It felt good to hold Whisper again. It wasn’t really Whisper, as part of her had died tragically in a mist charge accident. This was more of a whisper of a Whisper. But to Zaniyah, it felt nice to hold on to her one true partner again. Let there never be another moment where she could cheat on her love. No more swords for her.
As good as it felt to be in battle, what she didn’t like was trying to understand the pantomimed orders that Alton and Vincent were giving her. Yes. Hit things with axe. Got it. That’s what she was good at. Hitting things with an axe. That was a given. What else was she going to hit? Wait... Not hit either of them with the axe? Now that was just being picky.
Neither Chi nor Sybil ever asked her to not hit them during a mission. They were nice, civilized friends who knew how to get out of her way. Learning to fight without either by her side was starting to be more troublesome than she first imagined. Yes, they wouldn’t be there to help her out for all of their lives, but she always liked to think that they would be.
But for now, she could hardly hear anything with the wax in her ears. Was that a whistle blow? There were teens moving out on the field and drawing out their weapons. They didn’t seem to be coming closer. A push against her back made her turn around while swinging her axe. Vincent deflected it with a quick casting of his shield and gestured towards the applicants.
A grin and then a roar came out of Zaniyah and she charged towards the group. They each attempted to block or flee. Weapons and armor were sliced in half as she made hefty thwacks through them all. Every death blow leading to its target disintegrating into faint glimmers of gold light as they were teleported out of the field.
She jumped up and ran along the edge of a crumbled wall, looking for new opponents that might try to face her as she went. All of the ones that were left had frozen in place. They were staring in a direction behind her with dead-like expressions. Had the fighting been called off already? Zaniyah turned her head to see what was going on.
Even though he had been placed on point, Alton hadn’t bothered to join in the scramble. He was standing still with Baton held aloft in the air, as though he were a conductor. Vincent stood near him in a defensive position. The paladin’s spell was out in the form of a large tower shield, hovering just off to the side so he could easily see around it.
Zaniyah’s hand went up to pull one of the wax balls out from her ear. She was about to say something but she suddenly felt paralyzed. Her body wanted to move, but she was entranced. In an instant, she was drawn to Alton, completely unable to look away. He was singing in an angelic voice.
They weren’t words she recognized, only a jumble of mystical notes that changed the very rhythm at which her heart beat. It pounded loudly in her chest as it struggled to match his tune. Something about him had made him so much her everything that even her body demanded to worship him.
He was beautiful.
At that moment, while his voice rang out over the field, he was beautiful. Her cheeks flushed and she had difficulty breathing. Was this love? Was this desire? She wanted nothing more in this world than to continue to hear him sing. No matter what it took, she needed to do everything she could to get him to sing for her and her alone.
There wasn’t even care to the balls of magic that were slung in her direction. Nor was there notice given as Vincent ran up and pulled her down to the ground. He plucked the wax from her hand and roughly shoved it back into her ear.
“Get the archers and mages!” He exclaimed loudly. Vincent sprung to a stand and hopped backward, twisting his shield up and above him to block the arrows that were launched at the pair. He needed to make his way quickly back to Alton, who was glaring at Vincent for leaving his position.
It took a moment for Zaniyah to recover. Chickadee would’ve easily blocked that spell from reaching her without having to move. Without him here, and with Vincent guarding Alton, she’d be forced to watch her own back. The thrill of the fight was shifting into a sudden bitterness. This wasn’t what she was accustomed to.
Regardless, she stumbled to a stand. More balls of fire and lightning were launched from the staff of a mage. She ducked down low as she ran towards her assailant, threading through the spell with ease. Panic was making his aim clumsy, giving her a clear advantage. Striking true, the blade of her axe quickly made its way through his neck, giving him the brief sense of decapitation as he vanished.
She continued to dash and leap over rocks and rubble as mages and archers fled in different directions. An occasional spell was slung at her, but she continued to dodge them with little injury to herself. Their casting was slower and more predictable than Chickadee’s. The difference in abilities between her comrades and them were clear. A slew of arrows flew towards her at once, and she did what she could do to block them with a spin of her weapon.
