Neeba is too old for father's stories. His father laughs and ruffles Neeba's hair, and says of course you're too old, you're my little man, you know.
Neeba flushes, despite himself, and his father kisses him goodnight.
The next day, his father brings home another son, and Neeba stands and stares.
Neeba doesn't understand. He hears his mother crying in the room, hears snippets of whore and how could you? and you never loved me, right? He understands the other woman died.
The child has no home. Neeba watches him curiously, that squirming pound of baby flesh huddled up against his father's leg. He sits beside him and touches the child's hand.
Jil is five and Neeba is seven, and Neeba is too young to understand.
"You must be nice to him, Neeba," his mother says. Her eyes are red and her throat is scratchy and dry. "He's just a child. How he came to be is no fault of his."
"Are you angry at father?" Neeba says. His mother shakes her head.
"No," his mother says. A bitter laugh. "Just angry at the gods. That's all."
Neeba is ten when his mother dies.
At the funeral, Neeba doesn't cry. He watches as they toss white roses into the grave, watches as they fall onto the casket before being covered by dirt. Beside him, Jil's eyes are wide and wet and he clings to his father's sleeve. "It's okay, son," their father says to Jil. "Do not be sad."
His father's voice breaks. Slowly he sags, heavy arms bowed toward the ground. Jil squirms, then breaks away, hugging their father, tight.
Neeba's eyes burn.
No one can be angry at Jil.
The servants coo and fuss over him; he's all baby fat and cherubic smiles, quick to hug and cuddle anyone who passes. "He just wants a little love," the servants say, and they scoop him up and sit him on their knees. He's the complete opposite of Neeba when he was that age; Neeba was thorny and aloof, often sitting alone in the corner.
He listens outside the doorway as his father tucks in Jil's sheets, his darling younger son; he tells a joke and Jil giggles, eyes like half-moon slivers as he does.
"Show me the roper dance!" Jil says, and he bounces and grins, and his father picks him up by the arms and spins him around. "Roper, roper, roper!"
They laugh and hug and no one notices when Neeba leaves.
He lies in the dark, pulling up the sheets to his chin and listening as his father tells Jil ghost stories and old tales of ancestors long past. Emotions he can't quite name rise and flare into a sharp point, and he doesn't quite understand why he starts to cry.
His father is going on a great campaign. "It's in service of the king," his father says. He sits next to Jil, smiling. "Someday you will be called into service as well, and your father can be proud of you, too."
"What about me?" Neeba says. His father looks up.
"Ah, Neeba. I didn't see you there," his father says. Neeba scowls.
Jil chases after him, wielding a cardboard sword. "I'm going to be a great warrior! Just like father!"
"Father, can you please shut him up?" Neeba says, but apparently such requests are considered impolite.
"Neeba. Your little brother is just excited. Humor him, for once."
Jil flops over like an overexcited puppy, but the truth is, Neeba is excited, too. He admires his father, a captain in the king's army, ready to take on a difficult campaign at their kingdom's border. His father grins and ruffles Jil's hair, "Ah, Jil! Just wait until you can wield a sword like me!"
Neeba's face darkens. He stands and moves into the compound.
He is just twelve years old.
Neeba is in his room, brooding and looking out the window, when there is a knock at the door.
"Neeba? May I come in?"
"Father?" Neeba stares. His father opens the door slightly, then flashes him a smile.
"I'm afraid your old man hasn't been very thoughtful of you," his father says, and he sits down next to him on the bed. "You're growing up," his father says.
"I'm glad you've noticed," Neeba says.
"What do you want?" Neeba says. His father frowns.
"I'm leaving tonight," his father says. "I'm not sure when I'll be back. But I wanted to tell you, in case I don't..." his father stops, as if to search for his words. "I wanted to tell you I'm proud of you, Neeba," his father says. "I'm glad you're my son."
Neeba stares at him for a long moment. His heart hammers in his throat. "Why are you telling me this?" Neeba says.
"Because you're jealous of Jil, and I want you to know there's no reason you should be," his father says. "Neeba. You take after your mother. She was a stern woman, and not easy to love. I hadn't met her before our wedding day, but I grew to love her, in my time. I made mistakes. I regret hurting her, but I do not regret having Jil."
Neeba keeps his eyes carefully trained on the floor. "What was Jil's mother like?" Neeba says.
"Beautiful," his father says. "Lively. Always laughing. Like your brother, really," his father says. He adjusts his armor, quietly. "I loved them both equally, but differently," his father says. "Just like you and your brother. I love you both. You both make me proud."
