It had been hours since they had started riding but the trail that Veximarl had conjured had come to an abrupt end. The knife had run out of blood. Veximarl had run out of options for what he could do next.
“Great.” Stonetoe let out an annoyed growl. It was hardly midday and already they were at a dead end. “Someone give me some ideas to work with!”
Dalkirk chimed in. “There is only Mareth from here.”
The hills were beginning to become too steep for both wagons and horses alike. Mareth was purposely built within a pass that had been carved through them, making it the only viable entrance to the Violet Region. They would have had to travel several days either north or south if they were seeking a less populated way through.
“Where would they have gone to after that?” Stonetoe pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a strained sigh.
Lydia bit on her bottom lip for a moment. “I believe that you were correct with your ransom theory.”
Alton’s gaze turned downward. “Is it possible that she was taken for ransom money? Anyone who knows about horses would know that her horse would be worth a lot, but they let Oyster escape. They must have thought they would get more for her.”
“That does happen,” replied Dalkirk. There are sometimes those who come to Braytons thinking that they can pinch a rich squire. Their plans were often less than successful.
Stonetoe wasn’t convinced. “Except the Crimson Region is in the opposite direction and Twist isn’t stupid enough to tell them that Duchess Elbelliziara was the one that bought her that stupid horse.” He then paused. “... She is that stupid.” Leave it to him to somehow be mistaken in thinking that they didn’t need interrogation training yet.
Alton nodded. “I have tavern connections in Mareth. I can go there and ask if they’ve seen anything.”
“There are a dozen or more taverns in Mareth. We’ll go to the guard office and see if they have seen anything.” Stonetoe adjusted his horse. He would need to send word to Duchess Elbellziara, and as much as he didn’t want to, it was best to do it in person. “I’m not dragging the two of you to Grand Temple. Head back to the barracks and tell Nita that we’ll be back in a few weeks.”
Dalkirk wasn’t looking forward to it either. “Inform Byers that he is in charge until my return. Let him know that he does not gain free reign of his experiments simply because I am absent.”
Alton snarled at the pair of them. His jacket buzzed and he very angrily pulled out his letter to check it. Veximarl had written him a quick note.
“I know how to find her.”
“You better bring her back!” Alton snapped at the knights. Stonetoe raised an eyebrow at him. That was a surprisingly calm reaction from the squire. “I’m serious! We’re only listening to you because we don’t get a choice in this matter!”
They wouldn’t be able to reach the barracks until nightfall, but that didn’t matter. He’ll gather together the rest of Grimstone, and they were going to hunt down the ones that had taken Sybil.
The Tilrey unit approached a set of covered wagons. A man was sitting on the driver’s bench of the first, hunched over and frozen completely solid. His clothing suggested that he was from the Violet Region, and he may have been a merchant. Anais dug around the back of the wagon while Zaniyah and Chickadee stood guard.
Lady Blu sat next to the body, tilting her head side to side as she studied it. “If only Vexi was here,” she muttered to herself. She’d hate to admit it, but the boy was more skilled than her at identifying injuries. She didn’t want to wait for the man to thaw out fully before she could perform a full autopsy.
“It looks like the food is missing, but most of the general supplies are still here.” Anais frowned as she picked up a ledger. “There is something off about this.” She waved her hand, and the wolf began to sniff around.
Zaniyah’s head popped up in the back of the covered wagon. Her eyes darted about as she sought out clues. “There’s a lot of stuff here though. Can’t imagine what is off.”
Anais flipped through the ledger. “This was part of a caravan of four covered wagons.”
“Two missing wagons and one dead body. Easy peasy. He probably died of natural causes and they took what they could before heading out to the Crimson Region. That’s where this road leads, right?”
“Winter needs heavier supplies because you need to carry additional feed for the animals. With that in the mind and with the merchandise they were carrying, four wagons isn’t enough for seven people.” Anais flipped the book around so Zaniyah could see the list of names. “Actually, it is, but these are only the customers that they were escorting. It doesn’t cover any of the guards they would have had or the other wagon drivers.”
Chickadee was listening in from outside. He knelt down and buried his hand into the snow until his fingertips touched the stone beneath. “Earth magic!” He called out to Zaniyah.
“Now that’s just dirty.” Zaniyah began to elaborate for Anais. “He means that an earth mage came in and crushed a bunch of people underground. It’s kinda hard to count how many are dead, since everything sort of becomes jelly and jam once it’s smooshed together.”
“Oh!” Blu put her hand to her mouth as she inhaled a large gasp. “That explains so much! I thought I was going crazy. There are signs that this man drowned, and elementalist magic must have been a reason for it. Murder is much more likely an explanation than anything I was coming up with.”
“Another kidnapping?” Chickadee climbed into the back of the wagon with the others.
Anais bobbled her head. “There was someone who paid in jewels and was transporting a large amount of gold to Carapace. Several of the women could be sold for slaves in the Clay Region and there was even someone from the Coral Kingdom. They may have taken two wagons because they needed to go in separate directions.”
