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Chapter 15 - Kyrill

There’s nothing quite like a good night’s rest. Back home, in his own bed, Kyrill had desperately hoped he might once again know the feeling. It was beginning to feel like he never had.

His fitful sleep was plagued with ill-remembered dreams that left naught but the impression of having dreamt, not a grain of substance or context. It left him waking confused and still exhausted from the previous days’ physical strain. The uncomfortable feeling that resided in his knees persisted, permeating deep into the bone. He imagined it was similar to how the elderly feel when the weather begins to change.

Sluggish as he may be, he and Moswen made their way to the fighting pits. Kyrill had dismissed the idea of participating in this season’s fights ever since he was tasked with finding his bond by Chione, but against all odds, he made it back in time. And now he was heading to the pits for some warming up, his bond in tow.

Kyrill still hadn’t spoken a word about it to Moswen, though he’d started to notice and question the young hunter’s behavior. As the black sheep of his barren, Kyrill had grown accustomed to doing things alone. Moswen, however, hadn’t so much as left his side in days. He was friendly, supportive, chummy. Was that because of their bond? Would they still have such a strong connection if they hadn’t bonded? Or was it the other way around? Did they bond because of their connection?

These were the questions that had kept Kyrill awake long into the night. These were the questions he would avoid trying to answer for at least another day.

Luckily, fighting in the pits meant Kyrill wasn’t wearing his necklace, one less thing to worry about. It dawned on him, though, that if he were to win the tournament, he would receive another iron bead. Standing on stage in front of the crowd, it would be impossible to hide his new jade bead when receiving it. Yet another spotlight he’d hope to avoid. It’s not like his victory was a certainty, but Kyrill wondered if he could purposely lose if need be. If it meant not putting Omar in his much-earned place, could Kyrill bring himself to throw a fight, willingly lose against his rival? Would his pride allow it? He pushed the thoughts aside for the time being, a decision for the future.

“C’mon, c’mon! We only have so much time until the real preparations begin!”

Neera skipped down the street ahead of them, practically pulling them along. She had brought the much needed distraction to their attention earlier in the morning. While they had only been in Shaded Seed for half a day, it didn’t surprise Kyrill that they had learned of the season’s big tournament. Every refugee had likely heard it from everyone they talked to. Hell, it was probably the first thing anyone said to them. It only happens once every four months and they all just happened to arrive the day before? They were in for a treat, the lucky bastards. After everything they've been through, they deserved it.

Isha stood just outside the entrance gate, sipping tea. While she was likely just as excited to watch the tourney, at least according to Neera, she was more interested in participating herself. She was disappointed to learn she couldn’t, as the games were limited to citizens only, but she had found the next best thing: sparring with the man who wore several championships around his neck.

“Rise and shine, boys!” she called to them. She raised her cup as they made their way towards her. “Kyrill, you look like shit. You’re not hungover, too, are you?” she asked with a laugh, taking another sip of her tea.

“Didn’t get much sleep.”

“Neither did I,” she said with a sly tone that insinuated much, much more. “Gotta hand it to the people of your barren. They make a delicious spiced cider. Dangerous. I’d wager a guess someone with a lesser constitution than myself would be using that as an excuse.” She flung her head back and downed the last of her tea. “What do you say you give us a quick tour before we dance, big man?”

“Yes!” Neera cheered. “Tour! Tour!”

Through the gate and into the pit they went. Calling it a pit was a bit of a deceptive name. A pit is a hole in the ground. What lay before them was a beautifully designed gladiatorial arena and arguably the nicest construction in the whole barren. The outer walls, not reaching much higher than any other building in the barren, were constructed of solid, engraved stonework. Beyond the gate, rows and rows of amphitheater-style seating circled around the stadium and descended down, tier after tier, towards the field below.

It was a hole in the ground, but a really, really nice hole.

