Anais returned before the others arrived. She left Oyster to get his wounds treated before sending the wolf pack away. Their alpha male, the tainted beast, was one of the cubs that had been born last winter. He killed the previous leader, then refused to lead the others on migration.
She theorized that the wolf preferred to stay where it knew miasma was. Now that he was dead, the rest of the wolves had enough time to catch up with the elk migration. However, she couldn’t help but hold onto one of the smallest males. Keeping a wolf was wrong... She knew that. But he was just so cute and he was too little to ever really get anywhere in the pack. Everything was better this way.
She sat next to Zaniyah while the wolf hid behind her. “Oyster doesn’t know anything. Well, animals don’t exactly give clear statements, because of language barriers and the fact that they’re animals, but I do know he doesn’t like Sybil very much. He ran away from her sometime yesterday afternoon. She was still fine when he did so.”
Sybil had been sent out on the main road. Even without her horse, she couldn’t have gotten lost. Zaniyah let out a grunt as a reply. Everything inside of her was empty at the moment. It didn’t matter that they were safe, or they had beaten another tainted beast... Sybil wasn’t coming back.
Ivy kicked at the corpse. “How does this whole ‘keep your kill’ deal work? Emery and I did the actual killing, but is it split between just us or all four of us since we were acting as a unit? I’m fine with it being shared between the four of us as long as Emery and I get the biggest cut. I guess Anais did a lot of the helping too, since she drew away the rest of the pack, so she should get a cut as big as us.”
Zaniyah gritted her teeth rather than choosing to start an argument. When the wolf had thrown Whisper, Ivy was the one who caught it. Rather than let go when Zaniyah called for it, Ivy held onto it like an idiot while wondering why it was moving about on its own. If she had let go, Zaniyah would no doubt be less injured than she was now.
“We should talk about that later,” muttered Anais.
“I only got in the way,” whispered Zaniyah. “Go ahead and do what you want with it. I don’t need a cut.”
Emery rubbed at his shoulder. Ivy had helped him yank it back into place but that didn’t stop it from stinging. “I’ll keep the bones. Baron gets the hide and blood iron.”
Ivy released a high pitched squeal of joy. “Deal!” She began to run her fingers through the tainted beast’s fur. “I’m going to look so beautiful wearing you!”
A dozen glowing orbs appeared above their head. Tish was announcing her presence so that Emery wouldn’t accidentally shoot her with an arrow. She landed on the ground and folded up her hammer. A nod was given to Emery as he pointed towards Zaniyah with a set of fingers.
She darted over and began to, much to Zaniyah’s annoyance, poke and prod at the injury. “It looks like the bleeding stopped, but I can’t set your collarbone.” She pulled out a leather package from inside her robes and unfurled it. Inside were bandages, tools, and medicine. “I’m going to give you a sleep aid. We’ll take you to Lady Blu in the morning.”
Next to arrive was Chester. Winter was a wonderful time for a water mage, especially one who owned ice skates. He was making an ice trail in front of him and was propelling himself forward with wind spells. Emery gestured to the tainted beast and Chester began to encase it in ice. Proper storage was needed until they could transport the body.
Last to arrive were Alton and Vincent, charging in on their guard vanners. Alton went to Zaniyah while it was Vincent’s job to receive Emery’s report. He took down notes but was distracted by Zaniyah’s presence. The moment he was finished, he rushed over and kissed her with as much passion as he could muster.
“... No.” Alton recoiled from the sight.
He was already furious with the paladin and this wasn’t making it better. Orders be damned. He should have been told that Sybil was missing. Both he and Zaniyah should already be with the rest of their squad in Tilrey looking for her. As soon as dawn came, the hunt for their missing friend was on.
Sybil let out a sigh. She had spent hours upon hours twisting the ring about the finger but still nothing. Her eyes went to Felix, who was humming to himself. She told him a bit about herself and life at the barracks but he didn’t volunteer much about himself. At the moment, he was working on embroidering his cloak.
“Do you like to sew?”
Felix beamed at her. She didn’t ask his age, but she thought him to be twelve or thirteen. “Yes! I saw a sample of silk from Carapace in a store and I decided that that’s where I would need to learn to be a tailor.”
