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Veximarl’s alarm sounded like a symphony of annoying bird calls going off all at once. Sybil had to stop Zaniyah from going berserk on the device before Veximarl could turn it off. Afterward, she excused herself to see if her clothing had been washed so she wouldn’t have to wear another dress for today’s fights. They had little time to prepare.

That left Veximarl alone again with Alton and Zaniyah. Not that he didn’t like the pair, but he couldn’t relate to either well. Zaniyah’s seemingly random nature made him nervous. That and seeing her charge across the beds to get at his alarm first thing in the morning had taken a few years off of his life. Alton… Alton was a city boy who didn’t like it here. Veximarl wasn’t going to go out of his way to make Alton more upset. He started to roll out the maps for the fort quietly, but Zaniyah chose to interrupt.

“We can do that after breakfast,” she said with a smile. “Alton and I will get some stuff. Can you go see if Chi has my sword ready?”

It didn’t bother him to go get her sword, but he was the squad captain and he should be the one to give orders. And you know what? It did bother him that Zaniyah snapped his sword in half the previous day. He had forgotten to go to the armory and see if there was something that suited him the night before, but checking on Chickadee did give him time to see to the armory now. Veximarl bid the other two good luck and ventured out to the courtyard.

Chickadee had never left the forge. He was curled up in a chair, head leaning awkwardly against the backrest. Veximarl had never see Chickadee’s hair before. It was the color of gold and looked as soft as silk, spilling about his shoulders and surprisingly well taken care of despite it always being hidden away.

Veximarl reached forward and picked up several strands of it. They slipped through his fingers like water, gently landing against Chickadee’s shoulder again. Blonde hair was an uncommon feature where he was from, and he had never gotten a chance to see it so closely before. He was about to pull back his hand when Chickadee’s snapped up and grabbed his wrist.

“I prefer it long. Don’t judge.” He muttered in a sleepy manner, using the back of his other hand to rub his eyes. His eyes were red from smoke and lack of sleep, which enhanced the emerald color of his irises.

“I’ve read somewhere that magic users have a compulsive habit to have long hair. Magical talent can lead to faster growth of hair and nails. I have found that tying it back is more convenient than attempting to keep it shorter.” Veximarl rubbed at his wrist after Chickadee had let it go. The small mage had a surprisingly strong grip.

“I see.” He pointed over to a torch staff laid over a table. Next to that was a cloak and a set of clothes that were neatly folded up. “Your staff and armor. Tell Zani to fetch Whisper. Have notes to give her.”

Veximarl went over to inspect the items. The cloak was identical to the ones that Chickadee and Sybil wore, but several pockets had been recently sewn on the inside. The armor was a mixture of cloth and some sort of thin plated metal, all darkly colored to match the cloak and surprisingly lightweight.

“This isn’t suitable gear for a paladin,” he muttered. Paladins certainly were all big muscular men who wore platemail and thunked about loudly, while Veximarl... Wasn’t that. This outfit reminded him more of what he had seen Sybil wearing. “But I am grateful! Please do not be mistaken!”

“Not a paladin,” Chickadee muttered back, understandably tired after a long night of work.

“I am not certain what you mean. Why do none of you believe me when I claim to be a paladin trainee?”

Veximarl picked up the staff and examined it. The shaft was two different kinds of wood bonded together near the middle with a dark metal. There were four blades that curled around a silverish looking crystal orb at the top of the staff. The color of the stone reminded him of the stone halls of Volo Refuge.

“Your gloves.” Chickadee waved a hand at Veximarl, sort of half pointing to where his hands were. “You wore them at dinner, after a bath... Alton claimed you healed his hand.”

Veximarl paused. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“It does.” The young mage stretched out his arms and back, making them crack and pop. Sleeping in the chair wasn’t the best for him, yet he kept doing it regardless. He got up and poked at one of the two kinds of wood on the staff. “Zani’s old axe handle.” Then to the crystal topper. “Sybil fetched. Crystals from Refuge.” Lastly to the blood iron ornaments. “Had extra. Special treatment.” He gave a thumbs up. “Will last until I can make it better. Be gentle until then.”

Concern and suspicion melted into immense gratitude in an instant. Veximarl felt as though he was going to cry. “T-thank you. I suppose this is your way of saying the three of you have my back?” Chickadee nodded and Veximarl blushed as a result. “Although, I must state that it doesn’t surprise me that Alton chose to supply nothing.”

“Didn’t tell him. Only spoke when you and Alton were washing. Sybil asked for something to be made. Don’t worry about cloak, Zani dislikes hers.”

