Sunday, March 26, 2017

Page 1387

I sense two more worms approaching,’ said Garovel.

As do I,’ said Iziol, who was attached to Dimas’ back. ‘Straight ahead. They’ll be here in under a minute.

Hector might have complained if there was time for it. Instead, he and Dimas rushed back to regroup with everyone else.

Zeff had joined Asad in shouting out orders for everyone. When he noticed Dimas and Hector, he had a few words for them as well. “Dimas, focus on restoring the train. We will provide cover.”

“I should be defending,” said Dimas.

“No, our priority is getting out of here. Even after we kill these next two, more could show up. Understand?”

Dimas gave a nod of affirmation and flew off again.

“And you,” Zeff went on to Hector, “help with the train, too.”

Nonsense,’ came Qorvass’ voice. ‘The boy is one of the best distractions I have ever seen. Stay close to us, Hector.

Hector supposed that was a compliment, but he honestly wasn’t sure how to feel about it.

Zeff looked as if he wanted to argue, but the increasingly violent earthquakes deterred him.

They’re here,’ said Garovel.

Hector saw someone launching attacks before he even saw the worms. It was Darktide, he realized, already using pan-rozum to propel mercurial javelins off into the darkness. They exploded on impact, illuminating both beasts momentarily.

They were bigger than the first one, Hector noticed, and different in skin texture as well. Where the first had been a bundle of wrinkles, these looked smoother, and he even thought he saw teeth this time as well.

The explosions kept coming as Darktide maintained his attack, apparently keeping the monsters stunned, and everyone else took the opportunity hurl some of other own projectiles as they all moved up together, wanting to put more distance between themselves and the train but also not wanting to get too close.

Page 1386

The sheer force of it was enough to knock Dimas back, a shock wave that sent the man toppling through the air, and a hundred smaller worms spiraled after him heat-seeking rockets.

Hector and the others intervened, and a storm of projectiles came to the man’s rescue. A cluster of explosions was the result, and smoke clouded the aftermath.

Worms began dropping like rain, splattering on the ground in blackened piles.

More and more fighters were coming out of the wreckage of the train now, and Hector could hear Asad shouting again.

“Hurry!” the Sandlord was saying, as entire cabins were being lifted up and realigned via platforms of quartz or other material that Hector didn’t immediately recognize. “To the tracks! Keep everyone in the train!”

And Hector saw what the man was doing, what he had pointing at before. The train tracks that they’d strayed so very far away from. Asad meant to get them back there, to get the train moving again.

Hector didn’t know how feasible that plan really was. The train was in pretty bad shape. But for the moment, he was more concerned with making sure that the worm really was dead. He rushed closer, only to see Dimas smashing the many worm husks into dust with gravitic pulses.

Yeah, they looked pretty dead, Hector decided. They? It? He still wasn’t sure what to think of everything he’d just witnessed, but he figured he should worry about it later and go help everyone with the train.

“Dimas!” Hector shouted over the noise of the man’s work.

And Dimas apparently heard him, because he stopped.

Hector was about to tell him that he should help with the train, too, since his power would potentially be more helpful than anyone else’s in that regard, but he didn’t get to. Because even though Dimas wasn’t stomping the worms into paste anymore, the accompanying tremors had not.

Page 1385

He concentrated. The largest flying object that he’d made was a modestly-sized boulder, no bigger than himself, and throughout his testing over the last few days, he hadn’t been able to supersede that limit. But here and now? When it really mattered? Could he demand more of himself?

The answer was no, he discovered. As he much as he focused, he couldn’t make the boulder larger. And he couldn’t make two boulders, either--not without decreasing the size.

He didn’t know what he’d been expecting, really. That would have certainly been too easy.

As soon as the worm became more than a silhouette, Hector pitched his boulder forward at cannon speed, along with a host of other projectiles from the other Rainlords.

The beast leapt up and over the assault, spinning through the air again and flinging sludge in all directions.

The Lord Dimas Sebolt was there to meet it, and the air in front of the man distorted it visibly as a gravity well caught the worm in midair, halting even its centripetal motion and suspending its acidic sludge as well.

Wide-eyed and mouth open, Hector just stared at the scene before him.

Electricity stirred in the beast’s mouth, crackling and bristling with power before it spewed out at Dimas, but the man avoided it easily enough.

Or seemed to.

The lightning arced around in a flash and caught Dimas in the shoulder, causing him to falter but not release his hold. Smote and smoking, Dimas circled around to the worm’s side, farther away from its mouth. It spewed more lightning, but it was entirely ineffectual this time.

Hector breathed again. For a moment, he even allowed himself to wonder if the threat had been neutralized.

Then the worm split apart.

Page 1384

The cabin was on its side, Hector realized, and the wall of podded Rainlords was above them, threatening to fall and crush all of the militiamen in the room if not for his complex array of iron keeping everyone and everything in place. He reinforced his work along the top with thick iron pillars and freed the militiamen as well. They were slow, but Hector was glad to see that they were moving. He helped Selena onto her feet and hurried out of the cabin with the Hun’Kui militiamen following.

With the vigor from Garovel pumping through his veins and muscles, Hector jumped up onto the side of the fallen in order to get a better view of things.

A literal train wreck. Many of the floodlights were still working, at least, and they offered limited illumination of the surrounding environment. More people were appearing from the wreckage, but he didn’t the worm. Not yet, anyway. He doubted that it left them alone.

Someone was already trying to turn one of the cabins over, he noticed, and someone else was yelling. Oh, at him, apparently. And it was Asad, too.

“Hector!” the Sandlord was saying, while pointing with both arms. He was saying more than that, but Hector could barely make him out of the defeated train’s metallic groans. And the growing rumbling.

Rumbling?