“Alone? Do you know anyone living there?” He shook his head. “... That’s dangerous.”
“Everything will work itself out.” He beamed again. “I plan on living the best life I can and Fogbloom wasn’t very welcoming. I had also brought a lot of gold with me in order to keep me safe.” His nose scrunched up. “Which was stolen, but I’ll find more! We’ll get rescued soon enough.”
Sybil let out a long sigh. “I don’t think anyone is coming.”
“But you said you had mist magic earlier. I thought you were regaining your strength before you turned into mist and flowed out of one of these vents.” Felix went back to smiling innocently.
She couldn’t do that without drawing her sword. No, wait, there was that one time when she and Alton were in a practice match against Duxton and Veximarl. Duxton was about to slam her into the ground when she suddenly felt herself being pulled somewhere else.
Even then, she had her sword on her belt. Now she had nothing. “... I’m not that skilled.”
Felix put down his work and went over to the water. He leaned in close and gave it a sniff. “Try drinking more water? It’s riddled with miasma, so that should work, right?”
Because Sybil had so many great experiences with miasma. “The water is tainted?” Felix bobbled his head. Suddenly she was worried for their health. “We should drink less of it.”
“What’s the worst that will happen? Our hair changes color and we sprout antlers?” He grinned in a cheeky manner as he gave a tug to one of his antlers.
His jokes weren’t amusing her. “Hypothetically, I do get out of here. If they don’t have anyone keeping watch, I don’t have a compass. Say I somehow find someone who can help, I can’t guarantee that I will be able to find you again.”
Felix pointed to a vent. “That’s why I put dandelion seeds through one of the vents. The dirt should be warm around where the air comes out. They’ll grow quick enough. All you would need to do is look for the flowers.”
She sighed. “I’m sorry, Felix I really am, but… I’m tired right now. It’s probably well into the night. We can talk more after we’ve slept.”
Sybil was feeling like she was a messenger of death. Not only now, when she was holding out hope someone rescuing them, but during the summer too. When she had left Veximarl for dead in the swamplands and ran ahead to Bog Vale for help. Someone that would help save the caravan from the Dudley brother’s poison.
Instead, the guards arrested the necromancer working with the brothers, and she murdered them. Sybil was forced to kill her in self-defense. It didn’t matter if she was a terrible person or not, that was still a human life that Sybil had chosen to end. That wasn’t even the last time a horrible incident like that was her own doing.
If she hadn’t tried to hunt down that miasma filled cave, Alton and Veximarl wouldn’t have gotten attacked by those tainted foxes. What sort of trouble had she gotten them all in now? Jill seemed to be a stronger mage than Chickadee, and she certainly had years of more experience. Men were also now going to make an inquiry with Duchess Elbellziara. Not that Sybil liked being a ward, but she certainly was bound to get in trouble for sending over a group of slavers.
There wasn’t anything Sybil could do to protect herself or those she cared about. Her actions killed people. The fear that was building up in her now was paralyzing, and the walls around her were closing in because of it.
Stonetoe stared at Veximarl. His brows furrowed as he attempted to comprehend the news. “What else did they say?” His left eye wouldn’t stop twitching from how annoyed he felt.
They were situated within their inn room. Veximarl had sent word to both Oceans and Stonetoe as soon as Zaniyah had messaged them about Oyster and was now giving them his report. Chickadee was curled about one of his arms, with his head rested against Veximarl’s shoulder. He wouldn’t stop trembling.
Veximarl reached over to pat at Chickadee’s head reassuringly. “As far as Anais can tell, Sybil had stopped along the main road and Oyster ran away when she let go of his reins. There were others present, but that is all we know.”
“This is what we’re reduced to? Trusting the testimony of a horse?” Stonetoe’s eye began to twitch all the more.
Oceans was also troubled. “I will take what information we can get. Snowfall has hidden the perpetrator’s tracks and we were fortunate enough to have found the guard’s body.” He found himself wishing that Trewarne was here to help. Oceans was a skilled tracker, but Trewarne was his mentor. His advice would be invaluable at a time like this.
