It was exciting to have finally reached Husk after so long. The thought of it taking just as long to get back was… Terrible. Sybil wanted to be back at Braytons already. No, that wasn’t true. She wanted to be on Chickadee’s quest. Unless it involved sitting around a forge the entire time. Discussing arcane runes with Chickadee was fun, but watching him work was boring. It was always better if there was something else for her to work on at the same time.
“We could go visit Lady Grulick right away, but there are probably some details that may seem hard to understand.” Veximarl let out a nervous laugh. “For one, she grew up in this swamp, and has been through a lot. She may be somewhat difficult to look at.”
Sybil shot a look towards him. “I don’t think the first thing you should say about someone before introducing them is that they’re ugly.”
Veximarl let out a series of nervous sounds as he mentally backtracked. “Well, it’s uh, ah… Hrm… To say it more accurately project my statement, her way of viewing the world is different. At least, to those outside of the swamp. You are going to be quite startled.”
“I can handle it. She wants to meet me, Vex. That’s why that was her request at the Volo Refuge. She’ll also be excited to hear that you made it into Braytons. Stop stalling and let’s go tell her the good news already.”
With a grimace, he relented and led the way. They climbed up an old large tree that was at the very center of town. At the top was a small hut with a platform out in front of it, and inside that was a dark and musty room. Veximarl held up his staff so he could see. It appeared as though it might have been some time since anyone had been here.
The walls and floorboards were somewhat rotted and covered in mold, but Veximarl assured her that everything above the swamp surface rots quickly. At some point a bird had made a nest, and a colony of wood-eating beetles had moved in. Veximarl rushed over to shoo them away from a spear that was hanging on the wall. At the back wall of the hut, a stone plaque had been set up. A reddish purple crystal had been embedded into it, and it glimmered with a strange inner light.
“There isn’t anyone here-” Sybil’s face went blank with realization. “She’s dead. By the core, she’s dead, Vex. Lady Grulick has been dead for some time, hasn’t she?”
Veximarl let out another nervous sound. “Oh, uhm… Only since last winter. I assure you that it hasn’t been that long at all.”
“You brought me all the way out here because you didn’t think to tell me she was already dead?!” Sybil exclaimed, making the roof and the walls rattle with her voice. She punched him firmly in the shoulder.
He winced and took a few steps away, concerned she might try to use her daggers next. He held his staff defensively in front of him. “I assure you that the situation is much more complicated than that. Before you run off or hit me again, allow me to show you what I mean.”
His staff pointed over to the stone plaque, which began to glow as his magic channeled through it. A ghostly image came out from it, leading Sybil to step back out of concern. Her hands pulled out her daggers, and she held them defensively as the image started to twist together and take shape.
Before them appeared a translucent woman. She was old, with an odd shaped head and face that carried frog-like features. In her hands was a spear, the same one that was hanging on the wall. It was used as support, with her heavily leaning against it as she examined the two young people in front of her with bulging, unblinking eyes.
Veximarl placed a hand near his mouth, speaking in a loud whisper to Sybil as he did so. “She looks much younger like this than she did when she was alive.”
“Veximarl!” Grulick grinned widely. “How was your time in Braytons? It feels like it’s been years since we last talked.” She then looked over to Sybil. “Is this your wife? Scrawny little thing. Doesn’t look like she’d be a good fighter.” She used her spear to gesture at the daggers. “Jumpy too. No warning this time either? You were always bad at that.” Her eyes narrowed slightly. “But she looks familiar... Did we meet before? I could swear I’ve seen your face.”
“No, auntie,” stated Veximarl. “I have only been away for a few weeks. This is Sybil Twist.” He nervously pointed at Sybil and took a sidestep away from her. She still looking like she was in a stabbing mode.
Sybil put her weapons away and bowed deeply. “Ma’am!” She rose up and saluted. “I’ve drawn your sword from the Volo Refuge. I am here to fulfill your request and to ask for a letter of blessing so I may attend Braytons Barracks.”
Grulick let out a pained grunt as she took a seated position up in the air. The tip of her spear was still in the ground, looking as though it were holding her up. “Because you want to be a knight, yes?” Sybil nodded. “That reminds me of a story. Not the knight thing, but your face reminded me of one. The two of you are just going to have to sit there and listen to this old lady ramble on about it before we get to business.”