Yeah.

There it was. That gargantuan silhouette, slightly lighter than the rest of the darkness in the distance.

Hector jumped down and tried to prepare himself. To concentrate. Against an enemy like this, it was difficult to imagine what he should do, what he could do. If there was anything at all, it had to be related to the recent breakthrough he’d made. That was the only thing going through his head.

Page 1383

They all filed out of the narrow gunner hall, and Hector was the last to exit, so he got a good look at the worm’s acidic sludge eating through the train.

That was going to be a problem, he knew. But on the bright side, at least it wasn’t anywhere near as potent as, say, the Seadevil’s acid had been.

Tremors ran through the length of the train. He heard the screech of metal-on-metal and felt the train beginning to slow.

They’re gumming up the tracks,’ said Garovel. ‘If we don’t stop them--

The whole train lurched downward briefly, as if an enormous mass had just fallen on top of it, but the train kept going.

What’s happening?’ he asked.

It reassembled itself,’ said Garovel.

Hector didn’t understand. ‘Wha--?

It’s all one worm again,’ the reaper said.

Hector was still confused. Just like that? It was already--?

The cabin train heaved again, this time to the side and more violently than ever. Hector had a split second to brace not only himself but also all of the militiamen in the cabin.

They were the priority, obviously.

A network of iron harnesses materialized in an instant around every Hun’Kui in the room.

The cabin rolled, and Hector and Selena both went sailing into the wall, then back into the opposite one, then up into the ceiling, the floor, the wall again, over and over, until the train finally eased to a stop again.

A stop, he realized. The train was no longer moving.

That was extremely bad.

His arm, leg, and spine all needed time to realign, but he forced himself to sit up anyway. Things were only going to get worse if he didn’t move his ass, he knew.

Page 1382

The creature squirmed through the cloud of dust and smoke, still scarcely visible even as it kept pace with the train.

Then it leapt up and over the mayhem, followed by some of the floodlights but not all, and for a second, Hector got his first clear look at the worm.

It was spinning like a drill, and smoldering sludge splattered in all directions around it. Its gaping mouth was full of debris and crackling electricity as the giant worm dove headfirst toward the train, a few cabins behind Hector’s own.

But Hector was ready, and so must have many of the Rainlords been, because it was far more than just his iron that arose to counter the beast. He’d used the same flying technique that he’d developed a few days ago and attributed to an iron boulder, as large as he could make it--which admittedly, was not that large. It hit, to little effect, but combined with all of the many explosions, a moving wall of glass, and yes, a tidal wave, the worm was completely prevented from ramming the train.

That did not, however, stop it from reaching the train.

At first, it looked like the flurry of attacks cut deeply into the worm with deadly impact, but that was not the case, Hector realized. Instead, the worm simply split. Dozens of times. And suddenly, there was not one large worm, but a hundred smaller ones, and they all came spiraling toward the train like missiles, landing with an audible thud and splat. Gunfire managed to keep a few of them off, but once they were on the train, they were beyond the range of the guns.

One of the worms slammed into the side of their cabin, right against one of the gun windows, and Hector saw the metal and glass of the train begin to distort.

Page 1381

“Hello, Lord Darksteel,” the young woman said with a smile. She seemed to be about his age, maybe even a bit younger, but she did have a reaper clinging to her shoulder.

Hector frowned, however. “Why aren’t you with your family?”

“Oh, you know who I am?” said Selena. “I am flattered, Lord.”

Hector only looked at her.

“If I stayed with my mother, I would never see any action,” she said. “And besides, you will protect me, will you not?”

Hector was not amused. Now was not the time for this. And indeed, a sudden bout of turbulence reaffirmed him of that notion.

It’s close,’ said Garovel publicly. ‘No more than a hundred meters. Can you see it through the window yet?

Selena flipped a switch on her right, and a floodlight above the window knifed through the darkness outside. The Hun’Kui militiamen followed suit, as did everyone else along the full length of the train, and they soon saw more light than darkness outside.

Only a distant wall of solid rock was revealed, however.

Selena pivoted with her mounted gun, and her floodlight pivoted with her. Every light searched up and down, left and right.

And through the weighted silence, Hector felt something. An increased pressure in the air. All too familiar.

More shaking arrived, stronger this time.

It’s here,’ said Garovel.

And he was not wrong.

A hulking figure exploded out of the rock wall, and every floodlight went to it at once. Sludge and shattered earth flew toward the train, and every gun on this side of the train opened fire at once. It was the loudest thing Hector had ever heard as a wall of flaming bullets shredded the debris into gravel and convened on the monster.

Page 1380

A heavy thunk and metallic shifting noise followed, and two doors slid open, one on each wall of the cabin, both situated within a quite small space between all of the podded Rainlords that lined the entire cabin.

Hector entered the door to his left and found a very slender chamber therein. In size, it was little more than a narrow hallway, but it had windows and guns mounted into the wall.

Militiamen and Rainlords began to arrive and crammed into the chamber with him. Every gun found a gunner, and Hector was relegated to a far corner, standing in a space that was probably not meant to be stood in, judging by his uneven footing.

He had a view through a window, though, and that was the most important thing, he supposed. The gunner in front of him probably did not appreciate his presence very much, as he was practically hugging her.

Unlike most of the others, however, this gunner was not Hunese, probably because no Hun’Kui wanted to be so close to his misty armor. Hector had not had occasion to confirm it, but he was virtually certain that Zeff’s handiwork would hurt any Hun’Kui who touched it.

Instead, this gunner was a Rainlord, and one he could recognize without even seeing her face, too, because she was wearing one of the sleek, climate-controlled suits. There weren’t many Rainlords who’d been given one of those.

Sure enough, when she turned and looked at him through her illuminated visor, Hector saw the face of one Selena Elroy.

