Author Topic: Chapter 36  (Read 6197 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 36
« on: April 08, 2022, 01:54:53 AM »
Chapter 36

It was the shouting that woke her, off in the distance. Jaas sat bolt-upright in the cot they’d given her in Bahhna patch. They sounded like screams. Sabra was inside the house in an instant, his absurdly large sword drawn and ready. The dwarves had made it for him the week before, and it looked large enough to cut through a tree in one blow. He beckoned to her, putting a finger to his lips in warning. Nodding, she slipped on her shoes and followed him out into the night.

Bahhna was one of the more recent patches she’d been assigned to teach. It was a simple farming community, much like Tellek patch had been. Alzhi’s risk assessment of this patch had been negligible, so after Arico had made contact with them she’d been brought in with Sabra as a bodyguard.

It had been almost a week since Arico had branded himself as a stra’tchi. He had taken it easy the first few days, before sending her here. She’d been teaching for most of a day, and was practically falling asleep where she sat, so they gave her an empty cot to get some rest. There was a dwarven navigator on standby in the threads, in case of emergency. Chances were he was already aware of, well, whatever it was going on out there.

Sabra led her to the top of a small hill overlooking the village, and shrank down as low to the ground as he could get short of a crawl. She stooped as well, and looked back down at the village. Dark shapes flitted from building to building, illuminated by the occasional flash of moonlight off of eyes in the darkness. There was a whisper of movement behind her, and as Jaas turned to face it, Sabra was already grappling with some… thing!

In the moonlight it looked like a huge man, but with an oversized boar’s head and tusks. It grunted savagely as it tried to jam those tusks into Sabra’s throat. Its clawed hands gripped at Sabra’s arms, trying to cut into him as well. His initial surprise had apparently passed, though, and Sabra casually lifted it off the ground and twisted, breaking its neck. It went limp, and he dropped it on the ground.

As Sabra kept watch for any more of them, Jaas examined the body. On closer inspection she could see that it was really a wooden mask in the shape of a boar’s head, affixed to the man’s head like some sort of grisly helmet. Attached to the man’s hands were claw-like appendages that looked like they were made of bone. She undid some of the straps and removed the helm, showing a top-knotted head underneath. “This is one of the Ascendants!”

Sabra nodded, breathing heavily. “No weapons, though. They must not know pretty lady is here.” He looked back at the village as more screams erupted and gave a low growl of his own. “Sabra has heard of this before, years ago. Sabra’s sister said they were called Beasts. Just guards usually, given animal heads and claws but no weapons, and set loose on patches to kill randomly before being called back. Sustained used to unleash them to cause fear and superstition, long ago.”

Jaas let out a breath, hissing in anger. “But why? These people certainly never gave any sign of unrest or uprising. Why would they be a target?”

Sabra grunted. “In the past the Beasts were set loose on patches randomly, to cause terror. Their job was to punish and intimidate, not to destroy completely. Sabra was told they sometimes did it for their own amusement.” He grabbed her hand. “Come on. It’s too dangerous to stay here.”

“Wait!” She gestured back at the village. “We have to help these people. If those Beasts only have claws like you said, you could probably take them all with that sword of yours!” She found she was gripping her own dagger. As if she would be of any use in such a fight.

Sabra shook his head adamantly. “No. Sabra has to keep pretty lady safe. And if Sabra cuts all those Beasts down, Sustained will know this patch is with us. Little man and Hauld wouldn’t want that.”

“We can’t just leave them! People are dying down there!”

“Sabra knows that.” His voice was calm, but even in the darkness she could see the grim expression on his gnarled face. “But if Sabra stops this now, many more here will die later. Could pretty lady live with that?”

Jaas hesitated. He was right. The Sustained might be willing to forgive a few of their ‘Beasts’ being killed by local stra’tchi in self-defense, but if an entire group was wiped out, their most likely response would be to poison another patch.

Seething, she nodded and let him lead her back to the threads, and to the dwarven navigator waiting for them inside. As they ran, Jaas repeated in her head again and again what she would say to the Hauld. She had to convince him to respond. Not just here, but anywhere else these monsters were attacking!

As it turned out, Sabra’s initial instincts had been right. The Hauld confirmed it as soon as they got back: Beast attacks on nearly thirty different stra’tchi patches that they knew of, all over the city. Arico and Alzhi weren’t there—each of them had their own assignments—but she stood in the Hauld’s war room as reports came in one after another.

“This isn’t tactics…” she said slowly. “This isn’t war. This isn’t even reason! This is just simple… rage!”

