“What do you think?”
Anneliese stared at Galamon, her arms crossed expectantly. Galamon turned around, looking to where Argrave had gone briefly to take care of nature’s call.
“Doesn’t matter. I didn’t need answers. I had already resolved to follow him,” Galamon shook his head.
“But I want to know what you think,” Anneliese insisted.
Galamon ground his teeth together, saying nothing as the wind blew across the desert. “I’m reminded of when I was young, and I questioned the meaning of life and the validity of Veid’s teachings. I’m wrought with the same sort of… existential ponderance.”
“So you believe Argrave?” she queried.
His white eyes turned to her. “You do,” he noted. “That is sufficient for me. You’re a reliable gauge for lies and deception. I’ve come to know that.”
She nodded. “I know, at least, he believes what he says. His knowledge, too, is without question. As for what he revealed to us…” she knelt down, her hair falling to the sand. “It challenges many of my preconceptions about the world. I have many questions to ask.”
“What do you mean, ‘he believes what he says?’” Galamon looked down at her.
Anneliese looked up at Galamon, rising back to her feet. “He, himself, knows nothing of what actually happened to him. This… this other world that he described to us…” she rubbed her hands together. “Maybe it is real. But the gods work incomprehensibly. If the gods did indeed meddle, why would they place him in a shackled body? Much is uncertain.”
“It’ll never be certain. Myself… I believe it is Veid’s will,” Galamon nodded.
“I hate uncertainty. I hate being ignorant,” Anneliese shook her head. “Though it may be beyond my ken to know now, it must not always be so. When the threat of Gerechtigkeit does not loom… I think it would be fun to pursue the answer to his question. For now, I will continue on at his side. Now that he has finally cracked, perhaps I can finally learn something genuine about him. He is quite a dodgy one, refusing to answer questions about himself—who he was before. I have to change that. It will come with time.”
“Hah.” Galamon laughed, scratching his chin.
Anneliese gazed up at him, head tilted in curiosity. “You’re feeling… nostalgic?”
Galamon’s mirth ceased when his emotions were so accurately placed. He shook his head as though dismissing his emotions. “It is nothing. Merely reminded of my youth.”
“Unimportant. Just something you said reminded me of what she… well, never mind.” Galamon closed his eyes. “Want some advice on people like him? How to open his shell?”
Her eyes grew eager. “You have some?”
“Be patient. Be present,” Galamon disclosed, opening his eyes and gazing out into the distance. “He keeps his thoughts, his doubts, close. Hates to display them outwardly.”
“I know that,” she nodded. “It’s why he jokes, makes light of himself.”
“One day, he’ll hit a wall,” Galamon crossed his arms. “That’ll be your chance.”
“To get some honesty from him?”
“And more,” Galamon smiled faintly.
“Is this what you’ve been trying?”
Galamon’s smile quickly turned into a frown. “No. This is a tactic for you.” Anneliese looked perplexed, and Galamon uncrossed his arms, continuing, “At the very least, it is reassuring that Argrave has done this before.”
Anneliese raised a brow. “Can it be considered the same?”
Galamon looked to her. “There is a difference between a fresh recruit who has done nothing, and one who has spent hours beating a training dummy. At the very least, the latter has a feel for what must be done.”
“Possibly. I think not many could do what Argrave has done, thus far,” Anneliese posited.
“Maybe. Maybe not,” Galamon responded indecisively. “He is definitely… uniquely equipped for the path he’s on.”
Argrave crested the top of a black dune of sand, placing his hands on his knees to catch his breath. He conjured and drank water, appreciating the moisture amidst the incredibly dry air.
Galamon was already waiting at the top, staring out across the land. Argrave wore something different than yesterday: his set of black leather he had purchased from the craftswoman at Jast. It was lighter and much more breathable than the fur-lined gray set he’d worn. The few pieces of metal on it were brass, faded so as not to reflect light. It was made to cover his body much better, too, preventing the coarse black sand from entering into his boots or any crevices.
Above all, Argrave was clean again. He was getting better about tolerating uncleanliness, yet he did appreciate removing the blood and dirt-stained gray leather outfit that had traversed the entire Low Way without much washing.
Anneliese caught up with Argrave, stabbing Garm into the sand. “…I believed it was ridiculous to bring black leather to a desert,” Anneliese confided, only barely out of breath. “Yet it is not as scorching as I imagined, and this is pleasant. Like the hottest summer day in Veiden. The clothes breathe well yet keep me warm.” She pulled at her sleeves.
Argrave considered this as he stared down at the black sand, hunched over breathless. The night and dawn both had been somewhat chilly, yet during the day, a pleasant temperature prevailed—maybe only because it was on the cusp of winter, granted.
That said, the Burnt Desert was not without its issues—the sand was heavy and abrasive, making walking more difficult than Argrave expected. The air was incredibly dry. In addition, the ground could grow very hot at times. Fortunately, they had not yet encountered a sandstorm.
“…I would come here during the winter, at times,” Garm said idly.
Argrave glanced at him, still catching his breath, and then rose to his feet. He conjured water in his hands, drinking it quickly.
