A golem. That’s what the spell before her was. Metal golems were not an uncommon thing within the core, and she was more than a little familiar with them. They had even used one to enter the barracks. Golems without bodies were supposedly heavily restricted to certain areas, but could quickly transport information from one glyph to the next. She didn’t expect to summon one when she used mist within the room, nor did she expect for a golem to be the one conducting her interview.
Zaniyah and Chickadee found themselves in nearly identical rooms. The golem conducting their interviews was identical in appearance. Being an old man with a long beard and robe, he held the perfect mental image of what a wizard from old stories should be. Every time his nose crinkled, his small framed glasses would bobble up and down on his face. A sight that Zaniyah was struggling not to laugh at.
His hand waved about the air, and a glowing scroll appeared before him. He summoned a quill within his other hand and began to write down as he talked. “Answers must be short and precise. After ten minutes, the interview will be concluded, regardless of how many questions are left or if you have finished answering them.” The trio nodded and waited for the first question to be spoken.
“Why do you wish to attend Braytons?”
“To become a knight,” responded Sybil. An easy enough question, and one that she had already prepared an answer for. “The hero of my youth is Lydia Larkin. I want to be like her and create a balance between the core and outerlands of Carapace. To protect my home and end the prejudice between the two sides would be my greatest goal.”
Chickadee pulled the knife he gotten from the Volo Refuge out from his sleeve and rotated it between his fingers underneath the table. He kept his gaze downward as he spoke. “My family develops blood iron merchandise. Studying those who use blood iron weapons would improve my crafting skills.” Long sentences. Remember to speak in longer sentences. Not everyone could understand him as Sybil and Zaniyah could. His free hand pulled down at the scarves about his mouth so he could be understood more easily.
Zaniyah kicked up her feet against the table and leaned back in her chair so that the front legs hovered in the air. “Honestly, there just isn’t enough room at home to swing my axe around.” She gestured to the small room they were in. “Imagine this place as a city. I can’t go after the bad guys if I have to worry about cutting off some innocent’s head or getting my axe stuck in a wall with every little motion I make.”
The golem specter wrote down their answers and looked up again. “Do you have any special abilities you wish to elaborate on? Ones not listed on your original application?”
“I hit things. I hit things really, really hard.” Zaniyah dropped her feet down and leaned over the table. “And I’m really fast. And I’m really strong. I was always at the top in my class in physical ability.” She gestured to the great axe on her back. “Trust me, I can toss this thing around like a twig, and my accuracy with it isn’t shabby either.”
“Elementalist with an earth magic focus,” stated Chickadee as he continued to twirl around the throwing dagger within his fingers. “... I also have forge experience.”
“It probably isn’t anything special.” Sybil scratched behind her ear and looked off to the side. “People just don’t notice me. I don’t mean that in that weird way teenagers put it, but I have the ability to… I guess I call it erasing my presence. It’s harder to do if someone is looking directly at me, but not completely impossible.”
“Final question.” The golem adjusted his glasses. “What makes you qualified to be here?”
“I don’t know if I’m more qualified than the others here.” Sybil let out a dismayed sigh. “I worked hard within the Dogfall squire program as both a student and a captain. I know my intentions are good. I’m a hard worker, and I’m not going to let my lack of knowledge on certain texts or inexperience hold me back on what I want to be when I’m grown up.”
Zaniyah scoffed at the question. “Didn’t we go over this? I hit things. I hit things hard. Really hard. Isn’t that all I need”
Chickadee said nothing. Instead, he placed the knife on the table and looked up at the golem. The glasses on the golem’s face bobbled up and down as he wrinkled his nose and went in for a closer look.
“Thank you for your time.” The doors behind Sybil and Zaniyah opened up. “Go to the end of the hall and someone will lead you to the outer field. You may make camp there.”
Sybil walked down the hall and was greeted by Zaniyah. “Did everything go alright for you?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t it?” Zaniyah looked around. “Is Chickadee not out yet?” There were people starting to clog up the thin hallway, but Chickadee’s odd choice of clothing would have made him stand out easily, despite his shorter height.
This time a woman in cleric’s robe approached them. She had a warm smile as she nodded at both of them. “Your classmate has some additional questions to answer. I’ll be sure he gets the word on where you two headed off. You’ve been assigned to start physical exams one hour past dawn. Please wait at the western door entrance in the morning.”
