Veximarl was not fine. He absolutely was not fine, and that was making him worried. His armor was pressing against his robes, and lack of proper padding was beginning to take its toll. The metal was wearing through his clothes and causing painful scrapes along his skin. He also had a large bruise developing on the side of his leg from every time his illy fit broadsword smacked into it.
Seeking a distraction from his misery, the sounds of a song fluttering through the air caught his attention. Near the edge of the field, there was a girl with rose gold hair blowing into a leaf she had picked up from the ground, and it was whistling in a lovely sort of tune. Despite the chaos of the death trap obstacle course next to her, she was oblivious of it. She chose to instead kneel down and play for a cluster of clover flowers in front of her.
Zaniyah tried to say something to him, but he didn’t hear it. His eyes flitted towards her and then to the girl again, but she had already stood up and was being scolded by an orange haired girl. He stumbled, let out a coughing fit, and suddenly both were gone when he looked over again. Not feeling deterred, Zaniyah spoke louder to get his attention.
“We’re not in front, so we’re not supposed to be counting the laps, right?” Zaniyah frowned at Veximarl, who issued out a series of wheezes as a response. Her brow furrowed as she turned towards her friend, who also didn’t look well. “Sybil, we’re not supposed to be counting, right?”
Sybil was just trying to keep up with Vincent and his group. “E-eleven left to go… Maybe?” She had already eaten some of the rations and finished half of her water. Though her dried mouth was desperate for another sip, she was worried drinking more would result in her vomiting.
Zaniyah frowned as she looked between the pair. “You two aren’t looking so great. Vex, can't you cast something on her?”
Veximarl nodded, struggling to close the gap between him and Sybil. His hand reached out and did a sort of wave at her, and then his eyes glazed over. Stumbling forward a step or two afterward, his body abruptly went slack. He collapsed face first into the dirt below. His foot and gave a subtle twitch, and neither girl was certain if he was alive anymore.
The pair of girls stopped, as well as half the group from Starsons. “Keep going. We’ll catch up.” Sybil didn’t even need to tell them as much. They jogged past with Alton upturning his nose at the lot of them as they went. As he did so, Luca frowned at him, and Alton shrugged back like he wasn’t being a problem.
“He’s not so great at this paladin stuff.” Zaniyah nudged at Veximarl with the toe of her boot, another wheeze coming out of him as she did so. “He’s not dead. That means we don’t fail, right? Or was that not part of the test?”
“We won’t fail if he dies... Maybe? Look, I don’t think he’s the worst paladin ever. There has to be worse. He seems to cast spells just fine, I feel great. Maybe he can’t use them on himself?” Sybil shook out her hands and jumped up and down a few times to loosen her muscles. “I think I’m good to go. Loan me your axe.”
Zaniyah undid the axe from her harness with a single graceful motion and held it out. “Are you going to dispose of the evidence that he was on our team?”
“What..?” Sybil took the axe and stared at Zaniyah with great concern towards her friend’s sanity. Zaniyah replied by making a whacking motion towards Veximarl with her arm. “No! It’ll be in the way of you carrying him.”
“Oh… Yeah, that’s a much better plan. I was getting worried about your head there for a moment.” Zaniyah lifted Veximarl up and started to jog. “Careful with Whisper. Chickadee just sharpened her.”
Sybil sighed and rested the handle of the axe across her shoulders, with both arms resting over it to keep it steady. She then struggled to find a pace that let her keep up with the rest of the group. There was a lot of love between her and Zaniyah. There honestly was, but sometimes she was concerned what Zaniyah’s decisions would be if no one was there with her to act as a filter. That’s all.
Though it was more taxing on the body, running did seem easier than the other tests that Sybil could see on the field. She attempted to keep herself distracted from weariness by giving the occasional glance in that direction. Some groups were being made to run obstacle courses, others were made to dodge incoming spells. There was a group playing some sort of large strategy board game with applicants being the pieces. That one made made the least sense to her. The knight moderating it was a man dressed in white with a cloak shaped like wings sitting high and pretty on a stone pedestal. It made the entire scene look surreal.
Watching the exams wasn’t doing much to help her from wearing herself out. Whisper was heavy, and she had to tighten her arms around it to keep it from slipping. Her shoulders and elbows were screaming out in agony with every step she was making. Yet she pressed on. She also worried about Veximarl, who would have fleeting moments where he was conscious. They only seemed long enough for him to wave a hand at either her or Zaniyah before he passed out again.
