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Chapter 16 - Kyrill

Kyrill turned the corner to enter the readyroom once more and found Neera already patiently awaiting their arrival. She was a bundle of kinetic energy waiting to be let loose. Kyrill snagged the oversized helmet from her head as he walked past and returned it to the rack.

“You’re a little too... little for any of this armor,” he told the girl. The available training equipment was quite limited. Everyone in the barren, even the kids, were huge compared to Neera. Not a thing would remotely fit her. “Besides, you’re small and quick. Like Isha. You should be using that to your advantage. You want something that allows you to move.”

“And quickly,” Isha added. “I’d suggest some leathers like mine, or maybe even some light padding if they had it. But that’s all you would really want. Anything else would just slow you down. It’s not like you’d want to go head to head with a brute wielding a greatsword, anyways.”

“So what do I use then?”

“For now? Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

“But Moz looks so cool! And I am a shallow person,” she said matter-of-factly, trying to convince Isha. “And easily prone to jealousy. I need to look cool, too. It’s only fair.”

Kyrill began assisting Moswen, in the process of strapping on all sorts of heavy padded armor, covering his entire body with thick reddish-brown leather. The pads were so bulky compared to his slender frame that he resembled a skeleton wrapping slabs of muscle and meat around his bones. Not quite what he would consider cool.

“He looks like a training dummy,” Isha laughed. “Ready to be battered and beaten.”

“That’s because I am!” he harped back.

“He’s not really going to be attacking you,” Kyrill said. “Quite the opposite. So you don’t need to worry about protection. He might. I know you don’t feel as cool without something, so how about...” he trailed off, scanning the racks for something the girl could wear to make her feel cool, heroic, anything. Helmets were out of the picture. Oversized gloves would make it impossible for her to hold anything. Everything else was just too big and ill-fitting.

“Ooh, here we go.” Isha picked up a roll of white cotton fabric meant to be used for bandaging minor wounds. “Give me your hands.”

She wrapped band after band around Neera’s hands and wrists, criss-crossing through her fingers, building up a thick layer of fabric that functioned like light, fingerless gloves.

“They sometimes do this for hand-to-hand combat training, but it should also help pad the impact of your weapon. How do they feel?”

Neera wiggled her hands around, stretched her fingers, rotated her wrist.

“Snug, but not too constricting.”

“Perfect. Now, speaking of your weapon...”

“Can I use a big fuckoff sword?” the little girl asked, catching everyone off guard.

“I am so proud of you right now.” Isha mimicked wiping a tear from her eye. “That warmed my cold, little heart, Neera. But, sadly, no. No big ‘fuckoff’ sword for you.”

“You’re not gonna be capable of properly wielding a greatsword, wood or otherwise,” Kyrill added. “You want something a bit more manageable.”

“Swords are cool and all, but you’re still unarmored. You either want to be sneaky and slip in unnoticed with some daggers or keep your distance with something with some reach. Daggers aren’t exactly a beginner’s weapon—no offense—so distance it is.”

Isha walked beside the racks of weapons and gear, twiddling her fingers across the various pieces of gear. Her hands stopped on a slender staff.

“I’m really not trying to make you my little protégé or anything, like a mini version of myself, but if we’re going for an unarmored, maneuverable fighting style with a reach weapon, a staff is a good start for you.”

She tossed it to Neera. It’s dark, polished wood reflected the light shining in from the narrow windows as the girl spun it around. Save for only a handful of knicks and dents, it hadn’t seen much use. Usually, those who fought with staves preferred a weapon that was a fair bit longer than they were tall. Only a few opted for the halfstaff. This particular halfstaff, at least in Neera’s hands, was still slightly taller than her. It was perfect.

“Not only will it make up for your lack of defenses, but it’s a much more capable weapon than most realize. Goes unnoticed really well, too. A man walks into a tavern with a greatsword shining on his back, he’ll turn every head in the place. Walk in with a halfstaff or walking stick, though? Nobody will be the wiser.”

