Monday, December 28, 2015

Page 1154

Integration was not inherently powerful. Abbas had learned that lesson very early. But it did help him keep his brethren at the forefront of technological advancement.

As such, the most valuable--or at least, most difficult--piece of technology that he currently possessed was the fusion-propulsion system that powered the jets on his back, calves, and upper arms. Six, they numbered in total, and their thrust-to-weight ratio was unrivaled by anything else he’d ever made--probably, even, by any other currently existing technology.

But that was only half of it.

Their real secret--one Abbas hadn’t even shared with Haqq--was their ability to create antimatter particles. He’d gotten the idea from the still-fairly-recent discovery that antimatter could be created by lightning storms. Needless to say, it was still an emerging technology, and unfortunately, even these jets couldn’t withstand the combustion force that resulted from it. They would regenerate, but the antiparticles would interfere and slow the process to a crawl. Functionally speaking, that meant he had six and only six jets to work with.

Six chances to defeat the Salesman of Death, in other words.

And he had to use one right now, or the fight would already be over. He chose the one on his left calf. The whole section of the suit up to the knee ejected itself, leaving only its thin underlayer of rubber and cotton behind.

It detonated less than a second after ejection, but Abbas couldn’t just leave it at that. He had to make a hard U-turn and catch the explosion’s aftermath. Wind and sky and scorching sunlight all screamed past his vision as he curved back around.

He also needed to account for the missing jet. He could actually use the imbalance it created by working it into the U-turn, but as his course straightened out again, he had to adjust his right leg with delicate precision.

And then, of course, there was still the Salesman to account for. A head-on collision with the man was imminent.

Page 1153

It was fortunate that he’d found the Salesman all the way out here in these empty sand dunes. It meant he didn’t have to worry about the citizens of Moaban. Because there would be no holding back in this fight.

First, he required his soul-empowered smokescreen. If the Salesman landed a solid hit, Abbas didn’t know if even this suit would be able to withstand it. So that was what he’d been doing while Ivan was occupied with the drones. He’d only gained enough time to create a relatively small cloud to conceal himself within, but it would have to serve until--

In a blink, the cloud was gone, dissipated into nothingness. Abbas didn’t get the opportunity to question it, either, as his sensors warned him of the Salesman’s approach from below.

Abbas made two fists, and the suit answered. The jets bolted him straight up, tearing higher into the sky at maximized acceleration.

Then came the system alerts. Every component of the suit was experiencing rapid power loss and structural degradation.

It was that man’s power, Abbas knew. The Salesman’s control over atomic interactions meant that he could quite literally suck the energy out of anything.

Well. Almost anything.

Antimatter was another story.

Abbas didn’t typically use his ability in combat. In fact, he didn’t typically participate in combat. The Sunsmith had earned his name from the technological support he provided his more battle-oriented comrades. But in the end, his support wasn’t enough to save any of them. In the end, Abbas outlived them all. Without ever holding such ambitions, he’d become the eldest Sandlord--and indeed, the eldest servant in all of Sair. Even Octavia Redwater was younger by a good thirty years or so.

And as such, he’d been working to change that part of himself. Because he had to. For the sake of his homeland, he had to.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Page 1152

Time until the others catch up?’ thought Abbas in Valgan.

You’re about eighty minutes ahead of everyone,’ said Worwal from all the way back in Kuros.

The number surprised him, somewhat. The suit was performing very well. Almost too well. Unless this fight somehow turned into siege warfare, eighty minutes was far too long to attempt holding out for reinforcements.

But that was fine. With all the trouble and foul rumors about Calthos, Abbas had left the Golden Fort knowing that he might meet one of Abolish’s strongest today.

Already, he could see the Salesman in great detail. The ocular replacements were doing their job. Someone had gotten a good hit in, judging by the man’s half-eaten face and smote clothing. And with the onboard computer drilled directly into his thalamus and cerebral cortex, he was able to get an easy targeting lock from more than two miles off.

Abbas tapped his little finger to his thumb and held it there. The suit responded by detaching the front chest piece, which immediately fell off behind him. But it would catch up soon enough. Once it transformed itself and repositioned its inner components, it would become a cruise missile, strengthened by his own soul.

The Salesman could sense him now, too, it seemed. Abbas saw him looking up in his direction.

Abbas veered up higher and let his twin drones go in first. Soul-strengthened bullets rained down on the Salesman from their customized submachine guns as they zig-zagged toward him. They didn’t carry much ammunition, but that didn’t matter, because their real purpose was only to serve as a distraction while trying to get in close and self-detonate.

Ivan didn’t allow the latter to happen. Both drones exploded inside a blue cage before they got anywhere near him.

This was also as expected.

The suit’s shoulder mounts began regenerating. In forty-five seconds, Abbas would have both drones back, complete with full ammunition and detonators.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Page 1151 -- CXXIX.

“Is that really the Sunsmith?” Ivan asked, not to Hector, seemingly, but simply aloud. “To come to me alone like this--does he fancy himself a warrior now? Have his days of cowering beneath the corpses of better men come to an end?” He threw Hector a knowing glance. “If so, I’m disappointed. Bravery doesn’t suit him.”


Chapter One Hundred Twenty-Nine: ‘O, guardian of the Sun...!’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

After receiving the distress call from Raml’hahl, he’d come to assess the situation personally. It was certainly not proper for the presiding head of the Qal’majilis to attend such a matter alone, but he could not abide waiting for everyone to catch up. In terms of first responders, none in Sair would best him, save perhaps Rayen Merlo, but by all accounts, that woman was quite possibly a traitor and now captive of the Vanguard.

And now that he’d seen the devastation--not just in Raml’hahl but all across Moaban--his mood had only worsened. The fact that he now sensed this overwhelming soul power was just icing on the cake, really.

Over the years, he and Haqq had tested the suit as intensely and exhaustively as they possibly could. In theory, he was prepared, but he held no illusions about it. No simulation could match a real fight with one of Eleg’s juggernauts.

