Lady Till tapped her nail against the lectern. “In light more tainted beasts appearing within the area, we are going to assign you to patrols that will take you around the city of Tilrey as well as our own farmlands. As a further precaution, we are limiting when you will be allowed to leave the barracks without supervision.”
They knew it was for their own safety, but the idea of not being able to attack a threat head-on upset most of the squires. Over the coming days, the barracks started to feel more and more like a prison. There was more of a focus on book studies over physical training, and with that came more tests and written essays. The library, which had been a haven for the second years, was quickly taken over by the first years in their absence.
In the corner of the library, most of Grimstone had buried themselves in books. They were quietly studying while the rest of their class speaking loudly with each other. Mostly it was Tish holding idle gossip like this study session was one big tea party. Zaniyah was off being tutored by Vincent, who had less time to do so since he had also become in charge of Alton and Sybil. This was now one of the only opportunities he had to spend time with his girlfriend.
“Here is what I have,” stated Veximarl. He was sitting at a table and was partially hidden by a mountain of books. “The assassin known as Bellia, a powerful sword mage, spent the better part of a month murdering members of the Fogbloon family in the winter of 700. In an effort to save his kin, King Cadogan moved the rest of them within the palace. This resulted in the entire family, along with several other prominent nobles, and most of the palace guard dying over the course of a single night.”
Alton was sitting on the edge of the table in a relaxed manner. He was looking through the notes he had taken. “The church, headed by Father Omiro Alcea, declared that the church as a collective will rule over Lustro. They held power for four years before Bellia killed Father Alcea, then the murders stopped completely.
Before that point, they claimed that Bellia murdered several members of prominent noble families all across Lustro. The main focus were on members of the Alcea family, which ended up having to scatter in order to survive. After Father Alcea’s assassination, Thomas Aconite was declared king. His son, Howell Aconite, is the current king.”
Written history didn’t exactly match her visions, but there were similarities. When she talked to Chickadee about her sheath, he stated he couldn’t confirm what the source of the blood iron was. However, if he were to make a guess, it was a composite from several different sources. If it was entirely made of humans, there would have been over thirty people needed to make a coin of that size.
“Another interesting fact, but it’s more in the territory of fiction,” continued Veximarl. “The greatest mystery of the Fogbloom massacre is that Cadogan’s children were never found among the bodies. Many theorized that they had survived, and even more became fascinated that Ilta, the youngest, had lived because she had switched places with a servant girl. It became a popular topic at the time, with several women making claims over the years that they were her.”
“Both Ilta and Frederik died that night, but Erskine may have made it,” whispered Sybil. “And I still believe I may be related to someone involved.” Though she began to have her doubts that Erskine survived. Why else would he have not sought to take the throne after Father Alcea was assassinated?
Lydia had the pendant, which meant that she must have done some research into her own past. Sybil was finding herself desperate to speak with her own mother, but there wasn’t any way she could do that now. The only clue she had was the pendant. The front face covered in Fogbloom flowers, the back with the engraving of a fox, and around the edge was engraved, “Erskine.”
Alton put a hand to the side of his head, “This doesn’t make any sense. What does that have to do with waking up? Why play all these games if they know what they want you to do? They obviously know you have some connection to the family since your powers are unusual enough that they can be traced to a specific bloodline. They have to know that you’re somehow related to the Alcea family, or even Aeneas himself. Why wait?”
“If they wanted you, it would be as simple as claiming that they wished to reinstate the Alcea family,” replied Veximarl. “I would assume that Lady Elbellziara’s pampering of you may be in preparation for that, but they are waiting for some change to happen before doing so.”
That was something that Alton didn’t like the sound of. “What if it does have to do with the sword? You’ve seen her use it, but we’ve didn’t report what happened. I don’t think Moontear reported it either. Other than the area being covered in mist, they didn’t see what happened, and she said that the massacre happened because Aeneas could use it.”
Veximarl nodded. “I have come to the same conclusion. Sybil, it’s best for you to not use the sword unless it’s for an absolute emergency. With that said, it is also wise to carry it with you at all times. Especially when outside the barracks. It is likely that tainted beast attacks will increase during the winter.”
“What if it has something to do with Tyrtain? Or the Sirens?” They looked at her curiously. “It was mentioned that they needed to get the sword to either one or the other. Even Tria was mentioned at some point, but I don’t understand any of it. Vex, you said before that these barracks were built over the location where Brayton defeated Tyrtain. What if I’m not crazy and he’s somehow still around?”
