“You’re the one who said not to run on the path!” Zaniyah shouted as she chased after Sybil. They were making their way through the wooden pathways above the geyser field and to a road where several riding animals were waiting. “We wouldn’t have to run in the first place if you’d let us bring some horses!”
Sybil turned her head with a frown. “It wasn’t in our travel expenses.” She tossed the box carrying Chickadee’s weapon to him, and he slung it over his shoulder. “Also, none of us know how to ride a horse! What would be the point?!”
“I had made a deal to transport merchandise to Tilrey,” Veximarl replied helpfully. He had followed them, and now had a broadsword hanging loosely from his hip. “We’d have to walk from the town to the barracks, but it lies directly along the road there. Plenty of room on the wagon, and I have a spare mule for riding if that is preferred.”
Sybil’s face made a wry expression. She was so much in a hurry that she didn’t notice that he had caught up. “We don’t need any help, but thank you for the offer. It shouldn’t be too far for us to walk, and-”
“Deal!” Zaniyah stepped forward and grasped Veximarl’s hand with two of her own. She gave him a vigorous shake up and down. “What is a mule, and how do I ride one?”
“Vex.” Sybil gave a dismissive wave in the air as Chickadee narrowed his eyes. “Sorry. Again, we’re short on time and we’re not helpless individuals who are in constant need of assistance. We’re not babies, and not everything out in this world is so bright and new that we don’t know how to deal with it.”
Veximarl grimaced at the sudden nickname he was given. “I did not mean to imply- Please wait!” The trio, despite Zaniyah’s protests, had already turned away from the paladin trainee and begun to walk. Veximarl’s shoulders slumped and he turned around to ready his mules for travel.
If they weren’t able to accomplish things on their own, they would never be able to view themselves as knights. Getting accepted into Braytons Barracks as squires would be the first step towards one day fulfilling their own dreams. It was the only barracks in the entire land of Lustro that offered such a program.
A three-year course that guaranteed knighthood upon completion. It offered a full course of education, and after the first year, it offered on location experience under different lords and ladies. Braytons promised to take in the most talented, despite their background, and turn out skilled and knights. They even worked with their squires to get them started in their preferred job placements. All one had to do was be seventeen at the time of the examinations to apply.
Coming from a prestigious school or having a high ranking noble approve of your application was almost a surefire way to get in. Students of Dogfall didn’t have that luxury. Carapace was a double city built on and within a volcano. Sybil and her group were from the caverns within, known as the core, while Alton and his peers from Starsons came from what those in the core called the outerlands.
There was schism about what it meant to be from the core. Many of those in Lustro believed that humans who were heavily exposed to mist would mutate into monsters, despite the capital being built in a mist region. Their biology was rumored to different from regular people, or that there were tainted mists that would mutate animals into horrific and create insanity within the human mind.
It was true that those that lived within the core shut themselves out from the rest of the world, but they believed that there wasn’t anyone on the outside that they could trust. That was a trick of survival. Outlanders didn’t understand. They weren’t able to understand to understand how wonderful the core truly was, and shunned nearly everything that came out of it.
Lady Lydia Larkin was one of the few that attempted to make a difference. She worked to bring news of the outside world in and informed those of the outerlands that there wasn’t anything to fear. When she died in a tragic accident a few years ago, it ended with both sides blaming each other. The schism deepened, and adventurous core youth such as Sybil, Zaniyah, and Chickadee became even rarer things. In order to stop the bigotry, Sybil thought that the risk of coming out here was worth it.
By the time they reached a hill that overlooked the fort, it was already past sundown. They hadn’t followed the road, as traveling by foot allowed them to take a shorter route over the hill covered terrain. Such shortcuts were necessary when they didn’t have the luxury of horses or wagons. Sybil scanned over the many stone buildings that made up the large barracks and looked over at what appeared to be a legion of youth building around one of the two entrance gates. There were dozens of fires in a distant field, and those exiting the barracks appeared to be making camp there.
“I don’t want to wait in line.” Zaniyah crinkled her nose. “Look at all of those animals that they brought with them. Where are they supposed to go? What if we step in something? Do you think they’ll let us in if we end up smelling gross?” She scratched at the top of her head. “Now that I think about it, I don’t even want to wait in line at all.”
“I thought you were the one that wanted to ride in on whatever a mule is,” Sybil smirked and opened up her cloak, looking over the metal vials she kept within it. “Chickadee, find us an entry point. I have three charges of mist left. Zani?”
