Come morning, Argrave had fully repaid the small debt he’d accrued to Erlebnis, enabling his use of the Blessing of Supersession once again. Their route to navigating the obstacles ahead was much clearer after a lengthy discussion. And, lastly, the Brumesingers spent the night gorging, turning their fur from a snow-white to an off-white.
The Brumesingers were magic creatures and had been living here for years, feasting on the high-quality souls of the dead southron elves in this tomb. It would be some time before they’d be able to conjure warriors of mist or traverse through the fog to reach any place imaginable. In time, the five-pound furballs would eventually become true forces of nature, especially if Argrave gave them good souls to eat.
“…so these runes are illusion magic?” Anneliese questioned, sitting cross-legged beside one of the coffins with runes across its lid.
“Yep. Between the sand door outside and the runes throughout this place, it’s clear the southron elves were masters of illusion magic. Southron elf illusions, no matter if you’re E-rank or S-rank, can’t be seen through. But… they’re a lot more limited,” Argrave explained, rubbing his finger across the glowing blue rune.
She nodded, staring. “…you didn’t sleep at all last night,” she said quietly, changing the subject.
“Couple hours, maybe. Not an unusual occurrence,” Argrave dismissed, standing. “What can I do? Cry?”
She also came to her feet. “You can talk about it,” she offered.
“What are you, my therapist?” Argrave shook his head with a grin. “We’ve got stuff to do. Let’s go meet with Yarra, rendezvous with the southron elves.”
“I just worry,” she shook her head. “Your habits were improving after we left the Low Way. Now…” she sighed defeatedly. “Now I question if you sleep worse. If you were sick again, I might heal you. This, though… I can do nothing but talk.”
Argrave bit his lip. He knew she was right, but that was only because he wasn’t blind to his own condition.
He stepped forward. “You know, they say if you improve your physical health, your mental health will improve in turn. All the more reason to hurry towards becoming Black Blooded.”
She smiled bitterly and nodded. “As you say. Let us go.”
“Are you sure that you’re headed the right way?” asked Yarra, some of her confidence in Argrave diminished overnight.
“Yes,” confirmed Argrave brusquely, holding his compass in hand.
“Certain enough to stake your life?” she questioned. “The three of you ran out of food, and there is only wasteland ahead.”
The four ambulatory people in Argrave’s party trod across the dunes of the Burnt Desert. The town of Sethia had long faded behind the hills of distant black sand, and the only landmark still in sight was the tall, tall mountains.
“I’m certain,” Argrave confirmed, coming to a stop and glancing around before turning back to his compass. One of the Brumesingers poked its head out just by his neck, glancing around the vast expanse of black desert excitedly before retreating back into cover.
“How?” she questioned, stopping beside Argrave, her backpack—technically Argrave’s backpack—swaying briefly before settling.
“Eidetic memory,” he said, unfocused.
“What is that?” She shook her head confusedly.
“Photogr—well, no, that wouldn’t make sense to you either. Doesn’t matter. Was a joke, anyhow.” Argrave shut the compass. “Should be around… somewhere.” His gaze scanned the distant mountains. After a time, he stopped scanning and his face lit up. “Ahah. I’ve still got it.”
Argrave walked forward again, unburdened and certain. They passed over the top of another dune, and just beyond, there was a relatively flat bit of sand. Almost perfect in the center of this flat plane, there was a sword overturned and partially buried. The blade of the sword had curved barbs and was quite badly rusted.
With quick steps, Argrave headed downhill towards the center of the flat bit of sand. He walked to the sword, and then picked it up, stabbing it into the ground. On the first try, it fell back into the sand. The second time, Argrave used more force, and it stood upright in the sand as he walked away.
“Alright…” Argrave took a breath. He held his hand out, and then used water magic. A steady pour of water flowed from his hand.
“What are you doing?” Yarra asked at once, angrily.
“Keep your hat on,” Argrave said dismissively. “I’m taking us to the southron elves.” He turned his head to look at her. “Well, us, actually. As agreed, you’ll stay outside.”
Argrave was, ostensibly, revealing the location of the southron elves. They were a nomadic people by this point, though, moving from abandoned settlement to abandoned settlement. Argrave would be sure that, even if things did go sour, the elves would never be discovered. All he needed now was to keep Yarra far from them.
She stared at the water, not meeting his gaze. “Fellhorn permits violence against those that would conjure water with magic.”
Argrave kept his gaze steady. “Permitting isn’t encouraging, you know,” he noted as the pool of water grew larger and larger, sinking into the sand and spreading out.
“You encroach on His domain,” she pressed angrily.
With a clench of his fist, the downpour stopped. “Are you going to stop me from doing what I need to do to help Cyprus?”
“I am a Vessel of Fellhorn before a servant of the Lord of Copper.”
Argrave took a deep breath. Part of him would be happy to be rid of this woman. They were alone, miles from Sethia, miles from any witnesses… and the woman was far too inhuman to warrant any remorse. All of the Vessels were.
But it couldn’t happen. Argrave had to stay close with Brium until the time came to separate cleanly and completely. No nonsensical excuse would repair the trust severed by his best Vessel’s death. It would be a stupid thing to do, and for the sake of ego instead of logic.
“And what do you think Brium would do, were he standing here?” Argrave questioned, eyes narrowed.
