Fiction: Neera - Final Exam & Best Friends

The hidden past of Beamdog's wild mage, Neera—how a staff was gained and a forest imperiled…


Part 1: Final Exam

“Oh, my aching noggin.” Moth cradled his head as he slumped down the great oak’s winding ramp. His iridescent wings drooped.

“You should know better than to drink so much nectar the night before class.” Pollae planted the foot of her oaken staff in the moss and raised a fine elven eyebrow to look down at him.

Neera didn’t like the way Pollae used her height to belittle the pixie. At barely over two feet high, Moth was small even for a sprite. He had spent half the night flitting from bloom to bloom, sampling every night-blossoming flower he could find.

Neera understood the allure of spring. The same perfumes had tempted her outside to tease the boys when she knew she should be studying. As a result, Neera was also completely unprepared.

As usual.

“Lean over the rail if you’re going to throw up,” said Binster.

“Don’t say ‘throw up’!” moaned Moth.

“Sorry. Still, you can lean against the rail for support.”

For a gnome, Binster was depressingly practical about the most mundane things. Unlike every normal person who looked out across the village and saw vibrant leaves and blooming garlands, Binster saw only the utility of the railing. With an imagination like that, Neera thought, Binster would turn out to be a lousy illusionist. Still, the way he comforted Moth gave her an idea.

“If you time it right, Moth, you can hit that wagon.” Neera pointed down at an approaching haywain jigging and hopping over the roots below. Its erratic motion made her feel queasy, and she hadn’t had a drop of nectar.

At the sight of the careening wagon, Moth clutched his stomach and burbled.        “Stop it, Neera,” said Binster. “You know how suggestible he is.”

“I’m not just saying he’s going to throw up. I’m saying when he does, it’ll be right on that wagon. In fact, I’ve got half a dozen faerie-lace ribbons that agree with me.” From her belt pouch she drew out six shimmering lengths of gossamer, hand-woven by the tiniest atomies. “Want to bet?”

“No,” sniffed Pollae, but Neera saw the desire in her eyes. Pollae loved faerie lace, and she was never one to back down from a challenge. She was the best student in their magic class, and she never missed a chance to remind the others of that fact. Pollae eyed Moth. “How’re you feeling?”

“Better,” said the sprite. His cerulean eyes had lost some of their luster, but he was no longer puffing his cheeks like a landed carp.

Pollae turned on Neera with a savage smile. “You’re on.”

“My faerie lace against that old staff of yours.”

What? This was my grandfather’s!”

“Steady on, Moth.” Binster knelt beside the sprite and patted him on the back.

“Don’t jostle him!” Pollae and Neera cried in unison.

Moth opened his mouth to say something, but only a golden bubble emerged.

“Very well, your lace against my staff,” said Pollae. “But neither of us can touch him or use any magic.”

“Agreed.”

Pollae turned to Moth. “Close your eyes. Don’t look down. You aren’t going to throw up.”

“Don’t say ‘throw up,'” said Binster.

“He doesn’t have to look down to know he’s going to throw up,” said Neera. The wagon drew closer. “Moth can hear as well as we can just how wobbly that wagon is, rattling over every pothole in the path, throwing up stones with every lurch. Why, the sound itself is enough to make you—”

Repetition wasn’t working. Neera chanted in desperation: “Barf, vomit, hurl, gag, cast a color spray, sick up, spew—”

A glittering stream of pixie puke arced down on the haywain.

“Bull’s eye!”

By the time Neera had claimed her prize, soothed the angry driver, helped clean up Moth, and dashed across the village, the other students—all of them young elves—had already assembled.

Unlike most of the village tree-chambers, the classroom stood only a few feet above the forest floor. A domed roof sheltered it from rain, but all the shutters had been removed, leaving it open to the breeze except where it abutted one of the giant oaks for which the High Forest was famous.

The teacher whisked his tail as the latecomers rushed up the ramp. After glancing at the others, especially Moth, who hung on to Binster for dear life, his gaze came to rest on Neera. The centaur quirked a shaggy eyebrow at the sight of Pollae’s staff nestled in the crook of Neera’s arm. “Late again.”

“Not my fault,” said Neera.

Frixis stared at Neera as if she’d just confessed to a crime. His fingers idly touched the beads braided into his magnificent green beard. He was the hairiest centaur anyone in the High Forest had ever seen. It was impossible to see where his beard ended and his chest hair began. He had never approved of Neera’s sense of whimsy nor her peculiar approach to magic.