Kyrill, finished helping Moswen with his padding, leaned over near the young hunter’s things that were piled up in one of the nearby personal cubicles. He rifled through the pile while Moswen bounced from side to side, enamored with his newfound puffiness. He grabbed a bundle of green and walked to Neera.

“Your hand wraps are cool, but I feel like you’re missing something.” He unfurled the green bundle, Moswen’s currently unused cloak, and wrapped it around her. “Every hero needs a cape, right?” Another simple gesture that brought a wide smile to the girl’s face.


Two distinct crowds had begun to gather, watching Neera as she and Moswen sparred—or, more accurately, as the girl practiced various maneuvers and attacks while Moswen gleefully took the brunt of attacks, hopping around the arena floor in his puffy suit of padded armor. The first crowd, situated amongst the seats near the hallways leading to the readyrooms, consisted of early audience members for the tournament. They were eager to watch a fight even if it were terribly one-sided and featured combatants who were much less qualified than the tournament fighters. The other crowd had congregated just below them on the arena floor, a half-circle of actual tournament participants waiting to warm up and prepare. None seemed pressed for Neera’s instructions to wrap up. In fact, they all seemed to be encouraging her and cheering her on.

“Starting to feel comfortable with the staff, Neera?” Kyrill asked, raising his voice to be heard over the hum of the crowd.

“Hell yeah, this is fun!”

Before she was allowed to wail on Moswen, Isha taught her how to defend herself first. Armed with two wooden training daggers, Isha gave Neera instructions on foot placement and some basic defensive maneuvers, blocks and twirls and the like. She was no arena savant, that’s for sure, making the same mistakes over and over, but she was getting better, never discouraged, and smiling and laughing the whole time. She was rewarded with a living training dummy, Moswen, literally bounding about the arena floor, ready and willing for a ceaseless assault.

“Good! I want you to try something a little different now. Instead of holding it near the middle, I want you to hold it at the end, like you would hold a sword.” She did so, though it was clear she felt apprehensive about it. It initially felt counterintuitive to him as well when he first began training with a staff many years ago. “Now switch your hands so your right hand is holding the end. Just imagine you’re holding a sword like you would if you were left-handed instead of right-handed.”

“This feels weird.”

“Think of it like your left hand is the pivot and your right hand controls the movement. So when you swing—left-handed—it’s more pivot and momentum than power swing.”

As with her first attempts at new maneuvers, she did so slowly, deliberately, focusing more on the movement and less on the strength behind it. She naturally stepped into the strike and brought the staff around in a quick sideways arc, throwing herself off-balance. The crowd chuckled as she almost sent herself to the ground.

“Step with your right foot,” Isha said, slightly shuckling herself. “Feels weird, but trust me.”

“Moz?” Kyrill said. “If you give her a target?”

He stepped forward, planted his staff on the ground, then turned and shook his rear in her direction.

“If she can catch me, that is!”

She swung, stepped forward, the staff pivoting as it arced at her target. She hadn’t swung very hard, but she connected, hitting Moswen square in his ass and sending him falling to the ground. The crowd erupted in laughter and cheers.

“That a girl!” Isha hollered.

“See? You don’t need muscle when you have technique,” Kyrill said with a grin.

He was reminded of his dad teaching him how to fish as a child. It wasn’t the same as learning how to fight, but the passing down of knowledge from one generation to the next was a gift, like a rite of passage. He felt proud, like his father must have felt, back when it wasn’t just disappointment and ire.

A singular voice pierced through the noise of the crowd. “You better watch out for her, Kyrill,” Omar boasted. “She could shape up to be quite a formidable opponent for you.” He and his cronies slipped their way through the crowd like muck seeping through cracks in stone, as did their self-congratulatory laughter.

“What a jerk,” Neera whispered to Moswen. “What’s his deal?”