“I appreciate all of this.” He gave Chickadee a bow. “I’m thankful to have made such good friends right before I start my education here.”

Chickadee’s face turned red at the appreciation that was being shown him. Maybe they would be assigned to the same squad. He liked Veximarl. There was humor to be had when watching someone flounder about, and he had interesting stories to tell. It was also good to make friends early. Who knows who else might end up being in their squads?

He drew up his cloak, which he had been using as a blanket, over himself. “Sleeping now. Wake up when leaving.”

“Will do.” Veximarl smiled to himself, grabbing his new gear and taking it back up with him to the bedroom. He was greeted by Alton and Zaniyah setting up the table with bread, cheeses, clotted cream, and apple jam. They set some mugs down and started to pour hot broth into some of them. Sybil exited the bathroom, seeming much more comfortable wearing her regular attire. She stretched happily and get out a content sigh.

“Where’s Chi?” Zaniyah tilted her head in confusion.

“Sleeping. He requested that you fetch your own weapon when you were ready.” Veximarl set his items on the weapons rack. “If we are to make it by the fort by mid-morning, we will need to leave within two hours. We should have plenty of time to put everything together.”

Sybil took a seat and tore off some of the bread for herself. “The rules said we could begin the attack two hours after dawn. That’s so the other team has enough time to prepare themselves. They left last night for the fort, so I doubt they need the time.” The others looked at her. “I saw them leaving early when I went to help Chickadee last night.” Mila left in a hurry after their talk, that’s how she knew.

“A ploy no doubt done so that they know exactly which direction we’ll be coming from.” Veximarl started to slather jam on some of his own bread. “We will have a better idea on where Oscar will be patrolling because of it.”

Alton picked up his mug and sipped from it. “We should leave as soon as we are ready. If Falk is heading the patrol, he most likely won’t appear outside the fort until the two-hour mark. We should go the long way around and ambush him.”

Zaniyah gathered the pendants that had been stored with the mission briefing scrolls. “They said there are logs buried all around the edge of the property. It’s a large area, but maybe Oscar would wander far? We’re supposed to wear these so the teachers know where we are, and we can’t enter the area until the test starts.”

Sybil took one and placed it around her neck. “I don’t think they’ll expect us to attack right away. We should be safe with this plan.”

The group finished their meal and made a sandwich for Chickadee to eat while they journeyed together. He wasn’t happy to be woken up so early, grumbling under his breath as they walked. They found that there were patches of trees located in the dips between hills, and chose to settle in one that was close to the testing area so they could talk further about the plan.

Veximarl checked for blister thistle, then gave them the clear to come within. Chickadee propped himself against a tree and immediately went back to sleep. Zaniyah sat down and frowned. She had wanted to see if there were berries nearby, but too much movement in the grove might catch Oscar’s attention if he decided to walk the perimeter before the test started.

Alton and Veximarl went over the map again, and Sybil excused herself. A slight mist formed about her as she exited the grove. Walking the perimeter, she saw that it was a good area for a test. There were several options from where they could start their attack, and they would have to cover a good amount of ground to reach the fort. However, it also held more advantages for the defenders.

Hills were plentiful, and there were groves of trees within the perimeter itself. She hadn’t considered the fact that the Starsons group might attempt to set up an ambush in one of them. If she were them, she would have set up the prisoner among the trees. It would give ample time to locate and defeat the attackers as they wouldn’t know where to look.

There wasn’t a sign of Oscar after an hour of looking, so she reported back to the grove. It was around that time when the pendant around her neck started to buzz. That was the signal that the time limit had passed and they could begin when ready. The others felt it as well, and even Chickadee woke up clutching the pendant around his neck.

“Moment.” He set down the case he had been holding onto the ground and opened it up. Inside was a cane that was made of wood and metals that appeared to be seamlessly woven together. Blood iron was formed into different arcane letters and set within it, and the head of the cane was a right angle hook that he could use to trip up people’s ankles. He also unpacked a small spyglass that he started to attach to the side of it.

Sybil took a breather as Chickadee set up. She could only remain undetectable for so long. Her current limit was three hours, but she preferred to take small breaks rather than do it all at once. Zaniyah stretched out her arms and picked up the sword that Chickadee prepared for her. The length of it, including a handle, went from her chest to the ground. It was plain in design, and all Chickadee did was add some blood iron to enhance it in such a way that it could withstand the punishment Zaniyah would give it.

“What is that?” Veximarl leaned in, examining the can that Chickadee was fidgeting with.

“That is Chickadee’s masterpiece,” replied Sybil with a nod.

Chickadee blushed and shook his head. “No. Needs much work still.”

