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Chapter 7 - Neera

She couldn’t remember the crash.

She remembered the ship going down, the fight breaking out, the scared crowd forcing each other over the railings. Men with swords yelled at other men with swords, making demands and slinging insults, dying to one another during the inevitable melee. The people in between were the real casualties. Several passengers tried to intervene during the clash and were cut down. Fathers shielded daughters. Strangers comforted scared children. Neighbors, slain.

Mothers, murdered.

She remembered cowering under the bench, clutching her satchel, hoping the fighting would just stop or blow over. She’d been witness to enough violence to last her a lifetime. Please, please, no more. All around her, death had come to claim the lives of people who didn’t deserve it. Couldn’t have deserved it. She held her eyes closed, as tight as she could, as one after another, whether through accident or malice, passengers fell.

She remembered when, before the fighting had begun, her only real concern had been embarrassment. Embarrassment and queasiness. She wondered if she could have been the first person to get sea sick so far away from any body of water. She wondered how many people saw her lurching over the railing. She wondered why it still bothered her, given everything else that had happened.

She remembered, in details so vivid and clear her memory was in slow motion, the moments before the crash. The lead up. But after, only black. She awoke to a scene of confusion and despair, surrounded by wreckage, as a big man held her in his massive arms, carefully lowering her to her feet. He wore a pretty necklace.

A man with a big, poofy mustache was standing beside him. He laid a hand on her shoulder. “Welcome back, darling. Everything’s gonna be a-okay.”

His voice was sweet and reassuring. She knew, of course, not everything would be ‘a-okay,’ but her feet were back on the ground and for that she was grateful. Even with everything that had happened, at least she wasn’t still up in the air puking her guts out in front of a bunch of strangers.

After the survivors were all escorted off the boat, it didn’t take long for someone to take control of the situation. A man in gleaming armor and a fresh knife wound in his neck had declared himself the de facto authority. Nobody seemed to argue otherwise. He didn’t seem like he really wanted to. He was tired and beaten, though getting stabbed can do that to a person. He leaned against the trunk of a tree, hair stuck to his brow with sweat, dried blood crusting his breastplate. He was accompanied by a woman, Isha, who was looking just as rough as him, minus the stab wound. The two coordinated those who seemed capable of helping.

The older man with the reassuring voice, along with another older man with a mustache that matched his, helped gather what supplies could be salvaged. It seemed like even before the crash, the surrounding area had been peppered with the contents of the cargo hold. Like a poorly-aimed trebuchet dropping payloads from the sky, crates and barrels and all matter of material laid smashed against rock, half-sunk into dirt, cradled amongst the trees.

Helping the wounded was the man with the pretty necklace—Kyrill was his name—and Moz, his... friend? They weren’t related, that much was obvious, but it was hard to discern their relationship. They were clearly close, working in tandem like a practiced routine.

And then there were the twins, Kagney and Dagney, the engineers and captains of their once fine vessel. For twins, the sisters couldn’t be more different, but while salvaging what was left of their ship, they both seemed heartbroken. And rightfully so. The ship had clearly been their pride and joy. To not just have crashed, but on its maiden voyage? Devastating, surely. Kagney, the taller of the two, still had a peppy optimism about her, like the destruction of the ship was merely an opportunity to build it again, only better. Dagney, the rail thin pessimist, seemed angry more than anything. Not so much that the ship was destroyed, but that she didn’t really have anybody to punish. The bandits were all dead. All except one.

Securely tied to another tree trunk was one of the bandit groups’ leaders. Beaten, gagged and left to wallow in the consequences of his poor life choices, Redge was arguably even worse off than everyone else. That isn’t to say the other passengers weren’t in dire straits—they were predominantly refugees from the worst disaster in recent history, forced to leave what used to be their homes in desperation. They were given a momentary glimmer of hope in the form of an airship, only for that to also end in disaster, their hopes and dreams crashing right alongside them. Those who survived were now stranded in the woods, bruised and broken.

