Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Considering a Title Change

Hey, folks. Thanks for being so patient with me. Not that I've given you much choice.

First things first: why haven't I been updating?

All cards on the table? I've been having a crisis of faith in this story--in whether or not I should keep writing it, specifically. And I know that might be a very worrying thing to hear for some of you, which is why I didn't want to post anything until I made a decision. I'm sorry if you would've preferred periodic updates on my state of mind this whole time, but I felt like making some wishy-washy post would've just muddled things up for me. Not to sound conceited, but I already knew you guys wanted me to continue, otherwise you would've quit reading a long time ago. What I needed to figure out was whether or not I wanted to continue.

So I've been thinking about it, seriously and realistically, taking both personal feelings and financial concerns into consideration, as well as my own capabilities as an author, things I've done well, things I haven't, things I can work harder on. And of course, the story itself. Different ways I could continue it, both narrative-wise and schedule-wise. Different ways I could "end" it, both permanently and "indefinitely." I mean, I have already spent nearly four years of my life on it, and maybe there are better ways for me to be spending my time, right? What if I don't wanna keep writing it, but do so anyway, and then it goes to shit? What if I'm just not a good enough writer? AHAHA, YEAH RIGHT, I'M THE BEST. Okay, but what if--SORRY, CAN'T HEAR YOU OVER HOW MUCH OF THE BEST I AM.

That was my thought process. Especially that last part. And aside from helping me reaffirm my own greatness to myself, those were some really scary questions. But also necessary ones. Pursuit of happiness 'n all that.

Ultimately, though, I did decide that I wanna continue-the-hell out of The Zombie Knight. Because of course I do. This fucking story has my soul in it, and so do its characters.

So you can expect some more story at News Years. I want to make 2017 a good year for TZK. I'm trying to think of it like a fresh start. A new beginning. A dawn of an era. A tip of an iceberg. An edge of a really long submarine sandwich. A thumb waiting patiently just outside a b-hole.

But in the meantime, I wanted to get your input on something. As a part of this new era of thumbs and sandwiches, I've been thinking that maybe I should change the title of the story. And to be honest, I'm still fairly attached to the name "The Zombie Knight," but I also kinda like the sound of just "Darksteel." So I'm not sure. What do you think? Feel free to make title suggestions of your own, if you want. I mean, I'm a super narcissist, and I probably won't listen to any idea that's not my own, but don't let that stop you.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Page 1248 -- CXXXVIII.

Hector felt himself blushing. ‘Alright, thanks, you can stop now. I don’t--

I told you to stop interrupting.

Hector frowned.

Garovel waited a moment. ‘Okay, I’m done now.

Agh.

So what’d you think? I worked hard on it.

I... uh...

Speechless, eh? That’s only to be expected, I suppose. You’re welcome, by the way.

Hector was still a little flustered. So after another uncertain pause, he decided to just address the problem directly. ‘Somehow, I always get a lot more uncomfortable whenever you start acting all... sincere out of nowhere like that.

Ah, well, sincerity is important, Hector. Sometimes, at least. I can’t very well be a facetious prick all the time, now can I? I mean, I COULD, technically--don’t think I couldn’t. But ultimately, it would stand in the way of progress in our relationship. You can’t build trust out of jokes and insults. And believe me, I’ve tried.

Hmm...

And y’know, miscommunication between reaper and servant is the primary cause of every major conflict in the world.

Hector squinted. ‘...There’s no way that’s true.

See? You understand when I’m spouting total bullshit. That means we’re communicating very well with one another. And thus, my point is proven.

Hector kept squinting. ‘...No, it isn’t.

Exactly. Good for you, understanding that, too.

Shut up, Garovel.

You shut up.


Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Eight: ‘The land of leviathans...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

To say the very least of things, the city of Babbadelo was not what Hector expected. There were no buildings. At least, not by conventional standards. Instead, there were only pillars, tall and broad and wreathed in streaks of amber light. It was like some gargantuan forest where the trees were hewn from rock and glowed in the dark.

But there were trees, too. Many, in fact. None were in the ground, but they were here. They stood in vats of various sizes, depending on the tree, though some of those vats were so large that they became walls unto themselves while supporting an entire row of trees. They all looked to be the same species, as well, though Hector couldn’t exactly identify them. Frankly, he was surprised any kind of plant life could survive the temperatures down here.

And then, of course, there were the people.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Page 1247

Why would I get you something for MY birthday?’ said Hector.

You wouldn’t,’ said Garovel. ‘I mean, I’m not upset about it.’ A beat passed. ‘Would’ve been a nice gesture, though.

Hector opened his right hand and materialized a smaller, iron hand therein. He made sure that only its middle finger was extended. ‘Here’s your present.

How crude.

Hector annihilated his work before anyone else saw it. ‘Okay, then, let’s have it. I’m ready for this verbal birthday card of yours.

It’s not your birthday yet.

Wow, you’re gonna make me wait to experience something so incredible?

You’re that curious, huh? I suppose that’s to be expected. Alright, fine, I’ll give it to you early. It goes like this. Ahem. “Dear Hector. You’ve been my servant for around nine months now, and so--much like a fetus maturing into a human being--you’ve made the journey from complete uselessness to NEAR complete uselessness.”

Well, thank you.

I’m not done.

Of course you aren’t.

I’ll continue. Ahem. “I know I can sometimes come across as callous or ungrateful for many of the things you’ve done for me, but I just want you to know that. Well. I am. Both of those things. Because you never do anything right, and really, I’m the amazing one for being able to put up with so much of your shit.”

Birthday cards aren’t this long, Garovel.

Stop interrupting. Ahem... “Ahaha! But I’m merely teasing, of course. We do have fun, don’t we? I only make fun of you because I know you can take it. If I’m being completely serious, though, then I do feel genuinely compelled to thank you. I know that sometimes, my cynicism gets the better of me, but even after only nine months, I can say with some confidence that it is an honor to have you as my servant.”’

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Page 1246

Eh, I’d bet on you,’ said Garovel. ‘You’ve already faced worse, I think.

Hector blinked at the sudden compliment. It was nice, but a part of him would’ve preferred another insult.

Oh, and by the way,’ the reaper went on, ‘I know we’ve been busy, but I haven’t forgotten about your birthday.

Hector kind of had. ‘...What day is today?

You don’t know?

Hector gave a stilted shrug. ‘If I’m honest, everything’s just a blur to me right now.

It’s the twenty-third. Your birthday’s in two days.

Oh...

Do you need me to remember how old you are, too?

You’re one to talk,’ said Hector. ‘How old are you, exactly, huh?

You don’t get to use that excuse until you’re at least a hundred,’ said Garovel.

I’m turning seventeen. Happy now?

Actually, you’ll be turning eighteen.

What?

I’m just fucking with you.

Ugh.

But the fact that you seemed genuinely confused for a second is amazing.

I was only confused because I trust you to tell me important shit!

Oh, well, I’m flattered.

I should just never trust anything you tell me.

Aw, don’t say that. I got you a birthday present in order to demonstrate my affection.

Hector’s brow lowered. ‘...How could you get me--? You don’t have a physical body, so you couldn’t have--

Does that mean you don’t want it?

Hector’s mouth flattened. ‘...Alright, where is it?

It’s not a physical object, you materialistic fuck. I got you a verbal birthday card.

A what?

A verbal birthday card.

Is that as stupid as it sounds?

If by “stupid” you mean “incredibly thoughtful of me,” then yes. Don’t worry, though. I’m not expecting anything in return.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Page 1245

Anyway,’ said Garovel, ‘the planet’s ardor is widely theorized to be the source of all human and animal souls as we currently know them. But that’s a bit difficult to prove. It could be that souls and ardor developed independently of one another. Or from some third thing that we haven’t even discovered yet.

Hmm. So, wait. Every living thing in the world has a soul?

Yes.

Even, like, those single-celled organisms you were talking about just now?

Yep. Even them. But it must be said that their souls are extremely weak, comparatively.

Huh. Does that mean...? Uh. Does that mean you could’ve taken, like--I don’t know--a hamster as your servant?

I thought I did. I mean, just look at you.’

Fuckin’...

I had to, Hector. You set it up for me so perfectly.

Fuck you.

But yeah, in theory, I could’ve taken a hamster for a servant. Anything with a large enough brain.

A hamster has a large enough brain?

Yeah. The requirements aren’t too strict. Good thing, too, otherwise you wouldn’t--

Alright, shut up.

Heh. Generally speaking, though, taking anything other than a human as your servant is an incredibly stupid thing to do. Not being able to communicate complex ideas to your servant is a pretty big problem.

Makes sense.

I’ve known a few reapers who did it, too. Haven’t known any where it worked out for ‘em, though. Shockingly, animals can be rather unpredictable.

I bet someone figured it out,’ said Hector. ‘Imagine having a bear as your servant. A super old bear with soul power? That would be insane.

Literally,’ said Garovel.

Maybe. Not something I’d wanna fight, though.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Page 1244

Hmm,’ said Hector. ‘Would there even be a definitive way to determine whether the planet is alive or not?

