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An evacuation of the core wasn’t unheard of. There were records of it happening in the past whenever there was a surge of tainted mist within the mountain. However, Sybil was feeling concerned for her loved ones. Her dad got along well with the Cullys and Krogasteins. No doubt that the Cully family would take in Zaniyah’s family along with her own father. Even in that small shop of theirs, everything will be fine.

Vincent had taken charge of informing the rest of the first years of the news. He had dropped off Zaniyah with Sybil, who was in the middle of being by Alton for reasons she still had trouble understanding. Sure, maybe they kissed once in a while, but... It’s not like they were dating or anything. There weren’t feelings involved in this.

“Where’s Chickadee?” Sybil was worried that he might be having a panic attack. She batted away Alton’s arm as he attempted to comfort her with a hug.

Frowning, Alton rubbed at his wrist. “I left him with Highland and Zan. He’s probably with Vex now.”

“Why are they evacuating the core so early?” Zaniyah was nervously balancing from one foot to the other. She hadn’t changed out of her costume, so there was a tinkling noise with every movement she made. “My brothers and mom haven’t mentioned miasma or anything like that in our letters. When’s the last time they did something like this?”

“Most likely during the last flood,” replied Alton. “Do they teach about that in the core?”

Sybil rolled her eyes. They had the same history books as Starsons, yes. There was no void of knowledge between the two, with the exception that their books might be a couple of decades older. “The core has been evacuated in the past when the mist made people sick, but there hasn’t been an incident like that since the turn of the century.” Over sixty years ago.

“Didn’t Lydia say that floods always begin or end with a great calamity?” Zaniyah wrinkled her nose. “I remember some bad things happening lately, but nothing that would count as a kingdom-wide calamity.”

Lydia floated between Sybil and Alton, frowning. “There was an instance where the miasma began to pollute all of the mist regions. They say it was a vile flood that brought out the worst in people, and only the assassination of King Cadogan and his family brought it to an end.”

It was unnerving to know that his birth family only took the throne due to so many deaths. Alton let out a sigh. The Tovals were in Carapace, but they were going to be fine. Miss Iofea would have sent word if there was trouble.

“Classes end in Eighth Winter. We can make a request to have our squad help out in Carapace after that. They’re likely sending Duxton as a show of the crown supporting Duke Rubire, but having us added as helpers won’t be a problem. Not as long as the roads remain open for travel.”

Sybil disliked the thought of waiting that long. It was fifteen weeks away, but they weren’t allowed to go on away missions until they finished their classes. Not unless it was an emergency and their presence was absolutely needed.

“I know Chi will want to go, and I don’t think Vex will object either.”

“Maybe Vincent would want to go,” muttered Zaniyah. “His dad and sister are doctors, and his grandfather runs a monastery. They might be overrun with people come winter, and I bet he wants to do what he can to bring in fresh supplies. Oh! And Mila too! She’ll definitely want to go!”

Alton nodded. “Supply lines might be redirected to the army, and neither Grimhawk or Stonetoe can go with us on away missions. Carapace will be in need of outside information and we can borrow Baron Squad’s supervisor as our own during that time. I doubt Lady Till would object to that sort of mission. At least, not as long as we present it to her wisely.”

They agreed to bring it up to both Vincent and Veximarl at a later point and moved to where everyone else was gathering. Sir Pegasus was walking through a field and waving his fan about. Stones were being raised up in the form of walls and pillars that were going to act as obstacles.

Most of the festival attendees had moved to the hillsides alongside the battlefield. They sat down on blankets with heaps of food and bottles of drink. Most of the first years were sitting together, with Zaniyah jumping up and down when she spotted Chickadee looking for them.

Chickadee ran up, nearly slamming into her so that he may give her a tight hug. Sybil stood up and joined in as well. Feeling the slightest bit left out, Alton rolled his eyes. He noticed that Duxton was only a short distance away. The prince was occasionally looking in their direction with the most confident smile on his face. Alton felt a chill up his spine. His experiences of being bullied by the prince as a child were creeping up on the back of his mind again.