Or, wait, no. Zeff’s sister wasn’t an Elroy, was she? Her name was Joana Cortes. And that meant that her daughter here was Selena Cortes. Not an Elroy, but kind of.

He needed some kind of pamphlet to keep track of all these people.

Page 1379

((The very belated Monday Triple catch-up: page 3 of 3))
Hector stopped walking. “Something wrong?” he said aloud, since there was no one conscious around to hear.

...Not sure. I thought I sensed the aura of death just now.

Hector’s brow lowered. “Where?”

Back the way we came, on the other side of the train. But it’s not there anymore.

“Hmm.” He turned around and started walking again, this time at a brisker pace. “Is it where the Blackburns are?”

Not quite that far, but close. At this distance, I almost missed it, but their reapers would’ve noticed it for sure, especially with how alert everyone is right now.

Hector quickened his pace even more. First, he had to pass back through three more cabins full of sleeping Rainlords, but before he even made it to the end of the third one, Garovel spoke up again.

Hold up.

He stopped. “What?”

Hector. Right now, everyone in these pods has the aura of death around them.’

Hector looked around with wide eyes. Each and every pod was already covered in the shields he’d made earlier. “What--? Why?!”

I don’t know, but--’ There arrived a pause, and Hector waited without breathing for Garovel to continue. ‘I sense a worm. About half a kilometer to your right and closing.

Hector’s expression turned grim.

He knew the plan. The militiamen and Rainlords had made sure that everyone did. Each cabin had a compartment where the train’s defenses could be accessed. Hector was not trained in their uses, of course, but he knew that people who were would be arriving momentarily. His job would be to protect them.

Hector searched for the emergency lever in the floor and soon found it in the center of the cabin. He removed the metal screen in his way and yanked the lever in a hard clockwise motion.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Updates will resume on Sunday, March 26th

Apologies for the radio silence, folks. I'm not dead. I know some of you are in a constant state of fear of that, but don't worry. I'm perfectly healthy. Aside from all this blood I've been coughing up and my life constantly flashing before my eyes. But that's nothing to be concerned about, I'm sure.

Anyway, the point is, I'll have an influx of new pages for you starting Sunday, and then we'll return to our regularly scheduled programming. I'll probably also delete this page afterwards, so don't put anything too valuable in the comments section. Or do. I don't care. Don't tell me how to live your life.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Page 1378 -- CXLVII.

((The belated Monday Triple catch-up: page 2 of 3))
The next thing he had to do was free the other prisoner.

And so he did.

No words were exchanged, partly because none were needed and partly because Royo could only see the potential for conflict if the wrong thing was said. And right now, nothing else mattered. Royo didn’t even know the other man’s name, much less why he was here, but in this moment, the two of them were the closest of comrades.

Anything else could wait until after they escaped.

The other prisoner moved to disguise himself as a militiaman as well, but he had a difficult time with it, since Royo had already taken most of the clothes that didn’t have blood on them. Combined with the fact that Hun’Kui generally didn’t wear much in the first place, and the nameless man ended up with only a green sash and a pair of goggles to help conceal himself.

It would have to do.

Now they just had to move the bodies. Hiding them was out of the question, but putting them into the prison cells was just as good, if not better. With any luck, it would look like the two of them had been killed, and they would be able to avoid a manhunt. Well, a manhunt specifically for them, at least.

After that was done, it was time to leave the cabin and put as much space between them and the crime scene as possible--and hopefully, also find a safe place to brace themselves for the storm that was coming.


Chapter One Hundred Forty-Seven: ‘O, colossal tyrant...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

As they were making their way toward the back of the train, passing through another cabin full of comatose Rainlords, Hector felt Garovel shift abruptly on his back. The reaper had of course attached himself to Hector while the train was in motion.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Page 1377

((The belated Monday Triple catch-up: page 1 of 3))
Royo glanced at the six other militiamen in the room, then at the prisoner in the cell across from him. The militiamen were all seated at a table together, looking confused or annoyed by their loud-mouthed comrade, but the prisoner was clearly paying close attention.

Good.

When Dorgot opened the door, Royo stood, raising his hands in front of him.

“Sit back down, you--!” Sludge from the jar splattered onto Dorgot’s face, and the man began screaming as its flesh-eating properties went aggressively to work.

Royo caught Dorgot’s holstered sidearm as the man stumbled back. His fingers unbuttoned the strap and pulled the weapon free in less than a second. He flicked the safety off and fired right into Dorgot’s neck, putting an end to his insufferable howling and his life.

The other militiamen were scrambling now, and Royo just kept pulling the trigger until it was out of ammunition. Four of them dropped instantly, stone dead before they even hit the floor, and the remaining two militiamen were wounded in multiple places.

Royo tossed his spent weapon aside, found the keyring on Dorgot’s body, and unlocked the chains around his ankles. Then he stepped over to the nearest dead man, looted a replacement firearm, and finished off the remaining militiamen with one shot each to back of the head. There was no sense in leaving any loose ends.

Time was not on his side, Royo knew. The noise of the train should have muffled the sound of gunfire, but anyone could still walk in at any moment.

The first thing he had to do was become a militiaman himself. Green hat, green scarf, green belt and trousers.
Ah, and some black-rimmed goggles, too.

Excellent.

He had never personally seen one before, but he had heard the rumors. The ghosts of the supermen. Invisible scouts and spies. If they really did exist, then these goggles would be invaluable.

Page 1376

He had performed this technique many times. It wasn’t easy and had required months of regular practice to learn, but this variation eliminated the need for his hands. True, the militiamen had not completely removed his ability to use said hands, but Royo had always preferred to be overprepared.

