Ossian leaned over a railing, staring down at the drained bottom of one of the canals. Despite having traversed the Low Way since he was but twelve in secret expeditions away from the senior Sentinels’ eyes, Ossian had not known the canals had a portion that could be dried entirely with the sluices. Why it was drained, or where the dried portion led, Ossian did not care to test. That would be a journey for another day, if indeed it came at all.
“…it’s been a day, Ossian. Rations are running low, and we can only forage the plants in Nodremaid for so long without straying dangerously far from the main group,” a spellcaster advised Ossian.
Ossian did not look behind as he questioned, “And no word, no sightings of Alasdair?”
“One of the Sentinels in Alasdair’s group confessed that he left to search for that severed head in Argrave’s possession,” the spellcaster disclosed.
Ossian nodded, lowering his head and slouching against the railing. It was impossible to discern what had happened to Alasdair with no evidence. That said, the circumstances moved together to leave no doubt in his mind. His own experience in the Low Way told him something, too: those lost in the Low Way rarely return if gone for more than a day.
As his thoughts crystallized, Ossian lifted his head and straightened his back. “It would be best to accept that he’s lost to us now, just as those that went with him,” Ossian said, voice neutral. He had never liked Alasdair, but the old man had seemed immutable. That he might be gone forevermore disquieted him more than he cared to admit.
“It’s time to give the order to return,” Ossian said, stepping away. “We’ll gather everyone, do a count, and—” Ossian paused mid step, something having caught his eyes. He stepped away slowly, walking to the other side of the stone platform they stood on.
He stared at another, separate canal that still ran with water far below, his brows furrowed.
“It seems…” he began, not finishing his thought. He followed the route of the canal with his eyes. The blood-red water changed in tone as his gaze wandered—from a dark, rich and gloomy red, to a faint pink. His eyes followed it all the way up… and then, for the first time, he saw clean, white water emerge from one of the canals.
“Gods…” Ossian placed a gauntleted hand on his helmet, feeling like the whole world was spinning. “The rivers… the blood…”
The spellcaster stepped up beside Ossian, staring out into the distance. For the first time in their memory, both of the Sentinels witnessed the blood constantly dripping from the walls slow and cease altogether.
“Despite all that happened…” Ossian gripped the railing tightly. “He knew some vampires escaped. He ended their long night, cutting off their eternal sustenance. No more will they live forever, sustained by the bloody rivers of the Low Way.” A fragment of stone chipped off the railing, drawing Ossian away from his thoughts.
Ossian stepped away, looking around the once-grand city of Nodremaid. “The true heir of Vasquer ended the Night of Withering once and for all. And after death… there is growth.” He looked to the spellcaster. “We must return, bearing good news on two counts. As for Alasdair… he died valiantly to vampires. Nothing more.”
Argrave held the Crimson Wellspring in his hand. The light it projected had diminished greatly, but it still shone brightly enough.
The Crimson Wellspring was a ring of black metal with a diameter of about a foot. The ring itself was as thick as Argrave’s thumb. Eight resplendent red gems rested along its circumference equidistantly, each connected by shimmering red runes that formed long-lost enchantments. Its constant downpour of blood had ceased.
“I can make no sense of the thing,” said Garm, leaning up against one of the pillars with the back of his head supporting him up. “This Wellspring is… beyond my ken, I admit, even were I not severely out of practice.”
Argrave nodded, having not expected much to begin with. His eyes wandered, witnessing Anneliese knelt down beside the corpse of the Knight of the Wellspring. Her thick braid of white hair was matted with blood, which may have worried Argrave had he not known she was uninjured.
“Your spell, [Electric Eel].” Anneliese turned her head to Argrave. “I see its uses, even when you do not use your blessing.”
Argrave nodded. “Yeah. Used all my magic, though, and didn’t even kill the knight. Galamon had to finish him off,” Argrave turned his gaze to the elven vampire, who cleaned his armor and axe while leaning against a pillar.
“Those people encased in the crystal,” Argrave began, looking around. “They’re High Wizards of the Order of the Rose. Right, Garm?”
Garm’s black eyes darted around. “Aye, they are, each and every one. All dead and gone. The bastard who made me like this… can’t find him, unfortunately. No such luck,” he veritably spat.
“Then you know all I do, Anneliese, about the Night of Withering, about the Knight of the Wellspring,” Argrave looked to her. “Any more questions?”
“Yes,” she stood. “This Crimson Wellspring—how did he feed it?”
“Anything living… or once living, I suppose. Corpses. Foliage. The Knight of the Wellspring would roam into the Low Way, hunting down things. Bodies sustained it the best.” Argrave held his hands out, staring at the Wellspring in his hands. “Even despite that… Claude never roamed Nodremaid, or the other northern sections. He never killed any Sentinel. Some distant vestige of his remaining consciousness, maybe, fighting the husk that the Wellspring made him.”
