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Chapter 20 - Neera


Neera and Moswen’s little berry-picking adventure had, unbeknownst to either of them, resulted in her handing the man a bag full of poison, which he apparently gobbled right up. She even thought it was kind of funny before she knew what she’d actually done, him admitting all sorts of private things, including his apparent bond with Moswen. After travelling with the two for several days, she now understood exactly what that meant. Or at least what that was supposed to mean. Kyrill had bonded with another person. And hadn’t told him. She was sure that would be a whole conversation, but there were more pressing matters at hand.

“Is Kyrill gonna die?!” Moswen yelled at Isha, desperation stuttering his voice.

Isha pulled a slender cloth envelope from a pocket hidden within her leathers.

“No, no, everything should be fine. I think I can handle this. First things first: we need to keep him on his feet and moving.”

She unwrapped the cloth to reveal what looked like an emergency tailor’s kit, complete with needle and thread. From a small pocket, she pulled out a number of pills, all different colors and shapes. She shuffled them around in her palm, picked out one, then returned the rest to her kit. “Alright, buddy, open wide.” Kyrill opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue. Isha grabbed him by his chin, tossed the pill inside, and handed him a waterskin. “Now drink up. Whole thing.”

“Good thing you just happen to have an antidote, huh?” Moswen asked.

“Don’t think there is an antidote, far as I know. That’ll just make him puke his guts out. Hopefully get enough poison out of his system.” She turned to Neera, acting more cordial and polite than she’d normally ever be, which only worried Neera that much more. “Darling, could you go fetch me as many charred coals from our little fire as you can carry? After Kyrill empties his guts out, we’re gonna crush up those coals into a powder and force feed him as much of the stuff as he can bear.”

She took off in a sprint.

As she ran, she could still hear Moswen worrying over the situation. The eerie quiet of the forest, mixed with her panic and fear, seemed to all coalesce into a hard lump in her throat. She found herself struggling to breathe as she ran. She knew she hadn’t done anything on purpose, but she was still riddled with guilt. From the sound of it, so was Moswen.

“If it’s any consolation,” she could hear Isha explaining to Moswen in the other clearing, “the first reaction to the berries, the first symptom, is a feeling of mild euphoria. He probably feels great right now.”

“I do!” Kyrill confirmed.

“After that—the reason the stuff is used at all—inhibitions are strippped away and whatever part of your brain that makes you inclined to lie just melts away. Apparently, it’s the same part of your brain that prevents you from feeling embarrassed.”

Neera approached the remnants of her and Isha’s small firepit and looked around nervously while she tried to figure out how she was going to carry the coals. She grabbed at her neck and removed her scarf, getting down on her hands and knees and laying it flat next to the pit. It was big, but was never going to work. Instead, she dumped the contents of her satchel out onto the scarf. She quickly wrapped the scarf around the pile and laid some unused firewood over the top to keep it secure.

She then turned towards the pile of stone-encircled ash and coal.

“The thing we need to watch out for,” Isha continued, “is mellowness and lethargy. That’s why we need to keep him active and moving. Otherwise it’s a slow slip into unconsciousness. You don’t wake up from that.”

“As far as death is concerned,” Kyrill said very matter of factly, “that honestly sounds like one of the better ways to go.”

“Don’t say that!” Moswen shouted.

Holding out the palms of her hands close to the pit, she tested for heat. It was still warm, but hopefully not dangerous enough that she needed to worry. She didn’t know if she had time to. She focused her attention on the task at hand, psyching herself up like she was preparing to jump into deep water. No pussyfooting at the shore now, Neera. Without hesitating a moment longer, she plunged her hands inside.

The initial shock was easy to mistake for pain. It scared her at first until she realized it wasn’t. She was surprised to find it reminded her an awful lot of her spoon test, holding the idol for the first time. But still different. Like riding a bike that wasn’t your own. It was the same relative experience, but the details were all different.

She didn’t tell anyone, but she had been doing a lot of thinking the past week, ever since her encounter with the bandits after the airship crash. Ever since she melted that brute with his own armor. Up until that point, she assumed the idol was the source of her abilities, that the idol itself was magical, a relic of old passed down from Magister to Magister. Only then had she realized that wasn’t entirely true. It was old, passed down over generations, but the idol wasn’t magic. It wasn’t what gave her the ability to do what she did, at least not exclusively. It was the gold. Just like the two huge sets of fangs embedded in the brute’s breastplate.

And now, her hands gripping tight around two chunks of charred coals and covered in soot, she felt a similar sensation. An affinity for the material.