The Lord Abbas Saqqaf tapped his index finger and thumb together, holding them there for a second, and the suit answered him. Two drones deployed out of the shoulder mounts and began following closely behind him as the fusion-propulsion jets on his back carried him across the sky. The drones couldn’t break the sound barrier under their own power like his suit could, but they could still take advantage of the small draft he created in his wake.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Page 1150

“I look forward to hearing from you,” said Ivan. “You have my number. Oh, and if you don’t call me at least once a week, I may decide to renegotiate the terms of our deal.”

Hector’s expression stiffened. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, it’s nothing. Just make sure you keep me apprised of your progress. A weekly update is all I ask. That’s not so unreasonable, is it?”

Hector turned his head slightly, reevaluating Ivan from the corner of his eyes. “Are you... I mean... do you not have many people to talk to?”

“What?! No! I have tons of people!”

A suddenly awkward silence intervened.

“It’s just--” Ivan tried. “They’re all--they’re very same-y, you know what I mean? And this was an unexpectedly pleasant conversation, so I--look, shut up. Don’t make this weird. I’m cutting you a lot of slack here. The least you could do is call me once in a while.”

“...O-okay.”

After that, the Salesman just stood there, looking like he wasn’t entirely sure what to do next. “Alright, well. Good, then. I’ll talk to you later.”

“W-wait, uh.”

“What?”

“Uh. You didn’t clarify. Are you going to pretend that I forced you to retreat from here? I mean, ah... I only ask because i-it would help me help you.”

Ivan seemed to regain his composure all at once. “Mm. Right. Yes. I suppose I could oblige. Doesn’t matter to me how much--” He cut himself off.

Hector waited, but Ivan just stared blankly past him. Then Hector saw that mad smile again.

“Ha. Well, well. Who is that?”

Hector didn’t know what he meant. But he did hear a noise. A distant hum in the direction of Dunehall. An airplane? Probably not, his gut told him.

Page 1149

“Alright, fine,” said Ivan. “The real reasons are boring political ones. And you don’t want to listen to me explain all that, do you?” The man allowed another beat to pass. “Also, I’d have to kill you after I told you. So there’s that, too.”

Hector had to force himself not to react to that. Maybe it didn’t really matter at this point, but he didn’t want Ivan to see any sense of relief on his face.

After another moment of repose, the Salesman picked the conversation back up. “I suppose I don’t need to mention this, but, well. I want to. Naturally, if you fail to deliver your end of this bargain, I will hunt down everyone you care about in this world and kill them. Slowly, of course. By starving them to death. That’s why I brought that up earlier, see? That wasn’t just a random tangent. It was foreshadowing. I was using foreshadowing.”

“Yeah, I got it.”

“Of course you did. You’re a smart kid. That’s why I’m sure you won’t let me down. That’s why I’m sure I won’t have to go to all the trouble of finding all your friends and family and then gradually depriving them of food until they begin begging for death. I was never threatening you, you understand? Although, I could do that, too, if you like. In addition to your loved ones, I mean. Not instead of.”

“...Do you always ramble this much when threatening people?”

“Usually, yes. What can I say? It gets me excited, and I just can’t stop talking. But I suppose I should. We’ve been at this a while, you and I, and I have a lot of important business to take care of.”

“I’m sure you do.”

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Page 1148

Hector didn’t think he could argue with any of that. But he did feel gutsy enough to ask the question on his mind. “...Is that how you died? Originally, I mean.”

“Yes, that was indeed the voice of experience you were hearing just now.” His voice had grown softer. “Though I’m surprised you noticed. Everyone seems to think that we of Abolish are simply callous, unfeeling monsters, that we don’t understand suffering and loss and sadness and remorse. But they could not be more wrong. We understand all of these things even better than they do.” Ivan paused for a beat. “Well, most of us, anyway.”

Hector couldn’t resist the obvious point of contradiction. “If that’s true... then why do you hurt so many people?”

Ivan gave him that empty-eyed stare again. “That is a very innocent-minded question from such a shameless liar.”

“I’d... just like to understand why you do what you do. I always thought it was just... for fun.”

“Ha. Fun is the effect, not the cause.”

“Then... please explain. I’m listening.”

Ivan let his gaze linger on him another time. “Mm... nah. It’d be best if you figured it out for yourself. Take a good, long look at the world and try to see things for how they really are. Then, maybe you’ll understand. And if not, well, perhaps I’ll explain it to you the next time we meet.”

Hector didn’t like that last notion very much. He wanted to say something to contest it, but the words weren’t coming now.

“I’ll give you one year,” said Ivan.

And Hector blinked. In spite of himself, he said, “Why a whole year?”

“Because I like the cut of your jib.”

Hector raised a dubious eyebrow. “...Now who’s lying?”

Page 1147

“Ha. Well. Credit where credit is due. I do appreciate a capable liar. And you were right. On several points. And by now, you’ve probably realized that I don’t intend to kill you. So I’ll tell you what: you can have your deal.”

Hector’s eyes narrowed.

“I will leave,” said Ivan, “just as you asked. And I will spare all of your friends--well, the ones that I haven’t already killed, anyway. But in exchange for this generosity, you will do exactly as you promised, as well.”

Shit. He could see where this was going.

“You will lead the Sandlords out of the Golden Fort. You can do it however you like. Murder. Kidnapping. Stink bomb. Duck, duck, goose. I really don’t care, as long as you keep them occupied somewhere else for at least two days.”

He didn’t bother asking what would happen if he failed or refused, figuring Ivan was going to tell him regardless.

“Tell me something,” the Salesman said, straightening his acid-eaten tie. “What do you think is the worst way to die?”

“...I don’t really think there is one,” said Hector.

“Oh, there is. Trust me. I’m a veritable connoisseur of these things. But it’s not surprising that you don’t know. So many people overlook it. Probably because it’s so common. Everyone thinks, oh, fire is the worst. Or being eviscerated. Or listening to smooth jazz. And sure, those are all equally horrible things. But none are truly the worst.”

Hector just waited.

“The worst way to die is simply starvation. Do you know why?”

Hector shook his head.

