Jackal Among Snakes

Chapter 598: Godly Gossip
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“Could you tell me just what happened there?” The beautiful goddess of birth inquired of Lira, goddess of connections. It looked like grandmother and daughter, almost. “Everything’s abuzz. Everyone can feel that something major happened, and the more attuned among us know there was a huge explosion of spirits in the sky above the Great Chu. But you were there, weren’t you? Some are even saying Argrave killed two ancient gods.”

Lira gave a slow, resigned nod. “To summarize… Erlebnis and Sataistador are both rendered irrelevant, now. Argrave baited Erlebnis out of the Palace of Heaven, and after doing battle with Law, Rook surprised him, killed him, and inherited the vast majority of his power. We took the Palace of Heaven, then, and while I’m not privy to specifics, Sataistador was defeated due to something Argrave did. Now, Stout Heart Swan joined the fight to hunt down the rest of him, and Kirel Qircassia is suing for peace. Most of the Qircassian Coalition was destroyed. The whole of Berendar, and all of the Great Chu, are under Argrave’s thumb.”

With this juicy information, the goddess of birth talked a long, long while, prying whatever information she could. Then, hours later, she conferred with several other gods who sought news about this strange happening in the Great Chu.

“Apparently, the King of Vasquer pulled Erlebnis out of the Palace of Heaven, where he, Rook, and Law killed him together. Minutes after, Argrave killed Sataistador on his own inside the Palace of Heaven. Apparently, Kirel Qircassia is surrendering, too. Lira showed me the sky—everything turned black after the king wiped out the Qircassian Coalition. The king’s putting down his roots in the Great Chu. I’ve heard it’s the largest empire the world’s ever seen,” she bragged.

“That can’t be right,” the gods with her expressed disbelievingly. They, too, probed for more details… and bit by bit, words changed.

“The King of Vasquer killed Erlebnis with Law and Rook, then went on to fight Sataistador after taking the Palace of Heaven. Kirel Qircassia tried to take advantage of things, but most of his coalition was destroyed. Apparently, he’s surrendering unconditionally.”

“Really?” An impish-looking creature, who was the god of mischief, smiled devilishly as the news reached his realm. “That’s quite the tale.”

“It came from Lira. It should be reliable,” the messenger told the god.

“Reliable indeed…” the impish creature stroked its chin. In a few minutes, he was before another.

“You wanted to know what happened, right? I’ve heard that Argrave taunted Erlebnis, sent him into a fury. It was something to do with the affections of a woman,” the mischief-maker said. “Thereafter, the mortal king beat the god of knowledge alone. Sataistador—who was actually Erlebnis’ brother, as it turns out—arrived to avenge him. And the king beat him, too! Now, Kirel Qircassia is whimpering with fear and begging the king to stay his wrath.”

Gaunt, the god of death who had in the distant past nearly joined the Blackgard Union, regarded the god of mischief with immense distrust. There was also a resounding sense of loss that Gaunt himself had not joined, considering this burgeoning union’s ascendency. He remembered nothing of the offer in the White Planes given that realm’s restrictions, but others inside the Blackgard Union had informed him he had been considered to join. Despite not being a member, Gaunt did have some contacts within. Gaunt called upon Rook, seeking to correct the record.

“He said all of that?” Rook laughed at Gaunt’s retelling of the tale. “Well, it wasn’t about a woman. And Sataistador’s not Erlebnis’ brother. But the rest of it… there’s a lot of truth, there.”

“You mean to say King Argrave beat Erlebnis and Sataistador alone?” Gaunt crossed his arms.

“One after the other,” Rook confirmed. “Well… that’s only partially true. Argrave destroyed the vast majority of the Qircassian Coalition and Sataistador at the same time. After all, he’d taken the Palace of Heaven by storm, and he somehow knew how to use it. Kirel Qircassia keeps sending people asking for peace, but Argrave hasn’t given him a single response yet.”