Chickadee took out his knife and twirled it about. “The sheath and sword are two different entities,” he said while thinking out loud. “The sheath likes you, but the sword desires something else?” He tossed the knife in the air and a red string of mana attached to it. It wobbled oddly for a moment before pointing straight at the ground. That’s what happened the last time he had tried that at the barracks.
Raising an eyebrow, Veximarl had doubts. “I would hardly think he is still alive. There would be plenty of evidence. For one, he was as large as a mountain, we would notice if...” He stopped and watched as Chickadee started to walk about the room.
“It’s still pointing at the ground,” replied Alton. “We went over this before when Zan had pointed it out. That’s called gravity.”
“If gravity were truly involved, it would be swinging like a pendulum as he moved,” noted Veximarl. As Chickadee walked, the string was stiff and straight, unmoving like a stick. “I still have doubts. There would be earthquakes, not to mention sightings of a giant dragon.”
“Blood iron,” replied Chickadee. “The unknown source of power that controls Archive and causes blowouts on mist charged weapons.”
Sybil stood up from her chair with a start. “That has to be it! A large enough source of blood iron would double the amount of residual mana in a mist region, and Brayton had connections to those who were able to expertly work with those materials. The sword is proof of it. I’m supposed to go underground to find him!”
“Down where the caves are flooded with miasma and full of hazardous dead ends and monsters,” said Alton in a flat tone. He was not going to allow her to do anything that stupid. Even if the miasma wasn’t an issue, running into a dragon was the worst possible outcome to this, and he did not want anyone he knew to be involved with that.
Veximarl nodded his head as well but more thought into it. “It would be possible during spring. The mist retreats deep within the earth below, and we wouldn’t have to worry about it again until summer. That would be the best time to make another attempt.”
Alton couldn’t disagree more. “And who knows how much we’ll get in trouble for that? This isn’t the core. This is unknown, collapsible territory. What if it’s safer for Sybil to not deal with it at all? She gets left alone, and we don’t have to worry about it again.” He looked over to Lydia, who was thinking quietly to herself. She was still dancing around any questions he had for her and now neither of them was talking to the other out of spite.
“I would think that only Sybil could make that choice,” quipped Veximarl.
They looked towards Sybil, who winced at their stares. “... I think I would need some time to think about it. This is a lot to take in at once. I mean, what would happen if my heritage was publicly revealed?”
Alton’s voice went cold. “Bloodlines are important in Fogbloom, and they have ways of verifying who you’re related to. If somehow you’re not Aeneas’ granddaughter, and you end up being related to Prince Erskine, you’d be married to Duxton in an effort to restore the original royal blood to the throne… We’re not doing that, so you can forget about it.”
Sybil nodded slowly. “I’m going to take some time to think about it.”
“Don’t think about it, because the answer is no.” Alton was being stern.
“Whaaat are you guys talking about?” Zaniyah peeked her head around a bookshelf. “Are you two fighting again?” She looked between Alton and Sybil.
Vincent followed her while carrying a basket. The group fell silent as they began to fumble with books and papers. Veximarl stood up and started to put away the books with the assistance of Chickadee. Alton chose to play with his bangs by drawing them forward with his fingers. His hair was getting longer. If he got assigned to a patrol around Tilrey, he should consider going to a barber.
“I was only saying that I wasn’t taking over bathroom cleaning duties. It’s not my fault if Irving washes out his vials there.” Alton held his nose up high in a smug manner.
Vincent couldn’t care who did cleaning as long as it got done. Moving into the room with them was troublesome enough as it was, but he was told by Stonetoe that the brunt of the chores needed to be done by those two. They had basically become slaves for Bronzescale, and Vincent had become master of how they spent their time.
“It’s nearly nightfall. I will be joining you after I help Zaniyah with the rest of her homework. You should consider cleaning up now so that you may head to bed early.”
“I need Vex to help me out with a report I’m working on for Sir Moss. Would you mind if I stay another ten minutes?” Sybil put her hands together and gave Vincent a pleading stare.
“As long as it doesn’t take to long.” Vincent walked over and set the basket down by Alton. “Your goods finished in the oven and the kitchen staff was kind enough to remove them before they got burned. Please set up dinner within the squad room.”