“What surprises me is that they got him to talk at all.” Zaniyah frowned at the thought. “I hope he’s doing alright.” They were escorted to one of the entrances of the barracks, stopping at the edge of a large field. There were dozens upon dozens of tents and small fires set up, and at each sat a group of applicants. “Oh, you are kidding me.”
“There are a lot of people here,” muttered Sybil.
Zaniyah blinked and turned to Sybil. “No bed? No hot meals?”
Sybil also frowned. Even in an open field, things were crowded. She had hoped the accommodations would be better, but this was no surprise. “What did you expect? Blame the reputation that this place has.”
“No roof?!” Zaniyah exclaimed as she followed Sybil around the edge of the wall. “Arg! It feels like we’ve been outside forever!” It had taken nearly two weeks to walk here. With limited money, it was true that they hadn’t been inside a building for long in what felt like forever. “When am I going to get a bed? Wait, where are we going?”
“The peak of that hill. It’s outside of where they said to camp, but Chickadee will most likely climb it when he sets out to look for us. We might as well meet him there.” She spoke calmly but her jaw was tense. There were too many people here. How were they supposed to stand out and succeed at these exams when there were so many more experienced applications present?
They climbed up the hill and Sybil took off her cloak so she could lay it out on the grass. They never bothered with sleeping bags, and the summer weather meant that they didn’t need tents. It helped them travel light, and traveling light meant traveling fast. Sleeping out also meant that the only cost they had was buying food. She sympathized with Zaniyah. At first, it seemed like a game, but it got tiring after a few nights.
Zaniyah embedded the axe into the dirt and pulled out her cloak from the bag she had. “Did you eat yet?”
“Chickadee has the food. I’ll get something when he comes back.” She laid back on the grass and closed her eyes. Not a moment passed before she felt Zaniyah trying to balance something on her forehead. Her eyes snapped open only to see that there was an egg laying there. Sitting up, she caught it in her hand as it tried to roll down and stared down at it. It really did have a bad sulfur smell to it.
“It’s not as good as the things Chickadee’s dad gives us. Those were eggs, right?” Chickadee’s family worked with blood iron, which also meant that they had connections to slaughterhouses, whose high costs meant that they mainly catered to outlanders. Visiting his house was one of the few times either of them ever got to taste real meat. “I think they’re overcooked. The white things his dad gave us were more… Fluffy?”
“I’m sure Vex had some good intentions… Also, that’s bread that you’re thinking of.”
“Nah, nah. That wasn’t bread. It had stuff in the center and was round and fluffy, and not stiff like bread.”
“It was bread. Someone that they work with often gifts them stuffed buns. I think Chi said the man’s wife is a baker or something.” Sybil rolled the egg about her palm, remembering what Veximarl had said about the team exercises. “What do you think of Vex?”
“He’s a nice guy, I guess. Tall, doesn’t have a lot of muscle, seems like he might be head smart. That’s probably is your type, right? Is that why you’re asking?” Zaniyah tilted her head at the thought. “I mean, Zyris is out of the picture, and I wouldn’t be upset if you went around looking at other options.”
Sybil’s cheeks stung as she blushed. “What’s wrong with you? I told you to not bring that up.” She hissed a sigh between her teeth. “Vex said that there are going to be team missions on Iathday. Since there’s only three of us, what do you think about him joining up with us?” She started to peel off the shell from the egg, which had a sort of greenish tint on its flesh underneath.
“Oh, that?” Zaniyah scoffed and rolled her eyes so hard that the force of it made her fall dramatically onto her cloak. “He can play with us. Our squad capabilities are so powerful, he wouldn’t be able to hold us back even if he was the biggest wuss in the lands! And I guess he seems nice, but more importantly he needs help. Let’s hang out around him tomorrow and let him join up with us if we still like him.” She put her hand to her mouth. “We probably should have waited for him.”
The egg was popped into Sybil’s mouth and she bit down into it. It didn’t taste bad but had a distinct rubbery texture to it from being overcooked. Now that she thought about it, she hoped it wasn’t poisonous. Giving another applicant poison to knock them out of the running did seem like a plausible idea. He was a paladin from the swamps, and he did mention medicinal herbs. Suddenly, she was nervous.
