that exactly who they were? She definitely considered herself, at least some of the time, to be a thief. But then again, she was working towards more legitimate means. And quiet diligently at that.

The altruistic goals of the Whispers elevated them beyond the rank of thieves. They would stand to make a lot more money and garner more power and influence had that been their goal. All they’d need to do is work selfishly. They had the skills and means to do that in an instant, but they chose a more righteous path.

It was hard to trust a group of unproven strangers claiming such selfless principles, but mostly because it was hard to believe others were capable of such a feat when Isha worried if she could hold herself to the same level. She imagined there would always be that urge from deep within her gut, the greed, the itch of desire in the back of your mind. She had done well to suppress such urges in the past, but it was a feeling she was all too familiar with.

Isha followed Faerris into the back room, through the secret doorway and down the steps. A lantern, already lit, awaited them at the bottom. Even for someone of her stature, the ceilings were low and claustrophobic. The light from Faerris’ lantern danced across the jagged texture of the rough, unfinished stone walls. Walking in front of her with his cloak billowing behind him, he was nothing more than a silhouette, a spectre floating through ancient and forgotten ruins.

The tunnels were so eerily quiet that even the faintest of sounds seemed almost unbearably loud. Dead silence aside from the tapping of their boots and the crunch of gravel beneath them, the whining squeak of metal as the lamp swayed from its handle, her own accelerated breathing.

When Faerris spoke, she felt her heart nearly leap from her chest. “Just a little bit further.”

She was on edge and she knew it. She wasn’t quite worried about the possible ill intent of the Whispers anymore, but the spooky tunnels did nothing to help put her at ease.

As they rounded a bend, Isha spotted what had to be their destination. A single oil lamp hung from the middle of the ceiling, illuminating an iron-banded wooden door just beyond it. The door’s details were intricate and precise, a stark contrast against the rough stone of the tunnels surrounding it. Jutting out from the center of the door was a gleaming silver bust of a crow’s head. In its mouth it held a large ring like it was something shiny the bird had taken a liking to.

Faerris approached the door, grabbed the ring and knocked. Twice, then once, then twice again. A peephole above the crow slid open and a pair of eyes appeared behind it. They looked at Faerris and immediately slid the small window closed without a single word being exchanged.

The sounds of metal locks, clinking chains and heavy sliding wood came from within the door. From the sound of it, the door was incredibly secure. To the point it was cumbersome to even open. Isha felt a warmth grow in her chest—either gratitude or pride or some combination of the two—knowing that so much effort was being put into her visit.

The door swung open slowly, it’s great heft weighing heavy on the hinges that kept it in place. Isha was greeted by a short older man, a hulking, brutish boy, and the cacophonous sound coming from further within.

“Good evening, sir,” the man said with a bow. “Madam. Welcome.”

So formal, Isha though, taken off guard by the politeness. It wasn’t exactly the introduction to the secret underground mercenary club she was expecting.

The boy closed the door behind them, returning each and every lock before hefting the massive crossbeam back into place to bar the door shut. Once done, the boy eagerly put on a pair of reading glasses and grabbed a book off a nearby stool that sat beside the door. The lenses seemed so small, dwarfed by the size of the boy’s massive head. He took a seat on the stool and the polite old man stood beside him, still shorter than the boy even when standing. It looked like he was teaching the boy how to read. How sweet.

Beyond them laid the inner sanctum, a circular chamber featuring an intricately-detailed tiled floor with a symbol of pursed lips and a shushing finger. The sanctum was lively and overwhelming. Isha’s unease began to return, surrounded by dozens of people, none of whom she knew and all of which were intimidating just by virtue of being part of the Whispers. She wondered how many of them she had passed on the street without ever having a clue.

She swallowed hard, wondering how many of the people she had tried to scam.

She was the odd man out, fresh meat amongst a room full of vultures. But none seemed to pay her much attention. They were busy conversing with one another, playing cards, singing, all done with mugs of dark beer in their hands.

Isha was surprised to see there were, in fact, dozens of musclebound thugs and shady-looking individuals amongst the crowd. I guess some muscle will always be needed. But there were also a wide range of “normal” folk, too. Men and women, teenagers and older. All together, they looked less like a secret underground MC and more like a typical sampling of the kind of people you pass by on the street on any given day.

In one corner of the room, two people were sparring, smiles on their faces as they squared each other up. In another corner, two people skipped the pleasantries and were engaged in a full on fist fight. Neither of them were smiling one bit. They passed by a woman with flowing auburn hair who sat alone, sharpening a set of identical blades. A solitary man with a pencil thin beard tracing along his jawline was busying himself by folding a countless number of origami caltrops.

As they walked through the sanctum, the crowd seemed to part before Faerris like a ship cutting through water. He garnered knowing nods from those he passed by, coupled with the occasional “sir” or some other form of deference. This guy seems awfully popular. Did I get recruited by the leader of the entire MC himself or something? She thought the man who had greeted them at the entrance was just being polite, but could it have been more? She knew Faerris was more than just a tea shop owner, but maybe he was even more than he was letting on.

Past the crowds, Isha was led down a hallway, the sounds from the main chamber echoing behind them. The twists and turns and numerous other hallways and doors hinted at the sheer vastness of the underground bunker. How long it must have taken to construct such a place. How painstaking it must have been to do so without anyone on the outside catching wind. It was an impressive feat to say the least.

“You’ve calmed down,” Faerris commented, his tone as casual as his gait. These were his hallways. Perhaps they would be hers as well.

“I think I let my imagination get the best of me. Before.”

“Not like you thought it would be, huh?”

“Not at all. It’s... a lot more festive here than I expected.”

“I’ll admit, it’s not usually quite so lively down here. Tonight’s especially, well, special. We’ll be welcoming the new recruits as well as welcoming back a member who’s been gone for a while.”

“Recruits plural?”

He smiled as he stopped in front of a door.

“Your timing is impeccable, Isha.” He opened the door. Inside were what Isha could only assume were three other recruits, their conversation halted as their eyes all met hers, staring her down, sizing her up. “We’ve got a couple preparations in order, but someone will return for you shortly.”

He left without so much as an introduction, the sounds from the main chamber silenced as the thick, windowless door shut behind her.

“About time you showed up,” the older girl said. “Was told there’d be a fourth. Thought you might have gotten cold feet. You’re not nervous are you? You worried, newbie?” It was more of a gibe than a question.

What could it be this time? The last 24 hours had been nothing but twist after twist. What was one more?

“Worried about what?” Isha asked matter of factly, just wanting the girl to get on with it.

“The initiation.”


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