Jackal Among Snakes

Chapter 617: Grubby Grasping Gluttons



Chapter 617: Grubby Grasping Gluttons

Argrave rolled his shoulders and flexed his hand, warding away the pain. After the funeral, he’d taken some time to explore his powers more in-depth. As it turned out, he wasn’t barred from using spirits in magic—he merely needed to change the way that he did it. Every shamanic spell that he learned had to be changed with [Blood Infusion]. Effectively, the field of shamanic magic had been folded into blood magic. In actuality, it was likely vastly more efficient in terms of spirits consumed than shamanic magic had ever been. He’d had help in figuring that detail out, elsewise he expected he might’ve struggled for a long time.

“Thanks, Raven.” Argrave turned his head. “I did have a few more things to ask you.”

The man stared impassively without response, a comfortably safe distance away from him.

Argrave turned toward Raven and took some steps closer. “Operating under the assumption that Gerechtigkeit attacked Vasquer to distract from Traugott, do you think invading the Shadowlands is a dumb idea?”

“Yes.”

Argrave waited for Raven to say more, but nothing came. He was forced to ask, “Why?”

“They lack our senses. We lack theirs,” he explained bluntly. “They can adapt our senses to perceive this world. We cannot adapt their senses to perceive the Shadowlands. Sight, smell, sound, even touch—none function there. Not even the gods can perceive its true nature. It’s an abyss, an absence of light. A shadow.”

“Traugott does it,” Argrave pointed out. “He took on the form of a Shadowlander, but even before that he managed to hop in and out enough to escape any attackers.”

“He fumbled about in the dark until he figured out the lay of the land. He has more ready access to that realm than any other mortal or god in the entire world, and thus the time to discover its intricacies. We do not.”

Argrave crossed his arms. “I think that problem can be remedied with a Fruit of Being.”

“Interesting.”

“Interesting, you say. Care to elaborate?”

“I don’t have a clue,” Raven elaborated. “Do you think I have a rational explanation for those things?”

Argrave uncrossed his arms and tapped his forehead. “Erlebnis claims there are ways into the Shadowlands before the allotted time. I’ve yet to test any, but the possibility exists. Given those two variables… is the idea still dumb?”

“I would come, if you do it. Perhaps I might find a way to adapt to the Shadowlands independently of whatever method you devise. Regardless, one of those creatures tore through the entirety of the old capital. As you are now, you would die.”

“Have you ever dissected a Shadowlander?” Argrave inquired.

“Yes. Enough to know they function by different rules,” he explained with a shake of his head. “Their organs were made to process something different than us—though, what that is remains beyond me. Their flesh and bones break several preconceptions I have about the world. They lack an identifiable brain, but not intelligence. I believe they have a stratified society of some kind, and those we see are of a lower class.”

Argrave bit his lip until he summoned the humility to bite the bullet and ask, “What does stratified mean, again?”

“They have classes. A social hierarchy,” Raven explained without judgment.

Argrave was taken aback. That made the Shadowlanders sound a lot more advanced than they acted. “How do you know this?”

“If you’d listen, I said ‘believe.’”

“Why do you—”

“I found consistent markings on their body added by an unnatural process,” Raven interrupted. “A brand, you might call it, but definitely not brought about by a branding iron. Through countless examinations, I was able to work out a pattern that roughly corresponded to what each specimen was capable of.” Raven shrugged. “Slave markings, by my guess. The rest is mere extrapolation. To have slaves, you generally need slavers. The two are distinct classes.”

Argrave nodded. He was glad he asked Raven—sometimes, he seemed as knowledgeable as Erlebnis. He had the added ability to not only gather information, but analyze and theorize about it.

“Alright. I’ll take all of that into consideration. One last thing, then—counsel from a pragmatist. How would you use the remaining three Fruits of Being?”

“Keep the three of them on you to have a contrivance whensoever you should need it.”

Argrave stared, then felt the need to ask, “Are you being serious?”

