Jackal Among Snakes

Chapter 442: Shedding Mortality

Saving the world was just as arrogant a thing as trying to dominate or destroy it. Each of the three carried with it an implication; that one’s personal power was superior to that of the world. It implied that the world could be changed in such a way. It was easy enough to claim that Argrave had set upon this road for the purpose of saving his own life, but time and time again he’d proven that there was more to it than that. He did want to help people. And the worst part? He’d succeeded.

Argrave’s stream of successes was like a black cloud obscuring true progress. But what is teaching, if not sparing someone the arduous process of trial-and-error? And that was what Castro had given Argrave; a route to see what he lacked without the biting fangs of failure. And with his guidance, brief though it might’ve been… the road ahead was clear.

With a light shining ahead, and with the Alchemist taking ample time examining Felipe’s skeleton, Argrave crafted a way of combat that truly suited him in the coming war.

[Bloodfeud Bow] was a spell Argrave had relied upon for its extreme destructive power, but multiple times its lack of versatility had caused tight situations—Castro’s mock battle illustrated its weakness. Against foes that were fast, smart, and decisive, if it missed, there was little else to be done.

And so Argrave took a segment from another of his spells: [Electric Eel].

It came to be that Argrave could change the direction of the blood arrows midflight. Unlike the eels, these arrows simply moved too fast to be controlled for very long, but if he had been able to change the way the arrow flew during the battle with Castro? The man might be well and truly dead.

He practiced this feat, firing an arrow skyward from one of his echoes. It soared upwards, seeking to pierce the clouds like a rocket, but with will alone Argrave brought it back and struck a mountaintop. It left a great crater, sending rocks tumbling down. He took a deep breath of emboldened pleasure as rocks tumbled down cliffside.

It was such a small lesson, but it felt like the entire world opened up before Argrave.

Rather than merely eels of electricity swirling about, Argrave sought more. After considerable trial and error, he isolated the segment of the spell that allowed a projectile to be persistent, and with his knowledge of controlling the projectile by will. From there, the possibilities expanded quick enough he nearly lost track of them.

Blades of wind soared throughout the air, a veritable tornado of harm that never lost its edge. Balls of fire, poised to explode outwards, danced near him as if it were a minefield preventing any from coming near with threat of death. He created an ever-expanding stream of water that obeyed his whims until it was near as large and flexible as Vasquer herself.

The computations were so infinite he forgot them nearly as soon as he created them. It took hours to develop some of these spells, fiddling until things were just right… certainly, his retinue of spells didn’t expand dramatically. The human mind could only remember so many things at once. The point was not the spells themselves; it was the understanding.

Each time he substituted one element for another, altered druidic magic to order his Brumesingers in a different way, or added some element to a spell he already understood, his knowledge of spell structure deepened. It was unacademic, unsophisticated, and probably downright inefficient… but then, he’d taken much the same approach delving into Heroes of Berendar.

Argrave—no, he was Vincenzo, then—played the game with its fast and hard rules. He experimented, trying different permutations of different characters with slight variables tweaked. He did it for thousands of hours, erratically and randomly, and by the end of it he knew enough to fill thousands of pages. There was no structure to it, no reason—he did it for fun alone, and that was why it had worked out. Now, that same thing repeated itself on a different medium. Instead of playing a character a different way, he cast a spell a different way.

And damn if it wasn’t fun.

Along the way of this joyride of possibilities, patterns made themselves clear. Things that were subtle became obvious. Construction that was once arcane, where he had followed along as a builder alone, became less incomprehensible. He started to understand why things were the way they were, rather than mutely obeying what had been written down in books.

At the beginning of his journey, he had written a thesis about [Blood Infusion], which was the process of imbuing blood magic into all spells. Back then, all he’d managed was rote plagiarism of lore. He found it rather fitting, then, that the end of his days as a rote spellcaster died should end with its discovery. And with this in mind… he strived.

He surveyed the sacrificial magic endlessly. Order of the Rose spells, Order of the Gray Owl spells, it made no difference. He delved into each with fury, deconstructing them, scrutinizing them, rebuilding them, reusing them. He created blades of blood, walls of it, burning through his very life essence as he expended blood echoes almost wastefully.

Argrave once again ran through the process of his A-rank ascension—of how he’d tied conduits of blood to his soul, anchoring them and allowing them to be circuits with which he could cast A-rank spells. Even the bronze hand mirror acknowledged his accomplishment.

Traits: [Black Blooded], [Intelligent], [Magic Affinity (High)], [Magic Ascension: Blood Echoes] [Blessing of Supersession (MAX)]

Skills: [Elemental Magic (A)], [Blood Magic (A)], [Healing Magic (B)], [Illusion Magic (B)], [Warding Magic (A)], [Druidic Magic (A)], [Shamanic Magic (A)], [Inscription (B)], [Imbuing (B)]

Argrave didn’t care to classify things, codify them, as a magical scholar might. No—he was interested in what worked, and what was. He couldn’t claim to know why it was that blood was such a potent force, nor what made it keep his form. These were questions beyond his limits and his patience. Just as some people datamined Heroes of Berendar, others simply played the game and experimented. But both found out how it was made, and how to replicate it. He found out why one matrix called upon the blood while another called upon the flames.

After time and time again of repetition and observation, Argrave came to understand how the spells drew blood from the body. He understood why it was this silver bracer on his arm could draw magic from him, preserving it in this state. But with all this knowledge, one step remained before him.

