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Chapter 21 - Kyrill

He had been sleeping so well.

For the first time in as long as he can remember, he’d been regularly getting full nights of rest. And not waking up still feeling tired. It had only been a matter of days, but he was already getting accustomed to the idea of feeling well-rested for once.

So it felt even worse that he was forced to stay awake when all he wanted was to just lie down and close his eyes. Isha stayed awake with him all night long, not letting him drift off to sleep, not letting him even stay still. Not until she was sure he was safe.

He knew it was for his own good, but that still didn’t make it at all pleasant. Isha had told him he had to remain active, and constantly so, else he might drift off into a catatonic state from which he would never recover. Rest would have been nice, but a coma is a little too much.

Kyrill would have felt bad about keeping everyone awake with his constant shuffling about, but nobody else seemed able to sleep either. Moswen was right there with Isha, looking after the big man. Now that Kyrill had his faculties back under control, he was glad his random admission of their bond hadn’t scared him away. Silver linings. Neera likely would have joined them in watching after him, too, had she not been lost in her own thoughts all night long. She shifted and rolled and readjusted on her bedroll late into the night, but at least she was able to lie down.

Kyrill awoke the next day with what felt like the worst hangover of his life. Every sense was magnified. His body was drenched in sweat, alternating from uncomfortably hot to freezing cold, shaking and shivering involuntarily. His head pounded with a constant headache that muddled his thoughts. Every movement was a test of his constitution, threatening to empty his stomach all over again. He had done so twice during the previous day’s encounter while under the influence of the shadethorn, laughing while it happened. Now, however, the mere memory made him wince. How drastically the shadethorn had made everything seem different, his perceptions warped to comical levels. The effects of narcotics.

Kyrill knew about the drug problems in the main cities and larger barrens and understood the “come down” a lot of the drugs had. You felt great the night you took it, but the morning after was hell. It’s how addictions get started. While under the effects of the shadethorn, Kyrilll had felt pretty damn great. He imagined it was similar to the effects of some of those drugs, just not as strong. He, too, felt a similar come down. Even his likely milder effect felt fucking horrible. He’d never been an exceptionally happy person, but he didn’t know what real depression felt like. This was likely as close as he would hopefully ever get. And people on actual drugs felt like this, but even worse? How was anything worth feeling like this?

To make things even worse, his entire body ached, sore from the pummeling he had taken during the fight. None of it seemed that bad at the time, the memory a hazy blur, like a dream. Like he hadn’t really been there himself. Like what he was feeling were sympathy pains for some other Kyrill he had witnessed fall off a cliff.

Bruises all over his body had already started to turn his dark skin purple, swelling and blooming outward from the numerous places he had been bludgeoned and beaten. His knuckles were raw and beginning to scab. His knees and thighs were stiff and cramped. His forehead had swollen up so bad his brow looked like a single, thick ridge. He was surprised he hadn’t broken his nose. For some reason he couldn’t explain, that seemed to make Isha angry.

The pain, the sickness, the comedown, it all added up to a terrible night’s sleep. Worse than when he’d returned to Shaded Seed by orders of magnitude.

“Why does every group of bandits and thieves feel it necessary to introduce themselves with a monologue or speech?” Moswen said as he approached Kyrill, keeping things jovial, desperately trying to mask the thoughts clearly going through both of their minds. “They’d do a lot better for themselves if they didn’t talk so damn much.”

Kyrill let out a weak laugh before it was interrupted by a coughing fit. He held his hands to his side, groaning at the movement.

“How you feeling, big guy?” Moswen asked.

“Like ass. Like complete and utter ass.”

“Yeah, yesterday was... something.” Moswen wasn’t exactly the most proficient in social graces, but it was clear where he was trying to lead the conversation. Kyrill knew because he’d spent every day since speaking with Chione thinking about how to do the same. “About that...”

“Moz. I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I’m sorry you had to learn the way you did. It’s just...” He struggled to find the right words, the perfect description for the confusion he was experiencing.

“Weird. It’s weird, right?”

“Yeah,” he said. He realized he didn’t need to find the perfect words because Moswen already knew exactly what he was experiencing. They were in this together. “It’s weird.”

