Chapter 221 – 95 Gaw: Six Paces
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Darude, standing still on the hill, watches as the young man notices him. The man waves in his direction before halting the armored vermis at the edge of the caravan. He senses mana swell from the man and seep throughout the vermis. Afterwards, like a [Coachman], he departs his vehicle and walks to the caravan. The armored vermis doesn't move.

Curious, Darude turns his attention below and gives a stomp. He senses the report, or rather, the lack thereof from the caravan. As usual, his senses are easily surpassed by his [Empress]’s runic enchantment. Next, he focuses his senses on the armored vermis, and what he feels causes him to frown. The vermis lives, its seven heartbeats are elevated, but for whatever reason, it refuses to move. Whatever the young man did, the beast has been tamed. 

With a sigh he also senses a fellow Servant, which annoyingly causes his back to itch. At this point, Darude can't help but find his curiosity peaked. He takes a step forward and the sands follow.

_________________________________________________________________

I watch, actually mesmerized by the mostly nude man, as he leisurely strolls down to me on a wave of sand. It looks very impressive, even more so as he nears. A message pops up in my vision.

You are under the effect of [Devouring Desiccation].

Increases the rate of erosion by 3757%

Oh… Oh shit. That’s a domain. Fuck. [Advanced Analyze]

Darude the Bloody Sandstorm

Level- 311 [Champion Sand Sovereign]

Desert. Wasteland. A barren place men go to bare their souls, and sometimes there, their soul gets lost.  

Strength

32

Dexterity

81

Stamina

91

Perception

89

Endurance

61

Vitality

417

Mana

1710

M/regen

6/s

Affinity

3

Intelligence

103

Willpower

441

Soul

731

“Shit,” I say aloud as I read his class and level.

Fuck my luck, he’s strong. Well, anything with the class name of sovereign is going to be powerful like myself. Which I could deal with easily… if not for the presence of his domain.

Darude walks into the sphere of protection centered on Garessa. At the same time, I sense his domain pull back from the surroundings.

Jusuf rushes forward and prostrates himself face-first into the sand. “Bloody Sandstorm!” he shrills. “This lowly merchant welcomes you to his humble caravan!”

Darude rolls his eyes. He turns his attention back to me. I sense him use a skill, only for the result to make him frown. He walks past Jusuf without a greeting as he continues his leisurely pace. At my side, I hear Naunet take a knee, alongside the rest of the caravan. Even my companions, watching everyone else, do the same.

Respect is a complicated topic I could ramble on about for hours, and I’ve personally got a lot of beef with the concept. People believe that respect should be given to all sorts of people or things, usually based on whatever someone else has told them. What they don’t get is that deferring to someone based on reputation is fair; respecting someone based on reputation is stupid. Respect has to be earned from each and every person you interact with, not just offered tacitly. 

That is one reason why I do not kneel. Not before. Not now. And not for as long as I can help it. 

Amid gasps of shock and horror, and a muffled squeal from Naunet, I walk forward towards Darude. Our eyes meet as I cross the distance. Both of us stop a foot from one another. Our heights are matched. We look each other over. A wind blows, ruffling my robe and the stranger’s hair. A puff of dust passes between us. A tumbleweed wanders out of nowhere. 

Eventually, the contest breaks as Darude’s lips slightly curve upwards. “Few have the heart to meet my gaze.”

“I believe six paces is customary.”

Darude frowns. “What?”

“Six paces,” I explain, “we both turn around, take six steps away, then turn back around and blow each other’s heads off.”

Darude stares at me some more, some esoteric sense of his at work. “What are you?”

“Human, mostly this time, with the exception of a few spare livers and an extra heart somewhere around… here,” I thump my left side with my fist.

Darude’s eyebrow twitches. “Who are you?”

“Ah ha!” I exclaim. “That is a much more interesting topic; for do we all not transcend these fleshy husks that god or circumstance ordain? Forsooth, each and everyone of us transcends these mortal coils and is, at hearts, a timeless, majestic, and ineffable being. And yet, for you, in honor of your honest inquiry, I shall endeavor to elucidate.”

I pause and raise a finger. “However, I must beg of you a certain suspension of disbelief, for though I am an ordinary soul, my journey is anything but. It is the saddest thing in the world, my dear interlocutor, to not be believed when you bare your soul. I am alone, dear stranger, in this strange land, and only through the greatest of luck and cruelest of chance have I met one who has stolen a heart of mine, so it is lucky God granted me a second with which I may stare at you. Yet as many times as I’ve loved, as many times have I lost, and so too will she leave me at this world’s end.” 

I pause dramatically, raising my palm to my face as I slowly close my eyes. From the air, a slow and steady violin starts to play.

“And each stilly night,

Er Slumber’s chains have bound me,

Cruel Memory brings the light

Of bygone days around me.

“Though I clenched

With tightest fist,

Through my fingers sand did seep.

Lost upon this darkling plain,

My friends are gone.

I weep.

“So out of the night which covers me

I roam from shade to shade.

To that distant Aiden seek,

My friends, my hopes, my dreams.”

The sound of the violin quickens.

