Sybil really did try her best when it came to teaching the unappreciative Veximarl all about living in the core. So many wonderful things were to be experienced. There was balancing on the webs, visiting a grub farm, and going the uncharted caverns to hunt for mushrooms. Going deep into the caves was one of the most fun things to do.
When she was young, she had gotten lost in the caves after fleeing from a massive tusked snake. Her and Zaniyah had slipped and fallen into a small crevice. The creature went wild above them, its tusks scraping and yanking up the stones above in order to get in. Suddenly, the ground rumbled. Rocks fell from above, injuring the snake. It became trapped, hissing and snarling in an effort to get out. They could hear shouting and people fighting against the creature as the ground continued to rumble.
That’s when the stones swallowed them whole. They felt themselves being pulled through the earth and forced up through it where there was air again. It was in that moment they met Chickadee, who they had mistaken for being a gnome spirit at the time. After all, he was small, his features were covered in layers of clothing, and he was carrying an oversized staff.
For the longest time, they thought some spirit had led adults to their rescue. It wasn’t until a few weeks later, when they met on the first day of school, did they realized they were actually saved by a little stone mage who was helping out his father. That was what ended up cementing their childhood friendship.
Veximarl, on the other hand, didn’t appreciate hearing stories about giant tusked snakes while he was deep in the caverns. He had already gotten sick at the sight of swarming bugs that were being raised for consumption, his body hurt from slipping down the webs, and he felt itchy all over from the thought of spider golems dragging him to safety. The stress was wearing him thin.
Much to his disappointment, they weren’t allowed to see the golem factory. It was the only place he absolutely wanted to make a stop at. Since Lydia’s death, no one but workers were allowed into the caverns where they were put together. Sybil’s father did make an appearance at some point, if only to grab some books he had forgotten and say hello to his daughter.
Stallis Twist was a short man, with pale skin and hair that had gone white due to his age. When he spoke, it was blunt. There also wasn’t much he was happy about. Stallis didn’t smile when his daughter told him she had been accepted to Braytons. Rather than offer congratulations, he stated that it would be important for her to continuing working on her tinkering abilities so she could get a job with him when she returned.
There was only so long in her life that she could expect to serve others as a knight. Not that she should serve anyone, of course. She was a strong, independent young woman, insisted her father. Eventually, she should return home and take up the business of maintaining spider golems. It was good work that would always be needed.
Sybil kept a flat expression as he talked, nodding every once in a while as he spoke. She didn’t dislike her father, she just thought herself too old to be receiving these sorts of lectures. And just as quickly as he had stopped by, he was gone again. His work kept him there for long hours and oftentimes overnight since there always seemed to be some sort of emergency. The golems did run all day every day, so they were prone to wearing down and needing maintenance.
Another night passed with Veximarl sleeping on the couch in the living room while Sybil was in her room. In the morning, they would join the caravan that was heading to the Sky Region. Anxiety made it difficult to sleep, and so she laid in bed staring at a drawing she had sitting on her nightstand.
It was made by a sketching golem at the yearly children's festival. Lydia was in it, with Sybil and Chickadee under her arms and Zaniyah on her shoulders. They were all laughing at something, she couldn’t remember what. Those were good times though. There was plenty to laugh about. Her eyes drifted downwards to a box that had her mother’s belongings in it.
Rolling off of the bed, she crawled her way over and ran her hand over the surface. Opening it, she looked over the objects inside. There was some clothing, personal books, and diaries. She never had the heart to read the diaries. Despite her mother’s death, it still felt like an invasion of privacy. There was also a coin on a thin leather chain that her mother had considered to be quite important. It had something to do with her grandfather, from what she had been told.
The coin was stamped with a buttercup on one side. From her understanding, families from Fogbloom all had such insignias. Her father, in his youth, often traveled to Fogbloom to work on and study golems with the scientists there. That’s where her parents had met. They were together for a long time before she was born, so her father at least had plenty of memories of her. She felt that she didn’t have enough.
She dug deeper into the belongings. If Lady Grulick gave her blessing for Sybil to go to Braytons, there were some items she’d want to take with her. She looked over the pendant and put it back in the box. As desperate as she was to have a piece of her mother with her, she also didn’t want to risk losing this one item.
The next morning, they ascended up via spider taxi to the top of the core. Then they made their way through the markets and to the meeting place for the caravan. Sybil yawned while Veximarl was hungrily eating his way through some buns that he had picked up along the way. Not enough money to get back to Braytons? Wasting Alton’s money? Who cares! He had barely touched any food in two days, and this was an emergency.
“This bread is by far the best thing I have ever tasted.” Though part of the reason why it tasted that way was due to starvation.
“It’s the lichen.” Sybil gestured to the growth on all the buildings. “I heard it helps a special sort of yeast live in the area. Not that it matters in the core, we don’t bake bread there. Flour isn’t easy to come by. Actually, I don’t think wheat flour is easy to come by in Carapace either. A lot of what they eat is made with potato or rice flour.”