Centaurs were not known for their skills at arcane magic. Through relentless discipline, Frixis had achieved such skill that the elves of Highbough made him the instructor for their magic school. When Neera had first applied, she impressed the centaur by demonstrating great natural potential, despite having none of his discipline. She had only disappointed him ever since.

Neera didn’t see magic the way Frixis did. She understood the mechanical aspects of casting a spell—the words to speak, the gestures to make, even the physical materials (nasty as some were) necessary to call the magic from its source—but she felt deep in her being that much of the rigmarole was unnecessary. Studying all of the theory and history of magic was like reading a book to learn how to dance. The way Neera saw it, either you could dance or you couldn’t. Likewise, either you were a mage or you weren’t, and no amount of studying would change that.

Still peering at Neera, Frixis said, “Which of you wishes to demonstrate your new spell for the class?”

Neera wished she had prepared an invisibility spell to vanish from sight, but the centaur kept staring straight at her. Fortunately, to either side of Neera, her friends threw up their hands.

Pollae and Binster were always the first to volunteer, and both were always prepared. Neera was sure the gnome had gotten that seam on the tip of his long nose by sticking it too deep into his books. “Very well,” sighed Frixis. “Pollae first.”

Binster sighed his disappointment, which only encouraged Pollae. “Perhaps it would be nice to have a well-mannered gnome in class, for a change.”

She faltered for an instant as she moved to gesture with the staff she had lost in the bet. It would be a lot harder to look down at Neera after that defeat. Pollae performed the gestures by hand, spoke the words, and with a glimmer appeared to transform into an exact duplicate of Binster. To complete the illusion, she mimicked his heavy sigh.

Laughter from the other students rewarded her effort.

Binster snorted. “That’s nothing. I can do twice as well.” With a two-handed gesture and a few arcane words whistling out of the gap between his front teeth, he caused his own image to shudder and divide into several duplicates. Each stepped away from him until four identical Binsters stood with their hands on hips, smug smiles returning Pollae’s scowl. They said in unison, “Four! Four times more gnome!”

Again the other students laughed. Frixis nodded his approval. “Now, who will be next?”

Moth’s wings perked up. “Those are just illusions,” he said. With a few arcane words of his own, the pixie grew taller, his wings shrinking into his body as his flesh and clothing changed shape until they matched Binster’s features exactly. “This is a real transformation.”

“Very good, Moth,” said Frixis. “Now, Neera—”

“I didn’t know we were doing illusions,” she complained. Fire and lightning were more her style, any form of energy she could evoke from the raw fount of magic.

Frixis stamped a hoof on the hard oak floor of the classroom. Amplified by the domed roof, the sound echoed off the nearest tree-houses. From the nearest buildings, elven laughter replied to the centaur’s familiar gesture of impatience with a recalcitrant student.

“If I must,” huffed Neera.

“Take cover, everybody!” cried Darvoth. “Neera’s going to cast a spell!”

The pathetic thing was that everybody laughed, which Darvoth had been making happen ever since that first time Neera’s concentration wavered and a surge of wild energy turned what should have been a simple levitation into a flock of sparrows who whitened the entire classroom in their fright.

Neera showed Darvoth her teeth. He wasn’t even handsome compared to some of the other young elves. She liked him better when he’d been one of the boys fetching her flowers last night. Maybe making fun of her was his revenge for her sending him after buds she knew would not bloom for weeks yet. Or maybe he was just a jerk.

“Now, Neera,” insisted Frixis.

As she raised her hands to make the opening gestures, Frixis shook his head at her and raised his own to show her the correct position. “Think,” he said. “Focus, visualize the runes you studied.”

That would be much more help if she had actually studied, Neera thought. She didn’t understand why it was so important to do things exactly so. Why wasn’t there any room for improvisation, for her natural talent to come out? Master Frixis’s corrections made her feel exactly the same way as when her writing teachers forced her to use her right hand instead of her left.

“Ffffppppttttt!”

Neera whipped her head around to see the origin of the rude sound. She imagined Binster blowing a raspberry behind her back, but the six gnomes, one polymorphed pixie, one illusion-shrouded elf, and four reflections of the original, all stared back at her, mouths agape.

Just as her fellow students’ laughter erupted louder than ever before, Neera realized the sound was that of her own spell fizzling.

All of the others in the classroom slapped their thighs, pounded on their neighbors’ backs, or rolled on the floor. You’d imagine they had had never seen something so hilarious, thought Neera. She was the only one who didn’t find it amusing, or so she thought until she saw Master Frixis shaking his head at her, his broad face a study in disappointment.