Yet her efforts weren’t good enough. She let out an angry growl as one projectile pierced her thigh and another hit her shoulder. It made chasing after them difficult, but the fact that Zaniyah was still up and running was enough to make those near her lose courage. She continued to act like a wild animal, screaming loudly and growling as she went. Making her angry only succeeded in her becoming more focused on finding the ones that had hurt her.
With the ranged group distracted, Alton and Vincent moved up. Alton’s songs had limitations. It only worked within a certain range, and the effects could only last for so long before its victims would come to their senses. Together, they assassinated any nearby opponents as Vincent made way over to where Zaniyah was.
Once at her side, Vincent angled the shield to protect her as Alton ducked down. Vincent tapped his sword against her axe to let her know that he was there, and grabbed at the arrow in her shoulder to yank it free. He then pressed his hand against the glimmering wound and the pain subsided. She gave a moment for him to do the same to her leg before continuing on with her rampage.
The whole ordeal was over in a few minutes. As the numbers dwindled down to a handful of applicants, Alton cut off the singing in an effort to lure them out. It also gave the opportunity for Vincent and Zaniyah to move freely together in their hunt.
Watching from above, a short man with dark skin stood a little ways away from Grimstone and Stonetoe. He leaned onto a broken stone wall with a stern stare. On him was a bronze colored tunic that was embroidered with scales. At his hip was a belt that carried an assortment of mismatched pouches, and he had a bandolier that held many a knife in it.
“You’ve picked a strange one again,” he muttered in a deep voice, taking note of Zaniyah’s axe-murdering happiness. His eyes flitted towards Alton. “That voice has terrible range, and that paladin is far below average in natural talent. They’re all mediocre.”
“Don’t care what you say, that group of clowns at Starsons actually produced some gems this year.” Stonetoe took a swig from his flask. “Except that one. She’s from the underground sector.” He gestured with his flask to Zaniyah, who was chasing after an archer while screaming at him to hold still. “Reminds me of me as a kid. Think she’s one of those mist mutants that have been popping up? I thought Alder and Kindrick were the last nightmares we’d see for a while, but this year had some rough cuts that might end up with a lot of shine to them.”
Grimhawk scoffed at the idea. “Mist mutants…” He leaned down on the wall next to his fellow teacher. “The mists weren’t this bad when I was that age. The change was so gradual, it’s difficult to say where or when it all began.”
“You should’ve seen the beauty that came in the first day, Dalkirk,” muttered Stonetoe. “I’d forgotten that girl Lydia was training was coming along this year, and Nita wouldn’t stop panicking about it. A real mist riddled gem she turned out to be. It would’ve taken her a little longer, but she could’ve finished off that whole group by herself.”
“I saw her when her group broke into barracks and sent Alder to confront them.” Dalkirk’s face strained with annoyance. “Till denied my requests to put her in my squad.”
“She’s Stallis Twist’s kid, and you know how much Nita cried after Larkin died. She wanted so badly to meet that girl in person so she could be the one to toss her away...” Stonetoe’s mood visibly darkened. “She would’ve been perfect for Bronzescale, but Nita has seen too many kids walk through this place and be ruined because of it. She can’t get over the fact that people aren’t copies of their parents.”
“Twist left this morning with Grulick’s sword at her hip and that dark knight by her side.” Dalkirk threw a glare in Stonetoe’s direction. “Why have you taken brood into your squad?”
Stonetoe responded by raising up his hands. “Nothing to do with me, and what are you doing calling him brood? Trying to get him killed? Either way, don’t worry about him. When Tuton comes back, he’s going to have both of us keeping watch.” Dalkirk narrowed his eyes all the more. “It’s me and Grimhawk, and that kid’s been under Grulick’s thumb since he was practically a baby. Nothing to worry about and nothing neither of us can’t handle.”
Dalkirk grunted. It was difficult to say if that was a noise of disagreement or approval, but neither Grimhawk nor Stonetoe seemed to mind. Grimhawk tapped his staff against the ground as he waited. He gave a tilt of his head as Zaniyah let out a victory cry.
“Too early to make a sound like that,” the old man grumbled.
“One left,” replied Stonetie.
A series of arrows that had been left embedded in the ground exploded with massive force as Zaniyah’s shout turned from joy to panic. Vincent pulled up his shield, but it shattered from the force and sent him sliding back. Bracing herself low to the ground, Zaniyah managed to retain her balance. Alton was the one that received the worst of it all, despite being a little ways off from the pair.
