Horse riding came with a sense of liberation. The feeling of bonding with an animal was unlike any experience Sybil had encountered. She had had pets before, but this was the first time she had owned anything larger than a glowworm. Shame she couldn’t enjoy the experience due to her horse being a complete bastard.
Oyster was a glasstrotter. Bred to have a light and even gait, and able to gracefully travel long distances without causing motion sickness. The small-sized breed was popular among women of high standing and came with a hefty price tag as a result. A glasstrotter was a symbol of status.
As such, Oyster’s family line could be traced back three centuries. His ancestors have been owned by duchesses, baronesses, and even a princess at one point. He seemed to be able to sense that and understood that he had the misfortune of being stuck with an inexperienced lowborn nobody as his owner.
He wasn’t very fond of Sybil as a result.
Sybil did try to get along with him. She really did. Every day he was fed and brushed. Three times a week, he would be taken out of the stables. She had listened to the advice that both Anais and Alton gave her about horse training, and worked with him with Lady Till, yet Oyster would still choose to run away at every given opportunity. He wouldn’t even let her be the one to put on his hoof boots, and it was beginning to be a pain to get someone to do it for her every time.
Why couldn’t she have a horse like Veximarl’s? His was a golem named Ale, which meant that Sybil already thought he was more efficient than any living creature. Ale was a beefy draft horse who once lived on a farm near the mistland geysers and was a new addition to Veximarl’s growing menagerie of blood iron summons. Ale was also easily twice the size of Oyster, giving the animal a formidable profile.
The creature glowed with red and purple light and had an excellent temperament. Not to mention that he was a summoned autonomous creature that operated on Veximarl’s subconscious whims, which was far better than trying to remember any of the commands that Oyster was trained to understand. If only she had been born a necromancer and capable of such tricks.
Aggravated, but undeterred, Sybil pulled up next to Veximarl and strained her neck to look up at him. Her thighs were starting to hurt from riding side saddle. It was a curse given by Lady Till, who insisted that every woman should learn to ride in such a manner.
“I haven’t seen or sensed anything,” she muttered with a frown.
Winter would begin in a matter of days. Soon the hills that surrounded Braytons barracks would be covered in snow, and the local ranches would need protection from the predators who had failed to follow the deer and elk on their migrations. Oh, and there were also the risk of tainted beasts. Horrific monstrosities mutated by the sickly miasma that was still afflicting the area.
Veximarl waited for Alton to catch up before relaying his orders. “We are going to do a loop about the east field. Moontear is looking for signs of a wolf pack that was spotted near Volo Refuge. We are to meet up with them and head back to the barracks as a unit.”
It was only the three of them out on patrol today. Chickadee never went because he hated being on a horse. He agreed with Sybil that magic and alchemy were much more practical and trustworthy than a horse could ever be. Zaniyah was often assigned to Moontear as extra muscle.
Alton gave a tug to Bibi’s reins to adjust her direction. “Sybil and I need to help in the kitchens as soon as we’re back.” If they were late again, there wouldn’t be room for them to cook their own food until dinner was served.
“This will be a quick venture,” assured Veximarl. “It is unlikely that they have found anything.”
Sybil was eager to head back and work on the golem that she and Veximarl had started. The hardest part was Alton. The two of them were caught in a precarious position and were being punished by being forced to spend nearly every waking moment together. They also had Vincent acting as their chaperone and were spending their nights in Bronzescale’s squadroom. There was little room for privacy in their lives.
Alton wanted to hurry because he was starving. “Whatever.” He rolled his eyes at the pair of them and began to head toward the Refuge.
Meeting up with Moontear, they discovered that indeed, nothing had happened. Tainted beast sightings were rare, and nothing had compared to either the foxes or Martyr. It was mostly smaller beasts who avoided humans and were easily exterminated.
As there was nothing to report, they headed back to the barracks and started on their individual tasks. When Alton went to the kitchens, Sybil made the excuse that she was going to check her laundry. Her destination was the third year dorms, which were abandoned until the new class came in next summer.
Her supply box was hidden underneath the floorboards of the storage room. She pulled out a journal and a human skull that she had been etching with runic equations. Veximarl had already created an empty soul gem, and they worked by passing notes back and forth in the notebook. Everything was highly detailed and explained so that Veximarl could comprehend what sort of trouble he was getting himself into.
