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Chapter 13 - Neera

The water was freezing.

Even standing on her tiptoes, the frigid water came up to Neera’s belly. She awkwardly held her arms above the water, stretching her posture as the gentle, ebbing tide rose around her, lapping at the shore.

She had been quiet since the crash. She was scared, confused and entirely out of her comfort zone, answering only in short sentences and rarely ever speaking unless spoken to. She had been holding everything back, but out in the water, alone with Isha, she finally opened up and let it all out. It was a geyser flowing from an uncrimped hose, a barrage of words, a fusillade of thoughts and questions interrupted only by her own tangential attention’s need to ask even more questions.

She didn’t wait for answers. She just needed to let the torrent of pent up feelings out, let someone know what she was thinking. She had grown close to Isha, looked up to her. With nobody else around, she finally felt comfortable enough to confide in her. When Neera eventually ran out of questions, a new torrent began. Tears cascaded down her face leaving streaks of pale skin amongst the dirt and ash.

“It was the right thing to do,” Isha told her, trying to comfort the child, but not treat her like a child. “I’ve killed a dozen people. I don’t say this to brag. Some deserved it much more than others, but every time it was a choice. And never an easy one. Nor should it be. But it gets easier.”

In the air above them, a hawk flew in circles as they waded in the biting ocean water.

“Doesn’t that scare you? Don’t you feel bad that it’s easier?”

“It’s a shock, I know, but you come to terms with it. Understand that you did what had to be done.”

Did I have to? Or did I want to?” she sputtered out in sobs. “Just because it had to be done doesn’t make me feel like any less of a monster.”

“I killed three people that day. You don’t think I’m a monster, do you?”


“And what about the heroes in your stories? The Drae? Their Queen-Champion!”


“Of course not. They were warriors fighting for good, righteous and courageous.”

“But killing that man didn’t feel courageous. I was scared. It didn’t feel righteous. It felt like murder. Is that just who I am then? A murderer? Or who I’m destined to become?”

“Gods, don’t be so fucking dramatic, kid. Was I this angsty when I was your age?” Isha was being flippant, but clearly trying not to sound too disrespectful. “Neera, you saved people’s lives. I don’t believe in destiny, but if I did, I’d say you’re destined to become a hero. You are a hero.”

“I really do believe I’m meant to do something with this... ability.” For a moment, she seemed hopeful, but like a strong breeze knocking down a house of cards, doubt washed it all away. “I want to help people, I want to be a hero, but I don’t even really know how to control it. I feel like the things I can do are only good for one thing: killing.”

“Is that not what a hero has to do at times? We live in a complicated world. Morality is nuanced, but there’s a difference between killing and murder. Before Everspring’s destruction, I worked as an Everguard. Someone commits a crime, we try to catch them, bring them in. Sometimes, that’s not an option. Sometimes, circumstances dictate a more... immediate and permanent punishment. Not all guards are moral and just, though. They abuse that power. Sometimes, circumstances don’t dictate killing, yet they do it anyway. War is even uglier. Two sides killing en masse, both thinking they’re fighting for what’s right. Who’s to say which one is? Are either of them?”

Neera looked at her, more confused than anything. Perhaps nuance was not the best thing to focus on.

“Look at it this way. If a bandit kills an innocent man, that’s murder. If a mercenary— if I track down and kill that bandit, that’s justice.” She paused for a moment, letting that sink in before continuing. “But what if, instead of me or some mercenary, the man’s wife killed the bandit? Is that suddenly not justice any more? Only difference between her and a mercenary is her emotional investment. Sure, she wanted the bandit dead, but why? Because he killed her husband. Why is the merc after his head? Because he killed her husband.”

Neera remained silent, taking it all in, internalizing the words being given to her.

“Wanting someone dead who did a horrible thing isn’t a symptom of being a bad person. It’s a sense of justice, just... amplified from personal involvement.” Isha looked down into the water, the motion of the water too choppy to show her reflection. She let out a long sigh. “Like my first kill.”

At this, Neera focused her attention on Isha. It’s not that Neera hadn’t been paying attention before, but she’d also been in her own head a bit. Isha now had it undivided.

“I was a kid, not much older than you. Less angsty, though. I had just joined The Whispers, an MC out of Rah’qet. That’s actually where I grew up. At the time, I had fallen madly in love with my first ever boyfriend. He was two years older than me, but we were both still just kids. Didn’t stop him wanting to be the chivalrous defender of his woman.”

Her usual manner of speaking shifted. She began talking in a slower, more deliberate tone. Her voice got quiet, a hair above a whisper.