“We’ll send off letters to Carapace first thing tomorrow, even if we have to ride to Tilrey ourselves to make sure they’re delivered,” Sybil whispered. “We’ve already made plans to see if we can get there as quickly as we can, Chi. Everything will be alright.”.

“I know,” he replied, squeezing them all the tighter as he did so.

Everything would be fine as long as Veximarl won the game. He didn’t bother mentioning it to the pair out of fear that Sybil would volunteer to join Kingspaw if it meant she could get to Carapace sooner. Veximarl had gone over his plan with Chickadee, and it was nearly sound, but he was still unsure if it was enough to take down Trenchall. That and the news about the core were leaving him an emotional mess.

Looking up from the field, Veximarl frowned at the sight of three of his squadmates in a hug pile. He shouldn’t have made that bet with Patterfall. It was a calculated move. In an effort to appear strong, he had bent over and done exactly what the prince had wanted. What he should’ve done was to refuse the offer and double his efforts to find out the information himself.

Gwyn scoffed at his plan as soon as it was presented. “Mister Tuton, you must surely be insane if you believe this will work.”

“My role is to buy you as much time as you need. You will have to take care of the rest without me.” Veximarl spoke confidently, but he was just as unsure as she was. “I will need to start casting now. I do not wish to be rude, but please take your positions.”

The third year students were Cleric Forlaith Magnolia of Treant Squad, and two members of Elderberry Squad, Ariel Hastings, and Gower Erpingham. Ariel was an empath, being able to sense the emotions of others and use that to her advantage in combat. Gower was a hunter who had skills similar to Basil.

Since the two from Elderberry were experienced partners, they were to pair up against Udell Tardivel. Basil, Gwyn, and Forlaith would face off against Shaw. Veximarl was hoping that that would be enough. He would somehow manage to hold off Trenchall until the others had triumphed.

On the other side of the field, Shaw was performing a few practice swings of his short sword. “I had advised before that they would be working together.”

Udell had part of his weapon looped around the back of his neck. It was a set of meathooks attached to a chain, and he had spares that were hanging about in loops around his waist. He was twirling around both ends as he studied the field.

“And I told you that I had already considered it. Our plan remains the same regardless of what they choose to do.”

Shaw frowned. His eyes were following Gwyn as she double checked the pouches she had on her. He wasn’t a happy paladin. Such a fight was a waste of his talents and below his status, but he wasn’t given the option to back out when he wanted to. As the first and third years finished grouping up, his attention fell on Veximarl, who was now working on something by himself.

“Our lord’s taunting of Mister Tuton has artificially inflated his confidence. He appears to be preparing a ritual to handle Kindrick personally.” He squinted as he tried to make out what Veximarl was doing. It looked as though he were scribbling in the ground with the backend of his spear.

After double checking his coins, Trenchall also squinted to see what the necromancer was doing. “Disappointing.”

“Our lord has commanded that we entertain the crowd,” added Shaw. “Have it look like the others stand a chance at first before tearing it away. These are our orders.”

Lady Till tapped on her wooden cone to test it before she spoke. “Attention! Loyal workers of Braytons and esteemed guests from Tilrey. Thank you for joining us on Eatha’s Feast day! Praise to the goddess of harvest and safe homecomings!”

Alton scooted closer to Sybil. “You know, Eatha is also the goddess of love.” He let out a grunt as she elbowed him in the ribs. “I was just trying to make a point about being more open about our relationship.” She pressed her elbow into his ribs and ground it in more firmly until he edged away from her.

Till waited for light applause before continuing. “As part of today’s celebrations, we are having a selection of our squires compete against each other in a three-way brawl. This will be our final event for today. Be sure to take home whatever foods we have spare of, and let your journey home be safe.”

