It was never a good idea to ride an animal the day after putting it through a hard trial. Alton let the mules rest and borrowed a horse for himself. Veximarl made do with his summoned beast. Veximarl rode next to Alton as the pair led the others to Sybil’s location.
“... Morning.” Veximarl did a sheepish wave at Alton, who shot a glare back at him. “I was simply ruminating about some of the events that had happened right before Sybil’s disappearance. I know that this isn’t the best time to bring up any bitterness, but...”
“Out with it,” muttered Alton.
Veximarl cleared his throat. “I told myself that it wasn’t my place to tell you, but I worry about the mental state Sybil will be in when we find her.” Alton raised a brow as Veximarl nervously laughed. “Perhaps the reason why Sybil chose to not have you go on the Tilrey mission with her was that she may have needed some distance so she could consider if breaking up with you was in her best interests.”
Alton’s glare increased. “It isn’t in her best interests. End of discussion.”
“That isn’t something for you to decide,” retorted Veximarl with a frown.
“Well, she should’ve thought about that before… Things happened, alright?”
Alton ran a hand through his hair and held a distressed expression for the faintest of moments. It wasn’t her fault he ended up with the rapier, but she did make it a point to show she had the hots for him. She was spicy when she wanted to be.
Veximarl shook his head. “Simply... Take a moment once in a while to consider what she wants before you go back to doing whatever you want.”
“I have always considered what she wants.” From the moment he met her, he had thought about what it was Sybil wanted. Way back to the first moment he saw her.
The Starsons group had stopped by the Volo Refuge on Vincent’s insistence that they pay their respects. Alton couldn’t bring himself to care. This whole trip was a waste after Vincent had forbidden the majority of the class from coming. What he wanted to do was to concentrate on was getting into Braytons so he wouldn’t have to deal with any of them ever again.
Maybe he could find a girl to fool around with after the written exams were done. His eyes darted about the crowded area. To grumpy, to cheerful, and that one looked exactly like the type that would throw him under a carriage if it meant she’d get into Braytons. He was about to give up when he spotted a small shadow. A girl dressed head to toe in black, which was a stark contrast to the colorful summer uniforms everyone else had on.
She drew back the hood over her head to reveal a plain face. Her hair was short, and her figure nothing special. What drew him most to her was how out of place she looked. That sorrowful gaze that was trapped within her eyes. She walked past him without noticing him being more focused on the plaques on the walls.
“The nerve of that trash to follow us out here. How dare think they stand a chance at the exams?” Barcus’ harsh tone had caught Alton off guard. He glanced over to where his classmate was glaring.
A blue haired girl was attempting to yank an axe twice the side of her out from the wall while something covered in scarves waved their hands about. “You already have Whisper,” said the scarved one.
The blue haired girl propped one foot on the wall in an effort to increase her grip. “I also want this one!” She exclaimed. Unable to get any traction, her foot slipped out from underneath her, and the scarved one caught her before the back of her head cracked open against the floor.
Luca elbowed Barcus’ shoulder. “Don’t let Vincent hear you say that. He’s the one that campaigned that Dogfall students should be allowed into our squire program.” He gestured to where Vincent was hiding behind a nearby shelf. The paladin looked like a young schoolboy, bashfully peeking around the corner at the Dogfall pair with a face flooded with concern.
“They’re from Dogfall?” The smaller one was wearing the same cloak as that girl was. Alton then noticed her again out of the corner of his eye. She was making her way to the back of the temple.
Barcus rolled his eyes so hard that he almost hurt his neck. “I don’t care what Highland thinks. They’re not normal people. They have no place in society. It’s better that they stay locked in the ground where they aren’t a hazard to others.”
Not wanting to participate in that discussion, Alton slipped away. He agreed it was better for those who lived in the core to simply stay put. Not because they were a danger to others, Alton wasn’t racist, but because it was safer for them. They knew nothing of the outside world and even simple day to day tasks could prove deadly.
That odd girl had stopped in front of the rapier that belonged to Lady Larkin, something which didn’t surprise Alton. Lady Larkin was the hero of the Southern War and he himself was planning on trying the rapier. Somewhat for good luck, but mostly because he was hoping to draw out a weapon and skip out on the entrance exams completely.
This girl was just some lost core child who had a hero she looked up to. She needed to learn that she belonged in the core in order for her to have a happy and fulfilling life. After all, there was no way she could ever match up to a knight, or even a properly trained squire like himself.