The Hauld shook his head. “It’s more than tha’. Tha Lord Ascendan’ is stokin’ tha flame all over tha city; hurtin’ people jus’ fer tha sake of hurtin’. ‘E lost ‘is son, an’ now stra’tchi all over are payin’ fer it. It’s a tes’, too, though. If we stop any o’ this, we tip our hands an’ he’ll know who we’re protectin’.”

The dwarven soldiers placed markers shaped like men on the map in the war room. One marker per affected patch. They seemed to be random, spread across stra’tchi territory. No rhyme or reason to it, except what the Hauld had said. Jaas shook her head. “I doubt Bahhna patch will have anything more to do with us after this. They’ll think the Sustained knew about me! And they won’t be the only ones, I bet.”

“Aye, lass. This’ll be a setback, ta be sure, but na’ a complete one. This’s jus’ like when they poison’d Tellek patch. Some o’ tha patches’ll be afraid, true, but some’ll know wha’ this really was, an’ they’ll come back stronger fer it. An those’ll be tha ones we wan’ on our side, in tha end.”

-.-

Ta’anu’s brow furrowed as he and the other Thornes heard Velya’s report. The Beast attacks had been recent, and some were even ongoing, but what she had to say was of greater importance. “Are you sure of this, Velya?” He asked quietly, but with a tremble to his voice. His fists were on the table, white-knuckled.

“As sure as I can be,” Velya admitted from her end of the table. “I examined the body myself. Granted, it was just a goat’s body, but the effects are the same: it was definitely nethrit root. It’s a plant that can be mixed into a very deadly poison, and its effects would look like the Blood Fever to most everyone.”

Quiet inundated the room, as they all shared looks of concern over this news. Velya herself looked at Ta’anu in suspense. Thankfully despite his obvious strain, he seemed to be in control of his emotions for now.

It was the first Briar meeting held in over two years, and it was sparsely attended. Of all the Thornes in the city, only ten had been able to show up on such short notice. Still, they were the ten who mattered most, so Velya wasn’t concerned. She wasn’t worried about the noise, either. They were all ensconced in her cousin’s basement in Barros patch, safely away from prying eyes. It had been a bit of a chore getting Sabra in here unnoticed, but his presence had been necessary. He’d given a detailed and concise report to the others, while Velya watched with pride. And shamefully, a little surprise as well. She shouldn’t have underestimated him like that.

“First we have generations of enslavement at the hands of the Council and the Ascendants,” Ta’anu spoke up again, his tone slowly gaining intensity. “Then they poisoned an entire patch full of people, like they were nothing but vermin! And now we find out that they unleashed the Beasts on stra’tchi patches all over the city, for the first time in decades. What’s next?”

Velya felt a sympathetic ache run through her. She, Ta’anu and Sabra were the only stra’tchi here at the meeting. She and Ta’anu had both been tested as children, misfiled in the Registry to hide the fact that they were both navigators, and then sent to their respective patches by the previous generation of Thornes. Ta’anu had been groomed specifically to become Boss Bladescar of Rennil patch, one of the most heavily populated stra’tchi patches in the city.

Similarly, Velya had been sent to the Deathwatchers, and had eventually become one of Drakos Bloodeye’s advisors. The Thornes had wanted her to be Boss herself, but no one could ever fully predict the Deathwatchers, and Drakos had been stable enough that they were content to let him stay in charge.

She’d found Sabra a few years later, crawling the streets naked and alone, and decided to raise him on her own. She’d kept him secret at first, but he ate so much that eventually she’d been forced to reveal his existence to the other Deathwatchers. Fortunately they respected strength, so Sabra would always have a place among them. He would never be Bonded to any Sustained house, though. He was simply too hideous for them. Eventually he’d joined the Thornes as well, even if he was still only a conditional member. Actually, that was one of the reasons she’d asked Sabra to join Arico’s little group. She’d been hoping that his report on Arico and the dwarves would earn him some respect in the eyes of the others.

Despite their disparate origins, all Thornes had an equal voice in this meeting. It was one of the things that set them apart from the Sustained Council, but hopefully not from Arico’s resistance movement. Velya remained hopeful that whatever government he was trying to create would focus on equality, just as the Thornes did. But even if it didn’t, it would still probably be better than the Council.

“The Beast attacks are bad enough, but we can’t let them use this poison again!” Ta’anu insisted into the silence, breaking through her thoughts.

