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Chapter 8 - Neera

“Neera? Neera! Neera Ana Khovatani, where are you?”

It was the night before Magister’s Day, the last night of Halften, back home, long before she had run off. Her mother was looking for her. Or pretending to, indulging her only daughter in her little games. Neera had climbed up into the rafters again, her hiding spot, her safe place. What should have been a small storage attic had become her personal art gallery. Tacked onto the plain wooden walls were endless sheets of paper each carrying a charcoal drawing, completely covering every inch save for a small window on the far wall.

She spent a lot of time in her little personal oasis. The air was musty and dense, like cracking open an old book left untouched on an out-of-reach library shelf, like the stack sitting next to her little nest of mismatched pillows. Up there, disconnected from the rest of the world, she was free to visit countless others. What else could she ask for?

It’s not as if she were an introvert, not by any means. She had friends, was liked by most people, she even found herself at the center of attention in social gatherings. Perhaps a bit more often than she’d like. She simply appreciated some alone time now and again. Not just appreciated, it was necessary. Socializing could be so draining. Some time to herself allowed her to reset, allowed her social well to refill.

Even when she sequestered herself away from the rest of the community, she never felt alone, still accompanied by her books, her drawings, her imagination. Sometimes, she felt like her charcoal friends almost came alive on the page, like they could spring right off at any moment, bristling with excitement at the stories they had to tell her.

Neera was putting the final details on a drawing of a character from one of her stories, the Queen-Champion of the Drae, protectors of the forest. The tall, regal woman effortlessly held a sword so massive you’d think it was a metaphor were it in the hands of a man. Sprouting from her forehead were a set of antlers, twisting and splitting like the limbs of trees. Her dark hair was pulled to the side in a loose braid that rested on her shoulder, just like Neera kept hers. The woman was clad in a full set of plate armor, detailed with imagery of twisting vines and sprouting leaves. She held her hand out to let a small bird perch on her finger. The woman was smiling, her head tilted as if she could understand the woodland creature.

“Neera, honey, I know you’re up there. You can’t hide forever,” her mother continued from below, her voice calm and coaxing.

Dasheira was a strong-willed and insistent woman who commanded respect and authority, unflappable in her decisions and demands, as the Secretary of their barren ought to be. But she was also kind, compassionate, and caring. Especially in regards to her daughter, her little princess. Neera peered over the edge of the attic floor, her braid and oversized scarf spilling down.

“Here, mom,” she said reluctantly.

Dasheira didn’t like that Neera kept to herself so much. In her eyes, her daughter was the naturally charismatic foil to her own matter-of-fact administrator. Her reluctance to recognize that felt wasted, but she also understood it was part of her daughter’s process. And gods help her if she wouldn’t indulge her only child. Dasheira had been facing the exact opposite direction, as if she hadn’t known exactly where her daughter was. She turned and brought her gaze up towards the attic. Her bright, wide smile was framed by her thick-rimmed glasses and short-cut hair that was more convenient than cute.

“Ah, there you are!” she said convincingly. “Have you picked out an outfit for tomorrow?”


Neera wasn’t looking forward to Magister’s Day, the polar opposite of her mother’s eagerness. How could she be enthusiastic about choosing an outfit when it was for an event she was dreading? To Neera, the ceremony only functioned as a looming, stressful unknown. Like being delivered a message that only says “We need to talk.” Nothing good could come from that, otherwise it would have been worded less ominously.

To her mother, and to the parents of all the other children graduating alongside her, Magister’s Day would mark a major milestone, the day their children begin their first steps toward adulthood. It would be a moment of pride as a parent, especially for the ones whose children followed in their footsteps, going on to practice the same trade, like passing the torch for the family business. It made sense: the son of a cook was likely to have picked up a fondness for cooking simply because he grew up around it. It was a natural fit.

It was also the thing that worried Neera the most.

She loved her mother dearly, loved spending time with her, respected what she did for their barren, but there was still a worried voice in the back of Neera’s mind that trembled at the thought of being assigned to apprentice under her own mother. The thought of working for her or training to do anything even related made her skin crawl.

The thing that bothered Neera the most was the utter lack of understanding when it came to just how her job assignment worked. She had no idea what the process was like. Would she have any say in it? Would her opinion matter at all in what would likely be the most important decision of her life?

