Sybil kept her eyes on the countryside but gave Moontear the occasional glance. They were all dark-haired, plain looking teens. Emery had skin the color of cooked honey, Basil was the palest, but they all had similar features and haircuts that were hidden under matching hoods.
She was also unused to seeing a teacher travel with a group. Apparently the Grimstone motto of, “Eh, the kids can handle themselves, whatever,” was unique. The other squads had spent a lot of time bonding with their knights.
Oceans occasionally turned his head so they could hear him while he spoke. “It’s just a simple job, you see. There are some wild pigs that have been rooting up the turnips at our farm. We’re going to go see if we can find their hiding spot and put some traps down. We’ll check back tomorrow, but don’t expect to catch anything. They’re smart animals. That should be more than enough to scare them away.”
Peter bobbled his head up and down. “Moontear huddle.” The three boys gathered together in a group while Sybil rubbed her temples. She was getting a headache. “Basil, analysis.”
“Unknown. This could be our only chance to claim one of the females from Grimstone Squad permanently if we act to impress. Initial observations state that Bronzescale has a good chance to get her if she chooses to revolt against Grimstone.”
Emery glared. “The mission, Basil. Analysis of the mission.”
“Dense woods make our bows useless. This operation is set for stealth. Suggest usage of traps and loud noises. Melee combat is an absolute no no,” replied Basil, not missing a beat between the topics of Sybil and the mission. “Our targets are gilded boars, sir, larger than the breeds we’ve dealt with in the Crimson Region. There will be the usual signs of them sharpening their tusks on trees, digging around to eat the roots of plants, and creating mud baths for relaxation and to keep their skin soft and perky.”
“Sir, I suggest locating their game trails leading outside the perimeter of the grove and setting up net traps,” stated Peter. “Basil can rush them out, and we can finish them off with arrows from there.”
Basil mulled this over before shaking his head. “Our goal is to dissuade their presence, not kill. I suggest we set up snare traps along the entrance points to their game trails. We have no reason to aim for an attack today.”
“Not even for my mom’s ham recipe?” Peter grinned widely. “Brought all the right spices with me when I came here.”
“It takes a year to cure,” muttered back Emery.
Mouth watering at the idea, Basil was quick to change his mind. “Sir, I suggest we kill three of the largest boars we can find and begin processing them immediately.”
Emery looked between the two of them, brow furrowing as he did so. “One large boar for now. Have to test the meat to see if it’s good. Basil and I will rush them out, and Peter will ambush.”
Sybil squinted her eyes at the group. “... I’m also here.”
The three peeked up their heads from the huddle, blinked at her, and then dived back in. They continued to speak, not even bothering to lower their voices as they did so. “Unknown statistics on Grimstone female,” said Basil. “She was not around during summer, nor was she seen during the entrance exams. All that is known is that she is a city girl. It is unlikely that she will mingle well into our teamwork.”
“Suggestion. Make her feel like she has an important job,” reasoned Peter. “That way, she’ll be impressed that she was involved in the plan, and won’t get in our way.”
Emery nodded as the huddle broke apart. He scratched at the side of his neck and kept his eyes anywhere but where Sybil was. When he spoke, his tone was an apathetic monotone. “If it’s alright with you, we’d like it if you were to go around the perimeter of the grove and give a shout if you see any stragglers.”
Sybil glared at the trio. She didn’t say anything. Simply glared. It made Emery shrink back a bit and sit in a place where Peter was between himself and Sybil.
Oceans turned his head again. “What’s most important is that you all work as a group. Go ahead and forgive them, Sybil. Those three have spent their whole lives together. They have a system that works for them, but they’re going to have to take some time to figure out how to work with others ‘cause of it. I’m glad you’re here to help them out with that.”
She could understand that at least. The situation would be identical for her if Chickadee and Zaniyah were the only ones in her squad. Thinking about it did make sympathize, but she was still annoyed that they referred to her as the female instead of using her name.
They continued on until they reached a grove. The boys jumped out as a unit and started to investigate while Sybil followed from behind. She was keeping an eye out for that one weed that had messed up her legs before. Thinking about having to yank off her clothes and roll around in the mud with these three present sent chills up her spine.
It was still early in the afternoon, do the animals would be active. They walked around the edge of the perimeter, looking for signs of their presence. Emery noticed it first, pointing down to a dirt trail that led within. The others nodded, and Peter began to set up a net that stretched across the expanse of it.