His outrage was perfectly understandable. Ta’anu had many friends in many patches, usually from meeting them during New Day celebrations, but Tellek was a special case. His mother—his birth mother, anyway—had died there. Poisoned along with everyone else.

His fervor was captivating as well. He was young, strong, and passionate—all things that grabbed for attention—and his message was certainly dramatic enough. “What do you suggest we do?” Velya asked, not entirely sure she really wanted to know.

Strangely, Ta’anu lowered his voice and took a deep breath. Perhaps he felt he’d overreached a little. When he spoke again, his tone was just as passionate but not quite as dramatic. “We need to find where they’re growing this poison plant of theirs. There are only so many places they could be hiding the fields. If you tell me what they look like, I could have my people searching within the hour! When we find it, we’ll burn the fields and destroy the poison to send a message to the Council!”

“Absolutely not.” A voice from the other end of the table said harshly. “It’s far too great a risk.”

As a regional commander in the Ascendants, Ornos had gained a reputation for giving keen and insightful advice on military matters. His well-timed missives had been quite useful over the years, and he’d earned a degree of respect, even from non-trained Sustained Thornes.

“They’re killing people, Ornos!” Boska Smith spoke up.

In public, Boska was just a minor member of a much more powerful House. Here among the Thornes though, he’d always been something of a communal conscience for the group. If the Thornes had a Clarion, he would be it. “I know we’re all afraid of exposure,” he said evenly, “but can we really afford to just stay in the background anymore? They’re committing mass murder now, and we have the power to stop it! If we don’t even try, our hands might as well have the same blood on them!”

“Besides,” Ta’anu picked up from him, “we have a rare opportunity here. Right now everyone in Patchwork knows about Arico and his little band of rebels. As long as they’re out there, we can strike without fear of exposure. Any action we take—any trouble we start—will no doubt be blamed on them! Who knows: maybe Arico will even appreciate the boost to his reputation. In the end, the more damage we can do to the Council’s power structure, the closer we’ll be to our Emergence!”

Emergence. The long-awaited moment when all Thornes would finally come out of the shadows and be recognized by everyone. All Thornes longed for it, making Ta’anu’s proposal a tempting one.

Velya cleared her throat. “Our ancestors decided to keep to the shadows for a reason. We’ve already stretched their mandate by helping Arico, however invisibly. That said, I don’t think any of us would object to getting rid of that poison. And Ta’anu does have a point. Now may be the safest time to take action that we’ve ever known.” She took the opportunity to nod over at Ornos. “However, I’m sure there are steps we can take to lessen the risk even further. Commander, if you have any suggestions I’m sure we’d all be eager to hear them.”

Ornos didn’t respond at first. Of all of them, he’d always been the staunchest defender of keeping hidden. He’d even objected to helping Arico at first. Eventually though, he gave a grudging nod in her direction. “If we really are going to take part in this madness, we should at least do it right,” he grumbled. “I’ll help with the plan.” With his agreement, Velya could practically feel the spirits of the others rising. The vote came up a few minutes later, with predictable results. For the first time in Patchwork’s history, the Thornes were going to war.

-.-

Field notes, 27th of Arasil, Jaas scribbled, sitting down in a corner.

But she didn’t know what to write down. Her head was still swimming in recent events. Just as Jaas had predicted, the mayor of Bahhna patch had refused to let her back into his territory after the last attacks. He’d claimed it was getting too difficult to hide her from their magistrate, which to be fair could actually have been the truth.

There were still plenty of places she was needed, though. Now she and Arico were in Yeggin patch, a fruit-growing municipality just on the edge of Sustained territory. He was off giving his sales pitch to their Boss Saunis, a wiry but canny-looking man about her size. His brand was still red and would no doubt be painful for months to come, but Arico gave no sign of it to her or anyone else. In fact he’d gone out of his way to make sure everyone saw it.

As for Jaas, she’d done her part here, just as she had back in Sakkas patch. She’d confronted a few of the curious citizens, sharing what she could about their ancestry from before the Threading, and just as before it had apparently made quite an impression on them. Now it was his turn, and she’d retreated to a nearby empty barn for quiet and privacy to take notes.

It’s been more than a week since my last entry,
she explained as if apologizing to herself. The movement here has continued to evolve, as has the feel from the entire city. Even I’ve felt it, and I have virtually no military experience at all.

She stared down at the parchment, willing the words to come in a smooth and clear manner.