Gaunt, armed with this new information, spread the news. His serious nature gave credence to the tale—and, being that his tale was the most outlandish, it spread quickest, slowly twisting and morphing with every retelling in the slightest manner.

“A mortal king named Argrave killed both Erlebnis and Sataistador after taking the Palace of Heaven by storm. Kirel Qircassia has surrendered without a fight.”

“Argrave stormed the Palace of Heaven, which had Erlebnis and Sataistador both inside it at the time. Kirel Qircassia was meant to help the two of them, but Argrave just finished things too quickly.”

Iteration after iteration, retelling after retelling, until eventually…

“Did you hear about what happened in the Great Chu?” A lesser god spoke to Almazora.

“Did I hear about it?” The goddess of magic crossed her arms. “I was there. There for part of it, at least. What are you referring to?”

“Everyone’s saying that Argrave killed Erlebnis and Sataistador, then made a slave of Kirel Qircassia. This is just after he took the Palace of Heaven and the whole of the Great Chu.”

“What?” Almazora narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean, ‘everyone’s saying that?’ What’s your source?”

“Apparently that’s the word from Lira and Rook,” the lesser god answered. “Is it true he’s still mortal? That can’t be true, right? Do you think you could arrange a conversation with the king for me?”

The goddess of magic blinked, befuddled.

The whole world was talking about one person—Argrave, the mortal king that had been the cause of the destruction of two ancient gods, and had brought to heel a third. Tales of his past exploits rose from the dead—his challenge of Fellhorn’s authority in the Burnt Desert, his fight against Erlebnis and Kirel Qircassia both in the Bloodwoods, his unification of the continent of Berendar and the subcontinent of the Great Chu… but the man himself was only just able to walk again.

#####

“We can’t give Kirel Qircassia a break,” Argrave insisted. “We have more than enough manpower—or godpower, as it were. Rook and Law alone could probably handle it, but we’ve got way more than that.”

“You’re not thinking for the long-term,” Elenore disagreed. “The purpose of this debacle was to emerge the foremost power in the world, so that we could unite everyone against Gerechtigkeit. Kirel Qircassia has been very vocal about seeking peace. If we ignore that and destroy him utterly, that could send a terrible message to all of our future allies. It could paint us as bloodthirsty.”

“Bloodthirsty? But he’s killed hundreds of thousands, maybe millions! He’s been bombarding our homes for months, now, and we just stopped him from destroying the whole of the Great—” Argrave trailed off, wheezing. He still needed time to recover.

After patiently waiting for him to cease wheezing, his sister explained calmly, “They aren’t privy to those details, and we can’t get that message to every potential ally. This is about how we’re seen, Argrave,” Elenore reminded him. “I’m not suggesting we genuinely make peace. I’m suggesting we hold off, gather more allies, and then explain this fact while we amass power. We need to be patient. Dead now, dead later—he’s still dead.”

“I don’t know,” said Durran, interjecting. “Qircassia is a slippery bastard. If we give him time…”

“Let him writhe. Let him get desperate. Meanwhile, we amass influence. In the meantime, he might make a mistake. And need I remind you we need every resource at our disposal right now? If we—” Elenore trailed off, eyes going distant as she listened to a voice in her head. She focused on Argrave. “They found Melanie.”

“What?” Argrave tried to rise off his chair, but the movement pained him. “How is she? What’s she saying?”

“Not much—Dario is the only one conscious, but they’re both alive. They’re both getting healing, now,” Elenore told him, then went silent once more as she asked for more information. “Dario said… apparently, they couldn’t do it.”

Argrave closed his eyes, swearing in a tight whisper.

#####

“I had him,” Dario told Argrave. The man was unable to even meet his gaze. “I had Traugott. Enough golem cores to generate a blast large enough he’d die.”

“And what stopped you?” Argrave demanded.

Dario looked over to Melanie, who was unconscious. She had been healed, but she needed to wake up on her own. Apparently, it wouldn’t be long. “The blast would’ve killed both of us. I did… I thought about it. Thought long and hard, but just couldn’t. Wasn’t selfless enough. Or selfish enough, I suppose, depending on who you ask.”