“Part of being in an MC is you’re supposed to be able to trust your brothers and sisters. But there was this man, an older member. He...”

She stopped herself, remembering her audience. Perhaps she didn’t need those details.

“Let’s just say it was an emotional situation. This man was supposed to be someone I could trust, but he had quickly proven without a doubt that was not the case. My boyfriend intervened. It turned physical. The older man was older and my boyfriend was a boy, so...” she trailed off, letting the implication fill in the details. “I only wanted to help. But things went south. There was a knife. And just like that, he stabbed my boyfriend, killing him dead right then and there. So I killed him.”

Tears rolled down Isha’s cheeks.

“That’s when I ran. Fight or flight. Left Rah’qet and eventually found myself in Everspring. I tried to move on, start a new life, but the memory of that day haunted me. Every day, I wished I could forget about what happened, but that only served as a constant reminder.”

Isha began removing the clips that held up her hair.

“It took me a while to understand that you can’t run from trauma. You have to face it head on, own it, let it become a part of you. You’re not a victim, you’re a survivor. And knowing you survived will only make you stronger. Do you understand?”

Neera nodded in agreement. If only Isha knew just how well she understood.

Isha sank down under the water, completely submerged. When she came back up, her hair hung down heavy and damp. While it still held onto her natural curls, the water pulled it straighter. Neera hadn’t realized just how long it was. A smile grew across Isha’s face right before she splashed Neera with a wave of water.

“Hey! Wha—”

She was interrupted as another wave crashed into her face.

“There,” Isha said with an accomplished satisfaction. “Now nobody can tell we’ve been cr—”

Isha was hit with a retaliatory wave. Did she really think Neera would just let her get away with such an affront? To let go without a fight?

“I guess I deserved that,” Isha said, laughing. “Now we’re ev—”

Neera pelted her again. Now they were even. Of course, neither of them could just stop there. Thus began a splash fight to end all splash fights as they pumped their hands into the water, their palms sending wave after frigid wave crashing into one another. They both held their eyes shut, their heads turned away from the stinging droplets of freezing cold water. Even with the uncomfortable temperature, and especially after such a heavy conversation, it was refreshing to laugh and play in the water like they were carefree children, without a worry in the world.

Not everyone seemed to appreciate it as much as they did. As they returned to shore, a short, grumbling man gave them a judgmental glare as he poked at the belongings they had left strewn about the shore.

Neera rushed towards her satchel and snatched it up off the ground. She’d really need to be more careful. The contents of her satchel—at least the idol and ledger—were too important to leave out for some grumpy fisherman to poke around at. The man paid her no mind and lifted up some of Isha’s discarded clothing with a long pole that had a hook at the end. Neera and Isha gathered their things under his watchful ire. He said nothing to them, instead choosing to grumble under his breath and glare.

Neera wondered why he was so contemptuous and unfriendly. Perhaps he didn’t like strangers. Maybe, though she sincerely hoped not, their antics in the water had disturbed his fishing, as unlikely as that seemed. Or maybe he just doesn’t like fun. Whatever the reason, they took their leave of the man, gathered the rest of their things and began the short trek back to the barren.

“Don’t mind Eshek,” said a man sitting on one of the two large rocks that flanked either side of the path entrance. “He can be a bit of a grouch.”

The man spoke to them without making eye contact. His head was tilted up slightly, staring just above them, past them, leaving his unchanging gaze levied towards the sky. It was almost as if he were blind. Was he? As they approached, Neera could see that the whites of his eyes were non-existent, as were his pupils. His irises had expanded until there was nothing but waves of color: greens and light browns and just a hint of yellow.

“And by can, I mean always. Man’s got a stick up his ass the size of his fishing poles. Probably doesn’t help that you’re covered in tattoos. He’s a bit of a stickler for the old ways.”

Okay, so he’s probably not blind.

“Personally, I quite enjoy them. Especially the one on your back.” He vaguely pointed his finger in Isha’s direction and made a spinning motion. “The giant feather, at least. Speaks to me.”

“Wait, how can you see the tattoo on my back?” Isha asked. “Can you see at all?”

With a slight chuckle he pointed up towards the sky. The two turned just as the hawk they saw circling above them in the water earlier came swooping down just over their heads, ducking just as it flew past them. The hawk circled back around and landed with a gentle grace on the man’s shoulder.

“This is Kira.”

The man’s eyes began to change. His irises contracted back to normal, once again revealing the whites of his eyes. His pupils returned as well as they expanded from tiny pinpricks of black, dilating back to their usual size. He quickly squinted and blinked a few times, readjusting.

