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The ones within the barrier shuddered as the ground vibrated underneath them. Whatever that was, at least it didn’t seem to be after them anymore. Moss had run off to check on how Chickadee was faring, leaving Ivy and Veximarl alone. He still wasn’t doing well. Sure, he was standing up on his own, which was an improvement, but he still hadn’t moved at all.

Gwyn jogged up with rapier in hand. She attempted to put the rapier away, realized she couldn’t, then awkwardly stood there while holding it. “Miss Twist followed them out there. How is he doing?”

Ivy gave a sideways glance to Veximarl, who was still whispering to himself. “I don’t think he’s moving anytime soon. They said he might be able to ward it off, but the pressure must have gotten to him.”

“Please hold this.” Gwyn handed Ivy the rapier.

“Oh, sure. Thanks.” Now she was holding that and Veximarl’s spear, which Sybil had handed her earlier before running out. Feeling like a human weapon rack in a time of crisis wasn’t making her happy.

Gwyn stood in front of Veximarl. “Tuton!” She put her hands on his cheeks and made him look at her. “Mister Tuton, you are better than this. You took on Mister Kindrick by yourself and managed to hold him off in a stalemate. You’ve tamed tainted beasts. You must have done plenty of other insane ventures as well. This mustn’t be what frightens you.”

Her words made him freeze up all the more. He stiffened up and grimaced at the prospect of going out there. A shake of his head was given. “But, with… With…”

“Toval slapped him something fierce. It didn’t seem to work well, but it sure made me feel better,” said Ivy. “Go ahead and try it. I could use a pick me up.” She offered the spear as though that would help.

“You’re a squad captain!” Exclaimed Gwyn. “Your squad is out there fighting, while you are hiding like a coward in here! They are waiting for leadership! Your leadership!” His eyes widened slightly and his mouth stuttered while his brain attempted to function. “Ugh… Okay fine. Shock treatment. Whatever.” Gwyn hesitated. If it didn’t work, she’d have to off herself rather than live in the shame.

She moved her fingers to just behind his jawline and yanked him down for a forceful kiss. He hesitated at first and then eased into it. His arms instinctively went about her in an effort to keep her close. The moment was intense yet brief, with his hand suddenly snapping off to the side so he could snatch away his spear from Ivy.

Veximarl awkwardly hopped backwards as he attempted to make an escape. Resurgence was held up defensively as he pointed it from one woman to the other. “What is wrong with you?!” He squeaked out.

Gwyn had gone pale from horror. She yanked the waterskin off her belt and popped it open. Gurgling a mouthful, she spat it out into the snow below. “You weren’t supposed to enjoy that!” She began to rub at her mouth in an attempt to rid herself of the sensation of Veximarl licking her lips. “Y-you weren’t supposed to use your tongue!”

“It was a natural reflex and you cannot blame me for that! You… You shamefully lustful woman!”

Still awkwardly holding the rapier and not knowing what to do with it, Ivy looked between the two. “Are you two going to keep arguing, or is he going to do something about that thing that is trying to kill us? ... I can kiss him too if he thinks that will help because I don’t want to die.”

“No, no… Ah, yes, the would-be… R-right...” Veximarl put his hand to his mouth and thought to himself. “If we stay hidden, there is a good chance it will lose interest and go away.”

“Didn’t you hear anything anyone has been telling you?” Gwyn’s hands tensed into fists. She felt like punching him. “Your squad is out there fighting it right now!”

“... They did w-what..?” Veximarl’s eyes widened again in horror.

A clunking sound overlapping heavy footsteps was heard approaching. Vincent had just finished changing into his full armor. “What do you mean they left?” He said in a low and deadly voice. “Who is responsible for letting them leave?!”

Ivy shrugged. “Alton told Zaniyah to go and I’m not going to stand in front of her when she’s running off in full smash mode.” Vincent grabbed onto the hilt of his sword. “They’re fine! They obviously have a plan.” Vincent looked over to Gwyn, who gave a small shake of her head. “Well, they must have thought of something. No sane person would have run out there unguarded!”

