“These are your identification plaques,” Stonetoe explained, holding up his own wooden token that had a gray string attached. “Press the blood iron to make your coat of arms appear on one side and your signature weapon on the other.” His own coat of arms was a shield with twisted dragon tails at the bottom. On the shield was a stone fort with a boot above it. The back of the plaque had the image of crossed sabers.
Zaniyah looked at the glowing design of plaque and compared it to Chickadees. “We’ve got the same coat of arms.”
They had ones that were an appearance identical to Veximarl’s, not that they would know that. Alton looked over his. It was of a stone with small flowers sprouting out of it and Lydia’s rapier on the back. He tucked it into his tunic and decided not to show to the other two. His assignment to Baron Squad would only be brought up after they had returned from their trip.
“As squires, your crest will be that of your lord knight. In this case, it’s Grimhawk and myself. Now pay attention.” He pulled out one of his sabers. “You need this and your weapon for it to legally count. No weapon, no valid identification. Understood?” Veximarl had left before his weapon had been engraved on his, technically making it a bad idea for him to use it.
Each of the weapon etches was a highly detailed sketch. Zaniyah’s axe had the crack in the head and the fine details that were on the handle. The rapier that Alton carried included a close-up sketch of the lark that was on the blood iron pommel. Chickadee’s was the most boring, with a rope dart with a twisting rope behind it. The string had an odd glow to it to indicate it was magical.
“Don’t go flashing around your plaque at every given opportunity and protect it with your lives. There are people out there who would do anything to get their hands on one, and it can open a lot of doors for those who know how to use it.” Stonetoe grimaced as he watched Zaniyah twirl hers about by the string handle. “... Go out there and don’t die or anything. Be back no later than Eight Summer.”
They said their final goodbyes and rode westward. There were two mules and a mare with them, with Zaniyah on one named Squash, Alton on Bibi, and Chickadee on a small brown one named Hickory. Both novices let Alton ride in front, and their own mules seemed happy to obediently follow the larger horse’s lead.
If they rode hard, they could reach the end of the rolling hills and the city of Mareth within a day, but there wasn’t a need to rush. Four weeks was plenty of time for them to head there and back. During their first night, they ventured off of the main road and camped next to a lake. It was a large body of water without a river feeding into it. Tranquil and quiet, which was a welcome change from the busy barracks. The first watch went to Alton, who let Lydia do most of the watching.
Alton was content to sit on a tall rock and hold his rapier out. A string had been tied to the tip and the hook was waiting in the waters below. Trail rations were best left to when there was nothing else available. He had helped them set up a basic smoker before they had gone to bed. If he was quick with his fishing, they would be fully preserved by morning.
There wasn’t a concern for not catching anything. After all, he had always been an excellent fisher. His voice came out in a singing whisper as he bobbed his blade up and down. Ancient tunes he had learned in his youth were sung out, and the water soon started to churn below him. Before he was adopted by the Toval family, the waters of Fogbloom were a second home to him, and he didn’t hesitate to take a meal from them whenever he could.
It wasn’t long before he had a collection of fish. Cleaning them out on a flat rock he had found, he cut out the guts and tossed them into the lake. After he was done, they were brought back to the campfire and set on the makeshift smoking racks. Zaniyah didn’t think it through when she volunteered her new Braytons cloak to be the outside of the smoker. That was a smell that would take a very long time to get out.
Afterward, he laid down on his bedroll and looked up at the stars. He kept his eyes on the moon, waiting it to be the time to wake up Chickadee for the second shift. Lydia floated over, sitting silently in the air next to him. Her image faded until nothing was there. He noticed that she was never around for long at night, but never brought it up. The reward of privacy was enough to keep away his curiosity.
Their shifts passed one by one and he awoke in the morning to Zaniyah pulling the meat off from the smoked fish and tossing it bowl she had cooked porridge in. He stretched his arms and nodded to Lydia as she gave him a morning greeting. Then he rose up and cracked his back. They did just have a week of hard work… Alton was thinking that they deserved a break.