It was at the end of their twenty-eighth lap when Grimhawk greeted them at the door. Out of the nine of them, Zaniyah seemed to be the most fine with Luca not doing terrible himself. He was also the only one who didn’t wear armor, and he only had a quarterstaff as a weapon. Zaniyah shifted her balance from one foot to the other to keep Veximarl balanced on her back while the others were in different states of exhaustion. Sybil couldn’t help but to set the axe down beside her and fall into the grass. She flexed her back, and all the joints in her upper torso let out a series of painful cracks and pops.
“Eh. Alright for beginners.” Grimhawk stated. “We used to do this twice a week before Nita complained we were being too hard on all you soft bloods. What’s wrong with the one over there?” He gestured to Veximarl.
“He’s taking a nap,” Zaniyah replied in a flat manner.
Grimhawk’s blind eyes squinted. “You gonna keep carrying him?” Zaniyah nodded. “To each their own...” The blind man stepped through the door and gestured for them to follow. “Go get some food in the mess hall. Tell them I sent you if they complain. You got an hour to rest and then the archer goes to the field for aim testing. Rest of you to pair off for one on one du-”
“I get the girl,” stated Alton before Grimhawk was finished.
Zaniyah shifted Veximarl again on her shoulders. “Wow. This is great. Rivalries are fantastic and all but I really didn’t expect to get picked first. Don’t get me wrong, it’ll be an honor to fight someone from Starsons again. Haven’t had a chance to grind one in the dirt for years.” She grinned at Alton who glared back in return. “And you meant Sybil. Right. That’s absolutely who you meant. I’m just going to shut up then.” She pouted and looked off to the side.
Grimhawk cleared his throat, rendering the applicants silent. “That’s one of the dueling zones there.” He gestured to a dirt field in the corner of the barracks. “Meet there in an hour.”
“Yes, sir!” The applicants said in unison.
Sybil only managed a gasp instead of forming words. This grass felt nice. It was cool and smelled green. She didn’t even know green could have a smell. Green was a nice smell. Much better than the mind-numbing activities that had taken place before this. Zaniyah nudged her with a foot while she debated on what to do with Veximarl.
“Do you want me to drop this off at the mess hall and then come back to carry you?”
The question made a serious moment of moral debate cross through Sybil’s mind. “... Yes.” Zaniyah gave a nod and jogged off. After a few peaceful moments of rest, her friend returned and helped drag her to the mess hall.
Veximarl, having somehow not been kicked out for sleeping on a run, was having concerns. He awoke to the faint sounds of cutlery against metal plates, and the rustle of voices in the background. His head lifted to see Sybil resting her head against the table, while the Starsons students were sitting there with varying degrees of stunned expressions. Zaniyah couldn’t care less about the situation, gleefully helping herself to her second plate of food.
“Did we pass?” Veximarl blinked a few times before suddenly clapping his hands over his eyes in an effort to hide them. “Ah, my glasses?”
“They fell off somewhere in the field while we were running,” Zaniyah spoke between bites, and then washed what she had in her mouth down with a chug of cider.
Sybil reached into her cloak and set the glasses down on the table. “Here.” She also took a bread roll from her own plate and nudged it towards him.
“Thank you.” He felt around for the glasses before putting them on and plucked up the roll. “Is this all the food you saved for me?” Veximarl looked around, seeing a mostly empty room. There was only an occasional adult or squire sprinkled here and there. “Where are the other applicants?”
Zaniyah pushed her half-eaten plate towards him. “We were running out of time for our break and I didn’t think you were going to wake up.” Veximarl pawed at the items set before him, eating quickly. Everything on it had at least one bite taken out of it, but he didn’t care. “Grimhawk let us eat here because he likes us.”
Veximarl spoke between bites. “Hopefully that admiration of his will allow the majority of you to pass through easily.” The tension among the group grew, which made him look over to Sybil with confusion.
She hesitated before speaking. “One of the kitchen staff gave us some gossip while you were asleep. Sir Grimhawk picks a group of applicants each year during exams and runs them through more difficult testing. There might be a chance we pass, but apparently he makes up some excuse and fails everyone at the last possible moment.” Sybil let out a long sigh after the explanation. She was just as dismayed as the rest.
“I will maintain my confidence as long as we strive to do our best,” said the paladin who slept through half the last exam. “What is our next planned ordeal?”
“The time!” Mila gasped as she saw the clock. “Sorry! I have to go to the archery field!” She gathered her belongings and stood up. There was relief on her features, as that meant she’ll have a break from Grimhawk’s tests.
“I’m surprised they’ll have us test our skills with a bow.” Veximarl folded his arms and nodded. “Much simpler than our previous task, or at least much less taxing on the body. There is a mental challenge involved. I will give a nod towards that.”
