Veximarl met up with Stonetoe and they walked up the stairs in complete silence. Together, they stood by the door of the office while Chickadee sat in a chair. Lady Till had a metal plate that was displaying the mage’s school records on it. She was having Archive record notes as they talked.
“While we do not shun squires from fully exploring the potential of their abilities, we do have several training fields outside of the barracks where one may participate such activities.” Till scowled at Stonetoe. “Why have you authorized Rodanthe to oversee Tuton’s physical training?”
“He asked, so I let him. After all, we do not shun students from fully exploring the potential of their abilities,” Stonetoe replied flatly. Lady Till narrowed her eyes all the more. “If he was going to make a fuss, I wasn’t going to say no.”
Till pulled up Veximarl’s file. “Tuton is no longer allowed to train under Rodanthe’s guidance. You will personally oversee his training whenever you have free time, Sir Stonetoe.” His name was said so harshly that Stonetoe flinched. Till then pointed at Chickadee. “This is going on your record, Mister Cully. Any potential employers that you seek out will know of this incident. You will be removed from these barracks if another outburst like this happens again.”
“Yes, Lady Till. I understand.” But Chickadee held no remorse for his actions.
“You are to assist in repairing any damage you have caused. You are going to help forgemaster Ira Knut craft a new weapon for Miss Rodanthe. You will write her an apology letter. A real and honest apology. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Lady Till,” repeated Chickadee.
Veximarl stepped forward. “I would like to reiterate that this was my idea, Lady Till,” he began. “I lack experience when it comes to fighting humans, and sought out advice from my peers.”
“And I will tell you now that we have knights who are responsible for your education here. Ones who are more knowledgeable than your fellow squires. Your studies are not your own to decide while you are a first year.” She made certain the notes were in place and swiped her hand across the metal plate. The runes on it faded away. “You are all dismissed.”
The three left the office, with Veximarl lagging behind. He didn’t know how to feel. If he hadn’t shown pain or weakness, or if he had just been strong enough to defend himself... No, he should have stopped Chickadee from entering the field in the first place. His squad is once more suffering due to his poor leadership and weakness.
“You there.” Stonetoe looked down at Chickadee. “You’re always quiet.” Chickadee nodded at the statement. “Maybe you should consider opening up once in a while and talking to others more often. Having outbursts like this isn’t good for your head.”
“I will consider it,” replied Chickadee in a meek voice. His previous bravado had dwindled now that he had calmed down.
Shaking his head, Stonetoe continued. “Nah, that won’t do. Come by my room once a week. I’ll make some time for it. We’ll talk over a few drinks.” He looked down to see that the mage was ignoring him. “You’re doing it. That’s that.”
Veximarl felt all the worse. Stonetoe and Grimhawk were their knights, but he was their captain. He was the one that was supposed to sit down and talk with each of his squadmates whenever they had concerns. Instead, he had been busy hanging out with the second years or working with Basil and Gwyn. He hadn’t been attempting to make time for his squad at all.
The feeling of guilt worsened when he saw them all working on sweeping up the courtyard. With a sigh, Veximarl joined them. Together, the five spent a few hours fixing and cleaning what they could before having to excuse themselves for afternoon classes. Chickadee was the only one left behind, taking his time to carry a bucket of glass up to each window. There, he would craft a new pane for the window frame and set it in place.
Sybil sat upon the rampart, frowning as she watched Chickadee measure a window out. If she had been the one to get there first, she would’ve gotten away with a hand slap. A part of her was still furious that Duxton hadn’t gotten in trouble at all. He was the one who had orchestrated all of this. For once, she was aching for a chance to duel someone, and this time, she wouldn’t hold herself back. Sword or no sword.
Mila attempted to offer her some condolences. “I know, patrolling with Bronzescale can be a chore.”
“It isn’t keeping me from doing anything important.”
