JACKAL AMONG SNAKES - C.616: Shadow Cast by Fire


C.616: Shadow Cast by Fire

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Argrave stared into the fire as it roared. Some time ago it had been something familiar, but now it was only flame. There was no service—just a searing fire contained by a makeshift stone structure that signaled that the time for mourning Vasquer around Blackgard, and perhaps all of Vasquer. While it burned, Argrave’s mind kept running back to what Orion had asked of him. His brother had graciously decided to let him think on the matter.

He didn’t like these Fruits of Being, anymore. He’d been eager to get his hands on them, but after his powerlessness in preventing the death of their matriarch, it felt like nothing special. Maybe it was even something malignant. Despite the fear they might be tainted, he couldn’t deny there was a possessiveness blossoming in his heart. A hope they might be used for something else, or a desire to give it to the ‘right’ person.

Was Orion the ‘right’ person, or did he already have enough advantages in life?

Argrave’s instinct was to do nothing rashly, because Orion’s question was assuredly motivated by the grief of losing their ancestor. Elenore had cried in front of him, and Orion had the ambition to gain yet more power in pursuit of vengeance. Vasquer’s death had changed the temperament of two key factors in the Kingdom of Vasquer. Perhaps three, if Argrave counted himself, but he felt he was coping well.

Argrave felt a sense of déjà vu as the heat from the fire continued to assail him. His mind searched through what he might be thinking of, and eventually the answer came to him. Relize, the city hosted at a strategic location in an inland sea. He couldn’t think of why that came to mind until he remembered the bulk of time that he’d spent there. It had inspired one of his most outlandish feats; impersonating a snow elf to infiltrate and eventually gain control over the entire north of Vasquer.𝑓𝑟𝑒𝑒𝔀𝓮𝘣𝘯𝘰𝘷𝑒𝓵.𝒸𝑜𝘮

He felt déjà vu because he felt the same feeling as he had, then. Stagnation.

Victory in the Great Chu and consolidation of the world’s deities into the Blackgard Union had been a change of mode, taking him from an active fight against a specifically defined enemy to a nebulous gathering of power. Finding Lindon, even, hadn’t been an especially proactive move. Rather, it had been handed to him—though, perhaps saying it was forced into his hands was a better way of putting it.

Eight months remained until Gerechtigkeit revealed himself, if all stayed as it was from Heroes of Berendar. Argrave couldn’t be totally sure of that fact. That was a long time to wait, hat in hand, while Gerechtigkeit attempted all manner of ungodly things. If he had many more tricks up his sleeve, more than Vasquer alone could perish. Lindon—if indeed that had been him—claimed his siblings were vulnerable, as they were related to Gilderwatchers. That meant Nikoletta was, too. Argrave suspected many noble houses carried at least some lineage with the royal house. Much of their leadership structure was vulnerable, but all that could be done was wait for the research team or other sources further information. Stagnation.

On top of that, Traugott would be scheming and conniving for any opportunity to get at Sophia, to get at Argrave. He hid within the Shadowlands, apparently, with a body made in Good King Norman’s image bearing the flesh of a Shadowlander. In Heroes of Berendar, the Shadowlanders had come months before Gerechtigkeit did, rising from the sea, falling from the sky, and crawling from the depths beneath the earth. Once again, all that could be done was wait for him to poke his head from his mole hole, where Anneliese would hopefully lock him into a duel he wasn’t certain she could win. Stagnation.

The White Planes were breaking? Wait until they learn more. The Gilderwatchers might be moving? Wait until Raven can confirm that. The Fruits of Being? Wait until an opportunity arises. Everyone’s minds are under attack? Wait until the research team devises a countermeasure.

It seemed that every time Argrave stopped running toward a goal, something caught up with him. As a rule, rushing water was cleaner than stagnant water. Being one step ahead was his bread and butter. He wasn’t a defensive player. Even when the Qircassian Coalition had come knocking on the door, he’d ended up sailing overseas to bring the fight to them. That had come with its ups and downs, but ultimately they had emerged as the winner beyond a shadow of a doubt.

It was better to be the invader than the invaded, right?

The best outcome would be not to have a war at all, but Argrave knew that it was an inevitability. Even if Traugott or Gerechtigkeit offered a peace of some kind, he wouldn’t accept it. After all that they’d done and tried to do, they deserved to be wiped out entirely. The world would be a better place without them drawing breath.

Two enemies stood in their path, as Argrave saw it. Traugott and Gerechtigkeit. The latter was beyond reach, for now, while the former… he was merely difficult to reach.

Argrave looked upon the fire as it crackled and burned. Without more fuel to call upon, the pyre was slowly shrinking. He’d thought that he’d never come up with something more outlandish than disguising himself as a snow elf, but it seemed that he had. Perhaps if he asked others they’d tell him he already had, but as he thought of what he intended, even he had to admit he might’ve lost his marbles.

Before Gerechtigkeit could receive his comeuppance, Traugott had to die. The fire in front of Argrave, started by the calamity, burned bright and bold, but it was what was hidden in the shadows that was the most dangerous. If Argrave allowed himself to be caught up in the wave of vengeance his siblings both clamored for, it might be playing into exactly what the calamity wanted. Lindon had explicitly warned them of the threat Traugott posed. Like a bolt, an idea came to him.

Gerechtigkeit’s impersonation of Lindon might be intended to make Argrave ignore Traugott.