At length, his stomach responded. A small, metal jar lurched upward through his throat, and he vomited it into his waiting palms.

“Hey!” someone said in Hunese. One of the militiamen had taken notice. It was Dorgot. Of course it was. “What are you doing in there?!” The oaf banged on the bars of Royo’s cell with his blackjack.

Hunched forward as the post-nausea relief washed through his body, Royo just stared at him with glowing eyes that had grown slightly bloodshot.

“Answer me!” said Dorgot. “You think I won’t come in there and make you tell me what you’re doing?!”

At this point, it didn’t really matter whether Dorgot opened the cell for him or not, but Royo hoped he would. He gripped the jar more tightly, preparing to unscrew the top.

Even now, though, a part of him was hesitant. And for good reason, he knew. The moment that the sludge inside this container made contact with the air, the accompanying pheromones would escape, and then it would only be a matter of time until all hell broke loose.

There was a very real chance that he would die along with the rest of these simpletons.

A risk worthy of himself, Royo Raju decided.

He twisted the cap free and heard the vacuum seal pop.

“What was that?!” said Dorgot, banging on the bars still.

Royo did not answer him.

The big militiaman growled as he moved toward the door and fiddled with the keyring on his belt.

Page 1375

The only caveat was all of these superpowered interlopers aboard. He’d caught glimpses of them, most notably that one who had been wandering around, the one the militiamen had dubbed the Senmurai--or “Knight of the Mist” in Hunese.

It was going to be a very delicate balance, getting out of this alive, but not only was it his best means of escape, but there was the Sosho’Diyu to think of, as well.

Therein lay his path to greatness. It was clear to him now. Foreigner be damned. Royo would find that treasure. Even if it wasn’t real, he would find it anyway. Because this was the Hand of Shukumei, of Destiny, reaching out to him. He had to but grasp it and pull himself up.

...What? No. Royo’s glowing eyes squinted, and he shook his head. Had those really been his own thoughts just now? Or were they what the Foreigner wanted him to think? The Sosho’Diyu... did he truly care about finding it? Did it even exist?

He rubbed his forehead with both of his chained hands. He could feel the fury rising his chest again, but he didn’t have a direction for it and so decided to just push it back down. Fortunately, it was soon overshadowed by another bout of stomach pain anyway.

Enough time had passed, he decided. The train must have traveled far enough into the tunnel by now. He had endured this humiliation long enough.

His ash-gray skin tingled with both anticipation and dread. He clenched his jaw as he began to regulate his breathing even more heavily than before. Deliberately slow and long inhales. Then he forced his abdominal muscles to contract and release, contract and release--hold--contract and release. And repeat. And distort the pattern to further upset his stomach. And concentrate. On his goal. Provoking disgust in himself. Mind over matter.

Page 1374

He scowled. The more he thought about it, the more his chest bristled with rage.

He shut his eyes and controlled his breath. He had to remain calm. Rage’s only purpose was as a motivator, and he did not require more motivation right now.

The Foreigner was never going to do that to him again. Royo would not allow it. The one thing that he had always been able to trust was himself, his own mind. It was the only difference between him and all of the other wretches in the dirt. Sorcery or not, there was no excuse for befalling such base trickery.

As much as he did not want to accept it, there was no sense in ignoring the truth of the matter. A man of genuine fortitude and guile could never be manipulated. His mind had simply not been strong enough to resist the Foreigner.

But it would be. No matter what it took, it would be.

Because he aimed to rule the Higher West Layer--and rule it well. The rest of the world just hadn’t accepted it yet.

Nothing in all of creation would prevent Royo Raju’s ambition. Certainly not these militiamen.

They didn’t seem to like it when he stared at them through the vertical bars. One of them was even bothered enough to open his cell and gut-punch him until he stopped. That one’s name was Dorgot.

Dorgot was going to be the first to die.

Royo knew that he had to be patient, though. If he didn’t wait until the train was sufficiently far enough from Babbadelo, then everything would be for naught.

Oddly enough, despite his current circumstances, Royo had hardly been able to believe his luck when he’d heard that he was being transferred to Capaporo. And the fool guards should certainly have not told him that he might be eaten alive by a worm along the way. But then again, they couldn’t have known that they were practically sealing their own death warrants.

Page 1373

((The belated Wednesday Triple catch-up: page 3 of 3))
He’d suppressed violent rebellions without firing a shot. He’d not only turned his enemies from their cause, but won their loyalty, their respect.

He’d done all of that, yet here he sat. A prisoner. A failed revolutionary. On his way to Akagokai, the Red Cage, one of the most infamous prisons in the Higher West Layer. A miserable hole where they meant to keep him for the remainder of his life.

The fools. They knew not whom they had crossed.

But they would. One day, they would. Every betrayal, every suffered indignity, and every fallen comrade--Royo would not forget a single one.

But how had it all gone so wrong so quickly? He knew the answer to that, of course. He had scarcely thought of anything else during his confinement.

It was that stranger’s doing. The Foreigner. Everything had been proceeding in lockstep with the revolts in Acacero and Poppeyo until this treasure-hunting hysteria arrived. After that, it was like everyone had lost their minds. All sense of caution vanished in pursuit of some unknown fortune, and chaos upended the entire city.

And he had not been immune to it, either. Royo remembered winding his own men up over a few baseless rumors and leading them to their doom. His goals, forgotten. His small group of loyalists, captured or killed.

It made no sense at all. How could he have been so blind? So lacking in forethought?

In retrospect, he couldn’t have. Not without some kind of fell sorcery distorting his mind. The Foreigner had twisted his thoughts, somehow, along with all the rest of Babbadelo.

