“I-I said I was s-sorry!” Zaniyah exclaimed in a stuttered shout. She had streams of tears and snot dripping down her face and had lost the ability to tell the difference between the two at this point.
“I don’t care! Keep running!” Shouted back Stonetoe through his wooden cone.
After catching the two lovebirds in a poor state of dress, Stonetoe yelled at them to go back to their rooms. Zaniyah’s following afternoon was his to punish. She was now stuck running laps around the outer field while wearing her summer uniform. The one she had modified to be extra breezy during the hottest of days.
“But it’s f-freezing!” She screamed back.
“You won’t get frostbite as long as you keep moving!” Stonetoe lowered his cone and looked over to Veximarl. “She won’t, right?” Veximarl shook his head. “... You should get her to Lady Blu as soon as she’s done here. Highland!” Stonetoe lifted his cone up again. “I told you! Arms straight out!”
Vincent was standing next to them, wincing as Stonetoe’s voice blasted his ear. He was in full armor, standing on one foot, and was holding a bucket of water in each hand. The water already had flakes of ice in it, and they rattled against the metal sides as the paladin attempted to keep balance.
“I must protest to this punishment,” he exclaimed. “As you saw, I was clearly the one who coerced her, nay, I forced her into such a precarious position!” Alton couldn’t stop himself from exploding into laughter at that statement. “I should be the only one expected to receive punishment!”
“I don’t care!” Stonetoe exclaimed through the cone. “... What are all of you doing here?” He looked at the group of squires that had gathered. Baron squad, with newly arrived Gwyn, had joined Alton and Veximarl in watching the spectacle. “You should be in class.”
A smirk was given by Ivy. “This is divine justice for all the heartbreak Vincent put me through at the beginning of the year. I’m not missing this.”
“Remi had matters to discuss with Baroness Marjoram,” replied Gwyn. She rolled her eyes at the thought. “I want to go back to Carapace.”
Ivy scoffed at the idea. “That backwater city? I can’t imagine staying anywhere that wasn’t Fogbloom. Braytons being an exception, of course. I heard the elite waste their time discussing absolutely nothing and do little to advance themselves as a society.”
“That’s not exactly wrong,” muttered Alton.
“Go wait in the classroom!” Shouted Stonetoe through his cone.
Grumbling, the group made their way back indoors. Baron was supposed to be preparing for the trip, but it was dull work. Gwyn was to use her unique talents about the city, with Moss and Ivy acting as her chaperones. Anais would be with Chickadee in Horsetalon Squad and Vincent was working with his family’s church.
Most of the preparation involved reading. So much reading. Sybil flipped through the books that Duxton had sent her, and couldn’t be more displeased with them. She also received a stack of texts from Rosethorn that he wished for her to study. Between those, Marjoram’s lessons, and exams, she felt like she was going insane.
Their time as a group became a blur of sitting around an outdoor campfire with books, to sitting in a library with books, and finally going to bed early to do a little night reading. Days past, and soon all of them were sitting around the squad table, sprawled out and so tired of tests that they didn’t even dare to speak. The only one of them that was fine was Zaniyah, who had been hanging around Moontear Squad so she could be better prepared to hunt tainted beasts.
A loud knock on the door late one night made Veximarl sit up with a start. He had drool on the edge of his lip and his messy hair gave him a haphazard appearance. “Is there an attack?!” Alton looked up from his desk and pointed to the door. “Ah, yes. Of course... I will go get that.”
Veximarl made an attempt to calm down his locks by running his fingers through them but failed to do so. He opened the door and was greeted by Tish waving at him. Her face was spread in a wide smile, and she was holding a small candle in a hand.
“Come on!” She caught onto his sleeve and gave him a firm tug into the hallway. He disappeared in a flash, leaving the rest of the squad to stare at the open door.
Do we follow?” Alton looked to the others, but Chickadee was already moving out the door. “... I guess we follow.”
The common area had been decorated with an array of candles. One of the tables had a large bowl full of a blood red drink, and snacks in the shapes of insects and eyeballs. The squires had moved all the chairs and couches into a circle. They had also piled in blankets and pillows in order to make the floor comfortable as well.
“Happy Tria Feastday!” Tish chirped as she spun around, revealing the room to the others. “Today we celebrate the Goddess of Death and the fact that we only have one week left of classes!
Those in the core of Carapace celebrate this day by weaving tales of dastardly deeds, and we shouldn’t be downers and deny them their tradition!” She gestured to Basil, who held up a book of horror stories. “We’re going to take turns narrating spooky stories all night long! It’s one big sleepover!”