“You know, tomorrow’s a big day. You need to be ready. You need to prepare.”

“I know. I... I am.”

She wasn’t lying. Hiding herself away in her paper-scaled sanctum was preparation. While she didn’t know much about the graduation ceremony, she did know the next day would be exhausting. That she could prepare for. That she would need to prepare for. She would be surrounded by people all day long, paraded in front of an audience, put under the spotlight. And then, to top it all off, she was then going to be chosen for a job in the community, literally told what she was expected to do for the rest of her life. Some preparatory alone time was all the more necessary.

“I get it. It’s stressful. Magister’s Day can feel like a lot of pressure. But trust me when I say that it’s the exact opposite.” Neera’s mother had climbed a few rungs of the ladder leading up to the attic space, enough to reach her hand out and hold the side of Neera’s face. She gently stroked Neera’s cheek with her thumb as she tried to calm her nervous daughter. “When all’s over and done, it’ll feel like a weight has been lifted. The skies will clear, the birds will sing, and little Neera Khovatani will have a goal, a purpose, and plenty to talk about with all her friends.”

Neera had heard rumors that a long time ago, kids used to get kittens and puppies when they were assigned their jobs. That sure as shit would’ve softened the blow.

“That sounds wonderful and all, but I’ve been worrying about this for, like, forever. You can’t just say it won’t be stressful. It already is.”

“You know, when I turned 13, since my birthday is really early in the year, that meant I had months and months and months to worry about Magister’s Day. Even though everyone knows when it’s coming, actually turning 13 somehow made it so much more real, you know? I was freaking out for ages. I’d heard dozens of different rumors, from talent contests to grueling interviews to sadistic initiation rituals.”

“Um, excuse me?”

“None of it was real. Only my worry was. The night before, I was such a nervous little ball of stress that I couldn’t sleep for hours. I laid in my bed all night long, eyes wide open, thinking, worrying. But the day of? The actual ceremony? It was actually kinda fun! And once I got my job assignment, it was like a breath of fresh air. I know it’s all about planning for adulthood and whatnot, but I felt cool. Everybody in my class was given something that made them unique. And somehow, nobody was jealous. Everyone had something to brag about, to share with each other. Magister’s Day isn’t something to fear. It’s a celebration.”

Man, Neera thought, she sure knows how to spin things in her favor.

“So things might be changing, but they’re changing for the better?”

“Exactly, honey! Don’t be worried. Be excited!”

“Okay, but the thing that worries me the most is not knowing how jobs are chosen. Why the secrecy? Can’t you just tell me what to expect?”

“Nope!” Her mother replied, doing her best impression of a sarcastic teenager. “Rules are rules, honey. An integral part of the process is going by what’s in your heart, your gut reaction. It’ll be a fun, little surprise.”

“I think I hate surprises.”

“Well here’s another.”

From her hand dangled an old leather cord and Neera realized her mother wasn’t wearing her necklace, a ring of iron around a wooden inlay. Sure enough, as she reached her arm out and uncurled her fingers, there it sat in the palm of her hand. It was kind of ugly. The thing was ancient, discolored and dulled over the years.

“My mother gave me this the night before my own Magister’s Day ceremony. And her mom gave it to her and so on and so on. I can’t tell you how long the tradition has been going on for, but I can tell you that I’m very proud to be giving it to you.”

For all the attitude Neera had been giving her mom, she couldn’t hide how easily a mother’s love and pride cut right through it.

Man, she really knows how to spin things in her favor.

Neera took the necklace, pulling out her ponytail as she draped it over her head. It still wasn’t very pretty, but it had sentimental value. She wore it proudly.

“Now snap to it and get your ass down from there. We’ve got work to do.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Neera glanced about the assembly hall’s backstage with a marveling curiosity. She had always wondered what it was like, never imagining it would be so big. All around her were props and scenery, costumes, crates of wigs and makeup, all the things necessary to put on a dozen different plays. It all seemed so grand, the behind-the-scenes intricacies of a performance. Her eyes darted up to the ceiling, the walkways and rafters obscured by ropes and pulleys, hanging spotlight lanterns and more pipes than she could count.

“They call those battens.”