When Arico first explained to me what he wanted to accomplish here, it sounded so high-minded, so idealistic. The dwarves backing him seemed the same way, when I first met them. To teach literacy, to link together people who otherwise would have no real connection to each other, to convince them to stand up for themselves and each other! The idea had purity of intent and action. Of course I couldn’t know what we were in store for.

The movement has changed, by necessity. We’ve… grown out of our innocence. That said, if anyone reading this thinks that we’ve lost our ideals, think again. We still have the same goals, the same driving force behind us. Fighting tyranny is all well and good in theory. In practice, though,
she grimaced, it’s a gritty, bloody business. People get hurt and killed. The innocent especially have paid the price in this war.

She snorted a laugh to herself. War. This is on such a tiny scale. At any given time, perhaps a hundred people are fighting on each side. At most. Real wars like the ones I studied in the Academy had thousands or tens of thousands locked in combat all at once. All the same, the size of the conflict doesn’t matter, not in here. To these people, this is their future, no matter how small of a bottle this tempest is trapped in.

There is an upside to the changing face of this fight, though. It’s forced people off of the fence. Either they’re hiding, trying to stay out of the fighting, or they’ve joined us in standing up against the Sustained. We know who we can trust now, and that number is growing. I think the Lord Ascendant knows it too. It might just be wishful thinking, but I get the impression his actions are getting more desperate over time. These Beast attacks over random patches are brutal, but they also seem exploratory to me. As if he’s living up to his name and fishing for leads on us.


She paused for a moment, wondering if she should include this as well. It was personal, but it also had an impact on the war.

Arico told me what precipitated these attacks. How the Lord Ascendant’s son murdered Endu’s little girl, and how Endu got revenge for that. I can’t fault her for doing it, but I have to wonder just how much worse things will get because of her. Perhaps she did the right thing for the wrong reason, though. Maybe stirring the pot a little will make this fight end sooner. Even though I know she didn’t do it for any reason but revenge.


Jaas hadn’t been around for whatever punitive measures the Hauld had decided was right for Endu and Alzhi. However they’d been punished, there was no sign that their duties had changed at all. Alzhi was still undercover somewhere, and Endu was still in the Enclave, mixing sparkpowder and bandaging the injured. The dwarves had set up a sort of triage center in one of their less-populated patches, Ste’hetha.

That reminds me,
she noted almost for herself, I’ve remembered what was bugging me about the names of the various patches. Patch names didn’t exist in the Vasiri empire of course, but the modern names tend to follow a regular rule. Each one has to have a pair of consonants in the middle of the name. Tellek, Sevvas, Bassos. So far, the only exceptions I’ve seen to that rule have been the Deathwatch patch (a patch that seems to be an exception to almost every rule) and the dwarven patches. No one I’ve asked seems to know exactly why the patches are named that way, though. It bears further investigation.[/i]

Of course the dwarves had been forced to evacuate Ste’hetha patch so that the wounded wouldn’t know they were in the Enclave. That left just Endu, Sabra, and a dozen or so medics from the few patches they could trust. Just another way to keep themselves and the people they were helping safe. Jaas closed her notebook and sighed. Laying back on the straw, she closed her eyes for a few moments. It was going to be a long war.

-.-

The tunnel was old, and in disrepair. In his haste, Halseus kept on bumping and scraping against the walls. There was no time! It could start any minute now, and he couldn’t afford to be late! If he was, decades of work could be lost.

It had been months now since he’d seen Jaas enter the city and begin exploring. He’d kept a close eye on her through the link, and read everything she wrote with great interest. Still, she hadn’t told him the one thing he wanted to know most of all. If he failed, she wouldn’t get the chance, either!

This time he was alone, though. No Untos backing him up, whispering caution from his side. And this time he wasn’t here just to watch, either. The timing had to be perfect: he couldn’t trust any of his children with this, not even Untos.

No doubt humans would find this mode of transportation very unsettling, but it certainly was faster than running, or even riding on horseback. The tunnel was vertical, cut straight up to the surface dozens of years ago, and pressurized water was propelling him up along the shaft. He kept on smacking into the walls during his rapid ascent, but a few bumps and scrapes were a small price to pay, given the limited time he had to get into position.

Just before the surface the water slowed its rise, and Halseus took a moment to check his links again. Phew. Jaas wasn’t moving yet, and Arico was only moving at a slow walk. He still had some time left. Reaching out, Halseus braced his arms and legs against the tunnel walls and began climbing the rest of the way as the water receded back down the tunnel. It was ironic that this was the exact same structure that Arico wanted to dig in almost every patch. Especially since such structures were all over the city already, just carefully hidden from view in every case.

