There was a light-hearted quality to Alton’s step as he walked with Veximarl. They were moving straight to the cave that Sybil had picked out. He whistled a cheerful tune as they went. If Sybil was willing to go on a date with him, that would actually make her his girlfriend. That meant that he had bested the ghost that stalked him. Sybil even admitted that they were now a couple, which meant his plans were absolutely coming to fruition.
The necromancer had other worries. They weren’t supposed to leave the barracks as a pair, and they didn’t have a legitimate reason to be out here. It was difficult enough to make certain that no one was watching when they left, and Alton’s cheerful whistling wasn’t helping to ease his worries. Any second now, Bronzescale was going to appear and capture them.
Veximarl’s stress made him grimace. “Perhaps you should consider giving it more than three days before acting like this is the most wonderful time of your life.”
“Sure there are more chores, but I’m dancing with Sybil every day. There is nothing bad about this. Someone, specifically me, is always going to be there to keep her out of trouble, and that’s what everyone in our squad wants.” Alton beamed at him. “This is bliss.”
Veximarl rolled his eyes. They had reached the area that Sybil had mentioned, and now they were looking for evidence of a cave. It should stand out, as a smooth granite stone had been placed in front of it. All they needed to do was locate the grove. Veximarl pointed towards a dip in the hills. Treetops were poking out of it.
“Regardless of your happiness, Chi has now become a permanent occupant of my bed due to your whining. It is already crowded enough with Foggy, and he is quite clingy. You should not yell at him so much whenever he attempts to stay with you.”
Alton carefully made his way down. It was slick, as it had rained the day before. When he went to fetch Veximarl, he had overheard Moontear state that the weather should stay clear until evening. His date should still go smoothly.
“I am going to do everything I can to stay like this forever.” He paused as Veximarl came to a sudden stop. He held up a fist, which was the signal to freeze in place. “What is it?”
“Animal tracks in the mud.” Veximarl pulled out the halves of his spear from his sheath and started to fasten them together. “They appear canine in nature. Do you remember what Sir Oceans said about the migration habits of elk in this area?”
“No.” Alton only paid enough attention to get passing grades when it came to Oceans’ classes.
“Apologies. What I mean to say is that elk travel south in autumn and that wolves will follow their migration. I do not see any elk tracks. We can assume that this pack was merely passing through.”
“We should head back and aim for another day,” replied Alton. Passing through or not, it didn’t matter. Wolves weren’t something he wanted to risk fighting. “I don’t think the neighbors will play nice if we say we’re only here for a cup of tea.”
Veximarl held his spear out to the side and light started to spiral around the tip. “We should head to the top of the hill where we are most visible. Sybil will be looking for us, and she might lead the others into a pack if she wanders about carelessly. We should seek to build a defensive position and wait there.”
Giving a nod, Alton headed to the top of the hill once more. The necromancer followed behind. Light trailed off the tip of his spear and slowly formed into Martyr as they climbed up. She kept low, stalking her way up instead of walking.
“You’re getting faster at summoning that.” Alton nodded in appreciation.
It was an impressive spell, and no one had explained to him why Veximarl was in trouble for casting it. He hadn’t bothered to ask either since he didn’t actually care. Veximarl was the type to readily throw the rules out when he believed it was necessary, and the fact that Martyr was here now proved that. Someone like that was someone Alton could trust to watch his back.
“Ah, yes. It’s a weaker incarnation meant to look scary. She cannot do much.” Veximarl lied. This incantation of Martyr was just as strong as the one he had used against Trenchall. More than enough to scare away any wild predators.
Alton shrugged. “It’s still a shield spell, just like Highland’s, right? That’s better than… Well, you know, nothing, I guess. Nothing is what you had before you got that spear.”
“Yes. I am quite aware.” He jutted out his spear between Alton and the creature as the squire leaned in to get a better look. “Stay wary. This is tainted beast blood iron. She isn’t controlled by my subconscious like Vincent’s shield is. Martyr is allowed to move about as she pleases in exchange for me using less concentration to control her. I would still need to train her like one would any pet.”
