Zaniyah had a bounce to her step as the trio walked together. Vincent had explained to her that Sybil and Alton being punished as a pair wasn’t exactly a real punishment, but a warning to the other first years. Be wary on who you fool around with, otherwise, you’d end up locked up with them for who knows how long.
Being punished with Vincent seemed like it could be fun. Then again, she didn’t know how to cook all that well. Also, there was the fact that he would outright refuse to do what Alton and Sybil had done. Not that it bothered Zaniyah that Vincent didn’t want to... They had their own pace and she was comfortable with it.
Plus, not being joined at the hip meant that she had time to run off with Chickadee and Sybil. The original Dogfall trio. Core kids forever! But, it was also a little sad to be doing this without Alton and Veximarl. They were part of the group, but she could see why they wanted their own space for a day. Alton muttered something about wanting to work on a way to say to Sybil he was sorry, and Veximarl was glad not to deal with Chickadee when the mage was in full leech mode.
Within the core, the temperature stayed the same all year around. Even if Chickadee lived outside the core, he stayed primarily in his family’s forge. The teen was surrounded by heat at all times, and he hadn’t been adjusting to being banished from the barrack’s forge all too well. He had doubled the amount of clothing he had worn during the day and sat in class with a large blanket wrapped about his person.
It wasn’t even winter yet... He’d probably get worse when it did start to snow.
But Zaniyah pushed it out of her head. She thought of the sermon that Tish gave that morning, about the acceptance of other’s faults and willingness to work with them to make sure they stayed on the right path.
Though she wouldn’t admit it, she liked Tish’s sermons better than Vincent’s, who always spoke of honor and duty, and they easier to understand than Veximarl’s. All he would do was stand there stuttering from stage fright. The guy was good in small groups, but speaking in front of strangers made him a nervous wreck.
She should sit him down and give him storytelling lessons. Zaniyah thought herself the best at it, but they wouldn’t let her do sermons since she wasn’t in acolyte studies. Maybe they will later though since the second and third years were gone. They can’t keep cycling between those three forever.
“Hey, do you think Lady Blu would let me do next week's sermon if I asked nicely?” Zaniyah tilted her head and looked to the other two. “I’m thinking about something riveting. Like that time that blade cricket got loose on the webs and took out two transport golems.”
Sybil raised a brow. She looked odd, being dressed in her armor and weapons, yet carrying a flowery lunch basket under one arm. They told Zaniyah that they were going to go hunt rabbits, and the armor was in case there was a tainted beast attack. So far, she was buying it.
“I don’t think that story has anything to do with the four gods or the lessons that they left for us,” replied Sybil.
Zaniyah shrugged. “I think it has to do with maintaining the balance, right? Tria is the goddess of balance, after all, and we had a tough time getting to the cricket because it kept cutting the webbing out from under our feet. Not to mention one of those golems had a pregnant lady in it, and Chi ended up having to deliver a baby. I’m sure that bringing life into the world has to do with religion too, right? Mart stuff.”
“He also told us that he would never want to see between a woman’s legs again because of that,” retorted Sybil.
“Never again,” echoed Chickadee with a shudder. The baby was cute though. He did like babies.
They burst out laughing until the sound of sweet singing pierced the air. The three gave pause, tilting their heads so they could get a better listen. It was Alton, who sounded like he was still some distance away. All three knew the melody by heart. It was the Carapace battle hymn.
“He’s calling for help.” Sybil looked over to the other two.
“What’s he even doing out of the barracks?” Zaniyah scrunched up her eyebrows.
“It doesn’t matter!” Sybil set the basket down as Chickadee began to open up Entomb’s case. “We have to go!”
Chickadee began to screw the spyglass onto his cane as Sybil ran towards Alton. Zaniyah was already way ahead of them. She quickly left Sybil behind, the distance between the pair increasing with every step she took.
