“Thanks again for helping out. You really don’t need to be here with us.” Anais beamed at Zaniyah, who was shoveling fresh hay into one of the sheep pens.
“It’s not a problem. You guys are stuck here doing my assigned chores, and it’s not like there’s anything else to do. Might as well do something to help out.” Zaniyah smiled back, but she was torn up on the inside.
Veximarl had messaged Vincent the night before. Sybil was sent off to deliver a message, but she never returned. The guard she was supposed to meet with was found dead and his uniform had been stripped off. No one knew if Sybil was also dead or if she was taken. There wasn’t a sign of her or her horse anywhere.
This was supposed to be news for Vincent’s ears only, but he couldn’t hide it from Zaniyah. They weren’t supposed to say anything until they could confirm Sybil’s whereabouts. She had to avoid Alton as much as possible in order to prevent herself from blabbing about everything.
He was smart though and bound to catch on that something had happened. Stonetoe, Oceans, and Dalkirk had vanished overnight. Neither Irving or Mila knew anything about their disappearance, so all the others had was gossip.
Hanging out with Anais, Ivy, and Emery at the farm was the best way she could avoid having a breakdown. It kept her busy. When she was busy, she wasn’t panicking. Plus, aside from Ivy, it wasn’t too bad being out here.
Emery never intended to have Anais and Ivy accompany him on this mission. His “friends,” specifically Peter, insisted that they were the most “viable options.” He didn’t care to find out what Peter had meant by that. Now he was stuck with them until a new knight appeared.
Anais adored animals, and her magic was a boon to the mission, but Ivy was a different story. She sat around and did minimal work. Her reasoning was that she was only here to hit trouble with a sword. The smell of the barn bothered her more than anything else. Most of her work involved escorting Anais to and from the building and little else.
“Krogastein,” Emery called out from the corner if the building. “It’s nightfall.”
He was working on a painting for his etiquette class’ final project. Lady Till had requested that he complete a picture of Sybil riding her horse. Sybil had already posed for the sketch, and he was currently filling in the last of the details. The barn was quiet and no one sought to bother him here.
“Cricket sticks! I was supposed to be back before dark!” Zaniyah fumbled to find her letter so she could message Vincent. “You don’t think I’ll get in trouble if I spend the night here? I could head back at daybreak”
A scoff came from Ivy, but Anais shook her head. “Nonsense! It’ll be lovely if you could stay longer than that! The chickens are so needy in the morning, and the food here is really nice.”
They had until morning to figure out what had happened to Sybil. If Vincent hadn’t heard anything by then, Zaniyah was going to tell Alton everything and the two of them were going to rip apart Tilrey until they had their answers. Rules be damned. She didn’t care how much they got in trouble for it.
The group was expected to stay on guard until midnight. Supper was light and they spent most of their time staying warm near a fire. Zaniyah couldn’t relax like the others. She paced back and forth. Maybe she needed something to happen. Anything was better than waiting.
Her head tilted to the side as wolves began to howl in the distance. She double checked her harness to ensure that Whisper was on it. “I’ll go check it out.”
“It’s just a deer,” muttered Ivy as she further buried herself further underneath her blanket. “Ignore it.”
Anais cupped a hand about her ear. “Food.” She listened for another howl. “Something larger than a deer, but the elk already migrated south. Maybe we should go look. They might be after a horse, and- Zani?”
Zaniyah had already vanished across the field. A horse meant a rider, and that rider could be Sybil. Maybe something had happened and Sybil was on her way back. She probably took a weird route and ended up getting super lost along the way.
If she ran at full speed, Zaniyah would be able to find out in a matter of seconds. Anais caught up next to her on a mule that had a lantern strapped to his harness. She held out her hand for Zaniyah to take. “Do you want up?” Zaniyah shook her head. “I’ll go ahead and see if I can calm- Zani! Wait! Let me go- Zani!”
She didn’t want to wait. Wolves were known to tackle riders off their horses. They must not have succeeded if they were still after the horse. Pushing past her limits, Zaniyah ran faster. “Come on… Come on!” Her hands formed into fists, then she flicked out her nails against the sides of her thumbs like she was striking flint.
Flecks of light began to spark around her hands. “Happy thoughts! Come on!” It was too dark for her to see anything, and she needed light in order to fight.
