Chapter Twenty-Six: The Second Wing

Joshasden Stalewaver. Father. Guide. Explorer. Currently lost as heck.

He held the map up as he navigated the dirt streets of Ampyre, shifting through the market's crowd while barely avoiding potholes, glancing up only to sidestep strangers rushing about their lives. He stopped in his track for a moment and behind him, the cart Arnold was pushing bumped into his back.

"Hey!" Arnold let out. "Quit stopping at every junction. We're not exactly safe out here in the open."

"There's nothing I can do!" Josh replied, annoyed. "The clue says a junction, but it doesn't exactly specify which one."

Beside Arnold, Doctor Miura stood wavering in a brown cloak, trying to look inconspicuous with her collar pulled up high to hide the cybernetics implanted in the side of her neck. She slightly shifted the tarp that covered the cart to inspect the medical equipments hidden inside, making sure they were not damaged or significantly moved to unbalance by the nudge.

"I agree with Arnie," Miura answered. "I don't particularly like being so exposed."

Arnold then asked, "Are we lost?"

It wasn't easy to answer them. Yes, Eca had given them a list of safe houses, but it was more of a coded test than anything. There were starting coordinates marked to each hideout. But the back of the note were numbered instructions you were meant to follow. It was a treasure hunt, and safety was the prize.

They had started with clue number 3 - head west and follow the goblin's barrel - from the Central Market Courtyard. It was there they found the Hobgoblin Tavern which had three barrels outside stamped with 12th Brewery's logo. From there, they followed point 12 to an overhang where they were to "count the chimneys east". Five clues later, they were now looking for "the junction with two wings".

Arnold voiced, "We don't even know if we followed the correct sequence! What if we miscounted those stupid chimneys? What does eleven say?"

"Uh..." Josh was reluctant to change course.

It might be the old man in him refusing new ideas, but he felt they were on the right track. The instructions seemed random, but were oddly specific for each location. Eleven asked them to move south from the overhang and "follow the stream", but there were no such landmarks or paths from that place.

From the edge of his hearing, the sound of birds tweeting in the wind caught his attention. He looked up from his map and glanced around. His compatriots seemed to have picked up the same cue. They continued down the path, the crowd thinning out the further away they got from the main market area and the sound of birds got louder. Finally, they stopped at the first junction of the edges of Ampyre's southeastern centre where the smell of bland produce were replaced with the pulpy dust of wood and stone. They had stepped into one of the industrial areas where stone buildings separated by fields filled with blocks of stone and trunks of wood started to spread outward into the countryside.

The song of birds were now clear and distinct. The trio split away from their cart to looked down each of the three streets that forked. Josh tilted his head at a signpost next to the nearest building. Atop the words of 'Avian Messaging Service' was a wood carving of a pidgin bird, its wings extended open in mock flight.

"Hey!" Josh called out. "I think this is it."

Miura jogged up to him as Arnold went back to the cart to push it to them.

The doctor asked, "Is this the place?" Her head swivelled around. "I don't see any other numbers or instructions."

"Maybe it's the number of wings?" Josh checked the second point of the clues. He read aloud, "The gate before you."

"That sounds a lot like this is it to me."

He concurred. Rolling the map up, he swung his bag off his shoulder and set it on the ground. Just as he finished packing the parchment and map into the side pocket, Arnold rolled the cart up behind them. He told Miura and Arnold to stay behind first since it was more likely for anyone within Eca's circle to know who he was..

"If someone shoots you," Arnold quipped, "I'm running away."

The building was a simple stone house with wooden pillars supporting the roof of an overhanging porch. Multi-coloured birds that were unnaturally bright for the dreary landscape chimed from cages hung from the rafters, singing musically into the grey. A single wooden door barred the entranceway, closed, with two windows curtained by leather aside it. The salty smell of seed and light flex from the birds drifted to Josh the closer up to the door he walked.

As he stepped onto the porch, the front door creaked opened and he jolted, body ready to run. Behind him, Arnold's hand slipped under the tarp, no doubt reaching for the gun hidden beneath.

Grey robes flitted out from the darkness behind the door. The mage stood before them, with the same calm and confidence displayed half a season ago when they first met.

Eca Rend greeted, "Welcome back, Joashden Stalewaver." He tilted his head to look past Josh's large shoulder and smiled. "You've brought friends."

