“What is that?” Zaniyah knelt down by the cat golem and scratched at its skull. She had been asked to wait in the room for a squad meeting along with Chickadee. Her uniform was hanging by her bed, but she wanted to cut some pieces off of it first before she bothered to try it on.
Chickadee knelt down and tilted his head at the sight. “Golem,” he replied.
“But it only has four legs,” she mumbled in a confused manner.
Sybil thumped her way into the room and closed the door roughly behind her. She took a deep breath and walked up to each of her friends, giving them each a lingering hug. There were greetings mumbled, and then she flopped down onto the floor pillows underneath her bed. Her eyes closed and she lacked the emotional strength to do anything else.
Zaniyah pointed to the golem as it curled up on Sybil’s back. “... What is that?”
“It’s a golem that Caitlin and I made on our way back from Carapace.” Sybil opened one eye and looked over to Zaniyah. “Sorry, we haven’t named her yet. Also, don’t tell anyone that we have her. We haven’t exactly gotten permission to make something like this yet, let alone keep it.”
Chickadee looked over to the cat and furrowed his brow. He walked over to his desk and sat down at it, writing quickly in a journal. Caitlin must have assisted her with it because it would be useful as a tool to study the flow of energy in this area. His sister didn’t particularly like Sybil, but she still chose to maintain a working relationship. Ignoring that fact, he would do best to try to learn from it as well. It could help in his future blacksmithing projects.
“Foggy.” Zaniyah stated. “I like Foggy.”
The golem’s tail twitched slightly, which led Sybil to shrug. That was the most positive reaction it had had to a suggested name. “I guess her name is Foggy.”
“I am quite serious about my concerns. Has something happened that I should know about?” Veximarl was speaking as he entered the door, gesturing to the red handprint on his face as he did so. Its placement had persisted on his skin even after he had rubbed at it. He closed the door behind him just as roughly as Sybil did when she first entered.
Sybil’s attention snapped over to Veximarl. Her voice dripped with death as she spoke. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
A whistle came out of Zaniyah’s lips. “Lover’s quarrel,” she whispered.
Veximarl stared at her for a moment. He gave a shake of his head and grabbed some clothes so he could take a shower. Chickadee continued to write as Zaniyah played with Foggy. She had attached a ribbon to the end of Veximarl’s staff, and was shaking it back and forth while the cat golem chased it around. She had wanted to ask what had happened on Sybil’s trip, but she didn’t appear to be in the mood to tell Zaniyah anything.
When Veximarl returned, they settled into a comfortable silence as each did their own tasks. After a time, Stonetoe opened the door while carrying a slate board. He was grumbling something about how this sort of thing was Grimhawk’s job, but none of them could make it out clearly. Setting it up on the wall, they could see a seven day schedule was written up for the four of them.
“Welcome to Grimstone Squad, or as it’s actually known, Stonetoe does all the work squad. Let’s go over the sche-” He looked down at the golem, who was now rubbing against his legs. “... Is this thing safe?” Sybil gave him a nod. “Alright…” He nudged her away with his foot before continuing. “We’re going to go over your schedules. What is it Krogastein?”
Zaniyah had raised up her hand. “Alton isn’t here.”
The knight furrowed his brows. “Why would Toval be here?”
Zaniyah scrunched up her face. “Why would Alton not be here?”
The two stared at each other in silence. Stonetoe was about to speak when the door opened and Alton walked hastily through it. He was carrying a parcel and bottle under one arm, and a piece of paper in the other. A brief smile was given to those in the room and then he noticed the golem, who had gone back to rubbing itself against Stonetoe’s legs.
“Why is there a flaming skull cat?”
“That’s our pet, Foggy.” Zaniyah stated. Alton was about to object, but Zaniyah shook her head while holding a finger to her lips. “Shh. Don’t question this.”
“Why are you here?” Stonetoe frowned as Alton handed him a slip of paper. He opened it up and frowned all the harder as he read it. “Why did Lady Till approve of this?” Alton handed Stonetoe a bottle next. “... Is this foxnip?” He studied the label on the wine bottle more closely. “... Is this real foxnip? Not some knockoff?”
“My parents sent that as a gift to be presented to my squad knight,” replied Alton.
“Then your squad knight is wondering why are you late for the meeting.” Stonetoe glared at him sternly. “I’m not going to accept this tardiness from you in the future. Do you have a uniform you can change into?”
“I was temporarily loaned an old one from a previous squad.” Alton nodded to the parcel he was carrying.
“Go change into your uniform.” Stonetoe raised his voice as Alton headed toward the bathroom door. “Stop. Change in the back of the room while I give out schedules. I don’t want to wait or repeat myself.” He let out a sigh and looked over to Zaniyah. “Stop drooling, Krogastein. He still has his clothes on and you need to keep your eyes on me.”