She glanced over to where Caitlin and Zyris were setting up their cart. They had members of Elderberry Squad helping them out. If anything, Sybil was glad she wouldn’t feel obligated to say goodbye to them. Her chest still stung whenever she saw Zyris, but this was only temporary. He hadn’t attempted to pursue her after she had run away from him, and once he was gone, she would finally be done feeling this way.
Sybil was expected to work with Bronzescale squad three times a week. They were supposed to be the disciplinary group, but they mostly spied on other students and wrote down any ill activities that they did. The only rule anyone seemed to ever break was curfew and anyone caught was only late because of legitimate reasons. There wasn’t a lot of trouble a group of teens could get into in the middle of nowhere, aside from blowing up part of the barracks.
It wasn’t all bad. She did enjoy dueling Irving. They were close to each other in skill when he was playing fairly, and it felt nice to do normal knife play. Friends aside, being with Bronzescale did make Braytons feel like a normal learning experience. At least, it felt like what she expected Braytons to be.
“We’ve been so busy with classes that it’s nice to sit around for a change,” she muttered.
A bird call rang out through the air, and Mila tilted her head to hear it. “Mister Alder is calling us.” She and Sybil stood up and raced towards where Beat was waiting.
Beat was an interesting man. He did a good job of looking out for the members of his squad and checked in with them frequently during their shifts. Working with him felt more like being under the tutelage of one of the knights instead of a fellow squire. He and Dalkirk were almost like equals.
“Where are the third years?” Mila looked around. Irving was present, having seemingly appeared out of thin air, but no one else was present.
“They are looking over records at the moment.” Beat gestured to the horses. “Dalkirk needs individuals capable of defending his back. Twist, are you equipped for a mission?”
Giving herself a pat down to double check, she nodded. “What’s happening?”
“Dalkirk has located a cave containing suspicious items. We are to act as his backup as he investigates.” Beat gestured to the horses. “I’ll ride with Twist. Byers and Fletch take the other.” As good as Irving and Sybil were with combat, neither knew much about riding.
Riding out, they detoured off the main road and dismounted near one of the cave entrances. There were many points where the rolling hills dipped into deep crevices, rivers, and caverns. Several of them had deep undercurrents that could drag down anything into an unforgiving abyss, meaning that no flowing body of water was safe within the Gilded region.
They stopped by the entrance of a cave and Beat grabbed a handful of scarves from his horse’s pack and gave them to the other squires. “Put these on.” He tied one about his face, covering his nose and mouth. He then lit a torch and started to walk ahead of them. “Keep a blade drawn and be prepared for possible animal attacks. Twist, be prepared to step forward in the event that a tainted beast appears.”
A chill ran up Sybil’s spine at the thought, but she pulled Nip and Gnarl out of their sheaths and kept them ready. Irving and Mila may have difficulties fighting, but Beat and Dalkirk had weapons capable of fighting a tainted beast. She wouldn’t be alone this time if trouble appeared, and she kept chanting that to herself in order to calm her nerves.
The cave entrance had shoe prints embedded in the dust out front. A miasma started to build up around them as they went in deeper. Mila started to cough and sputter, tying the scarf around her face tighter to help fight the stench. Despite being used to mist, this didn’t smell right. It had a sickly scent to it that Sybil found to be familiar.
Out of instinct, she put away Gnarl and out a hand to her sword. The world shifted around her and she found herself someplace that was nearly unbearably hot. She had to use her arm to shield herself from the blinding sunlight. After a moment, she lowered her arm and looked around. Everything was so dry and warm that she had trouble breathing the air. Below her was a hardened red clay that was radiating warmth.
There was a man standing not too far off from her. He had dark, tanned skin, with thick, black hair that had laid in a long braid over his shoulder. Red paint decorated his nearly nude body, done in a pattern that was similar to the symbols found on acolyte shields. Part of him was thankfully covered in a worn loincloth, and he had a bronze circlet on his brow.
He was moving about in a slow, methodical manner. Every motion was meticulous, with his limbs bending at awkward angles as he practiced his martial art forms. As he turned around and noticed her presence, his pure black eyes opened. A smile broke out on his lips. Sybil immediately looked away. This wasn’t as terrifying as her vision of Tyrtain or the mist people, but it made her highly uncomfortable.”