Next, she double checked the tuning device that Caitlin had brought over last summer. It was used to read the flow of mist within an area, but they had used it before to study why mist powered weapons had a tendency to explode. Sybil felt confident that the golem would work. She had been collecting readings from the tuning device since summer, and she felt that her theory of Tyrtain’s blood iron being the source of energy for the barracks was accurate.
Finally, a project that challenged her mentally. Extract Tyrtain’s personality from the blood iron and place him within the soul gem. He should be relatively weakened once trapped within a golem, and they’d be able to question him safely before returning him to the blood iron.
The details were complex and needed to be exact. Sybil put on her loupe so that she could see the finer details of what she was engraving. When she was done, she would stain the carving by sanitizing it with alcohol, then boiling the whole thing in dark tea.
Oil will need to be applied afterward to protect it. Veximarl had warned her that she needed to be careful with every material she used. The wrong oil, or tea, or even an improper engraving tool could end up causing a disaster. It was greatly different than working on metal golems. That’s part of what excited her the most.
After working on it for an hour, wolfed down dinner and curled up in bed. Alton cleaned up and joined in a few minutes afterward. He whispered that a package she had been waiting for had come in from Carapace, and that meant that she would have to do a presentation in class tomorrow. Yet another new task shoved onto her plate of responsibilities.
The last thing she wanted to do was a class presentation. Especially not when she still had to wake up early to bake bread and help clean the stables. However, that’s what her day to day life had become. She found herself aching for the week to pass quickly.
The first class was done on autopilot. She debated skipping the meal entirely in order to take a nap. Then again, Vincent would scold her for not maintaining proper nutrition. Alton would make the excuse to go into the room for mid-day cuddling, and she wouldn’t get much sleep if that happened.
Her head began to thud against the table while Alton patted her back sympathetically. He was just as tired as she was, but kept at it. Vincent was ignored by both of them as he stepped up to the lectern. The rest of the first years quickly composed themselves and began to pay attention.
“It has been a few weeks since the other years departed. We agreed that we would spend our time contacting who we could in order to gather information about the misama flood. At this time, I would like to ask that you present your findings.”
Basil stood up and raised his hand. “Sir?” He then looked down at Emery, who gave his permission with a nod. “Timber Vale is struggling. Our main export is paper, but our people have been warned to not travel outside the town until spring. There have been sightings of the king’s armies marching towards the peninsula. A unit of mages arrived and walled off the main town.”
“That corresponds with what I’ve heard,” replied Tish as she raised a hand. “I’ve been in contact with Forlaith of Treant Squad since they’ve left. They assigned most of the third years as captains for fresh soldiers and posted them within the Crimson Region. They appear to be preparing for war. Many of the villages in the area have been fortified in a similar fashion as Timber Vale, but there was no word of evacuations.”
Vincent’s expression hardened at the news. “Without notifying their citizens, the kingdom appears to be preparing for a large exodus of tainted beasts to breach the swamplands. They may believe that the fortifications they have made will be enough to protect the citizens of the Crimson Region.”
Veximarl wasn’t as optimistic. “It is likely that they don’t wish to cause a panic by beginning an evacuation. The number of casualties could number in the thousands. Any defenses they put up maybe to hide the fact that they do not have anywhere they can evacuate that many citizens.”
Panic was easy to see upon the faces of Moontear, and Vincent sought to quickly ease their concerns. “We will maintain a dialogue with our friends and family. Lady Till is not in the business of hiding the truth from us. It is better to look at the evidence we have rather than spin theories for the worst possible outcomes.
As for Carapace, they have relocated their core citizens to the makeshift town of Outcore. We have our own eyes on the situation within the Crimson Capital and we will use them to keep informed of the situation. Flaytongue has been assigned as additional guards there, and we will be able to see the reports they send back to Lady Till. Sir Moss has taken Gwyn to Carapace in order to assist in the development of a greenhouse. Does anyone else have word on how Outcore is fairing?” He looked over to Zaniyah.
“Nah. My family is living with Chi’s,” she replied. “They had to move out of their home and have been living out of their shop in Carapace. Chi’s dad is a hunter by trade. He’s sent a letter saying that there have been tainted beasts coming out from the core depths, but it’s not a big deal. Just little ones like what we’ve been seeing lately.”
Sybil raised a hand and Vincent gestured to her. “My father chose to live in Outcore.” He had told her that he didn’t wish to stay with the Cully’s while they were also struggling. “Flaytongue was put in charge of managing the protection of the outpost, and they have combat golems at their disposal.” Old combat golems that were well over a century old, but her father worked wonders with technology. They’d be alright.