Well, again, what do you mean by “alive?” Do you mean “possessing a consciousness?” Do you mean “self-aware?” Because there are plenty of single-celled organisms that wouldn’t fit that criteria.

Aw, hell, I don’t know...

You don’t know what you meant by alive?

I always feel so stupid when you start bringing up scientific shit.

Well, good, because that’s why I bring it up. Not to help you learn anything. To make you feel stupid. It gives me great pleasure.

I’m sure it does.

I was being facetious.

Were you, Garovel? Were you?

Don’t get all pouty on me. I’m trying to help you.

Okay, so is the planet alive or not?

You weren’t listening to me at all, were you?

I listened to you spout a bunch of vague bullshit!

Garovel laughed. ‘Wow.

Remember that conversation you had with Rasalased?! Well, that’s what talking to YOU is like!

Alright, there’s no need to hurt my feelings,’ said Garovel. ‘What didn’t you understand?

I don’t know! I was just wondering if there was more to the planet’s... energy or whatever. More than most people realize, I mean.

The answer to that is yes.

Okay... so... could you elaborate?

Not really, no.

Why not?

Because, as far as I am aware, nobody really understands the planet’s “energy or whatever,” as you put it. So we’re not sure if that means it’s alive.

But, uh, you said that “alive” had a weird definition and that I’m dumb.

I didn’t say you were dumb.

Sounded like you did.

Then you misheard.

Yeah, well, I bet you were thinking it.

No, but I’m thinking it right now.

It was Hector’s turn to laugh.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Page 1243

And what would that be?’ said Hector.

I don’t know--what WOULD it be?

Argh. Just tell me.

No,’ laughed Garovel, sounding almost like a stubborn child.

Ugh...

I feel like you know the question already,’ the reaper said. ‘It seemed like you were working your way up to it. Maybe just cut to the chase and ask me, hmm?

At first, Hector didn’t know what Garovel meant. But as he thought about it, an idea did pop into his head. It was something that had been bothering him for quite a long time now, on some level. Even before Garovel told him about this “ardor.” Perhaps even before Garovel told him about the Undercrust. There was just something about the nature of souls, about everything he’d come to learn of them during his time as a servant.

...Where do souls come from, exactly?

That’s not the question.

...Do they come from the planet?

Mm. Getting warmer.

Hector took a minute to deliberate. It was a bit of a leap, but if he supposed the answer to that last question was “yes,” then...

Hector tilted his head. ‘...Is the planet alive?

There it is!’ Garovel laughed. ‘Well done, my dear boy.

Nobody knows if the planet is alive?

Depends on what you mean by “alive,” now doesn’t it? Certainly, if you just mean, as an ecosystem capable of supporting life, then yes, the planet is obviously alive. And the molten core is like it’s heart, and if you destroyed the core, you’d essentially be “killing” the planet, right? There’s no real debate there. But if that’s not what you mean by “alive,” then... Well. Things get a bit more difficult to figure out, to say the least.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Page 1242

Yeah,’ said Garovel. ‘I’ve tried a few times, actually. Everyone experiments in their youth, right?

Your “youth,” huh? What were you, like, five hundred?

Two hundred, the first time. Occasionally, I give it another shot, just to see if anything’s changed. I might do it again, eventually. Assuming someone doesn’t kill me first, that is.

Hmm. So how does it, uh...? I mean, what happens when you go up that high, exactly?

I start to lose consciousness.

Ah...

It might be for the best, though. Can you imagine how terrifying it would be if you flew up into space and got lost? AND you weren’t able to die? So you just... drifted? For millions of years, potentially? If not billions? In fact, who knows if you’d ever find your way back at all?

Shit, when you put it like that, why would you even risk going up there?

Mm, curiosity.

Reapers must get REALLY bored, if that’s all it takes.

That’s a bigger problem than people usually realize. I bet there are plenty of wars that were largely the result of some bored reaper.

I can believe that,’ said Hector. ‘But, uh. I’m still wondering, um...’ He had to take a moment to find his wording. ‘Well. Hmm. What’s the planet’s role in all this?

Heh. What do you mean?

Hector’s brow furrowed. ‘What do you mean what do I mean? And what’re you laughing about?

The reaper laughed outright at that. ‘I’m just getting the impression that you’re about to ask me a particular question that nobody knows the answer to. Something that a LOT of people have been trying to figure out for a very long time.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Page 1241

Gravity had shifted, Hector realized. The train was going almost straight up, it felt like. And perhaps the only reason he hadn’t begun sliding out of his seat was because of the arm rest supporting his weight. He grabbed onto it with his free hand and spread his feet apart unconsciously.

This doesn’t feel very safe...

Well, you’re supposed to have a seat belt on,’ said Garovel.

You tell me this now?

I’m pretty sure the seat belts won’t fit around your suit.

You could’ve warned me, at least. What if I fell out?

Was kinda hopin’ you would.

What if I landed on someone?

Eh, Dimas is right over there. I’m sure he would’ve stopped you. Or you would’ve stopped yourself. You’ve got your iron again, remember? You could’ve whipped something up.

Hector would’ve expressed his annoyance, but the cabin shifted another time and took his mind off it. Gravity leveled out, and he supposed they were moving horizontally again. He decided to maintain his grip on the arm rest anyway.

From there, the journey began to feel rather tedious. It would take a few hours to reach Babbadelo, apparently, and Hector couldn’t sleep or meditate for fear of falling out of his seat.

That left only one thing for him to do, really.

Pester Garovel with all the things that he’d been meaning to ask for a while now.

Hey, Garovel, I have a question.

Yeah?

Have you ever gone to the moon?

The reaper laughed. ‘I think I see where this is going. But no, I have never gone to the moon.

Why not? You can fly wherever you want, right?

As it so happens, no, I can’t. Reapers can’t leave the planet’s atmosphere.

Hmm. So you’ve tried, then?

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Page 1240

Why are there wheels on top?’ he said to Garovel.

They add much needed stability,’ the reaper said. ‘And... well, you’ll see pretty soon.

Hmm.’ Hector thought about that answer for a bit. ‘Wait a minute... You said you haven’t been down here in three hundred years or something, right?

Yep.

But... you already know about this train technology?

Yep.

So you’re telling me they’ve had trains like this for more than three hundred years?

Yep.’ A beat passed. ‘Okay, well, maybe not JUST like this. This one does look a lot spiffier than I remember. But the whole double-track thing is old tech. In fact, I don’t think the trains down here ever DIDN’T have them. The one-track design was a surface-level thing.

Huh...

Hector ended up taking over a couple of empty seats near the front of the train, but there wasn’t a whole lot of extra space remaining, and he felt sorry for the Rainlords who were stuck sharing a cabin with his noisy suit. He watched the train doors slide shut and felt the whole room begin rumbling gently.

Soon enough, they were underway. There weren’t many windows to speak of, and the few they did have were quite small and circular, the kind Hector imagined seeing on a boat or plane. At first, he saw a few faint lights streaming by, but then there was only pitch darkness.

Their first destination was going to be a place called Babbadelo, as Hector recalled. Naturally, Garovel hadn’t told him anything else about it--though that might’ve been because Garovel hadn’t been there in so long.

In the meantime, Hector tried to occupy himself with meditation, but a sudden, rather violent shift in the train disturbed him.

What was that?’ he asked.

Heh,’ was all Garovel said. He’d latched onto Hector’s shoulder while the train was in motion.

Nobody was panicking, Hector noticed, so he supposed the shift wasn’t anything to be too concerned about. But something was definitely different.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Page 1239

They formed a relay line, of sorts. Hector remained stationary so as not to exhaust himself by relying on his undead vigor any more than he already had. Instead, he simply handed his freshly made shields off to the nearest Rainlord, who then took a running start and chucked it down the line with full strength.

It certainly sped things along. He was able to pump out several shields per minute. But apparently, his ability’s maximum range had grown since he’d last tested it. The Rainlords were telling him it was around two hundred meters now.

Thinking about it now, he wondered if an increase in maximum range could even be considered a good thing. He had a hard time imagining a practical scenario in which materializing something that far away from himself would be useful.

But maybe that was his own fault. Maybe he just wasn’t thinking hard enough. Materialization was the power of creation, after all. It only made sense that using it to its fullest potential would require great creativity.

At length, Hector knew that his shield-making marathon had reached its end when a train arrived. Or at least, it seemed like a train. It didn’t quite sound like any train he’d ever heard of. There was no loud hissing of steam or puffing of smoke or screeching of metal against metal. Of course, his suit was interfering with the noise, but Hector was sure that the sound he heard was more of a rumbling growl.

And in the low light, Hector hadn’t previously noticed the rail lines, but they weren’t just lain on the ground. They were also suspended in the air on slender pillars, allowing the wheels on the train’s rooftop to connect.

Which earned a double-take from Hector as everyone was boarding.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Page 1238 -- CXXXVII.

It’d be stupid of me to think I can protect everyone by myself,’ said Hector. ‘If our time in Sair taught me anything, it’d definitely be that.