More people started to show up on the hill, and Vincent appeared with the rest of his squad. He set a blanket down for Anais and Ivy to share before taking a seat next to Zaniyah. His arm went about her waist and she leaned against him as a content sigh left her lips. Alton looked over to Sybil, who shook her head and put an arm around Chickadee. The blacksmith leaned into her and made an exaggerated sigh of contentment, half mocking what Zaniyah had done. Sybil replied by drawing her cloak around both of them in a seemingly intimate manner.

Joining them was Stonetoe, who sat in the grass nearby. He took a look over at the couples and let out a scoff. In his hand was a bottle of wine that he bobbed at the group as a greeting. “Afternoon.”

“Hey, Mama Stonetoe!” Zaniyah gave him a cheerful wave. “Where is papa?”

Their teacher grimaced at her statement. “He is with Lady Blu and her group. That Maplehammer girl bribed him with her cooking. I’m afraid ‘papa’ doesn’t love his family as much as he loves the sugar on the side.” He nodded to where Grimhawk was sipping tea with Macestar Squad. “Take heed and be sure to avoid that priestess of Eatha for the rest of today. She takes her position seriously.”

Ivy smirked to herself. “The priestesses would host a matchmaking night every year at Petalmist, though it was never sanctioned by the school. Mostly it involves us dancing and locking up random people in a small room with the hopes of…” She winked at Vincent. “You know.”

“We are not doing that,” replied Vincent.

“You’re definitely not doing that,” added Stonetoe. “As a member of the prideful Petalmist alumni, I know exactly what my nasty self did during those days, and I don’t need to be dealing with the nasty lot of you doing the same while you’re under my supervision.”

“But we should be respectful of the religious practices of the church!” Exclaimed Alton. “Stop being such a paladin, Highland. Have some love for the gods that aren’t Iath... And Sir Stonetoe, you should have more faith that your squires will behave themselves.” His attempt to coax them earned him a glare from Stonetoe.

Suspicious of Alton, Ivy went on to clarify her previous statement. “Eatha is about love in all forms. There could be two girls put in a room,” Alton nodded eagerly at the statement, “or two men.” Alton shrugged. Nothing wrong with men. “No doubt that Tish will insist you spend some time with Vincent darling in order to work out your differences.”

“And I’ve changed my mind. We are not doing that.” Alton’s face contorted into disgust.

He was then suddenly concerned with how red Zaniyah’s face had turned. She was now trying to stop herself from hyperventilating with excitement as she put her hand to her mouth. On the other side of him, Chickadee was burying his face under his scarves due to his own perverse thoughts.

“For the sake of Zani not exploding,” said Sybil, “name one guy at the barracks you wouldn’t mind being locked in a room with.”

Alton counted on his fingers. “Three. Chi, Chester, and that third year Theodoric. Mages are fun, and I have a suspicion that the commander has some interesting kinks in bed.” Now Sybil was concerned with how quickly he had come up with that list. “Now name three women for yourself.”

“Oh, uh…” Sybil was caught off guard by the statement. “I suppose the only one aside from Zani that comes to mind is Lady Blu?” Alton’s face fell flat at the response. “She’s quite intelligent, and I feel like we would have an interesting conversation if it were a date.” Sybil had been meaning to study more on anatomy, if only because it would help with her golem designing habits.

“We could have interesting conversations too, and I’m also intelligent,” muttered Alton.

“Yeah, but…” Sybil shook her head. “No, you would just want to make out all the time.”

“And it’s my right as a teenager to think about having sex all the time. You don’t have to go through with it, but I still get to think about it!”

Zaniyah nodded in agreement. “Yeah, you do get stuck thinking about it a lot,” she said in a distant tone. Her eyes widened and she suddenly looked up at Vincent. “Well, I mean-” Vincent looked away, with his face turning a bright shade of red as he did so. “Just because I’m thinking about it, doesn’t mean it has to happen right away!”

Stonetoe let out a heavy sigh. “This is not the type of conversation you should be having in front of your knight,” he said with a shake of his head. “I know I’m supposed to promote open conversation and all, but I don’t want to hear about all of you having sex with each other. It isn’t new. It happens every year. Don’t get anyone pregnant, and make sure I don’t catch you. Nita disapproves of it, and that means I’m not supposed to let it happen at all.”