Koren was slightly shorter than Neera, but the big puff of dark curls on his head more than made up the difference. He gave Neera a coy, little smile as he walked up behind her. He enjoyed being fashionably late, but this was pushing it. She had been worried he wouldn’t make it in time.

“The lanterns up there are the most dangerous part of putting on a performance,” he continued. “In order to light scenes and fade from one to another, all those lanterns are constantly burning. If anything were to go wrong, the actors on stage could be doused with hot, burning oil.”

“Today’s stressful enough to not also have to worry about being burned alive, Koren.”

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. See that barrel?” He pointed toward the side of the stage at a huge barrel with what looked like a coil of leather hanging on the side. “That’s filled with water. And the hose on the side is connected to a hand pump. There’s even a whole other curtain that can come down to separate the audience from the stage, or vice versa.” The boy seemed proud of his understanding of the theater, eager for the opportunity to flaunt his knowledge. “Besides, there’s no performance happening so the lanterns aren’t even lit.”

Koren seemed more enthusiastic about the day than Neera, though that wasn’t saying much. Her nervousness dripped off her like sweat. And boy was she sweaty! All of her graduating class wore long, open robes with slender, tasseled ropes that hung from the collars. Even worn open and loose they were suffocating. Regal, but also incredibly awkward and uncomfortable, not helping her nervousness whatsoever.

“There actually could be a performance. We don’t know!”

Koren paused, a sudden look of worry across his face, his happy-go-lucky facade melting away.

“I hadn’t thought about that. Crap, are they gonna test us? I didn’t even consider that. I’ve been all worked up after my dad told me there was some sadistic initiation ritual. I’m pretty sure he was joking, but what if he was just saying that to soften the blow? To make what they really plan on doing seem not so bad? What if, like, they make us fight each other or something? Compared to getting tortured, that’s not so bad, but...”

“Definitely no ritual. My mom at least told me that much. She actually said the whole thing would be fun? So I doubt we’ll fight each other. If we did, though”—Neera put up her fists and made a faux-menacing scowl—“I’m afraid I’d have to kick your ass.”

Koren put his hands in the air as he stepped back to bow in subservience.

“Please, spare me, my Queen. I am humbled in your presence.” Just as quickly, he popped back up with excitement. “Oh! That reminds me. I made you something.”

He reached through his robe to his back pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. He handed it to Neera with a sudden nervousness she hadn’t seen in him before. She carefully unfolded it to reveal a drawing of the Queen-Champion of the Drae, only it wasn’t. It was Neera. She could tell thanks to her name and the big arrow pointing at the woman. She held a huge, scaled shield made of books. Instead of her signature sword, she kept a massive stick of charcoal balanced over her shoulder. And across her chest, atop her gleaming breastplate, a big scarf.

“I know it’s nothing compared to your stuff, but I thought—“

Neera threw herself into Koren and wrapped her arms around him. Fleeting as it may have been, in that moment, Neera forgot all about the stress and worry and pressure that surrounded them. In that moment, she felt only appreciation and joy. Blushing, she pulled back, giving him a little kiss on the cheek as she let him go.

“Thanks, Koren. That was... really sweet.” Now he was blushing, too. “But don’t think this means I’ll take it easy on you during the pre-ritual brawl.” She brought her arms down in a circle and flexed as hard as she could, arms shaking, face turning red.

“Hey, careful there, Queen-Champion. Don’t wanna burst a vein before the big fight.”

They laughed. With Koren, Neera found an island of happiness in the sea of looming unease that was the night’s festivities. And then just like that, the inevitable came knocking.

“Alright, kids!” a voice beckoned from the now-open doorway to the stage. There stood Rami, the town Magister. “I hope you’re ready. As they say in the business, it’s go time!”

Koren leaned in to whisper into Neera’s ear. “They don’t say that.”

Neera was no fan of Rami, something she shared with her mother. A Magister served as the chief official of the barren, even though the Secretary was the one who actually did all the work. All Rami did was eat, drink, read books, talk to people, and dole out bullshit life advice, coaching people through their decision-making processes and taking all the credit for not really doing a godsdamn thing.

At least that’s what her mother would often say in private.

The thing is, most others seemed to like Rami. He was charismatic, she had to at least give him that. He was tall and handsome, always smiling. He let his dark auburn hair grow long, lazily spilling every which way, giving him this laidback, oddly approachable quality. It was hard not to like him. She wondered if that might be why her mother resented him so much. The citizens of Sand’s End respected Dasheira, but they liked Rami.