“Not good enough.” Stonetoe leaned forward in his chair and rubbed his temples. “Contact Fletch. She needs to send a pigeon to Dalkirk. Tell her to say that I need him here. Then send word to Reese and have her arrive with Krogastein. Make sure Highland knows that his job is to stay at the fort. Tell Toval the same thing but I doubt he’ll listen to me.”
“Yes, sir.” Veximarl pulled out his letter and began to poke at it very, very slowly. Chickadee took it from him and began to send out Stonetoe’s messages in rapid succession.
Stonetoe stood up. “You two get some rest. Sarya will manage the clinic. Tuton, you’ll be with me in the morning. Cully, I need you to take over patrols tomorrow.” The mage looked up with a worried expression. “You’re the strongest squire we have at our disposal. You need to keep Tilrey safe while we track down Twist because you’re the only one I can trust to do it.”
That didn’t make Chickadee feel better. The knights left the room but he stayed by Veximarl’s side until morning came. Anais, Zaniyah, and Alton showed up in the morning. Blu treated Zaniyah’s injury and placed her arm in a sling. After she had been cleared to walk around, she followed behind Anais as she worked.
Anais had brought along her newfound wolf friend and Oyster. She looked around for a moment before pointing up the road. “This one?” She looked up to Oyster, who stared at her blankly. “Alright.”
Stonetoe was a knight. In order for these kids to keep calm about their missing friend, he had to remain composed. However, this was the stupidest thing he had ever done in his career. From fighting in the Southern War to working with Grimhawk, this was the stupidest thing he had ever seen. His gaze met Dalkirk’s and he flashed the Bronzescale knight an exasperated look.
Dalkirk remained stoic. He followed silently along as they let Oyster take the lead. Most of them had brought horses, with Anais and Zaniyah preferring to go on foot. Eventually, they stopped about a half hour out of town. Oyster looked about before nuzzling Anais’ shoulder.
“He says it was here.” Anais pointed to a nearby bush that still had red berries on it. “He remembers wanting to eat those hawthorn berries, even though he shouldn’t,” she stressed, “because the seeds are poisonous.” She switched to a scolding voice. “No, you really can’t eat them.” While she continued to lecture Oyster, the rest of them dismounted so they could look around.
“... There’s nothing here!” Zaniyah felt like curling into a ball and crying again. “Only snow and more snow!”
“Is this where they found the body?” Dalkirk got a nod from Stonetoe as confirmation. He then set about looking for more clues.
Alton began to pace back and forth as he struggled to piece together what they knew. “Sybil was sent out this way to find a guard and deliver a letter. She found him, either in the process of being attacked, or already dead, and then… Did they take her?”
“We should look into whoever sent her out,” quipped Lydia. “They may have been in on a kidnapping plot.” Alton nodded, making a mental note to ask about it later. Lydia then pointed up. “I’m going to see if I can make out anything from up above.”
While the others were talking, Stonetoe began to sidestep towards Veximarl. He lowered his voice to a harsh whisper. “I understand that you are under orders to never use certain tricks but I am going to ask now that you use everything at your disposal.”
“... Lady Blu performed the autopsy. I was her assistant for it.”
“That’s how we got the information about the two men and the wagon? You questioned the body?” Veximarl nodded. “What else do you know? What couldn’t you put in the report without it being obvious what you did?”
“He had stopped by to assist a wagon that was stopped next to the road. The two men assured them that it was alright, but he suspected that they were robbers setting up a trap for passing travelers. They killed him when he confronted them about it. He didn’t see Sybil.”
“Right… She must’ve shown up shortly afterward.” Veximarl nodded again. “See what else you can do. Try to figure out what direction they headed off in.”
“Yes, sir. Of course.” Veximarl pointed his spear downward and summoned Rite. The fox immediately began to look about for her brother, whining when he wasn’t found. She spotted Anais’ wolf and immediately tried to bury herself between Veximarl’s legs. “Ah! Rite!” He stepped over her, and she immediately attempted to do it again. “I apologize, but Alex simply does not have the tact for this type of mission. Ah, Anais? A little help, if you would?”