Quite frankly, Argrave didn’t know what to make of the severed head that they had taken from the Low Way of the Rose. It was true that Garm had likely saved Argrave’s life—that said, he did not exactly hide his intents, he was extremely pessimistic, but above all…
Argrave knew nothing about Garm.
Garm had been a key item to unlock the lower levels—beyond the initial encounter, one did not engage with him further. He, like hundreds of other key items, languished in the player’s inventory, never to be thought about again. Yet now he was here. Anneliese had sworn to protect the thing, though she had made it clear that the other members of the party would take precedence over his life. The deal had seemed incredibly obvious at the time, yet as things proceeded… Argrave was not entirely sure he could trust Garm at all.
“Never been more grateful for magic,” Argrave spoke, dismissing his thoughts for now. “Things get too hot? You can cool yourself down. Thirsty? Conjure water. Sandstorm? Ward it off. All the dangers of this place are shooed away by one mage.”
“Yet it cannot stay exhaustion,” noted Anneliese.
“Yeah,” Argrave agreed idly. “My point is—magic is the best tool for this place. It’s the supreme power. You catch what I mean?” he looked to Anneliese.
“I…” Anneliese paused, head tilted in thought. “Oh,” she nodded as the answer came to her. “You mentioned a faction has an iron grip over this region. Do you mean to say that they are mages?”
“In a sense. People have baseline needs. If you control those needs, you control the populace. And mages can do that, here. At least… they have,” Argrave amended, realizing this situation could be applicable elsewhere. “A lot of unscrupulous people abound here, willing and able to do whatever they need to get power.”
“Who?” questioned Garm.
“There’s no centralized power, but they’re all part of the same faction, more or less—the Vessels of Fellhorn, the god of floods and rain. These Vessels are probably the only surviving group still worshipping an ancient god.”
“You’re kidding,” said Garm. Argrave turned to look at him. “The Vessels of Fellhorn… they were a minor group. The Order of the Rose employed their aid in making the canals of the Low Way. They’re masters of water—nothing more.”
“Weren’t you listening?” Argrave questioned. “Yeah, they are masters of water. People need to drink water to live, you realize. It’s only natural their prominence would increase in this place,” Argrave waved his hands around. “Couple that with some ruthless practices, and things progress as you might expect.
“You want to drink water? That’s fine, they say: as long as you submit to us, we’ll give it to you. For a small group, that’s unsustainable, largely—any wandering mage can do the same. But while you’ve been… indisposed,” Argrave waved to Garm awkwardly, “They’ve been growing in prominence. From a position of power, they can control all the water in a given region. Any mage that disagrees? They’re hunted and killed. Non-mages submit to the Vessels, or they die of thirst. The Vessels make sure of that. Oases, wells, springs—they dry up. Only the water in Fellhorn’s domain persists.”
“Sounds… effective, I suppose,” said Galamon with a nod.
“Might be. But most figureheads in the Vessels are nothing more than regional despots, reveling in the luxury brought by their authority rather than using it for progress.” Argrave shook his head. “Like this, the savage southern tribes are brought to heel—the southron elves, the barbaric cannibals that battled against House Parbon since the House existed, reduced to little more than thralls because they lack options. Vasquer’s greatest threat for centuries extinguished by attrition, eroded from within.”
Argrave took a deep breath and sighed. “I’m getting worked up for nothing. I’m not—we’re not here to take a stance. When it comes to fighting Gerechtigkeit it serves no benefit to get involved here. Lot of death, lot of misery… and at the end of it all, very little that would aid in the fight against Gerechtigkeit.”
“I see. All that said… are you expecting trouble?” Anneliese queried.
“The Vessels won’t cause trouble for travelers like us, even if we are mages. Bothering wanderers might disrupt their peace. As long as we don’t make trouble, there’ll be none—no giving water to the thirsty, things like that.” Argrave smiled. “Coincidentally, I do have to make some. So… yes, I am expecting trouble. But not much. Only enough to get what I need.”
Anneliese crossed her arms. “I do hope you will inform us before acting.”
“Of course. I’ve learned my lesson,” Argrave said seriously. “Now that my cat’s out of the bag, so to speak, I’ll tell you two everything… without reservation.”
He pushed the thoughts aside, finally ready to move again. In the far distance, movement caught Argrave’s eye. He saw what looked like a black ball rolling downhill. The familiar sight made him smile. It was an armadillo-like creature, near the size of a boar, that supposedly hunted the bugs native to the Burnt Desert. To conserve energy, it rolled down the dunes.
“A cyrello,” Argrave pointed with his finger. “Cute little thing.”
“It should suffice,” Galamon nodded, shaking some sand out of his gauntlets.
Galamon looked at Argrave. “We won’t make it to this town you spoke of. I can see the tower in the distance… but we aren’t travelling fast enough.” The rolling creature came to a stop, the black mammal emerging from its ball and starting to move up another dune in a slow waddle. “That cyrello creature should suffice for tonight’s food.”
Argrave’s smile quickly faded, but he didn’t exactly protest.
“The alternative is bugs,” Galamon said coldly, observing Argrave’s expression.
“I didn’t say anything,” Argrave raised his hands.
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Bio: Author of the #1 'Heroes of Berendar' fan-fiction. Vicar of Crust. President of the Richie Aprile fan-club.