“There is no need to be startled, Sybil. I am not here to harm you. But, I was not expecting to meet you today.” His voice had a booming and jolly quality to it.
Sybil took a hesitant step back, wishing with all her might to retreat from this situation. “Look uhm, this is nice and all, but I was in the middle of an important mission, and nothing dangerous has happened yet... If this is one of those vision things, can we do this later and not when I’m zoning out in a cave?”
The man jumped up and down a few times while shaking his hands out. He then took to stretching from side to side. “I forgot how nice it was to have my own body... It hardly compares to my true self, but no need to have you suffer the shock of seeing me in my full magnificence. I will make due with this form for now.”
“Is there an exit somewhere that I can take?”
She tensed up as she realized that she hadn’t even drawn her sword. All she had done was put her hand on the hilt. Did that mean that something had attacked her and she had entered this place to prepare for a fight? No, that wasn’t right… Nothing had ever happened before without her drawing the sword first, but she had only ever activated it on accident, so… Nope, she was still clueless.
The man walked up and slapped her on the shoulder hard enough to make her stumble. “It seems that you are still unused to power that the miasma blesses you with. We will talk at length at some other point… When you are better capable of summoning me.” His finger wagged at her. “Be sure to call on me and not that dragon next time. Let him lie in the grave he dug for himself.”
Suddenly everything around her was dark. Sybil straightened up and looked around in a startled manner, only to see Beat staring at her. She immediately hunched over and did her best to appear like her mind was on the mission. He stared at her for a moment longer, shook his head, then carried on.
Dalkirk was waiting for them further in. He also had a scarf tied around his face and was examining a cage. Something had put in an effort to escape. The bars on one side had been ripped outwards, and a dead mist cat was within the cage. It looked as though it had been dead for some time, as the flesh had sunken in, and it was only identifiable by the pattern of its fur.
The knight gave a nod to the group as they entered and he gestured to the cage. “Humans were the ones who set this up. It’s only a matter of time before we find out why. Fan out and see what you can find.”
“There were footprints at the entrance of the cave,” said Sybil.
“Already documented.” Dalkirk gestured around the area. “Don’t enter the cage and don’t venture down further into the cave. Keep your guard up.”
There was evidence that someone had been keeping the mist cat for a few weeks. A cold box had been installed, with molded meat inside, and there was hay set up in the cage for the cat to sleep on. Smaller cages held the remains of mutated rodents. All of them appeared to have starved to death. The area itself was heavy with the scent of miasma, but there wasn’t much trace of what had been happening here.
“Pregnant animals who are exposed to the miasma are likely to give birth to tainted beasts,” explained Dalkirk. “Someone put in the effort to set this experiment up. I doubt they caused the miasma to appear, but they certainly put in the time to take advantage of it. It’s possible that other such caves exist, and other beasts are present.”
The beast had broken out on its own. No doubt that it was the same beast that had been killed a few weeks earlier, but Sybil had different concerns. If Bronzescale were the ones investigating, and not one of the hunting squads, it meant that Dalkirk had a suspicion that someone from the barracks was responsible for this.
Her other concern was that the first years were called to investigate. Surely the third years would have more experience, and there were four of them. The paperwork investigation that they were doing was more suited for first years. She was suddenly concerned that someone in the third year might be a suspect. There wasn’t any other explanation for it.
She wasn’t allowed to talk about anything that she had seen or done with Bronzescale, but it felt wrong to withhold this sort of information. There was already so much she was keeping secret, and her squad would also want to know about this. Especially Veximarl. He had first-hand experience with miasma and would need to know that it had appeared here.
The squires made a record of everything that they could find. It looked as though the place had been abandoned since the creature broke loose. Despite the secluded location, most of the evidence was gone by this point. Dalkirk pulled his scarf away from his face as they left the cave. He was livid, but he was keeping his composure in front of his squires.
