Veximarl woke up to the sensation of Zaniyah adjusting him on her back. They appeared to be standing in the midst of a grove, and next to a flat wall of stone that was covering part of the hill. Sybil and Alton were looking over a hole that had been dug into the ground nearby. Chickadee was frowning at it as well. There was the faint smell of miasma leaking out of it.
“The third years were the ones that marked this cave as tainted,” explained Sybil. “They must not have ventured in far enough to notice that it was inhabited.” She said a silent prayer of thanks that they didn’t run into any trouble. “I heard they have weapons capable of fighting them, but I’m still worried about what would’ve happened if anyone else had come this way.”
Chickadee placed his hand against the wall and closed his eyes. He whispered to himself for a moment before shaking his head. “Empty.”
“It’s my fault they attacked in the first place,” muttered Lydia. “I don’t know how they were able to see me, but I must have startled them when I showed up. I should have shown more caution.”
“Something must have spooked them,” replied Alton as he glared at Lydia. “They’ve been put down, and we’re all safe.” Though his hair was now matted down with dry blood, which was incredibly itchy.
Veximarl gave a pat to Zaniyah’s shoulder so she would put him down. “Are you still planning on going in there?” He braced himself against a tree. Standing was making him woozy. “I fear I will need a few hours before I’m strong enough to ward anything.”
Zaniyah was left befuddled. “Why go into the cave at all? Seems like something we should get some help. I mean, we obviously can handle it, right? Seal it up and leave? Let the knights handle it afterward? And I’m the only one who hasn’t gotten grounded yet. I’d like to keep it that way, you know?”
“What if the third years actually knew that there were foxes here?” Sybil asked the others. “One of the caves had an experiment to create tainted beasts within it, and this is the closest miasma cave to the barracks. Maybe the third years knew something? I don’t get how they wouldn’t have gotten caught though. The knights were the ones to seal it... Is it possible one of those knights were in on it as well? Shouldn’t we investigate this?”
Alton and Veximarl gave each other a look. They both hesitantly shrugged while Zaniyah nervously wrapped her arms about herself. Even Chickadee didn’t seem to mind, but everything about this was making Zaniyah’s neck hairs stand on end.
“I don’t like this at all, but I’ll go with you if you want to look,” she muttered.
“It’ll be a quick peek.” Sybil clasped her hands together. “A quick look. I promise. In and out. I can see in the dark and remain invisible, so I’ll stay safe. Be back in a second.”
Chickadee tapped his finger against the stone and an opening large enough for a person to walk through formed within it. “Take precautions. Do not idle for long,” he said.
“I won’t.” Sybil took a slow, nervous inhale and then wrinkled her nose. It smelled. It really smelled terrible. “Zani, stop making that face. See you in a second.”
Her hand covered her mouth and nose and she took a step inside. As she expected, there wasn’t much to be found. A layer of fog covered the ground, but there were some signs of an animal nest. Nothing implied that humans had even stepped foot within here.
No humans meant no lead to their previous case. She was both relieved that third years weren’t planning something and disappointed that this was a dead end. They must have caught the scent of tainted mist and called it good from there. If Dalkirk showed up at night, the animals would have been out hunting, and it was possible they were missed completely through a series of coincidences.
Pulling her handkerchief out from her pocket, Sybil stuffed a bit of it in her mouth. The dried blood of tainted fox had a horrid taste. Sulfuric and almost tar-like, but she needed to introduce some of the poison that tainted beasts had within themselves if she was hoping to see anything.
There was nothing but a burning taste in her mouth. She pulled out her sword and shook it. Again, nothing happened. Maybe she really couldn’t do anything unless she was angry or afraid.
She raised her voice so she could be heard outside. “It looks like a normal animal den! Anything else I should do?!” She coughed again and started to feel dizzy.
Veximarl frowned. “You should hurry and leave!” He glanced between the cave entrance and Alton. “Should we see if your song has any effect on the miasma while we’re here?”
“Yes, but we’re leaving immediately if nothing happens.” Alton leaned against the wall next to the cave entrance and took a moment to adjust his collar.
He never understood the song which his mother sang every summer. She would place her hand on the sword named Bellia and sing a low and sorrowful lullaby. The tune was still somewhere in his mind, as were his mother’s singing lessons. Drop the tone here. Restrict the note there. Add a slight vibrato to the word goodbye.
