Arkh watched as Nameless fell to the ground, still clutching Cerlissa’s sword. Her heart had been in the assault, but it was clear from the start that she didn’t know what she was doing, and their foe had been eager to remind her of such.
Their foe. Hardly. An immobile tree, seething anger and hate, with a wicked cocktail of Nature, Blood, and Demon magics all pulsing from behind its thick bark. Arkh could feel it tugging at him, clawing at a part of him he wasn’t about to let go. He looked again at the odd scene before him, studying each of his companions as they all struggled to find a way to end the unusual confrontation.
“Why aren’t you helping?” The voice came from behind him, and Arkh didn’t bother turning, already known well who it belonged to. The deep voice, which sounded so much like his own, had long been familiar to him.
“Because I can’t, you fool,” Arkh spat back. “In case you didn’t notice, it’s a tree.”
A derisive laugh led into a response from Him. “True, but it has Blood. You sensed it.” He paused, as if waiting for a response, but continued when none came. “Two days ago, you overpowered another Blood mage, which, you should know, is no small feat. How difficult could a tree be?”
“It stole control of Skygoat’s storm; there’s no way I’m strong enough to best this thing.”
When His voice came again, it was much closer to Arkh, almost whispering into his ear. “I’m disappointed that you compare yourself to him. Skygoat is an excellent beastman, and I’d never doubt his courage… but his magic is nowhere near your own.” He walked around Arkh’s side, finally stepping into view. “I’m almost ashamed that you think you couldn’t outperform him.” He turned, and looked to the scene unfolding before them. “Besides,” he said, gesturing with an open palm. “You’re not trying to create a storm, you’re just trying to influence its decisions. Even if it does backfire, the consequences will be far easier to control.”
Arkh chewed on his lip, thoughtfully. Dammit! He hated it when He made sense. “Alright,” he said, after a moment. “I guess it can’t hurt to try.”
For the second time since their return to Cliffport, Archibald Greene, resigned Cartographer and convicted Enemy of the State, reached into himself and summoned up the Blood he’d long fought to suppress. For the second time, he did so inside Cinderfell, within the Palace walls, in full view of Imperial Guards and members of House Valentine. He hoped, as he drew up the impressive reserves within him (Wait, was it this massive last time? He was scared of his power before, but surely it couldn’t have grown this much in just a few days…), that this would be the last time. He drew in a breath, and unleashed all of it as he reached out to the Blood within the tree before them.
And then, it was gone. The magic at his fingertips had simply… fallen away, and no longer responded to his commands. He stood dumbstruck just long enough to wonder what had happened, when a warm breeze caressed the back of his neck, and He pointed over Arkh’s shoulder.
Behind him, with her signature azure fire in hand, Cerlissa now stood, apparently unaware of the fact that she was unconscious. Her body moved, but her eyes stayed shut, and her motions were jerky and rigid, almost as if…
Almost as if a Blood mage were controlling her.
A hand clasped on to his shoulder, and His voice came once again. “You can do this, Archibald.”
Arkh wasn’t sure if his face actually reflected the surprised confusion he felt, but he wheeled on Him anyway. “What the hell are you talking about?”
He didn’t react immediately, taking a moment to size Arkh up. “It isn’t obvious?”
Arkh glowered back, his confusion rapidly boiling over into anger and frustration. “Let’s pretend it isn’t.”
He raised His hand, pointing to the tree. “That tugging you feel? Well that… thing… is trying to get your soul. Trying to rip it right out of you! What have you seen that does that?”
Arkh took a moment to think, shocked that he was actually listening to Him. “The plague.” He looked up at Him. “You think that tree is the source of the plague?”
“Why else would Cerlissa start showing symptoms the minute she comes within arm’s reach of it? This thing is plague concentrate, not even she can stand up to it.”
Arkh shook his head. “Even if that were true, there’s no way I can stop it. It stole my Blood from me! I can’t stand up to this thing.”
He locked gaze with Arkh, practically staring right through the orc. “Yes, you can.” He pointd at the dagger in Arkh’s hand. “You just need some help.”
“No.” Arkh said, defiantly. “Last time I did this, I hurt a friend. I’m not—” He was cut off.
“You don’t have to hurt a friend, Archibald. There’s someone here whose Blood will no doubt be far more potent than anything these cattle can offer.”
Arkh was too distracted by His suggestion to notice the insult at his friends, taking a moment to fully process what He had just suggested. “Cerlissa.” He looked down at the knife in his hand, and studied the simple blade. “She’s helped us, she’s not our enemy.”
“No, she’s not,” He agreed, almost regretfully. “She wants to be a hero, and she’s good at it. But you can’t forget what she did to you. She’s dangerous, Archibald. In the end, it would be worth it, don’t you agree?” Arkh remained silent, still focused on the knife he held. When he didn’t respond, He continued. “Gwind would be grateful, if nothing else.”
Finally lifting his gaze, Arkh looked to his right, where Skygoat stood. Ever the fearless companion, Arkh could see in his eyes a willingness to help, to do what needed to be done. Dammit Skygoat, he cursed the mercenary, decrying the Beastman’s unending selflessness. I hope that when the time comes, you’ll be strong enough to stop me. Light knows I won’t be able to do it on my own. “Ancestors forgive me.”
Twisting to his left, Arkh jammed the knife into Albin’s unprotected side, the unsuspecting dwarf crying in pain and surprise as the blade slid between his ribs. Taking care to avoid the lungs, Arkh moved the blade backwards, opening a major artery and several veins. When he drew the knife from his friend, he felt his Blood return to him, and could feel his fingers tingle as the power coursed through him.
“He forgave you once before, he’ll do it again,” His voice came again. “It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission, and all that.”
Preparing to unleash the power he held, Arkh locked eyes with Him. “For everyone’s sake, I hope he never does.”