“Maybe we’d treat you more like our mentor if you were around more often,” replied Zaniyah.

Stonetoe shot a glare at her. “I’m wasting every afternoon with you working on your sorry excuse for fighting forms.” Zaniyah shrugged. “After this fight is over, you’re doing fifteen laps around the field. And you!” He pointed to Alton. “Don’t go lusting after people in your own damn squad. It does nothing but cause people problems.”

Sybil nodded as Zaniyah pouted. “You should listen to Sir Stonetoe, Toval. Look at what you’ve done to our Chickadee. All this stress that you’ve put on us is tearing this family apart.”

“I thought he loved only me,” muttered Chickadee as he let out a sniffle.

“Of course he still loves you, Chi, but Sybil is here now. Let me take care of you.” She dapped at the corner of his eye with her cloak.

Stonetoe rolled his eyes and looked over to the field where the students below were waiting to start. “What is Tuton doing?” The rest of them shrugged.

Veximarl was nearly done scratching an arcane circle into the dirt. He added the final touches and let out a sigh. Dragging over a sack that had been left on the edge of the field, he began pulling small pouches out. These were placed along the perimeter of his circle. Afterward, he stood on the edge with his spear resting on his shoulders. Everything about him was tense. Everyone needed to perform their roles perfectly for this plan to work, and he found his confidence wavering.

A few more minutes passed before Pegasus set of a flare spell above the field, signaling for the fight to start. Veximarl gracefully twirled his spear and thrust it forward. The crystals embedded into it began to glow, and a massive spell began to form on the ground in front of him.

Purple and red light twisted into the air until the mana formed into the glowing shape of a tainted beast. It was just as large as it was when it had nearly killed Sybil, but chunks of its flesh had rotted away. Its head tilted back so it could issue a loud roar, and the crowd responded with mixed gasps of surprise and horror.

Luckily the spell had worked. He could cast it in nearly an instant if he needed to, but he needed to be sure that it wouldn’t take off on its own. Plus, battles are lost or won before they even began. A little bit of intimidation on his part wasn’t a bad thing. He doubted it would stall Trenchall at all, but it might give Tardivel and Arbutus pause.

“What did you two do?!” Stonetoe snapped his attention to Chickadee and Sybil, with the latter of the pair holding her hands to her mouth in horror. Her fear left her unable to look away from the field. Chickadee cleared his throat and looked around as though he were innocent. “There isn’t a way for him to have come up with that on his own! What did you the two of you do?!”

The appearance of the tainted beast only startled the others momentarily. They had their own fights to worry about. Basil pulled out his bow and started to dash into position. Forlaith took lead when it came to charging Shaw, while Gwyn stayed near the back. She had yet to draw her weapon and watched from a safe distance as the other two did the brunt of the work.

Shaw summoned up his shield. It was pink and gold in color with a flaming tree as its coat of arms. It shimmered for a moment before becoming riddled with spikes. He started to run forward, and his shield split into several smaller pieces that stayed close to his body. They started to spin in circles, forming a series of drills that acted as his protective barrier.

The cleric was the one that reached him first. Forlaith summoned her own shield as Shaw attempted to slam into her. A metallic squealing sound echoed across the field as Shaw’s drills began to bore their way into Forlaith’s spell.

Stepping to the side, Basil tossed a pouch up in the air-launched an exploding arrowhead up at it. A rain of twirling seeds began to spiral downward. Gwyn made a motion with her hand and the prototype bracelet that Chickadee had made for her began to rattle. It wasn’t long before the area they were in became filled with trees, leading Gwyn to stagger a bit as she put as much energy as she could into growing them strong and quickly.

Moontear’s rule for the battlefield was to control the terrain. Basil, a Timbervale native, was used to dueling in a dense forest. Forlaith, being from Fogbloom, not so much, but she had at least been warned that this was going to happen. She was to work on protecting the first years until Ariel and Gower were able to help.