His eyes closed for a moment as he sang, and they fluttered open to the sight of Lydia crumpled up on the ground. Her image was flickering, and she was gasping for air. Alton’s voice became frozen within his throat. He looked around at the others, who were staring at him in return.
Eyes darting between Lydia and the cave entrance, he called out, “Are you alright?”
Lydia’s image flickered again, becoming misty around the edges before solidifying. “... I’m fine.” She took a moment to cough. “I believe your song is meant to work on blood iron rather than miasma? … What a strange sensation.”
“Are you alright?” Veximarl walked over, using his spear to support himself. “I haven’t sensed any changes in the miasma... Have you noticed something?” He was also worried that Alton might have some brain damage from his accident but was afraid to say as much.
“The air seemed off,” muttered Alton. Lydia already seemed to have recovered, but Sybil was using that unpredictable sword of hers. “Sybil? Everything okay? You didn’t respond!”
Sybil lowered her hand from her temple. She had a dizzy spell for a moment there. “I’m fine, Toval! Nothing seems to be different here! I’m coming out!”
She must have wandered in further than she thought. As far as she walked, she couldn’t seem to find the entrance. Stopping in her tracks, she slowly turned her head and stared at a wooden door embedded in the black stone. Blinking a few times, she then looked down the corridor and saw a small girl in a gray dress peeking through a different door. The jacket she wore... Sybil stared at the buttercup design on it, trying to place where she had seen it before.
“Hello?” Sybil took a few steps closer. “My name is Sybil. May I take you someplace safe? There’s miasma here, and you’ll become sick if you stay here.” The girl didn’t move. “Hello?”
The girl was trembling. She ignored Sybil as she approached. Sybil attempted to put her hand on the girl’s shoulder, but her fingers slipped through her cold form. Her mouth opened and closed silently from the shock she felt.
“... I’m sorry. I won’t be much help.”
Sybil nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard someone whisper. There were people approaching. The girl panicked and climbed into a nearby wardrobe. She struggled to get the door closed, and a bit cloth was left sticking out from between the two doors.
A man opened the room’s door and walked past Sybil. He scanned the area before yanking the wardrobe door and yanking out the now screaming girl. She gasped and kicked while the man tightened his grasp about her throat. Sybil ran forward in order to stop him.
“Stop it!” She thrust her sword forward, but it passed harmlessly through the man’s side. “Stop!”
As the girl fell limp, the man slung her over his shoulder and began to walk casually away.
“What’s happening?!” Sybil followed them out. The hall they were in was carved from a massive, single piece of stone. It appeared to be obsidian or a stone of that color. Elegant rugs were set on the ground, paintings of unknown people were on the walls, and the doors were made of a dark, reddish wood... This wasn’t part of the cave.
“My name’s Ilta.” That was the voice that had whispered to her before. Sybil spun around to see a girl was standing there. It was the same girl as before, but now she was an apparition made of mist. “I remember now… Thanks to you.”
“... You remember?”
“Ah, uhm…” Ilta fumbled her hands together. “You’re confused, but I suppose that this is a bit weird. Maybe father would know how to explain it?” She pointed to a door before evaporating away.
Sybil attempted the door handle, and when that didn’t work, she simply phased through it. This seemed like it was a servant’s entrance leading into a large throne room. The ceiling was tall and rimmed with tapestries display family crests, and the throne was set on a platform carved from wood and ivory. Standing in front of it was a regal man who had a familiar face.
Familiar might be the wrong word... His face held a stern expression, and that was what Sybil found to be familiar. He was scowling at the group in front of him. There was a man wearing the white robes of the church, flanked by two men of lesser rank. He and the king both appeared to be middle-aged, perhaps in their late thirties or early forties.
“I will remind you again that this is treason.” The king spoke in a commanding tone. “We must remember the lessons of those who came before us. Order will be maintained, and for that to be done, we must abide by our traditions.”
“And your family has been betraying our sacred traditions since the fall of Tria!” The man cried back. “Our nation has forsaken the balance of gods and nature, and only the true king of these lands can restore it. Cadogan, I plead with you on this day to listen to reason. We Alcea have banded together with the Aconites and the Arbutus clans, and we are all in agreement with what must be done.”
Sybil stepped closer, and a misty apparition of the king appeared beside her. “They approached this day with venom on their lips,” he muttered.
“What do you mean?” The king shook his head and gestured for her to listen.
