A flock of starlings flew overhead just as Anais’ wolf howled out danger. “Vincent!” She stood up on the bench and cupped her hands around her mouth. “Tainted! Greater beast!”
Aside from the birds, the paladin hadn’t noticed anything unusual. However, Vincent trusted his team. He charged ahead on his horse to where Chickadee was still mindlessly plowing ahead. The blacksmith came to a stop as Vincent called up to him.
“This is an emergency order! Erect a barrier about the entire caravan! Now!”
Chickadee gave a nod and stood up. He tapped his cane against the ground and everything began to shake and rattle. Columns of stones shot up, quickly joining together into a bubble that encompassed the caravan. Darkness overtook them. Those who didn’t know what was happening began to let out panicked shouts.
“Don’t dismount!” Vincent’s voice echoed off the insides of the stone. “Get some lights! Avoid the animals! They may begin to panic!”
“Highland!” Moss’s voice echoed next. “What’s going on?!”
“Unknown, sir! We are taking precautions. We will resurvey the situation after a few minutes.” Vincent reached into his saddlebag and felt around for a lantern. A light began to glow about him.
The minimal light was enough for Alton to be able to see. He looked around and saw that Sybil had already wandered off. She had dismounted and was kneeling down by Chickadee, who was lying still on the ground. Alton quickly dismounted and jogged over as well.
“We’ve been pushing him too hard,” muttered Sybil. “It’s going to be hours before we can get out of here... I don’t think we’re going to make it to Carapace tonight. Maybe he can open up a hole for us to get out, but we’ll be safer to wait until tomorrow.”
Lanterns were starting to be lit up around the caravan. Alton frowned as nothing seemed to be happening. “I didn’t see anything, did you?” Sybil shook her head. She may have sensed something, but it seemed to be her imagination. “Vex must have convinced Highland to do it. He’s been on edge since last night.”
Alton lifted up Chickadee and began to walk back to the wagons. Ivy was quick to fetch some quilts to keep him warm. Lady Blu had made sure that they brought extra with them for the trip.
Anais jogged towards them. She had seen Alton carrying something and let out a gasp when she saw who it was. “Is Chi alright?”
“He’s overexerted himself,” replied Alton. “What’s going on?” He looked over to where Moss and Vincent were speaking.
“I don’t know. Vex started to say some weird things and all the animals seem to be on edge. Something about how there would be gods. The birds were thinking something large was passing through, but now that I think it about it, Chi’s magic could’ve been what startled them.” She gave Sybil a pleading glance. “You really need to go calm him down, Sybil. He’s not making any sense at all. I’m not sure what to do and you’re closer to him than anyone else.”
“I’m on it.” Sybil started to jog towards the front of the caravan.
“Alton, wait.” Alton turned and looked up Lydia. “Vex is simply being overcautious. I don’t believe any would-bes can make it this far south. Especially not with the wall that’s been built before the swamp.”
He gave Lydia a frown. It appeared as though she was hesitating. She always did that whenever she was hiding something “Anais, watch Chi for me. I don’t know if Chi made a stable barrier before passing out, so I’m going to check the edges for cracks.”
Lydia followed him as he walked towards the back wall, fumbling her hands together as she floated. “At least, I don’t believe they could make it this far? Would-bes are difficult to predict.”
“And what is a would-be?” Alton kept his back towards the caravan to make it look like he was staring at the wall. Lydia flew in front of him in order to keep eye contact.
“It’s almost like a tainted beast, but not. I suppose that’s the best way to put it. Remember your talk with Tyrtain? The miasma acts out whenever the gods are weakened. It attempts to create new gods to replace them. Would-bes are… Those who haven’t quite worked it out.”
Alton furrowed his brows. He hadn’t heard about any of this anywhere. “How is it that you know this?” Lydia’s knowledge was beginning to bother him more than it usually did. She gave a shake of her head. Of course, she wouldn’t answer him. Some things never changed. “Can you at least scout and see if something is out there?”
“She doesn’t have to. That is to say, she can’t. It’s better if the both of us to stay in here.”
Alton turned around and noticed that a woman was standing behind him. She was overly tall, with wavy black hair that curled about her shoulders. She was pale in complexion and she had a set of white eyes that were identical to Veximarl’s.
“... This better not be another ghost that’s here to haunt me.” She appeared to be standing firmly on the ground, unlike Lydia’s constant floating, but Alton had a feeling that no one else would be able to see her either.