Ivan motioned with his right hand, as if to help him explain. “It’s the hope. Starving to death is slow. It takes you a long time to accept that it is even happening. You hold onto hope for quite a while, which only serves to enhance your suffering, really. And you’re never certain when your final moment is going to arrive. Each time you begin to fall asleep, you wonder if you’ll wake up again, and even when you do, it’s not relief you feel, but dread. Until, eventually, that same hope turns on you, and you begin hoping that you won’t wake up again. Because you exist in constant agony. You only know suffering. And at that point, you even lack the physical strength required to end your own life. You’re simply waiting for it to be over. Let me tell you, that is true horror.”

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Page 1146

Hector felt his right arm lift, and this time, the lasers that appeared were not blue, but red. They burned a long series of numbers into his bare flesh and then dissipated.

“I hope you like your new tattoo,” said Ivan. “It’s going to be there a while.”

Hector didn’t know what he meant. His left arm wasn’t growing back, it seemed, but he thought his regeneration had simply worn off. This was not the case, he soon realized.

Ivan gave a short flourish with one hand, and then the meat and bone began to culminate and reform itself around Hector’s shoulder, regrowing again. “I suppose you’ll be needing that back.”

Hector was reluctant to say anything. Impulsively, he wanted to ask Ivan what he was doing, ask why he hadn’t killed him yet, but Hector held his tongue. He wasn’t sure how much, if any, of this ruse might still be salvageable.

“Ah, that look on your face. Ha. You really don’t care whether you live or die, do you? I was right. You are one of those irregulars. Interesting.”

Everything had gone wrong so quickly, but Hector’s brain seemed like it had forgotten how to panic properly. Perhaps it was just too sudden, and he hadn’t processed everything yet, but whatever the reason, he was still trying to figure a way out of this, still calmly searching for solutions.

Sadly, none were coming to mind.

“Did you honestly think I wouldn’t bother to test your defenses?” Ivan asked. “I’ll admit: I was hesitant to, in case it provoked a fight before our lovely conversation concluded, but I was always going to get around to it sooner or later.”

He just clenched his jaw in silence.

“Oh? Are you genuinely at a loss for words this time? Or are you going to explain this away, too?”

Hector had nothing.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Page 1145

Hector still couldn’t tell what this bastard was thinking. Ivan was giving him plenty of opportunity to keep blabbering on in elaboration, but Hector decided against it. He didn’t mind playing the waiting game. If anything, he preferred it.

“...You think you can just waltz out of the Golden Fort with a bunch of Sandlord children?” the Salesman finally said.

That was a damn good point. Hector needed to stall. So he just calmly said, “Yes.” And nothing else.

The Salesman’s expression flickered with irritation. “How?”

“I’ll... make a game of it. They... won’t even know that they are being kidnapped.”

“Details.”

“...You don’t need the details.”

That hollow look came over the Salesman’s face again. And then he put his smile back on. “You’re right,” he said. “Here, let me give you my phone number.”

Hector felt his left arm lift by itself. A slew of blue lasers appeared and tore through his arm, blowing it to bloody pieces.

The Salesman burst out laughing. “Wow! I figured you were weaker than you let on, but holy cow! You’re really that weak?! You really are less than a year old!”

What? That was it? The jig was up? It happened so quickly that Hector could scarcely process it. Ivan had known all along? Everything he’d just said had been for nothing? His annihilated arm didn’t hurt, but the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach was one of the worst things he’d ever felt.

But he’d be damned if he allowed his composure to slacken even a little bit. Even if it was completely hopeless now, even if everything he’d been working for was crumbling in front of him, he absolutely was not going to give this bastard the satisfaction of seeing it break him. Fuck that.

“That’s alright. I’ll be gentler with your other arm.”

Page 1144

“An inside man would be a big help to you,” said Hector. “You’d be able to avoid a difficult fight.”

“Perhaps. But who doesn’t love a good fight?”

“You don’t. Not when it means... that you’ll have to fight the Vanguard soon afterward.”

Ivan didn’t have anything to say to that.

Finally, Hector could sense an advantage. It felt like he’d just about puzzled it all out. “Isn’t that what you’re really worried about? I mean... sure, you could take the Golden Fort. It would be messy, but you could take it. Problem is... what happens when the Vanguard comes to take it back? Because you know they will.”

Ivan was no longer smiling.

Hector wasn’t done, though. “And... if you let the Sandlords weaken your forces too much, then... you definitely won’t be able to hold onto the Golden Fort. Much less, the rest of Sair.” Agh, shit. ‘Definitely’ was probably too strong of a word there.

For a long moment, however, Ivan just stared at him, the dead-eyed look on his face even more unsettling than usual.

Hector couldn’t think of any more ammunition, though, so he just waited.

“Supposing I accept,” said Ivan, “how would you use your inside influence to assist me?”

Oh fuck. Hector hadn’t expected to get this far. He had to keep the shock from reaching his face. “...Ah. Well. It’s obvious, isn’t it?”

“Pretend it isn’t.” The Salesman didn’t sound very jovial anymore. In fact, he sounded a little annoyed.

Thankfully, Hector did have an idea to fall back on. “I will... uh, I will use my free pass to kidnap a few important Sandlords. Key children.”

Ivan just looked at him.

At first, the idea had felt like it just sprang out of nowhere. But now Hector knew. That tactic was exactly what the Vanguard had done to the Rainlords. His time spent at Marshrock had taught him more than he’d realized, it seemed.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Page 1143

Ivan’s brow raised and he laughed. “What?”

“It would give me... even more clout with the Sandlords,” Hector said, “and by extension... make it easier to hold up my end of the deal.”

“Ha! And be quite the boon to your reputation!”

“...Well, yeah. Wouldn’t be a very good deal for me, otherwise. You’re getting an entire country.”

The Salesman relinquished a nod. “That is a fair point and well-made, sir. Thing is, though: I have absolutely no reason to accept such a deal.”

