Jackal Among Snakes - Chapter 476: Wreath of Victory
Anneliese looked upon the group that was to meet the dwarven envoy. All here were the mortal champions of gods belonging to the Blackgard Union. They were all dressed finely in the black and gold colors of House Vasquer. They looked good, Anneliese thought, but Galamon pulled at his cuffs as though they were uncomfortable just the same as Stain did. Only Artur seemed to revel in the clothes—indeed, he’d donned a cloak bearing Argrave’s personal sunburst sigil repeated time and time again, and had imbued it with enchantments to keep him hovering off the ground.
The plan was to approach the dwarves not as the Kingdom of Vasquer, but rather the Blackgard Union—it would give a more intimidating aspect to the name, and ideally avoid any qualms that the democratic republican dwarven nation might have about working with a monarchy. Still…
Galamon, Vasquer’s knight-commander. Elenore, the king’s sister, and Durran, her husband. Melanie, a countess in Vasquer. The list went on and on, leading any keen observer to one conclusion—this party was comprised of those solely loyal to Argrave, and to Vasquer. Even if they called them divine envoys, the truth was rather obvious. The only saving grace of their composition…
“Ganbaatar. Your friendship in this time is a boon to us all.” Anneliese nodded to him.
The elf from the Bloodwoods dipped his head, his red eyes clear and unburdened. “Nonsense. It was friendship and responsibility both. The Qircassian Coalition is a greater enemy than we alone can handle.”
Anneliese could see the sincerity in his posture, but still added, “I am pleased you see it so. And congratulations on receiving Ghan’s blessing.”
The elf from the woods nodded curtly and looked away. Anneliese observed everyone else. The only one that was less than focused was Artur. As a human born with dwarfism, he was about to meet a race that called themselves ‘dwarves.’ She could imagine why he was uncomfortable.
“Elenore, Melanie, and I shall take the lead,” Anneliese continued, looking at everyone present. “But anyone else can feel free to interject. Argrave tells me the dwarves are a debate-loving people who appreciate the perspective of any dwarf. Mirroring that mentality cannot be a detriment.”
“Any dwarf. You think that means me?” Artur looked at her. Despite his jokes, she could tell he felt uneasy. “What if they take my presence as an insult?”
Anneliese met his gaze. “You are Almazora’s mortal champion. That is why you are here, Artur.”
He grunted under his breath and muttered, “Not what I asked, Your Highness, but…”
Anneliese took on a stern affect and said, “The true insult would be from their side toward ours—taking affront at a valuable member of both Vasquer and this alliance for merely being who he is.”
Artur floated away and turned, perhaps to hide his embarrassment, and said, “The flattery is appreciated, Your Highness.”
“Flattery and truth are not mutually exclusive,” Elenore contributed, then looked to Anneliese for the signal to go ahead. Artur was more at ease, so Anneliese had nothing more to do. She nodded, and Elenore directed them forth. “Let us be on our way. Remember—we dealt with the Ebon Cult. That should give us considerable leverage.”
They exited their room of the parliamentary hall, walking to greet the envoys. Orion led them while other Veidimen royal guards watched the back. The building had become suitably grander, with sizable gardens along its walkways and other buildings meant to accommodate the various diplomatic needs of the parliament and the royal family. It was becoming something of a palace, despite the absence of the king.
When they came to the small conference room, Orion opened up its double doors. Eight heads turned to look at them. The dwarves were short, squat, and brawny all. They stood at the table, the chairs pushed aside, and were surprisingly uniform in appearance. All eight were males, and wore white robes—togas, Argrave had called them—with their right shoulder and arm exposed. They had dark, curly hair, all about down to their ears, and wore wreaths of silver. They were immaculately shaven—face, arms, all of them.
“Welcome, envoys of the dwarven senate. We trust that your journey was without peril?” Elenore greeted them politely.
“Yes. You’ve tamed our cities well,” the closest of them nodded.
Melanie scoffed. “Given who was occupying them a few months ago, I think it’s pretty safe to say they aren’t your cities.”
“Yet its streets still bear statues of our heroes, its senate hall still bears the inscriptions of our philosophy, and its design remains privy to us alone,” another envoy returned. “What else would it be?”
Anneliese walked to the table, looking at them all. “You have dropped a diamond to the floor, and now that we have picked it up and cleaned it, you would call it your own? Is this what the Dwarven Senate would convey to us after freeing you from the Ebon Cult?”