At that, Yarra looked away at once, almost visibly recoiling. Argrave held his hand out and resumed his task, growing the pool larger and larger. Once that was done, he removed his glove.
“What are you doing?” questioned Galamon.
“We need blood, don’t w—oh.” Argrave paused. “I forgot.”
Argrave put his glove back on. Galamon stepped forward, retrieving one of his flasks. He removed the lid, then dropped the remainder of the blood inside it. Nothing odd seemed to happen to the pool of water. Its mundanity was enough that Argrave questioned if he was forgetting something.
“Don’t forget, Yarra. Stay here. Out of sight, preferably. We’ll be back… and when we are, the southron elves will fight at our side when the time comes.”
“We’ll see,” she said.
Argrave took a step forward, towards the pool. Though his body had expected his feet to meet solid, if mushy, ground, it felt like there was nothing but air beneath them. Argrave fell into the water with nary a splash. Galamon counted to three, and then stepped just after him. Anneliese came last.
Yarra peered into the water, shocked. She looked as though she wanted to kneel down and touch it, yet she did not.
Had she been more attentive, Yarra might have noticed a set of golden eyes watching her. A single, off-white Brumesinger crouched low atop a sand dune, watching the Vessel with sublime patience. Its actions were far different from that of an animal.
Having fallen to the ground, Argrave rose to darkness. His gloved hand brushed against something hard—a sandy stone, by his estimation. It took him a second to think to conjure a bit of spell light, and at once, the subterranean cave became lit up with light. The cave was made of black sandstone—a rather eerie sight, like some cavern of hell, but this place was precisely where Argrave intended to be.
Galamon joined Argrave, very nearly landing atop him. His quick reflexes spared them both that. The elven vampire growled, “Move,” and Argrave hasted to obey. Soon enough, Anneliese joined them, and Argrave supported her so that she wouldn’t fall as he had.
After she gave a thanks, Argrave questioned, “Is it working?”
“…it is,” she confirmed. “I can see Yarra.”
Argrave sighed in relief. “That’s good. We can keep an eye on her, make sure she doesn’t try anything.” He turned his head around, examining the cave. Recalling his experience yesterday, he questioned, Anneliese, “And… you’re not overwhelmed by feelings of death?”
“Not overwhelmed,” she said, emphasis implying that she was merely ‘whelmed.’ “And the feeling is fading fast.”
“Okay. Do you think we can move?”
“…I cannot, not while maintaining the druidic link,” she admitted. “Not without guidance.”
“Okay.” Argrave stepped up, then said, “Gonna grab your shoulders, guide you along.”
After she nodded in confirmation, Argrave wrapped his arm around her and moved her along as he walked in the cavern. Fortunately, the place was spacious enough that they did not need to duck or maneuver significantly. The sandstone was flat and lacked treacherous obstacles, so the task was not excessively difficult.
“Gods…” muttered Garm from atop Galamon’s backpack, just ahead.
“Something more to complain about?” Argrave questioned.
“Oh, nothing,” Garm said sarcastically. “Just wishing I was blind.”
“What does that mean?”
“Please, don’t distract me, both of you,” Anneliese interrupted before Garm could give his answer.
The both of them heeded Anneliese’s word, and they trekked through the sandstone cave in silence. They trekked a long, long way, Argrave’s spell illuminating the path ahead. Occasionally, holes of light poked through the cavern—the surface was not too far above. Piles of sand evidenced that they were still in the dunes.
Eventually, though, the flat ground started to go upwards.
“Wait,” Anneliese stopped them.
“What is it?”
“The link… is stretched quite thin,” Anneliese said. “If I go further, I fear it will sever. I think you two should go on ahead. If Yarra does anything, I will come and find you.”
“Sure about that?” Argrave double-checked. “The exit’s pretty close.”
“Indeed,” she nodded. “And if the exit is close, all the better.”
With a nod of surrender, Argrave released Anneliese and pressed on with Galamon, casting glances behind him to be sure nothing would go wrong. Eventually, sunlight started to rear its head more and more, and the cave opened up into a very different sight.
The grass stretched for a great distance ahead. It all led up to a great body of crystal blue water, utterly still and clear and pure. This oasis was flanked by many of the palm trees that they had seen back in Delphasium, with black trunks and purple leaves and strange fruits. The land was vibrant, full of life-- a far cry from the desolate wasteland outside.
And just beyond the oasis, one could make out houses carved into the stone, with glowing blue runes carved into the paved walkways. Though suppressed by sunlight, those were sure to light up the place at night sufficiently.
“Place is big,” noted Galamon, kneeling. “Not many people, though. Sixty. Seventy.”
“Some are out, maybe,” Argrave thought aloud. “But this is it. The last bastion of the southron elves. Seems it’s just us three.”
“Might as well say ‘us two.’ I know you expect me to keep my mouth shut,” Garm said bitterly.
“You can talk if you want,” Argrave shook his head. “Southron elves don’t mind necromancy all too much. Their warpets ate souls, after all. Nonetheless…”
“You like to keep your cards close,” Garm finished. “I’ll stay quiet.”
Argrave sighed. “Thanks, Garm… let’s hope we don’t have another Stonepetal Sentinels situation on hand.”
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Bio: Author of the #1 'Heroes of Berendar' fan-fiction. Vicar of Crust. President of the Richie Aprile fan-club.