Jackal Among Snakes

Chapter 531: Castellan in the Wrong Castle



This 𝓬ontent is taken from 𝐟𝐫𝗲𝗲𝘄𝗲𝗯𝗻𝐨𝘃𝗲𝐥.𝐜𝐨𝗺

Argrave conjured a wave of flames to meet Mozzahr as he crashed down at him with all the speed and strength of a meteor. He didn’t think it would do much damage—rather, he hoped to obscure visibility as he dodged so as not to betray his newfound ability, [Echo Step]. He warped near Sophia as he felt the tremendous impact shake the temple grounds, then scooped her up and watched Mozzahr warily as the Castellan of the Empty rose to face Argrave.

“Hause—fulfill your promise,” he directed the goddess. “Keep Sophia safe, just for a little bit.”

Hause, though overwhelmed by Sophia, still had many more years of experience with battle than he did. She took Sophia, then directed Sonia, “Evacuate the citizens, then rally the faithful. I shall fall back deeper.”freewebn(o)vel.com

“Mister…!” Sophia called out, reaching for him.

“Sorry to show you an unpleasant sight. But I need you to behave, if only for a little bit,” Argrave told her.

Sophia went mute and nodded, and Argrave placed himself between Hause and Mozzahr as she headed deeper into her temple. Mozzahr looked at Argrave and shook his head.

“Thinking I’ll go for the girl? No. The tables have turned, King Argrave. Once, you attacked me in the heart of my power, to end me as a threat to your kingdom. Now, the roles have swapped. I hope not to underestimate you.”

“If you’re talking, you’re already doing that,” Argrave pointed out, studying Mozzahr as his blood echoes spread throughout the indoor garden in Hause’s temple.

Argrave could see the Castellan of the Empty bursting with his mysterious Emptiness. It emerged from his left eye, a faint teal energy that hued his face subtly in the dim light of this temple. Now, though, Mozzahr was better armored. He had armored himself in the faintly purple dwarven metal, which somewhat mitigated magic and the influence of spirits. Argrave saw he had a rapier made of a sharpened horn strapped to his left leg, and recognized it as a divine weapon.

Mozzahr drew the rapier. “You humbled me. It lowered me back to a time long before I had any power. My family were the descendants of slaves kept by the dwarves. Smithing slaves, specifically. Despite this servitude, they passed down the method to work with dwarven metal like they were proud of it. I thought it disgraceful. I never taught it to my daughter for this reason.” He took a deep breath, then held the rapier out. “It seems, however, that I must teach her our history. It may break her faith in me. But I will not abandon the path to become the arbiter, despite any disgrace I endure. You are no different.”

Argrave was mildly impressed, and a little concerned, that Mozzahr had forged armor of dwarven metal to fight against Argrave. It wouldn’t be a life-or-death difference, but it was symbolic more than it was practical. And the moment Mozzahr charged again, Argrave could tell the difference in the way he fought.

Mozzahr had grown much weaker since Argrave had last fought him. His Emptiness was his strength. It had grown over centuries to its apex, but the more of it he used in combat, the weaker he’d become overall until it was replenished. Mozzahr had fought against Argrave, then Erlebnis, and endured whatever else it had taken to return here. But a few thousand tons of water pumped from the ocean didn’t change the fact that it was still the ocean. And now, the force of that ocean had caution, respect, and deadly efficiency.

The deadly-sharp tip of that rapier sung toward Argrave’s neck like a bullet, yet Argrave swapped places with one of his blood echoes and used others to cast a simple, probing [Arc Whips] infused with blood essence. The coiling red arcs of electricity struck Mozzahr’s back for but a few seconds before he leapt away to avoid them. When he looked back at Argrave, electricity danced up his neck before it was suppressed by his surging energy.

“Everyone is outside, Argrave, but I’ve not given them the order to advance,” Elenore said, some shock in her voice. With Vasquer connecting her mind to his sister, she could likely see this fight clearly.

“And don’t,” Argrave responded, watching Mozzahr cautiously. “They should wait outside. If he leaves, have them prepared to hit hard and fast. But if I give the order, I need the Alchemist to bring everyone at once and finish things.”

Mozzahr gathered his Emptiness in his palm, walking cautiously forward, then lobbed it at Argrave at a speed too fast to simply side-step. He’s testing how I’m dodging. Argrave realized he could hide the secret no longer, so he swapped places with a nearby echo. Mozzahr’s purple eyes glinted when he figured things out, and then he gathered power in his hand once again while making a note of where each echo was. They were roughly in a circle around.