Heh. And here I thought your self-confidence was growing.

I... I don’t--I mean, uh... eh... that’s a different... thing.

Eloquently put.

Shut up.

Hector kept walking for quite a ways, and Garovel kept giving him sass all the while, as expected, until at long length, finally, one of his attempts to create the shield succeeded. Partially. Half of it was missing. He annihilated it, took another step forward, and tried again.

The shield materialized in full this time.

Welp. That confirms it.’ Garovel hovered around him, looking the shield over. ‘I’m not sure if I like this “blessing” from Rasalased.

I wonder if he can hear you.

I hope he can. Hey, Rasalased! Why’d you give this to Hector, huh?! Why couldn’t you just upgrade his soul power with your own or something?!

Would that have been possible?

No, but I didn’t think this shit was possible, either, so who the fuck knows?!

Hector couldn’t help laughing as he started back toward the Rainlords with his second shield in hand. ‘You sound very upset.

Yeah, well, I am. If we’re not super careful, this shield bullshit is gonna bite us on the ass. And I bet Rasalased knew that, too. What a fuckin’ prick.


Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Seven: ‘Buried in the Dark...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

There wasn’t a lot of time left until they needed to leave, but Hector spent every moment of it making as many extra shields as he could. And after seeing the kind of punishment that his work was capable of withstanding, the Rainlords were quite keen to help him out.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Page 1237

...I see your point,’ said Hector as he started walking again.

Good.

Hector tested his ability with his left hand, but as expected, he couldn’t make anything yet. Doubtless, he still wasn’t far enough away. He kept trying as they moved down the length of the corridor.

You might be tempted to sell these shields,’ said Garovel, ‘but I’d advise against that. While we could certainly use the money for Warrenhold, it would be a big problem if word got around about an Atreyan merchant selling something that so many people might want.

Selling them?’ The thought hadn’t even crossed Hector’s mind. ‘Wouldn’t that basically make me, like... a war profiteer or something?

Pretty much, yeah.

...I don’t exactly consider the Salesman of Death a role model, Garovel.

The reaper laughed at that. ‘Good to know. But I’m just saying, it wouldn’t be too difficult to rationalize. The idea, of course, would be that you’d only sell to people you trusted. Like the Rainlords, perhaps. But the problem would be that some customers simply aren’t going to take no for an answer, unless you have the power to force them to.

...Or allies to force them for me?

Or that, yes. But you’re more interested in doing the protecting than being protected, aren’t you?

Well, yeah. But, uh... all this talk does make me think. I mean, even disregarding this, uh, war profiteering bullshit--how likely is it that Warrenhold will develop into that kind of... “point of interest” or whatever? It’s bound to happen sooner or later, right?

Hmm. At the rate we’re collecting people, perhaps sooner.

Stasya Orlov wanted Warrenhold to be a center of trade between the Undercrust and the surface,’ said Hector. ‘And... I want that, too, I think. But... if we manage to make that happen, somehow, then...

Yup.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Page 1236

If this works,’ said Garovel, ‘what do you intend to do with it?

Hector thought that should be obvious. ‘I’ll make shields for everyone here--or, y’know, as many as I can in the time we have left.

Mm.

...Something wrong with that?

Garovel paused. ‘Not necessarily. But what about after we make it out of here?

What do you mean?

Well. I can see this power making our lives very complicated.

Hector cocked an eyebrow. ‘Our lives aren’t exactly simple, right now.

Ha. Even so, I think it’s best that we try to keep this ability secret as best we can. And if you’re gonna be handing these shields out to the Rainlords like it’s no big deal, then they need to understand how important this secret is, too. And YOU need to understand just how much trust you’re placing in them to keep that secret for us.

Uh... would it really be so bad if people found out?

Hector. I know you just want to protect people, but these shields are incredibly powerful. And, I mean, it took Haqq Najir months to craft just one of these shields. And now, potentially, you’d be able to make them in, what? An hour or two? Maybe even less? Hector, if you can start mass producing these things... Do you see what I’m getting? Essentially, you’d be able to single-handedly turn the tide of... practically any war in the world.

Hector stopped. He stared down the length of the empty hallway as he let Garovel’s words sink in.

That, my friend, is something that only a VERY small number of people on this planet can do,’ the reaper went on. ‘And don’t you think there are people out there who will want to take advantage of you? Especially if they find out how young you really are?

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Page 1235

Zeff’s hands were full, so Hector looked at Marcos, suited up and standing next to his father. Hector held the shield out to the boy. ‘Ask him to hold this for me, please,’ he told Garovel.

Uh. Hey, Marcos, would you mind holding this for Hector?

Marcos hesitated but took it. Its weight seemed to surprise him.

Hector threw another look around the area. There was plenty of space here, but which direction would be best? That hallway from before. It was very long, he remembered. Hector pointed in the direction opposite of the hallway. ‘Ask them to go that way for me,’ said Hector.

Um. Hector?

Oh.’ He probably should’ve explained, he realized. ‘I wanna try to make a second shield.

Ah...

I’ve gotta get this first shield outside of my ability’s max range,’ said Hector. ‘Because then my volume limit should reset, right?

Hmm.’ Garovel was quiet a moment, perhaps thinking.

Hector wondered if the reaper was about to inform him that he was being stupid. But that didn’t happen.

Alright,’ said Garovel. The reaper proceeded to explain Hector’s reasoning and instructions to the Elroys.

As Zeff listened, his gaze fell upon Hector, and the young Atreyan lord began to feel increasingly self-conscious.

Hector wasn’t sure he’d ever seen such a stern face staring at him like that before, but he tried not to worry about it too much. From what he knew of the Lord Elroy, that was just the man’s normal face.

Why’d he have to stare like that, though? Hector didn’t need another reason to be second guessing himself.

In the end, though, neither Zeff nor Axiolis voiced any sort of disapproval. They ventured off with Marcos and the shield, just as Hector had wanted.

Hector and Garovel made for the hallway together.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Page 1234

Hector continued staring at the shield, but his gaze began to hollow out as his thoughts drifted. An inkling of an idea nagged at him from the back of his mind. It wasn’t quite fully formed as of yet, but there was definitely something there, he felt. Something he’d almost forgotten about materialization but that could be relevant now. He squinted as he racked his brain, trying to grab the thought before it slipped away.

And then he got it.

He blinked, eyes shifting as his brain worked, evaluating the idea even further. Was it really possible now? Maybe not. Maybe there was some new limitation that he simply didn’t know about yet. Hmm.

But still. If it was possible...

He had to test one more thing, Hector decided.

He finally looked up to discuss his idea with Garovel, but the sight of the Elroys approaching made Hector put it on hold.

Zeff was carrying Ramira in his arms now. Her little suit looked much sleeker and less cumbersome than Hector’s, though it did bulge around the cast on her foot. Zeff also had her tiny crutches strapped to the bag on his back.

She gave Hector a wave, which he gladly returned. It was nice to see her in relatively high spirits again. The last few times he’d visited her, she’d seemed to be in considerable pain.

That was quite a performance,’ said Garovel.

Thank you,’ said Axiolis.

What was that technique, by the way?’ asked Garovel. ‘Do you have a name for it?

It is still quite new,’ said Axiolis. ‘We haven’t been able to come up with one yet. For now, hand signals will have to suffice.

Ah.

Hector grew impatient. He didn’t want to interrupt their conversation, but this was probably more important. Or better yet, maybe the Elroys could help him.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Page 1233

Then the orb vanished completely. Annihilated harmlessly by Zeff. And Hector was briefly confused--until the splashing boom came in the next moment, this time located right on top of the shield.

The impact was so strong that it shook the huge chamber and nearly knocked Hector on his ass. Streams of water vaulted in all directions before dissipating into a light drizzle, and for a few lingering seconds, it was actually raining underground. The water quickly turned to steam, however.

Hector’s eyes searched for the shield but didn’t see it anymore. He ventured out from behind his corner in order to get a closer look, and at length, he found a sliver of it remaining. A chunk of its pointed bottom, he was fairly sure.

It was steadily regenerating, he noticed, but it was still a bit slow, comparatively. He waved his left hand, and the shield retook its full shape almost instantly, just as pristine as before.

Garovel hovered over to him. ‘Well, that was informative.

Yeah,’ said Hector. ‘It’s definitely just as strong as before. But the self-regeneration seems a little redundant now.

And not being able to materialize anything else with the right side of your brain could be problematic.

Don’t you mean the left side of my brain?’ said Hector.

Ah. No, I don’t, actually. The right side of your brain controls the left side of your body. And vice versa.

Hector tilted his head. ‘Really? But that’s so counter-intuitive.

I know, right? Evolution should really get its shit together.

Hector stooped down and picked up his shield. He held it up in front of himself and turned it over, inspecting it another time.

We still don’t know for certain if it can boost your passive soul defense,’ said Garovel. ‘I’m guessing not, since Asad didn’t feel anything when he held it, but I suppose it’s possible that the boost only works for you now.

Hmm.