Blu’s face became strained. She was a doctor. Bodies were fine. Crime, especially kidnapping, was something else. “Chi, please bring up any skulls that are salvable. I will be able to figure out their ages and genders from those. We’ll take any ledgers and diaries that we can find and hand them over to Sir Oceans. Our priority is to separate the identities of those who went missing and those who have died.”
They returned to Tilrey and Oceans began to examine the evidence with Sir Cress. Diaries, ledgers, and letters. Sorting through it all would take a considerable amount of time. Blu found herself wishing that Dalkirk was here. This sort of work was his specialty. The hardship that comes with being the group’s doctor. All the healing in the world, but it’s the others who get the job done.
A sigh escaped Ocean’s mouth and he put his hand to his temple. “We will notify the man’s family first to see what they wish to do with his body.” That seemed like the most logical approach for now. “Lady Blu, d-do you mind?”
“Not at all, Galwen.” She gave him a smile. “We are here to do everything we can to help.”
This didn’t feel like helping to Zaniyah. Miasma, kidnappings, murders, and overpriced wares… This was all too much to her. She also knew she wasn’t smart enough to find a solution that would solve everything at once though. It would be nice though. How wonderful it would be if such a thing could fall into her lap.
“This is not going to fix anything,” said Alton in a voice that was both shocked and offended.
“You did promise that you wouldn’t get mad,” replied Veximarl.
They had returned to Braytons in order to give Lady Till their report. Then they lied and said that they would be needed back in Mareth. This gave Veximarl the time he needed to show Alton the pet project that he and Sybil had started. The golem they planned to trap Tyrtain in.
Alton stared at the skull in Veximarl’s hands. He was dumbfounded. “Mad might be one way of phrasing how I feel, because I would think that this is the type of insanity people usually think to mention!”
“Shh…” Veximarl held the skull out for Alton to take, but the squire shook his head and took a step back. “Someone will hear you and then we will be in a wide assortment of troubles. Let us simply agree that Sybil and I thought that you wouldn’t exactly approve of this project.”
“I don’t! You’re talking about… I’m not even sure what you’re talking about!” Resurrecting a dead god? Would that even work? Why would they want that to work?!
“Tyrtain’s influence spreads across the Gilded Region. If Sybil is still within his territory, he may know of a way to find her. If not her, then he may know of where the kidnappers are. The ones that Zaniyah had reported to us. I promise you that this is a worthy venture.
Take note that this is simply a golem. We will activate it for a short while and then we will deactivate it.” Veximarl set the skull down carefully on the floor as he sat down. He picked up the notebook that Sybil had been working on and started to go through the pages. How to activate it without her was somewhat of a mystery to him.
“Are you sure it’s even done?”
Veximarl waved off the thought. “You are aware of Sybil’s habits. She quickly finishes her projects and then spends the rest of the time nitpicking. I have a good feeling that we are in the clear.”
“Yes! Great! We’ll just summon an evil god using a half finished golem! That’s not going to bite us in the ass at all!” Why were his captain and girlfriend such creepy little freaks?! “And here I was surprised to learn that you’ve killed a man before! … Wait, that’s not where you got the skull, is it?!”
Veximarl pouted. Sybil was right. They were better off not telling Alton. He was panicking. “No. I dug up an old grave I found. If you must know, I was thirteen when I first murdered someone. It was in self-defense and I stand by my actions. That is all there needs to be said.” He also didn’t like to think about it. “I have a theory about what may have happened to Sybil and this will help prove it.”
“Go on.” Despite his protests, Alton didn’t have any better ideas. He also didn’t like how Veximarl phrased it as the first time he had killed someone, but that was going to be a later issue.
“If, and I stress if,” said Veximarl as he frowned at Alton, waiting for him to nod at him before continuing. “If I were robber, I would find it difficult to smuggle a large amount of treasure. If I believed that I might get caught, I would deposit my wares someplace where I could fetch them at a later point. In the event I am caught, I would eventually be released due to there being no evidence. I may then fetch my wares and sell them at my leisure.”
“Sybil isn’t a product. She’s a human being.” Alton didn’t like where this was going.
“Precisely. I went through Tilrey’s records of last winter, and there were an increased amount of disappearances. This season is naturally more dangerous but an investigation led to the arrest of several suspected slavers. They were released after a few weeks when no evidence appeared.
I spoke with Chi on his opinions on the attack upon the caravan. If they were indeed the same people, they have a mage with them who excels at both earth and water magic. I believe that their victims are buried with food and water. Sybil may be alive and buried somewhere near Mareth.”
That was even worse news. “And Stonetoe knows about last year’s disappearances?”
“He went through the reports with me.”
“Then he at least has a possible lead… The slavers may choose to abandon her and anyone else if they believe them not to be worth it.”
