“Well, look who’s finally here,” said a man who sounded like he had all the authority in the world, and nothing to fear. “His royal highness, Prince Tardy.”
“Good morning, Officer Berin,” Khyte said as he lay his sword on the weapon rack with all the others.
“Good morning?” he yelled, his voice rising an octave. “It’s damn near afternoon.”
Since the training grounds lay a mile from the central lagoon, he could see up to the crystalline peak of the magical shield. Nothing but pale sky. It was barely past dawn. However, he knew better than to correct Berin. All the boys did.
“Everyone put on training armor and do four laps around the arena.”
Four laps equaled a mile. Four laps with the armor made it feel like ten. All the boys who’d been waiting let out a collective groan.
“Make that five, since you’re all so excited to get started.” Berin put his fists on his hips, showing how huge his biceps were in his leather jerkin.
Khyte and forty nine other boys jogged to the cubbies (walking would only incur pushup penalties). Carefully stowed weight armor awaited them. At age 14, they were up to sixty pound armor. At age nine, the entry age, they’d all started with ten pounds and went up as they got older.
The cubbies lay in five rows of ten, one row stacked atop another, forcing them to coordinate their movements as they hastily shrugged into and fastened their weight armor. Vrienn, Khyte’s enviably tall best friend, snuck a minuscule head shake. “Good job, Your Highness.”
Grinning, Khyte masked his punch to Vrienn’s shoulder as he threaded a fist through his vest’s armhole, making Vrienn lose balance and bump into the boy next to him. The boy, lean and sandy-haired, glared but said nothing. Getting caught talking would result in more laps.
Berin yelled, “If you can’t suit up in an organized fashion, that’ll be more laps. Prince Tardy has already made your day hard enough!”
His booted footsteps swished closer in the sand with their signature heaviness, adding haste to Khyte’s movements. Berin’s approach felt like a huge beast bearing down on him, ready to pick off the weakest target. The Officer wouldn’t hesitate to dish out bruises with his meaty fists or spirit boar. Nothing sucked more than not being able to sit down without it hurting—or worse, suffering that while being tutored by Dame Zwaan.
“Prince Tardy, you’re on your way to becoming a terrible War King. The war’s gonna be lost before you ever show up to the battlefield. You’ll be the king of corpses if you keep this up. Now, everyone fall in!”
The boys fell into rank and file by age, from thirteen to fifteen, in five rows of ten with practiced efficiency, the only exception being Khyte up front. At age nine, he’d been thrust into the leadership role due to his royal status, but he learned to embrace the role, even enjoy it. All the boys cared about and respected him, even the fifteen-year-olds. He was their future king, a war king. He ruled among his peers, instead of above them, as Berin had carefully instructed.
Khyte gave his straps one more good tug, eager to not suffer from chafing, then glanced behind him. Five rows of lean-bodied boys wearing black weight vests looked forward, awaiting the order to start running.
Khyte’s parents ruled above the people; not among them. They dealt directly with the aristocracy and left it up to others to deal with the rest of the population. It seemed to work. When Khyte had asked Berin why he was teaching him to lead differently, he’d said, “You’re a soldier. They’re not. You’re to be Prism’s guardian one day, while your siblings handle the politics. Don’t you ever forget that.”
Khyte hadn’t quite understood the explanation, until the day one of the boys broke an arm while practicing with weighted wooden swords. Still children at age ten, the dueling pair had gotten carried away, until cries of pain wailed across the arena. The clash of wood-on-wood subsided, Berin raced to the boy’s side without hesitation, and carried him to the infirmary. When the injured boy returned the next day, arm in cast, he told Khyte and the others that Berin hadn’t yelled at him or anything. He just helped the nurse get a cast on the boy, and looked real concerned the whole time. The nurse had even assured him the boy would heal.
Berin was doing more than yelling and making them feel miserable. He cared about every last one of them, along with turning them into the best soldiers in the world.
“Get a move on, Prince Tardy! Your enemies ‘nit gonna wait for you to start the war!”
Berin’s use of “‘nit” in place of “are not” marked him as lowborn. He usually didn’t let lowborn slang slip into his speech, but it snuck in now and then. Despite his heritage, he’d become a prestigious figure in the military ranks, and a beacon of hope to those born outside aristocracy. He was living proof that anyone could move up the social ladder if they tried hard enough. Half the boys in Khyte’s unit looked up to Berin just for that.