“Why not? Contrivances are wonderful things. When you find yourself in a corner, or things seem impossible to escape from… contrive something. As a matter of fact, that might be a more apt name for those. Fruits of Contrivance.” Raven shook his head. “You know what I’ll say, don’t you? You ask only to hear your disappointment confirmed. Give one to me. Keep the others for when they’re needed. No one could use its power better than me—in reasoning, pragmatism, mental acuity, and diligence, none are my peer. With my ability of self-actualization finally tamed, neither your siblings nor your wife can hold a candle to me. It might be said the power was wasted on even you.”

Argrave stared at Raven, off-balance from the blatant display of ambition.

Raven waved him away. “But you’ll do what you will, because foolishly, they gave the decision for their use to you alone. And, foolishly, I will heed your wisdom without… significant reproach.”

#####

With Raven’s counsel at hand, Argrave decided to tackle the task of persuading his siblings to follow along with the idea of invading the Shadowlands. To that end, he called his old friend who he hadn’t had much time to speak with properly. The difficulty of running a kingdom spanning most of continent meant they were often quite far apart, each doing very important things.

The door to the quaint inn opened up, and Durran walked in—his brother-in-law. Though still bearing black hair and golden eyes, his tan skin had paled somewhat after a long while away from the desert and more time spent indoors. His golden tattoos still shone ever brilliantly, and his carefree demeanor hadn’t waned through both war and marriage.

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“So, Elenore told me that you evolved,” Durran said as greeting to Argrave.

Argrave looked around uneasily when he said as much out loud, thinking about pocket monsters. The floor had been rented out, but he didn’t like to mention it all so casually.

“I’m told as much,” Argrave confirmed vaguely. “How is she holding up?”

Durran pulled back the chair in front of Argrave and sat. “Not well. I’m doing what I can, but… gods. Death. You can’t fight it. I lost a ton of siblings. Mother, too. Uncles, aunts. Disturbs the heart, the guts,” he waved in that general area. “Time fixes it. You either come to terms with it, or you repress it. Either way, there’s only time.”

“I know how much you care for her, but even still… treat her well, please,” he urged.

“Of course. Take care of yourself, as well.” Durran nodded somberly. “Was it just that, or did you have something else? Because if it’s something else…” He leaned in. “I know that you have limited choices, and I know that I have, in very distant centuries past, acted a little liberally… but you can’t deny I’ve put my everything on the line for your cause.”

“What?” Argrave narrowed his eyes.

Durran put his hand near the mark Raven had bestowed upon him. “I made a commitment, remember? Either we discover how to end the cycle of judgment, or the Alchemist eviscerates me. In return, he gave me S-rank spellcasting. Thereafter, this gracious King of the Burnt Sands bestowed upon you a territory just as vast as Vasquer, of his own volition.” He held his hands out. “If you want someone to share your burden, my life itself is aligned with your interests. I can step up. And I’m not afraid of what the fruit might do to me.”

“I see,” Argrave said, uncomfortable recognition dawning on him.

Durran leaned back. “If you choose otherwise, no hard feelings. I just hope you’ll give me a proper burial when you’re still young and immortal, and I’m three hundred and withering.”Nêww 𝒄hapters will be fully updated at (n)ov(𝒆)l/bin(.)com

“Durran…”

“I’m just kidding around,” he shook his head. “Listen—if I don’t ask, I don’t receive, right? I’m just officially throwing my name among others. If I didn’t, I’d spend the rest of my short life asking, ‘what if?’”

Argrave nodded, deciding to take Durran at his word. The whole talk left a bitter taste on his mouth. He wished more and more neither Orion nor Elenore had relinquished the right to the fruits. Perhaps it was time to give them back, have them decide. At the very least, he wouldn’t be solely responsible for distributing them. Hefting such a burden upon his siblings, though, while they were distraught…

“I actually wanted your help broaching something with Elenore,” Argrave said. “Can I count on you for that?”

“I mean…” Durran leaned back. “I’d kiss your royal haunches for the fruit, but I won’t scheme against Elenore. She may be your sister, but she’s my wife.”

Argrave was glad to hear his adamant hesitation, honestly—it was some sweetness that mitigated the bitterness of moments prior.

“It’s nothing covert. You don’t have to agree if you don’t agree, but even still, just hear me out,” Argrave began.

