The group’s meals over the following days would quiet. They were able to use the meal hall on a regular basis. Plenty of space was to be had now that the older squires had left, but the environment was full of melancholy. The next few days were also strangely quiet. Even the barracks workers were solemn as they went about their daily routines.
Veximarl still wanted to speak with Sybil about Prince Duxton and her sword. This felt like the best time to do it, but he was having trouble scheduling a discussion. His own schedule was full of stamina training and dueling exercises. Since Zaniyah was no longer doing combat training with the other years, she had gotten lumped in with him. Every day gave him new fear to how she was going to pummel him next.
But he needed to have the courage to make it through. His conscience was gnawing at him on a daily basis. Even as he laid on the ground, staring up at the sun, he pondered how he could bring up the topic to Sybil. A great shadow was cast over him as Zaniyah leaned over, axe on her shoulder as she furrowed her brows.
“You alright?” She tilted her head.
“I am having a private moment of reflection upon my life,” he replied.
“Could you do that maybe… Not do that in the middle of the field?” She tilted her head in the other direction. “Sorry about knocking you out cold. You need to go see Blu?”
Veximarl sat up and put his hand to his head. He had truthfully fallen over due to fainting, but he wasn’t going to tell her that. “No. I am fine, thank you.” He stood up and looked around. “Where is Sir Grimhawk?”
“He said we’d be done for the day whenever you woke up. You want to go hit the showers?” She hopped from one foot to the other. “We could also go for a few more rounds if you want. You’re getting better at avoiding my axe.”
Zaniyah’s daily training had seen her improve by leaps and bounds over the past few weeks. He was both impressed and left never wanted to fight her again. “No, thank you.” He noticed Baron Squad was leaving the dorms.
“Perhaps Vincent? He enjoys some exercise after being in classes all day.”
“And he would be getting out right about now! That’s a great idea!” She jumped up and down. “I’ll catch you later!”
Freed from one sort of suffering, he was now able to go to another. Veximarl twisted his spear apart and put the halves into their sheath. Chickadee was going crazy not having access to the forge, and was constantly nitpicking at their weapons each night. No doubt the blacksmith will scowl at him for not having any complaints with how his spear worked today.
He chose to take a walk around the barracks in the meantime. Sybil was attempting to coax a horse, and both were being watched by Stonetoe and Dalkirk from a nearby hill. They were being serious about making sure no one was alone outside, even if Sybil had wanted the time to practice by herself.
Veximarl hesitantly approached and was ignored by those present. Even the horse didn’t mind him. It was a medium-sized stallion with mottled gray fur and a white mane and tail. Sybil was leading him along slowly with his reins in one hand and an apple in the other. The blasted thing kept running from her all day long, and she only wanted to get him inside the stables and be done with him for the day.
“Greetings!” Veximarl waved. “Is this the new horse?”
“Yes,” Sybil replied in an exasperated ton. “Lady Till had several brought in for her to examine and chose this one for my personal use and two others for the barracks. His name is Oyster, he’s a little over two years old, and I’ve been assured that he has an impressive bloodline.
It’s something I should be very excited about.” She gave a firm tug on the reins as the horse dug his hooves into the ground. “I think he’s a jerk who doesn’t like to listen to common sense,” she said with a snarl,
“You do seem to attract that type.” Veximarl faked a laugh. “Are you done with your classes for today?” She nodded. “Would you be available for a talk? Just the two of us?”
“Yeah. Anytime you need to talk, I’m here for you.” Sybil smiled up at him. “What’s it about?”
Veximarl pushed the hair away from her ear and leaned in close for a whisper. He didn’t want to risk anyone overhearing. “I have some concerns about you and the royal family.”
“You mean Alton?” Sybil whispered back.
Veximarl shook his head. “He might be in the clear, but I came across some information some time ago that you might be interested in.”
The sight of the two whispering with each other was beginning to annoy Alton. He had just left his lessons with Baron and wanted to see if Sybil had caught her horse yet. Climbing up on the rampart was usually the quickest way to find her, and what he saw playing out before him left him cringing.
“What are they doing?”
Lydia folded her arms. “Maybe I would know if someone hadn’t scolded me before. Something about my daughter not needing to have her mother spy on her every time she was alone with a teenage boy.”
“I said not to spy on me when I’m alone with her, not any teenage boy,” he snapped back. Lydia flapped her hand like it was a mouth, and made high pitched whining noises while she did so. “I don’t sound like that.”
