They rode together, with Mila steering the horse as they went. Night was spreading quickly, but the moon took its time to rise. It was agreed they wouldn’t tell each other any plans or secrets about the fight tomorrow. Despite a want to share information, they had to respect their teammates. Sybil couldn’t even if she wanted to. The only information she had was what the mission was.
“You may not know this because you’re from the core, but the Braytons’ acceptance test is the last big hurrah for us in the Starsons squire program,” started Mila in a distant tone. “Training for us starts when we turn twelve, and we stick with it because it’s fun. Braytons’ exam is traditionally our last chance to spend a few weeks with our best friends before we have to wake up and study for actual jobs. For some of us, it might be our only chance to leave the city.”
Sybil could relate. She had had a long conversation about it with her father before choosing to leave for Braytons against his advice. Zaniyah had the muscle, Chickadee had the talent, she only had the ability to disappear. Vanishing wasn’t a strong point for heroes. Her promise to him was to apply only for Braytons and not to any other barracks. One chance to get it right. If not, she’d have accept a position as her father’s apprentice and live a dull life of maintaining transport golems.
“There were supposed to be over twenty of us coming this year,” continued Mila, “Biggest group ever. Our peers had high hopes for us since the acceptance rate is usually one in ten applicants, but Vincent decided that only seven of us could go at the last moment. It all had to do with Alton. Long story short, I guess I’m kinda glad he’s not on our team tomorrow. No, I’m pretty sure all of us are glad about it.”
“How could something like that even happen?” Sybil thought of him as annoying but didn’t think of him capable of that much. “Why was he allowed to go if it was his fault in the first place?”
Mila let out a sigh. “The Toval family is a pretty big deal. Adrian Toval, Alton’s dad, came in from Fogbloom one day and made some smart investments. He went wild for crazy new ideas, and one of those ended up launching the blood iron boom. Alton’s older brother is in the family business, and his younger brother regularly scores high honors on exams. Being friends with a family like that can set you up for life. When Alton and Gideon started the squire program, a lot of families forced their families to join to ensure that they could make that connection.
Not only that, but Alton is some crazy music genius known for being the star guest of exclusive elite parties. Life is a lake of idolization and love. He didn’t exactly drown himself in it, but he did dip his toe in from time to time. Maybe he didn’t spend much time with those his own age, but he did make a lot of money at those parties and made plenty of powerful connections along the way. If you hadn’t noticed, that sort of worship went to his head and he kinda has an asshole complex because of it.”
“He does seem to like putting people in their place,” muttered Sybil.
“Exactly!” Mila let out an understanding laugh. “A lot of people thought this was going to be one big party, but they started to have second thoughts after they realized he was serious about his entry. Despite the harem and other distractions, he worked his ass off to have a good enough application, and a lot of people didn’t want to admit that he stood a chance. They were saying things like, what if he actually made it into Braytons? What would happen to my future? I have to make sure he fails, or I have to make sure to capture his heart. That way he’ll always be there for me.
Vincent found a group of them planning something dreadful, and they were kicked out of the program the week before we were supposed to leave. He started to run all of us through rigorous trials, saying that no Starsons student should be viewed as a weak failure. The school had to maintain a good image outside of Carapace. The only ones allowed to travel here were those that passed his tests. Vincent’s own squad, myself, and Alton. We left and everyone else decided to go on a camping trip by Timber Vale instead.”
“That sounds terrible.” A lot of it was terrible. Though, it was a reality for herself that she may end up being separated from her own squad as soon as tomorrow ended. “Even if some people were guilty, that doesn’t mean they weren’t your friends too. Not everyone needed to be punished.”
“I know that it isn’t Alton’s fault, not completely. It’s just that a part of me really wants to blame him for turning what should’ve been the greatest trip I’ll ever go on into… This.” The horse stopped in the middle of the city plaza. “The shops are open late for the next few days because of the exams. Should we split up to look for it and try to meet back here? Do you think you’ll be okay?” She squinted. “You’d think they’d have more street lights.”