 

---

 

No plan.

All risk.

Just how Zaniyah liked it.

Her eyes were closed, back pressed against a tree, and she was taking shallow breaths. The forest around her provided a net of safety. A faint trickle of snow fell from a branch behind her, and she broke out in a run. Ducking behind a different tree, it snapped apart like a toothpick as a series of claws went through it, and she was forced to roll out of the way of falling debris.

Not losing a beat, she swung her axe upward and severed one of the fingers off of its hand. It flew in the air, fading into nothing before it could make contact with the ground. Zaniyah spat out a curse. She couldn’t tell if she was doing any actual damage. It kept evaporating and coming together again in pieces, and she couldn’t wrap her brain around the situation.

The tap to her shoulder didn’t phase her. She was too busy trying to figure this out. “Hi, Sybil.”

“Tying a scarf around your face to help you breathe,” whispered Sybil back.

“Thanks. I was starting to get dizzy here. It’s getting hard to concentrate.” Zaniyah took to a knee so it would be easier for Sybil to tie it on. “I don’t want to admit it, but hitting it is not working. This is more annoying than I thought it would be.”

A low and booming growl was heard as Sybil pulled her hands away from Zaniyah. She turned around and pressed her back against her friend. Her hand clasped over her mouth to prevent herself from screaming.

The would-be was mere paces away, staying low as it stared at her. It was a weird mix between human and badger, and the shape of it was barely visible. Everything was mere wisps of mist that were barely forming together to form the monstrosity.

“What are you doing here? Are you after my prey, prophet?” The sound of its voice rattled her bones, and she pressed further into Zaniyah, who didn’t even flinch at the sound. “I have been stalking it longer than you have. This is my kill.”

Zaniyah tilted her head slightly. “Don’t press so hard against me, Sybil. I might not notice when it’s about to strike next.”

Strike next? It was right in front of her. The longer it held still, the more solid it was becoming. Sybil took in a sharp breath and whispered out, “You don’t-”

“-hear that?” Veximarl looked to the others.

“How could you let them run out there without telling me first?!” Vincent was absolutely livid at their behavior.

Twirling the rapier around, Ivy shrugged. “I can’t be responsible if I was outnumbered. The only thing I had was the fail paladin as my backup, but what am I supposed to do with him?”

“No one heard that?!” Veximarl cried out, and they looked at him in confusion. “The loud doom-like voice? It said something about prey… A-and...” He turned his head towards the hole that Zaniyah had made earlier. “... Sybil.”

“Do not dare to follow them! Not until we have a plan!” Vincent extended a hand out and his golem appeared in front of Veximarl. It held up its shield to block the necromancer. Veximarl ducked to the side and the vines pulled out of the way of the hole long enough for him to slip through. “Gwyndolyn!”

“He will be able to handle this,” said Gwyn as she looked off to the side. “The only reason he was having a fit before was because he knows what this monster is capable of.”

“And he understands that he is incapable of defeating it,” argued Vincent.

“He’s had to survive these battles his whole life, and Tuton has improved more than any of us since we started at Braytons. If anyone can do this, he can.”

Vincent looked towards the hole. “And what of Zaniyah?”

“Let it go,” said Ivy apathetically. A growl came from Vincent as he snapped his head in her direction. “Krogastein has those creepy animal instincts and the only thing she’s been taught at Braytons is how to dodge and how to hit. Trust your girlfriend to hold her own... She doesn’t need a knight to save her.”

“She only needs whatever Tuton is,” added Gwyn and the two girls nodded at each other.

Veximarl ran towards the sound of the voice. A trio of lights appeared from the tip of his spear and he snatched one of them out of the air. As it floated upward, Veximarl was carried with it. Martyr’s shape formed below him, and they were flanked by both Alex and Rite.

“Alton!” The squire was the first one he spotted. Extending out an arm, Alton caught it and was lifted up on Martyr’s back.

