Zaniyah squinted at the pair that were burning and hacking away at the stone orb. They gave a sudden pause, looking towards the fort. A loud scream could be heard from within. It was the sound of sheer terror, and Zaniyah’s eyes also flitted to the fort as she sought to locate its source.
Luca had fallen to the floor, scrambling backward until he hit the wall. His hand went up and a shield appeared in front of him. Vincent chose to hold his ground. His sword was held off to his side, waiting for the moment it needed to be used.
“There is a mage wearing a Starsons emblem outside of the fort. He is not a member of your assigned squad.” Veximarl’s ghostly voice hissed out again.
“That is because there is no mage assigned to our current team.” Vincent tightened his grip on his weapon. “This better not be some trick to distract us. Those who wish for knighthood should not sink to such low tactics. I will be reporting you if this turns out to be a lie.”
Luca shook his head and kept his shield up. His voice was cracking from the panic he felt. “He means Barcus! We brought him into the fort last night after he told us he knew of a way for him to pass the exam!”
Vincent’s gaze snapped towards the cleric. “Why did none of you tell me?” Luca stammered, but couldn’t say anything. “Do you understand how inexcusable this is?!” He gave a sudden pause as realization set in. “Does he have a pendant?!” Luca frantically shook his head back and forth. “Entrance to Braytons isn’t something worth dying for! What were the lot of you thinking?!”
“Tell Nita I’ve confirmed it, Archive.” The figure in the back of the room raised up and stepped forward. He didn’t hesitate to walk right through Veximarl’s visage. “You two. Outside. Now,” Grimhawk growled. “And Tuton!” He turned and pointed his staff at the paladin trainee. “By dragon’s tits, boy. Get back into your body this instant. Do you know even know what look like right now? I certainly don’t, but I don’t like that aura! Never cast that cursed spell around me again! Grulick be damned! I’m not risking a heart attack while looking after her charge!”
“Yes, sir.” Veximarl sunk into the floor. He floated back into the direction of his body and laid back within it. Colored returned to his cheeks, and he sat up with a sudden gasp. His chest heaved up and down as he struggled to catch his breath and calm his heart. Zaniyah let out a surprised squeak at his sudden outburst, rolling away and nearly falling down the hillside.
“What was said?” Chickadee continued to survey through his scope, unphased by what Veximarl had done. His eyebrows raised up as he saw Grimhawk and his princess hat come barging out. The old knight began to scream at the Starsons boys as though they were children, making them line up against the wall while he swung a sword about. There wasn’t much else to the story to say after that. At least, that was Zaniyah’s opinion.
Back in the present, Zaniyah sunk down and sat at the edge of the table. Her tale had come to an abrupt end. She set her sword down and her elbows rested on her thighs so she could place her chin in the palms of her hands. Her feet kicked back and forth at a slow pace. Having been so eager a moment ago, she had ceased all actions so she could enter a deep sulk.
“So? Then what happened?” Sybil tilted her head.
Veximarl was watching the whole elaborate tale with an unbelieving gaze, despite having been there himself. “Ah, yes.” He stated in a monotone voice. “First of all, I did not die from sunstroke and have my ghost haunt the other team in an act of revenge. It is called astral projection, and despite it being uncomfortable, I was never actually dead.”
“You’re kidding…” Alton stated, looking off towards the window.
“No! It was because you were dead!” Zaniyah pointed with a shaking finger, as though it emphasized her opinion.
“It is a legitimate spell that has nothing to do with death!” Veximarl leaned back into his chair and folded his arms. “Grimhawk scolded them for a time and then ‘executed’ both Luca and Silas for siding with Barcus. Stonetoe arrived at some point and left with Barcus before Grimhawk could do anything to him. Since myself and Chickadee were already squires, Grimhawk requested that Zaniyah and Vincent fight to the death for the chance save the ‘fair maiden.’”
“But Zaniyah is a squire now. She must have won, right? He would’ve lost the golem part of his shield if his bracer blew out, and she would’ve gotten the upper hand.” Sybil knew the plan, and it didn’t seem like it had failed. Zaniyah let out an annoyed sigh and sulked all the more.