Yes, it sounded like a far-fetched and desperate excuse, but it was also the only explanation for something that was otherwise inexplicable. Why else could he not remember the Foreigner’s face? Royo was absolutely certain that he had spoken directly to him.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Page 1372

((The belated Wednesday Triple catch-up: page 2 of 3))
Let’s take another walk around the train,’ Garovel suggested privately.

Hector supposed that was a good idea and got up to leave again. He’d been actively trying not to get lost in conversation with Garovel so that he could remain vigilant and keep an eye on everyone, and now here he was, letting himself get distracted by Zeff.

He had to remain focused. Even if nothing happened during this trip, that would be fine. He just had to think of it as an exercise in self-discipline. A learning experience.

Something was probably going to happen, though. Any minute now, he figured.

-+-+-+-+-

As he sat in his cell, listening to his chains clink in rhythm with every bump and jostle of the train, Royo Raju tried to keep his head clear and his wits about him. His stomach ached with greater ferocity than at any point since his capture two weeks ago, though it was not due to the fact that they had not been feeding him. In fact, even if they had offered him food, he would have refused it.

He was no stranger to not eating. Every penniless, parentless brat in the Higher West Layer knew what that was like and knew it well. That was why he had spent years of his life in the iron mines of Acacero, working himself to the bone so that he would never have to experience that kind of misery again.

Yet here he sat.

He’d earned enough money to not only pay for his education, but for several others as well. He’d gained enough wealth to start his own business without having to take a loan from one of those murderous banks and end up saddled with debt for the rest of his life. He’d been building his reputation as a consultant in socioeconomics, as someone who knew not just what the public wanted and needed, but what they thought they wanted and needed.

Yet here he sat.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Page 1371

((The Wednesday Triple: page 1 of 3))
Hector knew why, of course. Zeff was not pleased that he was the only one who could use the Shards to talk to Emiliana. Even more than that, however, was the fact that Emiliana had simply not been talking very much. Not only could she not tell them where she was, but she was also apparently quite busy doing... something.

And as uncomfortable as it was, Hector couldn’t entirely blame Zeff for being upset. That moment when they’d first discovered that they could talk to one of the missing Elroys--the man’s face had lit up with shock and hope. But to then realize that it didn’t matter? Zeff had been desperate for any kind of lead, and this was supposed to be it.

But it wasn’t. Not yet, anyway. And after four days, Hector was beginning to think that it wouldn’t be.

It did seem strange, though, that she would have no actionable information whatsoever. If she were stuck in a dark cell with no means of learning anything about her surroundings at all, then that might explain it, but if that were truly the case, then why hadn’t she said so? And more importantly, why didn’t she have more opportunity to talk? What, exactly, was keeping her so busy?

The simplest explanation that Hector could think of was that she didn’t want to tell them. Because of Gohvis, probably. She was afraid that her father would come for her and that Gohvis would kill him.

And seeing Zeff now, Hector wasn’t sure that Zeff wouldn’t do that. Sure, it seemed like certain death to Hector, but would Zeff and Axiolis see it that way? Were they even thinking clearly when it came to Emiliana? It was hard to tell, and Hector didn’t want to broach the subject and make things even worse.

But shit. Maybe it didn’t matter. With the way Zeff kept staring at him, maybe that conversation was inevitable. More and more, Hector found himself not wanting to avert his gaze when it happened. It was getting to the point where he’d just stare right back at the man, waiting for him to say something.

Page 1370

Hector had been able to try one out for himself--a compact handgun-version--but not having any prior experience or training with firearms, he didn’t trust himself with it, even after being instructed in its general usage by Zeff, Asad, Jada, and even briefly Marcos and Ramira.

That left a lasting impression on him. The fact that such young children were already so disciplined with guns was certainly strange, but with everything else he’d come to know of Rainlords, he supposed he shouldn’t have been that surprised.

All these firearms made his thoughts drift to Colt, as well. He felt mild regret that he’d never asked the man to teach him of weaponry during their training sessions. And he wondered how Thomas and Stephanie were doing, too. Better, he hoped. Everyone deserved to grow up safe and healthy.

Agh. There were so many things he wanted to check up on once he’d made it back to Warrenhold. For now, though, he had to focus on getting there.

The initial unease in the air began to lighten somewhat as the hours passed, but it never quite went away. Having walked the full length of the train multiple times, from engineer to engineer, Hector eventually found himself taking a seat with the Elroys again.

Zeff was looking slightly more rested than when they’d first arrived in the Undercrust. Hector had been surprised to learn that this mist armor maintained itself even while Zeff slept.

Asad was surprised by this as well. The Sandlord had been waiting for the mist armor to dissipate so that he could test his own hand at making a self-sustaining, temperature-controlled suit for Hector with quartz, and so when Zeff’s work didn’t go away, the tattooed man’s face became filled with more disappointment and jealousy than Hector had yet seen from him.

Instead, Asad set about practicing on himself, with not-so-wonderful results. Now, the Lord Najir was looking almost as persistently dour as Zeff was.

And there could be no mistake--more rested though he was, Zeff’s overall mood had not really improved. In fact, toward Hector in particular, it had most definitely worsened.

Page 1369

((The belated Monday Triple catch-up: page 3 of 3))
The Rainlords were dispersed at both the front and back of the train, while the Hun’Kui militiamen and hunters shared the middle.

However, Hector was quite surprised to find a small group of non-Hun’Kui among the hunters. At first, he’d thought they were Rainlords due to the climate suits they were wearing, but then he realized that the suits themselves were not identical, being slightly off-color and bulkier.

Who the hell are they?’ said Hector.

Oh, those must be the guys from Boland,’ said Garovel. ‘I heard Diego talking about them a couple days ago.

They’re really from the surface?

Yup.

What are they doing down here?

Hunting for treasure, what else? Though, from the way Diego talked about them, it sounded like they cared more about adventure than they did about money.