“There is a plant inside that looks like a thistle, but with greenish blue blooms. Its leaves have needles that will dig through clothing, and it will cause a seriously nasty rash. There shouldn’t be any on the game trails, but keep an eye out for it.” Basil explained to Sybil. “Sir, permission to gather blister thistle for arrow augmentation?”
“Avoid it. Blisterweed is banned from fort grounds.” Emery peered into the woods. “Basil, take the left point. Sybil, staying or going?”
“I’ll follow.” She could use her mist step to stay out of trouble if it showed up.
“Stay two steps back and between us,” said Emery. “Get Galwen if there’s trouble.” At least it wasn't wandering around and do nothing. She gave a nod and let them lead the way.
The pair moved silently as they walked ahead of her. This was somewhat of a surprise to Sybil. Their overall awkwardness had made her worry that they’d be as good at being hunters as Veximarl was at being a paladin. They would occasionally pause to look around, especially as the grove began to darken around them. Sounds of a stream could be heard far out in the distance. There were no sightings of pigs, but they did find a pool of water that had been dug up out of the ground.
Emery knelt by the mud and examined the nearby tracks. “It’s a small group.” He pointed to the different size tracks, and then towards a broken branch on the ground. “Path leads that way.”
“Sir.” Basil had noticed something in the mud, gesturing for Emery to take a look.
Both him and Sybil approached to look down at the tracks Basil had pointed out. She had trouble telling what marks were, as the dirt had been tossed about. All she good do was bobbled her head and make an “ah ha” sound, as though she completely understood.
“Feline of some type,” Basil said to Emery as he knelt down.
Sybil put a hand to her dagger. “We’re not too far from the geyser mist region. Do they have mist cats here?” It was a large feline that was native to the mountain range where Carapace was.
“This is easily three times as large as a mist cat’s, and they don’t wander past the mountains,” muttered Basil. He stood back up and put a hand to his sword. “I think this one is larger than a horse.”
“We’re leaving.” Emery began to dig around his belt pouches. “Slow and careful. Follow the trail, avoid any sound, eyes peeled for any movement.”
They nodded in agreement. Emery pulled a metal whistle out and placed it on his lips, being careful not to blow it. He let Basil take point as they formed a straight line, with himself in the middle and Sybil in the back. None of them kept their eyes on the same spot, always looking off in a different direction from the others.
Sybil felt uneasy. There were many cave openings at the base of Carapace which were used as nesting spots by animals. Though mist cats were small, they had powerful jaws, and large paws to help them keep a grip against the m-[pountain side. It was rare to hear that someone had survived an encounter with one. Now she was worried that something could jump out at any moment and take them all out in an instant.
Her eye twitched as she felt something look her way.
The sensation was coming from her sheath. She put her hand to it and looked about once more. Something nearby was watching. It was coming from the thickest shadows within the grove.
A set of curved horns betrayed its presence. Below them were a set of pale gold eyes. The cat’s skin was black and leathery, as though it had a skin infection, with faded patches of white fur that were barely clinging on. It lifted its head slightly, and she could see that it had two long fangs that extended past its lips. Whatever that was, Basil was right about it being larger than a horse, at least an average one. Her hand slowly lifted up from the sheath and placed itself on Emery’s shoulder.
He turned and quickly noticed what she was looking at. “If we run, it will charge,” he whispered around the whistle. “Eyes on it. Keep on the trail.”
Basil looked over as well, staying silent as he did so. He continued to lead the group as the pair kept their eyes on the cat, who was now slowly stalking them. A sudden rustle in the bush ahead of them gave them all a pause. Sybil kept her eyes on the cat while the other two drew their weapons. Her own daggers were drawn out as well.
A herd of pigs charged through the bush. In the process, they knocked over a surprised Basil, making him stumble back and fall into a shrub. Emery stepped out of the way and dragged Sybil with him. The cat leaped at the three as absolute chaos broke out. Basil fumbled for his sword and stumbled to a stand. He affirmed his stance as the cat landed nearby and began to run.
“Just run!” Sybil shouted. Her daggers flew through the air, hitting their marks on the cat’s head. Both deflected off of its skin without making a mark.
Emery blew his whistle as hard as he could, and the sharp note echoed out in all directions. He looked over to Sybil before he spat it out. “We can’t outrun it. Flank and wait for Galwen!” Basil was already moving into position, and Emery headed off in the other direction.
This was a terrible time for the mist to not pour out of her sheath. Sybil really could use some spooky mist people advice right about now. Especially as the creature caught up with her first, and reared its foreleg back. She did a sweeping motion with her sword as the beast brought its paw down on her. A splash of blood splashed on her, but it did nothing to weaken the attack. Its claws slashed into her, and she flew through the air like a ragdoll before colliding with a nearby tree.