“You have every reason,” Hector countered. This guy hadn’t been listening to him this whole time just for shits and giggles. And even if he was, Hector couldn’t let himself believe that right now. He had to press forward. No matter what. “If your invisible soldiers could... infiltrate the Golden Fort just like that... then you would’ve had them do it a long time ago. You would’ve killed all the Sandlords in their sleep. But you didn’t do that. You waited.”

“I like to play with my food,” said Ivan. “Clearly. I’m doing so at this very moment. I know it’s a bad habit, but what’s life without a few bad habits, hmm?”

No, that was bullshit. The Salesman was smarter than that. He had to be. Hector remembered those news reports that Lynn told him about over the phone. They fit into this. “You’ve... you’ve been harassing the Sandlords. Trying to pull them out of the Golden Fort. Spread their forces thin. Why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you just send a cloaked team in and kill them all while they’re sleeping?”

“Like I said--”

“Please.” The word ended up sounding even more sarcastic than he’d intended, but oh well. It would have to do. “It’s because... it’s because the Golden Fort is so crowded right now, isn’t it? These invisible men of yours... they can’t just push their way through a crowd. They need space to work. And I bet they can still trip physical alarms, too, huh? Like from... a broken window, maybe?”

“...Ha,” was all the Salesman said.

Page 1142

“Obviously,” Hector said slowly, “I was going to offer you something else... but seeing as you’re here now, you clearly want Sair. And I am... in a position to deliver it to you.”

“And how’s that, exactly? You’re the new leader of the Sandlords, are you?”

“Of course not... Don’t be ridiculous. But if you know who I am... then you know that I am close with the Atreyan royal family... which is close with the Sandlords.”

“Ha. One political marriage does not make them close.”

“Fine. Not close, then. But connected. And... I can use that connection to your advantage.”

And Hector gave him the opportunity, but Ivan didn’t say anything. He merely waited with that too-still expression on his face.

“I have a free pass into the Golden Fort,” Hector went on. “In fact... I was there a few days ago.”

“So you want to be my inside man, do you? Why would I need that? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I have invisible soldiers at my disposal.”

“Invisible soldiers who aren’t very reliable,” said Hector. “But hell... maybe I’m wrong. Did this attack on Dunehall go the way you wanted it to?”

The Salesman’s smile soured somewhat. “And you. You are reliable?”

Hector felt he’d already given enough ground. Possibly too much. He had to pull it back here. “Maybe,” he said. “Depends on what you offer me.”

“Ha. You grow more brazen by the second. What is it you want, then? I assume you want me to spare your Rainlord friends, no?”

“Of course. But also... well, you might not like my second request.”

“How nice of you to warn me.”

“...I want you to leave Sair and pretend that I... repelled you.” He’d nearly said ‘defeated you’ before thinking better of it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Page 1141

The Salesman returned that hollow-eyed look of his. “Unlike certain others, I’m not that difficult to get in touch with. Why would you come to Sair and not Calthos or Kavia?”

“...My information network isn’t as good as yours, obviously. I didn’t know I’d run into you so soon. I just started looking a few days ago. As a matter of fact, um... ah...”

Hector faltered. The thought was there in his head, ready to be finished, but his stupid mouth wouldn’t do what he wanted. And he could just tell that his tongue would trip over the next word a dozen times over if he pushed on too hard right now. He had to relax. And he had to concentrate. Wait, were those opposites? Shit.

Ivan was waiting. “...Yes? As a matter of fact, what? You sure like to take your sweet time with explanations, don’t you?”

“Ah. Y-es. Well... that may’ve contributed to, uh... to the misunderstanding I had with your men.” Hector refocused. Half of this crap was coming out of thin air. But it felt like it was making sense. Hopefully. No time to worry about it, though. “But, ah... I was trying to say that, your information network... is exactly the reason why I wanted to work together. With you, I mean. Mine’s not so good, like I said. Or, uh, rather, it’s more... nonexistent.”

Ivan seemed amused again. “Well, you certainly wouldn’t be the first person to want that from me. But you’ve failed to explain what it is that you are offering. Even if you really are three hundred years old, I can’t say you’ve intrigued me with your battle prowess thus far.”

“I’m not offering my strength,” said Hector. “I’m offering... all of Sair.”

The Salesman laughed outright. “Oh, you are, are you?! Well, then! I can’t wait to hear your explanation this time!”

Monday, December 14, 2015

Page 1140

That was the first Hector had heard of that. He couldn’t let it shake him, though. “...Have you ever met anyone like that?”

“Well, no. It does seem like a bit of a tall tale. And yet, as I stand here, speaking to you, I am made to wonder.”

“Look,” said Hector, “the truth is... that whole mess that I got into with your men in my home country... like I said, it was a misunderstanding. I was trying to work with them. Not against them.”

“Oh,” laughed Ivan, “is that so?”

“I was never trying to kill them. Otherwise, I... would’ve done so as soon as they arrived. But they wouldn’t listen. And... I’m sure they... misreported my... capabilities in battle, as a result of that.”

“Uh-huh.”

Hector grit his teeth. “...Don’t tell me you actually believe that Atreya could have survived all this time on its own. Without someone protecting it?” That was a pretty good point, actually. He surprised himself but didn’t have time to dwell on it. More bullshit was already on its way out of his mouth. “Your men... they weren’t the first to try something like that, you know. They were just... the loudest. They never understood that I was... letting them stay in my country. For months, I left them alone. But still... they just wouldn’t understand. And then, of course... the Vanguard interfered.”

“Mm.”

Hector couldn’t tell if he was buying any of this. The man’s smile was unreadable. So he just kept pushing. “I never killed any of your men,” he said. “I wanted to work together. In fact, uh--that’s why I came to Sair. I was... I heard that Abolish was operating in this area, so... I came to find out more.”

Page 1139

“I didn’t ask you... to come all the way out here... in order to spare bystanders from our fight. At least, not just that. Really, I asked you to do it... because I didn’t want anyone to overhear our conversation.”

“Is that so?”

Hector took a silent breath and braced himself. This was it. This was where the stupid-as-shit part came into play. “...They don’t call you the Salesman for no reason, right? So I was wondering... do you like to make deals?”