“Some people prefer to call this place by its old name: The Quarry,” Kyrill explained. “It was one of the many reasons our nomadic ancestors decided to put down roots here.”

They continued down towards the field in the center of the arena. Save for the wide gap of the twin hallway entrance at ground level, the rest of the field was ringed by a wall of rough, natural stone, like a small mountain range that perfectly encircled the field.

The majority of the arena floor was comprised of hard compacted sand, dark like the beach. Jutting up from various points through the sand were pillars of jagged rock. Large pieces of immovable driftwood lay strewn about as well. Through the middle of it all, a small creek meandered its way from one side of the field to another, disappearing under the unworked stone. Natural obstacles. It was beautiful, equal parts arena floor and nature preservation.

“The story goes, they were excavating stone little by little and eventually hit water,” Kyrill said as he pointed towards the gentle stream. “So they continued to expand outward, accidentally creating the beginnings of the pit floor. Now remember, my people put down roots only because it was finally safe to do so. But for a people whose very way of life is built upon fighting and hunting, safety can get... kinda boring. They had an itch. They held simple fighting tournaments out on the beach for a time, but it didn’t take long before showmanship took the reins.”

“Wouldn’t have thought a bunch of bedouins would have such a knack for architecture,” Isha commented without a hint of sarcasm, taking in the impressive view.

“This way,” Kyrill said, motioning for the rest to follow. “Readyrooms are just down here.”

Just above the ground level hallways was another hallway that led into and under the ring of seats, ending at two short staircases that led down to the left and right.

“Tournaments only happen once a season, but we play rukbi every tenday.” He walked down the steps to the right as he motioned to the other staircase behind him. “Sides for each team.”

The chambers were simple, but impressive. The long, slender hallway gently curved to match the seating above. Along the innermost wall were partitioned areas to store personal items. The opposite wall was much more impressive. In between the narrow slit windows—the only source of light in the room—hung an assortment of gear: padded armor, simple shields, a large selection of wooden practice weapons, target dummies, bullseyes and barricades.

Neera plucked a short training sword and shield off the wall. She held the shield up to narrowed her eyes, peering out from over the edge. “Why are they all made of wood?”

“Even with the proper protection, nobody wants to get hit by a real sword. Believe me, even a blunt wooden blade can inflict some serious damage.”

She swung the sword through the air a few times, shrugged, and continued perusing the various pieces of equipment on display.

“It’s a pity,” Isha lamented, holding out her spear to admire it. “I’m growing quite fond of this spear.” She paused, turned to Moswen. “Sorry. Heartpiercer.”

He smiled at that.

“Here,” Kyrill said, tossing a long staff to Isha. “It’s no Heartpiercer, but it’ll have to do.”

Kyrill pulled one of the simple wooden shields and a blunt wooden axe off the wall for himself, as well as a set of the basic padded armor.

“Alright if I just keep what I got?” Isha asked, motioning mostly to the plating donning her spaulders. Her leathers helped to an extent, but none of it could really be considered armor.

“Yeah, that should be alright. Are you sure you don’t want anything else, though?” Kyrill bashed his shield and training axe together. “These can still pack quite the punch. And I won’t be holding back.”

“I like to stay quick on my feet,” Isha responded, her voice more playful, teasing. “Won’t need all that padding if you can’t catch me.”

Hungover and cocky? Kyrill thought. Dangerous combination.

He smiled, slightly tilting his head and shrugging in acknowledgement.

Neera, now wearing a helmet much too big for head, held her training sword up into the air like a call to arms. “Let the battle commence!”

“Okay, ready!” Neera yelled from beyond the end of the twin hallways. The girl had pleaded for the would-be opponents to enter the arena grounds from opposing hallways, saying it would be more dramatic that way. It brought a smile to the young girl’s face so how could they not oblige? And after the emotional turmoil she’d been through? The fact it was even possible with something so simple was astonishing. Neera was a resilient girl. Kyrill envied her for it.