Khyte led the boys at a fast jog, the weight of his jacket hitting his shoulders with every stride. He pushed the discomfort out of his mind as he focused on navigating the quarter mile sand track, careful to raise his feet high enough to avoid tripping over the lumpy ground. His unit kept up with him, their footfalls a stampede close behind. When Khyte had first started leading warmups, their footsteps had intimidated him. He’d unconsciously run faster, forcing everyone to keep up with him, thus making it harder to find the energy to make it through the day. Now he found the stampeding assuring. His soldiers had his back.
They powered through all five laps. Everyone was coated in sweat when they gathered before Berin for plyometrics for the next hour, still wearing their weighted armor. They slogged through muscle-burning after muscle-burning exercise, and by the time Khyte had to roll onto his stomach so he could sit back up, Berin yelled, “Weights off! Spirit battle training day.”
That made Khyte forget about his fatigue, until he jumped to his feet. His muscles burned in protest. The rest of his unit hurried to their feet as well and joined him in wincing at burning muscles as they jogged back to their cubbies. They folded and stowed their weights, then hurried back to Berin, who stood in his typical stance: feet planted apart and fists on his hips, his huge arms making him look twice as big as he was. The boys formed a semicircle in front of him and awaited instruction.
Spirit battles were Khyte’s favorite form of combat. It required intense concentration and skill, a lot of tactics, and the use of his spirit animal, a cougar named Nayaka. Khyte liked his spirit animal as much as his name. They both suited him, his personality, and identity. They felt right. He couldn’t imagine himself with a different name or spirit animal.
Berin clapped his hands together, and then held them out, forming a diamond with his thumbs and forefingers. The runic tattoos on his palms glowed a pale blue. Khyte and those in the front row backed up a few steps. A large ball of light erupted from Berin’s palms, creating a small crater where it landed in the sand. The ball grew and morphed into the shape of a six-foot-tall ethereal boar. The glow faded and the boar reared its transparent head and gave it a shake It pawed the ground and kicked up under its blue-tinted hoof.
“Bhakti,” Berin called fondly. The boar swiveled its massive head, muscles cording in its neck, then dutifully took its place at Berin’s side and faced the boys. Berin placed a hand on Bhakti’s flank.
“Good morning, Berin,” Bhakti said in a rich woman’s voice. “Which disobedient whelp do I have the joy of terrorizing today?” She eyed the boys hopefully.
“No one just yet.”
“However, their spirit animals do need strengthening.”
“This lot of pups again?” Bhakti sounded disappointed. “Oh, well. If I must. Let’s see if they perform better than last week.” She didn’t sound hopeful.
Bhakti’s lack of enthusiasm only lit a fire in Khyte. He was determined to prove himself. Ever since he’d been given a leadership role, he’d pushed himself to be the best and strongest at everything, from running the fastest to having the strongest spirit animal. He forced himself to do extra physical, mental, and spirit conditioning on his own time, and the efforts paid off. However, Berin came down that much harder on Khyte whenever he messed up, which was often. He didn’t care, though. It only made him that much more determined to become a great War King.
“They better,” Berin said, “or you get to accompany them on a few more laps around the arena.
The boar lowered her transparent head and a corner of her maw curved into a smile, showing more tusk. “Pup bowling. My favorite game.”
A few boys unconsciously reached for their hind quarters as Khyte recalled several times he’d spit out sand all the way back to the royal castle. Bhakti loved hooking trainees with her snout and sending them flailing in the air.
“Spirits out!” Berin yelled.
Khyte distanced himself from the others as they all spread out. He held his hands before him, palms up, reading the mirroring runes in his skin. They spelled Nayaka’s name. Closing his eyes, he clapped his hands and felt his palms warm as energy poured into the runes. Chills ran down his arms and concentrated in his palms, making his hands feel like they no longer touched. He spread his hands like Berin had, formed a mental picture of Nayaka’s cougar form, and willed her to materialize.
His body swayed as he felt the ball of energy erupt forth. It felt like someone had stuck a fire under his hands for an instant, and his body jolted as if firing a huge mana pistol. A part of his soul—his being—detached itself from the whole and stretched into the shape of a small cougar.
Nayaka arched her back and yawned displaying fangs the size of Khyte’s thumbs, then padded over to him and nuzzled his leg. “Hey, Khyte,” she said in a light voice.
“Hey, Nayaka.” Khyte pet her head, which rose to his hips. “Ready to show Berin and Bhakti what we’re made of?”
“Always.” Nayaka sat beside him like an obedient dog as the rest of the boys and spirit animals reformed the semicircle. Birds, animals, reptiles, and a few aquatic creatures accompanied them. The dolphin and such floated in the air as if suspended in water. All spirit animals took on a size irrelevant to their flesh and blood counterpart. A spirit animal’s size was dictated by the strength and age of their human. They got bigger with age, along with use. Like muscles, they could be conditioned. The bigger the spirit animal, the stronger it was.