The dwarves looked among each other uneasily, and then dipped their head to Anneliese. “No. We are glad to be rid of Mozzahr and his zealots. But we did not expect, nor ask, for your aid. Our nation maintains a favorable, yet neutral perspective toward your actions. The dwarves put forth no claim on our old cities. We abandoned them for a reason. As such, they are yours if you wish them.”
This was where introductions were in order, it seemed. Elenore seemed prepared to give them, but Anneliese kept talking.
“All of you here bear silver wreaths,” Anneliese continued, hardly acknowledging their ‘generous concession’ of the cities that they had abandoned. “I know some of your culture. The metals or gems that you are allowed to wear indicate your status in society. And from what I know, silver wreaths have no authority in operating independently. You cannot truly speak for the Dwarven Senate—you can only deliver messages. Am I correct?”
The dwarves grew rather still, and then one said politically, “In our capacity as envoys, we are given the authority to relay messages from the heart of the state.”
“…so, yes, you’re just messengers,” Durran rephrased. “Why didn’t you just say that?”
Anneliese sighed and crossed her arms. “I was prepared for a much longer conversation… but given the lack of authority of these supposed envoys, I will simply deliver a message and have you return it. I am Queen Anneliese, and I speak on behalf of both the Kingdom of Vasquer and the Blackgard Union of which our kingdom is a part. Both say only this; the dwarves do not possess the luxury of neutrality any longer.”
“Excuse me?” an envoy stepped away from the table. “Is that a threat?”
“It is a message from the heart of the state,” Anneliese rephrased. “Your kind will perish just as ours if the cycle of judgment completes. You have your part to play in this.” She looked off to the side. “Alongside this message, you will deliver a gift: freshly-forged weapons. They are born of your smithing techniques, using your metals, but they were made in our lands with our knowledge. Let that be sufficient draw to allow someone with genuine diplomatic authority to come. Come, everyone.”
Anneliese walked out with the same amount of dignity that she’d entered. She could see it on the dwarves—they were there to do nothing more but maintain the status quo that the underground-dwellers had endured for so long, even despite their contact with Anestis, a senator’s son. Their meeting was ruined, but all she had ruined was something that promised to be a dead-end. The situation demanded a little force.
Once they were isolated, Elenore sighed. “Not… not how I expected that to go. That bit about the silver wreaths—was that true?”
“Yes,” Anneliese confirmed. “Argrave and I talked about it ages ago. Trust me—I saved us time.”
“Wonder where this goes from here,” Melanie mused.
“If there is truly nothing else we’ll do with them…?” Elenore trailed off as question, and Anneliese gave confirmatory nods. “Then, we need to invite Hause to the Blackgard Union. That’s all that remains for today. She is nearly fully manifested.”
Argrave looked at the Alchemist as he read something. The operation was done for the day—the Unsullied Knife that was capable of sundering flesh without irreparable harm was not costless, using both its user’s magic and willpower. It was always the Alchemist’s magic that ran out before his willpower, and given his nigh unquantifiable magic supply, that was saying something considerable.
“What are you even going to do with the Blessing of Supersession?” Argrave asked, sitting on a chair as he ate the food the Alchemist had retrieved. It was an unidentifiable scrap of meat, cooked well-done and given no seasoning whatsoever. The twenty-foot-tall gray giant, cramped into this tight space and hunched over half a dozen books, made it quite unappetizing.
The Alchemist looked away from his book. “I will make another artifact from it.”
Argrave’s eyes widened. “Really? Like what?”
“Something to keep you alive. You may be needed in all of this, regrettably,” he said. An eye opened on the side of his head and peered down at him. “Sataistador is no meek foe, nor are the thousand others that you have made. And your Inerrant Cloak will no longer be useful to you without Erlebnis’ cushioning power.”
Despite the constant diminishment, Argrave was excited. He was promised an artifact made by the Alchemist, perhaps of equal power to that spear that they had used to infiltrate Erlebnis’ realm. It wouldn’t be blessed by several gods, granted, but even still… it would be immeasurably powerful. He had some reservations, though.
