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Chapter 29 - Kyrill

“Sorry for the sudden outburst back there,” Aoife said, slightly embarrassed. “It’s something I need to work on.”

“Please,” Isha said. “He deserved what he had coming to him. Might’ve done the same myself if you hadn’t beat me to the punch.”

“Well, thanks for the backup then. Nice having people to actually rely on.”

“You’re welcome, Aoife,” Kyrill said with a smile.

“My pleasure!” Isha said with glee. Kyrill was surprised by the warmth behind the words. Isha hadn’t exactly been Aoife’s biggest cheerleader since she joined the group, but it seemed like her outburst had earned her some points.

Whatever works.

The five of them left the labor camp, heading towards the heart of the barren, leaving the tents and makeshift shacks behind them. Giant buildings loomed from above as they made their way through the still mud-filled streets. It kind of reminded him of Shaded Seed in a way. Where the streets of Rah’qet had been cleared and flattened into unnaturally even terrain, Shaded Seed saw value in minimizing their impact on their surroundings. They found ways to work within the limitations of their natural surroundings, elevating it instead of tearing it down for ease of construction. Rotwater felt similar, though Kyrill knew it had nothing to do with the elevation of the natural world. It was probably just laziness. Or the knowledge that any attempt to deal with the mud was futile at best.

They splashed their way through streets filled with people carrying boxes and pulling carts, pushed through crowds of traders and people looking to spend their newly earned riches. Every street was lined with stalls and vendors peddling their wares. Kyrill was especially interested in those preparing and selling street food. Fresh-baked breads hollowed out to hold sizzling mixtures of meats, skewers of more exotic and strange-looking fruits and vegetables, tables cutting up and frying battered fish: it was a veritable food market around every corner. He was conflicted. It all smelled so good, but every inch of every surface looked horribly unsanitary. He couldn’t help but question the state of the food.

The crowds grew more and more dense the closer they got to the center of the barren. The entire place felt like a dirty bazaar, a giant flea market where everything you could possibly want was for sale somewhere amongst the ruckus and muck. Things quickly started to remind him less of Shaded Seed and more like the Outer Ring of Rah’qet during the day time, just dirtier.

Along one street, a man sat behind a table with three cups sitting upside down in front of him. He put a single steel ball bearing no bigger than a marble under one and quickly shuffled them around, hoping to deceive would-be gamblers. Of all the places to trick people into trying their luck to strike it rich, why do it in the place where everyone already is? Maybe he was biased from living in a barren so unlike Rotwater or Rah’qet, but some things just never made much sense to Kyrill.

Neera gently grabbed Kyrill’s wrist and beckoned him down to her level. He bent down and she cupped her hands to whisper into his ear.

“It’s not in any of the cups. He’s cheating.”

Kyrill looked back at the man, a big welcoming smile across his face. It was the kind of smile that seemed friendly, but hid a sinister delight just under the surface. He’d seen it on the faces of Omar and his friends so many times before that he was surprised he didn’t immediately recognize it. That was the point, he guessed.

“You think I should try my luck?” she asked.

The two burst into fits of muffled laughter. “Tempting, but that wouldn’t be very fair to him, now would it?” he joked as he ruffled the girl’s hair.

“What wouldn’t be fair?” Aoife asked. “What are you two giggling like a couple of schoolgirls about?”

He wasn’t sure if Aoife should know about Neera, at least not yet. Regardless, it wasn’t his decision to make. “Oh, nothing, just an inside joke.” He regretted saying the words immediately. While it might be a bit early for Aoife to be in the know about certain things, he still wanted to make her feel like part of the group, to feel comfortable even if she had just joined them. Brushing her off like that couldn’t help.