“We’ll get the cave sealed.” Dalkirk gave a nod to Beat. “There are maps of the surrounding area with the cave entrances marked. I will put together a team that will seal them off.”
Mila was confused. “Is blocking off the caves the only way to go? There’s no way to purify it at all?”
“Once an area is infected, it is only a matter of time until more tainted beasts begin to appear,” explained Dalkirk. “This is Tria’s punishment for humanity turning our backs on her. Even if we could somehow locate some of her brood to purify the region, their wards will only work for a limited amount of time. For now, we will seal away the problem until I can consult my contacts.”
It was past nightfall by the time they returned, and Sybil was quick to bid them all farewell. She had had another vision. This time it was of someone she hadn’t met. One who hadn’t bothered to leave his name, but one who certainly knew hers. It must have been another illusion brought on by the miasma...
Then she remembered her duel against Duxton. Her body had shifted into a mist and carried her away to safety. She had had the sword on her belt and hadn’t dared to draw it since her fight against the beast. Maybe… Maybe her encounter with the tainted beast had changed her, its poison had somehow altered her in some way, but she didn’t know how, or who she could even go to in order to talk about it.
She was having trouble telling what that meant for her. For now, she chose to ignore it until it happened again. Only then would she seek help. Making her way up to the room, it looked as though everyone had already finished dinner. There was a plate of food waiting for her on the table, and the rest of the group were trying on the vests that Zyris had made.
“Isn’t it great?!” Zaniyah twirled around to show hers off. It had spider patterns embossed in the leather, and white fur spiking up around the high neck. She was showing off to Vincent, who was lingering for a few moments longer before he retired to the Macestar room.
“It certainly…” Vincent became distracted as Zaniyah looked down and pushed together her breasts. She wasn’t wearing the under armor that was supposed to protect her sternum, and it showed. The paladin inhaled sharply and looked up at the ceiling. “It certainly suits you.”
Alton’s had the most fashionable looking armor, marked with a repetitive paisley pattern and bronze buckles, while Veximarl’s had his shield symbol embossed on the back. Chickadee’s was plain in design, with no decoration at all. He was more intent on repairing the damage that his cane had sustained rather than play dress up.
“Anything happen?” Alton was in the process of pulling off his vest so he could store it safely. “You normally say when you’ll be out late.”
“Yeah, but…” Sybil shook her head. “Sorry, it’s Bronzescale business. I’m not allowed to talk about it.” She moved over to where her vest was hung up by her dresser. There were feathers embossed on it around the center, like a faux corset. Probably a nod to Lydia Larkin, but… Sybil frowned at the sight.
Alton watched as she blankly stared at the armor that had been left out for her. Carefully, he snuck into her space. He drew the curtain around the two of them so that no one would notice. His arms then wrapped around her shoulders and gave her a kiss on the cheek. Some affection should perk her right up and he didn’t like it when she was all melancholy, even though that was her usual expression.
“Get out, Toval. They’re going to get the wrong idea about us.” Sybil pulled herself away with a frown.
Vincent’s voice called out from beyond the curtain. “It is inappropriate to have student relations in common areas.”
Alton rolled his eyes at both of them. “Then where are we supposed to have them?”
“I actually hadn’t put any thought into that.” Vincent was suddenly troubled. He placed the back of his thumb against his bottom lip, which was his usual thinking stance. “If I were to make an executive decision about it, I would suggest that we refrain from participating in such activities. Despite the barracks being open to the idea of the squires having sexual relations, I cannot think of an area where it will not be an inconvenience to anyone.”
“... But,” muttered Zaniyah. She quickly shook her head and looked off to the side, muttering, “paladin,” and “pure thoughts,” to herself over and over again.
Alton’s voice called back. “It’s an inconvenience that you’re here every night. When are you going to take command of your room so you can stay there instead?” He didn’t bother to hear Vincent’s answer, instead speaking to Sybil again in a low tone. “Something’s bothering you. Tell me what it is.”