Halseus hoped against hope that it would stay that way, too. He was all for the humans having plentiful drinking water—nothing wrong with that. But he also needed his network of transport tunnels to remain hidden, even from the dwarves. With a little effort, he squirmed his way out of the tunnel and crawled out from under the rock covering it. A moment later, sunlight poured down on him from above.

From the links, he knew no one was around to watch him, but the trip had badly disheveled his costume, and he was quick to re-apply the bandages to his head and arms. One look at him would be enough to tell he wasn’t human, and he really didn’t need that trouble right now. Fortunately he was drying off quickly enough. No longer under pressure from below, the water faded out of sight.

After gaining his bearings, he made his way south to the abandoned structures lining the southern edge of Yeggin patch. Arico always entered and left patches under as much cover as possible, so Halseus was sure he’d head there.

Through the links, Halseus was suddenly aware of someone leaving the threads up ahead. He froze, and then took cover behind one of the buildings. Then, carefully balancing his normal senses and the links, he began climbing up the side of one of the stone structures. Once on top he found a concealed position, and laid down flat on his back with a chunk of rock clutched to his chest. Now all he could do was wait, and hope.

-.-

Arico’s head jutted in through the nearby barn door. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Jaas looked up at him bleary-eyed from the haystack. The light from the windows had only shifted a little; she guessed she’d only been dozing for a few minutes. “Are you all set out there?”

“Mostly, but we should head out anyway.”

He slipped inside, took a seat next to her, and started helping her pack up to leave. There were a lot of scrolls to roll up and stuff into her bag. “Boss Saunis is talking it over with his people. We didn’t have time to dig out any pools on the corners of this patch, but he already knows what they can do. I-” he hesitated.

He shook his head tiredly. “You know what, I’m done predicting these people. Either he’ll commit, or he won’t. Regardless, we should get back to Ste’hetha patch while they think about it.” He extended his arm in an old-world show of gallantry and Jaas took it, feeling a little surprised. Fortunately it wasn’t his injured shoulder. She’d told him about that sort of gesture a while back, while describing life in various noble circles. She hadn’t expected him to remember after all this time.

Yeggin patch was mostly orchards, despite its proximity to Sustained territory. This early in the year, their fruit trees hadn’t grown anything worth eating yet, but she could see some flowers just starting to bloom. From what Jaas had learned, after the Threading most fruit trees simply hadn’t bloomed at all. People had discovered by accident that apparently bees were a necessary part of their growing any fruit. There were two beehives in the whole city, and one of them was here. It was atop a tree in the magistrate’s yard, naturally.

Only a few of the buildings from the original Vasiri city block remained, and that’s where they were headed. It made ideal cover for anyone who might be watching, though Arico had been assured the magistrate was being kept busy while they were here. Once they were inside the old ruins, he would take them through the threads back to the Enclave.

Just after they left the stone walkway near the threads, Jaas heard a crumbling noise, and a small chunk of ancient brick tumbled from one of the nearby structures. Jaas didn’t see anything there, but Arico came to a stop anyway. There was a thunk of metal against stone, and a quivering crossbow bolt was suddenly sticking out of the stone wall right in front of him.

If he hadn’t stopped, it would have buried itself right in the side of his head!

“Look out!” Before Jaas could even realize what was going on, Arico was already dragging her out of the way as a shape dropped down from one of the nearby buildings and began running towards them. At the end of the wall was what was left of a closed wooden door. Arico had almost gotten her around it and under cover when another projectile whistled through the air and pierced her hand, pinning it to the door!

The sheer suddenness of it was almost instantly replaced with searing pain, and she screamed, clutching at the dagger sticking out of her wounded hand.

Arico immediately put himself in front of her, his gun drawn and his eyes locked on the approaching figure. “Don’t pull on it!” he insisted quietly. “You could do more damage.”

Easy for him to say, she thought bitterly, blinking back tears and trying to stay as still as possible. The dagger had hit parallel to her fingers, so it didn’t look like it had cut into any of her bones. It hurt like hell though, and blood was already dripping heavily onto the ground underneath her.

Now that his prey had been prevented from leaving, their attacker slowed his pace and approached at a walk. He was short, whoever he was; dressed in black studded leather and carrying another dagger in his right hand. A menacing-looking mask in the shape of a skull covered his face.

Arico stiffened, looking back at him. “Die with me,” the figure hissed at them, and charged in dagger-first.
« Last Edit: April 08, 2022, 05:40:01 AM by Daen »