Argrave sat in the dead of night in the cold mountains, cross-legged before Vasquer. He stared at a matrix in his hand, contemplating it, pondering it… it was an F-rank spell, nothing more than a simple line. Some might think him mad for spending so much time looking at a line in the air, but then none were around that would judge him, only Anneliese, Orion, Galamon, and a distant Alchemist.

Argrave called upon the bloody conduits entangled with his soul, and set the roiling magic within him to motion. All of what he’d learned of the way that blood became blood magic came to fruition, and a familiar yet foreign sensation filled his body. And when he completed the spell…

A maroon flame burned in Argrave’s hand. He could feel it siphoning away the blood from his body as its heat buffeted his face. The flame was fierce, bright, and hot, and the shadows around it seemed all the eerier. No one could deny its intensity.

“Argrave, that…” Anneliese said in shock.

Argrave’s concentration wavered, and the flame faded away. He looked at her, saying nothing, but the smile on his face spoke volumes. He rose to his feet, stepping away from everyone else to get some safe distance. Then, another matrix took shape in his hand. Now that he’d done it, the second performance felt so instinctive.

A sparking eel of the same deep crimson as his blood rose up into the sky. As it soared about, he could feel a subtle hum of power about it. It was stronger, more intense. His joy was such that the pain to create it was entirely forgotten. When Argrave conjured a third matrix, he called upon one of his blood echoes. The performance was flawless. He had infused the vital essence of sacrificial blood magic into a normal spell.

Up and up the eels went, Anneliese sanding by his side in mute shock. Before long they seemed like maroon stars in the sky, obeying his will absolutely. He had spent so much time on this… he had even neglected his duties, relegating some tasks to others and not making all the appearances he ought to have, but these long days had born fruit.

“I did it,” Argrave said, without pride. There was joy, certainly, but not pride.

“You did,” Anneliese confirmed. He could tell she was proud for him, and that was far better than pride for himself.

Argrave let out a slow and quiet sigh, deflating. After a long time of silence, he said, “I’ve got no more plans, Anne. No more spectacular insight from here about what happens when, who appears where. Just me, what we built, and what we’ve done.” He shook his head. “And I think I’m ready for that.”

Argrave eagerly awaited her next words, ready to take comfort in them. Instead…

“You break the silence,” came a splintering icy voice.

Argrave turned his head abruptly to see the Alchemist standing there, lit from behind by the bright red moon above his looming figure.

“My examination is done. Despite the decay, I was able to isolate the energy left behind by Gerechtigkeit.” The Alchemist’s body produced arms, which each held books. His fingers had eyes on the top of them, and scanned the books as he talked. “And more than that, I was able to divine differences between your traces and its.”

“Meaning…?” Argrave pressed, shifting gears rapidly.

“Meaning they likely have different origins,” the Alchemist said plainly, shutting twelve books at once with a loud pop. “I have two hypotheses. The first is that this calamitous energy, for lack of a better term, coalesces over the span of a millennium, hence the long delay. If it was something that was created organically, it would explain why Gerechtigkeit keeps returning time and time again.”

“But Gerechtigkeit retains memory,” Anneliese butted in.

The Alchemist looked down at her. “Yes. He learns. He adapts to what mortals and gods do.” Perhaps Argrave was delusional, but he seemed pleased she’d gotten that. “That lends to my other hypothesis: namely, that Gerechtigkeit never fully appears in this world. That he belongs to another dimension, as the one Argrave comes from, and infiltrates ours once a millennium.” The Alchemist turned his head upward. “But so much is left unanswered with that.”

Argrave reeled without much to add, but Anneliese seemed different. She suggested slowly, “Mozzahr’s ability… supposing the first hypothesis is true, the Emptiness he creates sounds much like Gerechtigkeit, in function.”

“There is a simple problem. Time.” The Alchemist focused back on them. “We lack it.”

Argrave rubbed his chin in thought, his triumph over [Blood Infusion] stifled by this seeming dead end. “If Mozzahr wanted Felipe’s body… then perhaps he knows more of what we should do with it.” Argrave looked up. “Can you isolate this energy further? Separate it, maintain it?”

“Perhaps,” the Alchemist said only. Words of uncertainty were unlike him.

Argrave sighed once more. “But the possibility exists. Both of this energy having use, and Mozzahr having deeper knowledge into it.”

“Hold a moment,” Anneliese interjected. “That Mozzahr sought Felipe’s body for a tie to Gerechtigkeit was only conjecture.”

“Valid conjecture,” the Alchemist said flatly.

“He’s right.” Argrave pointed at the giant figure. “He said it himself. We don’t have the time to do in-depth research about the nature of this energy, its applications and its implications. But if Mozzahr might…!”

“There may be truth in this Mozzahr’s research. I suggest we take all we can from Erlebnis.” The Alchemist held up his hand. “It is our best bet.”

Argrave looked at the Alchemist in distrust. “What are you saying? You’re associated with that god?”

“No,” the Alchemist said with complete and utter contempt.

“Then why would you suggest bargaining with him?” Argrave pressed.

“Imbecile,” the Alchemist said, drawing out the word. “Does the word ‘take’ imply bargaining? No—it implies theft, looting, deprivation. I speak of a heist of his divine realm.”

Argrave’s eyes widened. “You’re… talking about robbing a god?”

“You fight against He Who Would Judge the Gods, yet balk at swindling divinity? I thought you less pathetic,” the Alchemist shook his head. “Have you forgotten your history with him?”

Argrave’s face of shock slowly twisted into one of glee. “I am feeling quite interested in what you have to say.”

“As you should,” the Alchemist said simply.


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