They continued walking, taking in the sights. Down one alley, a group gathered around what sounded like two angry, snarling dogs while a lanky sapling of a man stood above the crowd and took bets. Kyrill’s stomach twisted and turned as he realized what was going on. He’d never seen dogfighting before, but he was aware of the practice. It made him immensely sad. Not long ago Kyrill had high hopes of bonding with a dog, saving one from a dangerous situation and gaining a companion for life. Yet here these people were, ready to watch with glee as two were being goaded into tearing each other apart, not stopping until one laid dead before the other. It wasn’t in their nature, he knew that. It wasn’t the dogs’ faults. But knowing that made it that much worse. The abuse they likely suffered in order to be pushed to this point, it made him sick.

Moswen reached out and touched Kyrill’s arm. “I know,” he said, his eyes filled with understanding. “But what are we gonna do? Kill ‘em and take the dogs?”

He’d considered it. Kyrill looked to the ground, his boots caked with layers of filth. He let out a deep sigh. “It’s just...” He breathed in and let out another deep sigh. “I don’t like this place.”

“Neither do I.”

Finding The Hawk’s Roost was simple enough. The building was hard to miss. Standing several stories tall and stretching over and across several streets and alleyways, the hunter’s lodge was less lodge and more patchwork cathedral.

“It used to be a lot smaller,” Aoife explained. “Less... fucked up jigsaw puzzle.”

It was clear even to Moswen that the building they stood before was an amalgamation of several distinctly individual buildings that had been joined together with little attention to aesthetics.

“If you haven’t noticed yet, money is the lifeblood of the barren. The free market is the sole determining factor whether you thrive or fade away. The Roost is a staple of old Rotwater, always done well. And when you keep doing well, you expand, which is exactly what they’ve been doing for decades.”

The lack of uniformity and stark contrasts made it clear just how much the lodge had expanded over time, eventually connecting to neighboring buildings, engulfing them in the process. Several blocks worth of history and failed business had been subsumed under the figurative roof of The Hawk’s Roost. Alleyways disappeared as buildings joined together, streets became tunnels as buildings were bridged across the stories above, and the mere thought of a harmonious or cohesive architectural style was tossed to the wayside as inconsistencies were embraced and the discordant form grew ever more incongruous.

“And it looks like they’ve expanded even more since my last visit.”

“What should we expect inside?” Isha asked.

“Honestly? Big, rowdy tavern. Bit on the decadent side, but otherwise nothing special.”

“A tavern? That’s it?”

“There’s much, much more behind the scenes, I’m sure, but the tavern is the only bit open to the public. I never spent much time here myself—not really my scene—but they have an entire butchery, kitchen, brewhouse, and who knows what else back there.”

The entrance to the lodge was indeed decadent, a grand and welcoming invitation. Past a courtyard that featured an impressive statue of a screeching hawk made out of solid stone stood five massive double-doors that stretched from one end of the inner wall to the other. All five doors were wide open, showcasing the rowdiness that awaited inside.

“So how are we doing this?” Aoife asked.

“I mean, I guess Moz and I could try and see—”

“We go together,” Isha cut off his apprehensive suggestion before he could finish. He was grateful for that. Moswen even more so, he was sure. Isha took charge and immediately started walking towards the entrance. The rest followed soon after. “It’ll be nice to bring company into a tavern for once.”

The Hawk’s Roost wasn’t just a rowdy tavern, but an upscale ballroom and an MC clubhouse as well, all three mashed together and on a massive scale. Upon entering, they were greeted with the tell-tale ruckus of a tavern in full swing. Tables spread throughout the floor were surrounded by men and women with drinks in hand and smiles on their faces. Their attentions were all drawn to the far end of the room, to a grand staircase that led up to a landing adorned with tapestries and the mounted trophy heads of past kills.

A man dressed in opulence stood at the edge of the top step, addressing the crowd, his expensive-looking robe flashing against the light as he waved his arms back and forth, beads and gemstones woven into the fabric. Kyrill wasn’t much for fashion, but the man was a confusing mixture of rich aristocrat and seasoned hunter. His gem-lined robes were a stark contrast to the simple leathers he wore underneath, his clanging bracelets and rings in opposition with the claws and fangs strung around his neck like trophies.

While he wasn’t all that young, he looked like a kid who snuck into their parents’ closet to try on the fancy adult accessories.