“Sorry again! Archery is just me.” Mila waved a hand at Veximarl’s statement. “The rest of you paired off for duelling.” He nodded, still feeling confident. “You’re fighting Zaniyah.”
Veximarl’s normal skin color was a pale, somewhat sickly looking shade of yellow. However, it had started to turn a sort of green when a fight with Zaniyah was mentioned. “Pardon?”
“Move out to the dueling area,” Vincent stated as he also rose up. The Starsons students solemnly nodded at each other as they started to prepare.
“How exactly were the dueling pairs decided?” Veximarl tore the roll in half and quickly stuffed in some slices of ham and a smear of fruit jelly. He wrapped this in a handkerchief that he tucked into his robes. “Perhaps I could duel Sybil or someone else? Anyone else at all?”
“Whaaat? Are you being a coward, Vex?” Zaniyah spoke in a comical tone.
Veximarl replied in a serious tone. “I am no coward, but I will admit that cowardice is a legitimate survival strategy.”
Sybil shook her head. “You were asleep and no one else wanted to do it. Don’t worry. She always takes wide swings that are easy to see. If you can get between them, you’ll be fine. I normally win the duels against her at home.”
“Then perhaps you should do it!” Veximarl exclaimed.
She grimaced at the thought. “That Toval guy said he wanted to fight me.”
Veximarl couldn’t argue against that and continued to mutter to himself in a dismayed fashion as the group approached a fenced off area. Each wooden post along the fence had a circular metal plaque with glyphs embedded in it. A pillar next to the fence gate had a hook from which several pendant necklaces hung.
Nearby was Grimhawk, accompanied by Stonetoe. Yawning, the younger of the two knights preferred to not be awake before mid-morning. The group he had been testing failed to pass his obstacle course. Now he was hiding before someone made him do something complicated.
“This is a safe zone, used as practice by squires,” explained Stonetoe. “There are several of these around Braytons.” He gestured to the hanging pendants. “As long as you are within the zone area, these necklaces will absorb any damage that comes your way. If you take enough to be considered a killing blow, you will be transported out of the area. Treat this as a real life or death scenario and don’t be afraid to go all out.”
“Oh... Ooooohhh…” Zaniyah pulled out her axe and hopped from one foot to the other. “Let me go first. Please let me go first. Please, please, please.”
“Or,” Veximarl interjected, “we could consider, as a group, to let her go last. After all, She did have to run for two during the morning run. From a medical standpoint, we should allow her the opportunity to rest longer.”
“Thank you for volunteering, Tuton! I love volunteers!” Stonetoe gave a bemused smirk. His smile fell as Veximarl froze up in fear. “Tuton. Get in there.”
Zaniyah ran forward and leaped over the fence. She started to twirl and dance about as a warmup, swinging the axe around with her as though it were a dance partner. Veximarl sulked over to the pendant hook and grabbed two necklaces, drawing one over his head in complete dismay.
“Zani! You forgot your pendant!” Sybil shouted as she approached the edge of the fence.
“I’ve got hers.” Veximarl held it up for Sybil to see. He hesitantly stepped past the gate and tossed the necklace in Zaniyah’s direction. She, in turn, twisted around, catching it with the handle of her axe and looping it over her head in one smooth motion.
“Ready!” Zaniyah stamped her foot in the ground, sending a puff of dust about her boots.
“We don’t have to start immediately. Let’s give a brief moment to enjoy how beautiful the weather is first. Perhaps give a prayer to Iath for a good battle or thank Mart for the lovely weather.” Veximarl fumbled to draw out his sword and hold it in front of himself. He had to lift his leg awkwardly and support the sheath with his thigh so he could pull it out.
“Stop whining and start already! I’ve got other exams to ruin!” Stonetoe’s voice boomed out of his cone.
Zaniyah replied by letting out a loud battle screech. Her feet slammed into the ground as she charged forward at an insane speed. The axe went low, and Veximarl could see exactly how she was planning to swing. Sybil was right, her movements were easy to read.
Reacting to them was a different story.
For the briefest of moments, he reached off to the side to cast something but went for his sword instead. It begun to rattle with fear in his hands as he moved the blade down n to block her axe. At least, he assumed it would block it. Another roar from Zaniyah’s lips and she drew the axe upward. She cleaved straight through his sword and splintered his chestplate in half in one smooth stroke.
