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Galamon set Argrave up against the wall, while the Sentinels behind them lowered the iron gate to the Menagerie. It collapsed against the stone, letting out a puff of dust that expanded out across the empty space. Everyone breathed heavily, catching their breath, yet above it all was a short, shallow breathing—Argrave’s.

Galamon knelt by Argrave. “You have a fever. I can smell the blood on your breath even still, along with… rot. An infection.”

Argrave touched his chest, saying nothing. His chest felt painfully tight, and he couldn’t inhale as much as he normally could. On the bright side, his enchanted leather gear had made Galamon’s pauldrons dig into his ribs less.

Ossian stepped forward, standing just before Argrave’s foot. “I thought you were experiencing some rebound from that display of magic you pulled out earlier, but it seems I was wrong.”

Argrave coughed a few times. “It’s gotta be… pneumonia… though that’s a symptom, not the illness… or is it a…? Can’t remember what it… is,” Argrave shook his head, then touched his chest. “Pain’s subsiding a bit.”

“Pneumonia?” Ossian repeated. “I don’t know about that. I know what you have, though. We call it Redlung—it’s caused by some of the plants in Nodremaid, though it doesn’t bother most people this severely. Coughing blood, pus, trouble breathing… I suspect the physical strain made it worse in this case. It affects mostly children or the elderly.” Ossian fixed some of his matted dark hair, having recently removed his helmet. “This case… it’s quite severe. Probably fatal.”

“Do you know how to treat it?” asked Anneliese, urgency evident in her tone. Garm stayed silent in her hands.

Ossian nodded. “The B-rank healing spell [Cure Disease] suffices.”

“And you have a B-rank mage,” Anneliese pointed at the woman in question. “If this is so common an issue, surely she knows the spell…”

“She does,” Ossian confirmed with a nod. He placed his hands on his hip, moving his sword further back on his belt.

None made any moves, standing around Argrave in silence. Anneliese pointed to the woman once more and said, “So, why are we letting him stay like this? Please, treat him!”

Ossian pursed his lips and stepped away from Argrave. “I can have him treated… but I have some conditions.” He turned his head back.

Argrave lifted his head up. “Oh, yeah?” he asked, some vigor returned to him. “Go on, then.”

“You would have to surrender that thing,” Ossian pointed to Garm. “And moreover, you would have to submit yourself to the Stonepetal Sentinels for judgement. We would give you safe passage back to the surface… and use your deeds in revealing the vampire’s location to us in this judgement,” he said enthusiastically, as though lightening the blow of his words by pointing to a bright side.

“We would keep you under… house arrest, I suppose—not a prisoner, but a detainee. Thereafter, the three of you would be presided over by a council of all the Master Sentinels.”

Argrave started to laugh. It broke off into a wet cough. After, he looked up grinning, blood on his teeth. “Can hear the gratitude in your voice. Real heartwarming.”

“I would speak for you. I’m sure most of the other people here with me today would, as well,” Ossian waved around, and his words were met with some nods—they didn’t seem overly enthusiastic, though. “In the Sentinels, though, there are rules and orders that have to be followed, even by me. I can’t simply give you favors for the sake of them.”

“You’re a bastard… after my own heart, heh,” Argrave chuckled briefly. “Let’s say, for the sake of argument, I don’t want to be held in judgement by people who hate me. What would happen then?”

Ossian shifted on his feet. “…I would leave you untreated and return to the Sentinels. That’s going to happen very shortly regardless of your choice. Though the Guardians collided with the vampires, this is an advantage that needs to be pressed. I’m going to return to the entrance of the Low Way and gather more of my brothers to finally wipe the vampire menace out of the Low Way—uproot them completely.”

“Ossian… just leave him?” another Sentinel asked, stepping forth. “That’s not right. We have them here—we outnumber them.”

Galamon stood up, stepping forth until his towering presence was made known. “Try,” he said simply. “After some of what you cretins have said, I’d relish the chance to prove why your numbers mean nothing.”

“Easy, now,” Ossian said, holding his hand out. “And you—” he turned back to the Sentinel that had spoken. “Attack Argrave or his companions, I’ll kill you myself. Let’s not escalate things without reason. I’ve made my stance known. Wouldn’t sit right with me, returning help with hostility.”

“Girl,” Garm whispered. Anneliese, expression worried, looked down at Garm. “I would speak to you. Privately.”

“What?” she questioned, then stared at Garm’s face. He stared back at her, unspeaking. After a time, she nodded, and stepped away.

#####

Behind, the conversation continued tensely while Anneliese walked to a distance, planting Garm down in the ground. She was not eager to leave behind the two of them in front of the Sentinels, but she was relatively confident things were not yet at the point of coming to blows, simply judging from the states of the Sentinels.

“You’re a snow elf, aren’t you?” asked Garm, staring up at her.

“A Veidimen,” she corrected. “’Snow elf’ is what humans call us.”

“And your traditions—honor, contracts, loyalty—they remain intact? Unchanged?”

Anneliese nodded. “They do. I still follow them.”