“This is the greatest thing ever!” Zaniyah let out a squeal. “Who needs books! It’s all about the performance!” She skipped her way to the center of the circle. “Let me regale the tale of the hermit and the wandering thumb!” Sybil tossed over a blanket and Zaniyah caught it in a dramatic flare, surrounding it about her shoulders like it were a cape. “We begin our story on what appears to be an empty cliffside...”
Lydia beamed proudly. “I taught her that tale. It never ceases to cause nightmares” She smiled all the wider at Alton. “I could feed you lines for a good one if you want to go next.”
“No, thank you.” Alton looked over to Veximarl, who had shrunk back and away from the group. “Are you alright?”
The necromancer was visibly uncomfortable. “I am adequate.” He wasn’t. “I will stay towards the back for now. Perhaps eat one of the terrifying looking morsels. Drink that… Blood colored concoction. It is a party, after all, and Tish was quite gracious to host it.”
As Zaniyah’s tale continued, Veximarl continued to shirk away. When it seemed like no one would notice, he slipped downstairs and out the door. He moved to the back of the dorms, hiding within the small space that laid between the outer wall and the building. The blanket he had was pulled around him and steam puffed out his mouth as he exhaled.
The space he made for himself reminded him of his winters in Husk. Despite Grulick and himself often adventuring outside the swamp, she always insisted they return each Winter to protect their home. He could close his eyes now and feel the chill of his small tree hut. Long nights spent listening for the rustling of monsters, praying that an attack wouldn’t be that night and the chill that would run along his spine when a far off scream echoed in the night.
“Hello.” The disembodied voice of Sybil made Veximarl let out a girlish shriek. “Sorry!” She appeared out of thin air right next to him. “This is, uh… Interesting hiding spot you’ve found for yourself... Enough room for me?”
Veximarl moved his arm to the side, opening up the blanket wide enough for Sybil to squeeze in. She snuggled in tightly against him so that neither would be cold. They glanced at each other, let out a laugh, then fell quiet again.
Unseen and hidden around the corner, Alton had been stalking the pair. A figure in white snuck up as well. He held up his finger to his mouth, hushing Tish before she could say anything. She had tried to follow Veximarl out to see if he was okay, and Alton always had the bad habit of following Sybil. Especially when it came to her disappearing with Veximarl.
“You want to talk about what’s bothering you?” Sybil tilted her head and smiled.
“Quite the opposite.” Veximarl wrung his hands together. “Actually, I have come to realize that speaking with others about their issues has been a great deal of help to them. I have tried to listen, despite my ill ability to give advice, and they appear to appreciate it… Though it is quite the norm for me to keep to myself, I have never felt the need to keep secrets from you.”
Sybil nudged him with her elbow. “Go on.”
Veximarl sighed. “Winters have always been difficult in Husk. It’s frigid, fires tend to draw in the winter beasts, and food shortages are bound to happen. Our tradition for Tria’s feast day is to gather those who have died and destroy them in a burn pile in order to prevent necromancers from abusing them.
This holiday holds a great amount of importance for most necromancers. They hold rituals that are best left undescribed in detail. Fleshcrafting, necrophilia, other tasks involving… They have the habit of being nefarious. It is not uncommon for people to disappear and for the culprits to be those in need of a living sacrifice. I am certain you can imagine it easily after experiencing it first hand.
I have mentioned before that Lady Grulick… With my parents… That is to say, this marks the anniversary that she,” she killed his father after his father had sacrificed his mother, “and, uhm…” Sybil leaned her head against his shoulder and grabbed onto his hand underneath the blankets. “This is the day of Tria, of my birth, and of my parent’s death. It is a reminder that necromancers are terrible people, Sybil. There is no redemption for our existence.”
“... You’re right. A lot of people are beyond redemption, but you are not to be counted among them, Vex. You’ve done so much while you’ve been here. Zaniyah says that Vincent counts on your help and friendship, and I know everyone else admires you… Except for Alton… And that ill prince, now that I think about it. That’s probably just a family thing? Neither of them seem like nice people at times, but Alton mostly means well?”
“That is a family tree that I do not wish to rustle the leaves of. I have a feeling that either would desire to execute me the moment they found out the truth behind my heritage.” He laughed nervously, and it did little to hide the serious concerns he had for his well being.
Sybil laughed with him, but it was also a nervous laugh. It was possible he was right. “My point is that you’re so much better than what people would assume you to be.”