Failing to pull out the rapier wouldn’t be enough to break her spirit. He needed to show her the cruelty of the outerland people. She would be heartbroken now, but then she’d go home. This dream of hers would stay a dream and she’d be satisfied knowing that she had at least tried to live out her dream.
And Alton’s first instincts about Sybil had always been right. If he had crushed Sybil back then, if he refused to give her his support… She would’ve never ended up like this. Never drawing the interest of the royal family, or nearly dying to a tainted beast, let alone being kidnapped. When Lady Till told her she wasn’t to be a squire, Alton should’ve let that answer stand.
But Alton couldn’t help himself. He hated it when she cried. So yes. He did keep in mind what she wanted. Alton had always done what she wanted and all it did was lead her to ruin. He was done with Sybil’s requests. Alton was going to ensure that she was going to get what was best for her. That is what she needed to keep her safe and he would be damned if something got in his way again.
Alton dismounted his horse and knelt down next to the boulder. The holes were still there, but snow had built up over the dandelions. He placed his hand on the ground and the pulse of Sybil’s heartbeat fluttered through his ring.
“She’s still down there,” he muttered to the others. “Somethings wrong with her heartbeat.”
Veximarl knelt down and much to Alton’s disgust, placed his hand over Alton’s so that he could feel the ring. “It’s slow. Snow has built around the air vents. It’s likely that her metabolic rate has slowed due to cold.”
“I’ll do what I can to hurry.” Baroness Marjoram pulled an ink brush from her sleeve and started to wave it about the air.
Lines of ink spilled forth, rippling in designs that laid themselves neatly along the snow. Buttonweed immediately signaled for the two squire to get back. The ground began to rumble and raise up in front of them. Snow and dirt spilled away to reveal a large stone block that Marjoram begun to write on directly.
Stepping off to the side, she placed the brush back into her sleeve as a tall rectangle of solid stone slammed onto the ground. The inside of the block was dark and silent. They all waited for a moment, but nothing happened. A snap of Marjoram’s fingers at Veximarl and he gave a hesitant nod.
“Sybil?” He started to walk towards the block. “Are you there?” An eye peeked around the corner. Veximarl put his hand to his chest and sighed with relief. “Oh, thank Eatha, you’re here. Are you injured?”
“Vex?” Sybil was still hesitant to step out completely. “... D-did they find the slavers?”
A shrug was given as a response. “The knights are handling the brunt of the investigation. We found a man in Mareth, and Sir Dalkirk…” He didn’t exactly kill the man, but he certainly took his time to inform the guards of the location of Jack’s unconscious bleeding body. “Sir Dalkirk and Sir Stonetoe will no doubt catch up to them soon.”
“I panicked and mentioned Duchess Elbellziara. What if something happens in Fogbloom and it’s all my fault?” Sybil hesitantly stepped out and approached Veximarl. Her forehead thunked against his chest and she shook her head back and forth. “It would be just like Bog Vale all over again and I don’t think I can take that.”
Veximarl wrapped his arms around her and rested his cheek on the top of her head. Slight malnutrition, minor dehydration, and early stages of hypothermia. Nothing a warm bath and a meal won’t fix. That made him relieved. She truly was alright. Maybe some mental trauma but she wasn’t so weak that she couldn’t work her way through it.
“I’m certain that Sir Stonetoe is halfway to Fogbloom by now and Dalkirk is only a day behind him. The Duchess will be fine.” Veximarl flashed a smile to the others and noticed that Alton was giving him a death glare. “... And Alton is also here! Would you like to say anything to him right now?”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry... I’m being really stupid right now. I just…” Her voice trailed off and she stuffed her cold hands underneath Veximarl’s cloak in order to warm them up.
Alton watched the pair with narrowed eyes. Think about what Sybil wants, huh? It was obvious to him what “Sybil” wanted. His jaw tensed up and he let out a sigh to ease himself. “If you mentioned your connection with Lady El, you need to write her a letter of apology immediately.”
Shooting a look at him, Veximarl frowned. “I believe she needs rest.”
“Rest from what? She’s done nothing but rest,” spat back Alton. “We’re squires. We need to prove that we can handle ourselves if we’re going to make it in this world. Let’s get back to Mareth. We’ll get a cart for you two horseless idiots to ride in back to Braytons, and she figures out how to apologize for the trouble she’s given my aunt. We can’t waste time. We have classes tomorrow.”