“What was it that finally got your attention?” Alton put a hand on Veximarl’s shoulder to keep himself steady. He really did not want to be riding Martyr again, but at least snow was soft. As long as he didn’t hit a tree when they inevitably crashed, he’d be fine.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he muttered. “Where is Sybil?”

“She went to give Zaniyah a scarf.” Alton squinted his eyes, but couldn’t see anything in the fog.

Veximarl was disturbed. “And you didn’t hear the voice that was threatening her?”

“It’s been quiet since she left.” Alton was an expert at hearing voices that no one else did. He would’ve been the first to hear it.

“It said something about prey and a prophet.”

Veximarl continued to hold his spear off to the side so it wouldn’t accidentally bump into Alton. Runes of purple and red light appeared near the blades. They spiraled out into a series of birds that flew into the woods. The birds evaporated the mist around them, leaving a line of clear sight ahead of the pair.

“Still didn’t hear anything,” Alton remarked.

A knot formed in Veximarl’s chest. “I think it noticed us within the swamp and attempted to track her. It must have lost the trail when we went into the core and has stayed in the area. I haven’t a clue on why it would be interested in her.”

From his research, Alton knew that Brayton had formed a group comprised of prophets of the old gods. His descendants formed Lustro, and it would make sense if their closest allies were also prophets. If that was the case, the line of Alcea would logically be the prophets of Bellia.

“The prophets must be those who have the powers of the old gods,” remarked Alton. Though Tyrtain also claimed that Veximarl was a prophet.

“We should all sit down and have a long talk once we have arrived in Carapace. We need the time to tell Chi and Zan the truth and to establish a plan!” The only truth that would remain hidden was that Veximarl was a necromancer. The fewer people who knew about that, the better. “For your own safety, I suggest you prepare to dismount!”

Martyr slowed down long enough for Alton to jump off before charging off again. Ahead was Sybil and closely behind was a cloud of mist and rage. As its hand went out to snatch her up, Alex and Rite shot out their webbing. They looped about a set of trees and yanked hard enough to create a narrow opening for Sybil to slip through.

A strong breeze blew their way, and another hand appeared long enough to crush the pair of foxes. Veximarl winced and muttered an apology to them under his breath. He raised his spear up again, and the birds he had summoned earlier started to pelt into the would-be itself. The darker miasma cleared away enough to allow the others to see its ghostly body.

“Whoa!” Zaniyah had climbed up a tree in order to get a better look of the area. “Hey, Vex!” She waved as Martyr ran beneath her. “You need help?”

“Assist Alton!” The necromancer called back. He then patted Martyr’s back. “I’m sorry, friend, but I need you to distract that monster whilst I work on my incantations,”

Once again Martyr slowed down long enough for Veximarl to dismount. She flipped her tail back and forth, eyes darting about as she sought out a target. Leaping upward, she caught onto the back of the would-be’s neck and began to tear at it with her teeth and claws. A howl rumbled loudly through the forest.

Her semi-solid body was having more luck than their weapons were. Veximarl resummoned Alex and Rite. Neither would have much luck. The would-be easily snapped their webs and fire didn’t affect it at all. While they maintained their distraction, Veximarl worked on his incantations. He dropped to one knee, holding a set of fingers to his mouth as he started to chant out a prayer.

Springing from branch to branch, Zaniyah dropped down to the ground just in time to see Alton as he was running past. “Hey, Alton!” She started to jog next to him. “I can’t really tell what’s going on, but that thing is majorly mad at Sybil. Like, really, really mad! She muttered something about fighting something for its prey and suddenly it went ballistic!”

Alton finally spotted Sybil and started to run towards her. “I already know that. Twist!” He called out to her. “Why aren’t you stealthed?!”

Sybil watched as the would-be let out a bellowing roar, clawing at itself in order to get Martyr off of it. She then ducked behind a tree and waited for her friends to catch up to her.

“It could see me... I’m not sure what to do. We can’t go back to the others at this rate.” She was at her wit's end. No sword, no mistly advisors, no superpowers. Having the sword stolen from her had made her the absolute worst.