“Good.” Garm looked satisfied, though he was unable to nod. “I’ve been watching you. Watching all of you. I’m not ignorant of my position. I’m a tool—a useful one, but one that each and every one of you is willing and able to discard. What happens to me is beyond my hands… not that I have them, anyway.” He closed his eyes. “That B-rank spell book you’ve been reading in the camp… it’s the tome for that spell they mentioned. [Cure Disease].”

Anneliese crossed her arms, saying nothing. After a time, she nodded. “It was. I thought something like this might happen... only… it doesn’t matter,” she shook her head in defeat. “I wasn’t able to learn it in time.”

“Hmm,” Garm grunted. “From what I have gathered, these Stonepetal Sentinels are not on the best of terms with your group. The idea of going with them is not ideal for precisely these reasons. The way things are shaping up, your friend will die if you do not. Coughing up blood, barely able to breathe, a high fever… ill omens.

“However,” Garm continued, “These Stonepetal Sentinels, in comparison to your group, are much less ideal for me. I have been in a haze for so long, my thoughts not my own, and only now have I regained them. I am not one for giving up. I am destined for greatness. I always have been,” Garm said with utter confidence. “Were I to be surrendered to the Sentinels, I would surely perish… or meet a worse fate.”

“Argrave is more important than you,” Anneliese said bluntly. “If it will save his life, I am sorry, but—”

“I know. You three have… a strong bond, I think, with him at the center of things… like some kind of sinewy glue. Hmm… Perhaps willowy might be the better word.”

“What are you—”

“However, I am a High Wizard of the Order of the Rose,” Garm continued loudly. “I long ago mastered A-rank magic. This limited husk prohibits me from using higher-ranked spells, yet the knowledge remains.” Garm gazed up at Anneliese. “I can help you learn this B-rank spell. I know it—I’ve used it. I might even use it on Argrave, had I the capability—alas, I am but a head on a stake, and my capabilities are miniscule in comparison to what they used to be.”

Anneliese took a deep breath and looked back towards the group. “I understand where this is going. You mentioned contracts, loyalty, at the beginning of this. What would you expect in return?” she looked at him. “Your freedom? Your safety?”

“I can’t have freedom. Look at me,” Garm’s eyes rolled about in his head. “But yes, you are right. I want you to ensure my life. I want you to take me with you out of this hellish place and ensure my continued existence. I was great, once. I will be great, again. I need only the opportunity.”

Anneliese looked down at Garm. “You merely want to travel with me?”

“I will ask for no more than my continued protection. I am in the position of weakness now. I have no delusions about this,” Garm shut his eyes. “But as long as I continue to stay alive… there will be an opportunity. Especially so with people as… intrepid, shall we say, as you three. There will come a time when you need my knowledge once more. And then, we will strike another deal.”

Anneliese took a step away, lost in thought. Garm waited patiently, staring up at her. She turned her head back. “I cannot decide this alone, you realize. This is Argrave’s life we speak of. I cannot be its arbiter—he must decide whether or not to risk things.”

“Yet you are amenable to the idea?” Garm raised a brow.

“I am,” she nodded. “I am at the cusp of advancement; I am sure of it. If your help is as good as you say, I believe I can overcome the barrier to reach B-rank. But as I said…”

“Then let us bring my idea to our patient,” Garm said.

#####

“Go on. Get,” Argrave pointed to the gate.

As soon as Anneliese had pitched the idea to Argrave, he was more than willing to give the Sentinels the boot. Anneliese was one of the fastest-progressing spellcasters in ‘Heroes of Berendar,’ and he fully trusted her capability to reach B-rank, especially with the help of a High Wizard. Anneliese was more than a little flabbergasted by his total confidence in her abilities.

“Without treatment…” Ossian cautioned, “…I am near certain you will die. Even in the best case scenario, your lungs will suffer significant scarring, and you will never be the same again.”

“I’ve got my own bag of tricks, like I told you,” Argrave said, still leaning on the wall. “Last time I ever decide to be nice to members of a paramilitary organization. I thought you were one of the decent ones, Ossian, but you were the biggest snake in the grass.”

Ossian took a deep breath and sighed, but the people behind him seemed somewhat bothered by Argrave’s words. “Fine. Don’t understand how you can be so flippant with your own life, but… I’ll honor my words. You’ve done a good service for the Sentinels. Even if you do not live… you will be remembered.”

The Stonepetal Sentinels moved to the iron gate, one of their number moving the turn wheel.

“Hah. Right,” Argrave laughed as the gate rose. They started to move outside, one by one. Ossian was the last to leave. He gave a quiet nod to Argrave, and then the iron gate lowered once more. Galamon walked forth and wedged the rock beneath the turn wheel, ensuring it would not open again.

“Hoo…” Argrave breathed. “Safety… relatively speaking.”

“You made the right choice,” said Garm, stabbed into the ground some distance away. “We’ll have you on your feet in no time.”

Argrave clenched his hands tight. “Yeah. Hope so. Can barely keep my eyes open. This hit me hard.”

“…I’ll prepare something comfortable,” said Galamon, looking around.

“Right,” Argrave said idly, leaning his head against the stone. “I’ll be waiting.” His whole body felt heavy. He felt a haze growing in his brain, and he slowly surrendered to it, drifting into darkness.

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Nemorosus

  • 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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