Clearing his throat, Alton took a step back as the creature growled. “I see. Like a pet.” A giant, Sybil eating pet. “Got it.”
“I suppose that means I will need to come up with names for all of them so I can summon them more quickly. Sybil did specify that the names of their weapons don’t matter, as long as it assists the user to visualize their intention.” Veximarl looked at the top of his spear, where he had several blood iron gems had been embedded into the wood. There were slots left open in the event that he wanted to add more. “Martyr still seems to suit her, even though I had used the name before on a whim.”
It made sense to him. The mist cat was born in a cage and murdered once she had escaped. She only wanted her freedom, and not once would she achieve it. He could sense that she had a great fear of humans and violence, and he felt a great deal of sympathy for the creature as a result. He tilted his head as she approached, and the massive beast rubbed her cheek against his while he cooed to her gently.
“Apologies. Only for a little while, Martyr,” he said as his free hand went up and scratch at her ear. “I do not plan to have you fight this time. Simply watch out over us until our friends arrive, and then I will let you sleep once more.”
Alton took a step back from the pair. He had realized it before, but Veximarl was an odd man. Even if his routine had given him a healthier complexion, he was still pale and had those unusual eyes. That combined with these odd moments have made him… Creepy. That is what Alton thought Veximarl to be. Creepy.
Yet Veximarl was more popular than he was. Alton only got along with… Now that he thought about it, he had plenty of friends back home, but not that many here. Plenty of people flirted, but it was always light. Everyone was quite respectful and kept their distance. Even Vincent got along better with the other squires then he did.
Was it possible that Alton had traits about him that just weren’t likable, and that’s why he wasn’t socializing as much as he had before? No... It was his class. Everyone at Braytons was an oddity, and they were the ones who were wrong.
“Do you think that’s a good idea?” Alton gestured to Martyr. “Sybil was the one that killed that thing. How do you think it’s going to react when it sees her?”
Veximarl’s eyes widened. “... Very poorly.” He cooed at the creature as she growled again. “I haven’t quite mastered the use this spear yet, but Martyr should behave as long as she remains calm. Just the sight of her will keep most away.”
“Here.” Alton pulled out a tin from his belt and held it out. “Put some wax in your ears. If wolves show up, I’ll charm them away instead.”
“I don’t believe I have mentioned this before, but I find your singing to be quite the impressive ability,” quipped Veximarl. He dug out a small ball of soft wax and placed it within his ear. “Far more flexible than my own abilities. I will admit that I am often frustrated with what I can and cannot do in a fight. However, Chickadee, yourself, and Sybil all have talents that can instantly end any battle. I end up relying on intimidation tactics.”
Alton looked over the gangly teen who hadn’t put on any muscle despite all of that training he had done. “At least you have quite the imposing figure.”
“With sarcasm like that, I can see why Sybil doesn’t like you very much.” He tensed as the corner of his eye caught movement. It looked like there was smoke flowing out from the grove. He ignored Alton glaring at him and pointed that way. “Alton, the grove appears to be on fire.”
“Didn’t seem like anyone was in the grove, but we didn’t get to check the cave entrance.” Alton folded his arms in thought. “You think someone unsealed it? Twist said that someone was using a cave for experiments. Maybe they had other caves?”
“I’ll go have a look,” volunteered Lydia. She floated down the hill as Alton tied on his collar.
Veximarl pulled back his hair into a messy bun. “I would think that Bronzescale would have it handled. However, that does little to explain the smoke. It might also be an hour until the others arrive, as Zaniyah enjoys lingering after church. What is your opinion?”
The smoke started to well up, and Lydia let out a surprised scream. “I think we should leave,” replied Alton. He would have run in at that moment, but suddenly remembered that Lydia was a ghost. She was probably safe from a little bit of fire… Maybe. He had never bothered to ask.
“A conclusion I must agree with,” stated Veximarl as flames could be seen licking up the sides of the trees. A series of yips and howls were echoing between them. Martyr knelt down as he patted the side of her neck and he clambered onto her back. “Get on!” He called out to Alton as he outstretched his hand.