The singing only agitated the foxes more. Realizing that their webs didn’t work on Lydia, the two that were hunting her devolved to chasing her about while leaping through the air and snapping his jaws. Veximarl was leaning heavily on his spear. He was having trouble keeping his eyes open, and Alton realized that they didn’t have much time left.
He attempted to deflect a web that was fired at him with it with his sword. The web whipped about the blade and the fox snapped its head back, yanking the weapon from the squire’s hand. Alton cursed to himself and flexed his hands. His nails turned dark and grew into claws as his translucent eyelids slid over his eyes. Smoke was filling the area, and he needed to be able to see.
What a wonderful time to realize that he didn’t bother to bring Baton because he didn’t think he would need a second sword today. He began to cough. The smoke was burning his throat. Worse was the fact that the foxes were going to charge in any minute now. They were gaining the courage to attack with their teeth instead of their webbing.
Alton took a slow breath to level his senses. “Cover me!”
“No, wait!” Veximarl shouted back, but Alton had already run forward and jumped over the flames that had surrounded them.
One of the foxes leaped for him as Alton bent down low and tore his hand upward. His claws dug into the animal’s throat and he wrenched it out with a yank of his arm. Veximarl chased after him, putting up a shield as a fox attempted to pounce him. It bounced off, shook its bloodied nose, and growled.
Panting and coughing, Veximarl thrust his spear forward and pierced the center of the fox’s forehead. The instant kill allowed him to cast his resurrection spell on it, and the fox immediately shot webbing at another sibling that was charging Veximarl. Its legs became entangled and it fell to the ground.
“I-I can’t maintain this for much longer... Martyr took to much,” whispered Veximarl in a weary voice. The necromancer stumbled forward and leaned on his spear again. He barely managed to summon up his shield again and knock back the fourth fox that had charged at them in oh so many seconds.
“Tell him to keep it up! I can see Zani in the distance,” exclaimed Lydia. The two chasing her had nearly given up their pursuit and were giving the occasional glance towards Alton and Veximarl.
Alton turned his head and quickly spotted Zaniyah running towards them. “Zan is almost here! Chi should be set up on a hill nearby and he’ll give us-” His eyes widened in horror as Zaniyah unhitched her axe from her back and held it up high. She was still a good distance away, which meant that she was planning to- “No, no, no! Don’t you dare!”
Like she knew how to listen. She swung away and a blade of wind shot forward. Alton grasped onto Veximarl and dragged him down to the ground. A wall of stone shot out of the ground next to them, and it rattled as the wind blade hit it.
A set of foxes were knocked back, but they were uninjured by the spell. As they rolled to a stand, one scrambled to get behind the stone wall for protection. Veximarl held up a hand to summon a shield, and the fox skidded to a stop before it made contact. The shield flicked for a moment before dissipating as Veximarl’s head limply rolled off to the side.
“Vex?” Alton shook the necromancer. “Vex?!” He had fainted. On the other hand, at least he seemed fine aside from that.
The squire grimaced as he found himself face to face with a fox. This one had two eyes on their left side and a larger right eye. It whined in return, not knowing what was happening. Its whine was replaced by a squealing yelp as a pillar shot it straight into the air and towards Zaniyah.
“I got it!” Zaniyah started to shuffle back and forth as she stared up in the air. “I got it, really!”
She flicked her arms upward and her axe cleaved cleanly through the beast. Another pillar appeared beneath her, and she flew through the air and neatly landed on top of the wall that had been summoned to protect Veximarl and Alton.
“Hey boys!” Zaniyah called out with a wink. “Miss me?” She tilted her head at the miserable sight of Veximarl. “What’s the matter with him? Can’t take the heat? What’s he gonna do when he gets a girlfriend, huh?”
“Less sass and more killing!” Shouted back Alton.
“Got it!” Zaniyah backflipped off the wall and was caught by another pillar.
She began to dance with Chickadee’s magic, doing aerial acrobatics as she bounced on top of obstacles in an effort to avoid the webs that were being shot at her. The subtle vibrations within the stones were signals to where new walls and pillars would be appearing. Chickadee was using both her and his magic to control the fox’s movements, and the two of them were flawless as a team.