“We are entering a modern era where science should be allowed to rule. I will not reason with nonsense.” King Cadogan pulled the sword free from his belt. It was the same sword that Sybil now had. “Take your men and leave, Father Alcea. It is only for the sake of our childhood together that I do not strike you down now.”
“You’ve never had the strength to beat me,” the father muttered back. “It was only for the sake of obedience that I maintained order under your reign. It is for the sake of Lustro that I forsake your rule!”
His body shifted into mist in an instant. A gasp escaped Cadogan as a knife abruptly appeared in his throat, and Father Alcea reformed as the one holding the blade. A quick yank sent a spray of blood forward. One of the men that was with the father held a hand up, and a cloud of black dust was pulled up from the blood. It began to ball up and bead within his palm.
Cadogan stumbled forward, falling down the steps before slumping to the floor. The ghostly king approached, staring down at his dying body with a sense of apathy. A weak sigh escaped his lips.
“They came that day to harvest us,” explained Cadogan as Sybil lingered behind him. His dying half struggled to maintain his grip on his sword as Father Alcea forcefully pulled it free from his grasp. “Our blood is that of Brayton. His sword once allowed us to command time itself... We once used it to unify Lustro, but we lost our connection to it when Tria fell.
We blamed her brood for their failure to guard their goddess, and the generations that followed chose to shut off the Sky Kingdom completely. We ignored Eatha and Mart as they chose to abandon us, and never investigated Iath’s disappearance.
All around us, the gods were dying, and instead of paying our debt to them, we in decided that it was man’s time to conquer. It was only a matter of time before those of the old ways would turn against us.” He studied Sybil for a moment. “My kin was murdered under my rule, and I was among the last to fall.”
Sybil’s grip on her sword tightened as she watched the mage continue to harvest from the king. Father Alcea had taken to sitting on the steps, with his face buried within his palms. He appeared weary.
“Why are you telling me now?” She looked up at the king.
“Our blood was placed within the care of the Heart.” Cadogan gestured to the sword. “Anyone who commands it is able to borrow from our power, and you are the first since that time who has attempted to channel miasma into it. Tainted mist is a vile occurrence, but you, a mage of the mist, a prophet of Bellia, have somehow used it to return our memories. We repay that kindness by revealing to you the truth of our deaths, and it is our hope that this may someday save you in the future.”
As the realization of what was happening set in, Sybil found it hard to breathe. They were harvested like animals. The Fogbloom massacre was a coup by their closest allies, and their blood iron was harvested and turned into the coin that laid upon her scabbard.
“Why would they do this?” She was trembling.
“Alessia may know,” he replied.
Sybil shielded her face as a gust of wind blew through the room. It hit her with such force that she felt like she was about to be blown away by it. When she lowered her arm again, she gasped at the sight of the bodies strewn about her. They were all wearing the same violet uniform, and they were slain by a woman who was now panting at the center of the room.
She wore a uniform similar to them, but hers was gray and made of a higher quality fabric. There was a tiara on her head, formed of silver buttercups, and a heavy metal cuff on her right hand. Her eyes flicked to the side as she heard the sound of an arrow whizzing towards her. Time began to dilate. The arrow slowed enough for her to walk over and toss it to the ground.
“From the shadows, Thomas? I always thought that you’d have more tact than that,” she spat out.
A brown haired man stepped out from behind a pillar. He wore a violet tunic with nightshade blossoms sewn on it. “I haven’t the time to give you the respect you deserve. We are in a state of emergency, Alessia. Kneel and accept your fate. I vow that I will speak on your half and see to it that you are spared.”
“Just like my dear mother was spared of Father Alcea’s ritual?” Alessia cooed in return. “I should have seen it then, love. I should have had the foresight to put a stop to this! It was all in front of me and I suspected nothing!”
“You should have been stronger,” he replied. “If only you were more patient, if only you had obeyed, you wouldn’t have forced his hand.”
“I am strong enough!”
Time began to dilate again as she ran towards Thomas, but it wasn’t enough to stop the gold light that was surrounding his body. A suit of armor formed about him, with a shield in one hand, and a short sword in the other. The two began their duel, not caring for the safety of the dead around them.
A ghostly Alessia appeared next to Sybil. “I was promised power,” she snarled. “Power that I should have already possessed.” She momentarily glanced to Sybil before looking back upon the fight. “My mother was the king’s firstborn, and while she was ordered to marry some low noble, my uncle became king. While I was the first of his grandchildren to be born, I was the last of them to be acknowledged.