“Yes, we’ll do that,” Sybil muttered after swallowing. Zaniyah seemed fine. It was probably okay. “Just get some sleep.” Sybil was going to add something about how resting now would be more important than waiting for Chickadee to show up, but she could already hear her friend snoring.
Her eyes went up to the stars above, Their visage blurring as weariness started to possess her. She could feel herself falling, or floating. It almost felt like flying. There was the sound of laughter ringing in the back of her head, and when she opened her eyes to see that she was someplace entirely different. Next to her was Chickadee, fumbling with a toy golem in his hands.
Zaniyah was also there, running circles around a blonde woman. She was beautiful, with white leather armor and a shining rapier on her hip. Everything about her was bright and full of light, and she had a way of warming up anyone’s heart when she smiled. It was as though she was the princess from a fairy tale, but she was a knight and a princess all rolled up into one.
“Lydia.” Her voice called to the woman, and it sounded so much younger than how it was supposed to be.
“Yes?” The knight laughed, ruffling her hand in Zaniyah’s untamed blue locks of hair. “Come on, Zani. Sit down. It’s story time.”
“Lydia!” Sybil called out to her again with more determination. She had something important to say, and she wouldn’t be ignored. “I’m going to be a knight! Just like you someday!”
“Me too!” Zaniyah plopped down next to Sybil, swinging her arms around as though she were wielding a sword. “No one is going to be able to stop me!”
The knight laughed and looked over to Chickadee. “And you, my little bird? Do you want to be a knight as well?” The young boy’s face flushed darker, as his skin already had a dust-colored tone to it, and he didn’t dare to look up. Instead, he just gave a small nod and continued to work on putting together his toy.
“I’m going to go to Starsons and get the best grades out of anyone there! I’ll be a captain in the squire program, and then beat everyone’s butt at Braytons!” Sybil clutched her hands into fists, doing her best to look tough.
“It isn’t always about beating people’s butts,” Lydia replied in a scolding tone. She let out a laugh as both Sybil and Zaniyah let out a confused sound. “It’s about compassion, trust, and doing what’s right. Being a knight is more about how strong your heart is, not your body.” She took to a knee and leaned in towards Sybil. “And for you, it’s going to be so much harder than it would be for anyone else. Are you prepared to put in twice the effort just to have yourself viewed as an equal among your peers?”
Sybil’s eyes snapped open. A small fire had been built nearby with Chickadee sitting by it. He had put on his blacksmithing gloves and was fidgeting with the charms on Zaniyah’s axe. The mage appeared focused, only giving her a nod as she sat up. The hood and scarf from around his head had been pulled away, with both his gold spun long hair and green eyes sparkling in the light of the fire.
“Is everything alright?” She whispered, not wanting to wake up Zaniyah.
“Maintenance. Feeling worried.” He wanted to make sure that their equipment was perfect for the exams, and that Zaniyah hadn’t managed to damage it on their way here. “Simple rebalancing work. Knocked enchantments loose. Ensuring won’t happen again.”
She shook her head. “I meant the fact that they held you back for a while. Did you not pass? Are you going to have to leave?”
“No. Magic demonstration was needed.” His face stiffened up slightly. “Have you eaten?” She nodded. It was only an egg, but she didn’t want to bother Chickadee’s work. “More magic tests needed tomorrow. Take rations from my bag.”
“Does it have to do with your blood iron working?” He paused as he deliberated the question before nodding. “I don’t think they have many people around here who can do what you can. Even if neither of us gets in, you’ll have no problem being accepted.”
“Acceptance… Is nice.” Chickadee continued his work, twisting around some of the ornaments that were embedded within the hilt of the axe. They began to glow red hot as he began to fuse them in place. “Want you two there. Don’t fail.”
Sybil smirked as Chickadee’s face had flushed with embarrassment over his statements. “We’re not just escorts to your success, Chickadee. We’re your friends, and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure you’re not left alone here.”
He nodded continued to work in quietly. She took that as him saying thank you and went to lay down again. “Tal, Vin. Confiscation,” his voice whispered out.
She took out her daggers from her belt and placed them next to the fire. “Remember to get some sleep when you’re done.” He nodded once again and waved her away with a hand. Sybil smirked again and laid back down on her cloak. Her eyes closed and she once again felt that floating, falling sensation. But this time, only darkness was at the other end of it.