“We should spend the day here,” he said, overlooking the landscape. It was a nice, private area that was a little ways from the road. Alton liked it.
Zaniyah dipped a piece of bread into her porridge and took a bite. “Not much reason to, right? If we’re going to waste a day, why not do it in Herring?” She was eager to see if she could spend some time on a fishing boat.
Alton shook his head. “I’m not comfortable with either of you going to an oceanside city when neither of you knows how to swim. The lake is safe and the water is still. This is a good location for learning.”
Chickadee sat up bleary eyed and with his hair going off in every direction. He rubbed his oversized sleeve against his eyes and yawned. “Break sounds good,” he muttered before falling back into the bedroll.
Breakfast was eaten and cleaned up after while a plan was made. Alton instructed Zaniyah to find some thick wood that they could use as a support for swimming. She cut up a set of logs and then both Chickadee and Zaniyah striped down to their underclothing so they wouldn’t be dragged down by wet clothes.
Chickadee looked like a completely different person without his layers of clothing. For one, his face was visible. He held an upset expression as his near anorexic body couldn’t stop shivering. Despite Zaniyah rubbing his shoulders, he couldn’t find the strength to warm up. Eventually, he settled for casting a ring of fire about his person whenever he was out of the water. It did little to purge the cold, but it made him feel better on an emotional level.
Alton perched himself on a tall rock and instructed them to go waist deep into the water. Then they were to take turns leaning on a log while kicking their legs to propel themselves forward. This was added to tips that Lydia was feeding him as she watched with some interest.
“It reminds me of when they were little darlings first learning to walk the webs.” She beamed at the memory. “Such clumsy little pebbles.” Little did she know that Veximarl was receiving web walking lessons from Sybil. He was even worse than a toddler. There was more than one moment where he managed to slip and fall a great distance, which led to him having to be retrieved by spiders. It was not a good day for him.
Things were also not going smoothly for team swimming, as Alton chose to pantomime motions from his perch instead of going into the water and showing them. It was difficult to tell if they were making progress. More than likely, they were not. Zaniyah was finally done with not saying anything. She splashed her hands in the water and shouted at the king of the rock.
“We’re not going to get it if you just keep waving your arms in the air like an idiot! What does that even mean?!” Zaniyah exclaimed , pointing her finger in an accusing manner. “You only took off your shoes! At least remove your shirt! Stop being a peeping pervert and get down here! I don’t understand anything you’re doing up there!”
“Don’t call me a pervert while telling me to take my clothes off! You’re only saying that because you want to look at my body!” Alton put his hands on his hips and and glared at her judgmentally.
Zaniyah looked off to the side and muttered under her breath, “Ah, he caught me.” Chickadee was equally as disappointed that Zaniyah’s plan didn’t work, pouting while he paddled about.
“Just kick your legs around like this!” Alton shouted from his rock. He then proceeded to hold his arms out stiffly and wave them up and down as though that would properly convey his words. “Chi is doing a better job than you! Do what he’s doing!” He gestured over to Chickadee, who was heading out to deeper water while balancing on the log. “Stay near the shallow end, Chi! Don’t head out too far!”
Lydia’s attention went pass Chickadee. Her voice came out as a panicked whisper. “Alton. The water.”
He looked over to her and to where she was looking. A long, eel-like creature had its white fins just above the surface for a moment before sinking down again. Alton squinted his eyes to see if he could tell where it was going.
“Get out of the water!” He saw a shadow shift direction and dart towards the pair. “Chi! Zan! Get out of the water now!”
Chickadee looked over to Alton with surprise before vanishing below the surface. Only a faint ripple on the surface was left of his existence. Alton was oblivious to Zaniyah’s panicked shouting as he pulled off his shirt and leaped off his perch. He dived into the water smoothly as his body shifted to accommodate being underwater.