“And I’m L’vendros, but you can call me Leven.”

Neera was instantly enamored. Her view on magic had been limited for so long to the mediocre parlor tricks Rami was capable of. Magister’s Day had opened the door to so much possibility. What else were people capable of? What else was she capable of?

“That is so cool!” Neera yelled. “Can you see through the hawk’s eyes? What’s it like? Can he speak? Can you speak through it? Can you control it?”

“Woah, lotta questions, okay.” He began counting on his fingers as he answered each question. “Yes, it’s really cool, no, no, and sort of? It’s more like a suggestion. Like we have an agreement.”

“How did you learn how to do that? Can I learn how? Can you teach me?”

“Afraid not. People in the barren bond with an animal at some point in their lives. Turns out our bond”—he turned to look at the bird perched on his shoulder and gave it a little rub on its cheek—“is a fair bit stronger than others.”

With a coy smile, his pupils once again contracted and his irises expanded, the flowing color encompassing the entirety of his eyes. Kira spread her wings and let out a mighty caw as it leapt into the sky. Neera watched it circle above them. The bird looked quite majestic flying through the air, the setting sun illuminating its feathers with a pink-orange glow.

Leven turned toward Isha. “You know, it’s rude to stare.”

She hadn’t been watching the bird at all, enamored instead by a different set of beautiful colors.

“And what exactly were you and Kira doing while we were swimming, huh?” she rebutted, not skipping a beat.

“Oh, most definitely staring,” he said, raising an eyebrow and flashing Isha a smile.

There was something creepy and weird about the exchange, but Neera couldn’t point her finger on what.

“Neera, we haven’t exactly made plans for accomodations for the night, have we?” Isha asked her without moving a muscle to acknowledge her presence.

“Uh, I guess not?”

“We don’t wanna end up sleeping on the sand, as nice as this beach may be. You should find Roegan and ask him where you should go. I’m sure he’s already worked something out for you and the rest of the refugees by now.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll figure something out,” she said, raising an eyebrow and flashing Leven a matching smile.

Neera sat with her back to the wall outside Chione’s lodge, just next to her front door, eavesdropping on Kyrill’s conversation. She hadn’t meant to, at least not at first.

Initially, she only wanted to talk to the old woman, seek some guidance as it were. After her conversation with Isha, she felt a lot better about herself and her situation, but she knew that real guidance would only come from a place of true wisdom. She needed a Magister. But when she approached the lodge, she heard voices inside and was overtaken by an intense curiosity. She snuck off to a spot where she could listen in on the conversation. This is what a proper Magister is supposed to be. What she could have been. How could she not listen?

She did, however, quickly realize one of the voices belonged to Kyrill. If it had been anyone else, she might not have second guessed respecting their privacy. But she knew Kyrill. It seemed like more of a breach of trust. That didn’t stop her, though. She was already there.

“Bonding is no different. Kyrill, you are bonded.”

It sounded like Kyrill responded to the woman in a whisper, but it was impossible to tell.

“Kyrill, please hand me your necklace.”

She still wasn’t entirely sure what “bonding” was, but the voice of the old woman sounded reassuring. It must be good news. Good for him, she thought. The guy could use it. While he did have his moments, he’d seemed down since they decided to head to Shaded Seed, sulking during the whole trip here. Whatever it meant, it had to be important. She’d spent enough time around the man—and now the rest of his barren—to know that their necklaces were an important aspect of their culture. The beads were all significant, she knew that much. And here Chione was, giving him a new one.

Not much else was said before Kyrill was dismissed and the door to Chione’s lodge opened. Neera slunked down and pushed herself back against the wall, making herself as small as possible. It was unnecessary. Kyrill walked out in such a daze that he wouldn’t have noticed her if she had been standing directly in front of him. He seemed just as confused and lost as ever, but behind that confusion was a certain joy. Not in a smile, but in his eyes.

So it was good news.

Neera watched as Kyrill shambled away like he was sleepwalking, unaware of his surroundings. He tripped over a child’s toys in the distance as Chione’s raspy voice called to her from inside the lodge.

“It’s considered impolite to eavesdrop, you know.”


“Don’t worry, dear, you’re not in trouble. But do come in. And fix me a cup of tea, would you?”

With a gentle push, Neera opened the door. It was dark and moody inside, cloaked in mystery. In a chair across the room sat an unassuming old woman with a smile across her face. She said nothing. As Neera walked inside, a large bird beat its wings. Neera twitched backwards with a small gasp, but remembered the barren was full of domesticated animals. This bird was just the woman’s pet. Nothing to be afraid of. Hopefully. She slowly approached the bird and carefully held out her hand, testing the waters.