Her world became dark and full of pain as her sight began to fade. She put a hand to her chest, which now felt wet and cold... So very cold. Within her other hand, the sword was pulsing. It was vibrating. Sybil’s senses were dimming full of agony and suddenly the world was spinning.
All she could hear was crying. The room she was in was dark and small. There were clothes hanging up, but they smelled old and full of dust. At her feet, there was a small child. She was curled into a ball with tears streaming down her cheeks. Something about this scene made Sybil’s paralyzed with fear. Even more so than the beast that had attacked her, or the thought of dying, something about this particular scene chilled Sybil to the core.
The door to the closet was slammed open by a man whose clothes were stained by blood. Holding up her arms defensively, the girl began to plead for mercy. Sybil still found herself unable to move. All she could do was be paralyzed as she watched the girl be dragged away, and the image of the white buttercups that were embroidered along the back of the girl’s jacket were burned into her mind.
Sybil blinked, and now she was next to a mountain.
She tightened her grip on her weapon as she took a step back. Her foot nearly gave way as she nearly slipped into the stream behind her. It made no sound as it flowed, oozing slowly as though it were made of tar. What was worse was the smell that was radiating off of it.
The sound of stones creaking made her look away from the stream, and her eyes widened with terror. It was the mountain that had moved. Almost as though it were stirring in its sleep, and it continued to twist and contort until a set of suns lit up before her. She covered her eyes with her arm to prevent herself from being blinded, and as the lights began to fade, she could see that they were actually eyes.
“You are dying.” The voice boomed. It echoed throughout her mind and rattled her bones. “Prophet of Bellia, you may soon be no more. Why have you beckoned me to awaken?”
“Where… Where did the girl go?” Sybil looked around hesitantly. Even her eyes weren’t able to pierce the darkness that was surrounding this scene, but she was certain it was no closet.
“This is a world of visions, prophet,” the voice replied. “You have entered this realm because you have found yourself in a time of need, and I was the one you found yourself desiring. Speak. Why is it that you are here?”
Her mouth opened and closed a few times as she struggled to gather her thoughts. “T-there was a cat, no, it was a beast.” She had cut through its foreleg, but it was not without cost. “I injured it, and now I’m here. I know that probably makes no sense, but that’s all I have.”
“Your blood is weak.” The orbs drew closer and she felt a quick gust of warm wind against her as it exhaled. “No… Your blood has been bound and locked away by cursed magic, and it is only by the will of the heart that you remain, but it cannot save you. That is why the heart has brought you to me… Only I have the power to defeat your foe. If you can convince me of it, child, I will grant you this boon.”
There was a thought that ran through Sybil’s mind. “Prophet of Bellia?”
The name that belonged to the man she suspected to be her grandfather. He had gone mad and killed many nobles, including the members of the royal family. That was the blood that coursed within her veins. Was his blood also bound? Did this mountain give him assistance as well?
The orbs blinked. “I knew a Bellia on more than one occasion.” Sybil felt a pull of air against her as he inhaled. “Whom do you wish to be like? The god of mists, or the murderer that stole their name?” The mountain did not wait for Sybil to respond. Part of its body curled behind her to pull her forward. It felt like a wall was forcing her towards him.
It let out a long, drawn-out sigh. “Yet another one of your flock that knows nothing about itself. A shame that it is not my place to baptize you, and that I have no power over your blood, but there will be a day where you must decide which Bellia you wish to become.” The voice paused. “You are not here to devour me, are you?”
“Then that is the choice of tomorrow. The choice of today is different.”
Sybil was beginning to understand what this monster was. A dragon that was covered in boulders and ancient trees. The stoney snout breathed out once more upon her as it let out a heavier sigh. She stood her ground against the wind, skidding backward and bracing herself firmly against the tail behind her.
“Beware, prophet, if you seek to undo your bindings, you will be abandoning your human self. But that is for the future you to decide. Today, I will make the mistake by granting you a temporary connection to my powers. Do not let it pollute your ambitions. Your survival is the boon I grant to you, and you will receive nothing more. Let it be known, child, that this will be the last time we meet. Never again will I heed your call.”
“I understand,” she whispered back.
“Then call my name, and the contract will be complete.”