Alton didn’t hesitate to do so. Martyr then took off at a wretched speed. It wasn’t as smooth of a ride as a horse was, and he was forced to hang onto Veximarl’s waist for dear life as she ran. Lydia flew up next to them. At least she also didn’t seem burnt.
“What’s back there?!” Called out Alton. He winced as Martyr jumped over a rocky ridge. This was terrifying! Why did he choose to jump onto this thing?!
“I thought you saw,” replied Veximarl. “Why would you tell us to run if you didn’t know?”
Lydia was visibly shaken. “There are nearly a dozen tainted beasts back there! They must have been using the cave as their den, and Bronzescale didn’t notice them because they’re nocturnal creatures! They would have been out hunting when they sealed the cave!”
Alton nodded at her. “Whatever we saw back there, trust me! It was bad! So what do we do?!”
Veximarl shrugged. “Keep an eye behind us to make sure they’re not chasing!” It better not be a fire beast. Between the one he fought in the swamp, to Trenchall’s constant fire attacks, to this, he was really getting tired of having to deal with fire any time he was in a serious fight.
“Before you ask, yes! They’re back there! I believe everything will be fine though!” Lydia gave a fake encouraging smile as Alton glanced behind them. There was a pack of reddish-black creatures behind them. Martyr was jostling him about to violently for him to see them clearly. “Whatever you do, don’t stop! Tainted beasts have a natural resistance to most magic! Your singing won’t work on them! I’m flying up to see if I can spot the others. I’ll let you know when I do!”
Watching as Lydia accelerated her speed and fly upwards, Alton gritted his teeth. He had his short sword with him, and Veximarl had his spear. Both were made of parts of Martyr’s old body. The tougher skin of a tainted beast would be no problem, but a fire was its own challenge.
“They’re behind us!” called out Alton. “There’s a lot of them behind us!”
“Is it wolves?!” Veximarl had dealt with wolves before, as they sometimes came in from the north. He wasn’t fond of wolves, but he didn’t hate them as much as the spiders or the gallinippers.
Squinting, Alton attempted to get a clearer look. They appeared to be the size of wolves, and roughly in the shape of them. Their bodies were slightly longer, and they also had fluffier tails. The number of eyes they had each ranged from two to four, and they had large, bat-like ears.
“I think they’re foxes?” Alton used the term ‘foxes’ loosely. “I’m counting eight!” The ridge of bones that extended past the skin of their backs began to smolder. “Vex! The foxes are now on fire!”
Veximarl looked over his shoulder for a moment before letting out a spree of curse words. Why did no one else ever deal with the fire beasts?! What’s worse, moving Martyr around like this was wearing him out. He hadn’t much practice with controlling her, and she was draining him dry due to her panicking.
This was more stress on his body than the normal summons had been. The only reason he was able to keep his spell up for so long in his fight against Trenchall was that both of them had a clear focus and intent. Martyr was in control here, and she was taking as much as she could get. It was only a matter of minutes or even seconds before Veximarl would be forced to cut her off.
“They must be from the same litter. A fox can have up to ten kits at once, so this is hopefully the brunt of it!” He just needed to hold out until they got back to the barracks. The sight of a human settlement should scare them off.
A set of foxes rushed forward with open maws, and oily webbing shot out from the back of their throats. It stuck onto Martyr’s haunches, and she let out a screech of pain as they caught on fire. Suddenly a rush of energy flowed out of Veximarl’s body as Martyr attempted to hasten herself, and he found himself with nothing left to give.
She evaporated in an instant.
Both squires were flung forward, tumbling across the rock-filled landscape at high speed. A series of pained grunts escaped Veximarl as he struggled to keep a hold of his spear. Cracking his elbow against a large stone, his grip failed him as his arm broke in an awkward position. Part of his ulna snapped through his skin, and he tucked that arm close to his stomach in an attempt to keep it further from harm.