Her nostrils twitched as the scent of blood hit her. As she made her way towards the end of the running pack, she dug her foot into the ground. Her hand grasped the scruff of one of the smaller wolves and she hurled it behind her.
“Don’t hurt them Zaniyah!” Anais cried from behind her.
Which was why she grabbed it by the scruff rather that whack it in half with her axe. Zaniyah gritted her teeth. “Can’t you get them to-” She flipped her hand towards a wolf that was leaping at her and summoned a shield to defend herself. The shield cracked under the weight of the animal, shattering after it succeeded in blocking the attack. “Get them to stop!” Another wolf went for Zaniyah’s leg, but she hopped to the side and kicked it in the snout.
“They haven’t eaten in a while! It’s hard to get them to do anything when instinct has taken over!” She gasped as Zaniyah summoned her shield off to her side and used it to slam into a wolf running next to her. “That isn’t helping!”
“Then do something!”
Anais inhaled sharply. She cupped one of her hands next to her mouth.“Stop! Running! Now!”
The animals all slowed at once. Anais pulled on the reins of her mule while Zaniyah shifted her stance. While Anais slipped off her saddle, Zaniyah hastened to approach the steed that the wolves had been chasing. All the while she was trying not to let her emotions get the best of her but she was absolutely failing at it.
It really was Oyster. Blood was flowing freely from a bite on his leg and his saddle and pack were still on. He wouldn’t stop shuffling due to the adrenaline rush. Anais’ command had gotten through to him but he was hesitant to hold still while there were still wolves about.
Zaniyah fell to her knees at the sight. She began to let out loud, choked sobs as she wiped her eyes with her forearm. Anais gestured for Oyster to head towards her, and her other hand was held out as she attempted to keep the wolves calm. The largest one of the pack was letting out low snarls while the rest were silent.
“Steady. Calm. I’m sure we’ll be able to get you some food.” Her posture stiffened as she looked between Oyster and Zaniyah. “He runs away quite often, Zaniyah. What’s important is that he’s safe and we’ll get him to Sybil tomorrow.”
Zaniyah clutched at her stomach. She felt like screaming, vomiting, and killing something all at once. “Sybil’s gone!” She shook her head back and forth. “They sent her out yesterday afternoon for, I don’t know, something, and she never came back!”
Her shouting was making the wolves nervous. Anais stepped closer and carefully patted Zaniyah’s shoulder, who winced at the contact. “Stay back.” She immediately lifted her hand and pointed it at the growling wolf. “Stay there.” It had gotten low to the ground and was continuing to creep closer. “Zaniyah, I know Sybil is safe. I don’t think these wolves got her and I really can’t keep control over them for long. We need to leave.”
Even with Anais insisting she get up, Zaniyah couldn’t bring herself to move. The sound of hoofbeats approached signaled that Emery had arrived on his mule. Ivy slipped down from behind him. She slowly made her way between the wolves until she was next to Anais and Zaniyah. One look between the Oyster and Zaniyah was enough for her to put two and two together.
“So is Twist actually dead, or what?”
“Shut up!” Zaniyah whipped around and yanked Whisper free from her back.
Ivy put a hand on the hilt of her longsword but didn’t pull it out. “Don’t shout. You’re going to break Anais’ concentration on that tainted beast.”
Tainted beast... Zaniyah’s attention became focused on the wolf creeping towards them. He wasn’t all that different from a regular wolf, which is why she hadn’t noticed him before. Ash colored fur, larger than the others, with legs covered in splotchy brown scales. Most prominent were its slitted green eyes, glowing faintly in the dark.
Anais didn’t want to say anything but she knew she didn’t have control over it. She was pouring everything she had into making that wolf bow her will. He refused. Tainted beasts were smart. This one especially so. He was focused on her because he knew he needed to take her out in order to get his pack back under his control.
“Ivy, please get on Bisque. Zaniyah, take Oyster. I need you two to leave.” She began to backstep while the other wolves circled behind them. “I won’t have control for much longer but I can make it back on my own.”
Rolling her eyes, Ivy pulled her sword free. “Not feeling like it. Gwyn will kill me if I let you play the hero.” Her bangs flickered to the side as Zaniyah charged past her. “And there goes Krogastein... Guess I have to save her too.”
