A heavy wind rattled the stable building as a blizzard started to settle in. Alton spoke softly to Bibi as he eased her into her box. “Easy there. I won’t be far and Oyster and Rux will keep you company. You like those two, right?” She shook her head back and forth. “The wind should die down by morning. We’ll leave then.”
But he wasn’t sure if it would. It looked worse than ones he had seen in the past and Moss said that they should be prepared to stay holed up here an extra day if needed. He started to walk away, still stressing about it when Sybil grabbed at his wrist. Alton looked down at his hand as she slipped something into it.
… It was a condom.
He took a step back from shock. “What’s this for?”
“You’ve never had one available whenever we’ve had the opportunity,” she whispered as she looked away. “We have some time before they’ll come looking for us, so I thought... We could try it?”
A lump formed in Alton’s throat as she stared at her blankly. Something stopped in his brain for a moment, and he rattled it back into functioning order with a shake of his head. “Not exactly the best time for that.”
“Later tonight then? There’s plenty of rooms. I don’t think anyone would care.”
“No, it’s not that.” Alton slipped the condom in his jacket pocket and put his arms behind his back. “We haven’t done it before. Actually, we have. We absolutely have with other people that weren’t a combination of us, and... Sorry. I do want this, but I wanted to wait until after we’re in Carapace.”
Sybil was confused. “Now is just as good of a time as any.”
“Yes, but I want to take you out on a date first.” Her nose scrunched up. “I want to take you someplace special where we can talk for a bit and then I plan on spending an entire night lavishing you with attention.”
“That’s far from necessary.”
“From that point on, we will truly belong to each other. I need it to be special. I want it to be unforgettable,” he whispered. “Would you do me the honor of waiting for that moment to come?”
Sybil rolled her eyes and walked past him. “I’m telling you, it’s going to be a waste of time.” She turned and looked at him over her shoulder. “But fine. I’m not going to do any weird stuff, or whatever you have planned, so I better not see some kink-filled playroom when we get there.”
In truth, she just wanted to get one chance to fully work him through her system before he dumped her. She was still convinced that Carapace was the end of the relationship, even if Alton assured her that that was foolish thinking. Foolish, perhaps, but he was still acting distant.
Sybil felt like an idiot for bringing it up in the first place. She moved to the pub area of the tavern where the Braytons squires had gathered. Veximarl, Vincent, and Zaniyah were sitting at a table together, and she had decided to join them.
Veximarl had his hand to his mouth and was appearing pale. With every rattle the building, he would shudder and shut his eyes tight. Was he having flashbacks again? He did live in a tree house. Blizzards in the swamp did seem like a terrifying ordeal.
“Are you doing alright there, Vex?” Sybil put a hand on his shoulder, and he winced as though her touch had burned him.
“I don’t know,” replied Zaniyah for him. “He’s been like that since the winds started to pick up. Doesn’t seem to respond to anything.” She sniffed about the air. “It would be nice if they died down at some point. I can smell the miasma leaking through the cracks of the walls.”
Veximarl knocked over his chair as he suddenly stood up. “I don’t wish to be rude, but…” He shook his head, not saying another thing as he got up and walked towards the bar. Zaniyah cringed at the sight before picking up his chair for him.
The bar had long been picked clean of any alcohol by other travelers, which made it a quiet space for Chickadee and Anais to sit. They had been talking about what the core was like but now they were staring at Veximarl as he walked up. He had his arms tightly around his torso and was moving in short, pained steps. To Chickadee, the necromancer looked like he had soiled himself and was about to ask if they had any spare underwear.
“Chi, I was th-thinking,” he stammered out. “Since the storm might go through the night, we should take precautions and put up a stone barrier around the inn. Do you think you can manage that?”
“The building is resilient enough to stand on its own,” replied Chickadee.
“We could as Gwyn to see if her vines might make the roof stop shaking,” added Anais.
Veximarl shook his head. “I doubt the vines will stand up to freezing temperatures.”
“The building is fine,” repeated Chickadee.
“But we are deep within tainted beast territory now.” Veximarl shivered at the thought. Indoors where there were no nearby trees to climb and plenty of crevices where ambushes could burst out from. “The storm prevents us from having guards outside. It’s better for us to put up a barrier and drop it in the morning.”
Anais attempted to find a compromise. “I noticed that there was less movement of native animals as we were passing through earlier. That might be because they sensed the storm coming, but they could also be avoiding a predator... I’m probably feeling paranoid though. It’s just as likely that they’ve gone into hibernation.”
It seemed like a waste of energy. Putting up barriers night after night and clearing the roads during the day had put a lot of stain on Chickadee. However, he wouldn’t mind doing it again if it would put Veximarl at ease. “It will take a few minutes.”
Veximarl calmed down a great deal once he could no longer hear the wind. This was the sort of weather that left him remembering the night Lady Grulick had died. The beast that ended her life was a rare example and he didn’t want to see another one of those for as long as he lived.