“Here’s the plan.” Alton nodded at the two women. “Make sure none of us die and protect Vex while he’s figuring out what the actual plan is.”

“You take Remi’s special strategy classes and that’s the best thing you could come up with?” Zaniyah squinted at Alton.

He frowned in return. “And as you may have noticed, Sir Moss is hiding with his squad. I don’t think he was the best candidate for the job, and he’s not our knight. Grimhawk and Stonetoe are. You and I both know exactly what sort of advice they would give. Stay alive long enough to figure out how to win later.”

Zaniyah scrunched up her nose. “I think mama would suggest we go drinking and let someone else deal with it while papa wandered around looking for something to snack on. Now that I think about it, I am kinda hungry.” She pulled a flask of water off her belt and took a sip from it in the same manner that Stonetoe drank from his flask of alcohol. “I think I still have some biscuits hiding in the wagon.”

“Okay, sweetie?” Sybil put her hand on Zaniyah’s shoulder. “When we get back to Braytons, we are going to put in a request for you to have lessons with other squads. You need to spend more time away from those two.”

Alton was more concerned about the current situation. It didn’t sound like Martyr was going to last much longer and the sound of a crack followed by a yelp meant that at least one of the foxes had just gone down again.

“If that thing realizes what Vex is doing, he’s going to be in trouble. Twist seems to be the priority target. How are we splitting this?”

“You and Sybil obviously have a thing.” Zaniyah shrugged. “You’re the one who should be by her side.”

“She’s just as important to you as she is to me and we should focus on our abilities rather than who loves her more.” Alton looked over to Veximarl, who still hadn’t moved. “I’ll stay with Vex. You two stay light on your feet.”

That seemed like the best strategy. Zaniyah was fast, and she had keener senses than Alton did. She’d be able to last longer than he would. A smile was shared between the two, and Zaniyah turned and grabbed Sybil’s wrist in the process. Despite her friend’s protests, Zaniyah kept running while Alton went to Veximarl.

His collar was strapped around his neck, and he slipped a mist charge into it. They were back in the Crimson Region. He shouldn’t be at risk of his head blowing off... Maybe… Using a mist change in an area flooded with mist might cause it to overload, but he needed as much power as possible. That and Chickadee had made some adjustments to it while promising a million times over that it would be safe. That made him feel… Slightly more confident about his chances.

“Standing behind you to provide defense. Don’t catch me up in anything.” Alton positioned himself behind Veximarl and pulled down his scarf. It was making it hard for him to breathe. To his surprise, a shadow stepped out from behind one of the trees.

“Listen and burn it into your mind,” said Semira.

Semira’s eyes closed and she put a hand to her chest, taking a deep breath as she did so. Her lips parted and her voice rang out clear and beautiful. The melody twisted about the air. Alton shook his head at the sight, struggling to comprehend what she was singing.

It was a siren song. A melody which no human should be able to perform.

Something within Alton’s blood began to boil. He began to hum along, despite not knowing the tune. Alton understood every word of poetry and could sense each note’s purpose. A drop here, vibrato there, and then… Yes. He had it. The song which his soul had somehow known since long before he was conceived.

Veximarl continued to murmur to himself, giving a nod to Alton to acknowledge his presence. Lines began to appear in the snow, forming in the shape of a runic circle about the pair. Semira stepped off to the side so that she wouldn’t be standing on his spell, but continued to sing.

The would-be finally managed to get a grasp on Martyr. It impaled her on a nearby tree and then turned its sights on Veximarl. Mist began to solidify about its head and neck as it leaned it for a closer look.

“You’ve wandered far from safe haven.” The maw of the would-be snarled, showing off rows upon rows of sharp teeth. “But I have found you again... You who will be my meal.”

“By the core, it can talk.” Zaniyah’s eyes went wide as she dropped Sybil’s wrist.

Sybil peeked around their hiding spot. “We need to draw it away from Vex.”

