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.