Veximarl adjusted his glasses. “His bracer did explode, and it took his arm with it. None of us could have predicted that it would completely fail to phase him, and he ran Zaniyah through while she was still shielding her eyes from the blast. His professionalism at that moment was quite impressive.”
“I was aiming for the gap where he would be distracted! It isn’t my fault that he wasn’t!” Zaniyah snapped back. “I was greatly misinformed on how bothered losing a damn arm would make him!” She didn’t want to admit that she was more startled by Vincent’s detached glowing hand flying through the air than he was.
The paladin trainee stifled a smile. “You would have been amused. We helped Vincent carry the Starsons supplies back, and he approached Zani immediately. He spoke to her in the most intimidating fashion, ‘My name is Vincent Highland. Do not forget it.’ Then he turned around and walked away as though nothing had happened.”
“We then returned here,” Chickadee stated as he walked over to Sybil. Now he was looking over the scabbard of Grulick’s sword with great detail. “Confiscated,” he muttered, removing it from her belt for her and carrying it over to his desk.
Sybil nodded her head. “Yes, you can borrow it.” She then furrowed her brows. “I know we can just grab food in the hall, but I actually want to go out hunting again.”
“I heard someone say that there was a grove that had some rabbits in it nearby.” Zaniyah perked up. “Do you want to go find out what a rabbit is and bop it on the head? I bet they taste good.”
Alton sneered at the idea. “And risk running into someone’s exam? I’m not going. There will be more squires by the end of the day. You and Vex should do another check on what’s in storage and grab the best items before they do.” Zaniyah’s eyes lit up at the idea of a treasure hunt. “Twist, do you want to get some food in the hall?”
She didn’t particularly feel like being interrogated by Alton on the status of her acceptance. “I don’t know if I’m all that hungry yet.” Her stomach let out a faint, well-timed growl.
Zaniyah hopped down from the table, rushing over to Sybil and tickling at her sides. “Your stomach betrays you, my dear! Go into Daemon’s lair and feast until your stomach bursts!” The others looked at her. “... What? It’s an old kid’s story. An old man named Daemon invites a kid into the core and they have a lovely meal. Every kid in Carapace knows it.”
“I’m going to skip the long explanation and only say that they tell a completely different version of that story where I’m from.” Alton raised a brow at Zaniyah’s confused stare and then shook his head. “Come on, Twist.”
Sybil slapped away Zaniyah’s hands and walked slowly behind Alton. “I’ll be back in a little bit. I’ll bring back something as well, so don’t worry about it.”
They didn’t go to the hall. Instead, he led her up to the rampart that acted as the outer wall to the barracks. Walking along it for a moment, he sat down and pressed his back against the stones. He gave a long yawn as he waited. The girl slumped down next to him, looking up at the sky. Clouds had always intrigued her. She didn’t mind a quiet moment where she could stare idly up at them.
“I’m only helping them set up the room. They haven’t given me a squad assignment yet. Probably Jewelclover,” he said. “You didn’t ask me to go with you to Carapace.” Alton turned his head up to the sky as well, frowning at the clouds above. This place was so much hotter than the city. The idea of spending money on warm weather clothes bothered him.
Why would she ask him to come? “I’m only stopping by for a moment. I actually need to go to the peninsula swamp and find Lady Grulick’s village.” Sybil let out a sigh. “She’s the one that got Vex into this place. I’m going to do everything I can to get her to write a letter and force them to make me a squire here, and I need him to be my guide there. No offense, but you’ll do as well in the swamp as Vex will do in the Violet Region.”
They sat in silence a bit longer. “I’m sorry…” She looked over at him. “I know you wanted Lady Larkin’s rapier, but... “ He shook his head. “Sorry, uh, it seems like everything is turning out well for you. You’re going to stay with your friends after all.”
