Backpacking was a laborious thing. Argrave was coming to terms with its necessity, but he could not say that he was fond of carrying a pack on his back with the bare essentials while travelling across landscapes of varying types. Without healing magic to ease him of blisters and other things brought about by the journey, he would never have made it across the Burnt Desert. Between its dunes of sand and its rocky hills, it was not an easy place to traverse, even in winter.
Now, though, Argrave found great pleasure in the hike they took. They travelled from Sethia to the distant mountains where the southern tribals made their home. The weather was pleasant, the desert was quite beautiful, and the wildlife, terrifying though it might be at times, invoked a dual sense of nostalgia and wonder.
It helped that he had conned someone into carrying his pack for him.
“It’s going to be dangerous to travel farther,” Yarra warned, who kept pace with Argrave. She seemed to have no trouble with the pack, despite being as skinny as he was while half his size. It was the power of a magical body, he supposed.
“Because of the tribals?” Argrave looked up to the dark mountains towering above. “Meh. We’ll be fine,” he waved dismissively. “Not much farther anyway.”
She adjusted the pack with her ire hardly concealed, casting glances at Garm atop Galamon’s pack. Despite her constant curiosity towards the head, she asked as many questions as a mute. Argrave had intended to find out what she knew, but her stubborn silence made that difficult.
They travelled along a dry riverbed. Though the valley around them evidenced water had once flown through this area, all water had dried, and the clay-like soil beneath their feet was hard and cracked into tiles of varying sizes. Argrave kept his eyes on the mountain as he walked slower, looking for landmarks he recalled from the game to guide him.
After a long delay, Argrave spotted a strangely split rock that was quite familiar to him and smiled. “Folks… let’s set our packs aside. Someplace safe.”
“What for?” Yarra questioned, while Galamon and Anneliese moved to obey immediately. Galamon freed Garm from his position, holding him in his free hand like a torch.
Argrave rubbed his hands together. “Time to get to work, obviously.”
Yarra followed Argrave’s gaze to a large boulder down into a gulch.
Seeing she still wasn’t removing the pack, Argrave chided, “You were so hesitant to put it on, now you can’t bear to take it off? Just listen. Is that hard?”
She begrudgingly took the pack off and sat it alongside Anneliese and Galamon’s. After ensuring that their packs were well-concealed, Argrave proceeded into the gulch, minding his step as it descended slightly. The gulch turned right, driving further into the mountains, but Argrave ignored the turn and walked to the boulder.
Argrave held his hand out and knocked four times, then said loudly, “Gebicca, blood of Burgund, has come to pay respects.”
He waited a few seconds… and then the giant boulder, which had been as solid as any other rock, turned to sand. It fell on him, and Argrave reeled away, coughing. He cleared sand out of his nose, his hair, his ears, and his mouth, then lamented, “Forgot about that bit.”
Argrave continued to spit out grains of sand ungracefully as the others near him stared beyond into the cave. Once he was done, he straightened and examined his own handiwork, a smile lining his face. Though the cave ahead was disorderly and uninviting, glowing blue runes shone on the surface of the cave wall.
Oftentimes games, ‘Heroes of Berendar’ included, would have restrictions on quests. Even if the player knew the solution to a puzzle, they’d still need to talk to the right person to be able to proceed. That Argrave had been able to overcome this hurdle without doing so was a deeply satisfying thing—and it doubly confirmed that no one had come here before him.
“Care to lead, Yarra?” Argrave gestured ahead.
By the look of her, Yarra’s answer was a resounding ‘no.’ That said, she showed no hesitation in moving forward into the ominous cave. Galamon followed just after, while Argrave and Anneliese proceeded side by side.
The narrow cave abounding with glowing blue runes was a wonderfully unnerving sight in person. The faint babbling of rushing water echoed out as they walked deeper. The runes provided light enough to walk forward without issue, though, and soon enough, the narrow entrance widened into something much grander.
The narrow passage widened into a vast cavern. A set of stairs descended deeper down into the cave, meeting the smooth, upward-sloped cave floor. At the very top of this slope, there was a small spring, a single trickle travelling down in a straight line. This small trickle divided the cave into two sections, though the erosion was not especially significant.
Coffins of black clay rose up along the sloped cave floor. They were packed closely together as they ascended, like stairs built for giants. The coffins had blue runes along their rims, lighting the place like torchlight. There was an eerie mist about the whole area—dense, almost cloudlike.
“These runes… are incomprehensible,” Anneliese muttered, gazing out in awe. “And this place, so—"
“Don’t get lost in your head, Anneliese. I can tell you what I know about this place after we’re done. In fact…” Argrave turned his gaze to the Vessel, Yarra. “You may wish to prepare to fight.”
Galamon nodded, freeing his helmet from atop Garm’s head and donning it himself. He drew his greatsword, too. Argrave held out his hand, a spell matrix forming. Soon enough, four [Electric Eels] bounded from his palm, illuminating the area better yet as they drifted above his head. He took slow, steady steps down the wide stairs, waiting and watching the entire room.
Their advance into the tomb seemed to evidence that no danger awaited them, yet the atmosphere of the place was decidedly not easing. The dense mist, the coffins, the constancy of the babbling stream above… Argrave’s gaze flitted to a coffin.