“Our weapons do nothing but go right through it. When I say it goes through it, it’s not in the fun blood splattering sort of way, but in the completely useless fwoosh kind of way. What can we do?”

Looking down at her hand, Sybil began to concentrate. The mist around her began to gather around her palm and fingertips. “Try to hit it with some wind blades to slow it down. Use one of the mist charges that Caitlin gave us.” She kept losing her grasp on the mist. “Stupid powers, come on…” Sybil pulled down her scarf and began to breathe in the miasma, hoping that would help.

Zaniyah gave a nod as she retrieved a charge. She inserted it the head of her axe, giving a few practice swings first and then a firm one. A thick blade of wind shot from her weapon, cleaving trees in half as it flew towards the would-be. It stumbled off to the side and growled loudly, but remained unharmed.

A shake of its head and it broke out into a full charge. Not towards Zaniyah, but towards Veximarl. Semira halted her song. She held out a hand towards the would-be and closed her hand into a fist. Both she and the would-be let out a pained yelp, and Semira fell down to one knee.

“Have you memorized it?” She looked up at Alton.

“... Yes.”

“Can you perform it?”

He wasn’t certain. The range of Semira’s voice wasn’t something Alton had attempted before. “... Yes.” Semira briefly smirked before she vanished into a puff of ash.

Alton inhaled deeply and his voice ran out clear and loud. Outstretching his hand, the snow around him and Veximarl began to hover. They tightened into the shape of swords that then began to dance around the would-be in an attempt to keep it from getting closer.

Elementalists communicated with the magical energies within nature and asked for it to obey their will. Sirens became one with it. Alton may be out of the native oceans of his ancestors, but the snowfield around him was still made of water. Even a half-blood like him could use it as freely as any limb as long as he had the right tune.

Switching the pitch of his tune, the winds about the pair began to pick up. The would-be dugs its claws into the ground as gusts of wind began to force it back. Zaniyah lowered her axe, in awe of the sight before her. How was she supposed to help in this sort of situation?

“Those two… They’re actually pretty strong, aren’t they Sybil?” She turned to look for her friend, but Sybil had vanished on her. “Hey! Sybil?! Where did you go?!”

Trying to concentrate on his own prayers, Veximarl was having trouble due to Alton’s singing. Why did it have to be singing? Everything had gone red in his mind, scattered with broken shadows and the sounds of death. He tensed up at the memory and his prayers began to stutter. … How could anyone sing at a time like this?

Alton’s music sounded inhuman. Like crazed notes were being frantically hammered out upon an instrument. The melody twisting about and coming to life in the form of his spellwork, but Veximarl could also hear that his voice was beginning to crack. The strain on Alton’s throat must be immense, but he was doing this so Veximarl could finish casting his own incantation. He had to pull through or else they would all pay the price.

“I’m here for you, Vex.”

Opening his eyes, Veximarl looked up at Sybil. She had taken off her gloves, and her ice-cold hands reached up and touched his cheeks. They were pale, and mist was trailing off of them and now around his face.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he said in a harsh whisper.

“Are you having trouble?” She knelt down so he wouldn’t have to strain so hard to maintain eye contact.

He gave a hesitant nod. “I… I’m frightened.”

“We’re all here for you,” she replied.

Veximarl shook his head. “This is the third encounter I’ve had with a would-be. The first was summoned by my father to kill my mother. The second murdered Lady Grulick. I was forced to use her body to distract it while I attempted to form my spell. Now that same monster is here again, and somehow stronger. I am petrified by the thought of any of you dying before I get a chance to ward it. What if I am forced to use your bodies for my own safety?”

“None of us will die so easily.”

Grulick was also not one to die easily, yet… “It seems so much more powerful than the last time… My spell isn’t taking root.”

“Mist is pure magic, isn’t it?” Sybil smiled at him.

“Yes, but I’ve had to purge the surrounding area of it. All of it is far too tainted by miasma.”

Sybil moved to stand behind Veximarl. She flicked out her fingers and a cloud of mist overtook the trio. It hovered to the ground, nearly cloaking the still kneeling Veximarl in the process. Only his head was above it.

