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Chapter 30 - Neera

Slipping past the guards had been surprisingly easy.

While Neera didn’t like to admit it, even if just to herself, Tessa had made quite the impression on her back in Rah’qet. The polite, unassuming little girl had merely been a role that Tessa was wearing, meant to disarm those around her, bring their guards down, dismiss the girl as unimportant enough to pay close attention to. It was a role that worked quite well for her.

What’s to stop Neera from doing the same? Now that she thought about it, she already had been. Without even trying to, Aoife still seemed to question why Neera was being strung along with the others.

Whether to prove herself to Aoife, to Tessa, or to herself, she found herself channeling her inner badass and jumping into the fray. If by ‘jumping’ she meant desperately trying to remain unnoticed. She had inadvertently taken Tessa’s cockiness towards her to heart. She had dared to question Neera’s skills, even if the question had been a dick-measuring contest over the number of people they’ve killed.

That girl is fucked up.

Neera’s loose braid hung over her shoulder and rested across her big scarf. Dirt still clung to her clothing, her boots and trousers stained darker the further towards the ground they got. Aside from the fact that she held two extremely valuable objects in her satchel, she looked just like any other kid in town, unassuming as Tessa had been greeting them upon entering the Whispers’ sanctum.

The obvious difference between Neera and Tessa, aside from Tessa being a smarmy bitch, was that Neera’s hidden talents were truly hidden, a surprise to those around her when she decided to use them. Tessa might just suddenly stab someone. Neera kept one hand in her satchel, the idol and a large piece of charcoal both next to each other, ready to be grasped at a moment’s notice.

The balcony that ran along the perimeter of the room led to three areas. Two were situated at the front of the building, one in either corner, enclosed by overlapping curtains and drapes of silk. They were too secluded to be of any importance to her. The larger, open area at the back of the room led further into the lodge, but also served as the VIP section where the Lord Chancellor entertained his guests. Tonight, it appeared his guests included the big man with an odd choice of armor, the Silver Hammers and a cadre of scantily clad men and women that surrounded them.

Neera ducked down behind the railings as one of the Silver Hammers, a short and surprisingly lanky fellow, was being led by one of the scantily clad women towards the curtained area in the far corner.

So that’s what those rooms are for.

She slowly made her way closer to the VIP area, careful to keep out of sight of the people seated facing in her direction. As she got closer, she could see that the drinks were flowing and several people were passing around a reflective, metal dish with little lines of brown powder delicately arranged like weird chocolate hors d'oeuvres. They would set the dish down on their lap, hunch over it, then suck up the powder through a little straw. At least that’s what it looked like; it was hard to tell. Whatever they were doing, it looked ridiculous. Silly as it may have seemed, they made a huge show of it, flinging their heads back when they were done and shouting their excitement.

It must taste pretty damn amazing.

Whatever the hell it was they were doing, spying on a bunch of drunk adults wasn’t the reason why she snuck up here. She needed to see what laid beyond, back past where the public is allowed. Her unassuming facade helped her slip past the guards, but she seriously doubted she could breeze through the VIP area without raising some eyebrows. She would have to sneak past them instead.

From just around the corner of the railings, Neera had a pretty good view of the area. The party was taking place among three couches arranged perpendicular to one another, creating a little square alcove that looked out towards the tavern area below. There was a clear path to some tables arranged along the backs of the couches she could easily hide under, but getting there could prove difficult. One of the Silver Hammers, the sole woman in the group, was seated at the end of the couch facing towards Neera, giving the woman a clear view of her intended approach.

But Neera was a patient girl. All she needed to do was wait for the woman to take her turn with the brown powder. When she hunched over the dish, Neera would take the opportunity to make her move. When it finally made its way to her, however, the woman declined. Arm outstretched, she leaned forward to pass it over to the man sitting across from her.

Dammit, lady, eat the chocolate dust stuff.

In a snap decision, she decided it might be time to try out her newfound ability. She’d been experimenting and practicing with coal since the encounter with the bandits. Since she accidentally poisoned Kyrill. She still felt bad about that, but now was no time for pity.