Alton’s eyes darted over to Vex and Sybil. “Not a problem... Take your time and I’ll leave a bowl out if you’re not back before I go to bed.” He picked up the basket and walked off towards the exit.
Sybil gave Veximarl’s sleeve a quick tug. Veximarl flashed her a look of concern and Sybil’s eyes darted to Chickadee and then back to him again. He shook his head. It didn’t sit well with him to hold private conversations, even if she did request it.
“I’m not going to send him away,” he whispered.
She shook her head and looked around Veximarl. Zaniyah had already grabbed Vincent by the arm and was dragging him away, but Chickadee was staring directly at them. Her voice came out in as quite of a tone as she could manage. “Can we find a time to talk sometime this week? Just us? Plant homework and stuff?”
He’d rather be open with the others. They already knew nearly everything. With the other years gone, she wasn’t in any particular danger of everyone finding her out. “If only for consolation. Please try not to make plans that don’t involve the others.”
“Thank you,” she flashed him a smile.
In truth, she did want to make plans without the others. Sybil was going to follow Aeneas’ footsteps and seek out Tyrtain. She shouldn’t be carrying around a weapon she didn’t know anything about. The only problem was that she needed a necromancer in order to accomplish her plan.
At the same time, she didn’t want to drag the others into her mess. Alton would never approve. There was no reason to endanger Zaniyah, as she wouldn’t be able to help, but she didn’t have much of an excuse for Chickadee. Even if he would be useful to the process, there were already marks against him in his record.
There were also a few weeks of planning to be done before they could even start. At least not until winter, as Alton would notice if she became involved in a project during their quarantine. Not as late as spring, as the second years would have returned, and it wouldn’t be as easy to catch some privacy. Winter was the only chance they had.
That’s what she tried to explain to Veximarl when she cornered in the morning. This time they were hiding in the third year storage room instead of the second floor. Veximarl was leaning against the wall while Sybil paced back and forth in front of him. He felt tired. Being Grimhawk’s assistant was interesting, but he was desperate to have more time to concentrate on his own interests.
“I only want the chance to speak to Tyrtain again,” said Sybil. “But I still don’t know what it was that let me talk to him the first time. What if it was the act of being injured? Though I know he wouldn’t talk to me if I tried something like that again. Also, there was that nearly nude man who seemed to know everything, but I’ve never seen mention of him anywhere since he first appeared. At least, I know he is no siren, and Tyrtain didn’t want to give me any answers.”
Veximarl let out a pained sigh. “No matter how you choose to go about this, I am not going to approve interaction with more tainted beasts. You nearly died, Sybil. Alton would be dead if not for my necromancy.” Though that was mostly his fault in the first place, and the guilt was still fresh. “The truth is not worth risking our lives over.”
Dying wasn’t part of her plan either. “I thought being heavily exposed to miasma again would work, but it just led to… Whatever those visions were.”
“We cannot risk going into the caverns at this time. You will end up being expelled from the barracks at this rate.” Veximarl tossed a hand about the air. “Maybe you will find a way around this, as you have Duchess Elbellziara backing you up, but I certainly do not.
Please attempt to be more considerate. I am here on the word of a dead woman. Chi was only accepted because he drew that knife from the Volo Refuge. Alton and Zaniyah are the only ones who legitimately passed the entrance exam, yet all of us have ended up balanced on a single, fraying thread. We cannot continue to take these needless risks.”
“But if I can just figure out-”
“We are in over our heads!” Exclaimed Veximarl. “What do you expect to do?!”
She tensed up, not once expecting that Veximarl was capable of raising his voice in such a manner. “... I would like to bring him to us. I promise that it’ll be completely safe. I’ve done the math in my head, and I know that we will be able to control him if we do this right.”
“You’re speaking of summoning a monster that nearly ravaged these lands to destruction hundreds of years ago. True madness, Sybil. That is the mark of true madness. And if I help you, what would you expect to happen afterward? I do not believe he will be satisfied with having a spot of tea and going about his merry way. Obviously, there are people who believe that you have this strange sort of destiny laid out before you, but are you willing to be so stupid in order to prove them right or wrong?”
Sybil’s face became strained. Having a destiny wasn’t important to her. She only wanted to know why this was happening now. Supposedly this sword chose her, and it was once the symbol of leadership in this country. Shouldn’t she try to find out why? But what would that mean for her once she did know the truth?