“Take as much as you need,” said Sybil.

Veximarl closed his eyes and wafted some of the mist towards his face. It smelled of dust and mist. Not the tainted kind, but the pure kind. It didn’t strengthen his spell by much, but it did calm his worries and focus his thoughts. Once more did he begin his prayers, and the lines of mana around them started to glow more brightly.

“... I ask that Tria guard my home, and to balance what has been flawed,” began Veximarl as he stood up. “You encroach upon hallow ground this day! I banish you from this land, only to return once my gods are dead! Until then, long shall Tria guide her brood!”

Birds flew up from the ground. As a flock, they began to dive towards the would-be. They spattered against its body and their feathers stuck like tar. The would-be began to turn dark as it clawed at itself. Loud cries echoed across the valley as its body started to melt away.

It was only then that Veximarl got a good look at the monstrosity. He understood at that moment that this was not the first time he had seen it. Somewhere, deep within his mind, he knew this beast. This truly was Grulick’s killer. How it had gotten here, or how it had followed both him and Sybil without them noticing was beyond his comprehension.

The winds began to die down, and the swords that had been their protective barrier thunked into the ground about them. Veximarl dropped his spear and wrapped his arms around Sybil. He let out a sigh of relief as he squeezed her as tightly as he could.

“Thank goodness... I felt my heart stop when I heard it threaten you. Are you alright?” He whispered in her ear.

Sybil returned his hug. “I’m fine. There are times where I really can hold my own, you know? I’m more worried about the two of you... Are you okay?” She looked up at Alton, who was now glaring at them.

He hadn’t even noticed her sneak up on them. Letting out a sharp exhale of annoyance, he wretched the collar off of his neck. Behind them, the sounds of wind were picking up again. Chickadee came riding in on a board of stone. He had just finished strengthening the barrier and was now on his way to help.

Sybil gave a pat to Veximarl’s back. “Chickadee’s here. Let’s return to the others.” The necromancer slumped against her body as his arms slid off of her. “Ah... I think he passed out again.” Alton rolled his eyes at her remark. He then raised his hand and waved at Zaniyah to show that they were alright.

Zaniyah only partially waved back. “Hi, Chi,” she whispered as Chickadee pulled up. She had put away her axe and was now wringing her hands together behind her back. Her eyes flitted towards the trio and then to Chickadee again. “... Have you ever felt, you know, like you yourself are strong, and you are the one that’s supposed to protect everybody, but… You’re actually pretty weak and they might not need your help at all?” He blinked at her. “No. Of course, you haven’t. You’re also amazing, Chi.”

Standing up on his tippy toes, Chickadee gave a pat to her head. “No one thinks you’re weak.” She sighed at his remark, pulling the scarf away from her face and holding it out for him to take. “All of us need you here. Don’t forget that.” He frowned as her expression darkened. “... What about magic? There’s still time to learn. I’ll help you.”

Zaniyah shook her head. “You know that I can’t do that. Magic and me are just never gonna get along.” She frowned to herself. “... It looks like Vex passed out. It’s my job to carry him. Seems like that’s the only thing I’m good at.”

Chickadee put together a raft made of stone, and the rest of them got on it. He then opened up a gap within the barrier when they reached it. The first to rush out to greet them was Vincent, who immediately went to Zaniyah so he could kiss her cheek. Zaniyah leaned her head against his shoulder and neither said anything.

They stashed Veximarl in one of the wagons and left as quickly as possible. Ivy sat with him to make sure he wouldn’t slip out somehow. As they waited for Chickadee to double check the road ahead, Alton approached Vincent. He patted the paladin’s arm before pointing to his throat.

“You destroyed your voice again?” Vincent shook his head as Alton nodded. “I will remind you that you need to find a safer method for casting your stronger spells. You’d be finished if you didn’t have a healer with you.” He touched a set of fingers to Alton’s neck. “This isn’t the sort of damage that I can fully repair. You’ll have to wait for the rest of it to heal on its own.”