One of the smaller wolves stepped in front of Ivy and whined at her. Not a growl, but a thin, pained whine. “Zani and Emery have weapons to fight it,” argued Anais. “You need to ride back to the barracks and make a report! That’s our job!”
Ivy gestured to the pathetic creature. “Is this supposed to stop me?” Her expression hardened. “You believe I can’t fight?”
A battle cry rang out behind her. Wolves, influenced by Anais, scurried out of Zaniyah’s way as she charged the tainted beast. Slashing her axe upward, a blade of wind shot forward, harmlessly blowing through the wolf’s fur. Another cry and Zaniyah leaped towards the beast while it stepped off to the side.
“I’m not saying that,” muttered Anais.
Ivy took one step to the side, and the small wolf her whined again. “I am not leaving you here.” She sounded rather calm considering how Zaniyah was behaving.
Rage. Absolute rage. Zaniyah’s focus was powered by nothing but fury and instinct at this point. She ducked as a sound whistled behind her, and an arrow bounced harmlessly off the side of the wolf’s neck. Emery cursed under his breath and began to check his quiver. The tainted beast bone arrow didn’t work, and he couldn’t use one of Irving’s specials with Zaniyah there. He pulled out his letter and began to message Vincent.
Listen for the faintest of noises. Feel the slight breezes caused by movement. Smell out your prey. Those were the only senses that Zaniyah had left.
The darkness was beginning to bother her. Clouds were looming overhead, nearly blocking off the stars and moon. As the beast snapped at her, she would swing back. His speed matched hers, making every dodge a close call.
Another wind blade was swung in an effort to push the beast back. It avoided it by rolling off to the side. This was shortly followed by a crack in the distance as the spell made contact with something. The beast sprung out of its roll and leaped at Zaniyah. He clamped down on her axehead and wrenched the weapon free from her hands before tossing it off to the side.
Zaniyah jumped up and bounced off the wolf’s head with her boots, landing neatly behind him. Where had her partner fallen? She couldn’t see. “Whisper!” She held out her hand, but the telltale sound of her axe whipping through the air was missing. It must have gotten damaged from that bite.
Blind. No axe. A growl of absolute fury escaped her lips as realized she’d have to do without her most trusted ally. She turned tail and ran towards the cracking sound she had heard earlier. Once more did she began to flick her fingernails against the side of her thumbs. “Happy thoughts, happy thoughts, happy th- AHH-MMF!!!”
The snow that hit her face was a hard shock to her system. Her leg had gotten caught against a tree log and she had fallen hard as a result. “Ah ha!” She lifted up her head and shook the snow from her hair. Pushing herself up the rest of the way, she began to flick her fingers at the tree. “Come on… Catch on fire already!”
Once more did the wolf seek to pounce on her. Zaniyah held up her hands instinctively and summoned her shield within his open maw. A little, itty bitty mana shield. He gagged on it for a moment before it shattered from the force of his bite. A lunge forward, and clamped down onto Zaniyah’s right shoulder.
She winced from the pain and crunching sound before she punched his snout with her free hand. The shock of the strike was enough to make him let go but now she had another problem to deal with. This didn’t feel as bad as the injuries she had gotten in practice. Except that was blood leaking out of her instead of golden light, and she was suddenly feeling dizzy from adrenaline and blood loss.
The wolf snarled as more arrows whizzed past. Three bright lights began to shine as they struck the ground. Emery rode in, positioned his mule between Zaniyah and the wolf, and drew back the drawstring of his bow. Blinded by the sudden light, both Zaniyah and the wolf began to fumble about.
“You alright?” Emery shot between the wolf’s paws, and the following explosion was enough to make the beast hop backward from surprise.
Zaniyah struggled to pull her senses together. She began to fumble for her hand axe, but her arm wasn’t working quite right. “I can’t lift my arm. Don’t think I’ll be good for riding.”
Emery dismounted. He looked over her injury before pressing his thumb into her collarbone, which made Zaniyah hiss with pain. “It’s broken. I’m borrowing this.” He loosed Fling off of her thigh and gave it the one handed test juggle in order to test the balance.
