Sword clashed with hammer outside the front of the fort as Silas rushed forward to meet with Zaniyah. Neither Vincent or Luca had shown themselves. Most likely they were on the second floor waiting for the others to appear. Zaniyah continued to match Silas blow for blow as Alton approached the back door.
He reached for it carefully, only to find it opening on his own. The shield spun its way out if his bracer and he took several steps back. His opponent was smaller in stature than either Luca or Vincent. The look in his eyes was dark, and it appeared as though he hadn’t slept in some time.
“Barcus?” Alton drew out his sword and held it at his side. It was the mage that had come with them, and an original member of Vincent’s squad. He had failed the written exam on the first night here. The mage was supposed to be waiting for them in Tilrey.
“Of course it’s you.” Barcus let out a laugh as he stretched out his hands in a welcoming gesture. “Alton Toval! I’m so glad that you’re here to screw up everything for us again. Trying to make sure you’re the only one that gets accepted?” He wagged a finger. “Don’t bother to answer that, Captain Toval. After you messed everything up for your own squad, it’s going to be an honor for me to show you what real teamwork looks like.” A flurry of fire was around the mage in an instant.
Alton held his weapon aloft. “I don’t have time for this.” He lunged it forward, just to see Sybil get in his way at the last moment.
“Toval, stop!” She cried out with her arms stretched out in front of Barcus defensively. Alton felt his sword pierce through her, and both looked at the other in a startled fashion.
“What are you doing?!” He cried out, wrenching his sword back so he could strike at Barcus. Gold light started to fall out of her body as she clutched at the wound.
It hurt so much worse than she thought it would. Sybil struggled through the pain, she was quick in her attempt to stammer out her excuse. “You c-can’t! He’s no-”
Her voice was cut off, and she felt like she was slipping backward. The light had swallowed her completely, bathing her in warmth. She blinked, and when her eyes snapped open, she was lying on a bedroll in a completely different place. There were dozens of bedrolls laid out in the same field where the obstacle courses were before.
“Whoa! You’re here! That was crazy!” Mila was sitting in the next bedroll over, and she leaned over to see how Sybil was doing. “What did you guys hit me with anyways?”
“Barcus!” Sybil sat up with a start. She gave Mila a panicked expression.
“My cousin?” Mila tilted her head. “No, he got kicked out of here last Moonsday, remember? He apparently copied down Luca’s answers, and that’s why they made him leave.”
A flash of light behind Sybil and Alton suddenly appeared. Rather than seeming startled by his transportation, he immediately rolled out of the bedroll and grabbed her by the collar of her cloak. With a violent tug, he made sure she was looking him in the eye.
“What did you do that for?! I had him! We could have won!”
“He’s not wearing a pendant!” Sybil exclaimed quickly. “You could have… Did you kill him?!” She grasped at Alton’s wrist as he shook his head. “We have to tell someone! Chickadee is set to watch Zani’s back. If Barcus tries to help Silas with his fight, he is going to die!”
“Thank you for that report, Miss Twist.” A voice called out above them. It was Lady Nita Till. “I have informed the instructor on the premises, and they have stopped the match. Fletch.” Her gaze turned to Mila. “Please go to the door and ask for a knight named Dalkirk. He has questions for you.”
The girl paused. She felt that there were more pressing matters that needed to be addressed. “About my cousin…”
“I assure you that I haven’t received word that he has been injured.”
“By Eatha, that’s good to hear.” Mila gave a pained smile to the other two. “I guess we’ll catch up later, Sybil.”
Sybil sighed with relief, placing a hand on her chest. “We will. I’m glad he’s alright.” She felt a lot better about everything as she watched Mila run off.
“Meanwhile, we already have the results of your exam.” The relief changed back into tension within Sybil’s chest. “Alton Toval. Congratulations on your acceptance to Braytons. As soon as the exams have fully concluded, we will discuss your education here. Sybil Twist, you have failed. You may stay until your schoolmates have received their results. Afterward, you must pack up your belongings and leave.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Sybil stood up and gave a bow. “I’ll… I’ll start packing now.”