A worried sigh escaped Veximarl. “Which is why we need to hurry. We have no idea what supplies she may have been left with, nor how many people are with her.”
“Sybil is still alive,” muttered Lydia as she folded her arms and looked off to the side. “I know it’s not too late.” Alton looked between her, to the skull, to her again. “The worst outcome would be it not activating at all. It’s likely to be safe.”
“This better work,” whispered Alton. “Hurry up and figure out how to get it done. I’m going to keep watch outside.” He had a feeling that he would just yell at Veximarl the whole time if he stayed in here and that wouldn’t help either of them.
He stepped out of the room and froze in place at the sight of Irving waiting for him. Alton quickly shut the door behind him before defensively covering his neck with his hands. There wasn’t much that he knew about Irving other than the fact that he always targeted him first during the group fights. It was always him first.
Irving didn’t say anything. He simply stood there. Staring.
Alton stared back. As disturbing as Veximarl was to Alton, Irving was somehow worse. The teen never talked, nor did he make any noise when he moved about. Sometimes, like now, he’d just appear out of nowhere and watched people silently.
“I’m just going to…” Alton stepped off to the side and Irving sidestepped to block him. “... Did you happen to hear anything?” Irving nodded. “Everything?” Irving nodded again, this time in a much more sympathetic manner. “Sybil has spent a lot of time with your squad and I know she’s your friend... Can you overlook this?”
A grimace came across Irving’s features. He looked off to the side for a moment and then turned around. There was something he was fiddling with. It wasn’t long after he left that Alton’s letter buzzed in his pocket. Really? Wouldn’t even talk to him face to face?
“Going to call a meeting with Till and the other squires. Leave out the south gate in a half hour. Stay at the southeast fort. I’ll give you three days. Tell Vex I’ll look after his cat until the squad comes back.” Oh good. Because Foggy was absolutely a priority here.
Alton sighed with relief and typed in a reply. “Thank you.” Another message quickly buzzed in.
“If Vex dies, I will murder you in the most painful way possible.” Seriously? How was Veximarl so much more popular than himself? When did Veximarl even have time to hang out with Irving? The squires here were crazy.
“Right, right. I got it.” He mockingly saluted at Irving and Irving sarcastically matched the gesture before walking out the door.
Leaning against the wall, Alton flipped through the contacts on his letter. Sybil was still there. It made sense, since her letter was left in Oyster’s pack, but the lingering hope that she was somehow within reach was painful.
Another buzz. This time it was Zaniyah. “How goes the search?”
“Not good. Moving out of range soon. Will be in Mareth.”
His letter buzzed again nearly instantly. Zaniyah was fast when it came to typing. “I’m sure you’ll find her before then. Do you have time to talk?”
It wasn’t talking, it was reading. He didn’t have the energy to nitpick. “Shouldn’t you write to Highland if you want to talk? Or are you looking for knowledge on how to score a Tilrey boyfriend so you can get your itches scratched? If so, I’m not going to give you advice.”
“I can scratch my own itches, just so you know.”
Alton’s face became strained. “Never mention that to me again.”.
“Shut up, quit distracting me! There might be another kidnap victim that they will try to ransom in Fogbloom. He’s a rich boy, twelve years old, and he’s got antlers. His name is Felix Haddock. Can you pass that along to Stonetoe for me?”
“Sure.” Alton shrugged. Irving would know how to contact Dalkirk. He’d pass that information along to him. “Are you and Chi okay?”
“Do you want to ‘talk’ about it?”
The next message was delayed. “Isn’t that something I should ‘talk to Highland’ about?”
Alton rolled his eyes. “I am your ‘friend’ and I ‘care’ about you. Go ahead.”
Another delayed message. “No time. I’m supposed to be paying attention on patrol and Chi keeps glaring at me, but knowing that you care does make me feel better. Thanks, my fish brother from a sea mother. I’ll talk to you in the morning to see if you’re still in range.”
Again it was reading, not talking, but he didn’t want to argue. Instead, he put his letter away and peeked into the room. Veximarl was taking to long to get ready. “We’ll figure it out on the road. Irving is going to run a distraction for us so no one sees which direction we run off to.”
“He knows we’re up to something and isn’t going to ask questions as long as Sybil comes back.”
“... Ah. Good to know.”
Veximarl put the items away before awkwardly stuffing the parcel into his satchel. He then followed Alton to the stable where they got a set of mules. Bibi needed to rest, and a glowing summoned horse could be seen for miles. Stealth was an absolute must until they reached the fort.
Until then, they would have to make do with limited supplies. Irving was kind enough to leave a pack of food and blankets by the stable entrance, and Alton had money if they needed to go into a town. They may need to hire a elementalist to fetch Sybil. Veximarl refused to fetch Chickadee and draw attention to their gambit.
Just a little longer. Summon a dead god, find out where Sybil was, save her. Only a little longer until she would be safe.