She’d pushed a full-grown man away from her, sending him off his feet into the air. Knocking a measly dish out of someone’s hands shouldn’t be too hard, as long as she could direct the force. She reached her hand into her satchel and grabbed the large piece of coal she kept in a little pouch. The woman reached as far as she could without actually leaving her seat, holding the tray by just the corner. Gently, Neera focused the ebb of energy from the coal and directed it at the opposite end of the dish, downward. Just as the man lifted himself from his seat to grab for it, the tray went down, a bit more forceful than Neera had intended, but it got the job done. The floor was coated with chocolate dust.

“Party foul!” one of them yelled with a laugh.

Neera worried it might have been too obvious, that it wasn’t a simple mistake, but they didn’t seem to notice. Not only should they have had zero reason to expect someone had magically knocked their tray to the ground, but they were also very drunk. The man who had reached for the tray stumbled to his knees trying to grab the tray, his delayed reaction almost comical. While they clamored to deal with the “party foul,” rushing to clean it up like a bunch of fiends, Neera left her spot behind the railings and rounded the corner, slipping under the tables just behind all the commotion.

Ha! I’d like to see Tessa pull something like that off, she thought, satisfied with herself.

Crawling on her hands and knees now, Neera slowly inched her way past the party. As she crawled over the legs of the tables, her weight shifted the balance of one and caused it to wobble and knock against the one next to it. Her stomach dropped and she froze in place. She could feel her heart beating through her entire body, but as she remained there, unmoving, she realized the effort to remain concealed and stealthy might not have been necessary after all. The party seemed way too focused on themselves to notice anything going on around them.

Relieved, she continued on her way, careful to not bump any more tables as she crawled past, just in case. At one point, she found herself exceptionally close to the Lord Chancellor, just behind the long couch where he sat, a half-naked man and woman on either side of him. The woman actually seemed to be enjoying himself, or was at least better at faking it than her obviously uninterested friend. A concerning thought ran through Neera’s mind. If she really wanted to, she could pop out of hiding and slit the man’s throat. Not that she wanted to, or would ever consider it, but she could. If she were an assassin or something. Or more like Tessa. More like the person she still worried she might become, one who uses her abilities to kill and nothing more. The prospect of murdering this man right now seemed all too realistic. The thought sat uneasy at the forefront of her thoughts.

She shook the thought from her head and exited the room towards a bar that sat at the far end. It acted as perfect cover, blocking sight of the open doorway behind it. She crawled around the side of the bar, got back up on her feet and walked through the doorway.

The next room was dark, massive and eerily quiet. Much like the main tavern room, the huge open space was rung with a second floor balcony that stretched around the entire perimeter of the room. Directly in front of Neera was a fancy seating area with more couches and padded chairs that overlooked the main floor below. She peered past the railings to the floor below. Even in the dingy light, she could immediately tell she was looking at a fighting arena.

Around all four sides were cage-like fences that enclosed the flat dirt floor. She knew she was indoors and that this place was probably constructed—or at least converted—for just this purpose, but for some reason Neera couldn’t explain, the fact the floor was dry dirt and not mud weirded her out. Surrounding the outside of the cage were three rows of tiered seating that looked more like long steps than seats. Neera doubted that people ever bothered sitting down in a place like this.

Neera guessed this was likely the only other place in the entire lodge the public was allowed, and only occasionally at that. The walls were adorned with all sorts of weaponry on display, massive shields engraved with the visage of hawks, flags and banners and even more mounted busts of past bounties. Extravagant, but still brutish. It reminded her of the Lord Chancellor’s attire, both opulent and raw, fanciful yet masculine, designed to impress while still appealing to the gritty sensibilities of those who frequented The Hawk’s Roost. A lot of effort probably went into the design. That said, it still wasn’t as impressive as the arena in Shaded Seed.

There didn’t seem to be any doors along the balcony, nor were there any stairs that led down to the floor below. Her hands already felt clammy, starting to sweat at the mere thought of climbing down. It didn’t seem she had much of a choice.