He rolled his eyes and started to ignore her as she parroted him some more. Some inspiring adult she turned out to be. Half the time she acted like a five-year-old, and the other half she was a scowling grump. Alton frowned and focused more on Veximarl and Sybil as they walked back. They were standing too close together for his comfort.
Jogging down the stairs, Alton rushed into position. Nothing like casually leaning against the door entrance to make it look like he wasn’t spying. He snapped his head to toss his hair away from his face in a charming manner.
“Afternoon, Vex and Twist,” he said as they came within hearing range. “Nice horse. Glasstrotters are a reliable breed.” His cheerful expression dropped to a more serious tone. “So what’s going on between you two?”
Veximarl cleared his throat, He hadn’t expected Alton to find them so quickly. “Ah, well, yes. We were going to have a talk in private and see how the other is doing. As the squad captain, I hold an interest in how all of you are managing. Especially when Sybil is dealing with so many new experiences.”
“Really?” Alton eased off the doorframe and gave a shrug. “A talk in private?”
Sybil used a flat tone when she spoke. “Yes. You see, that’s what we call it when we have sex. We’re going to find someplace quiet, take off all our clothes, and just go wild on each other.
I just can’t go another day without feeling Vex between my legs again. He’s just so…” She bit down on her bottom lip and inhaled sharply. “Girthy down there... I am getting aroused thinking about it. Take me now Sexy Vexi, I need you so badly.” Her voice came out as a needy whimper at the end.
Veximarl had gone completely red in the face. He took an awkward sidestep away from her and was visibly uncomfortable. “P-please refrain from speaking like that. Forever, if possible.”
“Yeah, d-don’t be like that.” Alton looked off to the side. “I mean, do be like that, but with me. Feel free to talk like that about me whenever you want.” She frowned at him. “I can be robust too.” She shook her head. “You haven’t checked yet,” he muttered.
“I’m going to be like that with all sorts of guys if you’re going to act like this around my friends.” Sybil gave a wave towards Moontear Squad as they walked past. “Hey Peter! I’m feeling horny! Let’s make out when you get back!”
“Alright?” Peter called back. “I’m not needed for this mission, so if you wa-”
Alton rushed forward and clasped his hand to Sybil’s mouth. “It’s a joke! She’s kidding! We’re all having a laugh about making out with each other, and it’s honestly nothing that you should be involved in!” He smiled weakly as Peter stared at them in a confused manner. Emery grabbed his subordinate’s collar and began to drag him away while Alton went back to scowling. “Stop licking my hand, Twist.”
He rubbed her spit on her cheek. She, in turn, started to swat at him, and soon the both of them were slapping their hands against the other. This started to shift into heavier shoving and finally Alton attempting to give her a hug as an apology while she was trying to push him away. Veximarl looked on at the scene in a befuddled manner. Blinking was the only logical response he had.
“I really do wish to speak with Sybil in private, and your actions are making the horse uncomfortable.” He snatched up the reins that Sybil had dropped.
Sybil kicked at Alton to get him to back off and moved to ease Oyster by rubbing her hand along his muzzle. “Not to encourage this behavior, but I honestly don’t mind if he’s there to discuss that. Unless you wanted to talk about something personal for you?” Veximarl shook his head. It might be easier to have Alton there to fill in the gaps. “Then it’s fine. Let me get Oyster to the stable and we can go find someplace.”
The commons area of the third year dorms seemed like the best option for a serious conversation. If they were caught, they could easily claim they were scavenging the place for anything interesting left behind. No one would judge them if they started to move about furniture or tidy up the place.
Sybil sat on a couch while Alton rested his head on her lap. She began to scratch behind his ear. Veximarl brought a chair close so he wouldn’t have to talk too loudly, but he was still visually uncomfortable.
“I do not believe I can be serious when he is behaving that way.” Veximarl gestured to Alton, who opened one eye long enough to glare before closing it again.
“Just ignore him. He’s being a possessive jerk.” Sybil waved a hand about like she didn’t care. “It doesn’t even matter anyway. We’re not dating. We’re, uhm... Sort of… I don’t know what to call it. Anyways, don’t worry about it. We won’t let it interfere with our studies or work.”
Lydia floated to an unoccupied chair. “You better not let it interfere with her studies. Nita doesn’t like her as it is because I’m dead. Especially since I broke that promise of us working together once we graduated.” She hung her head off to the side with a heavy sigh. “Neither of us could make the money we needed to live the lives we wanted.”
Veximarl spent a moment contemplating what he wanted to say in a calm and cohesive manner. He then proceeded to spill out everything he knew. The research he had done, as well as the bet he had made with Duxton for Sybil’s squad placement. This left both Alton and Sybil glaring at him.