“This is the guy that keeps getting his ass kicked by Kyrill.”

“His insults make no sense.”

“He’s an idiot.”

“It’s also insulting to me. I’m just learning!”

Omar stopped at the edge of the crowd, brimming with a foreboding, devious smile. This couldn’t possibly be good.

“You know, Kyrill, when you left to go searching for Mido, a lot of us, sadly, already knew what you were going to find. His parents were holding out hope, but they also knew the very real possibility that their son was already gone.”

“Whatever you’re doing, Omar,” Kyrill said flatly. “Try to do it without insulting the dead.”

“It’s actually kind of sweet. His parents had a thought: if their son were dead, maybe his dog wasn’t. What if the man who left to find him, save him, the man who’s struggled with finding a bond of his own, what if he returned with the dog, bonded, continuing their son’s legacy?”

He knew Omar’s intentions couldn’t possibly be good, but Kyrill found comfort in his words. He had worried and stressed over the possibility of bonding with the dog. Knowing Mido’s parents had wished for the same was a breath of fresh air.

“But you didn’t bring him back,” Omar continued. “Unbonded, as usual.” Judging by the curl of Omar’s smile and the arch of his brow, the unintentional congeniality was about to end. “I think Mido’s parents were doubly disappointed, not that disappointing parents is anything unusual for you.”

There it was. Kyrill had been waiting for it, anticipating the knife concealed behind Omar’s words. Of course, preparing to be stabbed doesn’t stop it from hurting.

“But fear not!” Omar exclaimed. “The boys and I know how difficult a time you’ve been having trying to find your bond, so we decided to help.” His words dripped with sarcasm and spite.

Behind him, the crowd began to split down the middle. The rising hostility had quieted the crowd, waiting for one of the men to burst, but murmurs and whispers began to spread as a path grew down the middle and the sound of a clunky, dull bell began drawing near. Omar stepped aside as the final row of people made way, revealing one of Omar’s friends pulling along a sheep with a makeshift leash. He handed the end of the rope to Omar, who then yanked at the leash, dragging the sheep forward as he walked towards Kyrill.

“We couldn’t find any real black sheep, so we had to improvise.” They dyed it. The poor creature was covered in blotchy patches of black ink. “A black sheep for the black sheep!” Omar cheered, explaining his own joke. Still, the crowd giggled at the scene, pointing and laughing like schoolchildren.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Kyrill said, incredulous. In a single motion, he snagged the leash from Omar’s hand and shoved him, hard, sending him stumbling back. Disrespectful. Omar moved to retaliate, only to be yanked back by his collar.

At some point, Isha had circled around into the crowd, like she had been anticipating the need to intervene. She kicked Omar’s legs out from under him and dragged him to his knees, her dagger at his throat. Granted, it was the wooden training dagger she’d been using, but she wasn’t actually going to kill the guy. The message was the point.

Kyrill dropped the leash and got down on one knee to comfort the poor animal, petting its head and holding its face. The sheep, finally free from being yanked around, wanted nothing more than to flee. It bit Kyrill’s hand and ran towards the other side of the pit, away from the crowd.

“It doesn’t even want you!” Omar yelled, still on his knees with a wooden blade to his throat. “You’re hopeless!”

Isha held the knife closer to his neck. “Might I remind you of your current situation?”

“What are you gonna do? Slit my throat with a training dagger? Choke me out? You’re surrounded by the best hunters and warriors in the entire empire. You’d be dead faster than a gulls shits when spooked.”

Isha looked around the crowd, a number of them now with weapons in hand, real weapons, their knuckles white around their tightening grips. Isha threw Omar to the ground, casually tossing the wooden dagger beside him.

“That’s what I thought,” Omar said triumphantly, as if he had just won something.

