The monks had escorted Sybil away from Alton and to the underbelly of the temple. There, they gave her a scroll that had an assortment of personal information on the weapon’s previous owner. Lady Ribnjak Grulick. A knight instructor from Braytons who had left her sword here before she retired.
It was literally the sword located right next to the Lady Larkin’s rapier. If she had moved her hand over the slightest bit, she could have gotten the one she so desperately wanted. Or she could’ve failed to pull out the rapier and suffered from severe injury. One or the other. This was a mixed blessing.
Grulick’s last request was that the person who pulled the sword come visit her in her home village of Husk. The monks explained that the sword had been here for nearly ten years and that Grulick was possibly in her seventies or eighties now, as she had never specified her real age. They hadn’t received word of her death, thus were confident that the request still had time to be completed.
Sybil took the sword and sheath they provided and attached it to her belt. She thanked them for their time and promised to return when she had completed the request. Her brain was still numb from the experience, not knowing what to think. As she left the temple, she noticed that Alton was waiting for her outside of it.
“I thought you would’ve headed back.” She frowned. He seemed a bit distracted, staring off at nothing in particular. “Are you alright?”
Alton turned his head and put on a huge, fake grin. “You got a sword! That’s great! It means that I get to be stuck with the whole core trash set and a swamp rat. Yay for the loser brigade.” He sarcastically twirled a finger about the air.
Sybil wasn’t amused by the remark. She narrowed her eyes at him and folded her arms.
He laughed, and even that sounded fake. “I’m kidding. You need to report to Lady Till when we get back. Let’s not keep Bibi waiting any longer. She gets skittery when she’s left alone for too long.”
Alton paused. “That’s the name of my horse.”
“Bibi?” Sybil was speechless.
“... Yes. Her name is Bibi,” he replied flatly.
“No, that can’t be right. You couldn’t have been the one to name her that... That’s far too adorable for you to have come up with.”
“I was a little kid when she was born, alright? There was my father saying this little baby horse was mine, he asked me to name it, and I couldn’t pronounce ‘baby’ correctly. That’s how little I was.” Alton turned in a huff and started down the walkway. Suddenly he spun around on a foot and glared at her all the harder. “She’s a purebred guard vanner mare who grew up with me like a sister and you will show her the respect that she deserves!”
“T-that… That story just makes it more adorable.” Sybil had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing. “Hey, wait! Give me a ride back!” He had already scoffed at her and was walking away angrily again. “Don’t be mad!” She jogged to catch up with him and he helped her back up on his horse.
Alton didn’t say much on the way back to Braytons, seeming upset with the Bibi remarks. Sybil explained that she wanted to check the room for the others rather than handle the sword issue right away. They may have already come back and were now waiting for them. The horse traveled at a slower pace, which was nice because it meant that Sybil didn’t have to have her arms wrapped around Alton as much. When they returned, they entered the gate and found a near-empty courtyard. No one was waiting for them despite hours going by. It made Sybil’s heart sink with worry.
“I need to take her to the stables and brush the dust off her coat.” He helped Sybil off of Bibi and gave her a stern look. “Go to the field and talk to a knight.” She immediately turned towards the dorms. “Twist! I mean it!”
Sybil stopped in her tracks and glared at him. “Fine!”
She tossed her hands in the air and made her way to the field where the bedrolls had been laid out. There were more applicants here, around a dozen. They were mostly in small groups, and all were in different emotional states. From her understanding, over two hundred had shown up the first day. There were still over fifty left at the start of today, and the maximum capacity for squires was twenty-five, but only eleven had made it the previous year.
Till was carrying around a scroll with different names on it. More teens were starting to show up as the afternoon rolled through. They did have until the next morning to finish the tests, and nightfall tended to be when they were busiest. Sybil debating going over to speak with her but shook her head. Something about encountering the lady’s disapproving tone again sent shivers up her spine.
“Twist!” Stonetoe approached and slapped her hard on the back, sending her stumbling a few steps forward. “Sorry, you didn’t pass. Don’t be hard on yourself. No one is more beat up about it than Grimhawk. He got into a heated argument with Till about it last night.”
“He did?” She looked up at the man, then frowned. “... They already failed me last night?” Her frown increased and her hand dropped down to the scabbard holding Grulick’s blade, fingers wrapping around it gently.
“At least the rest of your friends passed,” he replied with a grin. “Till ordered me to take our fastest horse and stop the fight. Not the exam, Grimhawk already tore his way through that. I needed to stop him from killing all of those kids. He had those Starsons brats up against the wall and was shouting at them while waving his sword at their faces. Most fun I’d seen Grimhawk have in years. Reminded me of my days as a squire here.” Stonetoe suddenly shuddered at the memory. “He really did enjoy doing that.”