Alton frowned at him.

“I suggest you check with Veximarl.” Vincent’s statement made Alton frown all the harder. He didn’t want to have necromancy magic cast on him if he could avoid it. “He may have some herbs that will help with your throat. If you do not feel like waiting, Gwyn may have something you can use as well.

Both of those sounded like a pain. Gwyn wouldn’t understand right away and he didn’t feel like playing charades. Alton tossed his hands in the air and went mount Bibi.

Ahead of them, Chickadee had finished forming his plow and was meditating on top of it. His cane was being anxiously twirled between his fingers. He was angry. While his friends were fighting for their lives, he was unconscious. Everyone was safe, that’s what was important, but he, just like Zaniyah, felt annoyed about his lack of contribution. For now, he’d use that rage to push their way to Carapace.

The plow forced its way through, and the caravan drove on behind him. They didn’t slow until they were safe from the valley. Zaniyah was sitting on the front wagon and relaying the fight to Moss so that he could put it in his report.

“And then there were giant swords made of ice swishing about and birds committing suicide as they bashed repeatedly against the monster’s body!” Anais gasped at Zaniyah’s statement. “No, no! It’s fine! They were magic summoned birds! These ones were meant to blow up!”

Moss was hesitant to write any of that down. “An interesting tale” He flipped through his notebook. It was for the best that he ask Alton or Veximarl for the details once they were able to speak. “When we reach the Toval estate, Miss Krogastein, I believe you should spend your first night with them.” She tilted her head at his statement. “You will have a heavy and dangerous workload during your stay. Spend some time with your friends before then.”

“Ah! I get it! Thanks, Remi!” She beamed while he grimaced at the use of his first name. He wasn’t going to argue against it, as he had always had a weakness when it came to women, but it still annoyed him.

They entered the city and reached the Toval estate around mid-afternoon. It was a tall, thin manor on a property that was large enough to house a small stable and a garden. The plan was to unload Grimstone first and then Baron Squad would drop off their wagons before making their way to the Highland estate.

Zaniyah stared up at the building, which was covered in carvings of flowers and wheat. It was also colored by the white and green lichen growing on it. “Fancy.” Just like every other outland house. She leaned her back against the fence next to the front gate.

“I will see you in the morning.” Vincent gave her a kiss to the temple, which did wonders to brighten her mood. “Would you like me to bring anything?”

“Seeing you is enough.” She was grinning, but inside she was terrified at the idea of meeting his family. “And maybe five years of lessons on how to be a proper lady.”

He laughed at her remark. “You will be fine.” Vincent tossed a glance to the rest of Grimstone as they approached. Veximarl was moving sluggishly but he was at least awake. He and Vincent exchanged a nod. “Take care of her.”

Alton scoffed. “It’s only for one night.” His voice was raspy and quieter than usual. It actually sounded horrid. He shouldn’t be talking at all, but he couldn’t resist the chance to give Vincent some lip. “Save your complaints for when we go on an actual mission.”

Bouncing up and down, Zaniyah had an idea. “But this is an actual mission!” She pointed to the estate as the gates started to open on their own. “Operation Alton investigation! Unsociable perverted outlander, or somehow something else?! Let’s find out!”

“Stay out of my room,” he replied in a threatening manner.

“And we’ve already gotten the first location for our investigation!” Zaniyah pecked Vincent on the cheek. “See you in the morning!” She immediately made her way past the gate and bounded up the pathway.

“Zan!” Alton clutched at his throat. “Chi!” The mage had taken off after her. Not to stop her, but to be the second in command of the investigation.

The sudden shout sent waves of pain through Alton’s throat, and neither of them paused to see if he was alright. Zaniyah was skipping up the steps as the front door began to open. That morning fight had beaten down her confidence but a new type of battle was just beginning!

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About the author

Adelaide West

Bio: Author of the Grimstone Series and Duck and Wolf.

I have a Twitter. I check it often, so I guess tag me anytime you want. I just don't post very often. @AdelaideGWest

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