The pair gave a wave as they approached a small group. There were three knights guarding the caravan. They were brothers named Sal, Guy, and Ron Dudley. Along with them were at least a dozen travelers. Some were workers who often traveled over the swamp, while others hoped to migrate to the Sky Region and start a new living.
Traveling with the group made everything easier for Sybil. The constant noise reminded her of the core. They loved to share their stories as they traveled, and none of them seemed to mind Sybil’s origins. Veximarl had grown fond of an older man named Carl. His daughter had moved to the north the previous year, had gotten married, and now he was traveling there alone to help take care of what will soon be their first child.
At night, when there wasn’t a village to stop at, they put up several cooking fires and tents. Sybil would help the guards keep watch during the night, and they seemed grateful to have extra eyes available to spot trouble. West of the Crimson mountains laid large clusters of dense forests, leading to potential danger around every corner. The guards never talked much to her outside of that, but she didn’t mind. Just being able to learn directly from others was an honor for her.
After a few days on foot, they reached the swamps. It didn’t smell as bad as Sybil imagined, or that different from the woods they had been traveling through, but she was still viewing it from the outside. The inside appeared dark, kept in perpetual shadow by tall trees that were tightly clustered together. They stopped as a group in front of one such tree, with Sir Guy Dudley stepping forward.
“Keeper of the path!” He outstretched his arms. “Awaken from your slumber. I have returned again with more who wish to have safe passage through these cursed lands!”
The thick bark peeled away to reveal a gnarled looking face. It looked over the knight once before the bark covered it back up again. The whole tree shuddered before it bent down. Its branches formed a staircase that led up to a pathway which was disguised among the treetops.
Sybil marveled at the design, which she recognized it as a golem. The metal was hidden within the wood, thus it could use mist within the swamps as a power source while at the same time avoid rust. She would need to write to her father about this later. He would find it interesting.
They continued up and forward along the path. The path was made of wooden planks that were tied by vines to branches high in the trees. They were forced to walk closely in pairs due to how thin it was. Falling from here would mean death. Even if one survived the fall and didn’t drown from sinking, they would be separated and either starve or be eaten by native predators.
Which made the sudden scream Sybil heard all the more troubling. She twisted around to see a child had gotten her foot stuck between the planks and fallen over at an awkward angle. Sybil started to carefully make her way through the caravan of people to help, but she was having difficulty getting through.
“Everything will be fine.” Veximarl was already there. He knelt down and carefully freed the girl’s ankle as she cried. “There isn’t a need to feel sad. Tell me, does it hurt at all when I move it around?” He gently rotated the foot.
“No, sir.” The girl shook her head. “It feels fine.”
He grinned widely. “Good. Now say that again with a bit more confidence. Your mother is worried because you cried out so loudly.” Veximarl gestured up to the woman who had also knelt down to help.
The girl wrapped her arms around the woman’s shoulders, and she in turn lifted her daughter up. “I’m fine, mama.” The girl grinned. “I’ll be careful to watch where I’m going.”
“Thank you,” the woman did a half bow towards Veximarl.
He reached into his robes and produced a small candy wrapped in wax paper. “I always make sure to have a treat hidden away for emergencies, and I can’t think of a bigger problem than having such a good girl shed such big tears.” Veximarl held it forward and the girl plucked it up. “Go on ahead and catch up with the rest of the group before we’re left behind.”
Her mother thanked him again and they shuffled past Sybil. Veximarl leaned against the railing and waited for the rest of the caravan to move past. He then gestured to Sybil to carry on while gritting his teeth. There was sweat on his brow and the leather in his gloves was creaking as his hands balled up into fists.
“Did you use magic to heal her?” Sybil asked. If he had, that would’ve been smooth of him to do so before she realized how badly she had been hurt.
Veximarl shook his head and leaned on his staff. “There wasn’t a need. She was merely startled by her fall.” He continued to lean on the staff as they walked side by side through the swamp skyline, and Sybil was concerned on how he struggled to keep up with the group.
“How many more days until we reach your village?” Sybil watched as Veximarl panted and wheezed. He was so prone to these fits of exhaustion. Her frown increased at the thought.
“Let me think,” he said with a shrug. “It would depend on the path.” It was true that the path they walked on twisted and turned about so that it could go between trees. A straight line would have been far quicker. “There should be roosting points for us to spend the night. Maybe two days away from Bog Vale? It’s almost a day from Bog Vale to Husk. That path is also prone to weaving.”
Bog Vale was a town within the trees that many caravans chose to stop at on their way to the north. The Dudley brothers stated that they were planning on spending a night there. Sybil was interested in seeing what a swamp town was like. Veximarl assured her that it was very similar to the core market in the outland of Carapace. A caricature of the real thing meant to amuse tourists.
As they continued on, Sybil noticed that others were complaining about how dark it was. The dark was never bothered her much, but she could see how others would view it troublesome to not know when the night was approaching. Then again, her only indicator for nightfall was that the sound of insects had started to grow louder and louder.
The brothers insisted that they hurry, ushering the others along to a large hut that was built on top of a tree. There was a stone pit inside that could be used to start a fire. They encouraged the members of the caravan to start one as they set up incense up outside. The smoke would keep out the bugs, and reduce the chances of any of them being bitten.