She waited for the two of them to get comfortable before she continued her tale. This was a story that happened nearly fifty years ago. Grulick wanted to make sure they were ready for her to pause every now and again as she struggled to remember the details.
When Ribnjak Grulick was still young, she decided that she was tired of living in Husk. Not that there was anything wrong with the town, but the previous winter had seen to the death of her husband and two children. A change of scenery was needed if she was going to carry on living in this world.
Grulick set off to make her fortunes elsewhere, and a spear served as her only companion. Mostly, she stuck to the forests of the Crimson Region. Money was made doing odd jobs within the towns she passed through. Sometimes it was helping on a farm, other times it was eradicating the odd beast. She was by no means the strongest fighter in Husk or Bog Vale, but the creatures she ran into were weak compared to the tainted beasts she was used to.
There were many times where she had heard the name Bellia during her travels. He was especially feared in Carapace, a strange city who lived in terror of this boogeyman. Bellia was a crazed creature who moved about like a ghost. He would break into the homes of the affluent and murder all of the men who lived there. Mostly those who had moved there recently from Fogbloom. During this time, the Rubire family had taken control of the region, and Violet Region’s influence greatly diminished.
From her understanding, Bellia was considered to be a terrorist in the capital of Fogbloom as well. However, they had developed some tactic to keep him away. Carapace had no such fortune. She was curious to meet the man herself and learn what sort of trick he was using to terrify people so much but had no idea how to make their paths intersect.
Some years passed and with winter approaching again, she decided that it was finally time to return to Husk. Despite having lost her own family, that didn’t stop her from wanting to help her village during the hunting month. In fact, the memory of her loved ones only increased her desire to return. Her plans were drastically changed the night a stranger chose to approach.
It was close to the midnight when she was awakened by a waft of mist flooding her camp. She opened her eyes to see a man cooking a flank of venison over her fire. At his feet was a toddler who was drifting between consciousness and sleep. The child couldn’t be older than three at the most. Her head was a poof of blood hair, and she appeared to have similar features to the man, who appeared to be in his mid twenties himself.
“I didn’t mean to wake you,” he muttered as Grulick sat up. “I’ve heard of you. They say there is a woman of your appearance who has made a name of herself helping the towns around here. You are a good-hearted individual who has done much for little reward.”
She did have quite the unusual appearance. There was little chance of her being mistaken for someone else. “Ribnjak Grulick, at your service.” She stood up and went to her traveling bag. There were some honey bread she had picked up on her way through Timbervale. She retrieved one and offered it to the girl.
“Thank you. My name is… Not important. Most call me Bellia these days. This is my daughter. Her name is also not important.” He pulled the meat away from the fire and pressed his thumb against it to see if it was done. “Since you’re awake, there is a favor I need to ask of you.”
He was the worst kind of terrorist and a powerful one at that. Possibly an assassin blessed with the vile powers of a fallen god. There was no way for her to beat him in a fight, and she knew as much. She made no motion to go for her weapon and sat down by the fire, speaking to him in a calm tone as she warmed her hands.
“I am willing to listen.”
“I am almost done in my mission. There is only one target left, but I don’t believe I will survive the encounter. The specifics are not important, but I will need someone to raise my daughter. Her mother… She isn’t with us any longer.” He took a moment to look at the girl, who was tiredly munching on her snack. “I want for her to safely disappear. Someplace where no one looking for her will succeed. My desire is for her to be happy.”
“The swamp is no place for a happy life,” Grulick replied.
Bellia removed two swords from his belt and placed them on the ground. “The weapon I’m known for is this longsword. Take that to Carapace, and it will serve as proof that you have killed me. Do so, and you will be greatly rewarded. The money from that will serve as payment for your services.”
“And the short sword?” She asked, looking over the weapon.
“It’s a family heirloom. I would like my daughter to have it when she is old enough.” He looked her over, then gave a nod to reassure himself. “Is that something you are able to do?”
Grulick thought about it for a moment. “Aye. I can do it.”
The man’s features relaxed, as though a great weight was lifted off of his shoulders. “About this sword... It will probably not work for you or her. Currently, it’s sleeping. The sheath has some power, but I doubt you will be able to use it. The blood iron within it is picky.”
She nodded, watching as he came to a stand. “Is there anything I should tell your daughter? She may ask about you when she is older.”