It was just speculation, but Argrave felt a great deal of clarity after that. Viewed as a loud distraction, all of the questions about why Vasquer specifically had been targeted faded away. Lindon had just given him quite pointed advice on that matter, and Argrave intended to attack. Lindon had placed Traugott before even Gerechtigkeit in priority. If the calamity truly was on the verge of using mental attacks of some sort, he might’ve simply waited, biding him time until the grand finale. Instead, he showed his hand.

Argrave closed his eyes, dissecting the idea again and again. Perhaps it was excessive paranoia. And there was another matter—it would be difficult to broach the idea with Elenore and Orion. Argrave knew them well enough to know Vasquer’s death wasn’t something they could just ignore, changing targets to Traugott without proper regard. Their bond had grown quite strong, but this was quite a request from his speculation alone.

To that end, he felt the need to consult someone smarter than he was. For now, he watched the pyre as it burned, casting glances at his siblings as they grieved.

After the cremation of Vasquer’s remains, the next task was scattering the ashes across the mountaintop as per her request. For now, they let the ashes cool. In time, great wind spells would do the job for them. Elenore and Orion were both being rather solitary, and so Argrave joined up with Anneliese.

“Invade the Shadowlands?” Anneliese repeated, sitting on a rock as they watched the cooling pyre.

Argrave nodded. “I’ll invent the flashlight. They’ll never see it coming… until their life flashes before their eyes, that is.”

Anneliese blinked at him in confusion, before she shook her head dismissively and asked, “I assume you have some rationale for this?”

“I told you about Lindon’s warning about Traugott, right?” Argrave asked, and Anneliese nodded. “If we view the attack on Vasquer as something to distract us from that… do things fall into place?”

Argrave watched Anneliese for a while, her amber eyes jumping from place to place as she thought on the matter.

“I can see the gears turning in your head. There isn’t some logical reason why that’s impossible, is there? No gaps in my thoughts?” Argrave followed up, eager to probe her mind about it.

“But, Argrave… invade the Shadowlands?” she reiterated, with special emphasis.

“The danger is coming to us regardless,” Argrave pointed out, then tapped his leg. “If you find out an enemy is massing troops at your border, are you just going to let them get into the most strategic position possible? The Shadowlanders could devastate the whole continent if Traugott does it well. We’ve spent far too long dancing his sociopathic steps. It’s time for the winner’s waltz, the, the… triumphant tango.”

“All well and good, but the defenders generally have a defensive advantage,” Anneliese reminded him. “And this is the Shadowlands. Erlebnis had appreciably little knowledge on that plane of existence, and the only one who’s actually been inside and returned is Traugott, who we would be hunting. Besides—the research team, the White Planes, the Gilderwatchers…”

“We’ve the world at our disposal. We can multitask,” Argrave argued, then hung his head with a calming sigh. “Before I get too attached to the notion, tell me—do you think it’s foolish?”

“Obviously,” Anneliese answered at once, and he deflated before she continued. “Historically, though, you’ve done objectively foolish things to great effect. I can’t dismiss the idea immediately because the possibility exists that you’re right.”

“It’s been known to happen.” Argrave smiled.

She studied him carefully. “I’m glad you’re not taking Vasquer’s death as harshly as your siblings. And presumably that’s part of the reason you came to me alone about this, yes? Elsewise, you’d involve them in this conversation.”

Argrave felt a little guilt and couldn’t hold her gaze. “Yeah. They’re both reasonable—I think I might be able to convince them of this. But the fact I say ‘might’ is all the information you need. Orion’s asked me for a Fruit of Being. Elenore’s working herself to death. The idea of asking them to forget about Gerechtigkeit for the time being…” He grimaced. “…does not resonate with joy.”

“Mmhmm.” Anneliese pursed her lips as she thought. “Logistically… what’s your plan for going in there? I can’t imagine many gods will be raring to go. The Shadowlanders bring no benefit to anyone besides… perhaps mortal armies, given we might use their hides or bones for weapons. No gods will be enticed by the idea to risk life and limb for you.”

“Rook owes us. Law would understand. Still, getting either to come with us is as much a stretch as taffy.” Argrave leaned back. “I was thinking… you and our third person eat a Fruit of Being, while the last might be used to actually enter the Shadowlands. We inject spirits right into our veins, then take the place by storm. But that was just an idea, and I’m not sure how good of one. I don’t know how powerful I am, even.”

Anneliese lowered her head in thought, then raised it again, brushing her long white hair away from her face. “’Third person,’ you said. So, you’ll refuse Orion?”

“It could be him.” Argrave rubbed his chin. “But given the state he’s in while he made the request, I’m going to hold off, keep it on ice. Still, the way I look at it, waiting to use them is as large a tradeoff as hoarding them for important moments.”

“And why me?” Anneliese asked.

“If I’m living forever, so are you,” he said bluntly. “But… hell. Elenore, Durran, Galamon, Melanie, and so many others…”

“Galamon is already immortal,” she reminded him. “And I’m sure you have ways enough in that wiki of yours to keep everyone you wish alongside you forevermore.”

Argrave laughed. “Well… yeah, maybe.” He laughed harder, considering how foolish he was being. He looked at her. “So, do you agree with me about our target, at least?”

Anneliese thought long and hard, braiding her hair as she sat there in silence. Argrave was certain she was going to refuse, but then her amber eyes locked with his and she said, “I do. I want to kill Traugott.”

“Will you help me convince the others?” Argrave asked.

She rose to her feet. “No.”

He was taken aback. “What?”

“’What? What?’” She imitated, then flicked him on the forehead. “Why do you even ask anymore? Do you expect me to genuinely refuse? Has my answer ever changed?”

He smiled, having been proven a fool.