Zaniyah nodded. “It’s all very fancy and experimental. One of his earlier designs ended up exploding on him while he was casting with it. We couldn’t transport him safely, so he was in a bed for a week until we could convince a real cleric to come into the core. It’s probably okay now, but no way am I going to stand near him while he’s using it.”

“Guarding him is Vex’s job anyways.” Sybil waved her hand in the air, as though to show that Veximarl shouldn’t be concerned over the idea. “As Vex stated before, the biggest weakness in magic is its range. Spells have to be a certain distance away from the user, but manipulation of mist and blood iron can change how these spells work.”

“You stated that weapons using mist charges might blow up in this area,” Veximarl said in a concerned tone.

“Chi only uses the highest quality materials for his own work. He also won’t risk using a mist charge. It just means he has fewer spells to work with.” Sybil nodded confidently. “It’s fine. You’ll be fine. Let’s go ahead and head out.”

Sybil used her mist step to leave the grove first, entering the test area with caution. She began to climb up a hill, with the others following her at a slow pace. It was difficult. The second any of them looked away, she would disappear from sight. Chickadee kept his eyes locked on her, and used Zaniyah to ensure he had no missteps. Zaniyah didn’t need her eyes to tell where she was, her nose was enough. Alton was focused on the surroundings, using the position of others to keep an eye out for Sybil.

At the top of the hill, Sybil could make out where they had planned to begin their attack. She scanned about, seeing if she could see any signs of people walking around. They were far off, but she thought she could see someone up on the roof of the fort. Her arm raised up, and she pointed off in the direction opposite of that.

Chickadee gave a nod and scrambled up the hill. He held his cane in both hands, pointed downwards. When he reached near the top, he dropped to the ground and crawled the rest of the way. Sybil dropped down as well, whispering within his ear. He pressed the crook of the cane against his shoulder and pointed it in the direction that she had gestured.

His lips started to chant. Without a mist charge, casting with the cane took extended time and concentration. He was tracking something through the spyglass and making small motions with the fingers of one hand as he chanted. Alton carefully made his way up the hill so he could see what they were looking at. He kept low to the ground and squinted his eyes. In the far distance, he could see Oscar, somewhat slumping around an area lazily. The teen gave a yawn and was oblivious to the danger he was in.

The chanting coming from Chickadee’s lips stopped, and the ground below Oscar suddenly opened up. With a cry that echoed against the hillsides, he was swallowed into the earth. The ground quickly snapped shut above him, leaving no signs of spellcasting behind. Without the pendant, he would surely have been crushed to death.

“They would have heard that,” whispered Alton.

“That means they’ll set their sights on that location.” Sybil ruffled the top of Chickadee’s hood. “Let’s go report.” Together they quickly descended, jogging towards Veximarl as a group.

“Captain Vex.” Alton nodded at Veximarl. “Scout target eliminated.”

“Good work.” Veximarl felt like he had done to contribute. Though he did feel quite stylish in his new outfit. Much nicer than the robes he had worn and repaired over the past few years and awkward growth spurts. “Let us proceed to the next hill. We will attempt to take out Miss Fletch and then approach the fort.”

They moved as a group once again, using the different hills as cover for their approach. This time Veximarl and Chickadee ascended the hill with Zaniyah waiting at the bottom. Sybil pulled out one of her daggers and kept it in hand while she made a wide circle around the perimeter. Alongside her was Alton, who had a hand on the hilt of his sword.

She kept her attention on her dagger, letting Alton lead as they moved. Both were silent, but they needed to be. Even with Mila and Oscar down, the Starsons group could still outpower them. Stealth needed to be kept up as long as possible. Sybil grasped onto Alton’s sleeve as soon as they were in position, giving it a slight tug. Her dagger had begun to vibrate.

A woman’s scream rang out from within the fort. It echoed slightly before being cut off abruptly. This was followed by shouting and minor hysteria from within. Sybil kept still. Her grasp on Alton’s sleeve was maintained as she waited for the signal.

“Three… Two…”

Another scream. This time it was Zaniyah’s battle cry as she charged her way down the hill towards the front of the fort. Sybil let go of Alton’s sleeve. He turned to say something to her, but she had already vanished from his sight. She couldn’t have gone that far, as there weren’t any signs of her moving ahead.

“We’re this close to getting into Braytons. Don’t mess it up,” he remarked in a cold manner. His own feet dug into the ground, dashing towards the fort and hopefully also towards victory.

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About the author

Adelaide West

Bio: Author of the Grimstone Series and Duck and Wolf.

I have a Twitter. I check it often, so I guess tag me anytime you want. I just don't post very often. @AdelaideGWest

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