She was spending more and more of her time these days acclimating herself to her abilities, her newfound understanding of them. She was testing herself, her limitations, discovering new avenues and applications for its usage. All the while, though, she struggled to understand what happened the night her mother died. But try as she might, she had been wholly incapable of recreating the burst of energy, or whatever it was. She was at a complete loss in understanding just how she had been able to do it in the first place.

Until now.

Tears streaked her face as she remembered the details of the night. The shards of freshly-cut vegetables speckling her mother’s kitchen knife, the cracking spine of the old journal Rami had been reading, the smell of it’s old, musty pages.

Her hands, dark and blackened with charcoal from her furious drawing.

It was an epiphany, the implications of which would have to wait. Her friend needed her. She gathered several more handfuls of the coals, her fingers and the palms of her hands turning blacker with every piece. She filled her satchel as best she could, pulled the cord shut and left the top flap unbuckled and loose, hanging over the top. Back on her feet, holding the bag against her chest, she took off in a sprint again. As she rounded the bend and approached the clearing, however, she stopped herself dead in her tracks. It appeared as if they had visitors.

Neera immediately recognized their uniforms, or what remained of them at least. Not a single person wore a full set, but it was unmistakable: the head-to-toe plate and scale, the spaulders that matched Isha’s, the telltale gauntleted fists of the Everguard. It would have been a reassuring sight had their weapons not been trained in their direction.

Isha seemed particularly enraged at their presence. It was difficult to tell, but either these were ex-Everguard that must have gone rogue after the destruction of Everspring, or they were merely wearing gear taken from the Everguard, likely slain if so. Either way, a bunch of massive assholes.

And in the middle of this precarious situation was Kyrill, a big smile on his face, still doing jumping jacks.

“A fourth!” the man in the middle declared, the apparent leader of the group, his bow now aimed directly at Neera. “As formidable as a little girl may be, I’m afraid we still outnumber you.”

Just you wait and see. I’ll show you formidable, asshole.

It dawned on Neera that she didn’t have her idol. It was haphazardly wrapped up with her other things next to the other campfire. Even with circumstances being what they were, it was stupid of her. She told herself she would be more careful, not let it out of her sight. Yet here she was, surrounded by a bunch of jerks covered in metal armor. She did, however, have a veritable treasure trove filling the bag she held tightly in her arms. She had no practice with it, but it was better than nothing.

Moswen, using Neera’s appearance as a distraction, took the opportunity to make his way towards his bow, which sat next to the fire.

“Ah ah ah!” the leader said, turning his bow back towards Moswen. “No funny business, kid.” He kept his bow aimed at Moswen, but turned his attention back to Neera. “Now, little girl, what’s in the bag?”

“Coals,” she said bluntly as she removed a large chunk from her bag and held it towards the man. She was short with her answer, not trying not to appear weak. But not playing tough, either.

“Our friend is sick,” Isha added.

“They’re talking about me!” Kyrill said, the words bouncing out of him with every jump he took. “I’m the friend! We’re friends!”

“Poison,” Isha continued. “Shadethorn. Need the coals to soak up whatever’s left in his system.”

“Ah, resourceful,” the man commended her. “So am I, but resourcefulness ain’t enough any more. Things have been tough out here ever since Everspring went caput. Every barren from here to Rotwater is a shitshow.”

“How so?” Isha asked.

“Beast attacks at some, others abandoned or in ruins, you name it. Everspring ain’t the only place suffering. Everyone’s vulnerable.”

“That what you did? You and your little crew just abandoned your post? Your sworn duty?”

“Oh, don’t mistake our armor to mean we were ever part of the Everguard. Times like these, you take what you can get.”

Neera had begun training with Isha ever since their time in the fighting arena at Shaded Seed. The Pits. One of their first real lessons had been on stance and footwork. Isha said it was foundational to fighting, though Neera couldn’t tell if she had been making a joke or not. During that training, Neera had begun to recognize the subtle way Isha would shift from standing normally to a fighting stance, preparing herself for action, but camouflaging the movement. It was only really noticeable in the feet, turning ever so slightly as she shifted her weight to the balls of her feet. The Twist.

Isha definitely just did the Twist.

“You kill them then?” Isha asked. “The Everguard?”

“No, no, we’re not generally in the business of killing.”

“Says the group brandishing weapons and pointing arrows at us.”

“Let me rephrase. We’re not generally in the business of killing if we don’t have to. Give us what we ask for and we’ll be on our way, no harm done.”

“You could’ve asked to join us for a meal,” Kyrill butted in, still jumping. Sweat was starting to drip down his face and collect in his beard. “I’m a really good cook!”

“We want more than food.” He clicked his teeth and one of the men beside him began walking towards Neera. “Wild times we live in, huh?”