Probably not, though. And this isn’t a good place to test it out.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Page 1232

Hector could barely see Dimas’ attack, but he could certainly hear it--like a hail of bullets without the gunfire, all pinging off the shield.

After a moment, Dimas let up, and Hector craned his neck to get a good look. The shield bore only two small holes in it, though a plethora of dents littered its body. And then, even those disappeared, melted back together as if nothing had happened.

All in all, Hector had expected more damage. And so had Dimas, it seemed.

Don’t look so disappointed,’ said Qorvass. ‘Considering you are younger than Asad, that was very impressive.

Hector wondered if anyone else would step up. He noticed the Lord Salvador Delaguna observing, along with a few people urging him on, but the man just waved them off.

A lull came over the crowd of Rainlords as they searched for another contender.

The Lord Zeff Elroy stepped forward.

He still looked mostly terrible, as if he hadn’t been sleeping, and even Asad put a hand on his shoulder, as if to say that this wasn’t necessary.

They exchanged a few words, which Hector couldn’t hear, and then Asad’s concern appeared to be placated.

Zeff merged with Axiolis and invoked pan-forma. He placed his hands close together, as if holding an invisible ball, and then steam began erupting from within. It spewed out in all directions, loudly enough and violently enough that many of the Rainlords decided to back away even farther.

And slowly, an orb of rushing water coalesced. The water spun with such force that it made the wind howl around it.

Hector watched intently. He’d seen Zeff do this before in the fight against Caster Egmond. It seemed more stable now--and perhaps smaller, too, though that might’ve also been because Zeff was holding back.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Page 1231

With one deep breath and a bit of vigor from Qorvass, Asad gripped the spear tightly in his right hand and threw it with full strength.

It hit the shield dead on and shattered in all directions, some of which were toward Hector, who made full use of his cover.

Was that soul-strengthened?’ Garovel asked.

Hector peeked out again and saw Asad returning an affirmative nod. Hector’s eyes returned to shield, which didn’t have so much as a scratch on it.

He couldn’t help smiling a little.

Asad tried again, this time with molten quartz, also strengthened with his soul. It splashed against the shield with a steaming hiss. Asad let it sit there for a bit before annihilating it, and they discovered some of the rock around the shield had been melted away, but the shield itself remained perfectly pristine.

Asad gave a frustrated look.

In his defense,’ said Qorvass, ‘he is still quite tired.

Garovel probably wanted to make some retort, Hector figured, but the reaper restrained himself.

Hector saw some Rainlords coming over to join Asad, no doubt wondering what was going on. After a brief conversation, a few of them decided to give it a go, as well.

Try after try, servant after servant, the result remained the same. It quickly developed into a contest, of sorts, with more and more Rainlords lining up to give it a go--until, at length, the challengers ceased their attempts and instead began searching for representatives.

They found the Lord Dimas Sebolt.

And apparently, the man didn’t wish to waste anyone’s time. He merged with Iziol straight away and invoked pan-moc. Hector could see light distort and bend around the man’s whole body, and so could everyone else, it seemed, as they collectively backed away from him.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Page 1230

You don’t feel any different?’ Garovel asked.

Asad glanced at Qorvass.

He feels perfectly normal,’ the reaper said. ‘As do I. And shouldn’t I be affected by it as well?

Yes, you should,’ said Garovel. ‘Hmm...

Let’s test it on Jada.’ Qorvass hovered quickly away, then soon returned with her.

She seemed a bit confused about what was going on but took the shield nonetheless.

Everyone waited, but nothing happened.

Curious,’ said Garovel. ‘Would you mind helping us test its strength now, as well?

Not at all,’ said Qorvass.

The small troupe ventured off together, wanting to put themselves a safe distance away from the crowd. They found an isolated, yet well-lit spot near the bench where Hector had been sitting. A broad corridor lay far to the right, but no one was using it.

And Hector paused, abruptly realizing that he had yet to see anyone other than the Rainlords and Asad’s family. He wondered when he would see his first inhabitant of the Undercrust. He wondered if they would look any different from normal people. Or “surface” people, at least. He wasn’t sure he knew what qualified as “normal” anymore.

He pushed the thought out of his mind and set the shield down, propping it up against the wall. He backed away and decided to use the same hallway he’d seen before. He wasn’t terribly concerned about getting hurt, of course, but he figured it would be bad if he let the suit get damaged. Using the corner as cover, Hector poked his head out to watch Asad work.

The Lord Najir started off easy. He clapped his hands together, and then, as he brought them apart again, a large spear of solid quartz materialized, which he grabbed with both hands, as it continued to grow beyond his own wingspan.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Page 1229

It was a bit disappointing, to say the least. And upon further investigation, he discovered that he could not materialize a second shield, either. The volume limit of his new materialization power must have been exactly that of the original shield, Hector figured. He couldn’t even generate any extra dust afterward.

Well, this is certainly strange,’ said Garovel. ‘I’ve never heard of anyone being able to add on to the materialization ability this way.

Never?

I wouldn’t have thought it was possible if I weren’t seeing you doing it right now.’ He was almost laughing. ‘Rasalased... after all these years, what kind of monster has he become?

Hector was beginning to have doubts, however. He flipped the shield over in his hands, inspecting it up and down. True, it certainly looked like Haqq’s shield. But could it really be identical, he wondered? In every way?

Garovel seemed to be having the same thought. ‘I wonder how strong it is,’ the reaper said. ‘Does it still carry the soul-strengthening effect from Abbas?

If he could touch it with bare skin, that question might be answered, but unfortunately, this suit was in the way. And it was probably too late to take it off, he figured.

Let Asad hold the shield,’ said Garovel.

“Ah, good idea,” Hector said aloud, though it might’ve been lost over the noise of the suit. He stood and made his way over to the Sandlord, who noticed him approaching and decided to come meet him halfway.

“Something the matter?!” Asad said over the racket.

Hector offered the shield to him and let Garovel do the explaining.

It didn’t take long for Asad to understand what they were asking. He grabbed the shield, held it pensively for a few moments, then looked blankly at Hector and Garovel.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Page 1228

Hector blinked and stared at his hands. ‘I don’t understand...

I do. We thought Haqq’s shield was destroyed, but it wasn’t. Rasalased absorbed it and returned it to you. Now you can materialize it from scratch. This must be what he was referring to when he said that you’d brought him a “gift.” Hmm. He did say that he sensed its “residue” in your soul. Must’ve been an effect of you using it. So then, I suppose, he figured that it belonged to you.

But... that shield was... I mean, what was it even made of?

The dark vertical stripes were tungsten carbide,’ Garovel recalled. ‘The rest of the shield was a combination of steel and titanium alloys. Or at least, that’s what Sazandara told us.

So...’ That just made Hector even more confused. ‘So I’m able to materialize all of that stuff now?

Seems like it.

But, uh... what?

Hmm. Try and make something with your left hand. Something that ISN’T the shield.

A bit hesitant, Hector did so. His left hand tensed into a kind of claw-formation as he concentrated, and the result of his work materialized all at once.

It was the exact same shield again.

Hector frowned. He annihilated it and tried one more time, but the result was the same.

What were you trying to make?’ said Garovel.

Just a box,’ said Hector.

Hmm. So you can only make the shield, then.

I guess so.’ He gave it another shot, just to be sure, but indeed, there was no change. The only object that he could materialize with his left hand--or with the left half of his brain, rather--appeared to be this shield. Haqq’s shield.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Page 1227 -- CXXXVI.

--Donation Bonus Day (page 4 of 4)--
Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Six: ‘Thy renewed vigor...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Make something else,’ said Garovel.

Oh, uh...’ Hector blinked, trying to think. He waved his right hand, aiming to make the first thing that popped into his head. A metal bench, shaped like the rockier one he was currently sitting on.

And indeed, a bench appeared. But it was not the same as his shield. Granted, the lighting was a bit low in this place, but Hector was sure that he was looking at iron this time. Slightly lighter and grayer and plainer. And familiar, too, in that strange way. It was almost like he didn’t even need to look at it in order to know that it was iron.

Hmm,’ mused Garovel.

Hector was confused, to say the least. He annihilated the bench and tried again with something else. This time, he made a big cube, as tall as a person. It, too, was iron, Hector knew. He destroyed it and tried again, but the result was the same.

Wait,’ said Garovel before Hector could give it another go. ‘Try destroying the shield first this time.

Hector did so, but it didn’t change anything. He kept getting iron.

Keep trying,’ said Garovel.

Iron, iron, and more iron. And then the heater shield again. And then more iron. And then the shield.

Hector was at a loss. What the hell had happened to his power? It was like he could only control it some of the time.

It’s your hands,’ Garovel observed.

What?

Well. Technically, it’s probably NOT your hands, really. It’s probably an unconscious thing, utilizing the different sides of your brain. But the point is, when you use your right hand, you make iron, and when you use your left hand, you make the metal of Haqq’s shield.

Page 1226

--Donation Bonus Day (page 3 of 4)--
He blinked another time. With his hands covered by the suit, he couldn’t look at them directly, but hope swelled in his chest as he imagined what it was. He concentrated, and sure enough, he was able to make the powdery feeling vanish, then reappear, then vanish again.