There is warmth behind Neeba's eyes; it is gradual and threatening to spill.
"Will you say goodbye to Jil?" Neeba says. His voice is steady. He is thankful it is so. "Father?"
"Of course," his father says. He stands and ruffles Neeba's hair.
Neeba doesn't look at him, but he knows his father is smiling at the door. He twists the bedsheet in his hand, agonized. His voice is barely a whisper.
"Come back soon," Neeba says. He isn't sure if his father can hear.
In the middle of the campaign, his father staggers back home, bleeding from an arrow wound to the chest.
Neeba rushes toward the courtyard, throwing the door open to run toward his side. Jil is there too.
"Jil." His father wheezes, reaches a bloody hand to touch Jil's cheek.
"I just wanted to see your face one last time."
He never once looks at Neeba.
He dies a few hours later.
They call him a traitor; he deserted the campaign. Neeba sobs and screams and tears his hair by the fistfuls. Jil says nothing; his face is pale.
"Coward," Neeba says. He shakes. "Traitor."
"Young master, please."
Neeba rushes at the deathbed, shaking. "Father! How could you? How?"
He's dragged, bodily hoisted by his father's servants and tossed out into the courtyard.
His father never loved him. His father never cared.
His father turned his back on his comrades. His father betrayed everybody he's ever known.
It rains, but Neeba lacks the strength to stand. He lies in the mud, hair stuck to his face and rain sliding down his cheeks like tears.
Neeba is seventeen when he sets out on his own.
They call them climbers. Mad men climbing the crumbling Tower of Druaga, scaling each floor in search of riches and wealth. Neeba walks through the marketplaces, listening as the climbers brag about their conquests. This one slayed a dragon. That one slew twelve demons in a single blow.
Neeba hitches his bow across his back, his traveling cloak heavy with the weight of last night's rain, when one climber stops him.
"Young man," the man says. "I'm in need of a guardian. I see you have a bow. Are you by chance looking for work?"
Neeba stops. "Guardian?" Neeba says. The climber nods and smiles.
In climbing teams, there are four positions: the vanguard, the mage, the warrior, and the guardian. The vanguard takes the front; the mage and warrior flank the sides, serving as the vanguard's support. But the guardian goes where the others need him. "The guardian is the most important," the climber says. "He serves as our shield. You take your shield and apply magic like this."
The climber thrusts the shield forward, and a magic field bursts into bloom in front of them, the climber taking a stance. "The shield is its center, do you see?" the climber says. Neeba watches, mystified.
"I am not a guardian," Neeba says. He shows him his arrows. "I am an archer. I have no knowledge of those shields."
"Oh, they're very easy to use," the climber says. "Besides, everyone starts off as a guardian. And you have the potential to be the vanguard, someday."
The climber's smile is kind. There are creases around his eyes; it reminds him vaguely of his father.
"Thank you, but no," Neeba says. He starts to move when the climber thrusts a bag of money into his hand.
"Consider it a down payment," the climber says.
As it turns out, joining the climbing team is the best thing that's ever happened to him.
Neeba never had friends. Growing up, he was shrouded by his estate, flanked on all sides by well-meaning servants and tutors. After his father died, he became more isolated, training with Sumarian archers and growing hard under their silent rebukes.
"Hey, Neeba! We roasted a pig. Hurry up!"
They grin and splay around the campfire, smiling and chewing thoughtfully on pieces of meat. Neeba sits carefully, smiling with his eyes and watching as they loudly and playfully out-shout each other, shoving each other and rough-housing the way real brothers do.
He's finally found family. Something he thought he'd never do.
"Oi, Neeba, you just gonna stare or what?"
"In a minute," Neeba says, and he tosses a twig into the fire.
No one expects the dragon.
"Neeba!" His friend screams. "Neeba! The shield!"
His friend screams. Neeba wildly looks around.
His friend is gutted; blood bubbles up at the corners of his mouth. Around him people are screaming. Neeba runs, his bow in his hand. "Akio! Hiashi! Fall back! Fall back!"
An explosion. Neeba's thrown, shoulder slamming into the wall. The dragon thrashes and his friends scream.
"Akio!" Neeba falls to his knees.
Eyes roll back. Necks snapped like broken dolls.
He trudges through the streets, eyes fixed to the ground as he walks. His cloak is tattered, and the smell of death and sulfur clings to him like a second skin. Around him, onlookers whisper, shocked that someone had survived.
They're screaming. The sky is red and the fire spews out hot embers, whirling around him. He shoots and the dragon dies, great red scales glistening with its blood.