Sybil didn’t relax at the thought, even though Stonetoe was laughing hardily about it. “They all ended up failing?”
Stonetoe shook his head. “Their archer didn’t. Don’t think their paladin either, as he didn’t seem to have a clue the mage kid was there. Some of them decided to sneak him in and not tell him about it. You should ask your friend, Krogastein. She’d tell you better than I. Don’t worry about what happened to that intruder. I had a someone escort him off and watch him to make sure he doesn’t come sneaking back.”
“Yes… He ended up going to the Volo Refuge.” Where he attacked her and Alton. “Thank you, Sir Stonetoe.
“Doesn’t surprise me. There’s always some kid who thinks that pulling a dusty blade out from the temple will make us change our minds. Most of them spend days there believing they can still get in. Shame that Nita tends to put her foot done and keep it there.” Stonetoe laughed to himself again. “She is one stubborn bitch, but she’ll do well running the barracks.”
Sybil clutched at the scabbard all the tighter. “Going to the refuge sure does sound like something only a pathetic loser would try.” She let out a weak laugh.
Stonetoe slapped her on the back again. This time she only needed a quick step to regain her balance. “Don’t let that hold you back from trying. I’ll talk to Till and ask if you can stay for a few days while we get matters sorted. She’s an idiot if she thinks you should head out home by yourself. I don’t think you’d want to travel back with those Starsons kids, and it’s not safe to be out there on your own. Second years never do much anyways, and maybe some of them will take you back.”
“Thank you. I appreciate it.” She turned to step away but Stonetoe grabbed at her forearm. He had a smile in his eyes as he spoke. It had been there the whole time, but now there was a certain sparkle about it.
“A falchion looks good on your side, Twist.” She turned and looked up at him. “Shame you never used it during the exams. It would be nice to see you had some flexibility with weapons.”
“I know how to use a sword, but I haven't held one in years. I’m more confident in my daggers,” she muttered.
Stonetoe pulled his hand away. “You know, that’s almost what Ribnjak Grulick would say. She taught here for what seemed like forever. Maybe forty or fifty years. Grimhawk was in the first squad she oversaw, and I was with her as well. Ended up taking her place when she left. Never mind that though, what matters is that the Toad always preferred to use a spear, but she also always had a falchion at her side. Always insisted on wearing it, but never saw her use it. Neither has Grimhawk. Not once.”
“Why carry around a weapon you never plan to use?” Sybil furrowed her brows. Especially if it seemed easier to keep stored someplace else on a day to day basis.
“Don’t know. The Toad was always an odd one. She always surrounded herself with the odd ones as well.” He laughed loudly again. “She never stopped! She still does it! That Tuton kid is a mess, and Braytons is going to destroy him, but Grulick wrote a letter demanding we allow that dunce entrance. Grimhawk rolled over to her demands like he’s always done, and now he’s my damn responsibility like every one of that geezer’s squires.”
A light lit up in her hopes. Sybil opened and closed her mouth like a fish for a few moments as she recovered from her shock. “Veximarl Tuton? She’s the knight that got him accepted?!”
“Yeah. Even if she hasn’t been here for a while, her word is the law.” Stonetoe gave her a knowing nod. “Nearly every knight here owes her something. Almost anyone that wanted to be a teacher here is so because of her. Dalkirk, Oceans, myself, and a good handful of others were all in her squad at some point or another.”
Sybil gave a slight bow. “Thank you, Sir Stonetoe. I should see how my friends are doing.”
Stonetoe smirked. “Good luck with that. If you guys need some wine to celebrate, let me know.” He made a drinking sign with his hand. “Just a little bit of alcohol though. Too much will rot your insides. Also, you’re underage! Don’t tell Nita I said that!”
She thanked him again and rushed to the squad bedroom. The door was open, with Alton being dragged into helping Zaniyah with rearranging furniture. Veximarl was sitting at a desk placed underneath his bed, spending his time organizing the books he had brought with him. Chickadee was directing where Alton and Zaniyah could place a work table under his own bed.
Zaniyah almost dropped the table on Chickadee when she saw Sybil walk into the room. “Oh… OHHH!!! You should’ve seen it! It was absolutely amazing!” Chickadee braced his hands on the table and helped them set it down.
“I heard about some of it.” Sybil smiled. “Congratulations on passing! What are you guys going to do next?” Alton frowned at her, but she waved it off.