Just as it appeared that they were gaining a lead, a flood of mist overtook the area. It meant the end to Chickadee’s ability to assist, but it also signaled Sybil’s arrival. She started to feel sluggish as time slowed around her. As she ran, figures began to appear next to her. Sybil was furious. A little at herself for letting Alton and Veximarl face danger by themselves, but mostly at the tainted beasts who had dared try to hurt them.
“Oh, they’re adorable,” cooed her own voice behind her.
“Four dead, and another four alive,” said a voice to her right.
Sybil shook her head. “I’ll handle them all in an instant.”
The mist figure to her left shifted into Stonetoe’s silhouette. “You guys have only been here for a season. How did you manage to screw up so badly?”
“We won’t get in trouble for taking out tainted beasts! That’s our job,” she retorted. “We were told that we could leave the barracks in a group, so that’s what we did.”
The figure to her left shifted into Veximarl’s faded form. “Tainted beasts have a poison, and the mist itself is known to cause illusions.” Then it shifted into Blu. “Miasma is a powerful source of magic.”
Her right apparition shifted again, this time into Alton. “If we open up one of the caves and toss her in, she might remember.”
All of the images started to vibrate, taking on forms that she had never seen before. Only for an instant though, before they had returned to all being her. They didn’t say anything as she stopped and stared at them.
Sybil gave up and shook her head. “Fine... I’ll go to the cave after this, but my friends come first!”
Her body felt cold as the world swirled around her. She found herself next to one of the foxes, and time began to return to normal as she sliced off its head. Her stare whipped towards another one and the cold sensation overcame her again. This time her blade was jutted into its side. A third time did this action repeat, and when the fourth time came around, she found herself standing over a fox who had fallen before her arrival.
The bones in two of its legs were broken and it was whimpering. Veximarl must have gotten injured and transferred his wounds over. Even the thought of him being injured so badly made her blood boil, yet the creature stared back at her with a pleading gaze. For the briefest moments, she felt an odd sense of empathy with it.
“I’m sorry... I know you’re only following your instincts, but-” She gave a shake of her head. Her sword jutted into the base of its skull, and she gave it a twist to finish off the creature. She then took a moment to pull out a handkerchief and wipe the blood off of her weapon.
Slipping the sword back into its sheath, she took a moment to take a breath. The mist was already starting to fade and she needed to see if Alton and Veximarl were alright. More importantly, she needed to apologize for asking them to go ahead and examine the cave first.
Zaniyah was stunned. She looked around and blinked with confusion. In one moment, she was in an exhilarating battle of life and death, and the next moment, it was completely still. By the core, what had just happened?
Seeing the sudden fog and Sybil teleport about within it left Alton feeling overwhelmed. It was obvious to him now why Sybil would be afraid to use such a weapon. That sort of power would be addicting… What could be going through her head each time she chose to wield it?
There was also a sense of beauty to be had in watching Sybil fight. She wasn’t teleporting. It was almost as though she were floating. Her whole body would evaporate into mist before reappearing again somewhere else, and time was ever shifting the entire battle. He still had a look of astonishment on his face by the time Sybil approached them.
She knelt down beside Alton and Veximarl. Alton was ignored as she brushed Veximarl’s hair aside so she could put the back of her hand against his forehead. Slight fever. He must have fainted from exhaustion. A sigh of relief spilled from her lips, but that didn’t change her worried expression.
“Are you alright, Toval?” She looked over at him and furrowed her brows.
He stared at her for a moment longer and then nodded his head. “... I’m fine.” Alton gestured to the blood that stained his hair and clothes. “It’s mine, but Vex healed me. We’re good. I guess he’s not such a bad paladin when it counts, even if he fainted. Do you think he’ll be alright?”