Veximarl could see his life flash before his eyes. His youth within the swamp, the death of his mother, training with his mentor. The summers he spent traveling through the Crimson Region, then packing for the lonely journey here, only to die before feeling any sort of accomplishment. He started to fall backward in a limp state. A great warmth fought to overtake him, a bright light, and finally impenetrable darkness.
“He fainted again.” Sybil knelt down next to where Veximarl had teleported outside the fence, poking at his cheek with a finger. She then gave a wave to her friend. “It’s okay, Zani! He’s not dead!”
“Tch.” Zaniyah stamped her foot and tossed her head to the side as a show of annoyed disappointment. “Do I get a redo?!” She pointed over at Vincent. “Hey! Big, broad, and handsome! Get in here!” The paladin’s face became strained, but he didn’t move from his spot.
Stonetoe let out a whistle. When Veximarl’s sword broke, a piece of it went flying off in the direction of the applicants. It clanged against the invisible barrier and embedded itself within the dirt below. Zaniyah walked over to pick it up, examining the point where it had snapped. She braced a foot against a rung in the fence and vaulting over, twirling the piece between her fingers.
“You could have bothered to say no rather than just stand there!” She frowned at Vincent.
“I have already been assigned a duel.” He looked off to the side in a callous manner.
Meanwhile, Grimhawk was chuckling to himself. “You said you only wanted one.”
“I already have the one,” muttered Stonetoe. “Nita informed me last night that I’m being assigned a second troublemaker. No need to make it three.”
Another chuckle came out of the old man. “That boy she was interrogating last night?” Stonetoe nodded. “Gonna need a strong arm if you hope to even out the squad.”
“Do some of the work this time around, and I’ll consider it,” spat back Stonetoe.
“But I’m ooold.” Grimhawk poked at the ground in front of him. “And feeeble.” Stonetoe glared at him. Wordlessly, the knight grabbed a flask from his belt and took a long drink from it.
Zaniyah flicked the broken blade into the dirt next to Veximarl. “Do you think he’ll make me buy a new one?” She asked Sybil. “I don’t have any money. I spent all my allowance on new clothes before we got here.”
“I think there are other problems you need to worry about,” Sybil replied, tossing a glance to the two talking knights. She didn’t understand the whole conversation but was worried that they were already discussing failing Zaniyah.
“Highland!” Grimhawk called out. He lifted up his staff and pointed to the field.
Vincent gave a nod as he reached into a pouch at his waist. He pulled out a set of metal viasl and tossed one over to Silas. “I expect your best.” The other vial was placed within a slot located within his bracer.
“Yes, captain.” Silas pulled loose the metal block that hung from his hip and set the vial within it. Hinges were forced out of the metal, snapping open and unfolding into a large hammer. The head of the hammer let out a waft of steam as it started to glow a bright red.
They both put on their pendants and stepped into the ring. Zaniyah reaching over and tugging on on Sybil’s sleeve. “They’re using mist charges?” Her eyes never left the sight of the hammer. There was a look of longing within them as Silas took a few practice swings. It was smoldering and leaving a trail of smoke behind it.
“You also have a mist powered weapon, so it’s not that surprising. Even if it’s core tech, the outlanders will buy up anything that made by the Cully family.” Sybil looked off to the side, sighing to herself.
Most weaponry had magical properties added to them via blood iron. It used to be a rare resource, but Talwyn Cully developed a new way of gathering it from livestock. After becoming rich off of her blood iron products, she spread out and started to incorporate power boosts to her weapons with mist amplifiers. Mist charges were originally used to power golems outside of mist regions and were only manufactured in the core for there own use, but the Cully family and their products were a much-needed step towards creating jobs for the core.
Despite that, the outlanders of Carapace avoided using golems. Not only them, but most of Lustro avoided the technology. Sybil knew that the capital once had a program for developing golems, as her father would often travel there to the past to assist them, but it had been shut down due to a horrific accident a few years ago. It also didn’t help that the nobles of Fogbloom and Carapace absolutely hated each other
Even if the outerland of Carapace shunned standard core technology, the unfolding mechanism in Silas’ hammer was made using it. Sybil saw that there were other applicants in the field that had similar weapons, not just those from Starsons. The thought of that annoyed her. Golems were a no-no because they were dangerous, but these were literal weapons made for killing people. Outlander logic was stupid.
Chickadee walked up, nudging Sybil with his elbow as a signal that he had returned from his testing. She gestured over to the pair within the dueling field and he nodded. He then walked over to the fence, leaning over it with a certain interest. He had never gotten the chance to see such items used in serious combat before and was eager to get his first glimpse.
Grimhawk’s voice boomed out over the field. “Begin when ready!”