“Hello there,” she said with a calm, soft voice. “I’m Neera.”

The bird didn’t seem agitated by her presence, so she reached for the top of the bird’s head, gliding her hand over its feathers. She did it again, this time the bird tilted its head into her hand as it made a soft chittering sound that Neera could only assume was the bird’s equivalent to a coo.

“Yeah, that’s a good boy.”

“Thiss seems to like you,” Chione said. “He doesn’t usually let strangers pet him. He can be quite a little shit to those he doesn’t know.”

The woman’s language caught Neera off guard. Say what you will about Rami, but he always held himself very highly, always concerned about projecting the right public image. Sometimes to the detriment of doing his actual job.

The knot in Neera’s stomach tightened at the memory.

“You seem troubled. Is there something I can help you with, my dear? Or did you just come here to spy on the man who saved your life and pet my bird?”

Without missing a beat, Neera turned to the woman and asked, “What’s my destiny?”

Chione let out a sad, reluctant sigh.

“Neera, I’m not a fortune teller. I can’t see the future. Destiny isn’t real.”

Neera was visibly disappointed, not quite upset, but definitely let down by her own expectations.

“For example, I was sure you’d be preparing a cup of tea for me by now...” She spread her arms wide, motioning around at the absence of tea. “Yet here we are.”

Neera perked up, adjusting her posture, and made her way towards the beaded curtain that led to the next room.

“Left cupboard, middle shelf. I’m in the mood for something spicy.”

Neera lit the candle under Chione’s tea kettle and prepared a mug with “something spicy,” though she didn’t understand why. She was never actually asked to. Chione had such a commanding presence, the implication alone was enough to spur one into action. Once the water had heated enough, Neera poured some into the mug, placed it on a small dish and walked out to the front room once again. She bent down and handed Chione her tea, the rising steam carrying the scent of oranges, cinnamon and spice.

“So. Neera. You come seeking divination. I regret to inform you that I offer no such service. Nobody can. What I do offer is more about insight.” She leaned in close, motioning for Neera to do the same. “But between you and me, part of it is magic.”

“I knew it!” Neera exclaimed with a whispered excitement, her disappointment vanishing in an instant.

“It can be difficult to understand, but think of it as tapping into the collective subconscious. It’s less about seeing into the future, and more about seeing possibilities, potential, the paths that are built from the choices we make.”

She was right, it was very difficult to understand.

“That’s why I don’t believe in destiny or fate, but in purpose and fulfillment. It’s all about the choices we make, and the choices those led us to. Visualizing them as branches of a tree is where the term Treeseer comes from.”

“So you don’t see the future?” Neera asked.

“No,” she said with a laugh. “Nobody can, because nothing is set in stone. Instead, I see potential. A Treeseer interprets what they can and offers guidance, nudging things in the right direction.” She lowered her voice to a more somber tone. “Sometimes, though, in order to help lead people towards fulfilling their potential, I need to do more than just nudge. Sometimes, I need to do things I wish I didn’t. I don’t mean to be harsh or mean or punish people, but I often have to be short, tell people things they don’t want to hear. Because it’s what’s required.”

Her sullenness was quickly replaced with an upbeat cheeriness like a lantern filling a room with light.

“But you have nothing to worry about, my dear. No nudging or harshness required. While you may have endured some hardships—and there will be more to come—you are already on the right path. You have a kind heart. Follow it.”

“I killed a man.”

The words flowed from her without a thought, surprising herself. It was a valid question worth asking, though, even if it was just stated as a fact. Could she have a kind heart having done the questionable things she’s done?

“Did he deserve it?”

“Well, yeah, I guess. He—”

“But you don’t like that you did.”


“Then you and I are more alike than you know. You did something you wish you didn’t need to. Regardless, you went through with it because it was what needed to be done, what was required. You sacrificed your own comfort for the betterment of those around you. Like I said, you have a kind heart.”

Chione reached forward and placed a hand on Neera’s shoulder.

“You’re a talented girl, Neera, and will grow to become an even more talented woman, but learning how to cope with these sorts of necessary actions is just as important as mastering your skills. Your recent experience may have been traumatic, especially for a girl your age, but you’ll learn to deal with it in time.”

The words were confusing to hear. Not due to comprehension—she fully understood what she was being told—but because it was both exactly what she needed to hear and also what she feared the most. She sought guidance, but learned no words would cure her of her discomfort. She had to confront her trauma and fears head on.

And while the big man she burned was quite a traumatic experience in it’s own right, it was nowhere near as traumatizing as the first time she killed someone.


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