Redge, however, was now the sole target of the ever-growing ire of all these downtrodden people. He became the embodiment of every wrong they had suffered, every friend and family member they lost, every step of fate that had brought them to where they now found themselves. Frankly, Neera was surprised the man was still alive. He’d been spat on, yelled at, had all manner of things thrown at him. Humiliated.

Good for him, the jerk.

Neera paced around what was slowly becoming a temporary, makeshift camp. They had no inclination to stay, but they also had no plan for what to do after. Neera had usually depended on the direction of her elders, but her fellow survivors seemed just as lost and confused as she was.

“Hello there, folks!” a deep voice rang out from the forest. Walking along the trench was a man wearing a gleaming breastplate adorned with an emblem made of gold, a simplistic icon: two rows of pointy teeth that resembled a crown and its reflection. “The Golden Fangs are here to help!” A dozen or so men and women wearing matching leather vests followed behind. The same symbol, Neera quickly realized, was also etched into the backs of their reinforced leather vests.

Mercenaries! We’re saved!

“Heard quite the crash and figured we’d see what the commotion was.” Their leader was a massive man. Roegan was a big guy by most standards, just slightly shorter than their new friend Kyrill. This monster of a man dwarfed them both. He motioned towards the crash site, equal parts amazement and concern. “Were you folks... flying in that thing?”

“That we were,” Roegan said as he walked up beside the leader, extending his hand. “Roegan.”

The man shook Roegan’s hand with a tight grip and a quick tug. “Baern.”

“And everything was just peachy until a bunch of assholes decided to ruin everything!” Dagney yelled as she popped her head out of the wreckage. She turned her glare towards Redge, staring daggers at the man. Baern turned his attention to him as well.

“He the one that got you in the neck there, Roegan? What happened, he get the jump on you?”

Roegan had been trying his best to hide his cuts and bruises, but it was of no use now. He pulled his collar back to show off the fresh wound in his neck, now a battle scar, something to be proud of. “There were a lot more of them. Two different groups, and he’s the only one still alive.”

“No kidding!” said Baern. “Two bandit groups. What are the odds of that?” He let out a boisterous laugh. “A shame we weren’t there. The Golden Fangs know a thing or two about fightin’ bandits, right boys?” He banged his giant maul against the ground as the mercenaries, meandering about the camp and assessing the situation, all let out whooping hoorahs and cheering laughter.

Neera was taking in the scene, still slightly dazed from the crash, when it dawned on her: she was surrounded by real life heroes. They weren’t the mysterious Drae from her stories or ironclad warriors of yore, but between those who fought the bandits on the ship, those who helped take everyone safely off the boat, and now these mercenaries, these were the kinds of people stories were written about.

“Mercenaries!” Isha said loud enough for the entire camp to hear, not one to be upstaged. “Given our string of bad luck, some trustworthy mercs sure’s a sight for sore eyes.” She walked up from behind Neera and laid a hand on her shoulder. “You see all their matching vests with those patches on their backs? They call ‘em hides. You know why?”

She paused, but not for long, knowing full well that Neera wouldn’t answer. Isha was an unrequested narrator, an apparent expert on the subject, giving the scene context that nobody had asked for.

“The first mercenary club—the first official mercenary club—was nothing more than a retired band and their hunter friends opening a clubhouse. These old timers, though... even settling down they couldn’t help but continue wearing their armor all the time. After all those years, the countless nights spent sleeping in their leathers, they started to feel more comfortable with ‘em on than without, as much a part of them as their own skin.” She turned and pointed at one of the mercenaries. “You know what I mean.”

With Neera under her wing, Isha paraded about the camp as she continued to opine about mercenary history.

“And all those old timers, they stitched patches onto the backs of those leathers with their old band name and logo—not just a point of pride, but a statement of who they were. Their band was their identity. So without even meaning to, they began a tradition followed by every MC since.”

Isha let go of Neera as she approached one of the mercenaries. She grabbed him by the shoulders and spun him around, showing off the patch on the back of his hide.