Within the dust cloud that had risen up, a figure had started to dash towards Alton. The squire would be unable to call for help, as the first blow was an elbow directly to the throat. His hands would go to his neck as he stepped back, coughing and sputtering in an effort to just be able to breathe.
Zaniyah, still partially deaf from the wax in her ears, was now doubly so from the explosions. She began to call out in an effort to figure out what was happening. “Vincent?! Alton?!”
The dust started to settle, and she could make out a brown haired boy in a washed out brown cloak notching three arrows into his bow. Alton stumbled away from him, still coughing as he did so. Her axe was held low as she charged forward. She raised it up as she leaped into the air in an effort to pounce on their attacker.
The three arrows were loosed at once. None of them were at vital points. Instead, they were all aimed at her arm, which went limp as they severed her tendons. The suddenly loose grasp on her axe made her balance falter, and the archer took a step to the side as Zaniyah fumbled through.
Putting his longbow over his shoulder, the archer pulled out a short sword and made a series of quick thrusts at Zaniyah. She was forced to drop the weapon and user her throwing axe to deflect. Even so, he was constantly within a hair’s distance of her, making it hard to attack back. Slashes of golden light started to appear on her body as the archer cut at her, but he was unable to get a killing blow.
“Zaniyah!” Though disorientated, Vincent was now stumbling up while Alton had collapsed to his knees. He couldn’t breathe and was now clawing at his throat in an effort to get air through.
Running up, Vincent looped his arm around Zaniyah’s waist and pulled her away from the attacker. When the archer lunged his sword forward again, it clanged against Vincent’s shield while Vincent held onto a wiggling Zaniyah. He dropped her and spun around once more, now matching the archer’s movements blow for blow with his own sword.
Stonetoe took a swig from his flask. He was amused by the spectacle. “Hey, looks like one of the food poison kids managed to make it out of the infirmary. The whole ordeal is a real mess,” he explained to Grimhawk. “I bet Mordiern two bottles of my best wine that someone from that group would make it in, but some Violet Region group got into their supplies and poisoned the lot of them.” He squinted his eyes so he could watch the fight more clearly. “Probably still reeling in pain. He’s moving slower than he did during the physical exams.”
“A shameful display by those who think removing the competition will grant them victory,” replied Grimhawk.
Laughing, Stonetoe took another drink. “If only we had a better way of recording what happened last year. That is the way to go when it comes to removing competition.” He made an exploding noise with his mouth. “Who would’ve thought seven kids were enough to take out three hundred?”
Dalkirk didn’t find amusement in remembering. “Stop the fight,” he commanded. “I’ll take him for my squad.”
“Of course you go for that type.” Stonetoe gave a sigh as he watched the archer, who was now running backward while firing arrows at both Zaniyah and Vincent. He raised the cone back up to his lips. “Cease fire! Byers! Get up here! Highland! Go help Toval before he passes out! Stab him or something! Death will fix that right up!”
Zaniyah kept swinging, and Vincent was forced to loop an arm about her waist again and lift her up so she’d stop. Byers maintained a defensive pose until Zaniyah halted her onslaught. She lowered her arms in defeat, slumping in Vincent’s grasp. A slow turn was given so she could pout at the paladin.
Heading up the hill, the archer was pulled away by Dalkirk so they could have a talk. Stonetoe and Grimhawk stayed back and the remaining three took a moment to go over their wounds. This eventually ended with Zaniyah trying to help Vincent get out a piece of wax that was stuck in his ear.
“Maybe if I can shove a dagger in there? The rapier might be thinner.” She roughly tilted Vincent’s head from side to side so she could see within.
“I will rinse it out later with warm water!” Vincent squirmed in an effort to get away from her, but Zaniyah tossed her arms about his shoulders and hugged him from behind.
She grinned widely. “You feel better now? Bit of battle cheer you up?”
Vincent looked over to Alton for help, but the squire was bent over and clutching onto his stomach. The paladin’s suffering was making him let out a series of rasping laughs. All Vincent could do was give off a sigh and relent to Zaniyah’s kindness.
“Yes, thank you Krogastein. I will tend to my wounds later.”