#####

Not even hours later…

“Who told you?” Argrave asked of Melanie, who’d managed to catch him off-guard and alone in the parliamentary hall and mentioned his recent promotion to upper-level management.

“Well…” The red-haired woman scratched the back of her head. “I’m not sure I should…”

“Never mind,” Argrave shook his head. “Let me guess—you’re throwing your hat in the ring should a second position open up?”

“No, no,” Melanie shook her head, adjusting her tellerbarret. “I think… you shouldn’t give the fruits to anyone. Keep them for a special occasion. Let them ferment, then make ‘em into wine.”

Argrave pursed his lips, thinking. “Reverse psychology. On me.”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” she answered back with narrow eyes. “Nah, I mean… just keep them there. Hold them above people’s head. An incentive, you could call it. You could let certain people prove their worth to eat the fruit. I mean, some people, like me… we’ve already proven our worth. True, Traugott might’ve slipped out of my reach, but I followed you into Erlebnis’ vault, helped you with the dwarves, and even caught Dario. I even gave up godhood when Sataistador offered it to me. Some might consider that slightly meritorious. And just rulers give proportionate rewards. You are a just ruler, aren’t you?”

“When it suits me.” Argrave smiled. “Thank you for your unbiased counsel, Melanie. You’re a paragon of objective wisdom in these trying times.”

“Well, I try. I try a hell of a lot harder than most of these people, at least,” she waved around. “Remember me, Your Majesty. Pretty please?”

#####

After freeing himself of Melanie, Argrave made some accommodations for Rowe. The snow elf had requested an audience—it wasn’t unusual, given his position as a local leader for the Veidimen settlers in Blackgard. The snow elves had a sizable presence on the parliament, too, and from what Argrave remembered, Anneliese had mentioned she might seek his counsel. He almost didn’t dare believe, but he couldn’t say he was surprised, when…

“Give me a fruit,” Rowe proposed.

Argrave tapped the table, feeling rather belabored. He leaned his head on his hand as he asked, “Anneliese told you?”

“I pried it free. She sought me for counsel about invading the Shadowlands, and she isn’t dumb enough to suggest such a thing without some special edge. So, I battered her until she gave in. She is my apprentice, you forget. Worry not—word won’t spread beyond me. But I am rather interested in cutting Traugott down to size—namely, the size of a pinpoint.”

“Sell me the idea,” Argrave prompted, knowing that was the inevitable end to this conversation.

“Where to begin? My list of virtues is quite long…”

#####

Argrave sat on his bed, staring ahead. In front of him, his queen stood.

“I’m sorry…” Anneliese apologized profusely. “I just… I didn’t… he helped me a lot, and I just wanted to consider every angle. The Veidmen have withheld some knowledge from even Erlebnis, and Rowe knows all of it, so…”

“I’m not angry,” Argrave shook his head.

“That still doesn’t justify it.” She sat down beside him. “I made a mistake.”

“I think everyone told someone. I wouldn’t be surprised if Orion told Sun Li, and then she told Ji Meng, and then he sails over here presenting a grandiose list of reasons why he should have it.” Argrave shook his head. “I guess I never mentioned to keep it quiet. Still… hell. I don’t know what to do.”

Anneliese shook her head. “I don’t need one.”

Argrave didn’t answer with words, and merely wrapped his arm around her body. She leaned her head up against him. In the silence, a strange idea came to Argrave. He rose to his feet, retrieving some cups from a shelf. Then, he set them on the floor upside down.

“What if…” He took a blueberry off the table, hiding it beneath one cup. Then, he mixed the cups up.

“What are you doing?” Anneliese asked, perplexed.

“Lindon talked about how these fruits are so mystical, yeah?” Argrave rambled as he moved the cups around and around. “How they do whatever you want—give you a million dollars, regrow your bald spot, improve your virility, make the girl next door fall in love with you, whatever. He claimed that they’re consummate will, and as such, have a will of their own. So what if…”

Argrave stopped moving the cups, then gestured to them all. “Pick a cup. Any cup. If you pick goodly, you might just become a little godly.”

Anneliese laughed. “Make the fruits choose? You can’t be serious.”

Argrave didn’t join her in laughter as he stared at the cups. “Maybe I am, baby. Maybe.”


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