The first day of cohabitation with the Stonepetal Sentinels proved to be tense.

The horde of Guardians of the Low Way reached the great iron door, eventually—the sounds of their bodies and metal weapons bumping up against the gate and testing it echoed throughout the Menagerie, adding to the grimness of the place a great deal. Galamon had wedged a large rock beneath the turn wheel, preventing it from turning to allow entry. Even still, the creatures tested it, obviously aware that it was the mechanism to open the door—that alone was terrifying enough.

Argrave had wished to spend the time endearing some of the Sentinels to himself, but that proved a difficult task. The Sentinels were very clearly wary of him and his companions, and that alone established a strong obstacle in obtaining something important in conversation—naturalness.

If he approached them in the heart of their camp and flattered them or otherwise tried to sway them, his intent would be obvious and the opposite effect would be achieved. Argrave believed that though people might say they don’t like brown-nosers, that isn’t necessarily true—they just don’t like overt, shameless flattery, especially when the intent behind it is obviously selfish.

Bearing that in mind, Argrave gave the Stonepetal Sentinels and Ossian ample space. He could not deny the powerlessness he felt in this situation was extremely nerve-wracking, but he was confident in his assessment that any attempt to persuade them might be an active detriment. Argrave and his companions were outsiders and murderers, in their eyes—he did not wish to mark himself as two-faced to boot.

Even still… Argrave tapped his boot against the ground rapidly, sitting at attention on a large root of a crimson-leaved tree. “Hate sitting around like this.” Anneliese lifted her head from her book at Argrave’s words. “We’re wasting time sitting about for some people that might be our enemies. What a terrible situation.”

“Mmm, yes,” Garm agreed, standing upright on his stake jammed in the ground a fair distance away. “At least you have the luxury of standing. Of sitting, even. I can do neither. I just have to wait for someone to pick me up, carry me about, like some kind of… man-baby. An intelligent mind trapped in a useless husk.”

“Perhaps you will grow to be ambulatory, too, like a baby,” Argrave said as he caressed his forehead to dispel a headache. “Just don’t like being on other’s time.”

“The Sentinels are weary. Even if they intended to support us, they would need to rest today. They experienced the same journey we endured, and some of them spent the night on watch,” Anneliese turned her gaze towards their camp.

“Today?” Argrave repeated that word. “I don’t know if it’s night or day. I certainly can’t sleep, not with all these people nearby… and that banging,” Argrave gestured towards the door. “Nothing can ever go smoothly, can it?”

“The vampires are as trapped as we are. The Guardians are enemies to all, not just us. It would not surprise me if the vampires orchestrated this, in some attempt to clear their hunting grounds of enemies,” Anneliese outlined, her calmness returned in the relative quietude and safety of the Menagerie.

“You’re right,” Argrave shrugged and shook his head. He felt something in his chest and coughed harshly, spitting out an unpleasant glob of what looked to be snot off to the side. Argrave grimaced and turned away quickly, but then froze.

“They are trapped,” Argrave said out loud, looking to Anneliese. “Locked tight. They fight with the Guardians, just as we do,” he said slowly, as if in revelation.

“What are you thinking?” asked Anneliese, shutting her book.

“I’m thinking… I have an excuse to talk to Ossian.” Argrave stood. “And I think I have a way to turn this curse outside our door into a blessing. And it may just be the defining point I need to win the Sentinels over to my side. Allow me to explain,” Argrave beckoned Galamon and Anneliese closer.


“You wanted to speak to me?” said Ossian, his hands held on his hips. He was not alone, but he was present, and that was enough for him. To be fair, Argrave was not alone, either—Anneliese and Galamon were just behind him, the former holding Garm. Argrave might’ve left Garm back at their camp, but he didn’t trust one of the Sentinels wouldn’t meddle with him as he rested there. Though the severed head wasn’t defenseless, it was better safe than sorry.

“I did,” said Argrave, some of his confident spark returned to his voice. For the first time in a while, he felt that things were going right.

“So?” Ossian held his arms out. “Speak, then.”

Argrave was somewhat dissatisfied by the brusque tone, but he began unaffected, “I’ve been doing some thinking. The common problem that unites us, right now, is the mass of Guardians just outside our door.”

“And this revelation is what you call ‘some thinking?’” Ossian said drolly. “I trust that’s not all.”

“Peripherally, though, we both want to deal with the vampires,” Argrave carried on as though Ossian had not spoken at all. “And I’ve been thinking, you see, that the two would be best pitted against each other,” Argrave said with a smile.

Ossian said nothing, so Argrave launched into an explanation.

“I have in my possession what the Sentinels have lacked for centuries—a key into the lower levels of the headquarters,” Argrave pointed to Garm. “The vampires think that they’re safe in the lower levels, because they’re tightly warded by enchanted doors. I say we set the horde of Guardians against them. I say we open the doors to the lower levels and leave them open. We let the Guardians rush in, tear them apart.”

“And how do you suppose that’s possible?”

“The only issue in this plan is that we would need to leave safety,” Argrave said. “I’m not suggesting that you guys go and do everything for me. I’d lead the charge outside, have no fear.”

“Lead us into a trap, more like,” a Sentinel at Ossian’s side spoke.

“You have an awfully high opinion of my capability,” Argrave noted amusedly. “Yes, I’m the master of the Low Way, capable of setting traps in every corner of this place to lure the unwitting paragons of justice like yourself to early graves,” Argrave waved his hands about with grandiose sarcasm.