True, he’d been able to make powder already, but only when concentrating hard. This time, he hadn’t even been thinking about it. Maybe this was progress? It was enough to give him hope, anyway.

There was no point in stopping here, he decided. He pushed harder. He wanted a metal lump in the palm of his hand--outside the suit, this time.

He got a lot more than he bargained for.

A full heater shield materialized in an instant and dropped onto his left hand with unexpected heft, then clattered to the ground. Even inside his bulky suit, Hector had jumped with pure surprise.

A moment of stunned silence longer, and then Hector was laughing. ‘Garovel!

The reaper came rushing over, quick to notice Hector’s work on the ground. ‘Whoa. What’ve we got here?

Hector looked down at the shield. It was more than a little familiar. The vertical stripes. The darker color. It was metal, certainly. But that was not iron.

Disbelief struck, and Hector’s eyes narrowed. ‘It can’t be...

Is that what I think it is?’ said Garovel.

Hector waved his left hand, and the shield annihilated itself. Hector still couldn’t believe it. Another wave of his hand, and the shield reappeared, this time resting comfortably in his grip. ‘Garovel...

You’re able to materialize Haqq’s shield,’ the reaper said, sounding about as shocked as Hector felt.

Hector couldn’t help the smile that crossed his lips. He made the shield disappear and then reappear again. It really was true.

Page 1225

--Donation Bonus Day (page 2 of 4)--
Hector cleared his mind again. No more thoughts. No more worries. No people, no abilities, not even himself. And then he recalled it: that sense of immeasurable enormity that he’d felt just before meeting the Dry God. Like floating through an infinite space and being slowly consumed by one’s own sense of triviality and smallness.

Then, through the eternal dark, there came a great ring. A shaking. A light. All at once, all connected.

It was enough to startle Hector out his meditation entirely, and he looked over at the crowd of Rainlords. And the few Sandlords. It was Asad Najir who Hector found himself focusing on. The epicenter of that ringing light--Hector had a sense that Asad was standing right where it would have been, if it were real.

Or, had it been?

And at once, Hector understood. It was the Shards. Hector had sensed their presence--their exact location, even. Hector had returned them to Asad after the battle at Dunehall, and now Asad was carrying them--in the inner pocket of the large bag over his shoulder, to be precise.

Hector just... knew they were there. As if he’d placed them there himself, as if he could see them right now through the bag’s rigid cloth.

As he realized all of these things in rapid succession, Hector could only stare. After a fashion, he blinked a few times and tried to think. He wasn’t sure what to do with this knowledge, but it was a bit unsettling. So he could locate the Shards of the Dry God. Was there some reason for this? Moreover, was there some use for it?

Didn’t seem like it.

Wait a minute. He felt something on his left hand. Inside the suit, he felt something. A familiar kind of... dust. Or powder.

Page 1224

--Donation Bonus Day (page 1 of 4)--
Still, Garovel did seem a little too good at it, sometimes. It had not escaped Hector’s attention how many of their “alliances” were the result of Garovel’s plans or old connections. It was enough to make Hector wonder if Garovel had some kind of greater motive that he hadn’t told him about yet.

Just one more thing to ask about, Hector figured.

He tried to focus.

The truth was, a part of him had been dreading this, dreading what the result of Rasalased’s “tempering” might actually be. After the first few failed attempts at trying to use his ability, Hector had, perhaps, not been allowing himself as much time as he should’ve in order to continue trying. It was hard not worrying that his ability was gone for good, that his iron would not be returning--and the longer that thought remained there, the more disheartening it became.

But there was nothing for it now. He didn’t have an excuse to put it off, at the moment. No civilians in need of help or meetings to attend. Not down here.

So he steadied his breathing and searched his mind for that familiar feeling, the indescribable sensation that he’d always felt when summoning his iron. It was so strange. He’d never really been conscious of that feeling until now, when it was present but his metal was not.

It was so uncomfortable, so hollow. Another reason why he’d grown reluctant of these attempts. He didn’t like this emptiness.

But he had to ignore these feelings, he knew. He had to push onward. His power was there. It had to be.

Maybe he was going about this the wrong way. Maybe concentrating harder wasn’t the answer. Maybe he needed to meditate more deeply. Like how he’d done when he’d first met Rasalased. That time had certainly felt different, somehow.

Worth a shot, he supposed.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Page 1223

A part of Hector wanted to get genuinely upset at Garovel. It was still a sore spot for him, to be sure, but he knew the reaper didn’t mean anything ill by it. So instead, Hector merely sighed. ‘I don’t want to trick people, Garovel.

Excuse ME?’ the reaper said. ‘You don’t want to trick people? YOU? The guy who tricked the Salesman of Death into sparing hundreds of Rainlords?

Hector opened his mouth to argue, only to realize that he couldn’t.

Oh, I get it,’ said Garovel. ‘You’re trying to trick ME now. Well, it won’t work! I’m too smart!

That’s not--I don’t--’ Hector didn’t have the words and just ended up laughing.

Don’t play games with me, young man.

I’m not, uh--I mean, ah... aha... I don’t know what to tell you...

Uh-huh.

An awkward silence arrived.

Hector wasn’t sure how to articulate what he wanted to say. He’d already told Garovel that the whole deal with the Salesman had felt like some kind of crazy fever dream, but he didn’t know what else to say beyond that. And Garovel was as much in the dark about it as he was, apparently.

The prolonged quiet brought Hector’s mind back to Rasalased, to what the ancient Sandlord had done to him. “Tempered” his soul. Whatever that meant. It had to have been connected to what happened with the Salesman. Didn’t it?

Hey, are you meditating?’ said Garovel.

Uh... well, I was thinking about it.

Alright, then I’m gonna go talk to Qorvass. Let me know if you make any progress.

Hector gave a nod and watched the reaper float away. He certainly envied Garovel’s ability to make friends so quickly. The reaper made it seem so easy, like it was the most natural thing in the world. Then again, perhaps it was.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Page 1222

Oh, is that so? Well, look at you, Mr. Well-Adjusted.

Hector snorted a quiet laugh. ‘Shut up.

I liked you better when you could barely even speak to people.

Hector shook his head. ‘What?

You heard me. In fact, you should try to channel that old part of yourself, from time to time--so that you don’t forget how to do it, I mean.

What are you even saying, right now? I honestly have no idea.

Hector, listen to me. That old shyness of yours could come in very handy, one day.

Hector just blinked, incredulous. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever heard anything so stupid in his entire life.

Don’t look at me like that. Hector, that meek persona could be used to trick people.

What?’ he said again.

You could use it strategically,’ said Garovel. ‘Think about it. You could intentionally give certain people the wrong impression. Make them think that you don’t know what you’re doing, that you’re incompetent, that you’re not a threat. Make them underestimate you, in other words.

...Y’know, usually, I can tell when you’re joking. But now, I’m just confused.

Hector, don’t you see? If you could but learn to harness the power of shyness within you, then you and I could rule this gullible world.

Okay, Garovel. Please shut the fuck up now.

The reaper laughed. ‘I’m only half-joking. A part of me is convinced that it would work. If you hone your acting skills, that is.

Excuse me? It’s not an act that I can just do! I was never acting!

I’m not saying you ever were. But you could take that experience and turn it into an act, is the idea. And then we could use it to trick people.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Page 1221

Abruptly, Hector realized he was sweating. The increase in temperature had been gradual enough that it snuck up on him, and he was suddenly reminded of why he was wearing this cumbersome suit.

Should I turn this thing on?’ Hector asked.

Yeah, go ahead,’ said Garovel.

Hector flipped the series of switches on his chest and then hit the button in the center. The cooling unit on his back roared to life, loud enough that Hector nearly jumped, and after a few moments it settled into an only slightly quieter hum, like a wild dog growling endlessly behind him.

It worked, though. Boy, did it work. It felt like he’d been dunked in ice water. Quite the relief, at first, but soon, he decided to turn the knob on his stomach a couple times. The temperature in the suit gradually balanced to a comfortable level.

When the elevator finally began to slow down, Garovel invoked the vigor so that Hector could actually stand up again.

The elevator eased to a crawl, then jostled into a dead stop. The half-circular doors slid open, and Hector saw a crowd of earlier arrivals. Hector and the others exited and joined the mass of waiting Rainlords.

His suit garnered its fair share of attention. He could tell that the noise was disrupting a few conversations, so he tried to put some distance between himself and everyone else.

Garovel followed, of course. ‘This feels familiar,’ the reaper said privately, though with a hint of laughter.

What do you mean?,’ said Hector.

You all on your own while the other kids are having fun.’

Hector found a conspicuously bench-shaped rock and clunkily sat down.

Sorry,’ the reaper said. ‘If I’d realized this would happen, I might not’ve agreed to have you wear this thing.

I think I’ll be fine, Garovel.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Page 1220

And Sermung killed the strongest one ever?’ Hector asked.

That, he did.’ A beat passed, and then Garovel added, ‘Arguably the strongest one ever, that is.