Zaniyah’s attention snapped back to Stonetoe. “I wasn’t chest muscles! Not abs all!”
“I don’t care. Why aren’t you-” He glanced over to her still hanging uniform, and cringed at the sight of how she had already started to cut it up. “Never mind. Starting from the top again,” he cleared his throat. “Welcome to Grimstone Squad! Unlike other squads that work towards specialized goals as a group, we take in the oddities that don’t fit in anywhere else. You will be assigned to study with different squads and may be asked to join their missions in the future.”
Alton scoffed at the statement. “You mean you’re too lazy to oversee our studies personally?”
Stonetoe cleared his throat much more loudly this time. “As Grimhawk and I are the weapon masters at Braytons, and we have very busy schedules. One of us more than the other. We do not have the time to support you fully as other knights do.
But yes, Grimhawk is lazy. Continuing on. Your morning chores are to be finished before breakfast.” He double checked the paper Alton had handed him before wiping up part of Sybil’s schedule with his sleeve. “Toval and Twist, stable duty. Krogastein, barnyard. Chickadee, kitchens. Tuton, northern farm. Any questions, it’s on the board.” He doubled checked the paper and wrote in “stables” under Sybil’s name.
Veximarl sulked back in his chair. “Please no more farm duty…” They had him drag around the plow the other day because the mule was old and tired. He did not enjoy that.
His request was ignored. “Church on Satyrdays is optional unless you are in the acolyte program. That means you, Tuton. Classes are four mornings a week with weapons training on the other two. The order for those is somewhere on the board. Afternoons are personal training where you will be assigned to another squad for study. Except for Tuton, he has farm duty.”
“Why do we need so many turnips?” Veximarl muttered to himself in a traumatized manner. “I have yet to see any served in the mess hall...”
“Grimhawk teaches morning dueling courses for the first year. We have different tasks such as team fights and war scenarios. It shouldn’t ever be trivial or boring. You will be told what to be prepared for at least one week in advance if there is to be a special test. Any questions, it’s on the board. Understood?”
“Yes, sir!” They said in unison.
“Good. My room is in the attic, so that makes me the dorm dad. Don’t bother me unless it’s an emergency. I have my hands full of uppity kids wanting to show off how they’ve failed to improve over the summer, and I am going to take my time to prove them wrong.” Stonetoe took a flask off his belt and took a deep drink from it. “I’m out.” He waved an arm in the air and stepped out of the room.
Zaniyah looked over to rest of the group. “He’s just as funny as I remember him.” She looked forward to his lessons, especially since it seemed like she was assigned to be in his classes every afternoon.
Alton wasn’t amused at all. “He’s also the one responsible for our education here.” And both Stonetoe and Grimhawk seemed like the least reliable adults at the barracks. At least the two didn’t seem to mind letting their squad do as it pleased. It was an added benefit to being transferred over from Baron Squad.
“Either way, we have a two days left,” said Zaniyah. “But what are we supposed to do in the meantime?”
Chickadee looked up from his desk. “Celebrate?”
The five of them looked over to the board. It didn’t look like they had anything else to do today. Alton’s name wasn’t even on it. Zaniyah wrung her hands together, excited that they could sit back and relax after such a long trip home. She and Chickadee gathered sweets and drinks from the dining hall, and set a display out on the table. They sat around it in a group and started to exchange stories about their adventures.
“No really! He has gills all along here!” Zaniyah stood up and traced her fingers along her ribs. “And his eyes have this weird third eyelid that flashes over them!” She pointed at her eyes, making them wide so everyone could see, or rather, not see what she was talking about.
Alton leaned back in his chair and took a calm sip of his tea. “You’re exaggerating.” Zaniyah glared at him. “Alright, you’re not exaggerating. I am going to add that I asked you politely to never tell anyone about that.”
“I told you that we’re family!” Zaniyah said cheerfully. “What’s the point in hiding things from each other? We’ve all got to trust each other completely if we’re going to make it through these next three years as a squad.”
Both Sybil and Veximarl glanced at each other nervously, which made Zaniyah look over at them. She tilted her head in a curious manner. Scratching at her cheek, she pondered how appropriate it would be to ask if anything physical happened between the pair.
“Y-you see,” said Veximarl as he and Sybil exchanged a more panicked glance. “I suppose I should tell you that I have a bit of a mutation myself.” He removed his glasses so they could see his eyes.
Zaniyah blinked and was confused. “Do you have scales?” Veximarl was now confused by the question, shaking his head as a response. “Oh, what? Your eyes? That’s supposed to be weird? It’s not as bad as scales, and don’t get me started on his toesies.”