“I don’t know if that’s what I want, but I don’t think I have enough information to make that decision,” she whispered. “Trapping him within a golem is the safest way we can question him. If something goes wrong, either of us will be able to disable it, but I need your magic to finish the golem.”
Veximarl settled his fingers against his temple. They didn’t have many options. Either they continued to confront the royal family in a search for answers, or they trapped one of the old gods in a golem and hoped he played nice. Both were equally disdainful for him and had dangerous consequences.
“If I promise to think of something to help you, will you stop being reckless?” She frowned at him. “I assume you do not want Alton to find out until you have more information?”
“I know he’ll demand I put a stop to it,” stated Sybil.
“Then you will have to have a fully written proposal before I think of helping you. No more risks. We will strive to be careful,” replied Veximarl. “Speaking of Alton, he is no doubt attempting to find you now.” He twirled a strand of his hair around his finger as he thought to himself. “Do not be surprised if I wash my hands of this and cut off my involvement after you have asked Tyrtain your questions.”
The air was knocked out of his chest as Sybil hugged him tightly. She felt relieved to know that he was still on her side. Even if it was just a little bit, and he might abandon her afterward, it still meant the world to her.
“Thank you so much,” she whispered.
Veximarl put his arms around her back and hugged her in return. The core kids always used physical contact to show gratitude. He was quite used to his personal space and appreciated having as much of it as possible, yet he never seemed to mind as much when it came to Sybil.
“You best keep me informed of everything,” he said and she nodded in return. “I won’t accept you hiding anything from me. I don’t like the idea of hiding anything from the others either. After we’ve finished with Tyrtain, you better tell them everything you’ve found out. We are a team, and we need to trust each other.”
“I know. Partners. I’ll place complete confidence in you.” She nodded again. “I’m going to sneak out first, so I’ll see you later.”
“See you then,” he replied.
A mist built up around her feet as she let go of him. With a blink of his eyes, she had vanished completely. Veximarl waited around for a few moments before leaving himself. He made his way to the forge to see how Chickadee was adjusting. The blacksmith had been given permission to work on a specific project, but would be banned from smithing anything else until his overall punishment was over.
Chickadee appeared content sitting there in his layers of clothing next to a lit furnace. He had a cup of tea in his gloved hands and was taking dainty sips from it. Since he wasn’t allowed to work on much, he had spent most of his time making notes of projects he wanted to start on. Barding was becoming an interest, as even horses would need armor. Quite an interesting subject indeed.
As Veximarl approached, Chickadee lifted his cup and gestured to where the spear laid on the table. The necromancer picked it up and examined it carefully. Despite the changes that had been made, the balance was still good. Martyr was the biggest drain on his mana, and Chickadee had been working on making adjustments to her without much success.
Jutting the spear forward, light spurred forth and twisted into the shape of one of the tainted foxes that they had battled before. It walked about anxiously, fur bristling and teeth bared as it growled and snarled at every little thing. As Veximarl stepped closer, it hunched down low and looked as though it wanted to pounce. Its four eyes narrowed at him.
Veximarl took a step back and frowned. “The less I seek to control them, the longer I can keep them summoned. However, they do drain more of myself when they are in a state of panic. I was attempting to see if I could boost Martyr in some way when she abruptly faltered.” He leaned against his spear while thinking about it. “How does one train an animal when food reward is not an option?”
Staying at a safe distance, Chickadee shrugged. “I put in two of them.”
“That is an excellent point. Having a sibling around may sooth it.”
Poking the spear about the air, Veximarl summoned a second fox. This one had two eyes on the left side, but one on the right, and was more skittish than the first. It darted around the male and before hiding behind it. Ah, a brother and sister pair. Chickadee must have wanted to test if gender had anything to do with ease of summoning.
“I will name you two Alex and Rite.”
The necromancer liked the idea of being able to raise up dead creatures outside of the swamp. He never did like to take absolute control over the dead, so at least he was comfortable with the idea of them having their own personalities. These tainted golems were similar to fresh bodies. They had a will of their own, and Veximarl would need to work on gaining their trust. Martyr was a lucky exception, as she had taken to him instantly. These two appeared troublesome.
Until they were trained, he was better off working with the blood iron that had been harvested from normal animals. They used up less of his energy, and he could use a higher variety of spells with them. Training Alex and Rite would also serve as a welcome distraction. It was far better than stamina training or getting beaten up all the time.