Zaniyah fumbled for the pouch that was tied to her upper arm. “I think I used my last one scaring off the wolves we ran into yesterday.” Her nose crinkled up. “Or were those badgers?”
“That’s fine. They might not be allowed during the exams. You tend to do fine without one most of the time anyways.” Sybil pulled out a metallic ball and loaded one of the vials within it.
Chickadee had pulled out a spyglass and was attempting to get a closer look. “Starsons, west wall. Lines there.” He looked over to Sybil. “Break in?”
“You shouldn’t need a spyglass to see a group from Starsons. Half of their body is made up of their school emblem.” Zaniyah gestured to her whole self as a show to the length of the tunics some Starsons students wore. “On the upside, at least they’ll be easy targets.”
“Hold off on the attitude... On the other hand, if we have to fight them in the exam, go ahead and be as rough as you want,” muttered Sybil. “They were at the temple at the same time we were, so they must have gotten here first on animals. I think they would’ve gotten here in at least half the time.” And if they had been in line for that long, Sybil definitely didn’t want to wait. She started to step down the hill, getting a feel for the angle of it before charging down in a full sprint.
Zaniyah shook her head and slide down part of the hill before also breaking into a run. “Giving us a start signal would be a nice change of pace!”
“It’s a squad’s job to anticipate their captain’s orders and follow through on them!” Sybil gave a nod over to Chickadee, who was skating down the hill on a flat stone. She tossed him the metallic orb, which he caught deftly. Leaning forward on his board, he surpassed them in speed towards the bottom of the hill.
Chickadee shifted his feet again, letting the board come to a quick stop below him as he reached near the bottom. He leaped off and ran a few steps forward to decelerate safely. At the side of the wall, he gently rolled the metallic orb against the ground until it hit the stone.
It unraveled into a spider that began to climb up the wall. As it swayed back and forth, creating a series of silk loops that were attached to the stone. It continued to weave its way up, stiffening into a grappling hook at the top as a safety precaution in the event the loops gave way. Chickadee turning around to Sybil and Zaniyah to give them a thumbs up.
Sybil skidded to a stop and tested one of the loops with a tug. “Good placement,” she whispered to Chickadee. Tightening her grip, she began to climb up the side of the wall. Eyes carefully peering over to check for anyone watching before she vaulted over and landing with a soft thud in the dried out weeds that grew below.
Chickadee gestured for Zaniyah to go next, but she shook her head. Instead, she took some steps back up the hill, then proceeded to run at the wall as fast as she could. She skittered up part ways along the wall before catching onto a gap between the stones with her hand. There may have been a slight estimation problem between the height of the wall and how high she could dash up. Chickadee climbed up part of the way and jutted out his thigh so Zaniyah could use it as a boost. The girl managed to clamber up the rest of the way landed with a hard roll against the ground, tumbling forward as she struggled to lose momentum.
“The rope was there so that we could make a silent entrance,” Sybil said as she pinched at the bridge of her nose. “If we stay quiet, maybe we can sneak into the line by that building.”
“It’s fine!” Zaniyah laughed it off and started to pick debris out of her hair. “You know how long it takes Chickadee to climb up those things, so I figured it would save time.” Just as she said that the boy dropped down silently next to Sybil and narrowed his eyes at Zaniyah. “Oh? … Well you know I was being sarcastic, right? You were always the most graceful out of any of us.” Chickadee drew his cloak about his person and appeared offended at what Zaniyah stated. “I said I was sorry!” She reached forward in an attempt to pinch his cheeks.
Sybil waved a hand between the two of them to stop Zaniyah’s onslaught. “Come on, we’re late enough as it is. Let’s just lump together with a group that looks like they know what they’re doing and hope that’ll get us to registration.”
She was tired and just wanted to eat a meal before sleeping the night away. Instead, they ended up far too close to the Starsons group for her comfort. There were a pair of people in purple mage cloaks between them and Alton’s group, and the Starsons students didn’t seem to pay attention to them. Sybil let out a sigh and ignored Zaniyah’s complaints that they should eat while they wait. Avoiding trouble meant avoiding worries.
They were ushered through what appeared to be a library that was attached to a cluster of smaller classrooms. Each was asked to sit at a table and a piece of paper was placed before them. An elderly man with whited out pupils then entered the room and felt around the floor with a long staff until he reached the front podium.
“More of them? Never seems to stop, now does it...” He let out a yawn and spoke in a tired fashion. “Hello. Go on and finish up whatever is on your desk and bring it up to me when you’re done.”