A clear nictitating membrane with gold webbing closed over his eyes, and his pupils contracted into pinpoints so he could see clearly. The gills that lay between his rib bones fanned out and gave him the ability to breathe. His webbed toes propelled him forward quickly as he sought to see where Chickadee vanished.
“He’s over here!” Lydia was flying next to him. If it were not an emergency, he’d marvel on how ghosts were apparently able to speak and “stay dry” underwater.
She pointed over to Chickadee, whose leg was trapped in the jaws of a barracuda-like fish that was easily twice his length. The fish was spinning in circles in an effort to tear off his limb, with Chickadee going limp and spinning along with it. Alton swam further down, holding out his hand in an effort to grab at the fish.
His nails became long and dark blue as they turned into sharp claws. They embedded into the fish’s sides, slicing through its scales as it spun. In a panic, the fish let go. Chickadee remained limp. Rather than float, it started to sink further down as a trail of blood floated above him.
Alton swam to the boy, grasped at the back of his neck and pinched his nose closed. He made a tight seal between their lips and blew firmly. Air was forced into Chickadee’s lungs, his eyes snapping open from the shock. He coughed and flailed in panic, which made Alton cover the mage’s mouth with his hand to get him to stop wasting air.
Tightening his grasp on the mage once more, Alton swam towards the shore with the speed of a loosed arrow. They quickly emerged together, with Chickadee’s feet fumbling to feel the mud underneath him, and Alton continuing to support him until they reached dry land. Once there, Chickadee was gently lowered down.
“What is wrong with you?!” Alton’s clear eyelids blinked a few times before retracting away completely. “You’re a mage! If something attacks you, you fire magic back at it!” He started to pull off his claws one by one to reveal his human fingertips underneath.
Chickadee rolled onto his side. He started to vomit up water while coughing. “I-I panicked,” he mumbled out before a sobbing Zaniyah tackled him
“Be gentle, dammit! Carry him back to the campsite and fuel the fire. We have to clean out the wounds with clean water to make sure he doesn’t get an infection.” He looked down to Chickadee’s leg, which had several deep holes in it. His knee was bent at an odd angle and starting to swell. What that meant exactly, he didn’t know, but it couldn’t be good.
Blood was flowing freely from his cuts, but so far it didn’t seem like there was any venom in the fish’s teeth. Alton’s knowledge of freshwater fish was limited. He didn’t know if there would be a poison or not, even though Lydia assured him that was not the case. All he could do was some first aid using her advice and hope for the best.
Alton boiled strips of cloth from their medical kit and set them down near the fire to dry. He ladled purified water over the wounds, pulling out a tooth from Chickadee’s calf in the process. The mage held a leather strap between his teeth so he could withstand the pain as Alton worked.
“Can’t walk.” Chickadee weakly muttered.
“Obviously,” Alton hissed back. The more he saw of the injury, the greater his worry was becoming. “I can only stop the bleeding. Zan, I need you to pack up everything. We can’t ride fast or risk making it worse, but we can still get to Mareth before dark. We have to get him to a cleric.”
Zaniyah had been staring at Alton’s torso while he worked. The gills that had once flared on his sides had sealed up again, only leaving faint lines on his flesh. His back, especially the lower half, was covered in scales that shimmered in a multitude of colors in the sunlight. It was similar to how his eyes changed depending on the light. Also, his muscle structure wasn’t that bad at all. That did not displease her in the slightest.
“Zan!” Alton exclaimed more loudly, looking over his shoulder.
“R-right away!” She waved her hands about while looking around. Eventually her mind got it together and she started to work quickly.
Alton hissed between his teeth. “Seriously, Chi… You’re an idiot. You need to be able to cast magic whenever you’re in danger. Even an air bubble around your head would’ve been better than nothing.”