The yellow man paused at that. He gave Hector a wide, empty-eyed stare, as if he’d become a porcelain doll all of a sudden. Then he smiled faintly. “You certainly aren’t a Rainlord. Ha.”

Hector didn’t know what to make of that.

Ivan blinked a couple times, still smiling the whole time. “To be frank, I’m about eighty percent certain that what you’re telling me is complete nonsense, but I must admit: I am curious as to where you think you’re going with any of this. Are you trying to stall? For whom, exactly? There is no one in this entire country who could possibly show up to save you from me right now. Trust me, I keep track of these things.”

“...I’m not lying,” Hector said again. “Why would I need anyone to save me from you? The only way for me to be capable of lying to you... is if I’m powerful enough to resist you. So from your perspective, I’m either lying but not in need of saving... or simply telling the truth.”

“Mm, yes. But you see, I’ve heard stories. About certain people. Certain irregulars. And these folks, for whatever reason, seem to be entirely immune to the psychological effects of oppressive soul power. It’s quite strange.”

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Page 1138

Can’t talk long,’ he thought. ‘I’m with the Salesman, still. What can you tell me about him?

What are you--Hector, I don’t--

Quick, Garovel. Life and death situation here.

Ah--okay. Um. The Salesman is best known for war profiteering. Supposedly, he has a gigantic network of spies all over the world and heads up most, if not all, of Abolish’s intelligence-gathering operations.

That was about what Hector had been expecting. ‘What about his power?

Wha--uh--I don’t know.

What can you tell me about the weak interaction?

Er--is that--? Agh, I can’t explain that quickly! I don’t even understand it that well to begin with! And I’m not sure anyone does!

Not very helpful, but oh well. ‘Okay.

Hector, why hasn’t he killed you by now?!

He may be under the impression that I’m three hundred years old.’

What?!

I have a plan. It’s stupid as shit, though. You should keep running.

Hector!

He could feel his blue cage slowing down. ‘Gotta go.’ He tuned the reaper out again as his feet neared the sand. They stopped just short of touching it, however. And the blue cage around him did not dissipate, either. Hector gave the Salesman a look.

“What?” said Ivan, easing himself down on the apex of the nearest dune. “I’ve done as you requested. You shouldn’t need me to free you now, right?”

There was no good answer to that question, Hector felt. Better to just sidestep it. “Yes, well... before we get to any of that... I have a small confession.”

“Is it that you were lying about how powerful you are? Because I suspected as much.”

He could’ve come clean here, but that didn’t seem like the right move. He didn’t intend to give ground until he absolutely had to. Instead, he said, “No. I was lying, but not about that.”

The Salesman snorted. “Do explain, then.”

Page 1137

Hector could see it on the Salesman’s face. He’d piqued the man’s interest. This was good. Now he just had to... do... what, exactly?

“I’ll tell you,” said Hector. And, as he didn’t actually know how to finish that thought, he instead followed up with, “...But only if we take this conversation somewhere else.”

“Ugh!” Ivan groaned. It had enough force behind it to make the room tremble again. “You’re still going on about that?” The Salesman sighed and looked around the room another time. He tossed his phone back into his briefcase. “You really will just let them all die unless I do as you ask, won’t you? That is pretty heartless, you know. I think that’s heartless, and I’m me.”

Hector just maintained his composure.

“Agh, fine. Such a hassle. Where do you want to go, then?”

Hector required a silent moment. He’d actually agreed?! This was actually working?! No, shut up. Focus. Poker face. The Salesman could still be fucking with him, even now. “...Just take us a few kilometers past the city limits.”

“Excuse me? ‘Take us’? You expect me to carry you?”

“I told you. If I use my power, then it would kill everyone that I--”

“Yeah, yeah, alright. C’mere, then.”

Blue enveloped him, and he shot through the ceiling with such force that he thought his body might tear apart. But it held. And he could see the Salesman following closely behind as they soared through the clear mid-morning sky together.

The sandy horizon stretched endlessly around the forested oasis of Moaban. But those golden yellow dunes were fast approaching. Soon, this small reprieve would be gone, so Hector decided to make use of it while he could.

Page 1136

Ivan took the picture and then tinkered with his phone for a bit. “Let’s see. You told the Monster your name was Hector Goffe, right?”

“...What are you doing?”

“Nothing. Be with you in a minute.”

Hector tried to think. What would Ivan want his picture for? Ah. No. That could be bad if Ivan found out--

“The Darksteel Soldier,” the Salesman said.

Hector had to keep himself from wincing.

“And--oh? Lord Darksteel? Of Warrenhold. Well, well. You didn’t mention you were nobility.”

“...It’s a recent development.”

“Ah, indeed. A self-made man, I see.”

Hector wasn’t sure that was true, but he didn’t see much point in contesting it. In fact, maybe he could use this.

Ivan wasn’t done reading from his phone, though. “You fought some of my men. And only a couple of them reported back.”

Reported back? Hector had thought Ivan was just consulting the internet. Was that not the case?

“Mm, perhaps I’ll have a talk with this Desmond Grantier fellow.”

So Desmond survived. That was news to Hector. This was really weird, though. Somehow, he’d managed to pump a morsel of information out of the Salesman. Dare he try for more? No, he didn’t give a shit about them. He had to stay focused. He had to get ahead of it. “I’d like to take credit for that,” he said, “but, uh... I wasn’t the one who wiped out your men.”

“No?”

There was no sense in lying about that part, Hector figured--not when Ivan apparently had firsthand reports from other people who were there. “That was the Vanguard’s doing. Not mine.”

“Ah. I see.”

And Hector sensed a plan forming. In the back of his mind. Maybe. There was something. A lifeline to latch onto. Possibly. It wasn’t all there yet. “Actually, that whole thing... um. It was a very complicated... misunderstanding.”

“Oh? How so?”

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Page 1135

Hector was losing hope. Maybe this was pointless. Maybe the Salesman was the one deceiving him. The bastard could probably tell how weak Hector was all along and was just using this opportunity to fuck with him. With each passing second, Hector grew more convinced. It was over. It had been over this whole time, and he’d just been too stupid to realize it. How could he have even hoped to win anything against one of the most powerful people in the world?