It was a list of questions. Sybil was anticipating at least a way for them to check in, as they had already had their applications for the exams accepted last spring. Maybe they somehow skipped that step, or the paper was the way they checked in.
“A test?” Zaniyah turned over to Sybil. “It’s nightfall. Shouldn’t this stuff not happen until morning, or did we really get the dates wrong?”
“He’s blind, Zani,” Sybil replied as if that mattered any. She didn’t look over to her friend, opting to instead to start filling out the paper.
Zaniyah looked between the paper and Sybil, choosing to do the same. “It doesn’t matter if he’s blind or no, dinner time is dinner time.” Her stomach gave off a growl. “I told you we should’ve dipped into rations while we were waiting.”
“He’s blind, Zani,” repeated Sybil. “Not deaf. Shut up and do your test.”
They were difficult questions to understand. The majority of it seemed solely based on opinion. What to do in certain situations, or to list a series of items in order of priority. The world outside of the core would possibly have a different sense of justice then herself. Sybil couldn’t begin to guess what the correct answers were. It also was asking about certain laws and procedures that she had never heard of before.
If a woman dies in a locked room, who among her staff and relatives had the most to gain from murdering her? What is the procedure for escorting noblemen across rivers? Of the two central laws proposed by Lord Gruber, which provides the most civil rights for the common man?
Sybil was filled with concern. Not just for her own test, but with how quickly Zaniyah was filling out hers. The same Zaniyah who had only excelled at one class at Dogfall and that was physical education. Both she and Chickadee stood up at the same time, carrying their papers with them and placing them on the table in front of the old man.
A hand slammed on a table nearby, and her eyes flitted over to see Alton standing up as well. She wondered to herself if he was going to treat this whole event as a competition between the core kids and the outer folk. Hopefully, he wouldn’t. Such rivalries didn’t mean anything to her outside of Carapace. But, like most things, she didn’t understand what anything meant to anyone outside of the core.
Another adult, someone in his mid-thirties, entered the room. Unlike the older knight, who somehow had a clean cut beard and aged well-fitting clothes, this one had a haphazard appearance. He looked over the papers for a moment before picking out a few to hold up to the older man. The older would give either a nod or a shake of his head, and the younger knight would respond with writing a name on the slate board behind them. A tension started to build in the air as those who completed the test started to stare at the board with anticipation.
Sybil was one of the last ones to finish her test. She rose up and placed the paper down on the table. The younger man was about to pick it up when the elder held up his hand and shook his head. Sybil felt her heart drop in that moment, sulking back to her desk in the process. She hadn’t seen Chickadee’s or Zaniyah’s name written on the wall either. If they all failed, at least they could console each other. However, she’d much rather have them all pass through as a successful team.
The older man cleared his throat. “I suppose it’s time for introductions. I am Sir Hugo Grimhawk, this barracks weapons master. This is the sword instructor, Sir Braden Stonetoe. Anyone who has got their names on the wall, get out. There’s this prissy knight named Sir Mordiern Pegasus that you need to find out in the hall. I’m told he looks like a bird. Should be easy to find. He’ll tell you where to go next.”
“Yes!” One of the Starsons students raised his fist and pumped it in the air. It was the mage who Sybil saw summon the flames within the Volo Refuge. Barcus, if she recalled his name correctly. “I told you guys that I would pass.” He tossed his nose in the air in a proud manner. “Good luck getting into some two-bit academy gentlemen and Mila. I’ll be sure to write to you all after I get a post rubbing elbows with Duke Rubire.”
He gathered his belongings and left the room. All of those who stood up with him appeared to have a great weight lifted off of their shoulders, smiling at each other and giving one another congratulations for passing the first phase. Sybil looked over to see a nearby girl crying, and her friend pulling her into their shoulder as a form of consolidation.
The group from Dogfall didn’t shed any tears. Their faces were like the stones that had harbored them through life. Being told no, feeling disappointed, failing. These were familiar sensations. They were emotions better left suppressed. Sybil would never learn to succeed or grow if she let rejection bring her down.
“... Why is it that they’re celebrating, Braden? Every year it’s the same.” Grimhawk shook his head as the door closed behind the last individual. “Load of fools those were.”
“It’s the way you phrase it,” muttered Stonetoe in an annoyed manner.
“I told them to get out,” replied Grimhawk in a grumpy tone. “How do I make it clearer?”
Stonetoe rolled his eyes. “Right. It’s damn late and there’s only five rooms set up for interviews. Wait here until someone calls you out. If you pass your interview, you’ll be allowed to participate in physical exams tomorrow.”