Standing up from where he had been sitting by the furnace, Chickadee slowly approached. Veximarl unsummoned the foxes, as they had were becoming nervous, and turned to greet the mage with a smile. The spear was a huge boon to himself, and he knew not how he was going to repay his friend.
Chickadee watched Veximarl’s movements and frowned. “Resurgence might work differently outside of barracks territory. May be affected by power source. More testing needed.”
“I am grateful that it simply works in the first place.” They’ll be able to do more testing once they were done with classes and allowed to go on missions. There was plenty of time to make adjustments as they were needed. “But, just for my own curiosity, how does one avoid tapping into the power within this area? Tish has been showing me some of the runes that acolytes use in their prayers, but I have little idea on how it works with weaponry or golem creation.”
A light lit up in Chickadee’s eyes as he stepped forward and grasped Veximarl’s hands. “I will teach you!”
His overeagerness made Veximarl nervous. “I do not wish to overly indulge myself into the study of blacksmithing, simply the basics will do. We still have our classes to attend. I do not wish to be a bother.”
“Not at all! It’s essential to understand as much as possible so you may maintain your own gear and use them more efficiently! You may even optimize it better to suit your needs! This information will save your life!” Chickadee’s grasp tightened about his hands.
Laughing nervously, Veximarl struggled to take a step back and Chickadee took a step forward. This was one of the traps that he had been warned not to fall into. Never let Chickadee cuddle with you for warmth, and never ask for details about blacksmithing. Otherwise, he’ll go into full leech mode, and there was no escape.
“Class!” Veximarl stated loudly. Chickadee pouted at the command. “Now! We cannot be late for the special lecture that is today.”
By special lecture, he meant the safe sex practices that Alton and Sybil were being forced to teach while Lady Blu watched with the rest of the class. She had a list of items that they needed to go over, as well as a script that they had to memorize and recite.
This led to half the class attempting to not laugh as Alton put too much enthusiasm into his condom demonstration. He would always be a showman at heart. Sybil spent her time attempting to make her presence as small as possible.
“I believe they did a wonderful job, wouldn’t you all agree?” Blu looked about the room. “We still have time left. Why don’t we open the floor for questions? Don’t be afraid to ask anything!”
Sybil was alarmed. “I didn’t know that I was supposed to be prepared to answer anything!” She hadn’t studied for it at all.
“I didn’t expect for you to rush through your half of the script,” replied Blu. “Now we have to much time left, and I see that Zaniyah already has her hand up. Yes, dear?” She flashed a smile.
Zaniyah cleared her throat as she stood up. “This question is for Alton.” Alton gave a nod of his head. “You mentioned before that pregnancy can sometimes happen during foreplay?” He gave another nod. “Could you elaborate on that? Oh, and also you mentioned there was more than one way to have sex?” Alton gestured for her to continue. “What exactly is oral sex, and-”
A choked gag was let out as Vincent stood up and clamped his hand over her mouth. “She does not have any more questions!”
Alton waved it off. “I’ll tell you during lunch break, Zan. Bring something to write with, because I’m not going to tell you twice.” Sybil slapped his shoulder. “Ow! What was that for?! Someone is going to have to teach her how to do it right or she’s going to bite off Highland’s dick, and I’m somehow going to be blamed for that!”
Unable to control herself, Tish erupted with laughter as the color drained from Vincent’s face. She was forced to wipe away her tears with a handkerchief as she leaned forward in her chair. The whole matter was overly amusing for her and she never wanted this show to end.
Clapping her hands to gain their attention, Blu spoke up. “I’m certain that both of these two, as well as Tish and myself, will be open to any questions that you have. Tish’s role as a priestess of Eatha is to help others become comfortable with their own bodies and relationships with others, and I will answer any of your questions if you feel more comfortable talking with me instead. We can end our lessons here today. Please be back by the time Sir Oceans’ class starts.”
As Blu opened the door, Foggy slipped past her legs and jumped across a series of tables until she had found Veximarl’s shoulder. He petted her as she settled in. There was too much to think about, and not enough time to gather his thoughts together.
Perhaps Sybil was right. Her strategy of putting Tyrtain within a golem was the cleanest solution to their problem. His problem was that he needed certain supplies before they could get started, and he wasn’t sure how comfortable he was with that. Over the next few days, he worked on finding a partner to help him in this endeavor. One who he could trust with his life.
Author of the Grimstone: Chosen by the Blade and Duck and Wolf.
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