The crowd erupted in cheers and applause as Rami re-entered the stage, arms wide and begging for more. In his hand, he held his Magister’s cane. It seemed so pretentious, purely a status symbol. He was 29. He had no need for a cane.

Following behind him were Neera, Koren and the rest of Rami’s army of robed, anxious children. He led the entire graduating class, all 17 of them, to center stage. Looking out into the audience, Neera could see they were all smiling, clapping, not dressed in creepy cult robes or anything. There was no fighting pit in sight. No torture devices. All good signs.

A short podium made of wood polished to a deep shine stood up front and center, already comandered by Rami. Behind him were a set of long benches draped in cloth, slightly angled towards each other. Rami directed half of the kids to stand on the benches, the other half to stand directly on the stage in front of them.

They were being put on display.

“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen!” Rami beckoned to the crowd. “It is with honor that I stand before you today, graduates, family members and friends alike. We are gathered here today, not simply to wish you farewell as your journeys into adulthood begin, not simply to award your job assignments and send you on your way, but to celebrate! You have already accomplished so much in your short lives, yet there is so much more to come. And that all begins now. Because today is a great day, kicking off the new year and the beginning of the next chapter of your lives. Because today, today is Magister’s Day!”

Rami gave his speech facing the audience, drinking in the crowd’s adoration, addressing the group of graduates with his back to them. Neera couldn’t help but wonder why he was hogging the spotlight. Not that she wanted it, but the stage held almost 40 kids embarking on their paths to adulthood. Why the hell was Rami the one taking all the attention? And why the hell was it called Magister’s Day? It made it seem like it was more a ceremony for him. Like he’d renamed it from Graduation Day or New Years Day or Big Important Life Step Strictly About the Children and Not About Anybody Else Day. Even if it were called something else, he’d still probably make it about himself.

“I’m sure many of you have a lot of questions, all in due time. Everyone seated before you had the same questions, some concerns, same uncertainty. But what is life other than the Great Unknown?”

Holy shit, is he serious right now?

“After today, it is our hope that you are given a bit more direction, a bit more understanding, a bit more hope. Let me be the first to impart to you the first lesson of adulthood: your education never ends. Over the next six years, you will all continue your schooling, still see all your friends, but part of your education will be hands-on training in your given specialty. Even after that, though, your education will continue. In the school... of life.”

Holy shit, he really is serious.

“Being awarded your job assignment is the first and most important step in that process. Throughout the night, one by one, you will each be brought onto the stage. By the time you leave, you will have not just gained a role in the community, but direction, purpose, understanding, and fulfilment. It is a gift.”

Throughout his entire speech, Neera could see a man sitting behind an easel, presumably drawing the scene. She could only imagine what it would look like when finished: a bunch of concerned-looking children being paraded about by a bombastic attention-seeker.

“But before we begin!” Rami spread his arms wide, like a grand reveal. “The Magister’s Test!”

From the side of the stage, a boy not much older than Neera carried out something with a simple white silk veil draped over it. It wasn’t very large, perhaps a statuette or an idol of some sort. The boy placed it atop the podium and left the stage.

“The role of Magister isn’t like a normal job, so being chosen to become one isn’t like a normal job assignment. It requires a test. The obligations of a Magister necessitates a certain type of skill, one that cannot be taught. It's a connection to the world around us, a requirement for truly understanding it, protecting it, and protecting the people around you. Before you are all assigned your jobs, we’ll first see if any of you possess such a skill.”

For the first time during his speech, Rami turned to face the graduates.

“Koren, will you please approach the podium?”

Neera was standing right next to him, close enough she could hear his nervous gulp. He stepped forward with a poorly-concealed trepidation. Neera felt for her friend. Nobody ever wants to go first for something like this. That said, she was still glad it wasn’t her.

“Now remember, there’s no pressure. A new Magister is usually only ever chosen once every 40, 50, sometimes even 60 years. It’s rare. So don’t feel bad when you fail. We expect you to. I’ve only been Magister for—”

He paused as if he were just remembering something. The smile on his face betrayed his feigned surprise. It was clear this fake realization was all planned ahead of time.