“As part of the initiation process, new club prospects—or New Bloods as they tend to call ‘em—have to personally hunt down the animal used to make their patches. And they’re usually something really badass, too, like bears or wolves. They call ‘em hides because they’re literally made from animal hides.”

“Yes,” said Baern. “Our traditions are as legendary as our adventures.”

“Nowadays, of course,”—Isha continued right on talking with zero regard, not missing a beat, sending Roegan a knowing glance, a coy half-smile—“MCs aren’t just clubhouses for retirees, but more a place for active mercs, their base of operations. Usually still plenty of old-timers kicking around, though, highly regarded amongst their younger cohorts. Those lucky enough to have made it to retirement wear a small badge on their hides, right above their heart, of a sword and shield laid down on their sides.”

Isha then spun the mercenary back around, showing off the very same badge. Several of the other mercenaries, all far too young, realized the hides they were wearing bore the badge as well. The mercenary reached to his side, only to find his knife sheath was empty.

“This doesn’t belong to you,” Isha said accusingly as she pulled his vest aside and sent the man’s missing knife plunging into his heart.

Roegan was the first to react, bashing Baern with his buckler-gauntlet, wincing as his movements put pressure on his wounds. He bit back the pain and drew his officer’s sword, the pristine blade singing as it was pulled from its sheath. It was the third time this week he had brandished his weapon—more, he realized, than every other time since his promotion. The blade was supposed to be a symbol, a warning. An Everguard that carried an officer’s sword was a man people knew not to fuck with.

Apparently these assholes didn’t get the memo.

Moswen’s spear came flying through the air to hit one of the false mercenaries square in the chest. He then pulled out his bow as he took the high ground. Kyrill, shield and axe in hand, rushed in to defend Moswen’s position as he began letting arrows fly.

Isha took off in a sprint, dodging, leaping, rolling past bandits until she reached the man with the spear embedded in his chest, a fresh corpse with a gift just for her. In one single motion, she pulled the spear from the dead man and spun it around as she turned to face the three men she had just evaded. They hadn’t seemed to appreciate that.

Neera was shocked by the unraveling violence that surrounded her, but she eventually ran off to hide, finding temporary safety amongst the crates of gathered supplies. The ensuing melee was a confusing blur of clashing swords and sprays of blood, a cacophony of terrified screams and the sounds of metal on metal. Like unnecessary backing vocals to an already terrible song, Redge’s laughter seemed to accentuate every cut, every blow, every helpless innocent the bandits mercilessly cut down.

There were just too many of them. Roegan was going toe to toe with the bandits’ leader, Isha was dodging the attacks from three more, Kyrill was somehow fending off four others, even the two gruff, older men wrestled with one. They weren’t the most effective fighters, but they were at least stopping the man from using his weapon on any of the other refugees. Another bandit, seeing her friend was in need of help, rushed to defend him. Weapon already in hand and slick with blood, she let out a piercing warcry as she charged the two men, only to be met with another arrow.

Given the chaos of the situation, Moswen had to be careful with his shots, but he was safe to take his time thinning the bandits’ ranks from behind the immovable wall that was Kyrill. Working together in perfect harmony, Kyrill provided cover for Moswen to fire arrow after arrow, focusing first on those attacking the unarmed refugees. Kyrill bashed his shield and swiped his axe at his attackers, their faces betraying their confusion and annoyance for this man which they just couldn’t seem to gain any ground. They clearly had no clue what his numerous iron beads represent. It also didn’t help that any clear shot they allowed Moswen resulted in one of them on the ground.

Isha didn’t have the luxury of teamwork. Roegan was busy dealing with Baern while she found herself surrounded. With spear in hand and a wide open space to maneuver, however, she didn’t need it. Isha was finally in her element. The weapon certainly wasn’t as familiar as her trusty Everguard spear, nor was it as expertly crafted as the one gifted to her by Erathos, but it would more than suffice. A devious smile crossed Isha’s face as all three bandits charged her at once. In a snap, she became a blur, her blade and body an extension of each other. She weaved through their attacks, each shifting step a feint, every spin a deadly pirouette. Graceful and lithe, she danced to the crimson song of her spear as, one by one, her assailants fell before her.