Neera still wished she had her idol with her, but was at least glad to not be carrying anything else of value. At least until she saw the eyes of the man approaching her. She knew what hunger looked like, desperation, the look of someone without remorse who wanted your things. This man didn’t want any thing. He wanted her. At that realization all she could see were his eyes. An approaching shadow in a field of darkness, his eyes piercing the veil to reveal his true intent.

The shadow crept closer, reached out a hand. He seemed oddly gentle. Neera was not. With one hand gripping the chunk of coal, she dropped her satchel, shifted her weight to the balls of her feet—the Twist—and sent her palm into the man’s chest. Her hand never had the chance to make contact. She focused on the coal in her other hand and sent it’s ebbing energy through her body and out of her outstretched arm. The man went flying backwards, knocked off his feet into the air and falling onto his ass, hitting the ground like a sack of flour.

The leader and the rest of his men were astounded, as were Isha and Moswen. “The fuck—”

Kyrill used the opportunity to rush the leader, grabbing both of the man’s arms and sending his forehead down into the man’s nose. He dropped his bow and brought his hands to his face, blood dripping down his chin and pouring from between his fingers. Just as quickly, Kyrill then let loose a torrent of projectile vomit directly in the man’s face. “There it goes!” He let out a boisterous laugh and brought his forehead down once more, a mixture of blood and vomit splashing against his own face. The man fell limp before him.

After witnessing a little girl seemingly punch a full grown man off his feet and then a crazed fitness enthusiast—with a face covered in blood, vomit and a smile—headbutt their leader into unconsciousness, the remainder of their crew hesitated with what to do next. Armed only with cudgels and cheap, makeshift mauls, they all rushed Kyrill, but not before Isha began to rush them.

None wanted to be the first to go head to head with the vomit-crusted bruiser with a penchant for headbutting people, giving Isha just enough time to leap into the fray before they could make up their minds. She drew her daggers, and charged the man closest to her. The mace he held in his hands wasn’t much more than a large carpenter’s mallet. How are these idiots so ill-equipped? Neera thought. As the man brought his sad excuse for a mace around, Isha swung her arm up, meeting him at the wrist. She hooked the blade around his arm and used it to twist into an arm bar. Her other dagger met the underside of his chin, quick and clean.

Kyrill was much less eloquent with his movements, but no less devastating. With a total lack of inhibition and a sense of euphoria, he was a giggling lunatic swinging wild, a giant baby with the strength of an ox. The flurried onslaught was only further accentuated by the random embarrassing confessions he seemed unable to control.

“Once when I was a kid I thought it would be funny to fart on a friend of mine, but instead I accidentally pooped a little bit in my pants.”

Much like with his words, Kyrill seemed to abandon any sense of self restraint and instead threw his body into the fray with reckless disregard, handing out knees and elbows and fists like candy, palming heads and bashing them together like cymbals, kicking the everliving shit out of anything within reach.

The man that had initially approached Neera got back onto his feet, the angry mug he wore on his face poorly masking his fear of approaching the girl again. He didn’t need to worry about that much longer. A whistle caught his attention just before his face caught one of Moswen’s arrows. Moswen gave her a quick smile then turned to the men engaged with Isha and Kyrill, but by then the ensuing melee was too chaotic for him to have a clear shot. He held his arrow half drawn, waiting for an opportunity. Neera couldn’t risk using her newfound ability either, especially without any sort of practice or training, so instead she ran for cover near Moswen, protecting each other.

Kyrill’s reckless approach wasn’t without its flaws. Blow after blow rained down upon him from the confused crowd of attackers. He laughed each one off, undisturbed and unhindered. Isha did her best at defending him, though the wild man wasn’t making her efforts any easier. Every step she took to stop another swing from connecting with him, she had to do so without putting herself in the line of fire as well. She was on the defensive. A parry here, a push there. Kyrill was doing plenty of hurt by himself. All she needed to do was keep him as safe as she could.

The swing of a cudgel came down hard, aimed at Kyrill’s head. Rather than a simple parry, Isha arced her dagger up to intercept, stabbing the man right through his wrist. Another swing, lower, hit Kyrill hard in the stomach. He vomited again, causing the men in front of him to recoil and step back, just a bit, but enough for Moswen to get a clean shot off, dropping one of the men on the spot.

“Nice distraction, buddy!” Moswen called out to Kyrill.

“It wasn’t on purpose!” he exclaims, still smiling, his beard crusted with dark speckles of blood and congealed clumps of purple mush.

He threw himself back into the fray once more.


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The Howl
The Mazewilds
The Shelf
Shaded Seed
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