“There is nothing that she doesn’t already know.” He knelt down by the girl, ruffling her hair as she tiredly ate her bread. “Thank you for this, Ribnjak. I will never forget your kindness.”
Within a blink of her eyes, he had vanished. All that remained was a puff of mist was where he stood. She ended up taking the girl to the Mareth. A family she knew had moved there the previous year. They had lost their own daughter, and this one could easily take her name and place. The longsword, once brought to Carapace, bought her fame and fortune. She was granted knighthood, and was asked to take a teaching position at Braytons.
Braytons became her life. It was a precious chapter in her story that she wouldn’t exchange for anything else. Veximarl entered her life, and she knew then that the time had come to retire. Eventually, she lost her life to a winter beast and was entombed in such a way by Veximarl so that this story may be passed to her successor.
Grulick let out a sigh of relief at the end of her story. A weight had been lifted off her shoulders, being finally able to tell the truth of her defeat of Bellia after so many decades. Veximarl looked over at Sybil, who appeared to be deeply troubled by hearing the news.
“I’ll arrange a letter to be written. Veximarl knows my hand well enough.” Grulick stated. “They’ll let you in. Hugo and Braden owe me so much that they’ll do anything I tell them, and it will be nice for Veximarl to have a friend who he could study with. Eishur must have been watching over him well to put the two of you together.”
Sybil couldn’t find the will to be happy. “The sword isn’t yours…” She kept her eyes to the ground as her thoughts became distance.
“Right! You would probably have more questions about that. Not much I can answer though.” Grulick said with a shrug. “His daughter asked for me to have it entombed when I retired.”
“So what you’re saying is that I’m supposed to find out what Bellia’s final request is and accomplish that? And by being able to draw the sword in the first place... I actually have more in common with him?” Sybil appeared to be having trouble comprehending the situation she had been thrust into.
Veximarl put his hand on her shoulder. “That is hardly the case at all. It seemed like his last request was to protect his daughter. She should be grown by now, and she may have taken care of it herself.” He rubbed at his chin. “Would you like to go visit her? She would want to know if the sword has been drawn.”
“I was going to suggest that myself. You should leave in the morning and go to her. She ended up moving to Carapace, so you’ll be able to go there on your way back to Braytons.” Grulick reflected on her thoughts. “Quite an accomplished woman. She goes by the name of Lydia Larkin these days.” Her look became hazy. “That’s right, I heard she died in a unfortunate circumstance. I believe her family there will be able to help you out with any questions you have, if you can find them. She never did like to talk too much about them.”
Veximarl inhaled sharply as Sybil’s jaw tightened. “Ah, w-well.” The necromancer waved his hands about. “You at least have already met her, and-”
“Thank you, Lady Grulick.” Sybil bowed deeply in appreciation. “Forgive me for not staying to talk, but I need some fresh air.” She stepped out of the hut stood out on the railing. There wasn’t fresh air to be had here. Just swamp air that had a constant stale scent to it.
Veximarl took some time to join her. When he did, he held a letter in his hand. He held it out for Sybil to take. When she didn’t respond to him, he tucked it away inside of his robes. “She would love the chance to talk to you. There is plenty of time to do it. We will still make it back to Braytons in time if we choose to stay a day or two here.”
“I’m still in a bit of shock, sorry. I’ll need a moment,” whispered Sybil. She slumped down and placed her back against the tree, curling in her knees towards her chest as she did so.
“I know that Lady Till claimed you might turn evil, but… For example, look at me. I was born dastardly and I am still attempting to oppose my fate. Us ‘evildoers’ should rely on each other in order to keep on the right path. Should we not?” He let off a light laugh, but she didn’t respond. “You may have drawn the sword of a possible psychopath, but that doesn’t mean you’ll end up like him. Lady Larkin was his daughter and no one could claim she had done wrong.”
“Lydia Larkin is my mother. My actual mother, not the woman who married my dad,” Sybil muttered.
“My dad and her were crazy in love with each other, but he was already married. Dad and his wife didn’t love each other. It was a forced marriage so that the core would continue to fund his research. I just happened to be an accident that came along afterwards. No one knows about it because… I don’t take after Lydia at all. I don’t even think I look like her. No one would believe me.”
“You said yourself that your father wasn’t a murderer. I believe that as well. The incident involving Lady Larkin was an accident. That is still two good people that came together to make you. They did it out of love, Sybil. You can’t hold that against yourself.”