Alton was worse off. Surprise had led him to let go of Veximarl too soon, and he was flung above Veximarl completely. He curled up an attempt to protect his head, but a jagged stone to the back of his skull knocked him unconscious. When he came to a stop, the gash started to spill blood at an ill rate. A dark puddle was quickly forming beneath him as he lost consciousness.
Attempting to stand up, Veximarl was annoyed to find his leg was broken as well. He slumped down to a knee as one of the foxes opened its maw. His shield blocked the spurt of webbing, but it flickered for a moment before fizzling away. Grabbing onto the wrist of his broken arm, he gave it a sharp tug to set the bone back within his flesh.
The spear whipped to his hand and he pointed it forward at one of the beasts. He tensed up as the bones in his arm painfully knitted back together. As long as he used all of himself, his necromancy would be strong enough to overcome their magical defenses. His chosen victim yelped in agony and crumpled to the ground as the wounds transferred over, but it didn’t make the others halt their approach.
Veximarl chose to skitter towards Alton rather than continue to defend himself. More webbing started to shoot towards him, and he summoned his shield long enough to block their reach. He skidded to a stop and placed his hand against Alton’s neck to check for injuries. Fractured neck, his ribs had pierced his spleen and lungs, and his cracked skull had led to blood hemorrhaging in this brain.
The gravity of his mistake was sinking in. If he had brought Martyr to a stop, he could have dispelled her safely and conserved his energy. Alton would be able to assist him, and they would be in a better position to defend themselves until help arrived.
After adjusting the position of Alton’s head, Veximarl pointed his spear at another fox. It fell into a twitching heap. Even if it was going to die quickly, the broken bones made it ineffective for Veximarl to use as a puppet. He’d have to concentrate on using his shield to keep them at bay until Alton woke up.
“Any time now would be appreciated, Alton.”
The world felt sluggish, but Veximarl’s words were starting to bring about his senses. Alton sat up and placed his hand against his wet cheek. He then starred in shock of his blood-covered hand. Feeling about his head, it was covered in the stuff. If it were not for the fact that six of the foxes were circling about the pair, he would be more confused as to why he wasn’t feeling any pain.
They were coordinating their attacks. Tainted beasts were more clever than regular beasts, but these ones were purposely testing him for weaknesses. A circle of fire surrounded the pair, and the foxes were adding more webbing to the weaker spots to ensure that the flames remained tall.
“Is this my blood?” Alton slowly stood up. He had to spread his legs out slightly and hold his arms out. This felt more like a heavy dream rather than real life, and he was struggling to get his senses back.
“I healed you. Please refrain from conversing. Need to concentrate.” Veximarl’s hand darted up and formed another shield that was quickly covered in web.
Lydia floated down, eyes wide at the sight of the blood coating the both of them. “Oh horsetails, are you two alright?” Alton gave a small nod. “I’ve found the others. They aren’t far away, but you’ll need to be loud if you want to signal them.”
Veximarl squinted his eyes and gave a tilt of his head. The foxes behavior had changed. Their stances had suddenly become more guarded. “Do you sense something, Alton?”
The foxes seemed bent on killing them. Nothing had changed. “No. Why would you assume I would sense something?”
“Because you are-” Veximarl put up another set of shields to deflect two webs. “-a fish. Are you not? Or at least part Other or mist mutant? I had assumed you had heightened animal senses.”
“For the last time, I am not a damn fish,” he growled. Alton scrunched his nose as he looked at where one of the webs had been pointed. It had been aimed high. He then looked up at Lydia. “They can see you!”
Veximarl shook his head and was confused. “They have four eyes a piece. I would assume they have excellent vision because of that.”
“Ah... I see…” Lydia floated back and forth and two of the foxes heads went from side to side while the other four kept their eyes on Alton and Veximarl. “That would explain why they tried to set me on fire earlier.”
“Nothing, nevermind,” said Alton. “I’ll find a way to keep them distracted while you keep us defended.” He felt around his neck and was relieved to find that his collar had stayed in place. “We’re going to be fine. I’ll make sure the others find their way here.”