“Will you shut up about it?!” Alton growled out. “They mention fighting a necromancer and you won’t stop talking about me?”
She looked off to the side. “Not like anything else interesting happened…”
Alton tossed his hands in the air. “There was a flying tiger the size of a building and a serpent who was just as large, and you’re fixated on what I look like without a shirt on!”
Zaniyah rolled her eyes and let out a nervous laugh. “Like I care about the fact that you have a perfect body.” Chickadee took a sip of his tea and nodded in agreement. “So yeah! Necromancer! Flame monster! How did you guys even manage that? Sounds… Super dangerous and absolutely more interesting… Than anything w-we did...” She sniffled at the idea.
Sybil didn’t like to think about it. “I took out the necromancer with a sword attack and Vex finished off the lizard.” She didn’t want to go into details about the sword with her friends just yet. The whole situation with her grandfather was still a sensitive subject.
“... Vex beat it?” Alton asked in a voice that was completely uncertain of what he had just heard.
“T-that I did.” Veximarl nodded his head up and down. “Sybil chose to run distraction while I pushed over a tree. The trunk pinned the creature down, and I was able to finish it off with my staff.” Alton blinked at him, still looking unsure. “The trunk of the tree had a section that was rotten, making it quite an easy task.”
“Completely rotten!” Sybil bobbed her head in agreement, ignoring the fact that now Chickadee was squinting at them suspiciously. “He leaned against it and FWHAM! Whole thing collapsed! Then THWACK! Dead flame lizard!”
Zaniyah put her hand to her mouth as she gasped. “That’s amazing!” She hung her head to the side with a pout. “We only had a fish as the villain in our story. Chickadee was injured pretty badly and we didn’t even get to finish the foe off.”
Alton looked off to the side. He was still feeling guilty about it. “There was little we could do in that situation.”
“But doesn’t that mean we’re technically ‘Team Two’ squad?” Zaniyah whined at him. “We’re lovable in our own way but we’re just the sidekicks that can’t get anything done on our own?” She gave him a pleading look. “We’re not the weaker ones, right?”
Alton’s look of disgust was stiff on his face. “What are you even going on about?” She let out another whine and he leaned across the table so he could cover her mouth with his hand. “Shh.” Another whine. “Just shh.”
Looking between them, Sybil was realizing that the three had grown closer than she had realized. The thought was troubling, but the same could be said about herself and Veximarl. Her eyes flitted over to the necromancer, who was leaning back in his chair and smiling at the group.
Despite it being past nightfall, he had chosen to put his glasses back on once the subject of his eyes had been covered. Sybil hoped that he would eventually feel comfortable enough to remove them at some point. He didn’t need to hide everything about himself, but maybe all he needed was time. She stood up from the table and stretched her arms. Her head bobbed as she nodded towards the group.
“There’s some reading that I need to catch up on. You guys won’t mind if I turn in?”
Alton moved his hand away from Zaniyah’s mouth and sat back down in his chair. He gave an overly apathetic shrug. “We got up earlier than usual so we could make it here by afternoon. I’m tired myself.”
“Tomorrow though!” Zaniyah held up a finger. “We’re talking more about this tomorrow, right? We’ve gotta cram as much fun as we can, otherwise we would have wasted the whole summer on nothing!”
They agreed and cleaned up. It wasn’t long until all of them were either in bed or doing last minute activities. Alton was staring up at the ceiling, waiting patiently for his chance. The sound of Zaniyah’s snoring was the queue he needed, and he made his way down the ladder of his bed. The lights had dimmed, and the only sources of it were coming from behind Sybil’s curtain and Chickadee’s desk.
Chickadee looked up at Alton. He was working on Veximarl’s staff. Why did Veximarl even need a staff if he was a paladin? Alton squinted for a moment before relenting. The blacksmith knew what he was doing. He must have had his reasons.
Alton put a finger up to his own lips and Chickadee shrugged before going back to his work. There was no curiosity on Alton’s behalf to get a closer look. Being stuck in a castle with only forge work as entertainment had burned out all interest Alton had in the subject, and he was on a different mission. He stuck his hand through Sybil’s privacy curtain. When he didn’t hear any protests, the rest of him stepped through.
Sybil was sitting on the floor by her table. She had a book of botany in front of her, and she was studying the pages closely. On the table was her sword and a pendant. Her hope was to figure out which flowers these were and have that serve as a major breakthrough for her quest to figure out what was going on with her life. When she saw Alton step through, she gave a wave of her hand to shoo him off.
“What are you working on?” whispered Alton as he took a seat next to her.
Sybil gestured to the pendant sitting on the table. “I’m trying to figure out what flower this is.”