… When Thomas announced his intentions to court me, I was the one who was punished. His Majesty ordered me to cease my relations and sent me to Grand Temple to join their convent.” A rage burned deep within her eyes as she continued to speak. “I was promised power in exchange for loyalty. Loyalty which I freely gave without foresight.
Father Alcea made me the pet of his experimentations. Years of metal drawn from my body. Forged into a weapon that would give me what my bloodline lost so long ago... I would first be acknowledged by the Heart, and then I would be acknowledged as Lustro’s queen.”
Thomas shoved his opponent back with his shield. “Relent, Alessia!”
“You should have thought of that before your men murdered my mother!” She cried back.
The ghost Alessia shook her head. “Rather than praise, I was given a minor role within the royal guard. I then failed to awaken the Heart… When that occurred, I chose to work on climbing the ranks of the guard, as well as serve my cousins as their advisor. They, in turn, chose to accept me as family.” The look in the ghost’s eyes became distant. “If I had not chosen to turn my back on Father Alcea, he might have never started this dark ritual.”
Thomas’ gauntlet abruptly grew in size. He snatched up Alessia’s torso and squeezed until a sickening crack resonated through the room. The sound shocked him so much that he dropped her. She fell to the ground like a broken doll. Eyes wide, but completely still.
He stared at her, his mouth opening and closing for a moment. “A-… Alessia!” The armor shattered from about his body and he rushed over to pick her up. “Alessia… Alessia, please!” A guard slowly approached from the entrance of the room. In his hand was a collar that appeared similar to the blood iron device that Chickadee used. Thomas attempted to calm himself down with a choked sob. “Fan out and find the siblings! Save her harvest for last!”
“... Thomas had already married another at this point. A bridal doll who had been trained from birth to be the perfect wife,” the ghost Alessia whispered. She became tense as she watched Thomas sob over her body. For a moment, it almost seemed as though tears were forming in her eyes.
“Why?” Sybil was forced to turn away from the scene. “... Why would they want this?”
“They were convinced that the Heart was needed to restore balance. They feared the impending flood and the fact Brayton’s blood had apparently faded from the Fogbloom line. Our leadership was flawed, and the only use we had remaining were our scraps of magic.” Her eyes fell downward. “Our deaths were signed by Tria the moment Father Alcea found someone who could wield the blade.”
Another gust of wind and Sybil found herself in a different hallway. There were three teens standing together. All of them appeared to be younger than Sybil by at least a year or two. One was blonde, but the other two had dark hair. The blonde one had a large blade strapped to his back, and it had been messily wrapped up in a bedsheet.
“By the gods, Aeneas, I feared that you would fail to fetch Bellia.” The older of black haired ones patted the blonde one firmly on the shoulder. “We must find Ilta and make our escape. Take Frederik and I will follow once I have found her.”
“We will stick together, Master Erskine,” replied Aeneas. “Bellia has agreed to help us.” Trails of mist built up around his fingertips as he lifted up his hand. “We will combine our skills and keep us out of sight until we are out of the city.”
Frederik hesitated. “Tria has already claimed Ilta... I was too late to save her.” Erskine’s face paled at the news. “I don’t believe Alessia is alive, and father has fallen as well.”
Erskine tensed up for a moment before relaxing. The resolve was clear on his features. “Then I am king,” he stated firmly. “You will rally our supporters in the east, and we will retake the capital. I will remain here with Aeneas and begin to plot our revenge.”
Aeneas shook his head. “And to do that, we must find where the sirens have hidden themselves.” Both princes stared at Aeneas’s statement. “They are Bellia’s caretakers, and they will be able to use the sword to purge away the miasma. There is no need to carry through with father’s plans, and the two of you will be spared. Now is our only opportunity to escape.”
Erskine gritted his teeth. “Sirens are a mere legend. Even if they prove true, we must keep this a matter among men. Others have no place in this.”
“If not the sirens, then we will seek the advice of Tyrtain within the Gilded Region,” replied Aeneas.
“The old gods have no say in our salvation. We might have even been able to save Ilta and Alessia if we had not waited for you to fetch that sword. You will abide by my plan, Aeneas. It is our best option of success,” growled Erskine.