“Well said, Mister Toval,” quipped Marjoram. “Miss Twist will need to be prompt with an apology letter. She will also need a medical exam and Paladin Buttonweed will have questions about her attackers.”
Veximarl pried himself out of Sybil’s increasingly clingy hug and took her hand into his. “You may ride with me. We’ll get you something warm to eat and prepare to take you home as soon as we can.”
They were quiet on the way back to the violet side of Mareth, where they made use of Baron Marjoram’s home. What followed was an argument between Baroness Marjoram and Paladin Buttonweed over Sybil’s attention. Marjoram won and Sybil was awarded to a bath and a new dress. Afterward, Marjoram, Buttonweed, Sybil, and Veximarl gathered in a room together.
“Think harder,” said Buttonweed. He straightened his back and folded his arms. “Ignore the fake names they gave you. Concentrate on what other senses you have. Did any of them have an accent? Any unusual odors? An unusual garment? Do you believe they were an independent group or part of a much larger organization?”
The way the paladin was standing reminded Veximarl of an interrogation. It didn’t seem all that productive. “Sybil hasn’t had much exposure to others outside of Carapace and Braytons. The man that Dalkirk had arrested would have more information that she would.”
Buttonweed wasn’t willing to be gentle. “In a time of crisis, she must be fully aware of her surroundings and memorize what she can. The smallest detail could lead to valuable information. If this were a scenario where she was a prisoner of war, being unable to answer basic questions would not be considered as acceptable.”
Sybil looked down at her lap and began to wring her hands together. “The woman that was with them,” she muttered. “I don’t believe she wanted to work with them. Her clothes were more tattered than theirs were. I also think that she was wearing an old uniform of some type.”
“Did it have any type of decoration on it?” Buttonweed pulled out a notebook to write in.
Sybil tried to concentrate. “The color of it was faded…” She shook her head. There was the moment where Jill raised her hand to crush Sybil’s finger. “There was a patch on her sleeve. On her inner wrist. The image was of a branch twisted in a spiral.”
Marjoram held out her hand. An image appeared on her palm of a naked branch twisted about clockwise. “Like this?”
She shook her head. “No. The spiral wasn’t as tight. Maybe it was a vine? A leafy vine.” The branch thinned out and leaves along it began to unfurl. “They were small and shaped like scales. Three pointed scales.” The image continued to shift. “... That’s it.”
“Moonseed,” muttered Buttonweed.
“Then you know it?” Marjoram flexed her hand and the ink withdrew itself back within her sleeve.
“It’s an elite order of elementists from Grand Temple. One may have gone missing and was forced to serve slavers,” he replied. “What did she look like? Would you be able to guess her age?”
Sybil shook her head. “Her hair was covered and I didn’t get a chance to see her face clearly.”
“Then I will contact the leader of their order and ask them to check their records.” Buttonweed gestured for Sybil to stand up from her chair but she preferred to remain seated. “Prepare your letter of apology now. We will move to Braytons once you have completed it.”
Sybil replied in a voice barely higher than a whisper. “I would like to see Alton first, if I can. He would know what I should say to the Duchess.”
Veximarl put a hand on her shoulder to ease her worries. “He went to a tavern to retrieve the mules we borrowed. I may also be best if…” He tensed up for a moment. “This was a rather emotional moment for you and for him as well. For all of us. Let’s wait until the tension has cleared before you have a talk.”
Marjoram kneeled in front of Sybil. “I will assist you. We’ll make something nice and pick out an appropriate wax seal to go with it.”
“Oh… Uhm, thank you.” Sybil averted her eyes. A part of her wanted to find a moment to apologize to Alton as soon as possible, but she supposed she would have to wait.
On the gilded side of Mareth, Alton was working on his own project. He wanted his time to carefully craft a letter without being troubled by others. However, Lydia wasn’t doing anything to keep him from being distracted. She kept looking over his shoulder and frowning at what he was writing.
“I wouldn’t suggest going to such extreme lengths, dear.” She folded her arms and tilted her head with concern. “Are you certain that this is what you want?”
“You’re the one who wanted me to protect her,” muttered Alton. “Others seem to think protection is about giving her freedom, but I’ve changed my mind on it. I am going to be greedy about it.” He signed the bottom of the letter with a furious scribble. “Sybil is mine.”
A wry expression crossed Lydia’s face. She then shook her head. There was no stopping Alton once he firmly made up his mind. At least, she didn’t have the power to stop it. Not as a ghost. All she could do was observe.
“Do what you will.”