Giant mosquitoes, bigger than any non-golem insect that Sybil had seen, were darting about the air. The people of the caravan had already fled into the hut, and only the knight brothers were outside. One was attempting to lure the insects and towards himself with a torch, another worked on lighting the incense faster, while the third took large swings with his sword.
It wasn’t an enemy that Sybil knew how to fight. Despite being large for insects, they were small enough that she would have difficulty hacking into them. Their swarming behavior also made it hard for her to pick out individual targets. Sybil tightened her grip on her daggers and prepared herself, increasing the mist around her to keep herself from becoming a target.
She jumped up along the rope railing and ran along it. The dark never bothered her, she could always see fine in it, and she had excellent balance. Her daggers were thrown through the air. As they hit their targets, and she would call them back to her hands so she could throw them again. It was a useful system, but not so great against these numbers.
Veximarl eventually caught up. His staff waved about the air, the end of it was lit up brightly. The mosquitoes became drawn to the light, quickly swarming above him. Something else was flying through the air. A series of projectiles smashed the hanging ceramic pots that carried the incense within them, causing the knight brothers to let out surprised shouts.
Sybil was forced to duck when one went after the pot that was next to her. It was dark colored, hard, and didn’t seem to be a creature or tool that she recognized. The brothers appeared equally stunned before realizing that Veximarl was doing the chanting. One of them, the one named Rob, stumbled to the ground with a scream as a mosquito knocked him over. He let out pained cries as it began to repeatedly stab at him in a frenzy.
The paladin trainee continued chanting for a moment before reaching into his cloak. He produced a whistle which he pressed to his lips and blew forcefully. The sound was barely audible. High pitched, and it made Sybil dizzy. She slipped off the rope railing and knelt onto the pathway floor in order to keep her balance.
All around Veximarl, the insects were equally stunned. They fell from the sky in large numbers, disappearing into the darkness below. He let out a sigh and tucked the whistle away before striding forward. The limp was gone, and his fatigue had vanished as well. Sybil kept to the shadows, clutching at her head while her senses still rattled about.
“Rob!” Guy ran up to his brother, kneeling down to see what was the matter. “Did you get bit?”
He shook his head. “No, armor blocked most of it. Must’ve slipped on a board... I think my ankle is broken.”
Sal Dudley hadn’t dropped his guard. Instead, he kept his sword drawn, taking wary steps towards Veximarl as he examined the squire more closely. His voice came out in a threatening grumble. “You’ve been through the swamp a few times before, eh? Are you a spy from the Bog Vale guard or from someplace else?”
“Anyone who has been through this place knows that a simple whistle is all you need to get rid of a gallinipper swarm.” Veximarl’s voice was equally threatening. “They’re not all that expensive, and any proper caravan guard would carry one.”
“We’re not like most caravan guards,” Sal said while tightening the grip on his sword. “Guy, take Rob inside while I deal with this.”
Veximarl kept his eyes on Guy as he lifted Rob under his shoulder. “You are correct. Most guards know that that burning blood sumac draws in gallinippers. They also know better than to burn wood coated in fade moss.” He pointed his staff at the man. “You three are the ones that created the swamp sickness!”
Sal let out a laugh. He shifted his feet into a low stance, holding his sword slightly behind him and off to the side. Both of his hands gripped onto it, and he looked prepared to strike the moment Veximarl got close.
“People want excitement when traveling. Gives them stories to talk about for the rest of their lives.” Sal’s grip tightened on his sword. “They want to tell others they survived the disease and monsters of the swamp. They love saying they paid off a shaman to cure them, and how they’ll live on in the memory of those they’ve lost.”
“The authorities at Bog Vale will see it differently. My squire and I will escort the rest of the caravan there. You and your brothers should leave while you still can,” Veximarl hissed out.
“Vex! Get down!” Sybil stumbled to a stand and placed her daggers away in her belt. She ran as fast as she could to get Veximarl out of the way of the incoming attack.
The sword within Sal’s hands swung forward. It was followed by a great burst of wind that sliced through the air. The pathways below them began to dangerously swing back and forth. This made Sybil pause in order to keep her balance. She was forced to look on in horror or risk falling to her death.
Veximarl also stumbled. As the pathway beneath him flipped over from the wind, he found himself falling. He slipped through the gap that laid between the rope railing and the board. His shout was swallowed up by darkness, getting fainter and fainter before abruptly cutting off.
“You murderer!” Sybil screamed as the winds died down. “You’re supposed to be knights! How could you do such a thing?!”
“What can I say? Gold beats out chivalry any day of the week.” Sal grinned as he started to charge up another attack. “You’re one of those core kids, right? This blade was crafted by none other than Talwyn Cully. Finest in all of Carapace. Just give up and die quickly like your master. Nothing you have can match what I got.”
Sybil wasn’t so sure about that. She rested her hand on Lady Grulick’s blade as her look hardened into a hateful glare. “You don’t deserve a Cully blade.” She gave her sword a strong tug... Then another tug… Then a slightly weaker one as she looked down, confused why the falchion was refusing to come loose.
Another gust of wind flew through the air. It was close to hitting her when the sword finally broke free. Mist started to flood out from the sheath, covering the whole area in a dense fog in an instant. Sybil dodged low, doing her best to avoid the wind as it cut above her.
“What are you doing?” She heard her own voice calling out to her. The mist started to swirl around, and blurry humanoid shapes appeared in it.
“He’s confident in his weapon. Overly so.” Her own voice called out again, this time somewhere to her left.