Stonetoe pinched the bridge of his nose. This was stupid. All of his squires were unbelievably stupid. Sybil got herself kidnapped or killed, Alton couldn’t obey basic orders, and Veximarl was doing… Whatever this was.
He left Chickadee behind because he didn’t want to deal with the world exploding if they stumbled on Sybil’s dead body. Not to mention this crazed, crippled barbarian had followed them here. She was probably the reason why they brought along the singing boy. Why did they even bring a singing boy? What were either of them supposed to do in this situation?
Lydia floated down again and began to talk to Alton. “Too many wagons have been through the area for me to make sense of it. I don’t understand why they would have taken her. It’s unlikely it has anything to do with the Aconite family.”
“Ransom?” Alton whispered.
“Stallis doesn’t have any money. No one who lives full time in the core has any real money.” Lydia’s voice was trembling.
“Why else would they have let a glasstrotter escape? They must have thought she was worth more money.” Alton didn’t like that theory but that’s all he could come up with.
Neither did Lydia. “They took her someplace where they could question her and when they found out she wasn’t worth anything… They must have…” Alton nodded. “Oh Tria, please tell me that she isn’t under your care.”
Anais set down the bag she was carrying and pulled out a box. “Here you go.” She opened it up and pulled out a glass vial that they had stuffed one of Sybil’s hair ribbons into. This was held out for both the wolf and Rite to sniff. “Find this for me, please?”
Rite immediately ran off to bury her muzzle in the snow. The wolf, who still had no name, was more methodical. He went over to where the dead body had been found and began to sniff around in circles.
Blinking a few times, Stonetoe came to a sudden realization. “Reese, did you keep one of the wolves you were supposed to get rid of?” Anais turned around and stared at him wide-eyed. Her skin went pale with terror. “... No. Wolves are not pets. You can’t keep him in the dorms.”
“I-I understand that Sir Stonetoe, but Mister Wolf won’t hurt anyone! I was only going to raise him for a little while. At least until he got large enough to hold his own in a pack, and he isn’t really a pet. Wild animals are never pets, sir. We aren’t even supposed to have pets, I know, it’s one of our dorm rules! And… A-and your squad has Foggy!”
“I didn’t want my squad to have Foggy. but at least that monstrosity doesn’t smell, shed, or poop,” replied the knight.
Dalkirk folded his arms. “I’ll allow it.” Stonetoe tossed a glare his way. “All animal requests must be approved or denied by Bronzescale.”
“One of these days, these kids are going to find out that you can’t say no to the cute, innocent act, and they are going to run you through,” threatened Stonetoe in a low voice. He then gasped and put a hand to his mouth. “Did I say that out loud? In front of all of these squires?”
Rite froze in place. Her ears twitched back and forth as she tilted her head this way and that. She then jumped up in the air and pounced onto something hidden deep within a snow bank. Her rear legs flailed back and forth for a moment before she managed to wiggle her way out with a knife tucked between her teeth. The fox started to gnaw at it while Veximarl waved his arms about.
“Drop it! Drop that this instant! Rite!”
A whistle from Anais made Rite’s ears stand at attention. She pranced over obediently and held up the knife. Anais took it gratefully and handed it to Veximarl. He began to examine it carefully. This was Sybil’s utility knife. It had the gear insignia that she had carved into it. There was also blood on the blade. Veximarl then proceeded to, much to Alton’s horror, run his tongue along the length of the blood.
“W-what… Why would you-”
“Shh,” replied both Stonetoe and Lydia in unison.
Veximarl closed his eyes and reflected on the taste. “Male. Mid-thirties. Healthy diet.” He tilted his head to the side as he thought to himself. “He doesn’t seem to have a magical affinity.” His description matched one of the men that had killed the guard.
Zaniyah pointed at her knight. “Mama Stonetoe is that old, and he can’t use magic!”
“And I am going to assign you more work on how to perform a proper investigation.” Stonetoe pinched the bridge of his nose again. “I want you, Toval, and Reese to head back to Tilrey. Krogastein and Reese will help the guards with their rounds, and I don’t know about Toval. Blu can maybe find something for you to do.”