The two from Elderberry had their hands filled with Udell. Ariel was finding it difficult to read his intent, and both had trouble dodging Udell’s unpredictable meathooks. Even Gower’s glaive had difficulty trying to get between the gaps of his swirling chains. They danced around as a trio in a battle of agility, with neither side gaining an edge for the time being.

Meanwhile, Veximarl stayed at the far end of the field. The beast he summoned approached, and his head became flanked by its massive horns as it leaned in. Veximarl met it halfway and pressed their foreheads together. The mana body that it had felt cool against his skin. He was surprised to how similar it felt to petting foggy, but it was distinctly more solid.

“Good girl. Everything is fine now,” cooed Veximarl. It let out a low growl. “Shh… There’s no need to be frightened. I need you to be brave for a little while and then you will be able to go back to sleep.” The beast chuffed quietly, as though it understood him perfectly. “Remember that I am here for you. There is no more pain and no more suffering... I swear that I will take care of you until the end of our days.”

The blood iron creatures that Veximarl had summoned before had always followed his will without question. It didn’t feel any different from moving about bones within the swamp. This tainted blood iron was off... It was like a piece of himself had merged with a piece of it, and what was there was an entity with its own will and desires. Yet it had an oddly calming effect on him. Despite it not being expected, he felt no need to send her away.

It felt similar to controlling the nearly dead body of a human. There were traces of conscious left within that fought against him. When he had last done this, it was a guard in Bog Vale. Control was easy, as they shared the common goal of saving whoever they could. This felt more like the adolescent urges of a wild beast. The desire to be comforted, but there was also a deeply seeded fear of humans. He would love to explore this further, but he lacked the time to do so.

Veximarl tsked his tongue to get the cat’s attention. “The mage at the other end of the field. We’ll fight him together, Martyr.”

Another growl came from the massive cat as she lifted her head and looked over at Trenchall. The mage had prepared himself by holding a set of hoops within each hand. These snapped open and the released coins began to twist and spin around him. As the beast charged forward, the coins started to spiral in a circle.

Trenchell started to chant in the arcane tongue and a ball of white energy formed within the circle. A series of lightning bolts flew forward, and Martyr darted nimbly between them. The bolts bounced off the debris of the field and some hit the trees that Gwyn had grown, setting them on fire. Most of the bolts were aimed directly at Veximarl, who summoned his shield to protect himself.

“The two of you are grounded,” snarled Stonetoe at Chickadee and Sybil. “Do you know how much trouble I am going to be in?!” He gestured to where Grimhawk had been sitting. The blind man had gone missing. “Grimhawk ran away already! I’m going to have to take the entire punishment again!”

Sybil twirled her thumbs around each other. “Sorry, sir.”

“This is not a ‘sorry, sir’ situation! Tuton is a complete pushover who wouldn’t have done this sort of thing without your encouragement.” Stonetoe curled his hands in the air as though he were about to strangle both of them. “I have no idea what sort of punishment you two will be in for because I haven’t thought of it yet, but I know you will be in for one!”

Alton was confused by the exchange. “I’d be the first to tell you that Vex is the worst paladin I have ever seen, but look at that!” He gestured to the tainted beast that was snapping at Trenchall. The mage was barely able to hold the creature back, placing his priority on defense for the time being. “That is amazing! Why are you so angry about him finally being good at something?”

A quick tap of Veximarl’s spear against the arcane circle formed the start of his next spell. Boney birds started to form around the edges of the runes. They picked up the pouches and flew up in the air. Summoning his shield next, Veximarl ran forward. Trenchall was distracted by Martyr, but the sheer amount of coins that he was using allowed him to keep his guard up.

His coins blasted fire and lightning spells at Veximarl. As the necromancer grew closer, the coins started to cast at him from all sides. Using his shield to block what he could, the birds flew in to take care of the rest, diving in to take the blows for him. As they burst, so did the pouches they were carrying. Seeds fell to the ground, and Martyr moved to the other side of Trenchall, forcing the mage to move closer to Veximarl in an attempt to stay away from her jaws.