Argrave, meanwhile, discreetly maneuvered one well hidden from sight. As Mozzahr’s Emptiness coalesced in his left, he leapt forward, thrusting with his rapier while stopping short of any rapid reprisal. Argrave swapped places again, and when he did, Mozzahr unleashed a fell pulse of energy. It sheared through bushes, trees, and all the greenery in the garden until all was decimated. Argrave, however, sought refuge in the crawlspace that the elf had made. He commanded his blood echoes to mindlessly attack what remained with [Nine-Tailed Bloodbriars], and heard a thousand cracking whips in the space left behind.𝒻𝑟ℯℯ𝑤ℯ𝘣𝘯𝘰𝑣ℯ𝘭.𝑐𝘰𝓂

He peeked from the crawlspace to view the scene. Everything beautiful about the temple had been ruined with their one exchange. To Argrave’s immense surprise Mozzahr spotted him in an instant and threw his rapier with tremendous grace. As it pierced the stone beneath him, Argrave conjured a ward with the ring on his finger by a long-instilled instinct. The sheening enchantment stopped the blade inches away from his gut, but Mozzahr gathered yet more Emptiness in his hand for a follow-up attack. Argrave frantically projected his echoes back into the room as Mozzahr cast a simple [Wind Lance] and imbued it with his teal energy.

Moments after Argrave teleported away, a devastating blast blew away great portions of the ceiling. Argrave retreated far. As thousands of pounds of dust, debris, and carnage fell, Mozzahr rushed into it all at Argrave with the same silent fury he’d had since the beginning. Argrave watched, wide-eyed, as it seemed to bury the Castellan of the Empty. Moments later he was denied rest as the elf emerged from out of sight, having somehow retrieved his rapier from the chaos of the collapse.

The Castellan of the Empty swung that deadly-sharp point with his cold fury. Argrave could only teleport short distances away time and time again, the sheer speed and unrelenting of Mozzahr’s assault providing no room for rest. He alternated between waves of power and swings of his weapon, testing Argrave’s limits with every passing second.

“You’ve improved,” he noted, not even breathless as he swung. “It’s a real fight. Not borrowed power, anymore. Your own. Your casting speed, this new ability…”

Argrave felt a familiar feeling—a rut. Noticing this, he changed his style immediately. Rather than projecting echoes behind and backstepping, he projected two forward and prepared a spell in his left hand. Mozzahr caught on immediately and stopped his assault to prepare for Argrave’s next move. Mozzahr was correct to do so.

But it was as Mozzahr said—this was his own power, and it was certainly powerful.

Argrave teleported close to Mozzahr, and the rapier already sang toward his head. Argrave cast his spell in fearless defiance, an A-rank [Burst] infused with his own blood. Pain roared through his body as his very essence coursed into the spell, yet it empowered a deafening burst that intercepted the rapier and Mozzahr. His foe was ready to defend, however, and the powerful warrior took the blow extremely well. Argrave saw his armor shear away and his wrist break… but Mozzahr got distance and healed the wound with magic until it seemed to have never been.

Even as pain assailed Argave, he felt he’d seen a light. He should not be the one running—not anymore. The arsenal he’d created lent him infinitely more opportunities that that. As the rubble from the partial collapse finally calmed, Argrave straightened his back and sent blood echoes chasing after Mozzahr. Having seen what they were capable of, the former cult leader avoided them cautiously. Argrave, meanwhile, used an echo nearby to create a B-rank weapon formed of blood magic. He gripped a greataxe in hand, hefting the thing. A big axe suited Argrave well. Sharp, yet without the need for much skill to deal good damage.

“In this domain, my foes are much weaker, and I am much—”

Argrave positioned one of the echoes to raise both its hands above, just near Mozzahr, and then swapped places with it.

“—stronger!” Argrave swung the axe down upon Mozzahr with all the expertise of a brute.

The Domain of Law took effect. The effects it could provide were not limitless. Mozzahr would be weakened somewhat, and Argrave would be strengthened somewhat. But in a fight, moving half a second too slow while your opponent moved half a second too fast… well, it could prove all the difference.

Mozzahr thrust his rapier at Argrave’s head. But his stab was half a second too slow, and Argrave’s swing was half a second too fast. He attempted to correct his mistake by turning a thrust into a parry, but the mistake had been made. Argrave’s axe of blood danced past the rapier and slammed into Mozzahr’s shoulder. Teal energy danced out of the wound, and Mozzahr’s left arm fell limp. He dropped the rapier and held his hand out, where a mana ripple spread. He was casting a spell of A-rank or higher.

Yet Argrave released the greataxe and cast an A-rank [Burst] again, calling upon his blood. He’d practiced the speed of his spells countless times in the past weeks trapped in that loop, and it did not lose out to Mozzahr. Tremendous force tore through the Castellan of the Empty and sent him flying backward until he hit a wall, while the tremendous cost of casting a blood-infused [Burst] left Argrave hunched over in agony.

“Elenore!” he contacted her through their connection. “Send them, now!”

He received her reply in the form of the blur of figures appearing as he fell to one knee. The Alchemist, Anneliese, Melanie, Durran, Orion, Onychinusa, and even Galamon appeared all at once, arrayed before Mozzahr after he’d been hit tremendously hard. This was the furthest they’d pushed the Castellan of the Empty. Argrave could tell that the fight in those eyes of his had not dimmed as the monstrous fighter pulled the axe from his shoulder and rose, spitting blood.

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