Ossian sighed and shook his head. “Traps don’t need to be set by yourself. The point is—”

“Listen,” Argrave interrupted. “You don’t agree, I go alone. Simple as.” Argrave shrugged. “I hope you’re honorable enough, at least, to open the gate for our return.”

“Hah. That would be worth watching, if only for the spectacle of your inevitable death,” the same Sentinel beside Ossian commented.

Argrave pushed his tongue against his cheek, frustrated by their obstinance. “The only reason I let you inside my little sanctuary here was because I was confident I could defend against all of you. A B-rank mage, a couple of C-ranks…” Argrave pointed them out, remembering Garm’s insights. “I’ve got my own bag of tricks. Be it all twenty of you, or that horde banging on the door… I can handle it,” he said calmly, careful to make his words sound like stated fact more than bravado.

Ossian snorted in disbelief but did not rise to challenge the statement. “If you’re willing to come with, I don’t see the problem with this idea of yours. The problem lies in that thing your menial is holding,” Ossian pointed. “You say it opens the lower levels, yet I’ve never seen that.”

“A fair point,” Argrave admitted begrudgingly.

“To hell it is,” Garm snarled out. Argrave stepped aside, giving the floor to the severed head. “Listen here, mutt descendent of mine,” he ranted. “The doors to the lower levels of the headquarters only open to a magic signature registered with the Order of the Rose. Those vampires, bloodlappers and bastards though they may be, are indeed members of the Order of the Rose. They’re mere apprentices, but they have access to the basic level.

“I, too, am a true scion of the Rose,” Garm continued. “The doors will open for me. If you doubt me…” Garm’s eyes opened and glowed, and then a burst of flame shot out towards Ossian. The Master Sentinel leapt back warily, but the flames stopped short of where he had been standing.

“Don’t,” Garm finished conclusively.

Argrave enjoyed the silence that followed, but the entire camp of Sentinels now watched their conversation warily. Argrave stepped forward, walking up to Ossian once more.

“Not sure if that suffices. Maybe you can quiz him on some things only a member of the Order of the Rose would know,” Argrave suggested in jest.

“That thing should be put down,” one of the Sentinels pointed at Garm. “Sentient or not, it can’t be controlled, obviously.”

“Like how you tried to put me down, because I couldn’t be controlled?” Argrave questioned. “I don’t understand why you feel the need for absolute control.”

“Confine you, not put you down,” Ossian corrected again, teeth clenched tight in irritation.

“The point stands,” Argrave shrugged. “Don’t get all pissy with me. I keep trying to help you, and you keep spurning me. We’re at a crossroads, the way I see it. Distrust me, and continue fading as you are,” Argrave pointed to them as he said so. “Trust me, and prosper once more, eliminating the biggest obstacle to your progress into the Low Way.”

Ossian turned away, lost in thought.


Galamon turned the turn wheel for the gate to the Menagerie, raising it upwards just slightly. Ossian crouched low, peering beyond into the darkness appearing in the door’s small crack. Their entire party was silent, everyone listening carefully. Argrave had a spell at the forefront of his mind, ready to conjure [Skysunder] at a moment’s notice to blast away any two-armed creatures that came scuttling beneath the iron gate.

Ossian held his arm out to stop people from advancing further, then held up two fingers. Argrave looked to Galamon, and surprisingly, the vampire nodded, confirming the Sentinel’s sense. His observation did not have much time to be doubted, though—a hand shot out, grabbing the gate and trying to force it open.

The creature raised the door slightly, allowing sufficient time for another Guardian to slip through. Each of its eight black eyes darted around independently, looking for a target, before locking on the closest-- Ossian. The Master Sentinel stepped back, drawing his sword as he rose to his feet in one fluent motion. Argrave elected not to cast, considering the sheer bulk of people nearby who could do the task without magic.

The creature swung its arm, and a flail attached to its hand whistled through the air. Ossian nimbly dodged with a backstep, then placed his foot on the flail’s chain once it impacted with the ground. Another Sentinel stepped forward, stabbing the creature with a short spear. It grabbed at the spear for a moment before sagging limp with a soundless death. The hand holding the gate struggled to win against Galamon, who held the turn wheel patiently and kept the door suspended.

Ossian crouched and kicked the creature holding the door, then stood. Argrave heard the creature’s hands slapping against the ground as it fled. Ossian waited for a time, then said to Galamon, “We can open it all the way. We waited for their numbers near the door to thin, and we were right to do so. None are near.”

After Argrave nodded to confirm Ossian’s order, Galamon raised the gate up.

“Right. Down the stairs, through the central hallway, then down the stairs to the right,” Argrave outlined aloud, mostly for himself.

“You’ve said that plenty,” Garm noted from Anneliese’s hand. She held the head like a staff, though it was much too short to meet the ground.

“You said you’d lead the charge,” Ossian turned back to Argrave.

One of the spellcasters stepped forward, conjuring a ball of light that illuminated much of the room. At once, Guardians on the walls and railings turned their heads, eyes locking onto their party.

“…so lead quickly,” Ossian finished.

Argrave took a deep breath. Galamon stepped up beside Argrave, grabbing his shoulder.

“Be calm,” he soothed. His deep, grating voice did not make it especially so.

“Easy to suggest, hard to enact,” Argrave muttered. After another breath, he stepped out into the central lobby of the headquarters, a thousand black eyes watching him from every corner of the room.


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  • Buried on a hill overlooking a little river with pinecones all around
  • Esquire

Bio: Author of the #1 'Heroes of Berendar' fan-fiction. Vicar of Crust. President of the Richie Aprile fan-club.

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