Having moved up into the trees, Gwyn was sitting on a branch and quickly eating a liver sandwich in order to regain her strength. Hiding was the best option for her. Shaw had started to use his drills to bore through the foliage, and Basil had already been faux-killed and teleported out of the field. Forlaith was forced to go on a full defensive, and the fire that Trenchall started was quickly enveloping Gwyn’s safety spot.

What was even more troublesome was that Shaw’s shield somehow could also start flames, which hadn’t been in any of the reports. The drills ended up being the perfect counter to her magic. Vines wouldn’t work, and she was at her limits for bringing in more trees. She coaxed the branches to envelop her a little more, hoping to remain hidden for the time being.

She noticed that Udell was tossing her the occasional look. It was difficult for him to do so due to him fighting off two other opponents, but he had already shifted his stance. He smashed the hooks downward, where they broke through the ground. Both emerged at the same time, burying themselves into each of Gower and Ariel’s legs. Letting go of that chain, he let them sort themselves out as he dashed towards Veximarl.

With a flick of Gwyn’s hand, the seeds that had scattered around Veximarl burst into vines. They slithered around the ground and towards Trenchall at a blinding pace. As his legs became entangled, the mage was unable to untangle himself without injury. He gathered what coins he could and use them to summon a massive blast of energy. This let out a crack as it flew across the field and flung Martyr backward.

Having sustained damage already, this final spell was enough to disintegrate the creature completely. Using the burst of blinding light to their advantage, Udell cried out Gwyn’s position and Trenchell’s next spell struck true. The branches around Gwyn burst into flames, and her body vanished into gold light before she had a chance to hit the ground.

The coins now turned their attention to cutting Trenchall free. Half of them flew to Trenchall’s hand, twisting a spell together in the form of an energy sword. He used this to deflect Veximarl’s spear thrust. As fire engulfed the area around them, the two began to exchange blow for blow with surprising skill.

Veximarl’s shield split apart as the coins danced around him, each dedicated to deflecting Trenchall’s spells. Not seeming to notice Udell’s approach, Veximarl was taken by surprise when a meathook grasped itself into the side of his throat. A quick tug tore out the front half of Veximarl’s neck, and a wash of golden light spilled out of the gap.

Both Trenchall and Udell stood there in shock as Veximarl failed to teleport away. Even with his false blood spilling out and ability to breathe cut of, it wasn’t enough to take out a necromancer. It was one of the reasons Veximarl had chosen to go against Trenchall alone. His kind only go down when they wanted to. Only once his head was severed would he stop.

But he could only take it so far before his true nature would be revealed. Thrusting his spear forward a final time, Trenchall took a step back to avoid it. Veximarl’s movements had become sluggish due to his injury, and Udell was already readying himself for another swing.

As Trenchall stepped back, the blade of Veximarl’s spear began to glow once again. A bird shot forward made of Veximarl’s shield spell. The feedback of it slamming against the Trenchall’s chest made it burst through completely, teleporting the mage out of the field. Udell’s hook was caught in Veximarl’s shoulder, forcefully spinning him about as Udell readied a dagger in his other hand.

Rather than be pulled forward, Veximarl twisted his arm around the chain and gave it a hard yank. Ariel and Gower had already freed themselves and were slowly catching up. Udell didn’t have enough time to free another chain from his belt, and dropping the one Veximarl was holding didn’t help. He barely dodged Ariel’s attack while Gower’s glaive slashed through his back. Both the Elderberry members took a moment to salute Veximarl before they set their sights on Shaw.

Giving a smile in return, Veximarl allowed himself to be subdued by his wounds. There was no need to linger... Victory was already his. He teleported out of the field and next to a very angry looking Trenchall, shortly followed by an equally frustrated Udell.

Luckily he didn’t get a chance to speak with them as Stonetoe was already running down the hill. The knight painfully cuffed the side of Veximarl’s head as the second year squires took a step back. They had their own concerns. Duxton’s expression was a terrifying mix of glaring and grinning. A wild look that struck fear in the hearts of both men.