She nodded. “This happens to me when I use my mist step for too long. He’ll be out for an hour or so and starving afterward, but he’ll be fine.” Her fingers then settled on Alton’s bloody cheek. “I’m sorry. All of this is my fault.”
“We didn’t know for certain that there would be tainted beasts there,” replied Alton with a weak smile. His hand went to the back of hers and he held it against his skin. It felt so cold. “Thank you for not going alone. I don’t know what I’d do if you were injured again.”
Actually, it looked as though she would have been fine by herself. The speed at which she had taken out those creatures confirmed that. He imagined that Lydia would yell at him for a week straight if he had let her go by herself regardless, but his words had made Sybil’s cheeks turn a deep shade of red, and seeing that made him blush in turn. The two awkwardly stared at each other until Zaniyah ran up.
“... Toval,” said Sybil in a quiet voice. “Why do you have claws?”
Alton cleared his throat and looked away from her. “Don’t worry about it,” he muttered as he started to snap them off to reveal more normal looking nails underneath.
“What was that?!” Zaniyah hitched her axe back onto her back. “That was amazing!” Her arms waved about. “The way you just whooshed about and killed all those badgers at once was absolutely amazing!”
Alton shook his head, bring his thoughts back to reality. “Not badgers, Zan. You still need to work on that.”
“Right!” Zaniyah’s head bobbled up and down. “You told me this! Dogs! Dogs and badgers are different animals!” She said in a proud voice.
“They’re foxes,” he replied. She frowned. “Foxes aren’t badgers or dogs.” She blinked. “All of those are different animals.”
“And you’re sure that badgers aren’t mini bears?”
Sybil clamped her hand over Alton’s mouth before he could start yelling at her. “You realize that she’s messing with you, right?”
The ground rumbled slightly before a stone sphere popped out of it. It opened up to reveal Chickadee, who had put away his cane and was holding the lunch basket in his arms. He first looked to Veximarl and then nodded as Sybil waved a hand about to tell him that it was okay,
“Chi,” she said as she stood up. “We’ll gather up the bodies so you can seal them up in a temporary tomb. Zani, pick up Vex and carry him. Toval, do you know where these creatures came from?”
“We were thinking they were from the cave.” He frowned. She was still planning on going in there. Her plotting face was easy enough to read. “Shouldn’t we report back first before heading that way?”
Sybil shook her head. “And risk not being allowed to leave the barracks again? If there is more of them, the knights will be the ones sent to hunt them down. We’re first years. They’re going to lock us up.”
Unfortunately, she was right. It could be spring before they were let out again, and by then, the miasma may be too weak for them to try their experiment. A quick look, make sure there are no more tainted beasts, and then they toss Sybil in. As long as they stayed together, it would be a fast job and they’ll be back at the barracks in no time.
“We stick together and we go back if it doesn’t look like Vex is improving,” replied Alton. He stood up and extended out his hand to where his sword had been thrown. “Reign.” The sword flew to his hand, and he took a moment to brush off the burnt webs. The leather hilt was damaged, but the rest of the blade was thankfully fine.
Chickadee nervously shifted back and forth as he watched the others prepare to leave. Occasionally he would give a shake of his head before looking over to a carcass of a tainted beast. Underneath his scarf, his teeth bit into his lip nervously.
“Alright, fine,” said Sybil with a roll of her eyes. “Extract the blood iron first.” That will hopefully give enough time for Vex to wake up. “We’re heading out right after that though, so please hurry.”
The mage nodded his head excitedly. Shifting about his gear, he eventually recovered the blood iron withdrawal device. Since Sybil said they might go hunting afterward, he had brought it along. With more mist about the area, there was a chance for him to get blood iron from anything they killed, and he could easily modify Veximarl’s spear without the use of the forge.
Sybil propped herself against a stone wall and watched as Chickadee worked. She was worried. The mist people knew what she was planning, and they wanted her to go along with it. They were always watching, and she knew that she needed to find out the truth as soon as possible. Especially when she had the crown watching her as well... It was finally time for her to discover the truth behind waking up.