“I have a lot of questions, but I’m guessing you do, too.”

“And neither of us will have any good answers.”

Moswen sat down at Kyrill’s side, neither one of them saying anything. Kyrill had mentored to become a masterful fighter, Moswen trained to hunt and survive in the wild, but there was no one alive—at least to their knowledge—that could help guide them now, assist them in navigating this new aspect of their lives.

They spent the next several moments sitting in silence.

“Do you think Chione really knew?” Moswen asked, breaking the silence.

“I’ve been asking myself the same question for days now.”

“There’s no way, right?”

“That’s what I would normally believe, but circumstances being what they are...”

“What she told you was pretty damn vague, but still, the odds of us... That’s some spooky shit, okay?” He paused once again, collecting his thoughts. “How does bonding normally work? Is one the master and the other the pet? I don’t think I—”

“No, no, no. Nothing like that. It’s a partnership. A mutually beneficial arrangement, as they say. I guess under normal circumstances it depends on what you’ve bonded with. A hunting hound, for example, helps track down prey and fetch fresh kills, but the hunter also enables the dog to catch game they wouldn’t otherwise be able to on their own.”

“Like Mido and his dog.”

“That said, it doesn’t always seem like a fair trade. Umar bonded with a horse he rides around on. That feels a little one-sided to me, but I guess the horse is taken care of and treated really well? Better than if it were on its own, I suppose. On the other hand, I know of a few people that bonded with cats who now reign supreme, masters of their human slaves.”

They both shared a laugh, Kyrill again wincing at the pain and grabbing his side.

“Those bandits really did a number on you, huh?” Moswen asked. His genuine concern was warming.

“I’ve lost plenty of fights, inside the arena and out, but I’ve never been as bad off as I am right now. And that’s not even counting being poisoned. I was reckless, stupid. I just ran into the thrall. I didn’t even have my shield! Or a weapon! What was I thinking?”

“Shadethorn,” Moswen said ominously.

“Shadethorn,” Kyrill echoed.

“Well, we’re not going anywhere today. Isha figures a day to recover is more than necessary, but she does want to head out tomorrow if you’re up for it. So rest up. And if you think you can hold it down, there’s a bowl of oats with your name on it. You hungry?”


The group followed the coast to the east. Soon, they would need to detour south to avoid the Mazewilds, but not too far south into the desert towards the Shelf. There would be plenty of sand waiting for them in Rah’qet. Best to avoid it while they could.

Kyrill limped along at the back of the pack, perfectly capable of keeping pace, but unwilling to let any of his traveling companions see just how hurt he really was. At the front with Moswen, he would constantly need to keep up pretenses, fake it all day long. In the back, he was able to let himself limp, baby his side, wince without embarrassment. He was much, much better than he felt the day before, but he clearly still wasn’t 100%. Not even close.

The shadethorn was completely out of his system and his comedown sickness was gone. All he felt now was sore and bruised. Earlier in the morning, when he was sure nobody else was around, he pulled his chestguard off and rolled up his jerkin. The bruise on his side had bloomed to enormous proportions. It was his ribs, had to be. He could almost make out the blunt shape where he’d taken the hit, yellow and green in the center then spreading outward in red and purple patches. It reminded him of the night sky, the storm out in space. The cloudy, backlit scar across the sky. He found himself staring at it at night while out on the hunt. It scared him, the sheer vastness of it, the unknown. Whatever it was, it was beautiful. His bruised ribs, not so much.

The lasting influence of the Empire was vast, experienced in ways both blatant and subtle. The most obvious was how it shaped the major powers that came to prominence after the Empire’s fall, the three cities that formed the Conclave.

It was why The Howl was such an insular city, the descendents of slaves squirreling themselves away into the safety of darkness. It was why Rah’qet refused to openly share the wealth of knowledge and history they had hidden ever since the Empire’s rise to power. It was why Everspring had so vehemently charged themselves with the defense of the common people, all throughout the Empire.

It was why the continent was still referred to as the Empire.

Why every town, every tribe, every settlement and camp was a barren.