“Why, it’s my 10 year anniversary!” He spread his arms wide once again, begging the crowd’s approval and applause. “We aren’t expecting my replacement for quite some time. But tradition is tradition, so let’s get on with it.”

Rami unscrewed the head of his walking cane and handed it to Koren: a small figurine made of solid gold of an owl holding a snake in its claws. “Koren,” Rami beckoned his attention to the podium as he lifted the veil. “Bend this spoon!”

Pointing straight up from its base like a half-assed trophy for an eating contest was, in fact, a single metal spoon.


Child after child approached the podium, confused, then walked away no more clear than before. When it finally came to Neera’s turn, most of the audience had stopped paying attention. Parents would perk up when it was their child’s turn, except for Dasheira, who gave her utmost attention to the entire process. Rami handed Neera the idol and stepped aside. With no direction given whatsoever, she turned to focus on the spoon. At first, she experienced what she thought was a tingling sensation from the idol. As the connection grew, she felt it course through her body like a flood, back and forth, in and out, a link or bond she couldn’t have known she had, cooperation.

In a way, the feeling was similar to when she’d lose herself in her imagination while drawing, when she could feel her drawings almost coming alive, except much, much more potent, more real. Where her desire to give life to her charcoal friends may have just been in her imagination, her affinity to the idol held a power that was capable of real change and action.

From all around her, Neera could somehow feel the presence of metals in the room. Necklaces and bracelets, the numerous hair pins being worn in the girls’ hair behind her, pinpricks of nails throughout the stage. But her focus was on the spoon.

And just like that, it started to bend.

“Oh my god, she’s doing it,” said a surprised voice from the crowd.

Rami hadn’t even been paying attention, sure that he wouldn’t need to. He turned, more surprised than even Neera, as the spoon began to droop like a wilting flower.

Then it started turning red.

The head of the spoon began to warp as the handle bent under the weight. It grew brighter and hotter as it lost all semblance of shape and started melting, dripping hot liquid metal onto the podium. The wood, freshly polished with oil, caught fire with ease. Neera stood stunned in front of the growing blaze, hypnotized by the flames. Rami grabbed her and pulled her away, still astounded by what he just witnessed.

From behind them, Koren leapt from his place atop the benches and raced to the side of the stage. He grabbed the hose attached to the water tank and pulled it back towards the podium. He nodded towards the theater manager, bounding out from the crowd and making her way up the stairs to the side of the stage. She rounded the corner and began furiously pumping. Water gushed from the hose as Koren aimed it at the podium. He had a bit of trouble directing the blast at first, its strength much more powerful than he’d expected, but the fire was quickly extinguished.

For a moment, the theater was silent save for the whispers amongst the audience and the kids on stage. Neera had just displayed a level of magic far greater than any of them, Rami included, had ever seen before. Between that, the fire breaking out and Koren heroically taking charge and putting it out, it was a lot to take in.

“Well,” Rami said, his voice assertive but lighthearted, “I guess we know what job Koren’ll be doing.”

“And Neera,” said a proud Dasheira. Neera hadn’t noticed her mother had made her way to the stage. They turned to face each other. “Honey, you’re going to be the next Magister.”


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Posted by Anonymous on 05.13.20
I'm guessing Halften is some kind of multi-day celebration or holiday, like Channukah or the 12 days of Xmas. Now I'm curious to know just what. Hmm...
Posted by Matt on 05.13.20
I mean, I could just tell you. It's not a hugely secretive bit of lore, and I dunno how much I'll spill about it in the story alone.
Posted by Anonymous on 05.14.20
Yes tell us please!
Posted by Matt on 05.14.20
Ok! So, I took a lot of inspiration from ancient Egypt and Greece and the Egyptian calendar felt rather elegant to me. Like many common fantasy settings, the seven day week doesn't exist, replaced with a span of time called a tenday instead. Three tendays to a month.

Ancient Egypt's calendar was split up into seasons as well, except instead of four seasons of three months each, it was three seasons of four months each. In total, 360 days.

To make up for the last five days of a calendar year, the world of the Leeches Loom celebrates a five day long New Years type thing. Since it lasts half the length of a tenday, I called it Halften!
the empire
The Howl
The Mazewilds
The Shelf
Shaded Seed
Wayfarer's Ridge
A Gentle Scar
Tiller's Hamlet