Roegan wasn’t having the same success. Before him stood Baern, his hulking form casting an even greater shadow. He held his maul casually over one shoulder and tilted his neck with an audible crunch-crack-pop. A single raised eyebrow asked, “Shall we?”

Cockiness is an interesting thing. Oftentimes, it comes from someone young and arrogant. They’re used to things going their way, a big fish in a small pond. Like bandits accosting normal folk traveling on the road. Having never encountered a real challenge, they’re prone to underestimate the situation.

There exists another kind of cockiness, though. When the situation is impossible to underestimate. When the overconfidence doesn’t stem from ignorance or a lack of experience or challenge. Like when your group of bandits are being slaughtered around you and you’re outnumbered and you somehow still bear a sinister, presumptuous grin. That kind of cockiness is usually only found amongst the insane or those who have accepted their inevitable deaths, but choose to face it with courage, a different kind of insanity. Baern was neither of those things.

Roegan charged. Wounded and tired, he was at a significant disadvantage. Even if he weren’t, Baern would have been more than a formidable opponent. He was fast, too fast for a man his size. He jumped and dodged and danced all around the camp, deftly avoiding Roegan’s advances. Roegan was once a highly-decorated Everguard and he was being toyed with. Roegan’s initial shield bash, a cheap shot, was the only attack he had been able to land, but Baern hadn’t taken a single swing at him either.

A maul is not a precise weapon. It’s slow and cumbersome. In the hands of most, the massive hammer is swung with wild abandon, a bludgeoning tool that cared not for accuracy. But when Baern finally swung, it was decisive and explicit. He hit Roegan with a spinning strike that lifted him off his feet and sent him careening through the air. He hit the ground next to the pile of supplies, close enough that Neera could look him right in the eye, see his pain, his fear.

“You should really just stay down,” Baern said calmly. “I’m trying not to ruin such a fine set of armor. And quit bleeding all over it, will ya?”

The wound in Roegan’s neck had reopened. He winced, grabbing his side as he reached for his sword, just out of reach.

“I said stay down!

Baern brought his hammer down. Roegan swung his buckler to deflect the strike. The sound of cracking bone was almost as loud as Roegan’s wail of pain.

“See? You ruined it. Though I wasn’t really interested in that stupid shield-glove-thing. I guess the rest is still salvageable.” He raised his hammer again, staring directly into Roegan’s eyes. “Now stay still so I don’t break anything else.”

An arrow came streaking through the air, finding purchase in Baern’s forearm, causing him to drop his massive maul. Isha and Kyrill, having dealt with the rest of the bandits, came running to Roegan’s aid, his cries of agony unceasing. Baern dashed behind the pile of supplies, only to emerge with another weapon.

Neera.

He wielded the young girl like another blunt instrument, his thick hand wrapped around her neck. Her entire body was shaking. Even after everything she’d been through, she had never been more scared.

Baern raised his free hand towards Isha and Kyrill. “Why don’t you two stop right there,” he said, again with the calmness of a man who didn’t have an arrow piercing through his arm. “I’d hate to have to snap the neck of something so young and delicate.”

“Why don’t you let the girl go,” Isha said to the man, her eyes burning with vengeance. “And maybe this can end differently than all of your men.”

“My men?” he said with a huff. “Merely pawns. And weak, at that. Finding acolytes is easy. They gave me their lives and all I had to give them were some uniforms. Good trade, on my part. That’s the power of a symbol, of a story. I’m sure those of you who walk away today will have quite the story to tell.”

You killed the Golden Fangs,” she said with a gasp, her voice soft. “Just you.”

“Not really anything to boast about. Most were too old to defend themselves. A means to an end.”

A means to an end, Neera thought to herself. Even with her body shaking in fear, she could feel the shudder run down her spine.