Vincent continued his report. “The second year squads have been folded into different duties within Carapace, but they appear to have some push and pull when it comes to government matters. ‘Patterfall Aconite’ has publicly revealed himself to be Prince Duxton and has been working directly with Duke Rubire.”
Clenching his jaw, Alton sat back in his seat. That idiot cousin of his had bullied out several of the nobles he deemed as “useless in a crisis,” but didn’t seem to offer any help in replacing them. The Duke’s court was a disorderly mess without his interference. He dreaded to think of what it looked like now.
Vincent was equally displeased with the prince’s interference, but his family had never much say in government. “If it is any consolation, I have heard that several higher ranking members of core society have been loaned housing within Carapace and have been placed in position within the court.
My replacement at Starsons, Gideon, has written to say that several Dogfall squires have been relocated to the dorms at Starsons in order to continue their education. He’s been especially impressed with the members of their squire program.”
“Oh, sure!” Zaniyah’s face scrunched up. “A state of emergency!” She smacked at her forehead with the palm of her hand. “Why didn’t I think of doing that when we were rejected from Starsons squire program?” Her voice was dripping with sarcasm.
Sybil could understand Zaniyah’s frustration. They were the ones that had petitioned for Dogfall to start their own squire program since they were rejected from Starsons. She was proud of the work that they had put into it, but it did feel frustrating to hear that the program had been folded into Starsons so shortly after they had graduated.
“There were only five members,” muttered Sybil. And that was across all six years that Dogfall taught. “It must have been a stretch to fit them in. After all, Starsons is known to have such an extensive and respectable program.”
“Of course it would be a stretch,” beamed Zaniyah. “Hayden is even tougher on them than you were, Sybil. Her and Millie are absolutely going to make it into Braytons next summer, and we are going to bust things up!”
Chickadee nodded. Millie was the first of his younger sisters. She was as tough as their father and as stubborn as their mother. Though her weakness was the fact that she could be a little air-headed at times. A trait which had no doubt had rubbed off from spending to much time with Zaniyah.
“Millie has a letter of approval from Sir Trewarne. She’ll be in Elderberry next year.”
“That’s great!” Sybil grinned widely at the news. “But you know that will only work if we somehow cheat and get Hayden in too.” Chickadee bobbled his head in agreement.
Vincent snapped his fingers to gain their attention. “Back to the matter at hand.” He looked between Anais and Ivy. “Any word on unusual happenings within Crookstead or Fogbloom?”
Anais shook her head. “Crookstead is a mist region, but I don’t think there’s ever been miasma there. Neither my father or mother have mentioned anything strange happening.”
“Other than the army being moved eastwards, I haven’t heard anything,” said Ivy. She was bored. Not having Gwyn around meant that she had to make do with either not talking to anyone or studying. Neither sat well with her.
“Keep us informed of any changes,” replied Vincent. “We have nine weeks left until the end of our classes. That will mark the beginning of when we are allowed to participate in assigned missions. It is unlikely that any of us will be sent far until spring, but I have already put in a request for my squad to assist the second years with their work in Carapace. Grimstone Squad is expected to join us if we gain approval. Anyone else?”
Tish raised a hand. “Macestar has already been assigned to help out the local farms with their animals.”
Though he wanted to go to Timber Vale, Emery doubted that they’d be allowed to travel past the mountains. “Moontear is to track tainted beast movement within this region.”
Mila dipped her head forward and fumbled her thumbs. “I really do want to go home, but Dalkirk said that a unit of Bronzescale is to stay at the barracks at all times. We act as the barracks personal defense in times of emergency, and we’ve been assigned to work with Moontear as a result.”
Vincent smiled at her reassuringly. “I will be personally stopping by your household to see how your family is doing, and I will be counting on Grimstone to provide us and the second years ample support during their mission. The weather may make the trip take longer than a week, so ensure that whatever plans you have can be done within four weeks time.”
“We all appreciate that you for setting this up, Vincent,” replied Veximarl. “Although delayed due to the military’s use of trade routes, we have received the supplies we requested from Carapace. Sybil has them with her. Thank you again for your family’s assistance in acquiring them.”
Vincent didn’t think it was much trouble at all. “It was for the welfare of our class as a whole. No price is too high for that.” He made a gesture towards Sybil. “If you will, Miss Twist.”