“I can see fine in the dark. I just don’t like mentioning it because,” she shrugged after she dismounted the horse, “cave people stereotypes. Just in case, please don’t judge me too harshly if I do manage to get hopelessly lost.” Another laugh escaped Mila at what she thought was Sybil making a joke.
Sybil made her way through the dark streets, triple checking her surroundings so that she’d know her way back. It was nice that Mila came out to warn her, but Sybil didn’t think the whole situation was Alton’s fault. A part of her felt like Mila was trying to warn her of something worse, but was unable to do so without betraying her own squadmates. Either that or she missed her friends and needed someone to talk to. A sigh escaped her. Alton was in her squad now. For now, she’ll trust him as a person who wanted to get into Braytons. He wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize them as long as he was also in the squad.
She finished her task quickly and returned to Mila. They rode back to the barracks quickly, discussing only minor things on the way back. How Starsons was, or how the Dogfall squire program went about their training exercises. Other than Alton and Barcus, the rest of the group seemed nice. Sybil was too distracted to put much thought into it, thinking about the work she still needed to get done. Tomorrow may end up being a long day, and she needed to catch up on what the others had been talking about in her absence.
They had been discussing matters for well over two hours, but there was little progress being made. Veximarl and Alton were disagreeing with every idea that was brought up. Zaniyah took to idling by the window, watching the people go back and forth across the courtyard. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she saw Sybil walking around with an unknown person.
“... Mila?” She tilted her head at the sight.
Alton looked over. “What about her?” He noticed that Zaniyah was looking out the window and rose to a stand.
Zaniyah also stood up, spinning around quickly. “Do we have anything to worry about Mila? She was at the archery field, so she uses arrows, right?”
“She isn’t bad at close combat, and she’s a fast shot.” Alton sat back down, much to Zaniyah’s relief. “Some of her arrows have blood iron worked into them, allowing her to do different effects depending on which one she uses. Mostly elemental. She’ll probably splurge on them during the exam in order to show off.”
“Hmm... I got it! Time for Zaniyah’s ultimate strategy guide!” She approached the table and picked up some pieces of dried fruit. These she set down on the map in different positions. “We can have Chi patrol the perimeter until he can take out Mila. Then, I charge at the front door like all ‘ARRRGGH!’ Then I SMASH in while Alton and Sybil go through the back and rescue the girl! Victory will be ours!”
Veximarl looked up at Zaniyah with a scrunched up face. “What do I do?”
She plucked up a prune and placed it on the far side of the hill. “Stay here and try not to die.”
Sybil walked through the door and made her way to the table. “How goes the planning?” She scrunched up her nose and looked down at the fruit display. “Please tell me you’ve gotten further than this.”
Alton leaned forward on the table. His fingers pressed into his temples as he rubbed them in small circles. Veximarl looked to be in the same emotional state as Alton was. Zaniyah pulled her legs up so that she was sitting cross-legged on the bench. She was smiling widely, and quite proud of herself for thinking of a good plan.
Looking over the crude map with more detail, Sybil started to pull own her thoughts together. “Toval. What would your plan be?”
He let out another sigh and opened his eyes. “Our deadline for this is daybreak on Eathaday. I would wait until nightfall tomorrow and use the cover of darkness. Myself and Chi would take the back, Zan will create a distraction on the front, and you attempt to scale the wall to the second floor window. From there you can either assist us on the first floor or locate the person we need to rescue.”
“I am also lacking a presence in that plan,” Veximarl muttered. He leaned back into his chair in a dismayed fashion.
Alton nodded to the prune that was placed on the far side of a hill. “Stay there and try not to die.”
Sybil nodded at the idea. “Alton is from Starsons. They have an excellent squire program that trains from both classic and modern techniques. Each squire is supposed to be well versed in both combat and strategy. I don’t want to praise him, but he is going to have more experience than us with this.”
“Exactly.” Alton proudly gave a nod.