Sybil stared at him blankly for a moment before responding. “... You mean to say that I could have been back in Carapace this whole time?!” Her fingers tightened painfully about Alton’s hair. “Is this why you didn’t tell me until after they left?” It was exactly why Veximarl didn’t tell her, but he wasn’t going to admit it.
“That’s what your upset about?” Alton coaxed her hand away so he could sit up.
“I shouldn’t have agreed to his request, but I was hot-blooded at the time and I let him get the best of me. He stated, and I don’t know how true this is, that he was asked to watch over Sybil and see if she ‘woke up.’ Whatever that meant, he didn’t know. He only stated that it would be obvious.”
“Woke up?” Sybil frowned at the thought. “Where have I heard that before… Did Tyrtain mention something like that?” Her cheeks puffed out as she thought about it. “I know it was important, but it’s hard to remember since I was so badly injured.”
That made even less sense. “I… What? Tyrtain?” Veximarl’s mouth opened and closed a few times like a fish. “The dragon Brayton defeated? Or someone else that goes by that name?”
“Right, this is… This will probably sound crazy.” She dragged Alton back to her lap by his ear and began to fumble with his hair again with both hands. “When I was scratched by the tainted beast,” scratched was an understatement, “it was like my mind was taken to a different place. That’s where I thought I saw Tyrtain. He told me that my blood was weak, and maybe some other things that were important. I was pretty out of it at the time due to almost dying. It’s hard to remember…
There was also another time I saw something, but that was when I was helping Bronzescale out with their missions. It was when I was first exposed to miasma in a cave that we were searching. Suddenly, I was in a field, and there was a man there who knew me, but he also said we’d talk again at some later point. I never saw him again.”
Veximarl was startled by the news, but it wasn’t something he hadn’t heard of before. “Tainted beasts have a poison that flows through them, and the miasma itself is known to cause hallucinations. It’s possible that these are somehow connected to a memory buried deep within you.... Perhaps something from your youth? Try to think about it carefully.”
Sybil tensed up. “I’ve been trying to for weeks now, but I haven’t come up with anything. In truth, I’ve been debating on testing to see if a heavy dose of miasma will help me remember everything clearly, but I’m worried about what that would do to me.”
“... Where have you been exposed to miasma since your attack?” Veximarl assumed that it was possible there was miasma present but didn’t think the barracks knew the exact locations. Surely they would have mentioned them as places they needed to avoid.
“Ah, well, uhm… It’s Bronzescale business,” she replied with a firm nod of her head, and both of the men narrowed her eyes at her. “Alright, so uhm... As you know, there are caves in the area... Lots of caves.”
“And if those caves were tainted, Lady Till would have mentioned them as places for us to avoid,” replied Alton. He had the same thought as Veximarl. “Why were they never mentioned?”
“Because, uh,” she twirled her thumbs nervously. “Someone used one of those caves last year to experiment with miasma. That experiment resulted in the tainted beast that injured me, but we haven’t found anything!” She waved her hands about. “Honestly, it wasn’t mentioned because it’s an ongoing investigation, but I don’t know anything. All we’ve been doing is finding out which caves have miasma in them and report them to be sealed off with earth magic.”
Alton tilted his head. “Why are they sealing off the caves? They should’ve already done the warding ritual against miasma this year.”
“You know of the ritual? That magic is supposed to be reserved for-” Veximarl turned his head and coughed. The two stared at each other blankly. Actually, Alton was the one staring. Veximarl fought to look anywhere Alton wasn’t located.
“Reserved for what?” Alton raised a brow.
“Hmm? Witch doctors?” Veximarl nodded his head. “Yes, mumbo jumbo swamp rituals and the like. That was it. I wasn’t aware that they had anything like that outside of the swamp.”
“There’s a ritual that wards off tainted mist?” Sybil looked between the two of them. “We’ve known about the situation in Carapace for weeks, and you’re just now telling me that there is a ritual that wards miasma?!”
Alton winced. The whole situation was painful for him to think about. “It must be bad down in the core if the ritual isn’t working.”
Veximarl also nodded. “I would have volunteered to do it, but thought that the miasma would be too much for me to handle. An area of that size would require constant rituals on my part, and it wouldn’t do much to ward off any existing beasts.”
“The Fogbloom ritual is cast by the priestess at the start of each summer. It’s supposed to radiate out from the core and cover the capital. Now that I think about it, I wonder how they would be able to do it in Carapace... I’ve never bothered to ask before.”