Hector hesitated with his next question. ‘Is there... like, a similarly strong one that’s still alive?

Not as far as I know,’ said Garovel.

That didn’t sound as conclusive as Hector would’ve liked.

If one like that did exist, I have to imagine that either Abolish or the Vanguard would’ve launched a campaign to kill it. But you never know.

Wait, Abolish fights them, too?

Oh yeah. Morgunov and Dozer have both been known to hunt worms.

Why would they bother? Aren’t worms basically doing their job for them?

I can’t pretend to fully understand their motivations, either,’ Garovel admitted. ‘But it’s not so unthinkable that Abolish would want to protect its own interests. Worms don’t exactly pick sides, and you can’t fight a war very well when a giant slime monster is flattening your fortresses and devouring your resources.

I guess that makes sense.

Plus, I bet they want to study them. As far as mad scientists go, Morgunov is right up there at the top. Or so I’ve heard.

Hector gave a grim frown. ‘You’re just full of comforting thoughts, today.

Also, some worms leave trails of toxic sludge behind, rendering places completely uninhabitable for decades.

Ugh...

Alright, fine, you want comfort? I saw a golem kick the shit out of a worm, once. It was awesome.

Really? You saw it happen? And you’re not lying to me like an asshole?

Yes, really. The golem was protecting a little village. And that same little village went on to become a big center for tourism. The people there took the dried husk of the worm and turned it into a monument. The golem stuck around, too, and kept on protecting everyone there.

That’s amazing.

See? I can offer comfort.

I appreciate it.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Page 1219

Okay, so then... between these worms and feldeaths, which is worse?

Worms, no question,’ said Garovel. ‘Like I said, unless you piss them off, feldeaths will just take a swipe at you as you pass. Dangerous, sure, but you can just run. Worms, though--those motherfuckers will chase you. And they’re not slow. They’ve been known to steamroll through entire cities, just eating everything.

Hmm. But in terms of, like, power level or whatever--aren’t feldeaths stronger than worms?

Not necessarily. The strongest worms could fight a feldeath no problem. But they’re incredibly rare--or at least, they were. I suppose they could be extinct by now, but I kinda doubt it.

Huh...

Y’know, killing worms was how Sermung got really famous,’ said Garovel. ‘Originally, that is.

Hector blinked.

You see, the previous leader of the Vanguard was killed by a worm--arguably the most dangerous one that has ever lived. I remember, they called it Nla Erujeje. “The Great Terror.” By this point, Sermung had already made a name for himself as a worm slayer, but in those days, there were many such warriors. And besides, this was something else. This was another level. The beast that had killed the most powerful servant in the world? Everyone in the Undercrust lived in fear of that thing. Renowned warrior after renowned warrior fell to it, and the beast only grew stronger each time.

Wow... you mean, it could, like, absorb their powers or something?

More or less, yeah. That’s what makes worms really dangerous. The big ones, anyway. The slime covering their bodies is like a nasty glue that slowly digests anything that gets stuck in it, allowing the worm to absorb whatever it touches into its body.

That... sounds horrible.

It is.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Thank You for Waiting

As some of you long-time readers and commenters may've sussed out by now, I don't generally like to talk about myself. I'm a fairly private person, just in general, and on top of that, I prefer to let my work speak for itself. There's a literary term for it. "Death of the Author," is what they call it.

But that's just a figure of speech. I'm not actually dead; I swear. Not yet, anyway.

However, I did suffer an injury. Nothing life-threatening, but I do feel like I should tell you guys about it, since you're obviously feeling the effects of it.

I sprained both of my wrists. Wasn't able to use my hands for a while. It was pretty awful. In fact, I'm just gonna sit here for a minute and let you think about how awful it was.

...

Oh, well, who cares. I'm better now. For the most part. I mean, you can still feel bad for me, if you want. In spirit, I'm definitely still a tiny baby bird with a broken wing and tears in its eyes, and I totally deserve your sympathy.

Actually, though, I've been feeling better for a few days now, and I decided to hold off on posting this. Because, well. As you might imagine, I've had a lot of time to think. I'm a changed man, in other words. Not really, but sort of. You see, going that long without writing is just unacceptable to my brain. So I've been "writing," but only in my head. Just haven't been able to put text to page. Until a few days ago. And now I have a sizable backlog to work with. Which is nice.

So here's what I'm gonna do. The Zombie Knight will resume updating two days from now, on July 1st, 2016. Start of a new month. Just seems fitting.

Oh, and I know you guys've left a lot of comments. I'll try 'n sift through 'em now, BUT DON'T FEEL BAD IF I DON'T RESPOND, DAMMIT. THERE ARE A LOT OF THEM, OKAY? AND I'M DEFINITELY BUSY WRITING AND NOT SITTING ON MY ASS, EATING CHEETOS. DEFINITELY.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Page 1218

Then, how the--?’ Hector needed a second to locate the question he wanted. ‘What? How are they alive, then?

They’ve got something that functions like a soul, at least for them. We call it “ardor.” Or “the planet force.” Because that’s where it comes from. It’s like a normal human soul, except MUCH more powerful.

Hector’s eyes widened as he let his imagination run with these ideas. ‘...I feel like you should’ve told me all this a long time ago.

Eh. What would’ve been the point?

I... well, I mean...’ He couldn’t find the words.

Anyway, golems are very strong. They’re pretty docile, though, so we generally don’t need to worry about them. In fact, occasionally, they’ve been known to protect humans.

For real?

Yep. But you know what we DO need to worry about? Worms.

Hector cocked an eyebrow inside his suit. ‘Worms?

Ugh. Worms are the worst. They have ardor, too, and they are definitely NOT friendly.

...Worms, though? How can a worm be dangerous?

Oh, you innocent child. Worms on the surface are harmless. The worst you’ve got are parasitic ones--which, admittedly, are not fun. But in the Undercrust... oh... Thankfully, the really big ones are rare.

Hector was almost afraid to ask. ‘How big are we talking, here?

Garovel paused, perhaps thinking it over. ‘What’s the biggest animal you know of?

Uh... elephant?

Bigger than that.

No, wait, uh. Blue whale.

Bigger than that. Well, longer, anyway. Maybe not heavier. Yeah, a blue whale is a decent comparison. They’re similar sizes.

How is that possible?’ said Hector. ‘I mean, what do they eat?

Everything.

Agh...

Including people and reapers.

AGH.

Oh, and it gets better. Some can generate electrical currents so strong that they can barf lightning at you. Or acid. Or lightning AND acid--which can combust. And their bodies are all squishy and slimy and tough as hell, due to the ardor.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Page 1217

I think the problem with that is their “sensing range,” as you put it,’ said Garovel. ‘Once they memorize your soul, they’ll be able to track you no matter where you go.

Hector paused again. ‘No, that doesn’t make sense.

Garovel gave him a look. ‘What do you mean?

Well, earlier, you said that if they sense us, they’ll try to kill us. So if their sensing range is like half the planet, then they should always be sensing tons of people.

No, when I said that, I meant “sensing us within their territory.” I’m sure their ability to sense souls goes beyond just their chosen territory. The fact that they usually keep away from cities is pretty strong evidence.

If that’s what you mean, then that’s what you should’ve said. How am I supposed to understand all these explanations that you love so much if you don’t say what you mean?

Alright, Captain Pedantry, calm down. I apologize.

Apology not accepted.

Wow, Hector.

Hector could feel the vigor wearing off. He’d needed it just to get inside the elevator. He was beginning to notice, however, that whenever the vigor wore off, it didn’t leave him feeling quite so exhausted as it used to. Perhaps his body was finally getting accustomed to it. Frankly, he thought it never would.

A different question popped into his head. ‘So, uh... are there any other terrible hellbeasts of the Undercrusts that I should know about?

Oh, definitely. A couple are even comparable to feldeaths, actually.

Are you serious? Like what?

Golems, for one. Rock beasts.

The fuck is a rock beast?

Exactly what it sounds like. A big ass monster made of solid rock.

Like a bunch of rocks held together by a soul?

No, they don’t have souls.’ Garovel paused for a pensive expression. ‘Or at least, not really.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Page 1216

The thing about feldeaths is that, as long as you don’t antagonize them, they’ll only take a swat at you. Like how a dog snaps at flies buzzing around its head. That’s pretty much how feldeaths see us, I’d wager. Annoying bugs.

Hmm.

They’re actually kind of animalistic, in many ways. Even though they’re arguably the deadliest creatures in the world, they’re not necessarily a big threat to humanity.

They aren’t? But couldn’t they just waltz into a city and kill everyone?

They could, and that’s what everyone worries about, but historically speaking, that’s an exceptionally rare occurrence.

It is? Why?

Well, for one thing, they tend not to wander around very much. They just kinda hang out in their own territory. And annihilate anyone that gets close.

Huh...

Unfortunately, their territories can be pretty enormous. These days, though, Sai-hee famously devotes a lot of resources to keeping track of feldeath movements and protecting cities from them. The Vanguard helps out quite a bit, too--oftentimes, Sermung himself, as I understand it.