“Yes, right.” Sybil grabbed the crate she had hidden underneath the table and went up to the lectern. Opening it up, she pulled out a small, flat metal rectangle that had faint etchings of arcane runes on the back. “These are letters. We use them as a form of communication within the core. The ones I have here have already been programmed with your names and contact information of everyone in our class.”
She then proceeded to give a demonstration on how to send messages. These were experimental and calibrated to work in different mist regions. Due to the power of Tyrtain’s blood iron, they would work nearly as far as Mareth. After her demonstration, she handed one out to each of the squires and took her seat again.
Sir Moss entered shortly afterward to begin his lesson, and then Sybil was off to the kitchens to help with cooking lunch. Alton put an arm around her shoulder as they walked together. It would nice to be able to sleep in the Grimstone room again, but it was even better not having Vincent follow them around everywhere.
“Want to go out on a date this Satyrday?” He smirked at her as she looked up with an annoyed frown.
“We’re not allowed to leave the barracks without permission, and I doubt you’d want to go out on a date with either Stonetoe or Grimhawk as a chaperone.”
Alton didn’t want to think about what that would be like. “Ouch. That would be mad time.” He hung his head to the side. “What about doing something around here? Just the two of us?”
“I’d rather just sleep all day.” Satyrday was her first day off of quarantine and she wanted to spend it working on her golem as much as possible. That and sleeping. Anything that involved being holed up and alone.
Alton laughed at the idea. “That sounds fun. I think I’ll join you.” He let out a pained gasp as she elbowed him in the gills. “Stop taking that out of context! … Agh.” He rubbed his ribs. That was always a sensitive area on him. “I mean a daytime nap. A moment where we can silently enjoy the other’s company. When was the last time we did that?”
“Why does it even matter?” She stopped and stared at him with a raised eyebrow.
Folding his arms, Alton pouted and looked off to the side. “You wouldn’t want to chase me away into the arms of another woman, do you?” Her curious expression turned into a full-on glare. “I mean, I wouldn’t... You know that, right? … But I like it when you’re affectionate with me.”
Her hand reached up and caressed his cheek in a gentle manner, and he, in turn, leaned into it. “You’re…” Annoying. Bothersome. A great deal of pain to be around. “Cute.”
“... You hesitated.”
Sybil pulled her hand back. “I did not. You’re cute.”
Alton rolled his eyes and started to walk ahead of her. “You did! Forget I said anything!”
“Toval!” He stopped and looked over his shoulder. “Do…” Sybil looked off to the side. “D-do you want to do some dueling Satyrday afternoon?” He frowned. “And maybe afterward have dinner? Just the two of us?” He didn’t say anything. Simply stared. “... Please?”
“Well I suppose I could since you’re pressuring me into it,” he said with a shrug.
“I’m not pressuring you!” Sybil spat out.
Alton shook his head. “First you’re going to wear me out physically, then feed me, and it will be, ‘Oh, Toval, don’t fall asleep yet,’” he said in his most feminine and sultry voice. “And I would ask you why not and you would say, ‘You haven’t had dessert yet. How can you resist a taste of… This!’” He yanked open his jacket dramatically and stuck his chest out.
Sybil responded by punching him as hard as she could in the stomach. “I don’t sound anything like that!”
Grasping his torso, Alton took a step back in order to prevent any further punishment. “You’re right,” he said with a wheeze. “You’d flutter your eyelids more and would’ve tried to take my pants off before saying anything.” He started to hop backward as she yanked out a dagger from her belt. “Put the knife away! What is with you and violence?!” He began to run away from her as she chased him.
Vincent cringed at the display below. He was watching them from the rampart with a few others. “I had viewed quarantine as an opportunity to fix certain behaviors, but I have failed to make any progress. However, being able to go horse riding on a regular basis was a rewarding experience. That was one of the few benefits.”
Veximarl folded his arms behind his back. “It doesn’t sit well with me that we are still monitoring Alton. Either he is laying low, or he was truthful in saying that he has limited connections to the royal family.” He was standing on the opposite side of Zaniyah, who was sitting on the edge of the rampart and in between the two men.
“Sybil can take care of herself, and Alton doesn’t want anything bad to happen to her. I don’t think there’s anything to worry about,” said Zaniyah with a smile. “I feel bad though... I mean, with that stuff that’s happening Carapace, are we doing the right thing by not telling her? Zyris and Caitlin moving in together is kinda a big deal. I don’t know if it’s right not to warn her before we head back.”