“But I didn’t get any of her abilities,” whispered Sybil. “I didn’t draw her rapier, I can’t take out a hundred soldiers with a swish of my blade, and as you said, my grandfather was a psychopath. Apparently, I’m just like him, magic and all, and there’s no point in me becoming a knight.”
Veximarl paused again, staring at her as she began to tear up. He knelt down and removed his glasses so he could look her in the eye. Sybil had never gotten a good look at them before, since he worked so hard to hide them for others. They were a light bluish-white color with horizontal slits, much like a goat’s. She blinked at the sight.
“I believe you can be a wonderful knight, and the first person I would like for you to save is me.” She furrowed her brow at his words. “As you may have noticed, I am weak when I am not in the swamp. I cannot go to Braytons alone. I thought I could, but I do not believe there is a way to hide what I am forever. What I need is someone there who can remind me to stay on the right path and keep me from being tempted to use my magic.”
“I don’t know if I can do that,” she replied as she looked away.
“I would love it if you tried. I know Zani and Chi believe the same thing,” he said flatly.
“Sybil,” he said in a serious tone. She looked at him for a moment and then away again. “I am a necromancer. My father murdered my mother and started a ritual that obliterated the village of my birth. My mother… She was a highly misunderstood individual, but the road they set before me is the one I refuse to follow. I believe I am capable of doing good in this world. It is my hope that you will believe the same about yourself.”
Sybil was unable to come up with a response, and he chose to leave her alone to settle her own thoughts. Her mind was a mess. She didn’t know what the right decision was anymore. Eventually, she got up and entered the hut again, if only to apologize to Lady Grulick for being so rude. They ended up talking for hours.
Lady Grulick truly was a wonderful person. She let Sybil talk at length about her troubles. Her worries about drifting apart from Chickadee and Zaniyah, her breakup with Zyris, her concerns over Veximarl’s safety. Grulick nodded and offered advice on each item as it came up. It helped ease the stress that she was feeling.
Sybil could see how Grulick became known as a beloved teacher. She was caring and she didn’t judge other’s faults. Her laid back attitude reminded her greatly of both Stonetoe and Grimhawk, who both were once in Grulick’s squad at Braytons. Grulick said that she was proud that both of them kept up her tradition of gathering up the oddballs that showed up there.
That’s probably what they all were. Except Alton, she didn’t understand how he fit into the oddball group. He was the standard jerk from Starsons. Grimhawk must have assigned him to their exam group to annoy him... The thought of that made her laugh. Her worries had nearly vanished, and Grulick bid her goodnight.
She slipped down and entered the hut that Veximarl mentioned would be their sleeping quarters. It certainly looked like a den that a necromancer would keep. The walls were decorated with dried herbs and he had an extensive collection of bones. Veximarl himself was asleep on the floor, snoring peacefully.
Sleep was uneasy for her. Veximarl woke her after he had gone to talk to Grulick in the morning. They ate and Sybil excused herself momentarily to take care of what she called “womanly things.” This mostly involved grabbing Grulick spear, because she couldn’t bear to leave it behind to rot. They wouldn’t be able to take it back to Braytons, out of fear of them realizing her passing, but it could be kept safely tucked away in her room for the time being.
Afterward, they decided that it was best for them to leave. Veximarl kept mostly to himself, so there wasn’t a need for him to say his hellos or goodbyes to any of the villagers here. There also wasn’t a need for them to go to Bog Vale and personally see what had happened to the Dudley brothers. Avoiding messes was easier at this point.
One of the people from Husk who had gone to Bog Vale informed them that the brothers had been arrested. They were being interrogated to see what their relationship was to the necromancer. Most likely, they would be turned over to authorities in the Sky Region, who were not as lenient about such crimes as those in the Crimson Region were. The caravan was given medicine, and already had new guards that would see them to the north.
They left by bone trail. Being able to take the ground paths meant that they were able to exit the swamp completely by nightfall. Traveling by themselves meant that they shortened the amount of time it would take to get to Carapace as well. If they were lucky, they might be able to hitch a ride on a caravan traveling to the Gilded Region, which would further shorten their travel time.
After only a few short days, Sybil once more found herself in her room. She opened the box of items she planned on taking to Braytons and once more took out the pendant that belonged to her mother. The emblem on it was barely different than the one that was on her sword, making her ponder if they were related. Twisting it around, there was a fox on the other side and a name written along the edge.