Stonetoe approached to where Dalkirk and Byers were, waving a hand to get their attention. “Before I forget, there’s a mage in my group that needs a rough course in knife combat. He’s already got years of training in other styles, so you’ll think it easy. You’d like him. Doesn’t talk much and doesn’t bother using his real name.”
“Learn to train your own students.” Dalkirk didn’t appreciate the interruption. “I’m busy.”
“Come on, Dalkirk.” Stonetoe placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. Dalkirk jerked his arm away as a response. “Do it for friendship, and because we’re these kid’s knights. We do what’s best for them, not what’s easiest for us.” He lifted up the cone and started to speak loudly through it as Dalkirk glared. “Highland! Krogastein! Head back and figure out what your afternoon chores are! Toval! Report to Lady Till and get some singing lessons! That was terrible and out of tune!”
Alton was no longer amused. He looked up and narrowed his eyes. “My pitch was perfect!” He then proceeded to let out another series of coughs as his throat still felt out of shape.
“I know a shit show when I see a shit show! Run three laps for talking back and then report to Lady Till!”
They returned to the barracks and carried on with their day. The rest of the week would be a struggle of adjusting to their schedules. Despite their eagerness to go home and report the good news, it was more important that they had everything they needed to prepare for their lives here. The second and third years often spent summers away, making this the only time for first years to monopolize the fort and gather what they need.
Zaniyah woke up early in the mornings, heading off to the barn in order to clean up after the animals. She enjoying spending time with them along with Anais and Vincent, and it was easily the highlight of her day. With Alton’s schedule flooded with rapier training and music lessons, Anais was the one who volunteered to help teach her and Chickadee to ride horses.
Things were also going well for Chickadee, who also awoke early each day to assist in maintaining gear. Each of the first year students would need weapons. Armor could wait until later, as they didn’t start missions right away, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t work to be done. Any gear that they owned had to be altered. Students were required to wear the Braytons symbol of twisting dragon tails, but this was also combined with the coat of arms of their knight.
He spent his time interviewing students on their needs and sizes, then reporting his findings to Ira. Chickadee would watch materials being cut, with Ira explaining the process as he went, and together they worked on improving the designs and finishing them. It was hard but rewarding work for the mage who loved the smell and heat of the forge. Mostly, it was interesting to see how someone outside of his family worked.
However, mornings were quickly becoming Alton’s least favorite time of day. He wasn’t productive like Zaniyah or Chickadee. Rather, he was told that he was one of the weakest students in the first year group. Alton was under the personal impression that they wouldn’t be saying that if Veximarl had not left on the first day.
Stonetoe kept his attention for the first half of the day. The knight did not like getting up early. In fact, he hated it. This only fueled his resentment in having to teach Alton personally, as that was his role as weapons master. He would spend an hour yelling at Alton on how his sword forms were wrong while cursing he shouldn’t be awake at this hour.
For every “death” Alton had, another lap was added to his after dueling run. Grimhawk oversaw that portion, sitting back and also giving him instructions on how he could better improve his form. Neither of them were easy teachers, and Alton was eager to be assigned to a squad with a knight who would treat him more kindly. The leadership course sounded nice. Plenty of pretending to read books and strategy games. That’s what he was going to look forward to.
Some afternoons were focused on making use of the first year mages. Chester Compton, Anais Reese, and Chickadee were responsible for slinging spells at the combat students. Actually, it was mostly Chester and Chickadee, and they gave Anais a crossbow. She couldn’t sling out spells, but she was a decent shot.
The lesson involved setting up the melee students in a field and having them survive for as long as they could while magic burst out around them. If they were doing too well, the members of Bronzescale Squad, Mila Fletch and Irving Byers, were allowed to join team mage. Neither of them played nice, and the field was often littered with explosion marks from bombs and combustible arrows afterward.
Other times, they were asked to work on individual tasks. Alton’s voice rung out over the courtyard as Till played a clavichord to accompany him. She made him study classical pieces of opera, much to his dismay. His voice encouraged others to loiter around in the courtyard, much to the dismay of Zaniyah, who was in the middle of lessons with Stonetoe. Being distracted by those around her meant she spent more time running laps than she did fighting.
Dalkirk had requested Chickadee do some knife training with himself. The mana string that he could tie to the knife made it an effective rope dart, thus Chickadee spent some time in the afternoon in a corner of the barracks swinging it about. It was a difficult weapon to get started on, but Chickadee found himself enjoying the lessons.
