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Chapter 1 - Moswen

Her name was Rashida.

A day didn’t go by where Moswen didn’t think of his mother, but she had been holding increasingly more real estate in Moswen’s thoughts during the last few months. More often than not, those thoughts focused on the realization that his father was one of the Drae. Yet, it wasn’t a realization. It was acceptance. He already knew all of it deep down, but only recently had the truth finally come bubbling up to the surface.

It had begun a series of questions that continually cycled through his thoughts, none of which could be answered. At least not yet. Many likely never would be.

She would forever hold a warm place in his heart, even if she hadn’t always been the most attentive mother. Even from a young age, she often left him alone for long stretches of time. She also, however, instilled within him the attitude of a survivor and the skills to back it up. Food, water, shelter, fire: he would never be at a loss even in her absence. She made sure he was always able to provide for himself, never needing to rely on others for anything.

Anything, except maybe the company of his only parent.

He was a lonely child, self-reliant and anti-social. He liked to think he grew accustomed to it, or at least he used to. He realized now that he had merely dulled himself to his feelings of abandonment. He was capable and self sufficient, sure, but he also missed his mother. Now even moreso.

Moswen surrendered to his thoughts and placed the single arrowhead he had been carving back into his pack, the process calming but unable to distract him. The breathing exercises Anders had taught him helped, but it also reminded him of his late friend, his death, the Drae. It all looped right back to his mother once again. Anders had only been a part of Moswen’s life for a brief period of time, but the man had made an impact. Moswen missed him, too. To think he had been jealous of the man at one point...

Neera and Kyrill kicked up loose dirt, sparring with one another. Moswen leaned back against his tree and watched, hoping this new distraction might actually work. He knew it wouldn’t.

Kyrill and Isha had been ruthlessly training together ever since leaving The Howl. They figured if they wanted to stand a chance going toe to toe with the Drae, they needed to refine their skills. The two had also been teaching Neera how to properly wield a staff, drilling her with proper techniques that focused mostly on defending herself.

Neera swung and thrust her staff, keeping Kyrill a safe distance away, but not really doing much to properly harm or subdue her opponent. That was the entire aim of her current training, but the girl was clearly becoming frustrated.

“What good is this if I can’t actually do anything to you?” she complained, swinging her staff at the man once again. Kyrill used his shield to deflect the blow with ease. “I’m not exactly neutralizing my threat or whatever.”

“All in due time,” Kyrill said with a smile. “Think of this as the foundations upon which you will learn more.”

With all of Moswen’s sudden focus on who his mother and father really were, he found the timing amusingly ironic to be traveling with people who felt like family to him. Even though they weren’t flesh and blood, Kyrill, Neera and Isha were starting to feel more like family than his mother ever had. They ate together, depending on one another, trusted each other. Neera even did Isha and Kyrill’s hair. It wasn’t just braiding hair; it was connection. They were family.

And in his family, his surrogate sister was currently fending off attacks from his surrogate... father? Older brother? Uncle? Whatever role Kyrill was filling.

The big man swung his axe wide, a slow attack meant to be easily deflected. Neera took a step back and quickly snapped her staff up to hit the axe away. She was a quick learner. Soon, Kyrill wouldn’t need to hold back.

“Oh come on, teach me how to hurt you,” Neera pleaded. “For all we know, Isha could come back with info that leads us straight to the Drae. We could find them tomorrow. Don’t you want me to be able to handle myself?”

“All in due time,” he said again. “But even after I teach you how to attack, I don’t think you’ll still be able to hurt me.” He bashed his axe against his shield, taunting her.

That was a mistake.

Neera let go of her staff with one of her hands and sent it into the small pouch she kept hanging on her waist. The pouch full of coal powder. And just like that, Kyrill’s feet were flung out from under him and he hit the ground. One second he was flaunting his battlefield prowess, the next he had Neera’s foot resting on his chest and the end of her staff against his neck.

“Okay, that’s not fair. Not all of us have magic.”

“Umm, yes you do. Just not anything that’ll help you in a fight against a fourteen-year-old girl.”

Still lying on his back, Kyrill turned to make a face at Moswen. He didn’t need a magical psychic connection to know exactly what the big man was thinking.

“Alright there, Blackhand,” Moswen intervened. “We all know what you’re capable of, but this isn’t about showing off.”

“Is it Blackhand singular or Blackhands plural?” Neera asked Kyrill, her foot still planted on his chest.