“I hope you’re proud of yourself,” snarled Stonetoe. “Do you know what you have done?!”

Veximarl looked to the field. Shaw and Forlaith were still surrounded by fire, but that seemed to be giving the cleric an advantage. “I believe I have guaranteed the third victory.” The third years might manage to win if they kept Shaw trapped within the blaze.

“You have given yourself a standard. From now on, for every single fight you are in, people are going to have certain expectations of you,” spoke Stonetoe in a low and threatening tone. “You can’t go back to being the goofy kid who can barely run a lap, because you’ve proven yourself to be a competent fighter.

You’re going to need to think long and hard about what you want for yourself in the future, and what you let others see. Strength is a curse. It makes you the center of attention, and while some may praise you for it, there are going to be others who will view you as a threat. One that will need to be taken out before it is too late.”

He was right. Veximarl wanted to go on and be a teacher and a mentor for those who were similar to himself. His inspiration was Ribnjak Grulick, a woman unafraid to raise a necromancer child like they were her own blood. What he wanted and what he needed to do was to prove that his affliction was not what defined him.

But if he was caught at any time, there was no doubt that he would be executed. The future king of Lustro was here to witness this moment. Others present, people who regularly hired squires from Braytons for missions, were also watching. Veximarl had increased the number of eyes that were observing his progress, and not in a good way.

“Apologies, sir. I will pay more heed towards my actions going forward.” He winced as he was cuffed again by Stonetoe.

The knight growled in frustration. “You, Cully, and Twist are grounded. The three of you are going to meet with me and Lady Till later to speak about you using unapproved techniques in combat. I don’t care what excuse you have for doing it, but it’s not happening again in the future... I have to go find where Grimhawk is hiding. Go wait with your squad.”

Sulking, Veximarl moved up along the hill, ignoring the stares as he did so. It seemed as though Sybil and Chickadee were already told that they were in trouble. They were moping just as hard as he was. Alton was under the impression that they were in trouble for not seeking approval for Veximarl’s spear. He could understand why they would be hesitant to have a summoned beast running about, but it all seemed to be under control.

Running up to the group, Tish skidded to a stop and fell to her knees on the blanket. “Vincent!” Her face was a mess of worry. “I must speak to you at once!”

Vincent shook his head. “I will not allow you to arrange a party centered around underaged alcoholic drinking and sexual debauchery.”

Tish tensed up. “I understand that, sir, but I thought I saw something during the fight. There is no way that Vexi-”

“I do not know what you could be referring to, Maplehammer.” Vincent had interrupted her. “If you are thinking about making an accusation, I would think carefully about what those who are within hearing range would think.” Tish’s face strained all the harder at his words. “We are squires. We are above gossip. Please have some consideration for your fellow first years.”

Ivy pouted. “I like gossip.” She put her hand next to her mouth and spoke in a loud whisper. “I heard Anais started to have a crush on a certain mage who has been helping her during mage studies.”

Tish went from a concerned look to clasping her hands together. “Chester?” Ivy nodded. “That is certainly fascinating, but I-”

“He’s not the one I like!” Squeaked out Anais. “I mean, I don’t like anyone! Stop it!”

Vincent scowled at the group. “I ask that you let her be. No more gossip. That is that.” He stood up and offered his hand to Zaniyah. “May I escort you on a walk?”

The fight wasn’t even finished. Gower was out of the field, but Ariel had switched to a bow. Both her and Forlaith were forcing Shaw to stay towards the trees as they collapsed and burned. Shaw had a paladin’s regenerative magic, but there was only so long he could suffer before he fell.

Then again, Vincent’s posture was tense. It seemed like he would have greeted Veximarl or seek to console Gwyn on their loss, but he had been silent. There hadn’t even been a word as Stonetoe began to berate the members of Grimstone Squad. As much as Zaniyah wanted to see how the fight ended, she was concerned with how Vincent was acting.

“... Yeah. Let’s go,” she reached up and took his hand.