But in spite of all those thoughts, he didn’t flinch. He couldn’t let himself. He kept eye contact with the Salesman.

The man wasn’t regenerating, Hector realized. His half-melted face stayed that way, even as the sizzling subsided. And then Hector realized something else. The man wasn’t using a hyper state. This whole time, he’d only been hearing Ivan speak with one voice. It was such an obvious thing that he’d missed it, somehow. Where was this guy’s reaper?

Regardless, Ivan didn’t seem to be in much pain. Or any, for that matter. He set his briefcase down and popped it open. He pulled out a small mirror and a handkerchief. He looked at himself and dabbed the wounds, but the acid hadn’t left much blood flowing.

“What do you think?” Ivan asked. “Charming, in its own way, no?”

Hector didn’t respond.

“Not very presentable, though. If I wasn’t meeting clients all the time, I think I’d just stay this way.”

Hector didn’t understand. Was this a trick? Or just more psychotic rambling? It didn’t seem right to engage him, either way.

“Well, if you’re not going to do anything, then I’ve got an idea. Stay right there.” He dropped his mirror and handkerchief back in his briefcase, then pulled something else out. A phone, it looked like. He pointed it at Hector. “Smile for me.”

Hector did not.

“C’mon, no one likes a sourpuss.”

Hector just waited.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Page 1134

Ivan folded his arms. “I guess you didn’t care much for those two. Alright. How about Darktide, then?” He turned toward Melchor.

“Stop!” said Hector. But he was powerless as he watched a cage surround the fallen Rainlord. It was going to happen again. And he had to watch.

A jostling of debris interrupted them, and a green light filled the room. Hector saw a horizontal pillar of smoke shoot toward Ivan. The Salesman saw it, too, but not in time to prevent himself from being enveloped in it. After a second, a blue wave knocked the smoke away, and Hector witnessed the results.

Xuan Sebolt was there, missing most of his body. Some had been sacrificed for smoke, still smoldering even now, but the majority had been given to acid, in which the Salesman had been entirely coated.

Hector remembered seeing it before. The Seadevil’s acid had eaten through Horatio Blackburn in a matter of seconds, even despite the enhanced regeneration of pan-forma.

But this was the Salesman of Death. And Hector could hear a low laugh behind the loud hiss of the acid.

Ivan’s yellow suit was tarnished, missing chunks here and there. His hat sizzled, mostly eaten through. And some of the flesh on his face was gone, revealing more of his teeth and parts of his bare skull.

And that was it.

“Ouch,” Ivan said, sounding more amused than pained.

A blue field converged on Xuan, and the few remains of his body disintegrated in a flash. After a moment, the Seadevil’s reaper floated out of the rubble, too, though not by his own volition. Duvoss was still unconscious, instead being carried in another blue cage.

“S-stop,” Hector tried.

“What a lunatic,” said Ivan. “I bet that guy would’ve become a real problem, one day.”

And he crushed Duvoss as well.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Page 1133

--Monday donation bonus (Page 3/3)--
But he had to. He couldn’t act emotionally now. If he made a move, did anything stupid, then everything would have been for naught. It was clear enough that the Salesman at least partly believed him--otherwise he would’ve attacked Hector already--but the man in yellow still had full control of the conversation.

“Tell everyone your name,” said Ivan.

The reaper in the cage groaned but didn’t answer. Hector felt the air grow heavier again, but still, the reaper remained silent.

“This one is resilient, too,” said Ivan. “Well, that’s fine. As it so happens, information is my great hobby. Everyone, this is Rholtam. He is the reaper for Ismael Blackburn. Rholtam is one of the oldest remaining Rainlords. One of the first generation. Not many of those left. Isn’t that right, Rholtam?”

The reaper gave a slow nod.

Hector had to try again. “Stop this. I won’t fight you unless--”

The cage converged. A blue flash annihilated Rholtam in an instant.

Hector’s breath caught, and his face grew hot with anger. This was worse than torture. Having to watch this motherfucker kill people? He couldn’t hide his scowl, and after a few moments, he stopped trying to.

Ivan just stood there, though. Observing him. Waiting with that look of expectation. Hoping for Hector to do something.

Hector resisted. He seized his mind back, his calm. And with it, he took the opportunity to talk to Garovel. ‘Stay away. I might be captured by the Salesman soon.’

Hector! What are you--?!

He had to block the reaper out again. Even that stray thought in the back of his mind--the one asking how he was even capable of blocking Garovel out--that had to be ignored, too. He needed all of his concentration for whatever Ivan said next. He couldn’t miss anything. Not a word. Not a movement. Not anything.

Page 1132

--Monday donation bonus (Page 2/3)--
“So,” Hector went on, “if you want to fight me, then we can’t do it here. We have to go somewhere else. And you have to... leave these people alone.”

Ivan looked over their audience another time before returning to Hector. “For a second there, I almost believed you. Playing up to my fun-loving bloodlust. Smart. Thing is, though: it’s been done and done and done. So I’m just not buying it. I’m a stingy customer in that way. More of a seller, you know. Ha.”

“I’m not lying,” Hector lied. “I don’t care what happens to me. I’ll let you kill me or capture me or whatever. And then you won’t get the fight you want.”

“Nah. You won’t do that. Even if you do have a power that puts your buddies at risk, you wouldn’t just let them die.”

Hector glared at him. “You don’t understand how dangerous my power is.”

The Salesman met his gaze evenly. “Hmm. And what is this oh-so-dangerous power of yours, exactly?”

Garovel could’ve helped with that one. Hector very much wanted to consult the reaper right now, but there just wasn’t time. He couldn’t allow himself to get distracted. So instead, he said, “What’s yours?”

“Ha. Do you know what the weak interaction is?”

With hesitation, Hector shook his head.

“Then there’s no point in explaining.” He turned to the Lord Blackburn again. “What’s his power?”

“...I-I don’t know,” said Ismael.

“Mm. Well, at least you were honest.”