“Perhaps it is best that you go home, Neera.”

Frixis had sent a student home from class only once before. Later he’d gone to the boy’s parents and counseled them to devote his energies elsewhere: farming, hunting, woodcarving, perhaps. He was not destined to be a mage.

“No, I can do it,” said Neera. “Maybe not the image of a gnome, but—here, look!”

“Neera, don’t.”

She hastened through the gestures to call up an image of a fiery gnome above her palms. She felt the arcane energies respond to her will as much as to her gestures. This was more like it—the natural evocation of magic from its very source, not the careful teasing out of its threads for a spell practiced by thousands of other casters over the centuries. A brilliant orange flame blossomed in Neera’s hands. She could even feel the heat of the illusion. This was no meager cantrip. This was real magic.

“Neera, look out!” cried one of the Binsters. He transformed back into the form of Moth even as he leaped away, pixie wings limned in fire.

“No! It was only supposed to be the illusion of fire!”

The flaming ball leaped from Neera’s hands as if offended by her words.

“Stop!” she cried, feeling foolish even as she spoke. She focused her will on the flame, trying to control its motion with her thoughts.

Frixis flung a ray of frost at Moth, extinguishing the flames on the pixie’s wings but sending the poor fey to the classroom floor, teeth chattering with cold.

The screams of young elves filled the classroom as students dashed away from the uncontrolled ball of fire. Only Darvoth stood still, his wide eyes locked on Neera as the fiery sphere rolled toward him. “Don’t, Neera,” he said. “I’m sorry I laughed at you.”

“I’m not doing it. I didn’t mean—!”

Frixis charged in to scoop up the terrified Darvoth, but he was too late. Even as the centaur reached out his arms, Neera’s conjured ball of flame engulfed the boy. Darvoth screamed and turned to run. He made it almost to the edge of the classroom before Frixis knocked him over the edge onto the grass, shouting, “Roll it off! Roll it off!”

“What have you done!?” Pollae screamed at Neera. In her anger, she allowed the illusion to fall away, and the angry young gnome became an angry young elf.

“I didn’t mean it!”

“You never pay attention,” the four remaining Binsters scolded her. “Now look what you’ve done!”

“That’s not—I didn’t mean—oh, I hate you all!” Neera raised the staff she had won from Pollae, wanting desperately to hit someone. Pollae and the Binsters flinched and stepped back. When she saw the fear on their faces, Neera felt horrified—not by her friends, not by the situation, but by herself.

Tears on her face, she turned and ran away.

Part 2: Best Friends

Neera concentrated all her will on the spell’s gestures. At the first tingling of magic between her thumb and forefinger, she spoke the words to open a channel between the material realms and the plane of fire.

A fan of bright flame engulfed the firewood she had stacked on a clear patch of earth. Even as the spell subsided, the flames crackled and grew. The light dispelled a little of the gloom that surrounded them as dusk settled over the High Forest.

“You’re the best, Neera!”

Ettin glided down from a tree branch to land on the blanket Neera had laid beside the fire. The glow of the flames emphasized the tressym’s bifurcated face, half black and half tabby, one eye blue and one green. He stretched his feathered wings and began licking the blackened stump of his tail.

“You don’t need to be so sarcastic. How many times do I have to apologize?”

Ettin ignored her.

Neera laid down the staff she’d won from Pollae, surprised how much she missed the annoying elf along with her other friends. After the horrible accident in class, she doubted anyone missed her.

She pulled her cloak tight and curled up on the blanket, trying to win back some of the territory the tressym had claimed. Despite Ettin’s snarky attitude, the winged cat was her best friend. Of course, these days he was also her only friend.

After weeks of sneaking back into the village for food and supplies, Neera finally plunged into the heart of the High Forest, hoping to find… she wasn’t sure what she hoped to find. Some place where no one knew how much harm she’d caused back home.

“Maybe you should have put a ring of stones around the wood.”

“Maybe you should have put a ring of stones around the wood,” Neera mimicked him. Even as she said it, she wished she could have thought of a better comeback. She felt foolish.

“I’m only saying it would be safer with a ring of stones to contain the embers. There’s been no rain for weeks, and the leaves are getting dry.”

“I thought you liked it dry. Cats are desert animals, aren’t they?”

“I’m not a cat.” Ettin shifted, indignant, and began licking between his toes.

Neera was too tired to get up and lug a bunch of rocks over to the fire. She wished she knew a spell that would gather rocks for her.