“What?!” Zaniyah stood up with a start, her chair clattering to the floor behind her.
Stonetoe gave Zaniyah a stern look, and she froze up. “By the seasons, how does Nita phrase it?”
Grimhawk took on a gruff but feminine sounding voice. “Braytons is not a place for those with low morals.” He then started to have a coughing fit, as that had hurt his throat.
“That includes those who try to copy answers from others, lie about their beliefs, or do not take this seriously. They get kicked out. That applies to the entirety of the exams. Keep that mind over the next two days. Now pick up your chair and sit your butt back down, girl.”
“But what about dinner? And sleep?” Zaniyah frowned and furrowed her brows.
Grimhawk paused, blinking in no particular direction. “Is it dinnertime? Braden. Why didn’t you tell me? We shouldn’t be doing testing this late.”
“That’s what I said!” Zaniyah gestured to Grimhawk as she looked to Sybil. “See? The old man gets it!”
“Is it to late for biscuits? Would the mess hall still have hot tea?” Grimhawk tilted his head in thought.
Zaniyah inhaled sharply. “Biscuits would be amazing right now! Do we also get biscuits?!”
“Shut up and sit down before I fail you! I don’t need two of you types being a bane on my existence,” snarled back Stonetoe.
Zaniyah was about to complain further, but Chickadee grasped onto her hand. He pressed some root jerky into her palm and returned to his seat. Sybil reached into her own bag and pulled out her water flask, passing it over to Zaniyah as well. The girl grumbled to herself, biting into the plant fiber and sipping loudly to soften it as the rest of the applicants chose to ignore her.
Grimhawk and Stonetoe then left the room, leaving the applicants with some time alone. Veximarl approached the trio, placing a pouch in front of Zaniyah. Sybil raised her brows and was surprised that the paladin trainee managed to appear here as well. Zaniyah didn’t bother to notice. She was distracted. Opening the bag with a gasp, she pulled out three hard-boiled eggs.
“When you were asking for eggs, I had assumed you wanted some geyser boiled ones. Or was my assumption incorrect?” He turned a free chair around and sat on the opposite side of the table from her. “There is one for each of you. Protein is an absolute essential after a long walk, and I have herbs to release muscle cramps if you are in need for those as well.”
“I told you that we don’t need your help.” Sybil folded her arms and leaned back in her chair. She glanced off to the side and saw that one of the Starsons students was staring in their direction. He had auburn hair pulled back in a short ponytail that curled about like a pig’s tail, and was broad and muscular. When their eyes met, he quickly turned away nervously.
“Sybil, no. Sybil.” Zaniyah held up the egg for her to see. It had a horrible sulfur stench to it. “Eggs, Sybil. Real boiled eggs. Actual edible eggs.” Her eyes got bigger. “You think they really got gold in the middle? We could end up rich!”
“Common decency is not an act of charity. I have extra of an item you desire, it would make sense for me to pass it along,” Veximarl said quietly. “It appeared as though she wished for one, and I believe that our time here during these exams should be filled with fond memories and new experiences.”
Something fizzed in his mind as he realized Zaniyah had asked if they contained gold. He looked over and saw that she was cradling her newfound treasure like a toy. She let out a gasp of horror when Chickadee took it away and proceeded to crack the shell on the table. Horror turned into the delight as he peeled the shell away and showed her the soft flesh within.
“Is that how you’re supposed to eat one?” She looked up to him and he nodded as he took an egg for himself. “It smells less bad this way.”
Sybil’s face flushed out of embarrassment. Zaniyah’s childish delight was just perpetuating core stereotypes in her opinion. It wasn’t easy to be associated with her when she acted like this. “We don’t really have things like meat or eggs in the core, so… Thank you.” She tossed Veximarl a glare. “Just for this one time, thank you.”
“It was hardly a bother, and I was rewarded by making at least one of you happy.” He grinned widely and gestured to Zaniyah, who was literally purring as she ate her egg. “And there isn’t a need to act formal. We are both going to be squires here, after all. We should assist each other when we can.”
“It’s too early to be optimistic about it,” Sybil replied in a cool manner.
“Maybe it is, but I do have a favor to ask you. The day after tomorrow, once we pass the physical exams, they’re going to have the team missions. They do not exactly have squire programs or even schools where I am from. I came here by myself, without the assistance of fellow applicants. Though there are other Crimson Region hopefuls, you three are the only ones I have talked to.” Veximarl gave a pleading look. “Do you see where I am heading with this?”