The blue cage converged. A flash consumed Ismael’s body, and then the man was dust. Dead. As quickly as that.

“No!” Hector yelled. “I told you--!”

“Relax,” said Ivan. “It was only the servant. The reaper yet lives.” Another blue cage came through the same hole in the wall, this one holding a reaper. “See?”

And Hector wavered. His focus. His resolve. He didn’t know if he could just stand here and watch what was about to happen.

Page 1131 -- CXXVIII.

--Monday donation bonus (Page 1/3)--
Ivan seemed amused at Hector. “You’re still trying to talk? These people are your comrades, no? The fact that you haven’t attacked me yet is proof enough that you aren’t as powerful as you claim.”

Hector’s jaw clenched.

“Don’t get me wrong,” said Ivan. “I admire your moxie. Trying to play me for a fool? Do you know how rarely people try to do that? To me?! It’s been ages!”

“You’re wrong,” said Hector, not yet sure how he was going to back that statement up.

“Am I? Oh, then please explain. I would love to hear this.”

It couldn’t end here. He had to keep this up somehow. He hated talking. He hated how much he sucked at it. But this was something else. This was bullshitting. And he could do that. Probably.

True, the stakes were a tiny bit higher than usual. But strangely, that only made things clearer to him. He had to bullshit like he’d never bullshitted before. And his mind was calm. Maybe it was Rasalased’s doing. Maybe he’d lost his goddamn mind. He couldn’t worry about that right now. Whatever the reason, in this moment, it was helping him. There was no panic. No anxiety. No distractions.

Only the knowledge that if he lost control or simply gave up, then everyone here would die.


Chapter One Hundred Twenty-Eight: ‘Hold true...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

There was only one thing that Hector knew Ivan wanted. One thing that Hector could hold hostage.

“If you kill them... then I won’t fight you,” said Hector.

Ivan let out a laugh. “What?”

Hector knew he couldn’t let up. “Listen. My power. It’s too volatile right now. If I use it here... then... everyone will die, anyway. It would be... ah, it would be the same as just letting you kill them. That’s why I haven’t intervened. That’s why... I didn’t kill your Marauder, even though I could have. Obviously.”

The Salesman just kind of blinked at him.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Page 1130

Nothing felt broken, at least. Hector couldn’t tell if his regeneration was still active or not. With everything that had transpired, he’d completely lost track of time. It could have been thirty minutes since Garovel started the regen. It could’ve been five.

As the dust cleared, Hector saw the blue cage again, more clearly this time. Inside of it was a man, hanging upside down.

“Ismael Blackburn,” said Ivan. “What are you doing, sneaking around?”

Indeed, it was him. Hector hadn’t registered the face at first, having only seen the man a couple times before.

Lord Ismael chose to remain silent.

Ivan kept talking anyway. “That aberration. Ibai. Tell me about him.” And when Ismael still did not respond, Ivan said, “He is your son, I hear. Is that true?”

“...Y-yes,” said Ismael. “It is.”

“Funny, I’d always heard you couldn’t have children. Do you know how aberrations are made?”

A groan passed Ismael’s lips, as if the words were being torn from his lungs. “No... I... I do not.”

“Ha. Where is that wife of yours? I should like to speak to her, too.”

Ismael’s face twitched, his mouth fighting to remain closed. And this time, it did.

“Oho. Resilient.”

Hector could only look on in horror. He wanted to help. Of course he did. But he knew better. He had to keep his focus. No matter what happened here, he had to keep it. Because Rasalased had been absolutely right.

“Tell me about your son,” said Ivan.

“...N-no.”

“Don’t be difficult. I am a patient man, but not that patient.”

“I won’t tell you anything more.”

The Salesman frowned, then turned to the unconscious Darktide. “Tell me, or he dies.”

“...You will kill him anyway,” said Ismael.

“Ha.”

Hector felt he had to intervene. “Our conversation isn’t over. Leave them alone.”

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Page 1129

Hector considered what to say. He could just lie. But would that actually help? Would that put this guy off or just make him more excited to fight? The fact that Ivan was asking at all suggested that he was trying to be cautious, which further suggested that it would put him off. Maybe.

“I’m a little over three hundred years old,” said Hector. He had to keep his focus. Slow, measured responses. At his own pace. He’d done this sort of thing before--maybe not on this level, but he’d done it before. “I’ve... I’ve grown so accustomed to keeping my soul’s field density suppressed... that I do it without even meaning to now.”

Ivan’s mouth twisted slowly into a manic smile. “Ha! Excellent!”

Well, that backfired.

“If not for my big lizard friend, I would have left this operation to my men. What with the Rainlords being exhausted and none of the Sandlords but the Lion present, I was sure there wouldn’t be anyone here who could show me a good time. I do love a nice surprise.”

Hector recognized the mad expression on the Salesman’s face. Perhaps it was some kind of prerequisite for becoming one of Morgunov’s followers.

He’d guessed wrong. Now the Salesman was going to stomp him into the dust. Unless he did something about it. He already knew fighting wasn’t an option. This guy could probably kill him with a sneeze.

That only left talking. Not his strong suit, to say the least. In fact, he’d already cocked it up pretty badly. But he did know what he wanted to say next.

“Agh,” Ivan said first, “all these interruptions. Pardon me a moment.”

Hector didn’t know what he was talking about, until the right wall exploded as a floating blue cage came crashing through it.

Hector shielded his eyes from the ensuing cloud of dust and sidestepped a chunk of debris the size of a horse. Briefly, he was quite pleased with himself for being able to see that coming. And then a smaller one pegged him right in the face.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Page 1128

The Salesman tilted his head the other way. “Are you not afraid of me?”

“...I guess not,” said Hector.

“And why might that be?”

“I don’t know. You are very frightening.”

“Ha, I know, thank you. I’ve been this way for a long time--long enough, in fact, that it gives me pause when I meet someone unfazed by my presence.”

Hector understood. This guy was wondering if Hector was powerful enough to not be bothered by his ridiculous soul pressure--powerful enough to oppose him, in other words.