More than that, she wished she could simply tap into the primal source of magic and use its power to do whatever she wished. That’s what she should have been learning these past years, not all these formulas Frixis had made her and the other students memorize. Those with a direct connection to the Weave shouldn’t be saddled with homework like ordinary sorcerers.

There was one spell Neera could cast that none of her classmates ever could: the reckless dweomer that connected her will to raw magic. With it she could do anything. The problem was in directing the magic to do exactly what she wished instead of, well, just anything.

Even the ordinary spells Neera knew still sometimes went wrong. Ettin had witnessed more than a few miscast color sprays and chromatic orbs since joining her. Neera had a growing suspicion that the tressym followed her only because she could capture an entire flock of partridges with a single sleep spell. Even though she could stuff them all into a bag for later, he insisted she leave one out for him to awaken with a surprise attack. He became a wild animal when eating. Neera could barely stand to watch as he plunged down from the air to dismember his meals.

If snide remarks and bloodthirsty eating were the worst she had to put up with, Neera was still glad for the company. In the months she had spent in the High Forest, Neera hadn’t met anyone—or anything—that both could talk with her and didn’t want to eat her.

The nights were frightening without company. Even after the trees began shedding their leaves, the thick canopy let hardly any moonlight through, rendering Neera’s half-elven vision almost useless. Her sharp ears could still pick up the sound of everything that slithered, crawled, crept, or prowled, but that only made things much worse.

Ettin sat up straight, his black and orange ears turning.

“What do you hear?”

“Shh!”

Neera waited, hoping to hear the guttural clicking that Ettin made deep in his throat before pouncing on a mouse or other tiny prey. Instead, the two-faced tressym emitted a low growl rising in volume and pitch until he shrieked, “Orcs!”

Neera froze. Several times before she had spotted the raiders, always from a distance or by the foul campsites they left behind. They roamed in bands of one or two dozen, hunting game and pillaging small communities of elves or fey. Neera always changed course to avoid them, remembering the horrible stories she had heard as a child. The stories always came from those who escaped, because no one who fought had survived.

Ettin flew up, his wings buffeting Neera’s face as he leapt into her arms as she stood. The tressym sank his claws into her shoulder as she bent to pick up her staff. “Go! Go, go, go!”

Neera hissed in pain and then conjured an invisible sheath of armor around her body—not that it was any use against the sharp claws already clinging to her. She began to berate Ettin but fell silent as she heard the heavy footsteps. The orcs were already close.

“They saw your stupid fire!” Ettin leaped from her back and flew westward. “Everyone for himself!”

“Wait for me!” Neera tripped over the blanket and fell into the fire. She jumped up, slapping away the flames even as she ran after the tressym, the smoldering blanket still tangled around one ankle. Cinders fell from her clothes, popping in the dry leaves, until at last she kicked away the flaming cloth.

Neera pumped her legs, trying to keep up with Ettin. She could barely see him in the thickening gloom. “Wait!”

The sound of charging orcs came closer and closer. Soon Neera heard grunts of exertion and the snapping of branches. She imagined ropes of drool dangling from tusked mouths. She envisioned blood-encrusted axes clutched in rough gray hands. She knew she couldn’t run fast enough to escape. She would have to fight.

“You won’t take me,” she swore. Turning, she raised the staff in one hand and made a gesture of rolling waves with the other.

She felt the trembling magic of her spell in her heart for an instant before it shot down her arm and out through her fingers. The nearest orcs uttered drowsy groans and tumbled forward, asleep before they hit the ground.

“Yes!” Neera hopped in triumph. But before her feet hit the ground, a second wave of orcs rushed toward her.

With a gulp, Neera made another hasty gesture, this one no mere enchantment but a spell to alter the very fabric of reality. A fan of vivid light shot forth, briefly illuminating the forest in a riot of colors. It enveloped another squad of orcs. Their eyes rolled back in their heads, their tongues lolled, and they fell senseless to the forest floor.

“Take that, you tusk-faced twerps!”

A scream dispelled her victory whoop. Yet another group of orcs barreled toward her, orange flames rising behind them. From one glance at their ugly, terrified faces, she knew they were not running toward her so much as they were fleeing the fire that she had caused in her panic.

“Don’t just stand there, Neera,” cried Ettin. His voice faded as he heeded his own advice. “Get out of there!”

Neera considered casting another spell, but she saw there were far too many orcs for any of her spells to stop. She ran through the darkness.

For what felt a very long time, she dodged tree trunks and ducked under tree branches. Her foot caught the root of a gnarly oak. She stumbled but caught herself on the staff before falling. She dared a glance back.