“I don’t know. It’s your nickname. Ask Moz, he’s the one who came up with it.”

“Blackhand. Singular,” Moswen replied. “And don’t try and go changing the subject. You have a gift or whatever, but you’re supposed to be learning how to handle yourself without relying on magic. You’ve only got so much in you. You need to learn to better work with those limitations.”

“Ugh! You two are always on each other’s side.”

“We’re also always right,” Kyrill said with a laugh, still on the ground.

Neera made a mocking angry face and pressed her foot down, causing Kyrill to squirm with laughter under her heel.

The group had set up camp in a clearing of the sparsely wooded area of forest just beyond the outskirts of a small, unnamed barren. It might not have looked like it, but they were on the hunt. After leaving The Howl, they had begun tracking down the Drae any way they could. The desert didn’t leave much in the way of tracks, but sightings or signs of their beasts were just as good. So they followed stories, rumors, hearsay. Not everything turned out to be true and none had led them to their goal, but at least hunting down dangerous beasts turned out to be a profitable side effect.

Becoming a bounty hunter himself, even if accidentally so, reminded Moswen of his mother as well. He was walking in her path in a way. A not-so-simple hunter of animals turned hunter of men. A protector of the innocent. Even without an actual bounty on the table at times, just like mom.

The comparison was all part of Moswen coming to terms with who he truly was, where he came from and where he was, and what that all meant. Through this constant comparison, however, he couldn’t help but notice a resemblance to his mother in another person as well. While Aoife looked nothing like her, the woman held herself with a similar air about her. Confident, but reserved. She knew her shit, as his mother would have said. But like his mother, Aoife held off from sharing too much. She was familiar, yet distant. And like his mother, she had disappeared into the night. Though Aoife had done it on a much more dramatic note.

The Howl had been a victory—and decisively so, the city still stood—yet it didn’t feel like one. Loss, betrayal, an understanding of what they were truly up against. Nothing ended. No celebrations were had. Just a road that led to the next confrontation, the next set of clues, the next empty victory. And now they were hunting beasts in the hopes it led them to the Drae. But they were also hunting down Aoife, hoping to cross paths and right another wrong.

It turned out Anders was a Cleric. The last Cleric, in fact, though he couldn’t be certain about that. He’d been wrong before. What he knew was that Aoife killed him. Part of him doubted it. Nobody had seen what really happened. But just like who his father had been, deep down he knew it to be true. She killed him. He wondered if him being a Cleric was why she did it.

The Howl’s council knew Anders was a Cleric, a fact they were only able to reveal too late. He had met with them after the attack on the city to discuss their plans moving forward. They had even offered him a seat at the table, but he refused. Then they offered him the head of the table. Same answer. The council had given their condolences as they delivered the news of Anders’ death, then politely asked the group to leave the city. They weren’t exactly afforded the same hospitality as Anders had.

The council assured them they were grateful for their assistance, but a new policy had been put into immediate effect following the devastation wrought upon the city. Whether it was a suggestion from Anders or not, they couldn't tell. It was an insulting yet understandable request. Bunker down, ensure the Drae had no entry into the city, and vacate the non-locals. Especially the ones proven to wield a means of destruction the city guards weren’t equipped to handle.

They had no plans to stay—their quarry was elsewhere—but as the gates were closed behind them, Moswen couldn’t help but feel rejected by the city he risked his life to save.

“What are you doing on the ground there, big guy?” Isha said, smiling as she returned to their camp.

She was in good spirits, though that wasn’t uncommon anymore. She was a woman with a new focus. And a new hairstyle thanks to Neera. It was a similar style to what she had before, but the hair along the sides were now braided tight against her scalp and the hair at the top was kept in very loose braids, everything meeting at the back and left to hang loose. The same fuzzy mohawk style she’d had before, just a bit more refined. It was almost symbolic, refocused as Isha had, marking a new start. Plus, new hair always seemed to inject a burst of confidence in a person. Isha was no exception. She seemed to like it nearly as much as Neera had after she finished.

“I thought we were sticking to defense,” Isha said to Krill.

“I was,” Kyrill began to explain, “but—Hwuh!”

Neera pushed off Kyrill’s chest and launched herself at Isha, sending her staff straight out. Isha knocked it to the side and leapt towards Neera, grabbing the staff under her arm and pulling a dagger to the girl’s chest.