“They want Chickadee and me to learn how to ride horses before we head off to Herring. We gotta deal with that whole Bardsen’s knife thing before he can officially be let in.” Zaniyah was sitting on top of the table. Barden’s knife referred to the weapon that Chickadee pulled from the temple. “That’s where the old man had his forge set up. We’re gonna see if we can loot it for supplies. You coming? I mean, you have to come, right?”
“... Falchion.” Chickadee’s eyes immediately went to the sword at Sybil’s hip. She pulled it free and passed it over to him. He then shooed Zaniyah off the table so he could examine it closely.
Sybil stretched her arms up and shook her head. “I really do want to, but…” She looked off to the side. “I’m heading off to Carapace in the morning. I promised I would help my father with his work over the summer before I stay at Braytons full time. Vex, do you want to come with me? You said you were interested in the core, right?”
Veximarl looked up from his work. “Pardon?” He looked over to Chickadee and Zaniyah, and then back to her. “I am grateful for the invitation, but I worry for how these two would fare on their own in the world,” said the paladin trainee who was still freshly liberated from the swamplands.
Alton let out an annoyed sigh. “This is your first time out of the Crimson Region, right? Got any experience with the main roads around here? Or know about the Violent Region?” Veximarl let out a nervous laugh and begun to stutter as he tried to think of a response. “I’ll go with them.”
“Just because I called you beautiful once, does not mean I’m interested.” Zaniyah stuck out her tongue while Alton made a look of disgust. “But I appreciate the sentiment and welcome you on our journey.”
Sybil smiled, settling into a soft chair that had been set by the window. Today did a lot to change her opinion on Alton. He’ll see to it that they stayed safe. At least, she didn’t see a reason why he wouldn’t. Then again, why was he willing to even go with them in the first place?
“Wait, where did you get this furniture?” She looked around while biting down on her lip. She didn’t put it past either of her friends to simply borrow what they thought wasn’t being used.
Veximarl eased back to arranging his belongs. “They have a storehouse full of old furniture so that squires have no need to supply their own. We decided to go ahead and arrange the room while waiting to see what squad you’ve been assigned to, but these two will remain with me.” He sighed in appreciation of his near-empty bookshelf. “I will need more books, and Carapace would be a good place to do some shopping. Though I wonder if I will have enough for those and travel expenses.”
Zaniyah tilted her head and thought of something. “Are you sure you want to travel out there with Vex?” She looked over to Sybil while tilting her head at Alton. “We heard you were out of the barracks somewhere with this guy, and, you know, I had assumed since you were gone for so long, and because of that thing with Zy-”
“Don’t bring that up, Zani,” said Sybil in a suddenly harsh tone. Her good mood was suddenly soured. “Wait, sorry. I didn’t mean to snap like that, but I asked before for you not to mention it.”
“But, I mean.” Zaniyah tipped her head towards Alton again. Alton in return was looking between Zaniyah and Sybil with an increasing look of disgust on his face. “Working some things out of your system might help. Not a permanent solution but a quick patch.” She dipped her head towards Veximarl. “That one doesn’t seem like the type to get in and out without wanting to stay in, you know?”
“What?” Now Veximarl was confused.
Chickadee waved a hand to catch the paladin’s attention but didn’t look up from his work. “She is claiming Alton would be good to abuse for casual sex.” This made Veximarl crinkle his nose in more confusion. “He’s a whore.” Veximarl looked over at Alton this time, who could only shrug at the accusation. He couldn’t exactly disagree with the statement. “You’re a settle for type. Not good option.” Now Veximarl couldn’t tell if that was a compliment or not.
“What matters is that you have my permission to have some fun,” replied Zaniyah, who was trying to get back to the main topic.
“By the core, I just asked you to not bring it up! I also don’t need your permission for that! I can… I can mingle with whoever I want! And for purposeful and meaningful reasons!” Sybil exclaimed. She shuddered at the thought of what Zaniyah was implying. “Forget about all of that. What about the exam? What happened there?”
“Oh! Sybil! Your lecherous behavior had distracted me from the more important details!” Zaniyah grasped onto her borrowed longsword and did a running jump onto the dining table. Alton took a wary step back as to avoid accidental decapitation, frowning at her lack of civility. Everyone else was used to it. “I am going to tell you the story of our somewhat victory! Here’s to our small triumph at Braytons!”
She went on to explain that the clash between Silas and Zaniyah was a serious one. Neither could get an edge on the other, swing being matched for swing. One seemed hesitant to use their mist charge, the other had accidentally blown out her axe the previous day. A heavy stalemate lingered between the two.