“So when fighting Starsons students, we do the exact opposite of what one tells us to do.” Sybil’s remark made Alton’s expression go from prideful to judgemental. “In the early morning, the sun will be just above this hill. Myself, Chickadee, and Vex will go up it at that time and scout out the location. Our biggest problem is Oscar. He will be out on patrol in an effort to find out where we will be coming from. When we go up the hill, Alton and Zaniyah need to see if they can locate his position and take him out.
They only have Mila set with ranged weaponry and no mages. Unlike most mages, Chickadee has long ranged magic. He needs to find her and take her out before we can get closer. She’ll most likely be acting as a lookout at one of the second floor windows. Silas will either be their outer guard or first melee defense setup within. We’ll send Zaniyah to make a big ruckus and draw his attention.
He has to be outside in order to use a mist charge safely, and he’ll probably be eager to use it. If he does so, Zaniyah has to distract and avoid the flame attacks long enough for his weapon to overload and break. That’s our advantage. It’s unlikely that Silas and Vincent know about the mist charge weakness yet. Toval, where will the other two be?”
“There’s no such thing as a long ranged mage.” He frowned before looking to Zaniyah. “You told us earlier that he was hand to hand combat.”
“And he’s our long ranged mage.” He frowned harder. She shrugged. “I don’t get what the problem is?”
Alton chose to forget it and looked back down at the map. “If Oscar isn’t patrolling, he’ll be near where Silas is. Luca or Vincent will be with the person we’re supposed to capture. Both of them can use their shields to guard a room for as many hours as needed. They’ll block the door and not let us pass. Even if all five of us make it to that room, the two of them may be enough to stop us. We won’t be able to breach in without risking harm to the hostage.”
That was enough for Sybil to work with. “Then Alton and I have to get inside and locate the right room. From there, we need to position Chi in a way where he can get us cover. We both need to go in and either take them down or sneak the person out of the room without alerting the pair.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Veximarl frowned at the proposal.
Sybil shrugged. “Stick by Chi and try not to die?”
“I am still not certain that I am being used efficiently,” he stated. Though Sybil’s request for him was slightly more reasonable than what the other two had proposed. “I dislike the idea that none of you trust in my abilities.”
“Chi becomes overly focused when he’s casting. He won’t notice if someone sneaks up on him. We need someone to act as his eyes while he’s doing his thing.” Sybil waved a hand at Veximarl’s concern. “Don’t worry about it. It’ll make sense tomorrow.”
Zaniyah rose up and folded her arms. “That is exactly like my plan! Chi lays the smack down while I charge in and hit things and you do the sneaky thing. This is exactly how every single one of our plans go!”
Frowning, Sybil spoke in a strict tone. “We have two new additions to our squad. I’m not the captain anymore. This is just how things are going to be from now on, Zani. We have to learn to play nice with others.” Zaniyah made a pouty face, and Sybil’s look became all the sterner.
Veximarl nodded, coming up to a stand. He did his best to look commanding, speaking in a strong and dominating tone. “And as the squad captain, I request, that we retire for the evening. We need to be at our best if we are going to initiate a morning attack.” A nervous smile was given to the group.
Sybil slid her hand across the bench and pressed a folded paper against Alton’s hand. “Yes, captain. Is it alright if I get the bed nearest to the window?”
“Aye, sir! I want this one!” Zaniyah went over to bed against the far wall and started to climb up the ladder leading to it. “Sybil, if you take the other one, we’ll be window buddies!”
Sybil did want to be by the window since those beds had curtains, but Alton had apparently already claimed the bed next to the bathroom. That meant that they would be sleeping near each other. A small annoyance, but it was more important to her that she had a privacy curtain.
“I’ll let Chi stay near your group.” Veximarl started to set his things down underneath the bed closest to the entrance. “I will be setting an alarm up here to ensure we will be getting up on time.”