When it came time to settle down in the evening, Chickadee preferred to sit in silence and study. Alton would gossip with Zaniyah and go to sleep after he had drunk some hot tea. His vocal cords were having the familiar pain of overexertion, and it was never a comfortable feeling.
The only good part was that Lydia’s life lessons and lectures had gone down as the days went on. He’d only see her in the corner of his eye, examining a nearby person or detail of an object that he himself didn’t find all that interesting at all. Other times she would randomly shout at people in a surprising manner to see if anyone could hear her.
She, much to his relief, would fade away at night. This gave him time to lie in bed and stare at the ceiling. Braytons was different. Their squad room was smaller than his own personal space back home, but he didn’t exactly hate it. There were plenty of things that were worth leaving behind, and he was glad to be working towards what he wanted. His eyes would eventually close, and he would find solace within his dreams.
“Are you awake?”
Something spoke to Alton in his dream. He heard a distant voice calling to him. A cold touch drew itself against his cheek. Nothing disgusting, no, far from it. The sensation was familiar and comforting. His head tilted to the side as he tried to capture it fully.
A melody began to play within the depths of his mind. It wasn’t in the same tongue that he was used to hearing, and it twisted together in odd sounds and notes, pulling together to make wonderful music. In a way, it wasn’t any different than the tune he had hummed for Sybil before, yet it couldn’t be called the same.
His eyes snapped open. Weariness was replaced with panic, with his heart racing and sweat building upon his brow. He looked up, and there was Lydia floating above him. She tilted her head this way and that, curious about what could be wrong with him.
“AHHHH!” He cried out, clutching at his chest. “Don’t stare at me like that!”
“You were humming in your sleep.” Lydia backed away and sat on the edge of his bed. “I suppose mornings are to be a boy’s private time.” She placed a finger to her lips and smirked to herself. “But you’ve slept in. The others left some time ago.”
Alton pulled the blankets around himself and looked offended. “I did..?” He furrowed his brow and wondered why Stonetoe hadn’t busted the door down looking for him.
“Did you forget?” Lydia’s body started to float aimlessly again. There were times he wondered if she even had full control over that, but couldn’t be bothered to question her about it now. “Today’s the day you set off to Herring. Get up! Go ready yourself for the start of a new adventure!”
“Babysitting two core kids while they go off and get themselves killed… Right. Fun stuff there to look forward to there, Lydia.” Alton groaned and fell back into bed. “Let me have another hour. I’ll take first watch when we’re camping tonight.” He muttered a few curse words to himself and shut his eyes tightly, hoping she would let him be and not ramble about something stupid again.
Far off to the east, Sybil had already been up for several hours. From here, the way to Carapace was an uphill trek. The ground was covered in a thick fog that almost went up to her knees, and they needed to be careful of the large mist cats that hunted along the mountain range. Wooden posts sticking up through the fog were the only signs that they had that they were still on the road.
Veximarl dragged his legs behind her. They managed to hitch rides for most of the way but had to travel the past two days on foot. Eventually, they reached a large opening in the side of a cliff. It appeared to be one of the sources of the mist, with a gentle cascade flowing out of it. Several smaller vents nearby also pumped mist out, and Veximarl could see the hint of buildings peeking over the tall cliff when he looked upward.
A thin metal bar was pulled out from within Sybil’s armor. She tapped her finger against it several times in order to get it working. At the top of the device, a small moth made of light appeared. It flew upward in the air and poofed into a fall of glittering light.
“I do not know if I can manage a climb up to that crevice,” muttered Veximarl as he continued to stare upward.
“We’ll get a ride.” Sybil grinned to herself.
“... On what?”
“Oh, you’ll see.” Her smile widened, and Veximarl felt a chill up his spine.
The paladin trainee was about to press her further when a shadow started to crawl out of the cave. He took a few steps back as a giant metallic spider came crawling out on impossibly thin legs. Sybil took a step forward and raised up her hand to let the creature “sniff” at the metal bar with its wiggling fangs.
“This is it.” She turned around and beamed at him. “Let me be the first to welcome you to the core, Vex!” For the first time in what felt like forever, she felt like she could finally relax.