Josh let out a sigh - of relief? He knew not. Though not an enemy, the tension in his neck did not dissipate.

"We need to use your safehouse," Josh asked directly. "I'm taking you up on your offer."

Eca smiled. "What makes you think the offer still stands."

A lump lodged in Josh's throat. Was the mage about to send him on some errand to earn his keep? Without Luce and Adelle by his side, he was not sure how much adventuring he could handle. While Arnold was capable in his own rights and Miura specialised in medicine, he was not quite comfortable with the level of facing their usual level of troubles with such a motley crew.

Then, Eca laughed. "I'm just joking. Come in. I'm dying to find out the circumstances bringing you back so hastily."

The man turned his back on them and walked into the building. Josh looked back to a worried Arnold and saw that Miura had taken cover behind the cart. He had forgotten for a moment that she was technically their charge and still a civilian. Making a mental note to keep her out of harms way, he gave them a thumbs up to confirm the place was safe before following Eca in.

The inside surprisingly matched the description outside. Coops lined both sides of the wall and the smell of birds and feed coagulated in the air. The pidgins chirped and cooed, making for a headache inducing background noise. There was a wooden counter stacked with papers and letters before him, either awaiting delivery or fulfilment. A light grey drakin sat behind the divide reading a scroll, tending the shop. She did not even look up as they walked in.

"Send your companions around back," Eca instructed. "I'll have someone help them unload. Seems like whatever you've bought weighs a Titan's load. Follow me after." He then disappeared behind another door to the back room.

Arnold stepped in behind them and gagged. "Oh, man. This place smells like ass."

The drakin at the counter looked up with a scorned scowl but did not say anything.

"Bring the stuff around back," Josh told Arnold. "There'll be people to help unload."

"Can we trust these people?" Arnold asked. "I mean, you know them, sure. But I don't."

"Do you trust me?"

The young Guide shrugged. "Barely. But you've not killed me yet so there's that. Not trying to murder me is something I tend to look for in friends."

Despite the jokes, Arnold walked back out of the store and dutifully followed the instructions, pushing the cart around back alongside Miura.

Josh would have helped too, but it seemed that Eca wanted to talk privately with him, given the specifics of the instructions. So he followed the mage to the back room.

The space in the back roughly matched the front of the store. A human male stood outside an opened back door, likely the helper mentioned to be assisting Arnold with unloading their equipments. A carpet had been dragged to a corner on the floor, revealing a large open trapdoor that lead underground. Josh made the logical decision and walked down into the earth.

Electric lamps ran the side of the wall, meaning that somehow, Eca and his people had managed to wire the place with power. The tunnel did not run long before coming out in an open chamber. A large round table sat in the centre. The walls were plastered with maps and charts of the area. Exes were marked over locations in the Titan's Graveyard, with just one tick off the borders of Altaro.

Eca was behind the table, leaning over while examining pieces of paper, likely with intelligence gathered.

Josh asked, "How did you know we were coming here?"

The mage looked up. "What made you think I knew?"

Josh held up the list of safe houses. "There are seven locations here and I chose this place randomly. Do you expect me to believe you just so happen to be in the first one we decided to follow?"

"Smart man. Yeah. The instructions were a ruse. We have people at every other 'clue' location. They're there to warn us if anyone was coming our way. I got the radio that you were coming and decided to meet you here."

This time, Josh's sigh was without a doubt from stress. "I don't think you'd come specifically to greet us if you didn't need something."

"Right again. I heard you're an expert of sorts on Titans. Tell me, have you ever heard of the sentient Titan, Exodus?"

"Yeah. It's a myth. A story the elites in Citidale tell to scare their kids," Josh admitted. But even as his next few words came out, his gut was already twisting in anticipation. "A Titan the size of a continent. Its shadow alone is enough to engulf the world in darkness. But there's no possible way that such a creature could exist. No space on Tearha will fit such a thing of such size."

"Well," Eca said. "I've got bad news. Exodus is real. And the Pyrerai has it. This war is reaching its climax and whether you intended it to or not, your group is now smack in the middle of it."

Author's Note: Hi everyone. Thank you for reading Tearha: Titan War, which will continue to release a new chapter every week on Friday until its completion. If you like what you've read so far, and would like to support my writing, you can buy one of my books at my website. Or you could check out my Patreon to help out for the long run. Of course, just sharing, commenting, and reviewing helps a bunch as well!

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