“I don’t sense much from you,” said Ivan. “I don’t sense anything, actually. Quite strange. Are you that weak? You’d have to be less than a year old as a servant in order to have a soul that pathetic. And yet, from the way you speak to me... You have lipoid proteinosis, don’t you?”

“What?”

“The inability to feel fear. It’s a genetic disorder. You have it.”

“...I don’t think so,” said Hector.

“No? Tell the truth, now.”

Hector felt the air grow heavier. The field density of the Salesman’s soul had increased, he was pretty sure. But what was the point? Judging from the man’s last sentence, was it supposed to make Hector tell the truth? Was that even possible? It did feel a bit oppressive, but Hector still felt perfectly capable of saying whatever he wanted. And so, after mulling it over for a few seconds, he decided to respond with, “I am telling the truth.” He hadn’t been lying anyway.

But the realization gave him an idea.

“Huh,” said Ivan. “You’re a curious one. How old are you, then?”

“...How old are you?”

Irritation flashed across the Salesman’s face, and his field density increased again. “Answer me.”

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Page 1127

“Boy,” said Gohvis, “tell me your name.”

It took a second for Hector to realize that the question had been addressed to him. “Ah--uh. Hector Goffe.” That was dumb. He should’ve just made up some bullshit.

“How are you still alive, Hector Goffe?”

“Er... good question. Dumb luck, I think.”

“No such thing exists,” said Gohvis. “Destiny controls all.”

“...I disagree. There’s way too much pointless shit in the world for that to be true.” What the hell was he saying?! Who did his brain think it was talking to?! His body knew to be terrified, but his brain--

“Why are you here?” the Monster asked.

The question went unanswered, however, as Ibai teleported behind them and promptly vanished with Chergoa, Shenado, and all of the Elroy children.

Gohvis growled, and then he too was gone, just like that.

Hector was left standing there on his own, feeling like some kind of asshole. Precisely what kind, he wasn’t sure.

It was then that he realized Garovel wasn’t in the room with him, either. ‘Garovel, where are you?

Very far underground,’ the reaper said. ‘How’s it going up there?

Hector saw the man in yellow looking over this way now. ‘Terribly.

How terribly?

That question went unanswered as well, as Hector’s attention was consumed by the Salesman’s tilting head and curious expression.

“I’ve never seen a black Rainlord before.”

“Ah--I’m not a Rainlord,” said Hector.

“No? Unfortunate to find yourself here, then. Don’t tell them I said anything, but I think the Rainlords might be a little racist.”

“They seem pretty nice to me,” said Hector. Maybe his brain wasn’t paying attention to what was happening. Or maybe it just wanted to get him killed.

Page 1126

From the moment they’d sensed the two big souls, Ibai hadn’t stopped blabbering--mostly to himself and with such speed that Hector couldn’t even follow what he was saying. It sounded like Ibai was trying to formulate a plan or something, and kept looking at Hector as if looking for approval, only to continue talking anyway.

And now, Hector found himself here, in another decimated room, staring at the back of some giant, black dragon-man-thing. He looked around and saw a host of downed servants that he recognized. Zeff, Dimas, Melchor, Xuan, Asad.

“Why, hello there,” Ibai was already saying. “You gentlemen are from Abolish, am I right? Wait don’t tell me! The Black Scourge and the Salesman of Death! Yeah? My name is Ibai. I’m an aberration, if you couldn’t already tell. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Well, aren’t you friendly?” said the yellow man. “How did you get in here?”

“Oh, are you asking because you sealed this room off?” Ibai asked. “How did you do that, by the way? A force field? Are you a force field guy? I’ve never met a force field guy! How does your power work? Or is that a rude thing to ask? If so, I apologize. I’m just naturally curious. Always have been. You know how it is.”

Ivan was stepping closer. “It’s been a while since I met someone who likes to talk as much as I do. I’d rather you answer my questions first, though.” He raised a hand to encase Ibai in a blue field, but the aberration was already gone by then, ported to the other side of the room and leaving Hector standing next to Gohvis.

Ibai and the Salesman kept talking, and Hector was a bit too concerned with those glowing red eyes to look anywhere else. And so he and the Monster of the East just kind of stared at each other as they listened.

Hector was surprised at how calm he felt--at how he wasn’t immediately shitting his pants, anyway. He couldn’t seem to change the massive frown on his face, though. Or his wide-eyed stare. Or the way that his whole body was leaning backward, as if preparing to be stepped on.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Page 1125

“Girl in the mask?” Ivan scanned over their audience before settling on Emiliana Elroy. “Interesting. What makes her so special? Tell me, and I’ll give you all the rest of them, too.”

“No, you won’t,” said Gohvis.

“Ha. Fine. So if I give her to you, what will you give me in ex--?”

“You are not giving her to me,” said Gohvis. “She is mine. Try to take her, and I will kill you.”

“Ah...” The yellow man’s gaze returned to Gohvis and lingered there. “I actually believe you this time. You really would fight me for this girl, wouldn’t you?”

Gohvis just stared at him.

“Hold on. Is she--?” Ivan broke for a look of genuine excitement. “Is she your kid? Can you have kids? Is she your lizard baby?!”

For some reason, the Monster chose not to respond to that.

“Does she have a lizard face?! Gohvis, please! I’ll let you have them all if you just show me her lizard face!”

“She is not my child.” The Monster was beginning to sound exasperated.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“...So no lizard face?”

“No.”

“Well, forget it, then. Anyway, I’d enjoy fighting you, but not over something so trivial. You can have her if she means that much to you.”

A muddy brown swirl chose that moment to arrive.

-+-+-+-+-

Hector had felt it like everyone else. Even the non-servants they’d gathered outside the castle were talking about it. This ominous pressure. Most of them were Rainlords, though, so they seemed to have a better idea of what it was. Hector needed Garovel to remind him.

True giants were here. Two of them, according to Garovel. And the Elroys were caught in their path, naturally.

Hector didn’t know what to do. More so than usual, even, because Garovel didn’t know what to do, either. That, and he was still feeling a little woozy from whatever Rasalased had done to him.

Ibai, on the other hand, was a different story.