His voice lowered as he spoke. “I have murdered people, Sybil. Bad people who have done terrible crimes, yes, but I was the one who ended their lives. In the swamp, I was not considered to be weak. That did not give me the right to play executioner, but it was a role was forced upon me every now and again.
I didn’t achieve that strength without dedicating myself to my craft seriously. Perhaps I would be known as a force of good within the swamplands, but I came to Braytons in hopes of leaving that life behind. I hated it. I hated what I had to do in order to stay alive, and I hated the temptations and the excuses I used to make myself more powerful.
I have been restricting myself by a great deal during my stay here and I thought I would be fine with that… Yet you were both injured and kidnapped. Alton was gravely injured because of my direct orders. His neck was snapped and part of his brain was oozing out... I haven’t had the heart to tell him that he might have permanent brain damage because of it. It’s a serious concern for me that I simply cannot address.
And I know that I need to stay hidden in order to survive. I must stay hidden. There are a frightening amount of individuals out there who would adore adding someone like me to their list of kills, but... I cannot take this for much longer. I am not going to remain hidden if I have to make a choice between keeping my friends safe or myself alive. Winter, and especially today, is simply a reminder of the pressures I have had to deal with my entire life.”
Sybil lowered her voice to a calm whisper. Neither of the eavesdroppers could make out what they were saying after that. Alton grabbed onto Tish’s wrist and began to drag her forcibly back to the dorm entrance. She went to protest but he hushed her with a hand over her mouth. When they entered the building, he shut the door behind him before glaring down at her.
“Never repeat any of that,” he growled out in a low voice.
“I would never do that.” Though Tish was known to be a gossip, so far she hadn’t done anything that would hurt others. “I already suspected that Vexi had… ‘Issues.’ It was obvious after what happened on Eatha’s feast day. Well, perhaps not to you, but yes to anyone who has read a thing or two about necromancers. However, everyone here is like family to me. I would never put anyone here in harm’s way.”
Hearing her confirm his suspicions made the shock of it all set in. On one hand, his squad captain was a necromancer, which proved that Alton wasn’t crazy for thinking that Veximarl was creepy. On the other hand, it didn’t feel right to call him out on it. Normally he didn’t like secrets being kept from him, especially by Sybil, but he supposed he could let this one slide due to it being a legitimate threat to Veximarl’s life.
Alton let out a sigh. “I’m going to go interrupt them before someone else walks in on that stupid conversation.” Tish gave a nod of agreement, and Alton opened up the door. “Sybil! Did you run away again?! Zan is looking for you!”
“Sorry! Be right there!” Sybil and Veximarl took their time in coming back in, only to be greeted by Alton waiting for them. “Did she really say she was looking for me?” She shuffled to behind Veximarl, using him as a barrier between herself and Alton. “I don’t like you using my friends as an excuse for you keeping track of where I am.”
Alton shrugged. “What can I say? I’m a bad guy. That and I wanted to waste your time with watching Zan make an idiot of herself. Is that going to be a problem?”
“Yes,” she replied flatly.
“No,” retorted Veximarl. “Don’t let me ruin your night, Sybil. This is our last chance to spend time with some of our friends before we return next spring. Make the most of it.” Sybil frowned. “Go on without worry. I will make the most of tonight by retiring early and getting a good night’s sleep.”
She shook her head, but Alton had already grabbed her hand and started to pull her up the stairs. “Hey, wait!” They quickly vanished up to the second floor, where Zaniyah could be heard flailing about as she continued her tale.
Tish hesitated to follow them. “You seemed so down as of late. I thought that a celebration like this might cheer you up... I’m sorry, Vexi. I should’ve thought about it more carefully. It doesn’t seem like you’re having much fun at all.”
“That is just as much my fault,” replied Veximarl. “I apologize for not making my concerns clear before... Listening to such stories is a somewhat different experience for someone who had lived such tales on a day to day basis.” He bowed apologetically. “Go on and join the others, Tish. I’m going to go rest in my room.”
Tish wrung her hands together as Veximarl turned away from her. “V-Vexi!” He turned and looked over his shoulder. “Maybe it’s best if you aren’t alone right now. Would you like to have a cup of tea in the Macestar room? I could tell you about my family’s church if that would help. It’s quite the opposite of life in the swamp.”
He normally would tell her no, as Veximarl wasn’t completely dense. Tish had made it clear in the past that she bore feelings for him, and he had done his best to avoid the issue. Going with her now would be leading her on… However, he also couldn’t stand the thought of being alone.
“A quick cup of tea before bed would be pleasant. Thank you, Tish.”