Out of all the boys, Nayaka was the biggest spirit animal by a small margin, just enough to be noticeable. Berin and Bhakti swept measuring gazes over the squad, pausing to study both prince and cougar.
The boys jogged into two rows of twenty five, spreading out a bit more to compensate for their spirit animals. Berin shouted a few more commands, spreading the boys out over almost the entire arena, and Khyte’s row did an about face. Half the arena lay in shade of the upper tiers of Prism. The other half lay in sunlight funneled down with the aid of mirrors and water.
Vrienn and his elk, named Artha, faced Khyte and Nayaka in a shaded corner. While the elk stood taller, its body was smaller than the cougar’s.
“Today is Vendaag,” Berin stated, his voice echoing across the arena with ease, “which means it’s blitz battle day.” Fists on his hips, he paced in a small circle as he spoke. “Each battle will last one minute. There’ll be a thirty-second break in between. After each battle, Vrienn’s line will shift to their right. The last person will run to the beginning of the row. If you do not get there fast enough, all of you will drop and give me twenty.
“If I catch anyone slacking, I’ll add time to the round. You cannot become the best and strongest soldiers Prism has at its disposal if you put forth a half-assed effort. You owe it to yourself, your family, your fellow soldiers, and every citizen under Prism’s protection to give your all in everything you do. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, Officer Berin!” fifty young men chorused, their voices echoing off the stone walls loud enough to scare a flock of pigeons into flight.
“Good. There’s the clock!” He pointed far overhead at a stone disc with lines etched down the middle at intervals. It looked three feet tall from Khyte’s vantage point but he knew it was as big as a house. Four light beams shone on it from all cardinal directions, making the disc look like a full moon. Once the timer started, the disc would spin and the light would steadily disappear like a moon waning to new phase in sixty seconds.
“Let’s see how close I can get to beating you this time, Khyte,” Vrienn said with a wry smile.
“With that attitude, not close enough,” Khyte said calmly as he dropped into a fighting stance. He wasn’t about to fight himself, but he felt like he could react faster if he took on a fighting stance.
“I haven’t beaten you since we were eleven,” he said pragmatically.
“Doesn’t matter. Always try to win.”
“Oh, I do. I have to. But the reality is, no one in our unit has beaten you in years.”
“Hey, today might be the day I mess up. You never know.”
“You’ll let me win?” Vrienn said, perking up.
“Never. Give me your all. Learn where your weaknesses are and turn them into your strengths.”
Vrienn shook his head. “I know, I know. When are you going to stop telling me that?”
“When you’ve learned it.”
“Now you sound like Officer Berin.”
“Begin!” Berin shouted.
All fifty boys commanded their spirit animals into battle. Back in Khyte’s formative days, the random lack of countdown caught him by surprise, but now he knew to always be ready. No enemy gave a countdown on the battlefield.
Artha charged and Nayaka bounded to meet her, careful to keep all paws on the ground at intervals. The last thing they needed was to get caught mid-stride. Still, Artha had a tendency to start every battle with a charge. This time was no exception—no, wait!
Instead of presenting her antlers, Artha kept her head high, making her neck a juicy target. That had to be a trick. Nayaka, Khyte said telepathically, veer to the side. They’re up to something.
Nayaka darted to the side at the last second but antlers followed and plowed her into the ground with a thud. Khyte felt the blow in his own body, as if he’d been smacked upside the head. Anything that happened to Nayaka, he felt, and vice-versa when he had the cougar summoned. This also meant that, if a spirit animal suffered a killing blow, its human died with it. Still, a spirit animal presented many advantages in battle, including being able to fight as two units. However, today, the animals fought alone.
Khyte shrugged off the blow and Nayaka kicked the elk with her hind paws until Artha staggered and lost hold. Nayaka rolled and sprung to her feet, then leapt into the fray. The elk spread her hooves, bowed her head, and sent Nayaka flying with a toss of her antlers. The cougar somersaulted midair before twisting and landing on all fours, kicking up sand.
“Nice one, Vrienn!” Khyte said.
“Thanks,” Vrienn said, his attention remaining on the battlefield.
Nayaka stalked Artha, pawing a circle as she drew closer. Artha kept her antlers between them, feinting a charge every few seconds. Nayaka bared her fangs and growled in response. She stalked within a few feet of the elk, Artha feinted once more, and Nayaka charged in as the elk withdrew. Arthra tried to back out of the outstretched paws, but one swipe to her snout sent her off balance. Another paw came down on her neck as the elk tried to pivot and buck, but ethereal fangs latched onto her ethereal neck. The animals landed in a heap, the elk flailing her rear hooves and landing a few kicks. Khyte felt the blows like punches to his head, until the disc chimed with a deep gong, signaling one minute was up.