No other place was allowed to be called a city but the Seat of the Empire, the great city of The Fifth Pinnacle. The only city. Compared to The Fifth Pinnacle—once the most lush and affluent region in the entire continent—everywhere else seemed desolate, inferior, barren. It’s disappointing how easily the name has persevered over time. The elitism still present even moreso. Up until the destruction of Everspring, the Conclave had refused to grant the title of city to any of the “lesser” settlements. Perhaps that might finally change.

Simply continuing to use the term “barren” shows just how deep that influence still goes.

Corinth, the first barren Kyrill and the others came across since leaving Shaded Seed, was the only other barren between the Mazewilds and Everspring. Or used to be. The entire place was in ruins. Out of the way, like Shaded Seed, it never saw a lot of travelers passing through. From the look of things, it had been months since it had seen any life at all.

“What the fuck happened here?” Isha asked, surveying the scene from afar as they carefully made their approach.

“I guess your friends from the other day were telling the truth,” Moswen jokingly directed at Kyrill.

“Looks like ‘shitshow’ was a pretty apt description after all.”

It wasn’t a large barren, not by any means. Some would have called it quaint. It functioned mostly as a vacation spot, less of a barren and more of a scattering of spread out summer homes for the wealthy. But now all that was left were bones: the skeletons of burnt buildings and the actual remains of the dead, both long picked clean. The most prominent of structures was what likely used to be a villa, with an equally impressive vineyard beside it, both long since trampled and burned to the ground.

Corinth was situated at the bottom of a cliff. The main thoroughfare, now overgrown with grass and brush from lack of use, zigzagged its way down the side of the hill. The sparse, rocky ridge that topped the cliffs made way for dense patches of trees that spread all the way down to a lake at the foot of the cliff. Ringing the waterline were sheer cliff faces and stoney shores. As a vacation spot, Kyrill imagined it had been quite serene.

“Check this out,” Moswen said, beckoning everyone’s attention.

He motioned towards the treeline, away from the path, where several of the trees had either been knocked over or had the bark ripped off the sides.

He turned to Kyrill. “You don’t think...”

“I sure hope not,” Kyrill replied.

“I get that you two are bonded now and probably have your own magic mental communication or some shit,” Isha said, standing next to Neera, both looking lost. “But mind filling us in? Or are you two just gonna keep being vague and make us guess?”

“We’ve seen trees like this before,” Kyrill explained.

“I’d imagine so. I’ve seen a lot of sand.”

“No, the bark. It’s usually caused by various animals. Deer sometimes rub their antlers against trees to help shed the velvet.”

“Squirrels strip bark off, too,” Moswen added. “Not a damn clue why.”

“Thing is, none of them result in trees looking like this.” Large swaths of bark were missing from several trees, huge patches ripped and torn from the trunks. “These aren’t scratches and strips that are missing. This is something else.”

“And we’ve seen this before. When Kyrill and I met. Where we encountered the bear.”

“You think a monster did this?” Neera asked.

“I sure as hell hope not.”

After leaving the remnants of Corinth, Moswen helped safely navigate their way around the Mazewilds, not just avoiding the doomed forest, but keeping a healthy distance from it. What they found camouflaged amongst the serenity of a fairytale-like forest morning did nothing to inspire even a modicum of safety.

Another cliffside barren, another scene of destruction.

“Hillsedge,” Moswen said.

“You’ve been here before, Moz?” Neera asked.

“Yeah, few times actually.”

“For someone who doesn’t usually like places much larger than a campfire,” Isha said, “that’s pretty high praise.”

“It’s not really about the places. It’s more about the people. People worry me. I tend to not like most people.”

“You like us, right?” asked Neera.

“What? Of course!”

“I mean, you’re bonded with Kyrill and you two get along like brothers, but what about me and Isha?”

“Even Isha.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? ‘Even Isha?’” Isha asked jokingly, but still accusatory.

“You can be a bit... brash.”

“Fuck yeah I can.” They all shared a laugh. “This place must have been something special then, huh?” she continued.