Deep within the complex system of caves, a noise rang out—windchimes, almost. It was pleasant to the ear. This chiming grew in volume, slowly melding together into something more complete. It formed a soothing melody, almost playful in tone.
“Be ready,” he cautioned.
And his words of caution proved to be of perfect timing. The mist within the cave began to condense, solidify—in but a second, Argrave found himself facing a black-skinned warrior with large ears and indiscernible features. A curved sword whistled towards his face. Argrave willed the [Electric Eels] to move, and they struck their target far faster than his newly formed foe’s sword could move.
The warrior staggered back, flesh cracking and leaking mist. A guttural and phlegmy howl battered against Argrave’s ears at once, echoing in his head and against the cave walls until it was all he heard. The sound was terrifying enough that he felt all his skin crawl against his leather gear, despite that he had been fully expecting it to come. The pleasant song became discordant ringing.
Yarra was the first to regain her composure… or perhaps she never lost it, for her hand liquified and thrust forth like a spear towards the warrior’s head as soon as it ceased staggering. Its head scattered like the mist from which it was made, yet the attack seemed ineffectual. It did not walk forward—it merely reformed forward, slicing at Yarra’s stomach.
Galamon slashed at it with his greatsword. His blow struck home, both the metal blade and the wind blade following it causing another visible impact. With another near identical howl, the mist exploded backwards, blown by an invisible wind. The sight did not distract Argrave from the sound of something scraping—claws on stone, Argrave thought, like a fleeing animal.
“Well,” Argrave began, stepping forth. “The first of them knows that we’re here. It’s like I told you—you can only hit them when they’re trying to hit you. They have to be solid to attack, and as such, that’s the only time they can be hurt.”
“These must be wraiths. Ghosts,” Yarra said with conviction. “This mist is not true mist. I cannot absorb it.”
“Don’t you listen? I told you they weren’t,” Argrave shook his head. “Back in the day, the southron elves used to reign supreme here. They had pets they used for war… and intrigue.” Argrave looked about the cave. “The Singers of the Brume, they’re called. Brumesingers for short. They subsist on the souls of the dead. The little devils are no ordinary animals, and can be held responsible for the warrior we just dealt with. This fog...” Argrave held his hand out. “It’s a magic mist. A brume, I guess. They can travel through it, conjure distractions, conjure fighters…”
Yarra seemed to be trying to find a hole in what Argrave said, but it seemed after some reflection, she simply nodded.
“Don’t kill them, please,” Argrave requested dryly. “They’re very valuable, culturally and otherwise. Though, maybe you don’t care about the cultural part.”
“But how will we stop—”
“Tire them out,” Argrave explained. “They expend their energy every time they try and stop us. It’s a game of cat and mouse, chasing these creatures about ‘til they drop.”
“So we have to continue to fight these mist apparitions until they simply cease?” Yarra questioned.
“Precisely,” Argrave nodded. “There are plenty of other rooms in this place. So… let’s get walking, and let’s stay alert.”
Argrave took a step forward, and the mist solidified once again. A hand thrust out towards Argrave’s neck, a dagger in hand. He raised his arm to block, trusting his armor’s enchantments, but Anneliese was ready. A single white bolt of [Skysunder] struck the hand, casting the arm aside. It dispersed and vanished.
“Should heed my own advice, sometimes,” Argrave lowered his arm, then readied four more [Electric Eels]. “Thanks, Anneliese. Someone else should lead, I think.”
It was not especially difficult to find the Brumesingers throughout the vast tomb. Though the rooms were many, each carved of a vast cave system, they needed only follow the mist, seeking out its intensity. The Brumesingers conjured the remnants of the spirits they had consumed—namely, southron elf warriors. Vigilance alone proved enough to combat the majority of their conjured warriors, fortunately. Argrave worked Yarra tirelessly, making her take the lead at all times.
The creatures weren’t stupid, though, and they were pack animals. They quickly gathered together, combining their efforts against the party. Cornering them was impossible. The Brumesingers could travel through the brume they conjured—that was much of the reason Argrave sought them out. In time, they’d make great scouts.
Soon enough, their party of four—five, including Garm—found themselves facing something quite unideal. Ahead, the mist was so thick that trying to see the room beyond was like trying to see through milk. The room had no other exits, so far as Argrave knew, but the fact remained that they had bunched up.
“Little bastards have been running for quite a while…” Argrave kneeled down, clicking his tongue. “Hard to get a notion of how many there are, too.”
“Place ahead is like a deathtrap,” Galamon noted. “The creatures don’t attack immediately. When we’re in that mist, it’s hard to see… and four, five of the attacks coming at once isn’t manageable.”
“Why not make use of that head on a stake of yours?” Yarra suggested. “I question why you brought it.”
Argrave looked towards her. “What, do you think it can warn us if it sees something?” he pressed, finally seizing the opportunity to learn what she knew.
“I know it can,” she shot back.
“And how?” Argrave questioned.
“Because Brium told me,” she said. “He would not disclose that without conviction.”
So, Brium knows Garm can speak. Argrave tried to ponder what that meant of the situation, but he couldn’t really narrow things down as to how Garm was ousted.
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Argrave said, pushing past that and focusing on the task on hand. “We’ll just need a good, steady formation…” Argrave scratched his chin. “…and some patience.”
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Bio: Author of the #1 'Heroes of Berendar' fan-fiction. Vicar of Crust. President of the Richie Aprile fan-club.