Suddenly his eyes widened... He had seen her before. When he first pulled the rapier out from Volo Refuge, this was the woman who had appeared in his mind right before Lydia appeared. But why she was here now was beyond his understanding.
“Semira!” Lydia put a hand to her mouth. “How did you get so far out of Carapace? Did someone move you? I thought that my hiding place was quite a clever one.”
“Not clever enough. I’ve come across a difficulty.” She folded her arms.
From the expression she had, it didn’t seem like she liked Lydia. Her clothes were black, and she looked like the type to have a perpetual frown, where Lydia always had a smile. They were nearly complete opposites of each other.
“I would be so interested in hearing more about it! I’ve been stuck following Alton everywhere because he has my rapier. I am able to wander some distance away, but every day, poof! Right back with him!” Alton looked between the two and was struggling to comprehend how he should respond to this.
The sound of something massive bashed into the side of barrier and pebbles began to fall from above. “Now is not the time for this,” replied Semira in a harsh voice. “I saw Sybil carrying the heart through Carapace last summer. Why doesn’t she have it now? Why are you with this boy instead of her? How did she get her hands on the heart in the first place? You had promised me that it would be safely out of her grasp.”
Lydia began to straighten out her clothes. “Well, things happened. You know how it is, Semira. I honestly did believe that it would have remained idle in Volo Refuge forever. They ironically stored the thing right next to my rapier. Sybil came along to find my weapon and an emergency happened. This boy was the one who touched Baton instead. By the way, meet Alton. His mother is a siren and his father is an Aconite. Isn’t that interesting?”
“I swear, if this woman is related to Vex... I don’t know. I’m upset enough as it is.” Alton spoke in a harsh whisper. Not like he had to, the caravan had erupted into panicked shouts.
“Where is the heart, Lydia?” Semira repeated.
“It’s, uhm…” Lydia shrugged. “You see, well, Sybil was attacked earlier this month, and it was, how you say it... Stolen?”
A hiss escaped Semira’s lips as she put her hand to her forehead. Her whole body ticked as the barrier rattled around them again. “Everyone here is going to die if we do not find a way to disassemble the would-Be. Your idiot of a daughter activated the heart in the swamplands, and this thing became stuck in Carapace as it tried to track her down. It is now your job to help me fix this.”
“Well, it never was quite-”
“It is your job to fix this,” repeated Semira in a much harsher tone.
Alton looked between the two. “Should I even bother to understand what’s going on anymore?”
“Ah, yes! I didn’t introduce you!” Lydia floated over to Semira’s side. “This is Semira Morass. She’s a long time friend,” Semira scoffed at the idea, “and Vex’s mother. Yes, she’s also dead. No, she shouldn’t be haunting you.”
“I’m not dead. I’m dormant,” muttered Semira.
Alton’s only response was to stare at Lydia blankly.
“... And I see you have additional questions.” Alton nodded. “Alright, fine. I am Sybil’s biological mother. Happy?”
“No. I’m very much not happy,” he said through gritted teeth. “I already knew that.” He had also heard Semira’s name before and was now struggling to remember who had said it before.
Lydia put a hand to her chest as she let out a laugh. “Well, considering how Sybil is going to kill you when you reach Carapace, I suppose there’s no harm in going over what we can...” She took a deep breath. “No, Semira and I never planned on Vex and Sybil meeting again. Yes, we would’ve preferred it that way. No, she and I aren’t exactly friends, but as you can see, we have become stuck in a similar predicament. No, I don’t have time to explain how we ended up like this. Is that everything?”
He felt a cold anger was building up inside of him. “Why haven’t you been telling me everything from the start?”
“She couldn’t,” Semira replied on Lydia’s behalf. “She’s bound to a certain contract. There is only so much information she is able to divulge without breaking it.”
Something clicked in Alton’s head. “Semira Morales…” He then looked over to Lydia, surprised that he was able to meet this woman so soon. “You told me that Semira Morales was an associate of Aeneas Alcea and Erskine Fogbloom.”
“Bound to a certain contract,” repeated Semira through gritted teeth.
“I didn’t think it mattered since you were dead,” replied Lydia.
“Dormant,” repeated Semira.
Lydia shrugged. “They’re also dead. What does it matter?”
“This is precisely why I told Lydia that there would be no point in converting her blood iron into a golem.” Semira scoffed at her past mistakes. “A rapier simply hasn’t the space to put in the proper coding. One ends up with a flawed product that spouts all out sorts of information that should be kept secret!”