Hector shook his head with disbelief. ‘What a bunch of lunatics...

Hey, we’re on this train, too.

Yeah, but... I mean, holy shit.

They numbered only four, but at the very least, they did look prepared. He had never seen anyone carrying so many guns. Each man must have had six or seven different pieces of varying sizes, some of which were definitely ardor-fueled.

The subject of the ardor weapons had come up a number of times during negotiations between the Rainlords and the locals, and Hector knew that several of the Rainlords had been studying the weapons that they had confiscated very closely. In terms of design, the firearms themselves were not overly complex or otherwise difficult for the Rainlords to understand, but they had no idea how to get their hands on more ammunition--a problem with which the militia and government had agreed to assist.

Now, most of the Rainlords were carrying at least one ardor weapon of their own.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Page 1368 -- CXLVI.

((The belated Monday Triple catch-up: page 2 of 3))
I must say, that is all very disappointing to hear,’ said Orric. ‘It sounds like they would not even accept a servant as old as Melchor, much less let me keep him.

“You make it sound like I am your pet.”

Orric ignored the comment. ‘Perhaps it would be better to work independently as Archivers, then.

Or start your own group,’ Garovel suggested. ‘I’ve considered doing that a few times, myself.’ He threw another look Hector’s way. ‘Only problem is that I would need a very large and very secure place to keep everything.

Hector’s expression flattened inside of his misty armor.

And a bunch of like-minded friends wouldn’t hurt, either,’ Garovel went on. ‘Maybe a servant I really trusted, too. Especially one who had demonstrated an interest in knowledge and learning and protecting things.

Hector had a few different responses to that in mind, but he chose to let the awkward silence arrive instead.

Garovel shrugged. ‘Oh well. I guess it’s hopeless.


Chapter One Hundred Forty-Six: ‘Into the writhing den...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

To put it mildly, Hector had a multitude of new questions for Garovel, but he decided that they could wait. It wasn’t much longer before the Rainlords finished loading up the train and were ready to move out. He and Garovel said their goodbyes to Melchor and Orric, who ventured off to rejoin the rest of House Blackburn.

The atmosphere on the train was palpably tense, so even though he and Garovel had plenty more opportunity to talk, it just didn’t feel like the time for it. Hector wanted to be ready in case anything happened, so instead, he decided to patrol up and down the train cars, getting a good idea of where all of the different factions were located on board.

Page 1367

((The belated Monday Triple catch-up: page 1 of 3))
Ah,’ said Orric. ‘And therefore, you held divided opinions regarding how best to protect said neutrality, yes?

Exactly,’ said Garovel. ‘Our opponents believed that we should be as non-threatening as possible. They thought that we would be able to operate unmolested as long as we mostly remained below everyone’s radar and didn’t accrue too much military power. Which wasn’t entirely insensible, in my opinion. On the grand stage, possessing enough power inevitably invites recruitment or conflict with others who have it. And on top of that, they also had guarantees from the world leaders at the time that our neutrality would be respected under those conditions.

But for one thing, we weren’t sure we believed those guarantees, and for another, there was still the matter of the servants themselves. In actual practice, our opponents were advocating for the early termination of servant lives. The new set of rules that we did not want to abide by were essentially designed to prevent any “inappropriate conduct”--or in other words, friendship. The logic being that if we grow attached to our servants, then we will be less inclined to release them when the time limit expires--which, by the way, was only five years.

Wow,’ said Orric. ‘I knew Archivers had a rigid organizational structure, but I have never heard the details.

Well, I don’t know if they still abide by those rules,’ said Garovel, ‘but yeah. I didn’t want to treat my servant like a slave--or worse than a slave, really. A disposable tool. And just so I could manage some books in peace? A peace which I didn’t even have faith in? It was moronic. But that being said, the fact that Archivers are still around after all this time suggests that they’ve been doing SOMETHING right. I just can’t imagine that it’s because of those rules. Or at least, I don’t WANT to imagine that it’s because of them. Ugh.

Page 1366

Melchor turned his head slightly but didn’t take his eyes off Garovel. “I have never heard that.”

Well, it’s not something they like to advertise,’ said Garovel. ‘And there are a lot of “unofficial” Archivers out there who muddy the waters a bit. Which isn’t to say that the unofficial guys are doing a bad job, necessarily. I just mean that there’s some confusion involved, as well as some ego and obsession.

“How do you know so much about it?” said Melchor.

Garovel paused. He glanced at Hector. ‘Because I used to be one of the Prime Archivers.

And if he was being completely honest, Hector still didn’t quite follow all this talk about official and unofficial Archivers, but even so, that particular revelation was surprising enough to make him stare.

Melchor and Orric were briefly silent as well, until Orric asked, ‘How long ago was this?

...About fourteen hundred years,’ said Garovel.

And are we to assume that number is a coincidence?

No. I had a falling out with them over their increasing sense of elitism and, in my view, cruelty. But I think if you asked them about it, they would argue that I simply lacked their vision and/or practicality.

And you are saying that they have not allowed any new members since you left their ranks?

Yeah. But it wasn’t just me. My sister and two others were part of the exodus as well.

“Was there a particular event that caused you all to leave?” said Melchor.

Yes. The rift between us and them had been building for a long time, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was a new set of rules regarding the treatment of our servants. You see, in order to actually write anything down and keep records, we of course required servants for that physical labor. But keeping servants also meant that our neutrality was not protected under the Old Law. And that was a problem.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Page 1365

You are just full of dissenting opinions, aren’t you?’ laughed Garovel. ‘Usually, when I hear people talk about the Jungle Wars, it’s about how the big, bad Melmoorians annihilated the peaceful, nature-loving Cannites and eventually consumed most of the region with their industrialist greed.