“No way!” Zaniyah protested loudly.
Alton glared at his knight. “I am not going to be left behind.”
“It isn’t about being left behind or leaving anyone out. I have to do what’s best for the mission.” Stonetoe snapped back at them. Zaniyah was about to protest again when Stonetoe shot his hand into the air. “Put your hand up if you have ever killed a human in cold blood.
Man, woman, child, I don’t care.” Dalkirk half raised a hand, and Stonetoe glared at Veximarl until he hesitantly raised his hand. “And that’s my unit. I need soldiers who can keep a clear head when it comes to getting the job done. These are it. The rest of you are dismissed!”
Zaniyah tensed up and gave Stonetoe a pained expression, but his face remained firm. She opened her mouth a few times, trying to figure out if there was anything she could say to change his mind, but… “Yes, sir.”
Alton wasn’t having any of it. “I have ways of finding Sybil that you don’t and I don’t need your damn approval to look for her.”
“It better not be something stupid like, ‘the power of true love,’ because I will slap you off that horse and have Dalkirk beat you to a bloody pulp,” replied Stonetoe with a growl. Alton remained defiant. “Fine. Do whatever you want... I don’t care. Tuton! Can your monster track that blood trail?”
Veximarl laughed nervously as Rite growled. “She’s not a monster, she’s a fox, but no. She cannot. I have other methods if those are allowed.” Stonetoe rolled his hand about the air impatiently. “Yes, sir.” Hopefully, neither Alton or Zaniyah will ask him questions about this later.
He scratched the blood off the knife and ground the dust between his fingertips. Flicking his hand forward, a twisting red and purple light shot down the road. He then unsummoned Rite and resummoned his horse.
“Are you going to be able to maintain your horse and that spell?” Alton asked.
“An easy feat,” replied Veximarl. “The difficulty comes when we reach the end of that trail.”
Stonetoe and Dalkirk also mounted their horses. “Move out!” They followed behind Veximarl as he raced his horse down the road. Lydia took to the skies, hoping to spot trouble before they ran face first into it.
Zaniyah was once more left behind. She realized that that was the right decision, because of her shoulder and all, but… Could she kill another human being? Even if they had hurt Sybil? Even if they had murdered her? … Zaniyah didn’t know.
“Zani.” Anais’ voice made Zaniyah snap back to reality. “Do you want to ride Oyster back?”
“Right, because we have to go back,” she muttered. They had to go back because Zaniyah wasn’t strong enough to go forward. “Go ahead and ride Oyster. I need to walk more in order to clear my head.”
Anais was hesitant, but she abided by Zaniyah’s wishes. When they reached Tilrey, Zaniyah went off to find Chickadee. The two of them talked for a bit before deciding that they were going out to find trouble. Locate baddies and take them out with extreme prejudice.
Anais and her wolf friend formed a separate unit for town patrol. It didn’t bother her that she didn’t have a human partner. She was always more comfortable around animals. Her human friends, however, were certainly in trouble. Her brain was left rattled by all the ways she was struggling to help them out.
“If you think that’s a problem, I’ll show you what a problem is!” Zaniyah’s voice rang out from a nearby grocery.
The wolf lowered his ears in an alarmed fashion, and Anais rushed to see what was happening. Zaniyah was frowning at a woman who was standing behind a counter while another woman was standing off to the side with a smug smile. Chickadee was merely an observer. He looked more coat rack than a human with all the scarves and cloaks he had put on in order to keep himself warm.
“I have to raise the prices if I am to survive,” stammered the clerk.
“And what are you going to do with all that money?! There is such a thing as a basic standard of living, you hear me?! And it isn’t as much as you think it is!” Zaniyah shouted back. “Everyone gets an honest meal, a roof over their heads, and enough to keep warm. Are you telling me that the money you’re scalping from these people ain’t enough to manage that?!”
“I have profit margins to abide,” whimpered out the clerk.