Maybe that was the name of her grandfather, or maybe it was taken from one of his victims. It was said that the Fogbloom family, the king and his family, were massacred by Bellia in a single night. This could just as easily been one of the prizes he had taken from the attack, or any of the others… Looking at this made her wonder if she was capable of doing the same vile acts.
But Veximarl was with her, and he was at least one person that believed that she could be different. She also had both Chickadee and Zaniyah to keep her from straying. Things might be alright in the end. She’ll be able to keep protecting them all for a little while longer.
A knock on her door, and she called out over her shoulder. “Sorry, Vex. Coming out now.” She was doublly surprised to see a man with a wild looking flame-colored hair open it up without asking. He stepped into her room and closed it behind him. Then he stooped down to give her a kiss on the cheek.
“... Zyris? What are you doing here?” She took a step away from him as he put a hand on her cheek. He had such rough skin, it felt course, yet comforting at the same time.
He gave her an odd look, appearing to be between elation and despair. “Zynn saw you come home and let me know… I’m so glad that you are back. I was worried it would be awhile before I see you again.” He moved to give her a kiss to her lips, but a shout from the living room stopped him.
“You better not be getting nasty on my time! Get out here!” A woman’s voice called. It sent a chill up both their spines.
Zyris let out a nervous laugh. “Caitlin is here too...”
A tall woman opened the door and placed her forearm against the door frame. She had long gold hair that was braided and hanging against her shoulder. It contrasted against her dust colored skin and sharp green eyes. Her face was like her father’s, stern and perpetually grumpy.
“We’re on the clock. Come join me and the gloomy looking boy so we can talk business. And no, you two can’t get down to business afterwards. I mean it. I’m not playing babysitter to two horny ex-lovers.”
“We weren’t going to.” Sybil stated in an annoyed tone. Zyris attempted to say something, but his cheeks turned as red as his hair.
They moved to the living room where Veximarl was sulking at the table as though he was a child on time out. This didn’t surprise Sybil. Caitlin had that effect on people. Edwin was setting a display of tea and mushroom flour biscuits out on the table as Zyris and Caitlin took their seats.
“Sorry, Vex. This is Caitlin Cully and Zyris Krogastein. They’re Chi’s sister and Zani’s brother. Basically, they’re also family.” Sybil took a seat as well.
Zyris sat down next to her and passed a quick glare towards Veximarl. “Anyways.” He, much to Sybil’s annoyance, put an arm around her shoulder so he could pull her closer. It seemed to be an act he did out of habit rather than from being possessive. “We need to drop off some items at Braytons. Mom said we couldn’t go unless we had some guards, and your dad suggested we wait until you were back in town. Are you up for the job?”
“It’s fine since we were heading back in that direction. You’ll have to find your own guards for the way back.” Sybil spoke in a cold tone, lifting his arm off of her by the wrist. “And you will need to cover our supply costs.”
“I also have no issue with it.” Veximarl rubbed his chin in thought. “But when you say Caitlin Cully, do you mean the same family as Talwyn Cully? The Talwyn Cully?” It was a name he had heard from several of the other Braytons applicants. Mostly it was a complaint because she had stopped creating generic weapons and only took on projects that interested her.
“Best damn blacksmith in all of Lustro.” Caitlin let out a hearty laugh. “Come on, don’t look so surprised. You met my brother, right? He’s not as good as either me or mom, but he’s getting up there.”
Veximarl stood up with a start. “It will be a pleasure to escort you to Braytons!” He bowed deeply in appreciation at both of them. Sybil sighed, looking off to the side with dismay. “There will be no need to cover our supply costs! The honor of having your company is payment enough! You are relatives of our friends, and we treat you as we do them.”
Zyris leaned closer to Sybil and whispered in her ear while Caitlin was distracted by Veximarl’s gushing fanboy antics. “I really am glad I got to see you again. When we can, we need to talk. There have been some things I’ve been thinking about, and I want you to hear them.”
Sybil would have liked to put up more of a protest, but she could already feel Caitlin’s eyes glaring at her like smoldering ore on an anvil. Instead, she let out a nervous laugh and scooted away from Zyris so she would have some more personal space. Despite the fact that a wagon would greatly diminish their travel time, it seemed like the way back to Braytons would indeed be a long trip.