“It’s rather hurtful that you refer to me as a golem in front of Alton.” Lydia pouted all the harder as Semira shot her a glare. “He at least has the courtesy to treat me like a normal person. I treated you like a normal person when you were suffering from my affliction, so I ask that you do the same.”
Alton was now glaring at both of them. If Veximarl was a necromancer, that would mean his mother could be as well. Semira changed Lydia’s rapier, and she must have only done so after Lydia agreed to certain conditions. It would make sense that Semira wouldn’t want for Lydia to mention anything that could be used to harm herself or Veximarl.
“Are you able to tell me anything useful?” He narrowed his eyes.
Semira dismissed Lydia with a wave of her hand before she sought to address Alton. “The heart is one of the few weapons capable of destroying a would-be. Sybil is possibly the only person here capable of activating it, as Veximarl is having a fit. As such, this would be considered an emergency. I would appreciate it if that were the end of your questions.”
Alton shook his head. “But the Heart had been in the care of the Fogbloom family for generations. Sybil’s from the Alcea family. Why did the sword choose to switch to them?”
Semira was becoming annoyed. “Why is this boy so interested in your daughter? Does he not see the danger he is in? Does he not care?”
“Alton just adores her and he tends to have one track mind at times. I told you. He’s part siren. They’re all quite simple like that.” Semira gave a shrug as though that was a good enough answer. “If I find you in Carapace, should we discuss it more in detail? Alton ignores me all the time. It’s been so difficult to find anyone who will converse with me... You know how it is.”
“A simple answer would be nice,” muttered Alton.
Semira tossed him a look of disdain. “I will allow you to partake in a game. If you win, I will give you the information you seek.”
This made him all the more annoyed. “You said that we’re in an emergency.”
Semira shrugged again. “You were the one who didn’t seem to care about that. Alton, was it?” She looked to Lydia who nodded. “I will make a deal with you, Alton. If you find me in Carapace, I will be the one to answer all of your questions. The only rule I have is that Lydia is not allowed to help you. Is that understood?”
If it meant getting answers for Sybil, he would be willing to play a game of hide and seek. Even if it was the stupidest game ever, it was still better than, say, activating a golem that accidently resurrects an ancient god.
“Then the agreement is set.” Semira held her hand off to the side and Lydia shook it. “The would-be is weakened by a poison I have given it. Due to its ill state of mind, it may be possible that Veximarl will be able to ward it away long enough for you to make it to Carapace. However, you will need to fix him first.”
Lydia floated back to Alton’s side. “Would-bes may be failed gods, but they’re also a bit like the evil spirits you read about in stories. In order to become stronger, they devour those with magic. However, weaker ones can be temporarily warded to near nothingness by a good enough necromancer. Vex should be able to fix it, but…” She shrugged. “But what can we do?”
Alton should’ve never grabbed that useless rapier. He didn’t need two stupid ghost woman being coy with him. “I suppose I will handle it on my own...”
Most of the squires had gathered around the front wagon to discuss the situation. They were trapped as long as Chickadee was unconscious and Vincent had moved to the rear wagon to treat him. Without Chickadee, there wasn’t a guarantee that the barrier wouldn’t fail.
“At least we’ll end up crushed to death before whatever that is gets in,” muttered Ivy.
Sybil disagreed. “We can carve a hole wide enough for us to go through one at a time, but we need to decide on who goes out there. They’ll have to run distraction long enough for the rest of us to escape.”
“Why is that even a discussion?” Ivy held up her sword. “Your squad and Vincent are the only ones here with weapons that can hurt a tainted beast, and judging from the sounds that thing is making, it’s too big for your itty bitty daggers.”
“My daggers work just fine for me,” growled back Sybil.
“That sword you had would’ve worked a whole lot better.” Ivy let out a gasp. “Oh! I forgot! It got stolen, didn’t it?! Excellent work, Miss Twist. You lost one of the few damn weapons that could have saved us!”
Gwyn patted the back of her friend’s hand. “Ivy. Please shut up.” Ivy pouted back at her. “Angering them isn’t going to help us out.”
“Miss Hewitt is correct, Miss Nox,” scolded Moss. “However, I will agree that we are limited in our options.”
Alton joined them. “What are you all standing around for?” He pulled the rapier out and offered it to Gwyn. “I’m letting you borrow Baton. It should boost your magic. Would that be enough to strengthen the walls with your vines?”