The storms had settled by the time the sun rose. They were set to take the safest route to Carapace. What they found instead were absent roads, hidden by a late night avalanche. Clearing them with earth magic would only result in causing another one.
“We will have to take the eastern pass.” Moss pointed to a trail that led down into a forest filled valley. He was holding a meeting with Vincent and Veximarl. The three had been going over a map together.
“Tainted beasts feel most comfortable in the thickest parts of miasma. The valley is the perfect opportunity for an ambush,” retorted Veximarl. “We cannot risk ourselves by heading through their territory.”
Vincent agreed with the statement. “That is one of the roads that the army suggested remain closed over the winter due to such concerns. It is likely that we will find ourselves trapped due to no one maintaining it.”
Moss shook his head. “I agree. At the same time, I disagree. You two are pupils of mine so I will challenge you with this scenario. Think this through carefully.”
It was at that moment that Veximarl remembered that Moss was only three years older than himself and had become a teaching knight immediately upon graduation. The gap in their experiences was perhaps not as different as he would’ve liked.
Vincent glanced to Veximarl and the two shared a frown. “I will not risk us being caught in an avalanche. We can make it to Carapace by late afternoon if we have Cully in front as a plow.”
“Though he is attempting to be strong, I assure you that he is quite weary,” argued Veximarl. “We must consider his stamina along with the threat of tainted beasts.”
“We had to make a choice when we started to have either more supplies for a time of emergency or to move faster. We chose to move faster,” retorted Vincent. “Traveling in winter is a foolish endeavor. We knew this. The weather will only worsen and our animals will soon be at risk. Stalling is not an option.”
There was no opportunity to ration their supplies. Everyone needed to keep their strength in the event of a fight. The horses and mules especially couldn’t have their resources cut back. Chickadee was also a concern as well. Veximarl let out a strained sigh and gave a nod.
Moss nodded as well. “You two have reached your answer?”
“We will change our riding order,” replied Vincent. “Vex, I would like you to ride in front with Anais. Zani can ride on top of the wagon and act as one of the lookouts. Sir Moss, I would prefer it if you were on the left flank with myself.”
Moss understood that his fighting capabilities weren’t as strong as some of the other squires. Pairing him with Vincent was the wisest choice for equalizing their forces. “Very well. Keep your eyes open, and for Mart’s sake, stay safe.”
They left the inn behind and carried on until they reached the entrance of the valley. A sign was posted at the entrance. It was a warning that those who entered would not have their safety guaranteed. After going over the plan once more with the others, they all went to work.
Chickadee was woken up so he could begin casting. He pulled a stone plow up from the earth and sat on top of it. Progress was slow, but he was able to shove any fallen trees and snow off to the sides of the road.
All of them were uneasy. They traveled in silence, studying the shadows out of fear that they might move. Veximarl’s worries from the night before had tripled. He tried to keep alert, but he kept losing his concentration. Occasionally he would lift his nose and sniff like an animal. Snow, pine trees, and the weight of miasma that was growing heavier by the second.
He gave a firm tug in order to force the mules to stop. Veximarl’s heart was racing. The urge to vomit was overwhelming. He needed to remain calm but he couldn’t. This wasn’t the swamp. He didn’t have the mounds of the dead beneath him to act as his defenses. There wasn’t anything he could do to help if danger appeared. Even if there were bodies nearby, his secret had to be kept preserved. At all costs, he had to keep his powers hidden.
“Vex?” Anais reached out and touched his shoulder.
“... Would-be.” He whispered it quietly.
Anais didn’t understand. The sound of rustling made her look into the wagon. Her wolf was sniffing about. A low growl was let out. He had become frightened of something. “I’m sorry, Vex... Is there something coming? What is it?”
Veximarl was there again. The space that haunted the darkest of his dreams. His bone barrier was breaking around him. Outside of it, the monstrosity was screaming for his flesh. Within his arms, Grulick was letting out choked whispers.
She was pleading with him to complete their deal. Veximarl shook his head. He never wanted to use such magic on her. Grulick reminded him that he would be alone otherwise. The last thing he would ever want was to be alone.
His hand flexed and the skin split open over the veins of his wrists. The blood flowed and crystallized into a soul gem. Veximarl could already feel the life fleeing from Grulicks body. He needed to be quick. A brief whisper was all he needed to finish her off and to encase the soul within the gem.
Veximarl had always referred to Grulick as his mentor. However, this was the woman who rescued him from his father. The woman who raised him… To him, this was his mother... Now all she was was another dead body. Another tool he would be forced to use to defend himself from the beast that was still after his life.
A shake broke him back to reality. Anais had put her hand on his shoulder. Veximarl looked at her with a set of wide eyes. His pupils had constricted to a thin line, nearly making his entire eye appear white. Fear was tightening his throat, only allowing a course whisper to escape as he spoke the name of the entity that was once again threatening his life.
“They Who Would Be Gods.”