“No, you won’t.” Alton stood as well. “I’m not going to accept that. Twist just got herself fake killed to tell you that some idiot was trying to get himself actually killed.”
Till’s apathetic expression didn’t change. “Her idea of spreading information was to leap in the defense of an enemy and to be killed by her ally. Not only that, but her distraction lead to your immediate defeat. If she had informed you properly, you could have subdued the individual and gotten assistance. Instead, she needlessly put that boy’s life in danger and failed her assignment as a scout. Information can save or destroy lives, and she failed her primary objective.”
“You seriously can’t expect her to be perfect under that kind of pressure. We’re only squires, and she’s never had proper training. Even expert knights would have difficulty in a situation like that.” Alton’s hands formed into fists.
Till took on a sterner tone. “We assess many criteria. I will not disagree that Twist has potential, but there are conditions that are holding her back. Her life within the core makes her understand little on how the outside world works. Not only that, but her special talents would benefit someone who would excel as a bandit or as an assassin. We do not strive to teach nefarious beliefs here.”
“But she wants to be a knight.” He was confused by her accusation. “Assassinations were never a subject that was brought up before, and she’s not a nefarious anything. I don’t even know why you would suggest she could be that or a bandit.”
“We do not train those who have the capabilities to turn into powerful villains. Yes, we train monsters, but only those that will benefit mankind. She simply does not have the natural talents or skills necessary for that.”
Alton was going to argue further, but Sybil placed a hand on his shoulder. “It’s alright. You don’t need to stand up for me. I get it.” She felt numb. “Thank you for your time, Lady Till.” A proper bow was given. “This has been a valuable experience.”
For the briefest of moments, Till was taken aback by Sybil’s composure. “Yes, well. Have a safe journey back home, Miss Twist.”
Sybil faked a smile and went along her way. Her feet dragged as she went back to the dorm room. Not being talented enough. That was the one thing that she felt would hold her back. Making a stupid mistake, that was also something she could accept. Being told that they couldn’t let her in because she had the potential to be evil?
She couldn’t tell if that was because she was from the core or not. A lot of the outlanders of Carapace think there is something wrong with those in the core. That the mutations one could receive from the mist made them unfit for the rest of society. She wasn’t one of those though, at least she didn’t view herself that way. Sybil always viewed herself as normal.
Every morning, she would get up and ride a transport spider over to the cave where her school was located. She would spend the day in classes and afterward run around on the giant webs that made up the pathways within the core with her friends. Like some people, her favorite season was winter. That’s when the sun would match its path with the top of the core, and for a few hours a day, the light would shimmer through all the webs and make wonderful patterns on the stones. It was even more beautiful when the upper webs had ice on them.
There was nothing wrong with the place where she lived, nor did she think that there was anything wrong with herself. She viewed herself as not talented enough to be a knight. Just saying that would have been enough. This wasn’t acceptable, but, she didn’t know what she could do about it.
There wasn’t much to pack. Everything could be delayed until the others got back. Instead, she took off her armor and folded it up. She removed her cloak and put it aside as well. If she had passed, she planned on wearing the Dogfall insignia proudly during her three years of training here and after she became a knight. People had to know that core kids were capable of doing good things for the outside world.
Instead, it just was a reminder of how she wasn’t a student there anymore, and how Zaniyah and Chickadee were going to leave her behind. She was going to go back to the core and spend year after year after year living in a hole while maintaining golems instead of designing her own. The same dead-end work her father was doing.
… There was also Zyris. She really wasn’t looking forward to seeing her ex-boyfriend and telling him that he was right about not coming here. That was going to be a terrible conversation. It was already a terrible talk the first time around. The second will be so much worse.
As she became trapped in her thoughts, Alton entered the room. Sybil was sitting on the floor underneath the window with her head pressed against her knees. She didn’t greet him, and she could hear him rustling about as he removed his armor. He spoke to her while he did so, but she was only halfway listening.
“They said the test is going to take awhile. They have to question my- … The Starsons squad about who let Barcus in. They don’t know yet if they’re going to redo the test with different applicants or let it conclude as it is.”