“It really was,” he said longingly. “The people here were... different. The place was different. I felt at home. I’m a boy meant to wander, but I somehow always felt myself drawn back here.”

“I’m really sorry, Moz.” Neera walked up to him and threw her arms around him. He didn’t shed any tears, but he seemed to have a real affinity for the place. It must be devastating to find it in such a condition.

“If you guys don’t mind, I think I want to stay back here. I’m not sure I want to go inside. See... everything. It’s real enough already, you know?”

“Say no more,” Isha said, with an understanding look in her eyes.

Before Kyrill came along, Moswen had been alone, wandering, for such a long time. The connections he made with people were fleeting. This place, Hillsedge, was obviously more meaningful than a passing interest, deeper than a night shared around a bonfire. And now, that had been taken from him.

It seemed like Isha knew exactly what Moswen was feeling. Her home was taken from her. Her leader, her mentor, had almost been taken as well. And then after getting him help, just in time to save his life, he sent her away without him. She and Moswen likely had more in common than either of them realized.

“I’ll circle around, meet you all on the other side. Take your time.”

“And you take all the time you need, little buddy,” Kyrill said with a nod.

They parted ways with the young hunter and descended down the hill.

Hillsedge was a larger barren than Corinth, a proper barren. Densely populated structures followed the stream of a waterfall as it wound its way down towards the coast. Buildings cropped up along the stream’s branching paths, the barren expanding down the cliff. It was as if the gods themselves poured a pail of seeds down the side of the mountain, and from each seed sprouted a carpenter’s workshop, a smokehouse, a home.

The barren held a childlike wonder to it, as if it were built by a group of young but capable friends, a treehouse in the woods that expanded into a fully-fledged community. Rope bridges crossed over the stream, wind chimes and paper lanterns and all sorts of decorations adorned the trees, signposts pointed the way towards major communal buildings and family homes alike, regardless of the fact that nobody that had lived in the congenial village would have had any need for directions.

It was clear why Moswen had held the place in such a high regard. Even with every structure destroyed, it was still charming.

Aside from Neera finding a mortar and pestle of her own, their investigation of the barren resulted in not much more than confirming their fears: whatever was behind the destruction of Corinth was very likely the perpetrator of Hillsedge’s destruction as well. Even though they were far across on the other side of the Mazewilds, that much was abundantly clear. The similarities were too striking.

Buildings burnt to embers, trampled farmland and olive groves, an uncountable number of the deceased, all done with direction and purpose. The destruction was thorough. It was almost as if it had been systematic, not just some rampaging beast. Calculated attacks. The only difference between the two was time. Hillsedge had been a much more recent target.

“What the fuck is happening to these places?” Isha asked rhetorically, echoing her sentiments from the last time she witnessed such a scene.

As they made their way out, they found Moswen waiting near the outskirts. Before they could say anything, get close enough to say anything, he turned his back to them and began walking, leading the way without a word. He remained quiet as they continued on their travels, not speaking again until the sun began to set and evening drew near.

“Hillsedge. Was it... like...?” He motioned his head in the general direction of Corinth, casual, like it wasn’t several days’ travel away.

Kyrill knew Isha was supposed to be the one to break the news, the de facto leader of their group, but this was Moswen. And Kyrill had a gentle approach, much more gentle than Isha would have been, that’s for sure. Perhaps it was due to their bond, just another unanswerable question.

The kid knew what to expect as an answer, but that wasn’t going to soften the blow. “I’m afraid so,” Kyrill said, keeping things concise, letting the subtext carry everything that needed to be said.

The silence broken, Isha asked the obvious. “It’s getting pretty dark, Moz. About time we stop and set up camp, no?”

“We’re almost there. In fact, you can just barely make out Rah’qet through the trees.”

He pointed ahead. Sure enough, it was just dark enough to make out pinpricks of light through the trees. By the time they exited the treeline, the forest floor making way for a great expanse of sand, the lights on the horizon reached nearly all the way around the outskirts of the city. Braziers, torches, the flames of bonfires and the light spilling out of hundreds of windows. The city glittered amongst the darkness. Except the center was black. Nothing, no light, no great spires.

All that remained was a crater.


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