The cage came all the way up, connecting to the underside of the balcony. If she climbed over the railing and hung from the edge, she could maybe touch the cage with the tips of her toes. It just wasn’t close enough. While her bag held some extremely valuable and useful items, she quickly realized just how useful a simple length of rope would be. It should be standard fare for any budding hero or adventurer.

Across from her, Neera noticed a loose chain hanging from one of the horizontal bars of the cage. A smile grew across her face. It wasn’t a rope per se, but for Neera, it was even better. She pulled the coal from her satchel and focused on the chain. She pushed the chain from underneath, sending it whipping around and up into the air. It spun and hit the dirt with the soft clangs of the individual links hitting one another. She looked back towards the party to see if anyone might have heard, but either no one noticed or they didn’t care.

Once again relieved by their drunken incompetence, she turned her attention back to the chain, now lying in the center of the arena. It seemed the force from coal was a bit too erratic, too violent. It was a blunt instrument where the job required more finesse.

What if...

An idea popped into her head. Nothing crazy, but wholly untested, though it couldn’t hurt to try. She reached into her satchel with her free hand and pulled out the idol. She steadied her breathing, cleared her mind, then focused on both the idol and the coal simultaneously. She could feel the chain, the connection between it and herself, the individual links and the space around them. She closed her eyes and focused on a single link, willing it to rise. She slowly peeked open her eyes and, much to her amazement, half of the chain was floating above the ground like a snake rising to the sound of a charmer’s flute. Her surprise caused the chain to begin to falter until she refocused her attention back to the task at hand. Slowly, she lifted the chain higher, holding it in place as it moved, bringing it up and over the railings to float in front of her. Her smile grew even wider. She gently lowered the chain and let it pool at her feet. She was getting better at this.

For most, a rope would be easier to tie off and climb with. For Neera, it was even better. And she was already on a roll. With her idol and coal in hand, Neera heated the link at the end of the chain, bent it open, and clamped it back together around another link slightly further up, forming a loop. After cooling the metal, she tested the link by pulling as hard as she could. It didn’t budge. Her link held tight.

“I’m a good godsdamned blacksmith,” Neera boasted aloud, quickly moving to clamp her hand over her mouth before stopping herself short, almost bludgeoning herself in the face with the idol. They may be too drunk and rowdy to notice, but there was no reason to get cocky about it.

Neera looped the other end of the chain around the railing several times, then repeated her blacksmithing process with the link at the end, securing the chain in place. The plan was simple: she would rest a foot inside the loop and hold onto the chain, then swing herself towards the fence and grab hold. From there, the fence could be easily climbed down, no more difficult than a ladder.

Before she could swing a leg over the railing, she realized her hands were still clammy and moist, but one more so than the other. The hand that had been holding her coal wasn’t quite coated in black just yet, but what she had was already making a difference. She took out the small bag she had been keeping the chunk of coal in and emptied the contents into the palm of her hand: a fine black powder. There wasn’t a lot of it, but she rubbed it between her hands, covering her palms and fingers. With a soft clap, a cloud of black dust billowed into the air. She was ready to climb.

She’d be lying if she said she wasn’t scared shitless dangling from the chain. She couldn’t be entirely sure her recently-melted links would hold, couldn’t trust that her grip would be strong enough, couldn’t know if the wooden railing wouldn’t just snap under her weight.

If she fell, it wouldn’t kill her, but she’d likely break an arm or a leg. If she weren’t immediately caught, she would have to drag herself out of there and then get caught. And if that happened, sure, she would face whatever consequences the lodge deemed fit, but even worse would be the disappointment from her friends. She had made the rash decision to sneak off on her own. To come back wholly unsuccessful and caught red-handed would be devastating. Isha would never let her live it down.

Or black-handed in this case, she thought, looking at her palms. That made her laugh.