He eventually approached at bent at a weird angle in an attempt to get a better look at her. After a moment, she looked up. Her face had become an absolute swollen mess from all her crying. With a sigh, he knelt down and grabbed the back of her head. He forcefully held her still as he roughly wiped her face dry with his sleeve.
“Hey! Ow! I’m fine! Stop that!” She flailed around a bit, slapping at his arm with her hands.
“Be honest with me.” Alton pinched onto her cheeks and forced her to look at him. “Did you actually believe that you could pass the exams?”
Sybil grimaced, it hurt that he would ask her that. His intense stare made it all the worse. She shoved his hands away and turned her head off to the side. “No... I didn’t. Happy? I’m going to go back to my hole to stay there forever just like you wanted.”
“No, cave mouse, I’m not happy. You knew you’d fail, and yet you left your home anyways. For what? Was it really because you thought you could personally make the core get along with everyone else?” She shook her head. “So it was for Zan and Chi?”
“I needed to make sure they would be alright,” she muttered. “They’re important to me. They’re the most important people to me in the entire world.”
Alton nodded. “When Vex asked if he could be in your group, the three of you welcomed him without question. Despite only having known him for a day, you accepted him as one of your own. When I was forced to be here, you all accepted me as well. Sort of. I’ve been a complete dick to you, and yet you still tried to make a peace with me.”
“You have been a dick, yes.”
His hand grasped roughly at her chin, forcing her to look at him again. “You did all of that knowing that you weren’t going to be able to see this through to the end. That doesn’t make you a bad person. Stupid, yes, but not bad. Bad people don’t go through that much suffering for others without getting anything in return. You may be some dirty cave mouse, but you are not an evil person, Sybil. Don’t let anyone get away with telling you that.”
She moved his hand away again. “Lady Till didn’t say I was evil. She said I was going to be evil someday.”
“I don’t believe that’s possible.” He sounded so gentle when he said that, that it nearly caught her off guard. “That will never be a possibility for someone as selfless you.” Alton stood up and held out his hand. “Come on. We’re leaving.” She made a protesting sound, which made him grab onto her wrist and yank her to a stand.
“Where are we going?”
“I have a gift for you.” He started to drag her to the other side of the room. “Because your useless lucky charm got me into Braytons, no other reason. Don’t think too much about it or get your hopes up that this will lead to something else.”
They made their way to where Alton’s massive horse was waiting patiently outside the fort. Sybil grimaced at the sight of the regal creature with flowing locks. Yes. Of course, he would have a horse like that. There wasn’t even a saddle, but a folded blanket instead, which made Sybil even more nervous.
He helped her up first and then followed after her. Then he proceeded to charge the thing down the road at a speed that terrified Sybil. She shut her eyes tight and dug her nails into Alton’s clothes in an effort to not fall off. When he had come to a stop, he had to pry her hands off of him. As he dismounted, she noticed that they were at the edge of the geyser fields.
“Volo Refuge?” She slipped off the horse and looked around in confusion.
He nodded and started off in the direction of the walkway. “You can only pull a weapon out from the walls of the Volo Refuge if your ideals and disposition match its previous owner. Since all of these people were well-regarded knights, pulling a weapon from here almost always guarantees entrance to Braytons.”
“I know that.” Sybil lengthened her stride in order to catch up with him. “It’s how Chi was accepted.”
“You are going to go in there, and I don’t care how long it takes, but you are going to yank on every single one of those damn blades until one gives way. Prove to that stupid woman that you have good in you,” growled Alton. She stared at him blankly. “You’re doing it, and that’s final.”
They entered the temple and made their way slowly down the wall of weapons. Sybil gave a gentle tug to each. There may be hundreds here, some even dating back unknown generations. It would take a long time to try them all. A monk informed them that if they did it for thirteen hours a day, it would actually take three days. He was very specific about the amount of time. Apparently, quite a few teens tried it around this time of year, and there were others here that were already making attempts.