Looking over at her, Veximarl still felt unsure “You also stated that we can’t tell Chi that his younger sister has started dating.”
“Because Chi will literally murder anyone that is going after Millie,” replied Zaniyah in a cold tone. “Caitlyn is a hardass. If she’s having a tough time, he’s going to let her deal with it on her own, but Fairy and Millie are his little bitty sisters. He’s the one that has to protect them.”
Vincent agreed with her statement. “The outburst he had over Amalfrieda training you has shown me that he is capable of a great deal of damage. Regardless, I’m certain it won’t be a lasting issue. Gideon is quite intelligent and capable but lacks fighting talent. Braytons caters to those with extraordinary talents. Their relationship will be a fleeting one.”
“That’s what I’m hoping for.” Zaniyah pointed to Chickadee as he ran across the courtyard with a load of items in hand. “Chi’s also distracted by work. We don’t need to bother him.” She nudged Veximarl in the ribs with her elbow. “Leather from those tainted foxes we obliterated should be ready. Ever figure out what we’re going to do with it?”
Veximarl pulled his notebook from his coat. “The furs are being made into winter cloaks for our squad. Unfortunately, the bones were too brittle for use. I had hoped to get items made for the rest of Baron Squad, and at least something for Evan, but we will have to hope that they will get by on their own.
Chi has taken what was salvageable in order to make something for Irving, and we will sell the rest off. There is a market out west for charms and jewelry made out of tainted beasts. It’s possible that we will get a good price.”
“Then we’re bound to make a lot of money?” Zaniyah put her hand to her mouth. “What are we going to spend it on?”
“Not as much as I would like,” replied Veximarl. “Higher quality items coming in from the fights in the east will no doubt drop their value.”
“Aww…” Zaniyah was more disappointed about not being out there fighting rather than not being able to earn a lot of money.
“The majority of our earnings will be donated to charity. Timber Vale, along with several other eastern towns, are locked away from trade. Alton’s family has been researching ways to assist them through charity donations. He may know the most effective way to invest our money. We will also be donated what we can to the Highland hospitals.”
Vincent shook his head. “I assure you that I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s unnecessary to put anything towards our hospitals. Save the money for those in need.”
“Forgive me, but I will not take no for an answer,” retorted Veximarl. “It is important that they have enough funds for medical supplies in the event that an emergency occurs.”
“Aww, look at you two.” Zaniyah looked between them. “You get along so well. I mean, where outside of Braytons is some mess from the swamp going to make best buddies with a handsome paladin?”
Veximarl frowned. “I may be from the swamp, and I might be a mess, and I may not be the traditional sort of handsome, but I am still a paladin trainee at these barracks. It is only natural that I associate and find understanding with other paladins.”
“Vex, sweetie.” Zaniyah patted his cheek. “Yes, you’re such a... Tall, lanky paladin,” she cooed at him. “I’m certain all the other paladins just adore you.”
He did have the height advantage on Vincent, but the man still outweighed him in muscle. Veximarl was absolutely certain that he had stronger magic, but Vincent had more practical uses for his abilities. Vincent was physically stronger, better with weapons, and the perfect fit for the image of a paladin, but Veximarl… Eh, not so much.
“... They do adore me,” he muttered disappointedly.
“I believe that Veximarl has improved greatly since we started our studies here.” Vincent’s words made Veximarl look at the paladin with admiration. “He has only fainted once the last time Sir Grimhawk made us go on a march.”
“Good point,” said Zaniyah as she shook a finger in Vincent’s direction. Both her and Vincent shared a smile.
Their smile only soured Veximarl’s mood. “Regardless, it is almost the start of a new month. Let us hope that it’s an uneventful one.” He held up an imaginary cup for the others to toast with.
“Despite not seeing as much action as the lot of you have, that is a sentiment that I share.” Vincent also held up an invisible cup.
“Ha. Losers,” said Zaniyah with a hardy laugh. “ My goal this month is to find the biggest baddest beast in all the lands and murder the shit out of it!” She continued to laugh in a maniacal fashion as the two men tossed a worried glance at one another.
Vincent relented first. He gave a shrug and placed a hand Zaniyah’s shoulder. Winter was going to be a tough time for all of them. “As long as I am your partner in that fight, I will not hold issue against your dreams.”