Hector couldn’t even imagine what a fight between a feldeath and an emperor-level servant would look like. ‘Geez...

Anyway, the takeaway from all this, is that you don’t want to attack a feldeath, even if you’re doing it defensively. Because that’ll make it mad at you, and if it gets mad at you, it’ll chase you. And you never wanna be chased by a feldeath. Ever.

Are they super fast or something?

Yes. But also, they don’t give up. They’ll chase you to the other side of the planet, if they have to.

Hmm.’ Hector paused, thinking. ‘That’s weird.

What is?’ said Garovel.

Well, uh... I mean, if you get far enough away, shouldn’t they give up? Like, once you’re out of their... sensing range... or whatever? They wouldn’t know where you are anymore, right? So how could they keep chasing you if they don’t know where to go?

Friday, May 20, 2016

Page 1215

In the past, there were a lot of isolated places in the Undercrust. Communication and traveling were so difficult that people just didn’t do them. In fact, I’m sure that’s still the case, to a large extent. Advancing technologies make it easier and easier, but still. We’re talking about solid rock that is so thick, a man could spend his entire life trying to tunnel through to the other side and still die of old age before he gets there. And what happens when there’s a cave-in? Which is a frequent occurrence, by the way.

So you’re saying the Undercrust is a breeding ground for these feldeath things?

Sadly, yes. By now, I imagine there must be tens of thousands of them down there.

How... uh... how dangerous are they, exactly?

Depends on how many souls they were born from and how old they are,’ said Garovel. ‘But, broadly speaking, if you happen to see one, and your name’s not Sermung, you should probably just run.

Seriously? They’re that strong?

Potentially, yeah. And since there’s no real way to gauge their strength until you’re neck-deep into a fight with one, running is the preferred solution. But there is some good news.

Really? Are some of them friendly?

Garovel laughed. And then kept laughing. ‘Ah... no.

Fuck.

The good news is that they’re only REALLY dangerous if you piss them off.

What does that mean?

It means don’t piss them off.

Yeah, I got that. I meant, more like... how do I avoid pissing them off?

Well, don’t attack them.

Wasn’t really planning on it.

Also, don’t be named Hector. They hate that.

Garovel.

No, they like Garovels just fine.

Please stop.

Ask me a good question, and maybe I will.

Agh. Alright. So... as long as we don’t attack these feldeath things first, they’ll leave us alone?

No no no. If they sense us, they’ll try to kill the shit out of us. But they’ll only half-ass it, is the thing.

You’ve lost me.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Page 1214

Ah, good memory,’ said Garovel. ‘Technically, I said “raw agony,” but that’s neither here nor there. The point I’m getting at is that souls have power. As you’ve seen. Many times now. And over the course of human history, an absolutely RIDICULOUS amount of people have died. Each one leaving a soul behind, a little packet of power. And even with all the reapers in the world--try as we might--sometimes, we miss them.

I think I see where this is going...

Mmhmm. Now, if we miss a few souls here and there, nothing happens. It’s very sad and unfortunate, of course, because those souls are left to suffer constantly until one of us finally stumbles onto them, but beyond that, there aren’t any “real world” consequences, as it were.

But?

But, let’s say... an entire town gets wiped out. And let’s also say that no reaper finds them for, maybe, a decade or two. Or a century, even. All those souls just sit there. All that power. Think for a second about the potential there. A reaper and a servant together, only TWO souls--but given long enough to synchronize? Those two can become virtually unstoppable.

Oh...

Over time, even without a reaper to bind them, all those souls together will coalesce. It’ll become like a melting pot, cooking by the heat of that same “raw agony” that I mentioned before. Their shared suffering gradually fuses them together. And that is how a feldeath is born.

Shit...

Now, a whole town being obliterated and then completely forgotten, even by reapers? Historically, that is a rare occurrence. At least, on the surface world, it is. There’ve only ever been a handful of feldeaths on the surface, which is why they’re regarded as largely mythical up there. But in the Undercrust... not so much.

Why’s that?

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Page 1213

So how old do I need to be in order to not need this suit?’ Hector asked. ‘As a servant, I mean.

Bare minimum?’ said Garovel. ‘Eight years. Your passive soul defense would be strong enough to protect you from all the heat, though you’d still be sweating like a dog. Which doesn’t make sense, because dogs don’t sweat. They primarily use their tongues in order to cool off. Point is, though, you’d still be uncomfortable, even at eight years old.

Thank you for shoehorning that extra bit of trivia in there.

Well, if you’re not laughing, you’re learning. Win-win, right?

Yeah, but I was already--whatever. Is there anything else I should know about the Undercrust before we get down there?

Oh-ho yeah,’ said Garovel, all but laughing.

Hector waited. ‘...Well?

Eh.

Garovel, don’t be an asshole!

Alright, alright. I was about to bring this up anyway. Ever heard of something called a feldeath?

A what?

Feldeath. As in, a death that’s... fel.

What are you even saying, right now?

You would’ve heard of it in myths and legends, if at all.’

Doesn’t ring a bell,’ said Hector.

Mm. Well, there’s a moderate chance that we’ll run into one, so I should probably warn you so that you don’t shit your pants.

...Why would I do that?

Because they’re some of the most dangerous and terrifying beings in existence.

Oh, is that all?

Bit of background is probably needed here,’ said Garovel. ‘So you know how, after a normal person dies, their soul is removed from their body and begins to degrade over time?

Uh, yeah? I think. I remember you saying something about the soul becoming a prison of agony within a couple days.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Page 1212

Simply getting everyone down into the Undercrust was going to take a while, Hector had learned. The passage was identical to the one in Warrenhold--the only difference being that the Sandlords had built a working elevator for theirs.

A simple enough idea, certainly, but Garovel made it quite clear what an impressive technological feat it was. The sheer distance the elevator needed to travel was problematic enough, but the added complexities of tectonic movement and regular maintenance meant that Hector shouldn’t get too eager to build one at Warrenhold.

Even with the elevator, however, several days would be needed for all the Rainlords to make the trip. The hole was simply not wide enough for more than a handful of people to go down at once.

As Hector understood it, the elevator had been carrying people down practically nonstop since the Rainlords arrived at the Swallow’s Nest. And being that Hector and Garovel hadn’t gotten here until a few days afterward, much of their traveling party was already waiting for them down there.

Hector boarded the elevator as soon as it returned, sharing it with the Najirs. It wasn’t exactly spacious, especially in this refrigerator suit, but at least there was a place to sit. And light.

A kind of grinding hum filled Hector’s ears as the elevator shifted and began moving. The noise was a bit faint, though probably muffled by his suit, he figured.

This trip down was going to take six hours, according to Qorvass. And apparently, that was considered quick.

Hector was surprised to see that Jada wasn’t wearing a suit like he was. Asad and Imas, sure, but Jada, too? He wondered how old she was as a servant.

Well, if nothing else, at least he’d have plenty of time to pester Garovel with questions. He tried to remember all the different ones he’d been meaning to ask.

Page 1211 -- CXXXV.

Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Five: ‘Thy temperate descent...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Hector felt like some kind of robot in this thing. And not a cool robot, either. A robot that could barely move or function at all, was his impression.

Agh, this shit is so heavy,’ he thought.

That’s because you’re basically wearing a refrigerator on your back,’ said Garovel.

Sounded about right. ‘How are the non-servants supposed to move around in these suits?’ Hector asked.

They’re not,’ the reaper said. ‘Their suits are much newer and lighter. But the Sandlords don’t have enough for everyone. So you get the old and shitty one.

Great.

Heh. Be thankful you get a suit at all. At least you’ll get to see the Undercrust this way.

Hector tried to stand up, but the bulky suit resisted too much, and he just kind of settled awkwardly back down. He eyed Garovel through the visor in his helmet.

Just think of it as training. Like you’re wearing heavy armor. And building muscle mass.

Does muscle mass even matter for servants?

Kinda. If you arm wrestled Dimas, for instance, and you both were using your super human strength, he’d probably still beat you, ‘cuz he has more natural muscle mass.

Huh...’ A weird example, sure, but Hector hadn’t thought about it that way before. He’d been under the impression that doing push ups and stuff like that was a complete waste of time, but he supposed now that it wasn’t. He’d have to remember that whenever he found time to train again.

He looked over to the other side of the room and saw the huge containers being carted in. Climate-controlled pods, Hector knew. Garovel had told him about them earlier. With so many non-servants needing to make the trip through the Undercrust, some would have to do so in medically-induced comas, packed together in cooling chambers like sardines.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Page 1210

Garovel relinquished a nod. ‘I suppose it is. And now that you mention it, I was hoping to ask you for a favor. Would you mind going to Warrenhold ahead of us? Aboveground, I mean.

We could do that,’ said Qorvass, ‘but would it not be more prudent to stick together?

Perhaps, but it would also be very helpful to have someone who can open the entrance for us when we get there. The door is rather strong, and trying to break it down might prove problematic.

Curious,’ said Qorvass.