“Run forward and cut his head off. The blade’s sharp enough to handle.” This time it was to her right. Sybil turned about, trying to figure out if there was one true source of the sound. “What are you waiting for?”
“Then what? Do you expect us to kill the other two?” Behind her.
“Of course.” To her right again.
“Justice can be swift with no need to put one’s self in danger.” Once more behind her.
“The distance to Bog Vale is unknown. We must think of the caravan and put their safety above revenge.” In front of her.
“They killed him. Who knows how many others they’ve killed in the process of all of this. They aren’t knights. They are traitors to their oath and to their king. Treachery can only be repaid by death.” To her left again.
The shape in front of her grew taller, the smoke within it turning a gray color as it did so. “The authorities in Bog Vale will see it differently.” Veximarl’s voice repeated his earlier words. He stared at her for a moment, and then faded back into the fog.
Sybil’s heart was racing. She didn’t know what was going on, but these freaky ghost things had a point. Before she made any decisions, she needed to figure out the outcome she wanted. Veximarl had died in front of her, but she was also in an unknown land. Revenge and justice were possible, but ill choices. The caravan would be in danger if she chose to take charge. Sybil shook her head and decided to do the one thing she was best at.
The girl put away her sword and started to run down the path. If they believed her dead, they would carry on and everyone else would be safe. It might take a caravan half a day to travel through these twisting and dangerous paths, but she could do it faster. She was quick, she had good stamina, and the dark didn’t impede her vision. Being alone meant she didn’t have to wait for anyone. Not even a weak, no good paladin trainee.
Her tears were caught in her throat. The sensation stung so badly that it made her want to cry all the more. Was she a failure? Yes, she was. She wouldn’t be here if she had gotten into Braytons. She’d be with Zaniyah and Chickadee, seeing the ocean for the first time. Experiencing the beach, maybe learning how to swim while Veximarl went on about local plant life.
Instead, she failed at saving Veximarl, and now she was probably going to get herself killed in this stupid smelly swamp that was so much worse than the core. She still didn’t understand why Veximarl would think the core was worse. Now she never would.
And what was Lady Grulick going to say when she showed up in Husk? How was that conversation going to go? Hey, I know I got your pupil killed, but I pulled your sword out so I would really like a letter of admission to Braytons. Since you gave one to your dead ward, maybe I could have one too?
That would never work! What a terrible idea! She’d be fed to the gallinippers and then she’d never see Chickadee or Zaniyah again! The only upside to this was never having to see Alton ever again either! What was up with all of those hidden love notes in her belongings anyways?!
Her mind became a jumble of mixed emotions. So much so that it became a void of conscious thought. She couldn’t think clearly, putting all the energy she could into her run. It was late, her body was tired. By the time it felt close to midnight, she saw a tree similar to the one at the start of the path outside the swamp, blocking off the end of it like a wall.
She didn’t hesitate to run up the side of it, grasping and jumping along branches until she could get a look at the other side. There appeared to be several similar golem trees centered around a circular platform. This possibly meant that different caravan companies all chose to congregate on this one spot.
Sybil let loose one of her golems. It spun a long rope which was attached to a high branch, allowing her to swing down to the platform. With a swift double tug, the rope came loose and she wrapped it around her shoulder. Normally she would leave it behind, but she might need it again soon.
Continuing along the new pathway, she stumbled about looking for any sign that she had entered a village. This path was a lot wider, and there ladders that led up and down to unknown places. Eventually, she came across a man who was smoking a pipe in the dark.
Sybil was a mess. Jogging the whole distance with her mist step on left her exhausted, she was covered in sweat, and her eyes had large reddened bags underneath them from crying. When she attempted to speak, her dry mouth could only sputter incomprehensible sounds.
Calling the guards on this possibly dangerous and strange girl was the best thing this stranger could have done for her.
They escorted her down a path that led to ground level. From there they entered a hut for questioning. She, in turn, explained as much as she could remember. How the Dudley brothers were poisoning travelers, and how there was possibly a shaman within Bog Vale working for them. Not to mention Veximarl’s murder, and how the only thing he had done was to confront them about their crimes.
Hopefully, that’s where the conspiracy ended. If Veximarl thought there was a danger of the guards at Bog Vale being in on it, he might have told her. Maybe Sal would have gloated about it. It was too late, and she was too tired to care.
There was a cot they said she could rest on, and she fell upon it. Rest came all too quickly. Her dreams contained shadows, much like the ones that were hidden in the mist. They whispered to each other, not letting her in on their secrets.
She awoke midday, being told that they had found the shaman that may be working with the Dudley brothers. They were currently questioning her, and they wanted Sybil to stay around in the meantime. It wasn’t as though she didn’t get it. There wasn’t a reason to trust a wild girl out who showed up in the middle of the night about something this serious.
They had even taken possession of some of her belongings. It was as though she were a criminal. She kept reassuring herself that it was a due process. There wasn’t any identification she could provide, although they did seem to know of Veximarl.
A knock was heard at the door. She was about to answer it when it started to crack open. One of the guards she had talked to the night before entered. He had her bag in one hand, but it dragged across the ground. The look on his face was vacant, and his eyes moved independently from each other as they attempted to focus on her.
Drool slipped out from the side of his mouth in a long string. Most startling as the gash he had in his torso, which oozed blood through his clothes and drenched the floor behind him. With some effort on his behalf, he tossed the bag at her feet.
“Sybil… Y-you…” He was trying to speak, but it was slurred and appeared to take some effort due to a swollen tongue. “Y-you need… t-to run…”