Argrave stared at him, asking himself if he would’ve made the same choice. Consign not only his life, but Melanie’s, just so he could take out Traugott. The answer… Argrave couldn’t give one, really.

“So, if I’m remembering things right… Traugott got his hands on the lich’s soul? That’s what this was about, right?” Argrave questioned.

“I didn’t see it.” Dario lowered his head. “As it was… Fellhorn, the Shadowlanders… we barely made it out alive. Had to bury those creatures with all the cores, lest they spill out onto the surface. But I plugged the hole, repaired the tear.”

Argrave took a deep breath, then walked away from Dario’s bedside. In truth, without Traugott’s tip about the fortress’ vulnerability, that whole battle might’ve been drastically different. As it was, casualties were in the tens of thousands. That number might’ve been far greater had they not been able to breach the Palace of Heaven in a timely manner.

But Traugott certainly wasn’t going to pass into the great beyond quietly. He clung on, parasitizing everything Argrave did. And he was getting closer and closer to things that he had no business being anywhere near. They were near the cusp of it all—both getting answers, and putting an end to this cycle of judgment once and for all. Traugott needed to disappear. They were supposedly the undisputed power in the world—there were few better times than now to make that happen.

“Argrave,” Elenore’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “You told me to tell you when she woke up.”

“On my way,” he told her at once.

#####

Argrave brushed Anneliese’s hair gently, pinching it up high so she didn’t feel it when he caught snags.

“All of Erlebnis’ knowledge?” Anneliese questioned after Argrave finished explaining things. She sat up partially, leaning against copious red pillows.

“Yep.” Argrave nodded, running the brush through. “Jealous?”

“It would be envy in this case, I think. Either way, not particularly.” Anneliese stared at the edge of the bed, unmoving. Unlike Argrave, Anneliese took the advice to stay still and rest seriously.

“Really?” Argrave studied her eyes. “You don’t want all the knowledge of the universe?”

“I know myself well. It’s the process of discovery I like.” She looked at his hands as they brushed her hair. “You don’t have to do that, you know.”

“Is it uncomfortable?”

“No. It’s nice. I like this. It’s just…” she trailed off.

“Don’t fret. Always wanted to do this,” Argrave told her. “You have nice hair.” He looked down to her hands in turn, then said pointedly, “And no fingers, at present. Hard to hold a brush without those.”

“Don’t get upset at me. I regret nothing,” she told him. “I would lose fingers and more to keep you alive.”

Looking upon her, Argrave’s budding anger died. He merely smiled. “Alright. I’ll buy you new fingers at the finger store. What size are they?”

Anneliese laughed gently, and quiet set upon them as he groomed her. After a time of serenity, she asked, “What must we do from here?”

Argrave stopped brushing. “Just rest, for now.”

“Has saying that ever made someone rest, I wonder?” She looked at him, a droll expression on her face. “You must’ve spoken to Elenore by now. Just catch me up. Magic may be beyond me, but my head is clear.”

Argrave sighed, conceding. “The Alchemist caught emotional rabies. We need to vaccinate him, somehow, but I’m not sure how. I’m reading the wiki, but he’s a rather unique case. Past that, we’ve got to bring all the other gods into the fold—Elenore’s handling most of that. We’re restoring order to the Great Chu, first. Long-term… we look to Sophia. We stop Traugott.”

“And then Gerechtigkeit,” she finished.

“And then Gerry.”

Anneliese took a deep, deep breath, then let silence hang until she said, “We’re very close.”

“To the end, yeah.”

“No,” Anneliese shook her head, pulling the brush from Argrave’s grip. “To us finally having our beginning. The thought of that… it keeps me going.”

Argrave retrieved the lost brush. “Me too. So, let’s hold on just a little longer, yeah?”

Anneliese leaned over and rested her head on his shoulder. “Yes.”

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