Yes, we have heard that many times as well,’ said Orric. ‘It really gets on Melchor’s nerves.

“Only when people who did not live through it speak as if they did,” said Melchor.

Garovel laughed again. ‘I know the feeling.

“Many reapers seem to,” said Melchor. “As I grow older, I find myself appreciating the work that the Archivers do more and more. If Orric decided to become one tomorrow, I would not be terribly upset.”

Maybe one day,’ said Orric, ‘when there is not quite so much work yet to be done.

“I have my doubts that such a day will ever occur.”

If that is true, then perhaps my life as a glorified bookkeeper was simply not meant to be. What a terrible shame.

Melchor gave the reaper a dry look.

Hector was curious now. “Archivers?”

“Have you not heard of them before?” The man seemed surprised.

Hector just shook his head.

The grand historians of all humanity,’ said Garovel. ‘Paragons of impartiality, with integrity that is beyond reproach.

“Yes,” said Melchor. “In truth, I am not sure Orric would qualify.”

Hey.

No offense, but he probably wouldn’t,’ said Garovel. ‘Anyone can start archiving independently, of course, but to receive recognition from the Prime Archivers as one of their own? I wouldn’t get your hopes up, if I were you.

“Yes, I have heard that they are notoriously reclusive,” said Melchor.

That is an understatement,’ said Garovel. ‘The Prime Archivers are all very old, very paranoid reapers. And unless something’s changed with them recently, then it has been about fourteen hundred years since they allowed anyone to officially join their ranks.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Page 1364

As much as I would like to hear more about your blue jays,’ said Garovel, ‘I’m interested to know what your thoughts on the Jungle Wars are. Since you brought it up earlier, that is.

Melchor’s amusement diminished somewhat. “Terrible business. Are you sure you want to listen to the ravings of an old man?”

I’m sure.

But Melchor was looking at Hector now, as if he’d really been asking him.

Hector wondered if it was something that Melchor didn’t really want to talk about, but he also didn’t want to pretend that he wasn’t interested, either. So he just nodded.

“Very well...” Melchor scratched his chin with his thumb. “The Jungle Wars, as a whole, in my view, were inevitable. The diamond mines that everyone was fighting over, they were just an excuse. In truth, I would argue that those wars were cultural conflicts even more than they were economic ones. The Melmoorians were never going to live peacefully with the Cannites. Their belief systems were simply incompatible.”

You might be right, but what makes you say that?’ said Garovel.

“The Cannites worshiped rocks and animals. As if that was all the world was. And they thought themselves inherently superior because of this. Closer to nature.”

Would I be correct in assuming that you fought on the side of Melmoore?

“You would, but I lived among the Cannites for several years and knew many good people among them. I bore them no ill will. They were simply wrong. They should never have tried to invade Melmoore. Their government, if you could even call it that, had no respect for their fellow human being. Do I think they deserved to be wiped out for it? Of course not. But it was like one of their very own proverbs: you cannot throw stones at a wolf and then be surprised when it does not flee like a rabbit.”

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Page 1363

((The Wednesday Triple: page 3 of 3))
Yes and no,’ said Garovel. ‘From what I’ve seen, they do have a concept of us, at least. In their mythologies, religion, and entertainment, that is. But they don’t think we’re real or that we’re connected to the superhumans that they’ve heard about. To them, we’re these kind of phantom-creatures who exist in nightmares or some sort of imaginary hell-dimension, perhaps. Which isn’t THAT far off, I suppose.

I see. That’s very different from Sair, where we’re seen as entirely one with nature.

“I wouldn’t say entirely one with nature,” added Melchor. He turned to Hector. “But that makes me curious. What do you see reapers as?”

It took Hector a second to understand what he meant. “Oh. Ah... I see them as... scythe-wielding skeletons. And wearing a kind of... black shroud, I guess.” He’d never told that to anyone but Garovel before. Somehow, it felt a little embarrassing to admit, like telling someone his middle name or some other mild secret.

“That sounds very strange to me,” said Melchor. “Is it not unsettling to see such a thing all the time?”

Hector gave a small shrug. “I hadn’t really thought about it. Always seemed about right to me.”

“Hmm.”

“What about you? What do you see them as?”

“Blue jays,” said Melchor.

Hector’s brow furrowed in disbelief. “Birds? Really?”

Melchor chortled faintly. “Is that so strange to you?”

“Uh... kinda, yeah. I mean, that’s just so... normal. They really just look like birds to you?”

“Their eyes glow.”

“Huh. Do they flap their wings?”

“Sometimes.”

“Do their beaks move when they talk?”

“No.”

“Do they, like... perch on top of things?”

“Occasionally, but not often.”

Hector had to stop himself from asking if Melchor had ever confused them with real blue jays. After a few beats of silence, he instead said, “I have a lot more questions.”

That made Melchor laugh, a bit harder this time.

Page 1362

((The Wednesday Triple: page 2 of 3))
I agree,’ said Orric. ‘Everyone wants to blame aberrations for everything, but I would say their presence has only caused the Vanguard to grow--and not necessarily anything beyond that. It’s the ease with which information is spread nowadays that lets everyone learn about all of the mistakes that the Vanguard is making.

Garovel nodded. ‘You’re absolutely right. In the olden days, it was so much easier to cover things up. Frankly, I’m surprised the Vanguard is doing as well as it is on that front. Did you know that there are still entire countries that barely know about the existence of servants?

Ah, yes. There are quite a lot of them in Qenghis and Luugh, aren’t there?

Even here in Eloa, there are a few.

You’re kidding.

Oh, no, I’m not. Hector’s home country of Atreya is one of them.

Orric’s empty eye sockets fell upon him. ‘Is that really true?