Chickadee and Veximarl still laid prone on the hill, with their backs to the sun. The mage continued to chant quietly, tracking Zaniyah’s movements through his scope. Pillars of rocks began to erupt from the ground below. Zaniyah jumped onto one and rode it high up into the air. Silas responded by smashing into the pillar hard enough to make it crack at the base.
Veximarl felt so nervous that he had trouble breathing. This wasn’t a fight that he could easily step into, yet Chickadee had fully taken control of the situation. Pillars and walls of stone continued to fly from the ground until the once flat field in front of the fort was an entirely different landscape.
Silas continued to smash his hammer from one pillar to the next as Zaniyah hopped between them. The idea was to force him to use a mist charge and have his weapon overload, as he was moving too quickly for Chickadee to pitfall him. Hopefully, this would help Zaniyah get the edge she needed to get a killing blow. As he kept on the offensive, Silas looked around angrily, trying to locate the source of the stone magic. He refused to believe that this girl was in command of it. Zaniyah took this as a welcome opportunity, leaping down with her sword raised high.
She was about to make contact against Silas when suddenly a thin pillar sprung up and knocked her in the stomach. It carried her high within the air as she exhaled forcefully. Flames suddenly erupting below her. Zaniyah struggled to breathe again as she dashed and leaped between flames and pillars. A series of surprised yelps escaped her as she did so.
“No mist charge.” Chickadee frowned, scanning about the area. “Enemy mage spotted.” His voice lowered and he began to chant again.
“They’re not supposed to have a mage… W-wait!” Veximarl grasped onto the cane and lowered it. A pitfall appeared right next to Barcus as a result, making the mage hop away in panic. “I don’t believe he’s on their team. Check to see if he has a pendant.”
Chickadee frowned as he squinted through his spyglass. “... No pendant.” He shifted his attention back on Zaniyah, who was still tumbling over the pillars. They abruptly gave way underneath her. Twisting together and swallowing her up into a thick stone ball.
Silas started to repeatedly hit the stone with his hammer to no avail. Shouting for him to get out of the way, Barcus started to make wide gestures with his arms. Flames started to well up around his figure. His hands went out and the flames shot forward, engulfing the stone ball in flame.
“She is going to end up baking in that oven if we don’t do anything.” Veximarl grasped onto his staff and halfway stood up.
“She won’t.” As though on queue, Zaniyah’s head popped out of a hole that appeared next to the pair. She gave herself a shake and pebbles fell out of her hair.
“What is happening?!” She loudly whispered, crawling out of the hole and looking over to where Silas and Barcus were. “They had a mage? Who is that? What’s going on? Am I supposed to hit him too?” Her voice lowered into a more serious tone. “Did Alton lie to us so Starsons would have a better chance of winning?”
Veximarl shook his head. He rolled over and laid on his back. The staff was held on his chest with his hands, as though he were a corpse being put to rest. “I do not believe he was meant to be a part of this. There is still plenty of time left. Plan on retreating so we may speak with one of the exam’s supervisors. I am going to speak to Highland first to see if he knows what is happening.” He closed his eyes and became still.
“You’re going to what?” Zaniyah asked, but he didn’t reply. She poked him in the head and withdrew her hand, shaking it. “... He’s gone cold.” A gasp escaped her lips. “Oh no, is he dead? We’ve killed him. We did so good at making sure he wasn’t in the danger zone, but we killed him anyways. This is going to look so bad on our exam results.”
“Still alive.” Chickadee kept his watch on Silas and Barcus. “Defend this position.”
Veximarl wasn’t fond of this spell. Not many could use it and even fewer had even heard of it. The reaction he got from others were also best described as complete freakouts, so he also never mentioned being able to do it. It also felt uncomfortable to use. He was floating, unseen under the light of the sun. His spectral being continued to float, only becoming visible when he entered the dimmer light of the fortress.
Moving through the walls, he checked room by room to see where the others were located. Then he hovered up and through the ceiling, only to see Vincent and Luca’s backs turned to him. They were set in a defensive stance and were facing the door. Nearby was a figure wearing a tall cone hat with a veil draping down from the tip. Veximarl paid no concern to this person, as he could not remove them from this place while in this form.
“Vincent Highland.” His voice came out like a hiss, echoing against the walls.
The pair turned to face him. What they saw was Veximarl Tuton, the wisps of his tattered white robes floating in the air as though he were underwater. His hair had taken on a gray aged tone, and his skin was deathly pale and somewhat translucent. Most notable were his pale bluish-white eyes. They were inhuman in appearance, with horizontal slits like a goat’s.
“Vincent Highland.” The specter’s voice called out once more, pointed at the paladin in accusation. “It is time to be judged.”