“Then you can tell Prophet Margie to stuff it!” Zaniyah shook her fist at the clerk. “We’re living in difficult times, and like it or not, Tilrey is a community! You all should work together! And you!” She twisted about and shook her fist at the other woman, whose smile dropped in an instant. “Learn to be a decent person who talks to others in a sensible manner! Don’t run off to the guard just because you feel offended!”
The woman put her hands on her hips. “I can’t afford to pay these prices. My inn is left without customers, and there is still rent to pay.”
“Who are you paying rent to?!” Zaniyah matched the woman’s posture. At least, as best as she could, considering how one of her arms was still in a sling. “I’m going to yell at them to lower it!”
“Z-Zani..?” Anais hesitantly approached. “You can’t just come in here and yell at people like that. Our job is the keep everyone calm.”
The clerk waved Zaniyah towards the door. She just wanted this angry teenager out of her face. “The mayor fixes all of our costs and rent. This is all his fault!”
Giving a nod, Zaniyah stomped out of the store with Chickadee and Anais in tow. “I can boss around anyone I want if it’s for the good of the community! We can lower the rent just fine and everything after that will fix itself.
All I need to do is show that damn Mayor Coradetti my evidence and he’ll agree to anything I say!” She gestured to Chickadee, who held up a set of flaming hands. That was all the evidence she needed.
One of the things Anais liked about Zaniyah was her simple, almost animalistic logic, but it wasn’t always beneficial. “The rent and taxes placed upon these people go towards keeping the town safe. They allow for the guards and other civilian workers to get their salaries.
The people here need the roads to be kept clear of snow, trash to be taken out of town, teachers to school their children, and protection from outside dangers. Braytons also receive their stipend from Tilrey. It’s how all of us are able to get by.”
“All outlanders care about is money! That shouldn’t matter as long as you have your health and can live happily with your friends and family. Everyone worrying about money has just about got everybody in this stupid town at each other’s throats!”
“I’ll see if I talk with the town’s treasurer and bring up your concerns in a civilized manner. Would that do?”
Anais had some experience with politics from her own educational background. Her father was the mayor of Crookstead. She had come to Braytons at her father’s insistence because a title could secure her a future political career, but she also was under the impression that her father was a fool who didn’t know what he was talking about.
Sir Moss had taught her that knights often have very little say in government. Not to mention that she wasn’t so sure she should be staying at the barracks at all. Anais had gotten in on the word of a noble but wasn’t able to fight or even hold a sword properly. Helping out in situations like this one was one of the few times where she actually felt like she was doing something right.
“... I guess we can work with that.” Zaniyah tossed a look over to Chickadee, who gave a nod. “Hi, Galwen!” She waved her arm widely at the approaching knight.
Anais whispered over to Zaniyah. “You really shouldn’t call the knights by their first names.”
She shrugged as a response. “Everyone in Moontear calls him Galwen. I’m surprised you guys don’t call Remi, well, Remi. He’s younger than my oldest brother... Seems weird to be so proper with a guy who's barely out of school himself.”
It was certainly strange how quickly Zaniyah bounced from unbridled rage to friendly gossip but that was also her charm. Regardless, this was something Anais couldn’t agree with. “Sir Moss is a man twenty-seven years of age. He’s hardly just out of school.”
Zaniyah shook her head. “Nah, he’s twenty. He just lied about his age because he was scared we wouldn’t respect him. Remi was in Jewelclover, but his knight supposedly knocked up one of his squadmates and ran away. Remi felt guilty about his knight and took over for him afterward. That’s also the reason why he has us either read books or play board games. Because he’s a major bookworm with no social skills. Mama Stonetoe says that he clearly has no idea what he’s doing.”
Clearing his throat, Oceans nodded at the group. “You shouldn’t gossip about your knights, Zaniyah.”
“Yeah, but it’s all true, isn’t it?” Zaniyah stared at Oceans until he awkwardly cleared his throat again. “... I knew it. Stonetoe wouldn’t lie to me about that.”
“I-I will talk to Sir Stonetoe later about spinning stories to squires.” Oceans stuttered out. “Please report to Lady Blu and act as her escort. Another body has been found and it’s imperative that she looks into it immediately.”