They call him Neeba the Dragon Slayer. His boots are still caked in blood.
"I want to be a dragon slayer!" Jil says, six months after the ordeal is through.
Neeba is so angry he could snap his brother in half. Instead he says nothing, rising quickly and slamming the door.
He has nightmares sometimes; he wakes with skin cold and his heart hammering in his chest, haunted by dead gray eyes and open mouths locked in silent screams.
Those nights, he'll sit heavily at the edge of the bed, alone in the vast darkness of the whatever nondescript room he's found himself. Another inn. Another tavern. His reflection in the mirror is splintered, dark eyes like bruises staring back at him, a silent rebuke: he should not have survived. He'll hold his arrows like a crucifix, clutching it to his chest, and wonder why he's still alive.
She whispers to him, "All the power in the world and more, this I shall grant to you."
Neeba kneels as the Succubus circles around him, cat-like eyes and a knowing smile. She presses a soft hand to his chest, purrs into his neck, "I know your thoughts. Your deepest desires. I know what's in your heart, Neeba. You only need to ask."
"Witch," Neeba says, and the Succubus smiles, her body flush against his.
"Tell me again," the Succubus says, and she pulls him inside her.
Fatina is wearing too much perfume. Utu coughs and Kally grimaces. "Damn, what the hell were you thinking?" he says. Fatina clenches her fists and glares.
It is his third time climbing the tower. This time, he is the vanguard, recruiting the mage and warrior and a scout to boot. He is older, leaner, and the lines of his face have hardened into a perfect stone. No one questions that he would be a good leader, this dragon slayer, legendary among the other men.
The mage, Fatina, is a powerful one, explosions of fire at her command. The other men stare, gobsmacked. "She's hot," one man says. The wordplay is none too clever. "Smokin'," another man says. The men laugh and elbow each other in the ribs, Yah, we know why he chose her! and the like. Neeba, for his part, ignores them.
Neeba knows she's developed a crush on him. Rather unfounded, Neeba thinks, because if she really knew him, she would want to stay away. Instead, Fatina has constructed an elaborate fantasy around what little she does know. "He's dark and mysterious and he has these eyes..." she talks in not-so furtive whispers with the other female climbers, who sigh and say she's so lucky, what's he like? Does he seem interested, too?
Pathetic, Neeba thinks. This need to be loved. None of that matters, really. He knows that love is nothing more than an illusion, a way to validate one's own meaningless existence. It's a weakness in others that Neeba no longer shares.
Fatina blushes and stammers, and clutches Neeba's arm.
"I'm glad you're here," Fatina says, and she looks up at him with trusting eyes.
He hires Jil as guardian, more for convenience than anything else.
It has always been this way. Jil, his father's darling, bastard son of another mother, trotting after him like an irritating shadow.
"I will be your shield!" Jil says. He thumps his chest plate, a piece of second-hand armor. "Leave it to me, Neeba! I won't let you down!"
But he does let them down, again and again. Jil, his stupid little brother, fainting in the middle of battle. "You're going to get us killed," Kally says, and Neeba silently agrees. Wordlessly he takes Jil by the arm and pulls him aside.
"Keep up with the heroics, and I'll be the one to shoot you down," Neeba says.
"But! But Neeba--"
"Shut up," Neeba says. Jil's eyes fill with tears.
They move as if in slow motion, the crumbling walls and the slow swing of a sword.
Boulders crash, but there is no sound. Everything is silent. Flames rise and curl through the half-opened darkness, and Neeba thinks to himself, this is how it felt like, when father died.
Jil is screaming. Neeba closes his eyes.
The curious thing about dying, Neeba thinks, is how his memories seem to come at him at once; he had always thought they would be orderly, a series of moments strung neatly up on a line. But they're not; they're a flashflood, confusing and hurtful and overwhelming with feeling.
We fought to the death, Jil, Neeba thinks. My death. The pressure builds and it's crushing his chest, and Neeba struggles to breathe.
He is seven and Jil is five. They play together in the courtyard outside.
Little brother from another mother. The only one who cries for him in the end.
The gods, Neeba thinks. The gods are toying with him again.
The blood in his lungs feels like drowning. A thin film of white covers his eyes.
Nothing now will hurt him. He understands this now.
"Think of your father," the Succubus said. "Think of the friends whom you have lost."
She soothed him, her voice seeping into his skin like a healing balm.
"They are the shadow ones, my love. But I am here," she smiled against him, whispered into his ear.
"And I will never cause you pain."