“They do the ritual in the Fogbloom core?” Veximarl couldn’t believe what he had just heard, but Alton’s nodding confirmed it. “None of my research even mentioned that such a place exists.”
“... Yes. You are right about that.” Alton pointed in Veximarl’s direction. “You know, that’s just another word they have for the palace. Fogbloom talk. You wouldn’t get it.”
Sybil buried her hands in her face. “Noooo… It all makes sense now. He wasn’t kicked out of his family because he’s a bastard child, he was kicked out because he’s the bastard child of a secret core mutant! That’s why he’s so good at weird magic!”
“You mean to claim,” Veximarl was following along with her logic, “there is possibly a secret race of mist mutants or possibly Others hidden within the core of Fogbloom, and for some reason, Alton wasn’t allowed to stay there?” He blinked at the realization. “That would explain the odd language he uses whenever he’s singing.”
“He sings in a different language?” Sybil always had to much wax in her ears to be able to make out what he was saying.
Veximarl became distracted as he put the pieces together. “I have read that several aquatic species use sound in unique ways. Are they fish-like? Did your father perhaps fornicate with a literal fish or one of the mammalian species? Like a whale?”
“... No? No! There isn’t- What is wrong with you two?! We’re supposed to be talking about Sybil!” Alton let out a yelp as Sybil pounced on him and began to pull out his cheeks.
“What was all that about me being some dirty core kid when we first met?!” She hissed out. “Dogfall trash, was it? I should go back in my hole?! And something about me being a mouse?!”
“I’ve always thought that mice were cute!” He exclaimed in a panicked fashion.
His statement caught her off guard, but she shook her head and let her anger take over once more. “You’re a hypocrite! How do my soiled hands feel all over your face?! Huh?! Why don’t you go back to your fish poo filled fish- What do people keep fish in?!”
“Tanks or aquariums,” replieed Veximarl. “Aquarium might be difficult to say in a fit of passion. I suggest you stick with tank.”
“Yeah, Toval! Tank! You should go back to your fish poo filled fish tank and drown in that… Poo water!” She rubbed her hands against his face again. “Far away where you can’t try to molest this filthy cave mouse again!”
Alton growled and tried to grasp at her wrists, but she was being too wiggly. “How does it feel to have made out with a fish? Also, I’m not a fish! All of you need to quit saying that! At least I know a difference between a dog and a rabies filled badger! Or any other animal! And if you're going to complain so much now, why don’t you go back home and suck on a spider’s butt like all of the little core babies do?”
Sybil gritted her teeth back at him. “Why don’t you go back in the ocean and suck on an octopus teet like the fish you are?!”
“Octopi don’t have nipples. Even if they did, fish wouldn’t nurse on them, because that’s a trait reserved for mammals!”
“I hate you so much right now!” Sybil growled at him.
“I hate you more!” Alton snarled back.
“I have no idea what sort of mating ritual I’m witnessing right now, but please cease your fighting,” Veximarl stated as he scooted back his chair. “I would very much like to get back on topic... The royal family has an interest in Sybil. Whatever it is they want, she may have that knowledge hidden somewhere within her. We need to figure out a way to get it out.”
Alton shoved Sybil off of himself. “She said it had something to do with the miasma? If we open up one of the caves and toss her in, she might remember everything, but we all know that isn’t safe. No one is going to accept a made up excuse when we drag her to the infirmary afterward.” He frowned at the idea. “I also don’t want to risk another beast showing up. We would have to find a safe way to do it.”
“You must remember that I am a cleric of the swamp,” replied Veximarl. “I have methods of treating miasma poisoning, and I can purify the air around us in a small vicinity. As long as we clear out an area of any beasts first, we can proceed to do this safely.”
She was still angry with Alton, but Sybil agreed that there were more important matters to discuss. “I would like to try it. If the prince was given orders to watch me, then I know it’s something I need to be worried about.”
Veximarl agreed. “I would also like to know more about this ritual that Alton spoke of.”
“Huh.” Alton shrugged. “I didn’t get a chance to hear it often. Maybe can I remember a little of it if I practice? I can make an attempt at singing it at some point to see if that has an effect.”
That was good enough for Veximarl. “We should put together a team and see if we can test your song. The miasma will only get worse once winter begins and sealing the caves will have done nothing. The miasma will continue to spread. Volo Refuge, Tilrey, Braytons and all of surrounding lands will be swallowed up. There may be some pressure, but what are our chances of success?”
“I have no idea,” he replied.
“Let’s go over everything you do remember and go from there,” said Veximarl. “That goes for the both of you.”