“...honor a successful bounty and your return home! The City of Rotwater is in your debt.”

Close to his side stood a group of hunters, their apparent leader standing front and center beside him. His thick, bristly beard was a bright, fiery orange, a stark contrast to the dulled brown of the fur that ringed the collar of his jerkin. He and all his bandmates held a variety of silver mauls at their sides. An odd choice for hunters, for sure, but everyone has their shtick.

To the opulent man’s other side stood a much larger man bristling with muscle. Studded leather spaulders were strapped to his shoulders, but he wore nothing else underneath them. It looked cool, sure, but what was the point of wearing armor if you were going to leave the rest of your torso completely vulnerable? He did wear a heavy leather belt that was thick enough to cover his entire waist, but it still wasn’t enough. Besides, it looked more decorative than functional, covered in detailed linework carved into the sides resembling fine filigree and adorned with a solid silver engraving of a screeching hawk, similar to the statue outside.

“To common folk,” the man continued, “your feats are surely impressive, but to hunters? Only we know just how impressive your accomplishments truly are. And for this, we honor your achievement, forever and always!”

“Forever and always!” the crowd cheered back.

He turned, extended an arm behind him as his musclebound cohort lifted another trophy mount into the air for all to see. It was hard to make out much detail from where they were standing, but it was definitely a big cat of some sort, likely a cougar or lioness. The man lowered the trophy, turned and walked towards an empty spot on the wall behind them.

“There shouldn’t be a soul in the city who doesn’t already know, but for the newcomers and out-of-towners, please remind the good people of The Hawk’s Roost just who you are.”

The leader stepped to the edge of the steps, put a fist against his chest and cheered, “Samwell!” And like a practiced chorus, he was immediately followed with the rest of his band joining him as they stomped their mauls on the floor twice before bellowing in unison, “And the Silver Hammers!”

The room was filled with cheers as mugs and glasses were thrust into the air.

Kyrill hadn’t noticed until he turned his attention towards the rest of the Silver Hammers, but one of them, a woman with dirty blonde hair and heavy ashen makeup circling her eyes, had a snake coiled around her arm and resting across her shoulders. Could she be bonded?! Kyrill felt a strange twinge of jealousy, immediately replaced by shame. Why the hell am I feeling jealous about a snake?

“Well, Silver Hammers, tonight you drink with the Lord Chancellor! As does the rest of the house. A round for all!”

The room erupted in a howling cacophony. One might think a successful hunt being celebrated, but the crowd seemed to care more about the free booze that followed. Priorities.

“Lord Chancellor?” Isha asked, leaning towards Aoife.

“New to me,” Aoife replied. “At least the title is. The man’s the head of the lodge, Rhames. Gavin Rhames. Great-grand-whatever to the guy who founded the barren, I think.”

“Not our sage, I take it?”

“No, definitely not our sage. He’s important, but he’s no great thinker. Likely not much smarter than the meathead next to him. I’d be surprised if he even knew how to read.”

“His fancy new title sounds like someone’s vying for a position of power. He may not be our sage, but I bet he knows who is.”

“And if he has anything to do with this, it’s a pretty safe bet our sage is deeper in the lodge somewhere.”

Two staircases on either side of the landing led further up towards the balcony that wrapped around the entire room. The Silver Hammers followed Rhames and Meathead as they ventured to the stories above. Three men stood guard at the foot of the ground-level staircase, then four more at the top of the landing, and several others around the balcony. It seems like the Silver Hammers were VIP guests for the night.

“All this for some hunters?” Moswen asked Kyrill, oddly prideful of the group of strangers.

“Ain’t just any hunters!” a man interrupted. “The Silver Hammers are heroes!”

The man was young, not much older than Moswen, with a similarly poor attempt at growing facial hair. He held a fresh mug of a dark brown liquid in his wavering hand.

“Heroes?” Moswen asked.