Chickadee was somewhat in a daze, staring off at the ground. “Lightning magic may interfere with core golems and blacksmithing process, little opportunity to practice. Wind magic did not come to mind.”
“The rest of the world isn’t the core. What works there doesn’t work here. Otherwise, we’d all be eating bugs and singing praise to our spider overlords.” Alton set a splint in place and tied the bandages tightly around it. He was certain the splint wasn’t doing anything, but he needed to make sure the leg didn’t somehow fall off while they rode.
He left Chickadee for a moment to gather his shirt, which he had left on his rock perch. Lydia floated behind him, curiously watching his movements. Alton pulled the shirt over his head and frowned at the water. There were no signs of that fish to be seen. He also knew that if there was one of them, there would more than likely be more.
“I believe there’s an underwater aquifer feeding the lake its supply.” Lydia put her arms behind her back and looked out over the water. “There was no way you could have known something like that was down there. Everything that came by last night was small and feeble.”
There was a frown on his face when he looked over at her. It’s possible that his singing from last night lured it here. He should have checked the water first, but he was worried about his physical appearance and the other’s reactions to it. There were a multitude of ways this incident could have been prevented, and all of it was his responsibility.
“Would you be able to scout ahead while we’re riding?” She nodded. “Thank you.” He pulled his boots on and jumped down from the rock.
Chickadee rode with Alton while Zaniyah managed the mules. Together, they were able to make it to Mareth before nightfall. It was a bustling town with plenty of wandering travelers. The people here used the rolling hills to their advantage, being known for breeding some of the best horses in Lustro. A set of barons, Baron Marjoram of the Violent Region, and Baron Whipple of the Gilded Region, made their home here. One handled the western side, and the other the east.
Since Mareth was the last major town before the long stretches of farmland that made up the Gilded Region, it also meant that everything here cost a lot of money. Plenty could be made taking advantage of the ill-prepared. With Alton managing the limited amount of funds they had, he was not looking forward to this. He knew he had given Veximarl to much money, but he felt that those two might run into an emergency where it might have been necessary.
Finding a cleric was easy enough. They were told that Chickadee needed to spend a few days off his leg after the surgery. Magic could only do so much, and it would take a few days of rest to ensure he wouldn’t have permanent damage. Limited movement and definitely no horseback riding. That meant that they were stuck for the time being.
Alton stepped out of the church and leaned against the outside wall, pressing a hand to his temple in aggravation. They weren’t in any sort of hurry, he told himself again. A few days wouldn’t make them late in returning to Braytons. On the other hand, the group didn’t have much in the way of money and he was not willing to fund this whole trip himself. Their identification plaques could only buy them a night of food and rest. He needed another plan.
Zaniyah joined up with him outside, stretching her arms and taking in the sight of the setting sun. “Why is everything here expensive?”
The barracks had given them a small allowance for the trip along with some supplies, which was added to Alton’s funds, but they also needed lodging for their animals. Honestly, the best plan was to put Chickadee up in a hotel and for them to set up camp outside town. He would be given room service, and they could stop by when needed to make sure he was fine.
That sort of situation didn’t sit well with Alton. Moving to one of the mules, he pulled out a length of rope and tossed it to Zaniyah. He also pulled out a box decorated with shells. This he unfolded into a handheld harp, with dozens of strings drawn taut as he snapped its joints into place. It held the shape of a moon, with blue silk ribbons hanging off the bottom, each with a pearl attached, all except for the one that had the crystal Sybil had given him tied to it.
“What’s all this for?” Zaniyah looked down at the rope and up at him unpacking his mask. His mask wasn’t magical in any way, but he liked it. It helped him get into the mood.
Alton let out an annoyed sigh. “Either we find a way to make money or we leave Chi alone here so we don’t have to pay inn fees for all of us. Trail rations aren’t going help him get better.” He looked around for a place to change clothes. “I’m not going to make Chi feel like he’s been abandoned. Let’s start with that tavern first and see what we can get.”