Sybil sat along the edge of the wall. None of her rations needed the assistance of fire, and she was content to eat what she had while watching the others. Veximarl set up a bedroll for himself and joined her. Soon the others did as well, including a man named Kolen who carried letters and packages with him to the north.
“Not much youth that would travel this way by themselves. The pair of you are squires, right?” They nodded. “This job was a lot easier when I was around your age. Take care of your knees kids, and take care of your lungs. You’ll miss both of them when they’re gone.” He said this, but he lit up a pipe and puffed at it regardless.
“Do you travel this way often?” Sybil fanned some of the smoke away from her face but was still intrigued to know more about the route.
Kolen nodded, gesturing forward with his pipe. “It takes me about a month to get back and forth. I spend two weeks on each side delivering parcels to various places and then it’s back the other way. Terrible work, and I always come down with swamp sickness each time.”
“Swamp sickness?” Veximarl raised his eyebrows, his surprised expression was mostly hidden by his glasses.
“Aye.” The man nodded sadly. “They say that the mist here in the swamp is different than from other places. People who aren’t accustomed to it can have the worst things happen. You get dizzy, disorientated, and all your muscles stiffen up. It’s rare, but people sometimes end up falling off the paths because of it. None of them ever make it back up...”
Veximarl furrowed his brows at the statement, and then looked over to the fire. Sybil frowned as she fanned away more of the smoke. “But if there are so many people who travel these paths. They would have found a way to prevent it, right?”
“Not really… Always assumed that it’s the reason why Lustro never put up a fuss after the Sky Region claimed independence.” Kolen scratched at his chin. “There’s a good doctor in Bog Vale that can give you a potion that fixes it right up. The Dudley boys know where she is. I’ve been traveling with them for years, their father before that, and they’ve always done their best to look after us. Especially this time of year, when we could be attacked by mosquitoes at any moment.”
“It’s good to have someone you know when you travel,” replied Sybil with a smile. Not that Veximarl was bad company, but she was missing both Zaniyah and Chickadee. “I’m going to see if they need help outside. Excuse me.”
Sybil excused herself to join the knights outside. They told her all sorts of horror stories as an attempt to scare her back inside. In the swamps, there was a variety of dangers. Giant spiders that spit acid. mosquitoes the size of dogs that could drain all the blood from a man in an instant. Skeletons that would rise up from their graves and climb up the sides of trees to get at people on the pathways.
She honestly wondered to herself why Veximarl thought the core was a worse place than this.
Eventually, she tired of their efforts to spook her and went inside to sleep. Morning, or what might have been morning, came. It was difficult to tell due to the low light. Though what bothered Sybil was that everyone seemed different as they settled in to eat their breakfast.
There were those who were complaining of headaches, stiff backs, and the little girl that Veximarl had helped out the previous day couldn’t stop whimpering. Veximarl also seemed ill. There was a cold sweat on his brow and he didn’t appear to have much of an appetite.
She kept watching him as they walked along the pathways. He leaned more heavily on his staff than the day before and kept to the back of the group. Every once in a while, he would stop and sigh. Occasionally Sybil would ask how he was holding up, and he would insist that he was fine.
A lot of the caravan had insisted they were fine, but she could see that they were all at different levels of exhaustion. They would stop and stumble about, knowing that the only way they’d feel better was when they left this swamp. The brothers insisted that they all see a shaman in Bog Vale when they got there, just to make sure they could make it the rest of the way.
Weariness had nearly conquered everyone by the time they reached the second hut the next night. The caravan shuffled inside to start setting up for the evening meals, and Veximarl gave a tug to Sybil’s cloak. He kept an eye on the brothers as they lit up incense while he spoke.
“Stay out here for a moment,” he whispered. He then, with a pained groan, gestured down the path they had come down before shuffling in that direction.
Sybil followed, but she had questions of her own. When introducing himself to others, he always specified that he was a knight or a squire, not a paladin. Despite everyone’s fatigue, he had never once offered assistance. The deeper within the swamp they got, the more sickly he was becoming. Not to mention that Chickadee chose to replace Veximarl’s sword with a bladed staff instead of another sword.
“Look, Vex, I know that you didn’t initially want me to come. I didn’t question it at the time, but now I’m starting to wonder...”
Veximarl waved his hand dismissively. “I promise you, I will get to that. For now, I wanted to state that the matters at hand are not adding up.”
“Obviously,” she said while squinting at him. “That’s the point I’m trying to make.”
“Listen close, as this is of the greatest importance. We must make our way to Bog Vale now and-” Veximarl had stopped mid-sentence. His nose raised in the air and he inhaled sharply. “That aroma...”
Sybil couldn’t smell anything but the incense that the brothers were burning. She was going to ask what it was, but Veximarl was already limping as fast as he could back towards the hut. As he did so, the guards began to shout, and this was closely followed by screams.
Instinctively, a mist built up around her. She drew out her daggers and ran past Veximarl as she charged towards the hut. She ignored his calls for her to stop., not that she could hear him over the deafening buzzing sound that was filling the air. Trouble had come, and it was her job to stop it.