Both Frederik and Aeneas exchanged a look. Frederik pulled a handful of powder from his pocket and tossed it into Erskine’s face. Aeneas then stepped forward and caught Erskine as the prince slumped forward unconscious. He took a moment to toss Erskine over his shoulder before he addressed Frederik.
“Have you much powder left?”
Frederik shook his head. “That was the last of it.”
Aeneas hesitated for a moment. “... You should flee with us.”
“We already both agreed that I would stay behind and serve as a distraction.” Frederik frowned as Aeneas continued to hesitate. “They would crown you king tonight... You know that, right?”
“A crown weaved of blood... Your blood,” he hissed back. “A sword is not what makes a king. It matters not to me if the Heart obeys my will, what father is doing is wrong. Come with us, Frederik. Please.” The sound barking of dogs echoed down the hallway. Aeneas’ face became streaked with panic while Frederik’s expression was solemn. “There is no time left!”
“Long live the king,” replied Frederik. He bowed respectfully at the pair.
Aeneas’ gaze flicked from down the hall back to Frederik. “... Long live the king.” He turned and ran as the barking became louder. His feet let out a puff of mist, and then he became completely invisible.
Frederik remained bowed. He did not cry out as the dogs tackled him and held him down. He did not struggle as the men snapped the device about his neck. All he had was the hate in his eyes. Hatred and rage.
Next to Sybil, the faded image of Frederik appeared. “Alessia wanted to test herself with the Heart and father claimed it only fair if we all received the opportunity to try it,” explained the ghostly image. “Ilta made it sticky with the jam that was on her fingers, and when Aeneas went to clean it…” He sighed. “We swore ourselves to secrecy and yet Father Alcea knew what had occurred. Eyes are everywhere in the palace, and you know not which mouths will harm you.”
“Father Alcea betrayed all of you to make his son king,” replied Sybil. “But King Thomas of the Aconite family ruled until his death, and his son is the current king.”
Frederik looked at her with a dumbfounded glance. “The facts of history have escaped me. Death has a way of doing that to people.” He gestured to his living half, who was now wheezing his final breaths.
He turned away from her. “My grandmother told us stories of wild possibilities that often left us wondering if they were truth or fiction. She claimed that blood iron and souls were one and the same. This ritual may have robbed us of our chance to be judged by Tria, and now we are destined to obey the will of others for all of time.
Yet how does history remember us? The Fogblooms fell on a single night. They died quickly and without purpose. No glory to be had. No songs to be sung. We are lost. We are forgotten.”
“That isn’t true! I’ll remember!” Sybil clutched the sword to her chest. “And I’ll find a way to make the others discover the truth. If your souls are somehow trapped, then I will find a way to free them! That must surely be the reason why I was able to get this sword from Volo Refuge because I was meant to see this and to meet all of you!”
“Or you claimed the sword because you are his granddaughter,” replied Frederik in a shallow tone. He then let out another heavy sigh. The stress of remembering his family’s massacre was getting to him. Sybil’s worried expression wasn’t easing his worries either. “Apologies, Sybil. There is nothing else for you to see here.”
Sybil’s mind began to race. There must be something else to see here. Anything else. If Aeneas was her grandfather, that would make him the assassin who went by the name of Bellia. It was his own family members that he would later kill. Was his only reason revenge or was there some other plan?
And after all of that, he still chose to approach Lady Grulick. He gave her his daughter, the swords, Bellia and the Heart, and then what? What happened to him afterward? Did any of that have to do with why the royal family was watching her now?
“But there has to be more.” She looked down the hallway where Aeneas had fled. Though the hall appeared normal, something about it sent a chill up her spine.
She took a moment to steady her resolve before she began to force her way down it. An invisible force began to push back. Aeneas vanished into the dark, and Sybil began to call out to him in an effort to make him turn around. What happened to him? To Bellia? To Erskine?
Her skin began to prickle, as though dozens of needles were forcing their way out through her skin. A strong wind began to force her back. She didn’t want to go back just yet. Sybil fell down to her knees and began to crawl forward. When she was forced down further, her feet and hands began to scrape at the stone floor.
There had to be something. Something she hadn’t seen. Something that gave her answers. Anything better than the plethora of questions that she had about the past or the sword or herself. As her senses began to go numb, she couldn’t help but wonder what all of it meant.
… Or why, in those fleeting moments, she found herself thinking of her mother.