That was cute. Alton leaned his elbow on the table and rested his chin within his palm. She was a core kid. Everything from the outside must be so bright and new, and she was just trying to understand it all. His eyes flitted to the pendant, and suddenly he was also curious. Nearly panicked in his confusion on how she could have gotten her hands on something like that.
“Maybe I can help.” Not only would helping her make him seem endearing, but it would also help him sate his own interests.
“No, thank you,” she whispered back, not looking up at him.
Alton’s hand darted out and snatched up the pendant before she could react. “Let me have a look.” Sybil leaned across his lap, hand attempting to grab it back as he held it out of her reach. Suddenly, he couldn’t help himself. Alton gave her a peck on the cheek.
Sybil snapped back and away from him, putting her hand against her cheek as she did so. Her face twisted up in a scowl. “Only a look, and then you’re going to leave me alone.”
He smiled and took a look at what she was hiding. It was an identification pendent, much like the plaques they used as students, but this kind was used for nobles in the Violet Region. His eyes widened in horror as he looked over it closely.
“Where did you get this?”
“It,” she hesitated before answering, “belonged to my grandfather. Or at least, I think it was related to him. Mom said it had to do with his past, but he died when my mother was young, and she was adopted into another family. It might be stupid, but lately I’ve been wondering more about where I come from.”
“That isn’t stupid at all.” Alton spoke in a calm manner, but he was clearly troubled in his expression. His hands, tense and rigid, did nothing to hide his true emotions. “You should keep it hidden. There are squires here from Fogbloom and they take family legacies very seriously. You might end up in a fight if someone recognizes it.”
Her head tilted to the side and she looked between the pendant and Alton. “Does that mean you recognize it?” He tilted his head to the side, matching her expression as he did so. “Is it from Fogbloom? Why would someone recognize it?”
“Hmm, what?” Alton raised his eyebrows. “No, not at all. I mean, the name, sort of. Erskine. That could mean Erskine Fogbloom, right? And these could either be buttercups, or winter aconite, or Fogbloom flowers, or a dozen other different plants. All flowers look like buttercups to me… Maybe not, because that couldn’t be right. If that was true, you’d be of royal blood, and you would know if you were of royal blood… Right? You would?”
She narrowed her eyes at him, then they widened as she realized that she didn’t know what sort of blood she had. Meanwhile, Alton was glancing about for Lydia, who had conveniently disappeared. A heavy sigh escaped him as he shook his head.
He set the pendant down on the table. “If you don’t want me or anyone else asking, keep this hidden. It’s not that hard.” He then leaned towards her.
“What are you doing?” Sybil leaned away from him.
“Goodnight kiss.” Alton closed his eyes and leaned closer.
“... We’re not doing that.”
Alton opened his eyes and smirked. “Why not?” Sybil replied by giving him a death glare. “A quick one. You’d hardly feel it.” She stared. “... A very quick one.” She stared for a moment longer before closing her eyes and Alton leaned the rest of the way in. A brief peck was given to her lips as he shifted closer to her. His hand placed itself on her cheek to keep her head steady while he moved towards her ear. His breath was hot as he whispered in a low voice. “Goodnight, my future bride. Dream of me.”
Sybil yanked herself away and skittered backwards. She didn’t say anything. There was a fear that if she opened her mouth, nothing but a stream of curse words would fly out of it. Her hand went up and she pointed to Alton’s bed, the other hand picked up a dagger. She shook it at him in a threatening manner.
It wasn’t the worst reaction she had given him. He’d take it. With a smirk on his face, Alton stood up and went to his bed. Sybil closed the shades of her lantern so the glowing stone was no longer visible, and cleaned up her work. She then flopped down on the pillows and pulled them defensively around her. There was a fear that she’d see him again after she crawled up to her bed and he’d be making kissy faces at her all night long.
Was this what she’d have to put up with during her three years here? Helping out Veximarl was not worth this. Sybil would need to find a new way to deal with Alton. She buried her face into a pillow. There was no way that she had traveled all the way to some Mart forsaken swamp just to end up dealing with this.
But, in the end, she did it. She was in Braytons now. Her hand tightened around the pendant as she tried to fall asleep. “Everything is going to be alright now, mother. I’m going to make you proud.”
“You shouldn’t worry about such things,” whispered Lydia. The ghostly apparition was hovering just above the floor by Sybil. Her hand reached forward, passing directly through her daughter’s hair as she tried to stroke it. She pulled it back and made a fist, her face contorting between a mix of pain and sadness as she did so.
“I never wanted any of this for you, but I suppose none of that matters when you can’t hear me,” Lydia continued to whisper softly. “No matter what you choose for yourself in the future, I will make sure you’re taken care of. Now and forever, Sybil, you will be protected.”