Sybil made sure to close off her curtain before climbing into bed. Even if the head of her bed was touching Alton’s, there was at least a partial wooden barrier and a smaller privacy curtain there. She rolled on her side, yawning as she waited. At first, it was quiet, but then she could hear that foot twitch that Zaniyah always did when she was asleep. Veximarl had a light snore to his slumber, as she had noticed during the day. She couldn’t tell for sure if Alton was asleep or not.
She sat up and peeked around the curtain. Alton was still awake, glaring up at her as she shyly started to retreat back. The note she had passed him asked that he stayed awake long enough for them to have a talk, and he decided to abide by that request. For the sake of the squad, he would at least listen.
“Don’t go back into hiding. What did you want?” Despite not wanting to show weakness, he was also at his limits and wanting nothing more than to pass out at this point.
Sybil placed a finger to her own lips, hoping he’d keep his voice down. “Here.” She dropped a small pouch next to his head. He opened it and pulled out a rough looking crystal in a translucent almost smokey color. He twisted it about his fingers as he studied it. “Chickadee needed some special crystals for a project of his, so I fetched some that are supposedly from the Volo Refuge.”
Alton narrowed his eyes and spoke in a threatening whisper. “You didn’t go there and cut it off the side of the building, did you?”
“No.” Sybil was offended by the remark. “I went to Tilrey and bought them from a rock shop. They were very expensive, and I’m not happy about it, but they were needed. This is just the extra after Chickadee took what he wanted.” Alton kept his eyes narrowed. “I know it’s not easy being split up from your friends, but most of us are from Carapace too. I don’t want you to think you’re alone in all of this. The bag is made of golem silk too, so try to think of it as a peace offering.”
He sat up and grimaced at the bag as he put the crystal back in it. “Golem silk woven by golem spiders. What is with you core people and spiders?” This time Sybil was the one that narrowed her eyes. “I mean, thank you,” he muttered. “I’m not going to give you a lock of my hair or anything like that. Don’t think you can ask for something in return. Actually, if it was for something Chi needed for Zan’s weapon, I’ll pitch in some money for that, but you can’t have my hair.”
“... What?” Sybil crinkled her nose. “I don’t want anything… Except maybe money, because it really was expensive. Otherwise, don’t worry about it.”
“Are you sure? Girls were always giving me good luck charms. They’d ask for a lock of my hair, or a button of my clothes, or for a kiss in return. Some even guilted me into taking them out on dates, or other things.” He leaned in so he could see her face better in the dark, if only to read her expressions, which made Sybil lean away with worry.
“No!” She loudly whispered as quietly as she could. “Wait, other things?” Mila’s mention of Alton being known as a womanizer popped into her head, making her cringe. “… No, just- Ugh, no. This is just a token of good faith. Don’t take it the wrong way. Ugh, bleh. What is wrong with you? You’re disgusting.”
He pulled his bangs over his eyes to double check the length. It was kept short for a reason, so that a piece missing from it would be noticeable. “You’re also disgusting… Also, I’m sorry I said you looked gross in a dress. I shouldn’t judge you for failing to make yourself look better. At least an attempt was made.”
“I didn’t want to wear a dress, they confiscated all of my clothes and made me wear that.”
Alton’s voice became distant for a moment. “Ah, was that what it was?” He took a moment to study her. She was staying close so that she could keep her voice low. Her face was flustered, and she obviously wasn’t comfortable staying this way. “You sure you don’t want to be a pervert and touch me?” He held up his hands. “I’ll give you five seconds if you promise me that your hands are clean.”
“I don’t want anything!” She exclaimed again, clasping her hands over her mouth when she heard Zaniyah roll over.
He shrugged as he put the pouch underneath his pillow. “Thank you. This means a lot.” He didn’t sound completely honest when he said that, but she could sense that maybe, the smallest of maybes, he did appreciate it.
Retreating back to her space, she was grateful to have him out of her sight again. Sybil was tired. She preferred it that way. There weren’t many dreams to be had when she was exhausted, not that she was worried enough to have nightmares. Zaniyah is good enough to get into Braytons. They won’t deny her. Sybil just had to make sure her friends were happy. Anything else, including her own acceptance, didn’t matter.