A sense of calmness overcame her. She was still frightened, but she realized it was nothing compared to what she’s been through already. She’s fought bandits, survived an airship crash, and was welcomed into a secret underground MC clubhouse. And she knew magic. Climbing some chain was nothing in comparison.

One hand on the railing, one leg swinging over, and her descent began.

She reached the ground floor with relative ease, smiling once again with satisfaction. Back towards the front of the building, two sets of doors seemed to lead back into the tavern area. A single door on the opposite side led deeper into the lodge. Her choice was clear.

The architecture suddenly changed past the doorway, and then continued to change the further in she went, a confusing mishmash of styles. Neera was aware the lodge was once multiple separate buildings that had been engulfed by the growing lodge, but the way they were joined together made no sense. The ceiling changed heights, sometimes drastically, from room to room. Walls were clearly once doorways, doorways were clearly once walls, uneven floors and half steps connected wood to tile to brick and back again. Corridors dead-ended and led nowhere. Corners after corners after corners, the place was a confusing maze.

Cold, uninviting hallways led to other hallways bright and warm and decorated with an assortment of art. Paintings and tapestries covered the walls, statues filled niches large and small, and glass displays showcased old weapons and ancient books. Rooms and hallways that circled back with no destination seemed to exist solely to exhibit the art on display.

After more corners than she cared to count, she found herself looking down a hallway that felt... different. The walls were still adorned with artwork, but it was quite secluded compared to the other areas, a single door at the far end with no other exits nearby. A large pile of books stood beside the door, not in a case on display, but seemingly in use. She crept down the hallway to inspect them.

Judging by the titles along the spines, they weren’t the sorts of books she would normally be interested in. A History of Imperial Subjugation and the Ethical Implications of Willing Servitude, Three Cities Rise Anew: Governing Practices of an Autonomous Conglomeration, A Dullards Guide to Anarcho-Syndicalism. It was quite a particular collection, the kinds of subjects reserved for specialized intellectual study. The kinds of things a sage would be very interested in.

She reached into her satchel, grabbed the idol and focused on the metal around her. In a way, it kind of gave her an unfinished picture of her surroundings. She could tell where pipes ran under floors and through walls, where in the room laid candlesticks and curtain rods and coin, where a metal frame against the wall held shackles on either side, locked and suspended in the air.

Someone was locked up in there.

The original assumption of the sage was secretly running things from the shadows was based solely on a rumor, but what if that assumption was wrong? What if that rumor had been started as a decoy? Could the sage be a prisoner?!

Sensing metal also enabled her to tell that the door itself was, of course, locked. A sliding lock and a latch chain, both of which would be no problem for Neera to move. She just had to do it as discreetly as possible.

“The hell?” A voice rang out behind her. “Hey, you!”

She turned to see two guards, hands on the hilts of scimitars hanging at their sides.


“Oh, hello!” she replied, trying to seem as innocent and friendly as she could. She began skipping towards them.

“Hey, hey, hold it right there,” he said, holding his palm out in front of him. “What’re you holding on to in your bag there?”

“Just charcoal!” She let go of the idol and pulled out the charcoal instead. “I was worried about getting any of the artwork in the museum dirty, so I tried to keep my hands inside my bag. I’m sorry if I did! I really didn’t mean to!”

“Museum?” he said, looking to the other guard, who was just as confused as he was.

“This place is so inspiring! I wanna be an artist when I grow up, too. Wanna see some of my drawings?”

She reached back into her satchel and pulled out her sketch pad as she approached the guards. She flipped through the first few pages, explaining each in excruciating detail without pause.

“Miss, please. I’m sorry, but this isn’t a museum. You can’t be back here.”

“Then what’s with all the paintings and sculptures and tapestries and—”

“We’re gonna need you to leave,” he said, pointing back down the hallway.

“Awww, really? Just five more minutes?”

The other guard, apparently more impatient than his talkative friend, grabbed her arm.

Shit, she thought, I may have stretched that a bit too much.

The other guard grabbed her other arm and the two began forcefully dragging her down the hall.


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The Howl
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The Shelf
Shaded Seed
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