Gwyn was hesitant. “Maybe not enough to keep whatever that is from breaking through, but I will see what I can do?” She took the rapier and went to locate the box with her seeds.
“How is Vex holding up?” Alton looked over to his sad excuse of a captain.
The necromancer was sitting on the ground with Sybil kneeling next to him. His hand was over his mouth, and he would make the occasional gagging noise whenever he tried to keep himself from vomiting. He kept his gaze to the ground, giving a shake of his head whenever Sybil asked for him to look at her.
“I think we lost him,” remarked Zaniyah. She was sitting on the other side Veximarl, giving him gentle pats on the back as though she were attempting to burp a baby. “Yeah, we’re not going to get him back. I think our only plan is to let me out there and have me hit it as hard as I can. That’s always worked for me in the past, and it seems like a pretty good idea now.”
“Because that worked so well against that wolf,” whispered Ivy.
Zaniyah stood up and put a hand on her axe handle. “I know it’ll work on you.”
“Now isn’t the time to fight,” growled out Alton, which made both of them shut up.
Alton didn’t want any of them going out there. He knelt down in front of Vex and yanked back violently on his hair so they could look eye to eye. “If you don’t snap out of this, we are all going to die. Do you hear me?!” The barrier shook again, and this time a sizeable chunk was knocked loose. It was enough to let some light in.
A massive claw scraped at the surface, catching into the hole in an attempt break it further open. Vines sprouted up the wall towards the sunlight. They thickened into branches that filled the cracks and twisted about the hole in an effort to block it off.
“Wha-” Ivy reached for the bastard sword on her back but didn’t pull it out. “That’s a tainted beast?!” Her voice cracked as she shouted out. “What did we even kill before?! A baby?!”
The claw that had peeked through was as large as a person, and that didn’t speak well to what the true size of the creature was. As miasma started to seep through the cracks in the stone, Alton was also struggling to remain calm. If these things ate magic, then sirens were definitely on the menu.
“Vex!” Alton tightened his grip on the necromancer’s hair. The pain had no effect on Veximarl’s blank expression. “I need you to ward that thing away! You can use your powers to dispel it and I will help you do that as long as you snap out of whatever stupid thing is holding you back!”
There was screaming in the back of Veximarl’s mind. A lake of blood amid a flurry of screams. And through it all, someone was singing. It sounded so sickeningly sweet when compared to the horror that laid around him... How could anyone sing at a time like that? As the tune played through his head, a quick double slap snapped him back to reality. He was staring at Alton’s face, barely illuminated by a lantern that was held up nearby.
“I-I cannot do this,” stammered out Veximarl as he shook his head back and forth. “I cannot go through this again, and again, and again. The would-bes are always after those I hold dear… I cannot survive this again.”
“You’re doing it anyways!” Alton dragged him up to a stand by the edges of his jacket and held him there while Zaniyah supported Veximarl from behind.
“Right, I-I… Wait, what are we d-doing..?” Veximarl nodded and then shook his head again. His hands were shaking as he went for the pieces of his spear. He dropped them before he could attempt to fit them together.
Sybil reached down and picked them up. “Let me.” She began to screw them together.
Alton let go of Veximarl’s clothes and the necromancer wobbled back and forth. He then looked over to where Semira and Lydia were. A shake of his head was given. There was no way Veximarl was going to save them. They needed a new plan.
Semira walked over, which was a slightly welcome change of pace to Lydia flying around everywhere. She stared at Veximarl with a scowl. “Your only other option is to kill it yourself, but none of you have a good enough weapon. However, if it suffers enough damage, it may dispel for a short period of time. You may be able to travel out of this thicker layer of miasma and gain a false sense of security.”
“I’m afraid she’s right,” agreed Lydia. “Doing damage will make it vanish for a short period of time. Warding will do the same, but that would last for several days. Possibly weeks if he can pull himself together.” She put a finger to her cheek while she thought. “Hitting him about didn’t seem to phase him all that much, but it sort of worked. Is there some other sort of shock we can use to get his senses together?”
“Nothing we do is going to work…” Alton muttered as he took a step back. This was all going wrong so fast. “Zan! Carve us an exit! We’re going with your stupid plan. Sybil, you’re the only one who can help Vex. Get him to save our asses, because we aren’t going to last out there for long.” She slowly nodded while staring at him like he was crazy.
“Yesss! Let’s do this!” Zaniyah snapped her axe free from her back and started to charge towards the wall.