Anneliese placed one hand on her hip, staring down at the body of Claude. “And what is the Knight of the Wellspring?”
“The Knight of the Wellspring…” Argrave repeated. “There’s only so much I know about it. I know the Wellspring itself chooses them—it selects from the bodies fed to it. Other than that, this whole place is just a mound of mysteries, uncertainties. There are no records. Nothing left to tell the story.”
“The Wellspring sounds dangerous,” concluded Anneliese, stepping away from Claude’s corpse.
“It’s inactive, now,” Argrave assured, lifting his head up to look past her. “Something about this room empowers it, amplifies it, especially in the center.”
“The crystals may have that effect,” Garm contributed, his eyes closed. “They’re born of blood magic. It stands to reason there’s a resonance.”
“I don’t know,” Argrave shook his head. He held a hand out. “Help me up, please.”
Anneliese helped him to his feet, and Argrave muttered a thanks. He looked around the room.
“I think… we should sleep,” Argrave concluded, rubbing his eyes with his hands. “Feels like it’s been dozens of hours since I last did that.” Argrave looked to Galamon and Anneliese, who both nodded in agreement. “Tomorrow, we have a straight shot to reach the Burnt Desert. Claude spent all of this time hunting in that area—it should be safer than Nodremaid.”
The prospect of entering the Burnt Desert made Argrave feel like the path that stretched ahead of him was unending. He hadn’t felt this way for some time. He moved to his backpack, fishing through it before he finally pulled free the bronze hand mirror.
He kept its surface facing towards the ground, instead staring at the carvings on its back. He ran his finger along them, feeling their surface.
The sight of the bronze hand mirror reminded Argrave he had promised to be honest with his companions once this was over.
“God damnit,” he muttered to himself, lightly bashing his head against the back of the mirror.
Don’t think I’m sleeping easy tonight, he accepted. Too much to think about.
Argrave lowered himself down from a gaping hole, his gray leather duster scraping against the red crystals beneath him. He fell a fair distance—perhaps five feet—and then impacted with the stone, kneeling. He straightened, shaking his legs, then stepped forward to allow those behind him to follow.
Anneliese held out Garm, and Argrave took him to free up her hands. He offered his other hand to support her way down, which she used minimally. Once she had stepped out the way, Galamon jumped down quickly and gracefully. He moved more adeptly than they did, despite wearing plate armor. Argrave handed Garm back to Anneliese and looked around.
This place brought back memories. It was near identical in appearance to the tunnel that they had entered the Low Way from—tall ceilings, thorns decorating the walls, with roses of stone winding about the walls and ceiling, and wide stairs that made it awkward to ascend quickly.
“I can hear the wind,” Galamon said.
“Best damned thing you could have said,” Argrave said with a smile, stepping forth and gesturing those with him to do the same. His spell light followed him, and as he proceeded, he started to make out faint light in the distance. He had been expecting blinding sunlight, yet that was not what he got—instead, pearly white moonlight shone through.
Argrave contained himself, being sure not to throw his caution to the wind at the home stretch. The walk seemed unbearably long, and his hands were twitching the whole way, but soon enough the smell of the air grew fresher, almost sweeter, and he felt the wind at his cheeks.
Argrave stepped out of the Low Way, his heart beating faster than it had in the battle with the Knight of the Wellspring. A wave of cold wind met his cheeks, and he took in the vast expanse of the Burnt Desert before him.
It seemed as though he was at the end of the skies, two vast expanses of dark stretching out into eternity both up and down—the starry skies on the top, a vast carpet of black sand on the bottom. The sand was dark enough that it seemed nothing was ahead of them, just an abyss. There was a beauty to it, yet at the same time, there was a horror belying that beauty.
Argrave stepped forward, feeling as though his feet would hit nothing. When his gray leather boots sunk into sand, he fell to his knees, grasping it like a madman.
He started to laugh, and then looked back. “Smell that? It’s air,” he said, eyes wide. “Normal air, not goddamn Redlung-ridden air that smells like piss, blood, and whatever other foul tripe in that hell.” Argrave pointed up. “A sky above us, instead of redness and stone. Nothing lurking in the shadows, ready to jump at us.”
Everyone was a bit emotional, even Galamon, like some great burden had been lifted from them all. Garm had tears in his eyes, though he blinked quickly to dispel them.
Argrave threw sand into the air, uncaring when it fell on him. He lowered his head, giggling like a maniac, then rose to his feet. He took a deep breath of fresh air, ignoring his aching lungs. “Let’s enjoy this moment until the suns rise.”
Support "Jackal Among Snakes"
- Buried on a hill overlooking a little river with pinecones all around
Bio: Author of the #1 'Heroes of Berendar' fan-fiction. Vicar of Crust. President of the Richie Aprile fan-club.