“And, uhh…” Argrave tore off another bit of the meat with his hand. His mind realized at the wrong time it could’ve been anything—human meat, even. “Will Erlebnis still be able to listen in? Hear everything, see everything…”
The Alchemist looked away from his book. “I put your brain back in properly. You have no excuse to be asking something so indefensibly moronic.” He rose. “Can an inanimate object hear, or see? This is what you just asked me. You were his conduit for both of these things. How do you expect what I make to see or hear?”
“Take it easy, drama queen. It’s a perfectly reasonable question,” Argrave waved him away, but double-took when the Alchemist neared him. “What are you doing?”
“Enough banter. I have some conclusions. They lead to further research, but they merit discussion.” He put one hand against the ground, and manipulated it until a chair rose up. “I am almost one hundred percent certain that Gerechtigkeit is…” he paused, searching for the words as he took his seat. “An analogy is best. I simplify things by millions of magnitudes, but he is like a lich. When we ‘kill’ Gerechtigkeit during the cycle of judgment, he dies. ‘Death’ is the only thing it could be called—he does not merely fade, he violently disintegrates, taking all evidence of his existence with him. Erlebnis has made a great study of his death. And yet… he returns with memories, with experiences. He grows.”
Argrave rubbed his chin. “A lich… so, you’re thinking he has some kind of main body elsewhere? Something that’s projecting this calamity outward?”
“Yes,” the Alchemist nodded. “That is one of many conclusions I have derived from Erlebnis’ work. The other, and most pivotal, is something right in front of us this whole time. Gerechtigkeit is fundamentally linked to divinity, and to allowing this realm to merge with others. There is something intrinsic about his being that allows passage between realms.”
“Meaning, our only chance to get to Gerechtigkeit might be when he is here, or perhaps shortly after,” the Alchemist explained. “As for his location, and the big talk levied by Mozzahr’s daughter about knowing where he is… I read the reconstructed research by Mial. It has no supporting evidence, and there’s no rigor behind it.”
“Anneliese said that Mial did it as best she could, meaning there’s no lies in it,” Argrave shrugged.
“Your bedmate’s supposed ability to discern lies means little to me,” the Alchemist practically growled. “Still, for argument, let us suppose it is true. Mial’s recreation lacks knowledge of where Gerechtigkeit actually is. But it does mean that he can be found, can be tracked. Our course of action, then, would be to develop a way to track him, and then go there. Put an end to all of this.”
Argrave listened closely, then added, “I imagine we can’t walk in.”
“No,” concurred the Alchemist contemptuously. “But the energy in you… I’ve been analyzing it closely in tandem with the samples of Gerechtigkeit’s malevolence I extracted from your father’s skeleton. That energy within you is one of two things, by my scrutiny—one, it is something that can endure travelling from Earth to this reality. Or two, it is directly related to travelling to different realities. Regardless, it is of use to me.”
“Of use how?” Argrave pushed for specifics.
“It may help me construct the theory behind how we might reach Gerechtigkeit’s realm. We simply need more information,” the Alchemist said grimly. “From Sataistador, perhaps. But most importantly, we need to prepare something for Gerechtigkeit.”
“Uhh, yeah. Been building a kingdom for that,” Argrave smiled.
“Not just to kill. Like I said, all evidence of Gerechtigkeit fades after he is killed. To harken back to my analogy, liches… are notoriously difficult to kill. One must find their undying soul and extinguish it. But liches can project their body continents away. A lich is fragile, weak—what is hardest is finding its soul. A lich can be tracked with some clever devices, but one thing holds constant for it to work; the lich’s projected body must be alive.” The Alchemist looked at him. “We must construct a device that can track the grandest lich of them all—Gerechtigkeit. We must use it while Gerechtigkeit walks. Concurrent with that project, we must find a way to enter its lair, and put an end to it.”
“So… you seriously think this could work?” Argrave pressed.
“We are closer than any have come before. We understand what Gerechtigkeit is—a projection. We understand there is a fundamental link between traversing realms and Gerechtigkeit’s presence. We have evidence that suggests his main body is in another realm. These may have been gathered before, but we have a new variable, namely, you—living evidence that something, even if only a soul, can travel between realities as you have and continue to exist. But much remains unfinished.”
“Unfinished, huh? Finishing projects filters out a lot of creative types,” Argrave leaned back in his chair, meal forgotten. “But… hell. There might be a way out of this.” He laughed.
“Might be,” the Alchemist agreed.