“For your own safety, I really must protest to this! Please cease running about” Moss cried out. He had no idea how to even grasp ahold of this situation, but he was still the one in charge, despite Grimstone members always doing whatever they liked.
“Then tell Highland to hurry up and fix Chi so he can bail us out!” Shouted back Alton. He pulled out his own sword and began to run behind Zaniyah. She was already far ahead of him and nearing the edge of the wall sitting at the front of the caravan.
A set of swings from Zaniyah’s axe cut an ‘X’ through the rock, and the act of her shoulder slamming against the weak point let her bowl her way through. Vines curled around the newly made hole to prevent the cracks from spreading. They held the entrance open long enough for Alton to slip through before they sealed up behind him.
The fog was so thick that it almost felt like swimming, and the smell was so strong that Zaniyah was forced to cover her mouth with her arm, coughing and sputtering as she did so. Alton fared better, keeping his eyes peeled for any signs of movement within this cloud of white.
His translucent eyelids made it so that the miasma didn’t sting his eyes. The only thing he could make out was wisps of smoke moving here and there. However, the hairs on his neck were standing on end.
He ran towards Zaniyah, grabbed her about the waist, and pulling her out of the way just in time. Snow erupted around them as a massive hand slammed down where they had been standing. They tumbled for a moment, skidding to a stop before staring at this hint of the beast that they were facing. The hand was half the size of a wagon, and its overgrown claws dug up the road before the whole limb evaporated back into mist.
“What is even happening?” Zaniyah was taken aback by the sight. Where was the head? Where was the body? What was she even supposed to hit?!
Alton looked around. Lydia and Semira didn’t follow him out here. Maybe this creature had bodies similar to their own. He remembered that the tainted beasts he fought before were able to see Lydia. This monstrosity might be able to injure them and the ghosts had no way to defend themselves.
That didn’t bode well for himself or Zaniyah. “I think it can only manifest one piece of itself at a- Duck!” Both of them dropped to the ground again as a muzzle flew overhead and snapped shut. The echo resonating from its maw was enough to shatter the ice off of nearby trees.
Just as quickly as it had appeared, the muzzle vanished into mist. “What?!” Zaniyah repeated herself, even more confused than she had been a minute ago. “What do?!”
“Stay calm!” Alton shoved himself to a stand, looking about again as he did so. “New plan! Keep moving! Keep to the trees, don’t stop moving, and try not to die! Think you can manage that?!”
“Please. I can absolutely manage a game of dodge the doomy doom with ease.” She shot him a crazed grin. “Try to keep up! Anything that isn’t first place means death!” A giggle escaped her lips as she ran off into the fog. Her silhouette faded away, and another slam was heard as the creature put its paw down again.
“Zan!” Panic welled up inside of Alton. A moment of silence followed. “... Z-Zan?!”
“... I’m okay!” Her voice called back, but only after it felt like Alton’s heart dislodged itself.
“Make sure it stays that way!” He felt a cold hand press itself against his own, and he let out a shrill shriek of surprise.
“Are… Are you okay?!” Zaniyah called back.
Alton nodded. “I’m fine! Sybil came out with us! Shut up and keep moving already!” His heart was racing so fast that he hadn’t noticed that his ring had started to pulse. “What are you doing out here?! You should be fixing Vex!”
The mist swirled around for a moment, forming into a humanoid shape before turning into Sybil. She had a scarf tied about her face to protect herself from the miasma. Normally she popped right out of thin air, but the fog made her easier to see when she was using her mist step. It was oddly both creepy and interesting.
She looked around for signs of the monster. It appeared to be chasing Zaniyah for now, but it could switch to them at any moment. “I should be out here. I have more experience at this than you do,” she whispered. He winced at the innocent jab to his pride. “Hold still.”
Sybil held up a scarf from Chickadee’s collection and Alton leaned over so she could tie it about her face. She had run to get them as Alton and Zaniyah were charging outside, but they had already left by the time she grabbed a handful. To be honest, Alton didn’t feel all that sick from the miasma. That might be due to his siren half, but now wasn’t the time to wonder about that.
“Thank you,” he muttered.
“I’m going to give one to Zani as well so she doesn’t get sick.” She reached up to ruffle his hair. “Stay safe.”
“You too.” He watched her run off. A blink of his eyes and she was gone again, melting away into the mist as she went. The pulse in his ring faded, and he felt a sense of worry in the back of his head. “You better stay safe,” he whispered quietly, wondering to himself if there was a way to make sure he could keep himself alive as well.