He hurled it at the wolf as the beast ran towards them. The blade bounced off its forehead but the attack did appear to momentarily daze the creature. This resulted in the wolf shaking his head before pawing momentarily at his nose.
His efforts to regain control of his senses were interrupted when Ivy charged in and swung Whisper as hard as she could into his side. Rather than slicing through, it made him stumble as though she had struck him with a large bat.
“Your weapons are broken!” Ivy cried out.
“You didn’t swing it hard enough!” Zaniyah shouted back.
Ivy scoffed, then jumped back as the wolf leaped at her. She ran towards the pair as Emery used another explosive arrow to keep the beast back. Another scoff was had as she dropped Whisper at Zaniyah’s feet. “My strength amplifiers are working just fine.” She held up her arms and the runes on her bracers were glowing as they should.
A grimace appeared on Zaniyah’s lips. There wasn’t a way for her to pick up her baby in this condition. “Where did you get power amplifiers?”
“Mister Cully made them for me as part of an experiment,” replied Ivy. “He based them off the jump boots that belong to Mister Cress.”
Emery ignored their argument. He was to busy thinking about their current predicament. A notched arrow was enough to make the beast stall. The beast stooped low and waited to see where he was going to fire it. If this were not a dire situation, Emery would take a moment to marvel at the beast’s level of intelligence.
“I convinced her to head back with the animals and to take the wolves with her,” replied Ivy.
Emery’s eyes flicked between the wolf and his mule. “... Get the blood iron kit,” he muttered. “This is a tainted beast. Its has defensive abilities rather than offensive ones. That’s why it hasn’t used any spells against us.”
The gears in Ivy’s head quickly clicked together. Those kits didn’t need to pierce the skin in order to work, and tainted beasts were primarily magic. Remove the blood iron and the beast would drop dead within minutes. A smile crept across Ivy’s features.
“What’s the plan?” Ivy began to dig through his saddle bag.
They would have to both tackle it. Even with Ivy’s amplifiers, that wasn’t enough to guarantee that she was stronger than a tainted beast. “Pull out a towel so Krogastein can begin to apply pressure on her wounds. Signal me when you’re ready. Then follow my lead.”
This would be easier with three people. They could move in a triangle about the beast and two of them could move in while a third distracted. However, he wouldn't risk further injury to Zaniyah. He’d have to make sure she didn’t get in the way.
“Thank you,” muttered Zaniyah as Ivy handed her a towel. She frowned as Emery gave her a side glare.
“Sit... Sit, girl. Stay.”
“I know when to call it,” she growled back. “I’m staying put.”
Ivy held up the kit. “Ready.”
Emery let the arrow fly, and it bounced harmlessly off the wolf. He had run out of the arrows Irving had supplied him, and was now down to bluffing. A low rumble escaped the wolf’s throat before he ran forward. Meeting him halfway, Emery punched with his left fist, thrusting his arm as far down the wolf’s maw as he could.
As the wolf began to gag, Emery twisted himself about. He dragged the wolf with him to the ground and pinned the beast’s head down with his knee. Ivy jumped on the wolf from behind so she could struggle to tie the kit onto his neck and activate it.
… And there was Zaniyah.
… Watching from the sidelines.
How could she have been so foolish? She was even desperate enough to attempt to use… Looking down at her hand, she flicked her fingers again. Nothing happened. Not even a spark.
Magic, huh? A big fat load of help that was. She’s sitting here with a busted arm instead of wrestling with a tainted beast. Missing out on the best part of the story, that’s what she was doing. Frowning all the harder, she applied pressure to her wound and began to slowly heal it.
The wolf continued to gag and struggle over the next few minutes, slowly becoming weaker and weaker until it stopped moving completely. Emery slumped off to the side, panting heavily. Ivy was careful with the blood iron kit as she got up. She wanted that blood iron to stay nice and safe until something amazing could be made from it.
“You know you can remove your arm, right?”
She grimaced at the sight of Emery’s bleeding arm, which was still wedged in the wolf’s mouth. His sleeve had been torn apart, and he had several deep wounds from where the teeth had torn his flesh.
Emery shook his head. “Dislocated shoulder.”
Ivy very slowly and very carefully put the kit on the ground before going to help. “Suppose we’ll just stay put until help arrives,” she muttered as she used her sword to pry the jaws open. What a long night this was going to be.