“Enough!” a voice boomed from the crowd above. Umar, the Huntmaster, stood on the edge of the auditorium ring, just above the dual hallway entrance, standing at least a full head taller than anyone else. He leapt over the guard wall, hit the ground with a thud, and casually strode through the crowd like he was walking through a field of tall grass. “Strong words from someone lying in the dirt. You disappoint me, my son.” He turned, motioning towards Isha. “And you. You come to us for aid, yet you disrespect my house? Gather your belongings. You are no longer welcome here.”

“I was on my way out anyways,” Isha sarcastically chided like a petulant child.

Umar grabbed her by the shoulder, pulling her close, his wide hands engulfing her. The slightest change of angle and he could have his hand around her throat. “It would be wise not to test the limits of my patience, girl.”

The man was old, his white hair pulled back into a tight bun, his beard shocked with sparse streaks of black, but age didn’t seem to slow him down in the slightest. His bare arms were tight and thick with muscle, his face tan like old leather, his fingers coarse and calloused. As he bent down, looking Isha in the eyes, his necklace swung from his chest, practically overflowing with iron and bone.

He casually shoved Isha to the side as he took a step towards Kyrill.

“And Kyrill,” he said, shaking his head and looking away. He sounded like a disappointed father, something he’d witnessed from his own father more times than he could count, as Omar so delicately mentioned a moment earlier. “What do we do with you?”

He stepped aside and turned his gaze towards Chione, whom Kyrill only then realized had likely witnessed the entire scene. As did what seemed to be half of the barren, including Camilla and her husband, both of whom had a look of concern and disappointment.

“Kyrill,” Chione said flatly. “You brought strangers to our home, thus it is your responsibility to look after them.” He nodded knowingly, looking at the ground in front of him. “And with how often it seems to happen, you should know better than to start fights. And right before a tournament? You couldn’t wait?” She took a step forward. “Kyrill, you will no longer be participating.”

Kyrill was surprised with his punishment. In fact, he was relieved. It could have been a significant blow had he not been debating about fighting in the first place. Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise. Everything said, not the worst punishment he’d ever received.

Chione took another step forward, a look of pain in her eyes, unwillingness in her face. Regret.

“Kyrill, I hereby banish you from Shaded Under the Canopy of a Sprouting Seed.”

The crowd fell silent, save for the muted gasps and whispers that rippled through the crowd like a shockwave. It was an overreaction, a punishment wholly undeserved. Even Omar was taken aback by the harshness of it all, still sitting in the dirt, stunned and silent. It seemed so unfair. The entire crowd was simply shocked by the cold cruelty of the punishment.

“How can you—” yelled Camilla, her words trailed off as she pushed herself towards the edge of the audience crowd. “That’s not fair! Shouldn’t there at least be a discussion or something?”

She was angry, but behind that anger was desperation.

“Camilla,” Kyrill said. “Don’t.” Standing next to her, Dogan laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. Kyrill looked into her glistening eyes and gave the slightest nod. That nod, he knew she would understand, meant more than words could ever say.

Fighting in the tournament, bonding with Moswen, these weren’t the only things that had been running through Kyrill’s mind since his return. There was also a longing. He missed his time outside of the barren. Out there, he’d been able to do some real good. Helping people felt right, felt like what he was supposed to be doing. His feeling of not belonging only increased since his return. Now that he was bonded, he felt like even more of an outsider. He dreaded the thought of explaining it to everyone, but out there he wouldn’t have to explain anything to anyone. And Moswen, his bond, was leaving. Now, Kyrill could go with him.

Chione had been right about the nature of love and bonding, of hindsight. With the same clarity as before, he now realised he had already made up his mind.

Kyrill stood up straight, lifted his head, not looking at anyone in particular. “There will be no discussion,” he said. “I’m leaving.”

(1/9)


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the empire
Everspring
Rah'qet
The Howl
Rotwater
The Mazewilds
The Shelf
Shaded Seed
Corinth
Hillsedge
Moormount
Browbury
Wayfarer's Ridge
A Gentle Scar
Fesmere
Gauston
Amara
Tiller's Hamlet