“Maybe you should still stick to defense,” she said with a gentle tone not typical for the woman. She was trying to soften the blow, Moswen figured.

“Point made,” Neera responded, trying to remain cool even after being thoroughly embarrassed.

Isha walked to Kyrill, the man resting his head in the palm of his hand, relaxing from his place on the ground. Isha extended a hand and helped the man to his feet.

“So did you find out anything useful?” Neera asked, shifting their attention.

Good defense.

“I did,” Isha exclaimed. “Couple townies told me they’d heard stories about a monster not far from here. Vague on the details, but supposedly you can spot the area by the trees stripped of bark.”

“Oohhh!” Moswen squealed excitedly. “Now that’s a clue.”

“Hell yeah it is,” Kyrill said. “A solid place to start. And an actual trail if it turns out to be true.”

“Not just the start of a trail,” Isha interjected. “Well, hopefully. The two I spoke with mentioned that a group of their finest went missing not too long ago. Couple lumberjacks, their blacksmith, rough fellas. All left together, well-armed, none returned.”

“You don’t think it was just some beast that killed them, do you?” Neera asked.

“It’s unlikely. Now, hypothetically, if I was one of the Drae and we were bunkering down when some ragtag backwater do-gooders showed up and discovered my hidey hole, they’d be dead in an instant. And we know the Drae are more than capable.”

“It could still just have been a lone beast,” Moswen reminded the rest.

“It could. Worth our time either way.”

“They post a bounty?” Kyrill asked.

“Nothing official, but they said they’d round up some coin if we found the bastard. Even offered to handle the corpse and split the price with us on top of it.”

“What are we waiting for then? Let’s get hunting.”

They traveled softly and without words. Even if there never were any Drae in the area, the possibility of encountering a beast that was capable of killing a whole group of men was nothing to scoff at. Kyrill took lead, following Isha’s secondhand directions. Moswen kept in the back. Normally, Neera would take her post beside him. The two liked to keep their distance from any threats. But beast or Drae regardless, Neera had become their secret weapon, their ace in the hole. They needed her up front where she could act quickly. And Kyrill’s job was to guard her with his life.

Neera’s magic was an unexpected upper hand that made bounty hunting insurmountably easier. And traveling throughout the chaos of the empire as well. When they were dealing with people, most were desolate, desperate and downtrodden. Very few were equipped with expensive metal armor, but almost everyone was equipped with weapons at least partially made of metal. Spears, daggers, hammers, even repurposed farming tools: Neera could disarm them all with a flick of her wrist and sense their presence if they were hiding.

Beasts were a different approach altogether, bearing no armor or weapons for Neera to exploit. Still, a charging beast was much easier to deal with when Neera was capable of sending pulsing waves of force to blast their legs out from under them. They certainly still posed a significant threat, but nothing they hadn’t been able to handle so far.

It was funny in a way. The thing Moswen was so terrified of when he first met Kyrill—a monstrous, mutated beast hellbent on killing them both—had become so... manageable. A possible encounter with the Drae was another story, though.

It worried him. Not about surviving a possible encounter, but he worried that if they did, in fact, find the Drae, was it possible one of them could be his father? Would he even have any way of knowing? And if he did, would he still be able to do what needs to be done to put a stop to the Drae once and for all?

The thoughts continued to swirl through his head, constantly leading back to his mother and the questions he had asked her about his father. When she spoke about him, she had softly implied he was dead, but never actually said as much. It would have made things easier if he was, but she never lied to Moswen. She wasn’t extremely forthcoming with information, always vague with her answers, but she was always truthful with her son.

“We met while I was traveling.”

“He was a special man.”

Moswen had the necessary context to better understand her answers now, but they took on new meanings because of it. They didn’t just meet while traveling. They met while she was traveling in the Mazewilds. He wasn’t just special to her. He was also one of the Drae. Her words were all technically true, but omitted of some prominent details.

“I’m afraid you’ll never get the chance to meet your father.”

She never explained why, again leaning on the implication, but she had to assume it would have been impossible. She couldn’t have known things would change. And change they most definitely had.

As unfulfilling as it may be, he just hoped she would end up being right. It would make things so much easier if the man really were already dead. At the very least, he hoped their inevitable encounter with the Drae was left uncomplicated by such a reunion. Because he knew when they found the Drae, he would have to fight. He knew where to aim his bow. It was whether or not he could let the arrow loose that scared him.


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