They were silent as they walked to the first year dorms. Moving up the stairs, Vincent gave a pause when he saw that the common area had been decorated for a party. They were all expected to get up early the next day for class... He wasn’t going to allow them to go through with it, but he would wait until later to scold Tish further.

Vincent looking about hesitantly as they entered the Grimstone room. “I apologize in advance. It is highly inappropriate for me to ask a woman to enter her room with just myself, and I don’t wish to make you uncomfortable.”

Zaniyah laughed. She always thought it was adorable when Vincent was bashful. “I know you’re not going to do anything weird. You only wanted to talk, right? I’m willing to listen.”

“May I confide in you?” She nodded, but he still struggled to find the right words. “Considering what we have recently witnessed, this may seem like a strange deviation from what is happening now.” He took both of her hands into his own. “When I was at Starsons, I was the head of my year, much like I am here. However, I had a reputation for being a tyrant. The schedules I forced upon others were strict, and as you know, I denied most of my class the right to attend Braytons’ entrance exams.

I was, and I am still angered by the system that is in place within Carapace. Ever since I met you at a young age, I was furious that you, a skilled fighter, might never have had the opportunities that the squires at Starsons sought to squander.

They were more concerned with developing romantic interests or strengthening their families by forming alliances with others of high standing. When I discovered that there were students who sought to sabotage Toval, who is… Also a waste of a human being in many regards, I snapped.

That pressure I put on them is what led to my own squad’s failure. Luca, Oscar, and Silas were all skilled enough to enter Braytons. I trained with them as their captain for years, but the pressure that I placed on them caused them to distrust me. They went behind my back and thought to bring Barcus back so they might remain a squad, so they could stay as a unit and as a family, yet none of them succeeded as a result.

When I was, surprisingly, placed as commander of our class, I attempted to have a more casual approach with you all. I have sought to understand what problems you have as individuals and address them all uniquely, but at the same time... I am frightened that I am somehow failing you all.

The problems that plagued the squire program at Starsons exist here as well. There are those who are here simply for titles. There are others whose mess of hormones and newfound liberties have them throwing themselves at each other. Myself, much to my shame, included. I know I am guilty, and I turn a blind eye to the faults of others out of fear of my own inadequacies.

What if what I am doing is somehow leading you all to catastrophic failure? When we leave this place, there is no question that we will be placed within hazardous situations that may result in our deaths. I know that I am not expected to train our friends to survive, as that is the role of our instructors, but I worry that my lack of leadership will inevitably lead to their downfalls.”

“Vincent...” He was looking at her with such vulnerability. Even if he was breaking apart inside, there was something so sweet about him at this very moment.“I know this doesn’t help at all, but I love you so much right now. You’re so dedicated to being our commander, and I know that you only want the best for all of us. Sure, you’ve made some mistakes in the past, but you’re trying to learn from them. That’s all any of us could ask.

There isn’t anyone in our class that doesn’t trust you, and I know Vex mutters to himself that it’ll be awesome if he could live up to your example. If there’s someone or something that you’re worried about, all you need to do is talk it out with any of us. We’re doing that right now, and it’s not so bad, right? No one is going to think less of you if they know that you’re trying to look out after them.”

Vincent blinked at her a few times. “I must apologize again. I am afraid that I didn’t catch a single word after you stated that you loved me.”

“Ah, right.” Zaniyah looked down and shuffled her feet. “Sorry... I wouldn’t take it seriously. People are always telling me that I’m overly impulsive and don’t put any thought into anything. If I made you uncomfortable, sorry about-”

“I love you.” Vincent tightly wrapped his arms about her body. “I love you, Zaniyah.”

Zaniyah buried her head in his chest and clung to him just as tightly. He really was a great guy, and she felt so fortunate to have him in her life. She let out a nervous laugh and he did the same, both awkward and not knowing what to do next.

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About the author

Adelaide West

Bio: Author of the Grimstone Series and Duck and Wolf.

I have a Twitter. I check it often, so I guess tag me anytime you want. I just don't post very often. @AdelaideGWest

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