“Thus, I am a traveler, wandering through the void between the glimmering stars, blown by Fate across the myriad cosmos, searching for the loves I’ve lost and love I can keep.  But, I see in your eye, kind guest, that you are not convinced, though only truth I speak, so I will speak no more.

“Come, then sirrah, let us be about our bloody business. Take your paces six, and we shall see which one of us the gods dost favor and which one of us departs.”

Darude opens his mouth, closes it, then opens it again. An epiphany strikes him.

“You’re some kind of [Bard]?”

I step back and bow.

_________________________________________________________________________

“You’re only the second foreigner I’ve ever met legally traversing the desert,” Darude glances at the [Head Slave] standing a foot behind Bone and waiting patiently to serve her master. A foreign master. How rare.

“Second? But anyone can spend a fortune on a slave to get the option of traversing the desert,” Bone comments. 

Darude shakes his head. His long, dirty-red hair swishes back and forth. “Any foreigner with the money to buy a slave at an auction would have no reason to cross the desert.”

“Huh,” Bone taps his chin. “Well, if they’ve already got a fortune, and enough business sense to amass it, why bother with crossing the treacherous desert when there’s safer wealth elsewhere? I suppose that makes some sense.”

Darude nods. “Of course it does. My [Empress] doesn’t make mistakes. Her laws are always perfect.” Darude raises his hand and taps the parked vermis. “On another topic, this armored vermis: How did you tame it? I’ve never heard of anyone but my [Empress] being able to control them.”

Bone snorts. “Tamed? I didn't tame it. I just made it incapable of moving.”

“Incapable of moving?” Darude repeats.

“Yup,” Bone pats his hand on the armor. “Surprisingly, the outer bones of the armored vermis are not actually a part of the vermis. It’s more similar to a shell made of dense keratin and calcium that just constantly grows outward. Luckily, it’s close enough to bone that, as a [Necromancer], I can exert control over it. In this case, I welded the plates together so the vermis can’t move.”

Darude looks up at the vermis’s head. “You also created a throne.”

Bone twirls his cane and wags a finger. “Don’t forget the cupholders.”

The Bloody Sandstorm shakes his head and snorts. “You’re a [Necromancer], a [Bard], and a [Gentlemen], who happens to be traveling to the capital. It sounds like a bad joke.” He gives Bone a long look. “Are you sure you can't tell me the reason?”

“Yep. All I can say is that it doesn’t inherently harm your empire.”

Darude folds his arms and slowly nods. He is wary of Bone. He can sense the man is powerful through his thoroughly honed instincts. Even though he can't tell Bone’s level, he does acknowledge that if they fought, he would need to use his domain to win. Thankfully, there isn’t a reason to fight.

“I will take your word for it,” he glances at the sun shining above. “It was nice meeting you, Quasi.” Darude starts walking away with a smile on his face. He feels the mark of Hermes, the large feather imprinted on his back, start to itch. 

Darude, the Bloody Sandstorm, agent of the [Empress], and the champion of Hermes raises his hand and waves before summoning his domain. With nary a thought, a sandstorm swirls up and lifts him on his way.

Quasi, mouth agape, watches the man leave. For some reason, the sight makes the skin on his heels start to itch.

______________________________________________________________

“Are you mad!?” Jusuf screams. He wildly points at the distant retreating sandstorm “Do you have any idea who that was!?” 

Naunet frowns at Jusuf’s tone, but she cannot necessarily defend her master from it. Her master did just try to pick a fight with the [Empress]’s right hand.

Bone scratches the side of his face. “Some guy who probably suffers from sand chafing. Probably why he wears any clothing at all.”

Jusuf looks like he’s about to burst a blood vessel. He points again into the distance, stabbing his digit like a [Mugger]’s knife into a kidney. “That’s the Bloody Sandstorm you stupid foreigner! He’s the [Empress]’s executioner, the one responsible for slaughtering anyone who disobeys her laws! Even [Sultans]!”

His finger trains itself on Quasi. “And you! You just went out of your way to insult him! Your idiocy could have killed us all!”

“Master Jusuf,” Naunet interrupts before her master can worsen the matter, “other than rumors, it has never been proven that Darude kills indiscriminately. Most likely, my master would have been the only person killed had he taken offense.”

Her master frowns. “Naunet, aren't you supposed to be on my side?”

“I am on your side, Master. You wish to travel to the capital, which would become difficult to do if Jusuf believes your presence is a hazard. I am merely informing him that it would be your remains strewed across the desert and not his.”

Her master looks a little put out. “I think you’re underestimating my abilities.”

Naunet confidently shakes her head. “Master, with all due respect, Darude has created storms that have tossed about armies, buried entire cities, and beaten back other Named with relative ease. You have no hope of challenging him.”

“She’s right,” Jusuf says with a now much calmer voice, finally understanding the depths of Bone’s ignorance. “Only your luck has saved you from death today.”

Bone grumbles as he turns his head to look across the distant desert. Darude is far… but not that far. If he summons That, he could probably catch up. But, then that would make the whole adventure thing moot.

He sighs. “Fine!” he declares. “Whatever. Let's just get moving.” He glances at the “parked” armored vermis. He smiles as an idea comes to mind. “Jusuf, keep an eye out for armored vermis. I’m going to need several more.” 

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