“Saviors, even! Not just any ol’ hunter earns an audience with the Lord Chancellor. You see that trophy kill they’re mounting on the wall there?” It was hard to miss, what with it being the centerpiece to the grand fucking ceremony that just took place. “That ain’t no ordinary kill, ‘cause that ain’t no ordinary beast. That there’s a bona fide monster! The Silver Hammers’ fourth!”

To Kyrill, it looked like just another animal killed for sport, it’s death applauded as a great triumph of the hunters, not thanked as the sacrifice it was. A successful hunt was something worthy of praise—the bone beads now woven into his hair were a testament to such prowess—but mounting a kill’s head on a plaque to showcase it like some sort of award just seemed barbaric.

“Did you say monster?” Aoife asked, inserting herself into the conversation.

“Damn right! An honest-to-gods monster!”

“From the Mazewilds?”

Kyrill was taken by surprise, both at Aoife’s sudden interest in the topic and the fact that Neera hadn’t beaten her to asking about it first. She and Isha were nowhere to be found, scattered to the wind. The wind, in this case, smelled like stale spilled beer and ale.

“That’s the theory at least.” The man’s enthusiasm grew as he found himself with a sudden audience. “Nobody can say for sure where they’ve been coming from, but the first sightings did seem to come from the west. What is certain, however, is that the Silver Hammers kill ‘em like nobody else can!”

Moswen looked at Kyrill with a knowing smile.

“This last one was tracked down pretty far away to the south. Seems like they’ve been all but driven off thanks to the Hammers. Truth be told?” he motioned to the trophy as it was being secured to the wall. “This one’s not even particularly impressive. Looked like a big reed cat with a ridge of scales that started at the tip of its nose, went up between its ears and then all the way down its spine and tail. Word is when they fought the thing, the ridge raised up like a row of thorns.”

While it still sounded terrifying, it was much less impressive as just a head mounted on a plaque.

“You should’ve seen their first kill. Boy, that one was a doozy. Half a month ago or so, Rotwater was attacked. And not by bandits or a rogue MC or nothing, but monsters, a whole bunch of ‘em. But the people of Rotwater are too numerous and too well-trained. This place is practically overflowing with MCs, hunting lodges, people that know their way around a fight. Took everyone by surprise, but eventually The Hawk’s Roost coordinated ‘em all, defended the barren and either drove off the damn things or killed ‘em outright.”

He took a long pull from his mug and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“And the Silver Hammers took out the biggest, meanest one! Thing’s face looked like a hog or a bat or something, but its body kinda looked like a monkey. You know, all top-heavy with long arms? The thing was all muscle. It lunged around on it’s feet and knuckles, but bent down on all fours when it tried to gore folk. Makes that thing”—he motioned over his shoulder at the plaque now hanging from the wall—“look like a regular house cat.”

This guy gets all animated when he tells stories, just like Moz. At least Moz doesn’t have a full mug in his hands when he does it.

The man swiped his hands through the air, spattering the floor with another coating of wasted drink.

Well, less full now.

“Few years ago, a moose calf got lost and stumbled into town. Poor thing was scared shitless. Didn’t stop the young hunter who leapt at the opportunity to prove his mettle. Killed the poor thing right in the middle of the street. Took it out clean, at least. No sufferin’. Kid didn’t realize Mama Moose wasn’t far behind, though. Trampled the kid to death. Couple others, too.”

He took another long pull from his mug.

“The thing is, the recent attack... those things were focused, efficient, organized. Like they were smarter than your average beast. Like they were trained for it. Killed far more than some pissed off rampaging moose could ever dream of.”

He paused, looking wistfully towards the wall of trophy kills, monsters and animals alike. Kyrill looked upon the wall with a new set of eyes, ruminating on what it all stood for. It wasn’t simply a means of showing off their hunting prowess, but also their way of honoring those they lost, their sacrifice while defending the people of Rotwater, and the barren’s triumph in the pursuit of bringing justice to those responsible.

“Maybe that’s just the difference between a monster and a pissed off moose,” the man continued, “but whatever the reason, shit was terrifying. Makes all this”—he motioned towards the mounted trophies—“that much more impressive. Monsters they may have been, but the Silver Hammers and the rest of the hunters of Rotwater dealt with them.”