“I hope so.” Sybil studied his face for a moment before looking up to the sky again. “I’m still not sure how I’m supposed to feel about her death... Did you ever get a chance to meet her? I know that she stopped by Starsons once in a while.”
He nodded. “She would stop by the squire training program every few weeks. Lady Larkin was always shining and beautiful... Everyone always hung on to every word she said, but I always thought she was depressed whenever she came by. She would only stay long enough to give a few encouraging words and then leave again. Though she did like to pat my head a lot.” Alton ran his hand through his hair at the thought.
“She had an argument with the school when we were kids.” Sybil laughed at the memory. “I remember her stomping back and forth in our living room, ranting to my dad about how stubborn the people in the outerland were. Lydia wanted the squire program at Starsons to accept talented students from Dogfall, but they refused. Something about not wanting to spread fear among impressionable minds.”
“You knew her well, then?” Alton was surprised by her statement.
“My father, Stallis Twist, is… Well, he’s famous in golem crafting circles, or at least he was. Before the war, he’d travel between Carapace and Fogbloom, transporting new ideas and innovations in golem technology. From my understanding, golems were a lot more accepted in the capital than they are in the outerland. Lydia would travel with him as a guard. After the war, father sent his ideas by correspondence only, and Lydia chose to stay in Carapace. They wanted to be there for me...
My mother died when I was three. I don’t remember much about her. Mostly the neighbors, Zani’s family, took care of me after that when neither dad or Lydia were around. Lydia would always make a point to watch out over us whenever she could, but she still had ‘Hero of the Southern War’ duties to attend to. She taught me how to fight, taught me about the outside world, and she did everything she could to help me and my dad out since both of us were helpless at it.”
“Were you there then?” Alton frowned. “That was rude... I heard she was murdered in the core.” He twisted his hands together anxiously at the topic. The details of it were well published, and after confirming that her and Stallis Twist were related… Alton knew it was a sensitive issue.
Sybil’s voice dropped to a whisper. “She wasn’t murdered. It was an accident. Dad was working on a golem prototype with some students from the Fogbloom university. It went crazy for some unknown reason. Nearly everyone involved was killed or severely injured, but Lydia rushed in to save dad, and it… I don’t know. Everyone said that it was dad’s fault, but he would never do that to her. He hasn’t been allowed to leave the core since it happened, and they only let him work on maintenance when it comes to golems now.”
Alton watched as her expression became tense. He put his arm around her shoulder and drew her closer. A soft tune that she didn’t recognize was hummed gently. For a moment, his touch felt nice. Her eyes closed and she leaned into him slightly as his cheek rested on the top of her head.
“Are you going to cry again?”
“... No. I’m past that now. I also have a way of fighting Lady Till’s decision. I’m not going to give up yet.” She was starting to feel those fires of determination burn inside of her once more.
“If it makes you feel better, I was somewhat of an outcast at Starsons myself,” said Alton sympathetically.
“Mila told me.” Sybil scoffed disgust and attempted to move away from him, but he kept an arm loosely about her shoulder. “It must have been terrible. All of those people who were always working to make you happy. Girls throwing themselves at you, boys wanting to be your friend. Maybe some of the boys throwing themselves at you as well, I don’t know.”
“I am unbelievably handsome.” He nodded in a sad manner. “They called my squad the harem. I was the captain and I had four ladies under my command.”
“... I don’t know why you’d bring that up.” She looked between his hand on her shoulder and him. “I’m not going to be in your harem. That won’t make me feel better, so don’t bother to ask.”
Alton’s eyes widened. “The harem was horrible. Anytime they did something, they’d expect to be rewarded. I had to take all of them out on dates, drag them to classes on my arm, write them songs about their beauty... It was like having four high maintenance girlfriends at the same time, and Vincent didn’t even let a single one of them come to Braytons. They wouldn’t have gotten in either way. Trust me, they terrible at everything. I stopped handing out rewards for them doing basic work and they stopped training as a result.”
“Yes. That sounds horrible,” replied Sybil in a deadpan tone.
“They did get a lot of practice kissing. At least they had that going for them.” Alton nodded again in a sad manner.