“Switch!” Berin bellowed.
“Good fight, Vrienn,” Khyte said.
“Likewise,” he said as their spirit animals got up. “I’m going to remember that flip for the rest of my life.” Khyte laughed. “Going to have to start calling Nayaka Cartwheel Kitty.”
“Only if I get to call Artha Dinner.”
“Ha! Not a chance.” Vrienn and Artha jogged to their next opponent.
Thirteen year old Bol and his badger, named Dhira, jogged over fifty hards to Khyte and Nayaka. Bol was a small, gangly kid with black hair and a fierce expression. He had never quit attitude that often led him to making brash decisions in battle, but Khyte admired Bol’s fighter spirit. He’d make a great soldier one day.
“Good morning, Your Highness,” Bol said cheerfully. He wasn’t old or highborn enough to call Khyte by his first name. Khyte didn’t care about the society rules but he obeyed and enforced them. They had subtle effects on how his peers viewed and behaved towards him.
“Good morning, Bol. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
At Berin’s command, round two began.
As expected, Dhira charged into battle without a plan. Nayaka patiently waited for the fight to come to her, crouching so she was eye level with the badger. Although Dhira was larger than a real badger, Nayaka had several inches on her. The cougar swatted Dhira, sending the badger tumbling to the side.
“Remember what I said about charging in blindly?” Khyte said patiently.
“I was trying to catch you off guard.”
“You started way too far out for that.”
Dhira popped back to her clawed feet and charged again. Nayaka leapt over her with seeming effortlessness, Dhira pounced on an empty patch of sand, and then spun around to face the cougar.
“How are you so much faster than me?” Bol said.
“Training. Lots and lots of training.”
“But we all train seven days a week. I know you’re a year older than me, but–”
“I train outside our time with Officer Berin.”
“Oh.” Dhira charged in again, but cautiously. At the last moment, both animals reared and exchanged blows. Both held their maws wide, teeth bared, and tried to land a bite. Dhira’s blows had some force behind them, but not as strong as Artha’s. “Could I join you when you do extra training?”
“I’d have to get you permission to come inside castle grounds, but sure.”
“That’d be cool. I’ve never been there before.”
Not too many people were allowed to either. Khyte savored his time outside the heavily guarded walls. “What kind of free time do you have?” Bol being lowborn, it was almost certain he worked for his family by his age.
“Our bakery closes at five. I can come after dinner.”
Nayaka landed a blow to Dhira’s head, sending the badger to the ground. Bol let out an “oof!” and shook his head.
“Sorry,” Khyte said. “That was harder than I meant.”
“I’m okay.” Dhira got up and shook herself free of sand. “Now you go on the attack. I need to practice my reactionary defense.”
Khyte and Nayaka obliged, taking it easy enough to give them a fighting chance, but attacking hard enough to make them work and think until the clock gonged again.
“Thank you, Your Highness.” Bol bowed his head and jogged to the next person.
The next hour and a half flew by with fight after fight, and only a five minute break halfway through. Not only were the fights tiring, but also having their spirit animal out took energy to sustain. An individual could maintain their animal for only so long before they passed out. Untrained civilians could comfortably maintain their spirit animal for two hours, three at best. Khyte and his unit could do triple that, but they had to be able to go twenty four hours before they could become an enlisted soldier. Khyte had reached twelve hours on four separate occasions, only to become ill after each time.
By the end of the blitz battles, he was tired and sore, but prepared for “bonus” rounds in case Berin decided to penalize them with more. He’d caught several slacking off. Bhakti had joyfully charged over and sent said boys in the air like Artha had Nayaka, then marched back to Berin’s side, tail in the air.
When the disc gonged for the fiftieth time, Berin yelled, “At ease!”
All fifty boys flopped on the sand, glistening with sweat and gasping for breath. Khyte propped himself up on his hands with Nayaka panting at his side. While she wasn’t actually breathing, she was helping him recover.
“Over the weekend I want you to have your spirit animals out for at least nine hours both days. Push for ten. Some of you are getting really close, but do not overdo it. If you come down with the shakes, stop. If you don’t listen to your body and end up getting sick, there will be consequences once you feel better. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, Officer Berin!” the boys yelled back, yet several voices cracked and the all lacked the vigor from before the blitz.
“Go hit the showers and have a good weekend.”
Khyte lurched to his feet and wiped his hands on his tabard, getting off as much sand as he could.
“Prince Tardy, you stay with me.”