She didn’t realize until then that she’d been clutching her satchel in her arms since the crash, absentmindedly using it to cover the vomit stains on her blouse and scarf. She still wasn’t sure why that continued to bother her. Even while unconscious, she’d been holding onto the bag like her life depended on it. In a way, it did. It held all her belongings: her sketchbook and charcoal, a few books, a small idol made of solid gold.

“Well, what do we have here?” Baern asked with a curious enthusiasm, snatching the idol from her hands as soon as she pulled it out of her bag. “My, my, my, looks like this little raid might’ve been worthwhile after all.”

Neera’s hands clawed at the air as she reached for it, her most prized possession, but Baern held it close to inspect his bounty.

“What were you doing with this? Did you steal this from someone, little girl?”

She kicked and squirmed trying to get loose, trying to get the idol back, slamming her little fists against his armor. He pulled her tight against him, holding her there, constricting her movement. Her palm grazed across the Golden Fangs’ symbol etched into his breastplate.

Huh? How?

It took her by surprise, that not-quite-familiar sensation she still had trouble describing. It was like a tingle that ran through her veins, but not. A sudden current, ebbing and flowing, into her, through her, and back out. A connection, an agreement, reciprocity. Whatever it was, feeling it now didn’t make sense, but it didn’t need to make sense. That was a question for later. For now, only one question mattered. She hesitated, the tension building, apprehension and necessity warring inside her. Could she bring herself to do it?

A means to an end.

She slapped her hand against the lower fangs once more, her little arms barely able to reach, and focused on the surrounding metal. She could sense the change building, slow yet deliberate. The heat began to rise. Baern took notice, but by then it was too late. He let go of Neera, but she pushed on, keeping contact as long as she could, even as the man’s armor started turning red.

His breastplate, boots, gauntlets, helmet, greaves, arm guards—everything grew brighter and brighter, blooming with heat. By then, he was screaming. He fell to the ground, his armor white hot, desperately clawing to remove anything he could. He ripped off one of his gauntlets, patches of his bubbling skin strung along with it.

The rest of the camp had turned deathly quiet, save for the horrifying screams of a man being burned alive. When he too fell silent, all that was left was the sound of sizzling flesh and the smell of burnt hair and roasting meat. Neera dropped to her knees, head low and arms limp. Her breathing was fast and heavy. Quivering gasps punctuated by quick deep inhales. She didn’t cry—that would come later—because she wasn’t sad, at least not in the moment.

She felt empty.

Tired.

Hungry.

The rest of the camp stood in silence. Neera hated it. Some were relieved the attack was over, others in awe at how it ended, a few afraid of what else this not-so-innocent little girl was capable of. Nobody said a word, afraid to break the silence.

Nobody, except Moswen.

“That was so cool!” he yelled as he ran to approach the group. “Kyrill, did you see that? The guy that’s even bigger than you was all ‘Grr, I’m gonna crush you’ then just obliterated that dude’s arm, so I shot my last arrow at him and even though I was aiming for his head, I still got him in the arm so he dropped his big ass hammer, but then he grabbed the little girl and she was like ‘No way, mister!’ and just melted the dude.” He inhaled deep, catching his breath. “Dude.”

Isha walked up to Neera, slow and calm.

“That was pretty brave of you. Where’d you learn to do that?”

Neera didn’t say a word, didn’t move.

“She asked you a question!” Roegan coughed, holding his shattered arm, limping towards the two. “What the hell was that?! Who the hell are you?! And why were you on our ship?” He winced and grabbed his side again. His voice was getting louder and more agitated with every question.

“Roegan!” Isha intervened. “She’s just a girl. And scared.” She kneeled down and leaned over, resting an arm on her thigh, one hand open, but not outstretched, both soothing and deferential. “I’m sorry about my friend there. He’s scared, too. I’m sure we’ll have plenty to talk about, but first”—she extended her hand—“My name is Isha. What’s yours?”

(1/11)


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Posted by Matt on 05.06.20
"Hello, my name is Isha and welcome to my TED talk. Now, the first official mercenary club..."
 
Posted by Anonymous on 05.06.20
New character! And she’s kind of a badass?
Reply
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