Behind her, the forest crackled and smoked. The light of the flames danced higher, casting dancing shadows in all directions. One of those shadows came up alongside her.

For a moment Neera imagined a tree had overtaken her in her flight, but then she saw it was a panicked orc running past her, fear of the fire hastening its stride. A moment later Neera realized there were two more orcs on her other side. Another joined them, and another more.

Glancing at their fellows to either side, the orcs seemed not to notice Neera. Then one of them looked back at her, his tiny black eyes widening in surprise. Then his terrified expression transformed into an ugly leer.

“Elf!” he shrieked, raising a spiked club.

Half-elf, boar-brains!” Neera planted her heels and the butt of her staff. Her mad hope that the orcs would keep running melted away as six of them stopped fleeing the fire. The firelight at her back faded, and Neera heard distant voices. “Help!” cried Neera. “There’s orcs! Piles of smelly orcs!”

The brutes snuffed like pigs. As they closed in around her, Neera realized the wet snorting was the sound of their laughter. “Stupid elf, there’s nothing in these woods but you, us, and the trees.”

Neera raised her staff. For an instant, all the orcs flinched. Neera wanted to say something dramatic and intimidating like, Fear the power of my magic unleashed! But she was afraid she’d stutter or sound childish. Besides, she needed to save her breath for a spell. The only question was, which one?

The forest was already burning, she decided, and the orcs had run from the flames. What’s the harm in a little more fire?

Neera reached deep within her connection to the arcane. The border between her world and that of the Weave felt like a gossamer veil, a curtain she could part not with her hand but with her will. She opened it as wide as she dared, willing—and hoping—for fire.

Fire she got.

Flames exploded all around her. For a timeless instant, she saw the orcs blasted up into the arms of the trees, their few remaining leaves burned away to leave bare branches limned with flame. The pressure of the blast blew inward as well as outward. Neera felt it crushing in on her from all sides. The heat scorched her body and simultaneously flooded her limbs with cool tingling, an ecstasy of pain.

Neera wobbled until she remembered to lean against her staff. The trees swayed around her in the aftermath of the explosion. The sound of their creaking became louder and more rapid.

An enormous shadow fell across Neera. She turned to see a gigantic tree falling straight down at her.

“No!” Neera held up the staff, knowing she didn’t have the strength to ward off a falling sapling, much less a full-grown tree. As tough branches enveloped her body, she cried out at first in terror, then in wonder as she realized the tree was not crushing her but lifting her up.

“Why did you do this?” groaned a voice as deep as Razorthorn Rift. A crack in the tree trunk moved in time with the words: It was a mouth! Lumps she had mistaken for knots in the wood were eyes blinking away the smoke.

She was in the clutches of a treant, a breathing, walking tree-person!

“Didn’t you see all the orcs?” Neera peeped. “There were piles of them.”

“Even the orcs know better than to set an open fire in autumn.”

“I warned her,” Ettin’s voice came from a higher branch. “She wouldn’t listen to me.”

“There is no place for a firebug in Turlang’s Wood,” rumbled the treant.

“Who do you think you are, telling me where I can and can’t go? You have no right!”

“I am Turlang.”

“Oh,” said Neera. “Turlang’s Wood. Huh. I guess you do have a right.”

“Begone, you little catastrophe.” Turlang set Neera on the ground. She saw other treants shaking their stream-wetted boughs over the flames, trying to contain the damage she had caused. One treant nudged some sleeping orcs with a root-like toe. The brutes awoke with a snort, saw the treants in their midst, and fled northeast without bothering to pick up their weapons.

“Where will I go now?” Neera complained.

“I do not care,” said Turlang. “As long as it is anywhere but here.”

“Come on, Ettin,” said Neera. It took all her pride not to sulk. “We’d better go.”

“No way, Neera,” said the tressym from the safety of Turlang’s boughs. “I’m staying right here where it’s safe.”

“What? After all the game my spells caught for you?! I’m the best friend you ever had!”

“You not only set the forest on fire, you turned your own hair pink,” said Ettin. “”Neera, you’re the worst!”

Neera lifted a lock of her hair, but in the light of the fire she couldn’t tell whether it remained pale blond or really had changed. Grimacing back her tears, Neera fled southwest into the dark woods.

Recruit Neera in Beamdog’s Baldur’s Gate , Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear , and Baldur’s Gate II Enhanced Editions. As an added bonus, we’ve worked with the folks at Beamdog to also provide the following fifth edition character sheet for Neera.

 

Download Character Sheet