He swished what little was left of his drink around in his mug before tossing back the last of it.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe I have some free booze to attend to!”

Moswen thanked him for his stories while Kyrill and Aoife bid him a fond farewell. Kyrill gained a new respect for the hunters of Rotwater. Shaded Seed might also be a barren of hunters, but their lives were very different than those who lived in Rotwater. He had assumed they lacked the level of respect Shaded Seed had for the animals they hunted—and maybe that was still true to an extent—but that didn’t mean they weren’t any less deserving of praise, or any more deserving of being frowned upon by some outsider like himself.

Kyrill scanned the bar and found the man amongst a number of people, all with mugs in their hands, enthusiasm on their faces, and pride in their hearts. He was starting to realize why people would choose to live in such a place as Rotwater. The streets may be filled with mud, but it was their mud. The people of Rotwater were determined, thoughtful and carried themselves high enough that a little muck on their boots hardly deserved a passing thought.

“Kyrill,” Isha said as she rejoined the group. She held a flyer in her hand. “I may have found our way in,” she said, pleased with herself, as she handed him the paper.

“What’s it say?” Aoife asked.

“It’s a pit fighting tournament!” Kyrill read aloud. “Winner fights the reigning champion for a chance at the belt.”

“That belt,” Isha says, pointing up to the VIP section where Lord Chancellor Rhames stood next to the inefficiently-armored brute with the silver eagle belt.

“I mean, if I must,” Kyrill said, trying to hide his glee at the opportunity.

“Actually, we might have found a way in, too!” Aoife added. “Those hunters up there with him? Invited for killing a monster. We kill one ourselves, we all get invited.”

Kyrill very quickly stopped trying to hide his glee. “Forget hunting monsters, I wanna fight!”

“I don’t mean to distrust your fighting prowess or anything, but you’ve got a group of accomplished hunters who have nearly all witnessed monsters firsthand already.”

“Who knows if we’d even find one though. And how long would it take even if we did?”

“Guys, guys,” Isha interrupted. “We can do both. The tournament’s over a full tenday away. We can leave for a hunt and come back if that doesn’t work out.”

“If we’re on the trail of something, we’d stay, right?” Aoife asked.

“Or if we aren’t, we immediately leave?” Kyrill butted in. “Time could be cutting close if that were the case.”

“Uh, guys?” Moswen chirped up. “I think we already found a way in.”

“Two, apparently,” Isha said, motioning towards Kyrill and Aoife. “Unless you have a third option?”

“Well, first of all, we’re going for subtlety, right? Neither of those plans are subtle at all. If anything, it puts a great big spotlight directly on us. Kyrill stands out like a sore thumb, Isha too. Aoife looks like a godsdamn assassin and I’m... not great with people.”

“That’s...” Isha began. “Yeah, that’s fair.”

“Neera, on the other hand, is just an innocent, little girl. If she, hypothetically, were to go somewhere she’s not supposed to, it was merely an accident driven by childhood curiosity.”

Isha looks behind her, around the crowd. “Moswen. Where’s Neera?”

He kept it subtle, but tilted his head to the side, motioning towards the second floor balcony. It took them a while to find her, but sure enough, there was Neera, already past the men standing guard on the grand staircase, looking around like a lost, inquisitive child.

“The hell!” Aoife exclaimed, scream-whispering. “I get that she’s a curious kid, but does she even realize what she’s doing?!”

Just then, Neera turns around, her wide-eyed wondrous facade breaking for a split second as she makes eye contact with Isha and sends her a sly smile and a wink before pretending to be just a simple girl lost in amazement.

“She knows exactly what she’s doing.”


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Posted by Anonymous on 10.26.20
man i just finally caught up and i gotta say im really enjoying this so far
the empire
The Howl
The Mazewilds
The Shelf
Shaded Seed
Wayfarer's Ridge
A Gentle Scar
Tiller's Hamlet