There was a lot bothering her at the moment. Mainly it was Alton. “Bronzescale business stays Bronzescale business, and that’s final. I’m tired. I want to eat dinner. I need to get some sleep.” She went to move past him, but he stepped in her path.
He lowered his voice to a barely audible whisper. “May I kiss you first?”
Why did he have to be like this? She gave him a peck on the cheek and then shoved him out of the way so she could go have her supper. Her eye went to Vincent and Zaniyah. He was bidding her goodnight in that weird manner again. Vincent bowed deeply as a sign of appreciation of her being his girlfriend, and she would bobble her head while blushing. Why couldn’t Alton be more like Vincent? He and Zaniyah were so cute together.
Then again, maybe Zaniyah was the Alton in that relationship. Zaniyah tilted her head to the side so she could watch Vincent’s butt as he left. She would then stand there, muttering the most perverse things to herself until Chickadee tossed something at her in order to get her to shut up.
Maybe they had it all wrong this whole time, and Sybil and Zaniyah needed to find a way to switch boyfriends. Not that Alton was her boyfriend, or that she wanted him to be, really. Sybil’s gaze wandered to the door. Vincent certainly wasn’t her type, but he was okay with golems and wanted a unified core and outerland. Not to mention the bowing thing... It was so polite and convenient. Oh, and definitely hygienic. That was also a plus.
Veximarl kept his thoughts to himself. Something was bothering Sybil, but he didn’t want to intervene by asking. He had caused his squad enough trouble as it was… If only... His eyes flitted over to his dresser, where he had the Archive plate hidden. There was probably a way for him to access Bronzescale records with that. If he used it in secret, he would be able to see what was wrong and understand if he had a way to help her.
They bid their goodnights and filtered into their own beds. It was close to midnight when Veximarl felt his bed being shaken about. He peeked over the edge and saw Chickadee waving at him from below. The little blacksmith was dressed in his training uniform, and he gestured between Veximarl and the door.
Veximarl climbed down and followed Chickadee to the inner field that the blacksmith had destroyed that morning. He had taken care to put things back in place but could redo the enchantments that he had destroyed. Parts of the wooden fence were still missing, and there was a sign saying that pendants malfunctioned in this area. The pendant post had also been removed.
Chickadee walked around the broken fence and gestured for Veximarl to follow. He didn’t have any weapons on him… Though that didn’t mean he was defenseless. The necromancer felt concerned but followed him into the field regardless. Once there, the blacksmith took on a fighting stance.
“What are we doing?”
“Unarmed combat practice.” Chickadee reaffirmed his stance and gestured for Veximarl to come at him.
Veximarl had his doubts. “I would not wish to cause you another incident. It is my fault that you were written up this morning. Any more than that would be excessive. My goal here at Braytons is to help people, not get them into trouble for my sake.”
Chickadee pointed to the rampart. “It’s fine.” Veximarl turned around and saw that Stonetoe was sitting on the wall with a flask in hand. Next to him was Dalkirk, standing there with folded arms. “They say nothing, we do what we want.”
“Only for a half hour. We still have to get up early, and you have additional work to do.” Even if he wanted to complain, Veximarl knew that he needed this. He needed ways to defend himself that didn’t rely on his magic.
“Yes, captain!” Called out Chickadee.
Chickadee was an agile fighter. He had years of experience dueling both Sybil and Zaniyah and had combat training in it from the best of mentors. His father had handled most of his fighting education, and he was a former bounty hunter. As they continued on, Chickadee was careful to explain everything like his father would, then he would toss Veximarl to the ground like he weighed nothing at all.
When they had returned to the room, Veximarl wondered if Chickadee was feeling guilty about him losing his tutor, but he was also thankful to be rid of Amalfrieda as a mentor. The woman was clearly mentally unstable, and he’ll be facing against the other member of Flaytongue, Udell Tardivel, in the War of the Years. He appeared to be equally as broken as she was. After all, the man used meathooks as his weapon of choice.
There had to be something wrong about that.