“... I really don’t know where you are going with any of this.”
Alton looked down at her, giving her a stern look. “I never slept with any of them. Sex is… I don’t want to get into it. Trust me, I had plenty of chances to, uh, you know, but I’m actually not a bad guy. I only ever did what was asked of me.”
“May I leave now?”
“The point is... I’m adopted.” Sybil’s facial expression went from disgust to bewilderment. “I’m not… Exactly human. Obviously, because of my hair and eyes. I know, it’s not a shock, but it goes deeper than that. I was born in Fogbloom. My father was from an influential family. My mother…” He gestured to his hair and eyes. “Being a mutt wasn’t what I would describe as great.
The Tovals had left Fogbloom a long time ago for a good reason, and my birth family threatened to bring up old ghosts. They were blackmailed into adopting me, and they pulled it off by saying I was sick for most of my life and that’s why no one had ever seen me before. Since they have two sons already, nothing was expected of me. Without the need to work on inheriting the business, I was free to do as I please. All they had to do is keep me comfortable and they would have nothing to fear.
But I’m technically not allowed to be with a woman, even with marriage in mind. They could find out about my past, or about some of my weirder physical quirks, and that would end up tarnishing the Toval name. Either people would think less of Miss Iofea or look into my adoption. Either way. that wasn’t a decision that they made. The Tovals are good people, and I don’t want to ruin what they have.”
Sybil shook her head. “I get that, but please don’t go into details on how you’re mutated. I have a feeling that I don’t want to know more.”
Alton laughed. “I have scales on my back and webbed toes. That’s it. Don’t tell anyone though.” He went back to his stern face. “I’m serious. That’s a secret between us.”
“I wasn’t planning on it.” Her frown intensified as his face became all the sterner. “You shouldn’t have told me any of that if you were going to swear me to secrecy right afterward.”
He paused, tightening his grip on her shoulder again. “It’s just that… With the way things that are… I mean, with you and…” His brow furrowed. “I’m not going to say all of that.” He paused. “I don’t need to say any of that. I only need to tell you to be careful around Vex. It isn’t safe.”
Sybil turned to look at him, only to feel his nose sniff at her hair. “What are you do-”
His face was close. It was unbelievably close. Looking at him now was like staring into the sun. Absolutely unbearable in a beautiful way. Every exhales through his slightly parted lips was breathing hot air against hers, and her brain locked up as she had no idea what he was thinking.
“May I?” He whispered it in the most vulnerable manner, making her all the more nervous.
“I’m sorry, what?”
Alton’s eyes darted from her own to her lips and then back to her eyes. The color of them was so vivid when they were this close, shifting slightly with every little motion they made. “... May I kiss you?”
“Will you stop trying to piss me off?” She turned her head away and exhaled loudly between her teeth in an annoyed manner. “We both know that you find me disgusting, and you’re only doing this to get a reaction out of me. Or something, I don’t know. Either way, you’re terrible.”
She was jerked towards him, and he forcefully pressed his lips against hers in a ravaging manner. One hand her shoulder kept her in place, while the other one held her jaw. She was too stunned to do anything about it, by the time she understood what was happening, he had already pulled back so he could stare at her. He was embarrassed. Biting at his lip, he stammered for a moment before finding the words he wanted to say.
“I’m sorry. You kept talking instead of giving me an answer. I get impatient sometimes but this time I’ll be better about it.” He leaned in again. “May I kiss you?”
“No!” Sybil pried herself free of his grasp and waved her arms about. “No. Just… Oh.” She clutched at her throat, feeling as though she might vomit. “By the core, no. Nonono. No... Just no! What is wrong with you?!”
Alton didn’t get a chance to answer her. All he could do was watch her run off, frowning to himself as she did so. He slumped back against the stones, closing his eyes and tilting his head back. Girls were something he would never be good at. That’s why he usually let them do all the work. His fingers reached up, tracing themselves along his lower lip. They were still warm and slightly moist from her touch.
“That was disgusting,” he muttered to himself.