She was dying. Even in this strange place, her chest felt wet and cold. Breathing was becoming more difficult... The longer she stayed here, the more pain she was in. Suddenly, she remembered the monster in the woods. Its claws had torn through her bosom, and it wouldn’t be long before Emery and Basil met similar fates. By idling here, she was endangering Moontear Squad. If their weapons were as useless as her daggers had been, then there wasn’t a choice.
Sybil looked up at the dragon. She wouldn’t be evil. She won’t fall to temptation like the assassin had. She won’t let power change her. No matter where this contract led, no consequence was too great. Sybil would defy what stood against her and not die this day.
“Tyrtain! Stand with me! Please!”
A gust of wind forced herself to brace herself once more. When she opened her eyes, she was still broken and lying against a tree. The cat was still near and keeping its eyes on Basil. He had a hunting sword in one hand and a dagger in the other. His gaze kept darting between where Sybil had fallen and the beast, not knowing how to react.
The creature started to creep up, swishing its spiny tail as it went. Sybil let out a groan as she tried to get back her senses. She used the tree behind her as support as she struggled to stand. Her senses were becoming overwhelmed. All around her were strange voices, as though the world had come alive.
Her hand tightened about the sword, and mist began to ooze out of the sheathe. The voices around her were beginning to dull, and time about her was slowing. As the sight of the world became choked with mist, figures began to appear within it.
“She seems to be out of it... Do you think she finally saw something?” There was a voice to her left.
“We’ll talk about it later, when it isn’t time to have fun. Something fun has come to play!” A voice cooed from behind her.
“A mist mutation?” Said a voice to her left.
“Normal weapons won’t work, but will the sword? It’s special, right? That’s what Aeneas always said.” A voice to her right. Sybil kept her eyes on the beast. There was blood coming from its front leg. That was the source of the strong stench that filled the air.
“If she saw anything, then the sword wouldn’t still be sleeping. So we’ll do this the old fashioned way. Hack and a slash!” The voice behind her cooed.
“I know what to do,” whispered Sybil.
She stumbled forward as time began to hasten. Her feet struggled to maintain balance and her body ached. The creature was moving slowly. Its maw opened and moving forward to close itself upon Basil. As the foreign voices became all the louder, Sybil finally understood what they meant. These voices were allies of every elementalist, and they had come now to aide her. Her free hand was raised, and she felt a surge of power flow through it.
“Your body is injured, but it will last long enough to channel my power. Do not get carried away.” Tyrtain’s voice rang through her head.
The ground shot up and formed a stone wall between the cat and Basil. Its attentions were suddenly on Sybil, but the motions were sluggish due to time dilation. Swinging her hand to the side, the trees around her began to explode as water was yanked loose from them. Tendrils of moisture formed into icicles that began to pelt at the beast as Sybil was swallowed up by mist.
She appeared next to the monster next. Sybil was hoping to appear above it and perform a downward strike, but at least she was sort of close. The sword was thrust forward, this time jabbing into the creature’s hind leg. It let out a howl and whipped towards her,
Time was already starting to speed up again. It never seemed to last long, and it was possibly shortened due to her injuries. The mist swallowed her up again, this time moving her short distance away. Once more did her free hand fling backward, this time to create a wall that trapped herself in with the beast.
It began to charge towards her. She held her ground, even though she was terrified. The look in the monster’s eyes was one of desperation, but it was also fearless. For one of them, there was no chance of escape.
“I-I’m not going to die today. I refuse!”
The ground below her dipped down, allowing her to dodge between its paws. All of her remaining strength went towards thrusting the blade upwards. She felt it crack through its ribs and penetrate deeply within. As the beast began to fall, she ducked into her trench so she wouldn’t be crushed upon impact. Her form shifted into mist once more, if only to escape the hole. Now was her chance to flee, but she instead ended up nearby. There was no escape until she knew this beast was dead.
Sybil dug the sword into the ground and used it to stand up. She turned around to watch the creature struggle. It began to limp in an attempt to get away from her. Then it slumped to its side, panting heavily as blood continued to pour out if its chest. The whole scene was… Painful, yet familiar. The sword slipped from her fingers, and she began to clutch at her chest with both hands.
As she started to feel the voices fade, the walls she had built began to crumble. She remained standing, even though it took all of her strength to do so. There was a fear that she couldn’t shake. At any second, the monster she was staring down could suddenly spring up and attempt to attack her once more.
Emery put a hand on her shoulder, Basil the other one.
“You did it, Sybil,” whispered Basil.
They supported her as she fell back into them. The world was growing dark once more. Her chest didn’t hurt anymore, but that failed to bring her relief. All there was an overwhelming sense of emptiness. A cold void from which she saw no escape.