“I understand,” said Asad. “I will send my children to do this task for you. I fear I may be needed in the Undercrust. One never knows what one will encounter down there.”

True enough,’ said Garovel. ‘How many children do you have, by the way?

“Only two,” said Asad. Then he turned around to talk to his daughter, who’d been standing behind him the whole time. “Were you listening?”

“Yes, abbi,” said Jada.

He placed a hand on her shoulder. “Go to Kuros and fetch your brother. Then take him to Warrenhold and wait for me.” He turned to Garovel and Hector again. “Can you give her directions?”

Of course,’ said Garovel.

Jada interrupted, saying something in Valgan, to which Asad responded, also in Valgan.

Hector glanced at Garovel.

She’s asking about her mother,’ said Garovel privately. ‘Wants to know if she should bring her to Warrenhold, too. Asad says no. Jada says taking her brother will upset her mother. Asad says they’ll discuss it later.

Apologies,’ said Qorvass to Hector and Garovel. ‘Please have no doubt that we will see this task completed.

Your diligence is appreciated,’ said Garovel. ‘But before you send anyone to Warrenhold, there’s something I should mention. It concerns mental health.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Page 1209

Yeah, that’s the theory,’ said Garovel. ‘Mummification used to be pretty common. These days, people seem to think it was only royalty and the super rich who were mummified, but that’s not quite true. Anyone who worked under those people could also be mummified--sometimes, even while they were still alive.

Hector’s brow lowered. ‘What? Why?

Because tradition, that’s why. For example, if your job was washing the king’s feet, and then your king went and died before you did, some cultures believed that you should be entombed with him.

That’s... so fucked up.

Such were the ancient customs and religions of the world.

Hector still had more questions about Couriers, but they got shoved out of his mind when he saw Asad and Qorvass approaching.

“You’re awake!” said Hector.

Good to see you both,’ added Garovel.

Asad looked pretty sore, judging from how stiff his movements were, but he offered Hector a handshake as soon as he was close. “When I heard about what you did for everyone, I had to come thank you.”

A bit confused, Hector took the handshake. “What I did?”

Asad tilted his head at him. “Zeff told me all about it. You lured the Salesman away from Dunehall and saved all our lives.”

Hector blinked. Zeff had been conscious through all that?

Really, though, that whole affair felt so surreal now, like a dream he’d had, rather than anything he’d actually lived through. A dream. Or nightmare, maybe.

Hector wasn’t sure what to say. You’re welcome? No, that was stupid. Shit, this was getting embarrassing very quickly.

Garovel helped him out. ‘You’re welcome.

Hector gave the reaper a look, but Asad and Qorvass both laughed.

Dammit.

Zeff also brought us up to speed on the current plan,’ said Qorvass. ‘We were wondering if there was some way we could help.

You’re asking me?’ said Garovel.

It is your plan, is it not?’ said Qorvass.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Page 1208

Hector had another question already queued up in his head. ‘What’s the deal with the foggy mirror?

Ah, that’s how they choose who they work for,’ said Garovel. ‘I’m sure you noticed how the Courier only responded to Lord Duxan. When a Courier chooses to work for you, they just show up out of nowhere and give you one of those mirrors.

Hmm. Weird. How do they choose people, then?

Dunno. That’s what I meant by not knowing why they do what they do. They can apparently choose anyone, and their reasons for doing so are never made clear. It’s all very odd, but they do seem to gravitate toward people with power and influence.

Hmm.

Hell, one of ‘em could show up at Warrenhold and give you a mirror, someday. You’ve been getting pretty famous, lately.

Does, uh... does that mean they work for Abolish, too?

Yep. They don’t have any set allegiances that I know of. Oh, and they can decide to take their mirror back at any time and stop helping you.

...This sounds like some conspiracy-type shit. Controlling the flow of information or whatever.

You’re not the first to have that thought.

You trust them?

For the most part. They have a very solid track record when it comes to keeping sensitive information secret.

Hector supposed he’d have to take Garovel’s word on that.

They’d been walking for a while now, with Garovel leading the way, but only now was Hector finally starting to see some Rainlords again. This place was a bit of a maze, but with the way Garovel navigated it, Hector wondered if the reaper had been here before. It wouldn’t be too surprising, he figured.

But before any of that, he still had more questions about the Couriers. ‘Where do they come from? They’re mummies, right? So they used to be human?

Page 1207

We know, more or less, HOW they operate,’ said Garovel, ‘but the specifics are still pretty unclear. Their movements are especially confusing. You saw how that one just “appeared” out of nowhere, right?

Yeah.

They can all do that. They can just show up wherever they want, seemingly.

Sounds like Ibai’s power.

Garovel paused at that. ‘You’re right. I hadn’t put that together. Aberrations are still a relatively recent development in the world. I wonder if that’s just a coincidence, or if there’s some underlying reason behind it.

You think aberrations and the mummy guys are related somehow?

Alright, well, before anything else, I should probably mention that they’re not actually called “mummy guys.”

I find that hard to believe,’ said Hector.

In Valgan, they’re generally called “zalabaram.” In Mohssian, they’re called dark walkers. Or dark messengers.

Or mummy guys.

Yes, Hector. Or mummy guys. Might be easiest to just call them Couriers, though. But capitalized. Because capitalizing things means they’re special.

So I should capitalize Mummy Guys, in other words.

You’re not gonna stop calling them that, are you?

Why would I?

Because you’re supposed to be an Atreyan lord now, and calling a group of ancient and mysterious beings “Mummy Guys” makes you sound about as dignified as an eight-year-old playing in the mud?

...That’s a really good point.

I know.

Hector wanted to say “Mummy Guys” again, and could see Garovel waiting for it, too, but he resisted, choosing to go for another question instead. ‘Do they ever talk?

No,’ said Garovel. ‘As far as I’m aware, none of them have ever spoken.

...Little creepy.

Maybe. But they’ve never been hostile. Not to anyone.

Or maybe everyone who ever noticed their hostilities is dead.

Or that highly unlikely thing you said, yes.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Page 1206

Eh, don’t worry too much,’ said Garovel. ‘It’ll be fine.

Are you sure?!

Yeahhh,’ said Garovel unconvincingly.

Hector just gave him a look.

Alright, just relax,’ said Garovel. ‘These “mummy guys,” as you call them, were doing this sort of thing for a VERY long time before pictures were ever a factor. They are insanely reliable. Trust me.

Hector didn’t see how he had much choice otherwise. ‘Okay, so what if Roman gets the message but is too busy to meet up with us? Or just decides not to? I mean, the Rainlords ARE fugitives from the Vanguard.

Ugh, I hope that doesn’t happen. Because then it would be up to me to guide us back to Warrenhold.

But you don’t know the route.

I know it’s near a place called Capaporo. Given time, I’m sure I could suss out the right path.

Given time, huh?

Don’t look at me like that. I’m trying my best here. If you’ve got a better plan, I’d love to hear it.

Not saying I do. But I might be able to help you more if you didn’t keep shit from me for no reason.

Oh, come on, that was a great surprise.

Are you even gonna tell me who or what that mummy guy was, exactly?

Well, the truth is, even with my incredible powers of exposition, that is not an easy task.

Uh-huh.

They’re a rather mysterious bunch, those couriers. There’s not a whole lot that’s actually known about them. For instance, no one even knows WHY they do what they do. We just know that they’ve BEEN doing it for thousands of years now. And that they’re really good at it. Though, maybe a bit slow by today’s standards.

Huh. Well, what DO you know about them, then?

Page 1205

Oh.’ Hector whipped out his phone and found the photos that Gina had sent him. He tried to show one of them to the mummy’s bandaged face, but it didn’t provoke any kind of response.

Lord Hasan took the phone from Hector and showed it to the mummy himself.

The mummy grabbed the phone.

Lord Hasan seemed surprised but didn’t say anything.

Then the mummy pulled up the hood of its cloak, shuffled back a step, and bowed before the Lord Duxan. And without uttering a single word, it disappeared again, vanishing into thin air as quietly as it had arrived.

Hector looked to Hasan, who just kind of scratched his beard, avoided eye contact, and then walked away with his reaper.

...He stole my phone,’ said Hector.

Garovel hesitated. ‘Gonna be honest with you. I didn’t see that coming. I hope you weren’t attached to it.

What?’ said Hector. ‘What do you mean you didn’t see it coming? Haven’t you done this before?

Sure, but that was before phones could store pictures in them.

Hector didn’t quite know how to put his disbelief into words.

I guess this makes sense, though,’ said Garovel. ‘Normally, you give them pictures, and then they just take those pictures with them. I guess we should’ve printed them out first.’ A beat passed. ‘Whoops.

Garovel, are you fucking kidding me, right now?

Look, I’m sorry, alright? It’s just a phone. You can always get a new one. You were wanting a new service provider anyway, weren’t you?

Hector sighed as they started heading for the door. ‘Okay, whatever, I need a new phone now. No big deal. But what happens if my old phone’s battery dies, and then the mummy guy can’t see the pictures we gave him?

The reaper hesitated again.

Garovel, are you shitting me?!