She and Moswen were seated on opposite sides of the hallway, rival fans of the emerging fighters. As Kyrill and Isha made their grand entrances, the eager fans had to quickly switch seats as their chosen champions had apparently exited from the wrong sides.

“I said right side!” Neera yelled at Kyrill.

“This is the right side!” he laughed back. “Do you want us to do it again?”

“No, no, just go fight or whatever,” she replied with a huff and a dull wave of her hand.

Kyrill turned his back to the already angry crowd and locked eyes with Isha, raising his eyebrows, giving her a resigned, conciliatory look. He motioned to the open arena floor. “After you.” Ever the gentleman.

Isha made her way into the field, taking in her surroundings. Kyrill knew he had the advantage of familiarity, so he gave his opponent time to get acquainted.

“Rules for sparring are simple,” Kyrill announced with a booming voice, the words echoing in the empty arena. The acoustics were superb. “Knock your opponent to the ground or connect with a ‘lethal’ body shot, point is yours. No head shots. This is a friendly match. We don’t need any permanent damage. And finally, this arena is the pride and joy of the barren. Respect it.”

Having said his peace, Kyrill bent low, his feet planted wide. He bashed his wooden axe and shield together, goading Isha to approach. She obliged, rushing towards her challenger with wild abandon. Even against trained opponents, recklessness can end an encounter in an instant. Technique is limited and oftentimes overpowered by boldness. But Kyrill was much more capable than some moderately-trained mook. Shaded Seed was a barren full of master hunters and warriors trained from the day they could lift a sword and draw a bow. And Kyrill was amongst the best.

With the proficiency and ease of a battle-hardened warrior, he simultaneously deflected Isha’s strike and hooked his axe around the shaft of her staff, using his attacker’s own momentum to whip her to his side. From the smile on her face, he suspected she hadn’t anticipated landing a blow. She was merely testing him, as he was her.

Isha continued by playing it safe and keeping her distance, the one major advantage her choice of weapon and lack of armor afforded her. Small jabs and thrusts here and there tested her opponent further, not letting Kyrill get close.

“Spoke with Roegan this morning,” Isha mentioned with a casualness that caught Kyrill off guard. One doesn’t usually expect relaxed conversation while going toe to toe with an opponent. Teasing and provocation maybe, but not nonchalance. “Seems like my time in your wonderful barren is ending a bit sooner than expected.”

“Oh?” He tried to sound just as casual, but knew his quickened breath and the adrenaline pumping through him wouldn’t allow it. Isha smiled at the attempt. Kyrill may be a seasoned fighter, but he was shit at keeping up a casual facade.

“I’m taking the girl to Rah’qet. The ledger could be important, but Roegan worries it could also be time sensitive.” She paused, deep in thought. For a moment, Kyrill debated taking the opportunity to strike, but decided against it. “Whatever happened to Everspring, it was no accident. That ledger might have... something. We need to get it into the hands of people who can do something with it. And apparently that burden has fallen upon your’s truly. It’s time to be a leader, Isha.” Her impression of the man wasn’t half bad.

“He certainly can’t do it himself in the shape he’s in.”

“No kidding,” she laughed. “He looks like ten tons of shit drenched in his own sweat.”

They continued to move in circles, testing and teasing one another, neither giving the other even an inch of space to steal the upper hand.

“I spoke to one of our leaders yesterday. The wound in his neck is badly infected. He should be fine, but his recovery could take a long while.”

“Didn’t say as much, but he didn’t need to. He doesn’t want to waste any time waiting around. We leave tomorrow.” She took a small step backwards, eased her stance and motioned towards where Neera and Moswen were seated. “So what do you say we stop pussyfooting around and give the girl a good sendoff show?”