“What are you doing?” Alton was following her around. He was annoyed by her half-heartedness. Actually, he managed to keep it together for a half hour, but then he started to become aggravated by her sulking about.
“I’m doing what you told me to do.” Sybil gave a weak tug at a spear and then bent down to walk underneath it.
“I know for a fact that there is only one sword in here that you want. At least start with that one.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you going to call me names this time?” He gave her a stern look. “Fine. Whatever. I’m going.”
Just in case though, she made a mental note of which weapon she had tried last so she could start from there later. She then made her way to the back wall where the rapier of Lydia Larkin was laid to rest. Her fingers traced along the plaque that had her name on it and she took a deep breath.
“... Just go for it already.” Alton started to tap his foot impatiently against the ground.
“Alton.” A voice behind them quietly stated. The pair of them turned to see Barcus standing there. He was seething in anger, having come here himself as a last-minute effort to get into Braytons. “Why did you have to go and tell?”
“You have blamed me for a lot of things today that haven’t been my fault.” Alton snapped back. “How did you even get here? Shouldn’t Highland have held you back after that stunt you pulled?” Barcus’ face twisted into a glare. “You don’t deserve to be here. You could have died, Barcus.”
“Death wouldn’t have been a problem if you had played your part. All I needed was for all of you to fail that test. That was it. They would’ve seen that I wasn’t worth tossing out over some stupid paper. My whole squad could’ve made it into Braytons… Even that bastard, Vincent.”
“Failure wasn’t an option for me.”
“It always has to be about what isn’t an option for you, doesn’t it?” Flames started to build up around his hands, and Sybil realized that she had never seen a moment of Barcus where he didn’t want to sling fire at her. “They not only kicked out me, but Oscar, Luca, and Silas too. I don’t even know if Mila made it. Everyone that matters to me was denied a chance because it wasn’t an option for you. My squad, my girlfriend, all of my friends. Vincent had to be a fool and put you first, and for what?!”
“And I made it in Braytons through my own efforts.” Alton put his arm out in front of Sybil as Barcus stepped forward, acting as a barrier between her and Barcus. “None of what happened was my fault. Highland said-”
“Vincent only said that because of all those idiots joined to get close to you! He blames you just as much as the rest of us do!” The fires grew brighter as he raised his arms up and clenched his fists. “It would’ve been fine if you were never around!” A maniacal laugh escaped his lips. “At least that is the one thing I can fix with my own hands.
And it felt great the first time I took you out. It felt like you had been deserving that type of punishment for quite a long time.” Alton’s face darkened in a way that Sybil hadn’t seen before on anyone, as though pure rage flashed over him in an instant. “Yes. That’s the Alton I always knew was in there. Let’s see what happens when I kill you for real!”
Sybil was trying her best to carefully think through the situation. This was the second time today that this happened, so she had more experience, right? She had failed the first time because she didn’t take a moment to think, yet her brain was a muddled mess. If she fails, Alton dies. Maybe she dies as well, she didn’t get that far yet. There were monks approaching to stop this, but the fire was already leaving Barcus’ fingertips.
Was there ever a different option? She reached behind her and grabbed at a sword, wrenching it free from the wall with a firm tug. As the fireball grew, she ducked under Alton’s arm and towards the spell, swinging the blade up and through it. The fire split, sending flames to either side of her and Alton, and she changed her footing so she could better counter attack what Barcus did next.
“Cease!” A monk pressed the end of his staff to the base of Barcus’ neck. His eyes rolled into the back of his head as he slumped into a heap on the ground. “Miss! Weapons are not allowed within the temple! Lower your guard!” He held up his staff in a defensive manner, ready to strike at Sybil in the event she acted out against him.
“No, I… The wall.”
Sybil had pulled a sword from the wall. The realization of her success was just now setting in. She looked down at the blade before her. It was a falchion in design. It had a thin metal core that was hidden underneath the darkly colored volcanic glass. The stone had chisel marks in it and made for a blade sharper than any steel. Everything about it screamed ancient in its design. Twisting it about as she examined it, she couldn’t help but feel confused.
“Uhm… Whose sword is this?”