The door to the classroom opened and a young man with dark skin and four small horns on his brow entered. He looked intimidating enough that the room fell into a stunned silence. In his hands was a piece of paper that he glanced over. “Dogfall Academy, Carapace.” He looked up, and the trio raised their hands. “Come on.”
A rush of whispers went through the room, and all the eyes shifted to the three as they stood up. Zaniyah placed her hands on her hips and looked about the room, confused by the sudden gossip. “Was Dogfall some prestigious school this whole time and no one bothered to tell us?”
“It’s probably because we were called up first,” Sybil whispered. Either that or those from Starsons had spread rumors about them while they waited in line. She ignored them and gave a false smile to Veximarl. “I’ll talk it over with the other two and answer you later.” She gave a nod to the other two and they started to follow her.
“Yeah, but is that bad? I guess we’re the only ones in the squire program who thought to come out in who knows how many years....” Zaniyah walked with her arms folded in front of her chest. Her head tilted to the side as they left the room, thinking hard. “Does that make us some sort of elite around here?”
Sybil shook her head and looked off to the side. “No. Carapace is known for being one of the heaviest mist regions in the country. They’re all probably shocked we look human.”
“Is there something wrong with not appearing human?” The man in front of them stopped in his tracks and turned around, glaring down at her. Was it a glare? That could be what his face simply looked like. She didn’t know.
Sybil hadn’t even noticed that there was something off with him at all up until that point. “Only if you take what others say about you seriously.”
That appeared to be a good enough response. “Keep your answers short for the interview. The shorter the better.” He pointed over to a door. “Krogastein.” Then he pointed to a door opposite from that one. “Ah...” Looking through the paper, he seemed to have trouble finding Chickadee’s name. He simply pointed at the mage and then to the next door.
Chickadee and Zaniyah gave a nod at each other, then entered the rooms. This left Sybil and the man in the hall, him still giving her an intimidating glare. He was much younger than what she expected the knights here to look like. Maybe he was a squire here helping out with the exams? It did seem like there were some squires about.
“Where should I go?” She put her arms behind her back and did her best to not look panicked at the position she was placed in.
“Do not break into the barracks,” he replied. This made Sybil bite down on her bottom lip. She hadn’t realized anyone had seen them. “If you do not pass, do not break back in. Head straight back to where you came from. Do you understand?”
He looked her over. “Beat Alder, second year. Captain of Bronzescale Squad.”
She blinked at him. “Sybil Twist, captain of… Those two.” They didn’t have a squad name. “That’s not all of them, there’s also Millie and Hayden, who might be here next year, and some others, but they’re even younger and… Nevermind. Sorry.”
“That door.” He pointed to one that was a little way down the hall. “Gather your group when you’re done and make camp in the outer field with the rest of the applicants.” Beat then started to walk away before she could say anything back.
Sybil blinked a few more times before snapping back to reality. She entered the door and was greeted by an empty room with a table and several chairs at the center. It looked like a small private room where a group of people could study or hold a meeting. A part of her expected for a voice to randomly call out and start asking her questions.
Yet there was silence.
She sat down in a chair and folded her hands in her lap while she looked about the room. Her attention was soon caught on a carved design on the ceiling. Arcane scripting wasn’t a foreign concept to her, her own father was rather adept at it, and she had studied it for years. This was partially because her parents had heavily insisted on it, and partially because there was literally nothing to do in the core.
The script would need a power source, either from blood iron, which she didn’t see or from mist. With curiosity building, and with the minutes passing by, she was starting to feel convinced that this might be some part of the exam. There might be a way for her to activate the runes, which seemed to have some relation about records, from what she could understand. If it wasn’t a part of the exam, it would give her a way to pass the time.
Sybil reached into her cloak and pulled out one of her two remaining mist charges. She then climbed up on the table and pulled a pin loose from the vial. Mist started to spray freely from it, and she held the vial directly up against the arcane symbol. It began to glow a bright blue, with light dripping down from it like a viscous liquid.
The girl skittered out of the way as the light dripped onto a chair at the other side of the table. It continued twisting and pulling together until the entity of a man appeared. He was somewhat translucent and still had a blue glow to him. Not only that, but he was coughing loudly and looked to be quite surprised to be here.
“Ack-” He coughed out more mist and Sybil quickly recognized what he was. “Access to records interrupted. Logging report of glyph malfunction.” He paused and stared at her blankly for a moment. For a second, it almost appeared as though he were sentient. “Sybil Twist?” She nodded. “Initiating interview.” He shifted his position until he gave off the illusion that he was sitting in the chair. “We will now begin.”