For just a moment, a fraction of a moment, Kyrill looked towards Neera and Moswen seated above them. Isha’s gambit worked. She took the opening and pressed him, lunging forward, thrusting her staff towards Kyrill’s midsection. He reacted on pure instinctual impulse, less graceful than before, barely blocking the blow once more. He swung his axe to hook it around the staff again when he realized Isha, in her attempt to sneak her attack in, had overextended herself. He dropped his axe, grabbed the staff and pulled her towards him, readying himself to shield bash her to the ground.

She spun, deftly dodging the shield and leveraging the staff out of Kyrill’s hand. She brought it back around in a powerful arc that, once again, Kyrill was just barely able to deflect in time. They both backed up, reorienting themselves after the whirlwind of a melee. Kyrill tried not to show it, but he was panicking. His axe was now sitting on the ground between the two of them.

He made an attempt to grab his weapon before Isha noticed, but she swung a wide, sweeping arc across the field that forced him to take a step back. With such an unfortunate disadvantage, Kyrill found himself at the mercy of someone with a delighted sense of humor. He tried to make his way back to the axe, repositioning, trying to force Isha to reposition herself, but it was of no use. She was toying with him. Every step to approach was met with a poking jab in his direction. She pulled back like she was going to let him finally take it and even the playing field again, but then switched back to the offensive and sent another long, sweeping arc across the ground.

Recklessness over technique it is then.

Kyrill rushed in at a full sprint, keeping his shield up and his body low. Isha sent in another low sweep, but Kyrill didn’t stop. He leapt up, launching himself into the air, up and over Isha’s attack. Isha brought an arm up to brace herself. She was about to be pummeled into the ground, but at least she could avoid breaking her nose yet again. Kyrill brought his shield down like the fist of a giant, sending Isha sliding across the ground.

Cheers and applause erupted from the stands. He hadn’t noticed a crowd had gathered near the entrance. Not a full audience just yet, but some early birds looking to grab the best seats and a few men and women slated to fight in the proper tournament. Moswen and Neera cheered from their spot near the hallways. Neither of them sat in opposing sides anymore, but Moswen did look just a little bit more proud, cheering just a little bit harder.

Kyrill extended a hand to help Isha to her feet.

“Been a while since I’ve had my ass so thoroughly handed to me,” Isha admitted as Kyrill helped pull her to her feet. “Good show.”

“Honestly, you didn’t make it easy. It’s a shame you can’t actually compete. You’re easily better than most of the others.”

“Would be nice. Might let me prove myself a bit better.”

“Maybe once you’re done with your quest to Rah’qet and you come back for Roegan, we’ll spar another time?”

“I’ll be sure not to underestimate you next time.”

“Don’t beat yourself up, I underestimate even myself.”

Isha brushed herself off and the two walked back to the hallways, returning to their adoring fans.

“You guys looked so cool out there!” Neera exclaimed.

“Seriously. Are all the fights that impressive?” Moswen asked.

“Not everyone is quite as capable as Isha and myself, but you are in a barren of champion fighters. With an arena to match.”

Kyrill had found solace in combat. Pride swelled within him. Outside of the arena walls, he was plagued with worry, doubt, shame, fear. But inside the walls, he was a champion. Here, his focus was needle-sharp, no time to concern himself with the outside.

“Well, you both looked incredible. Isha, I’ll admit I had my bets on Kyrill,” Moswen confessed. “But how can I not be biased towards the guy that fought a bear? You’ve now fought a guy that fought a bear!”

“Yeah, and lost,” Isha said begrudgingly.

“Well in that case,” Neera said, taking a step to the side and raising her training sword again, this time pointing it directly at Moswen. “Moz, I challenge you! A duel to the death!”

Moswen stared at her, concerned.

“Okay, not to the death,” she conceded before raising her voice in triumph once again. “But a duel nonetheless!”

Moswen looked to Kyrill and Isha, still concerned.

“C’mon, teach me how to fight, too! Please, please, please!”


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the empire
The Howl
The Mazewilds
The Shelf
Shaded Seed
Wayfarer's Ridge
A Gentle Scar
Tiller's Hamlet