“Ah... yeah.”

I can hardly believe it. Granted, I’ve never been there, but even so...’ Orric looked at Melchor. ‘Did you know that?

Melchor shook his head.

All of the countries in that region are the same way,’ said Garovel. ‘Kahm, Rendon, Lorent, Mara, Ajax, Dante. Even parts of Intar, I think.

How have they remained so ignorant all this time?’ said Orric. ‘Is it really just the Vanguard’s doing?

I’m not entirely sure, myself. I assume the Vanguard has been a big part of it, but in Atreya at least, the public DOES know that people with superhuman abilities exist elsewhere in the world. They just don’t know where the power comes from. And they’re afraid of it. Which is understandable.

So they only don’t know about reapers, then?

Page 1361

((The Wednesday Triple: page 1 of 3))
Melchor looked about as off kilter as Hector felt now. “Um... okay. What would you like to know?”

Oh shit. Hector racked his brain. ‘What the hell do I say?

I don’t know, but I can’t wait to hear what you come up with.

Garovel, c’mon!

You can do it, buddy. I’ve got faith in you.

It didn’t sound like faith to Hector. The first thing that popped into his head was to ask about the Jungle Wars. But wait, no, he should ask about Melchor himself, shouldn’t he?

Oh shit.

Oh fuck.

Oh no.

Now nothing was coming to him at all. This was torture. Why couldn’t his concentration help him with this shit, too? He was still able to keep his eight cubes in orbit just fine, so what the hell?

Garovel finally deigned to intervene publicly. ‘Did you ever work in the Vanguard?

Goddammit, that was such a great question. Fuck.

“I did, yes,” said Melchor. “Many years ago.”

What is your opinion of it now?’ asked Garovel.

The man’s green eyes lingered on Garovel a moment before he answered. “Honestly? I have heard many people say otherwise, but personally, I do not think it has changed much.”

Oh?

“The Vanguard has always been extremely interventionist. That is its entire purpose. Aggressive and preventative measures. Yes, certain things might be different, certain policies, certain kinds of mistakes, perhaps. But as a whole? I would say the Vanguard is essentially the same.”

That’s interesting,’ said Garovel. ‘I’ve not heard anyone else say that. But I feel similarly. I think the primary reason why it seems like so many people have begun to change their opinion of the Vanguard is actually just because of technology.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Page 1360

Garovel intervened again. ‘Why so curious?

Melchor’s face became abruptly apologetic. “Oh. Forgive me. I merely wished to know if Hector is old enough to remember the Jungle Wars. I sometimes forget that age can be a sensitive subject where security and morale are of concern. If you would prefer not to tell me, I understand.”

Why do you bring up the Jungle Wars?’ said Garovel.

Melchor eyed the young Atreyan lord. “The way they talk about you... There is a mythos growing around you.”

Hector just returned the man’s stare, waiting for elaboration.

“I know what that is like,” said Melchor. “The Jungle Wars were when they first began to call me Darktide. It is a strange thing, is it not? Or am I mistaken in assuming that this is a new development for you?”

Hector needed a moment to consider those questions. He hadn’t been expecting them, certainly. “Ah... yeah. I’m not, um... I don’t know if...” He shut his mouth and clenched his jaw, wanting very much to not fumble over his own tongue right now.

Melchor seemed to take that as a hint. “Nevermind. It is none of my business.” He didn’t move, but he looked like he was ready to turn and walk away now.

And a surge of silent panic gripped Hector’s chest. This wasn’t what he’d wanted at all. “No,” he said almost involuntarily as his mind grasped for a way to follow it up.

Something. Anything. Maybe it would be easier if he didn’t talk about himself.

“...Tell me about yourself,” Hector ended up saying. And after hearing his own words, he wanted to bury his face in his hands. That was way too broad of a thing to say, and it hadn’t answered either of the man’s questions.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Page 1359

((The Monday Triple: page 3 of 3))
The man had been unconscious since Dunehall--and prior to that, he’d been unconscious since Luzo. Hector had never met him properly, let alone spoken to him.

Judging from the way Melchor was moving, the man was still coping with considerable soreness, though he didn’t look terribly exhausted.

But maybe that was just because Hector was comparing him to Zeff.

“Hello,” said Melchor. The man’s reaper hovered silently behind him, but Hector couldn’t recall his name.

Hector lowered the number of cubes around him down to eight. He tried not to let himself feel intimidated by one of his allies, but this man was the oldest Rainlord here by a good margin. “Hi...”

“I hear I have you to thank for my life.”

Hector wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so he decided to change the subject. “...I’m glad to see you on your feet again.”

Silence arrived.

Maybe that was the wrong thing to say. Shit. Maybe he’d sounded too stiff or distant when he’d said it. Double shit.

Garovel came to his rescue. ‘How’s your family doing? We haven’t heard much from them, and we’ve been worried.

“Ah... I’m afraid I am not as knowledgeable on that subject as I would like to be.”

Oh,’ said Garovel. ‘Of course. You’ve been asleep. I apologize if I overreached.

Don’t be silly,’ said Melchor’s reaper. ‘What is your name, by the way? I never did learn it.

Garovel. And yours?

Orric. Pleased to meet you.

Likewise.

Hector saw the expression on Melchor’s face, the flat and hollow gaze at the ground. “...How are you doing?” he asked. “It must be a lot to take in.”

Melchor exhaled a heavy breath. “Yes. Quite a lot.”

Hector wanted to say something more, ask him... something, but he couldn’t think of anything.

After a short while, however, Melchor turned to look at him. “How old are you, Lord Goffe?”

This question again. Somehow, he felt less prepared to answer it every time he heard it. “Uh...”

Page 1358

((The Monday Triple: page 2 of 3))
In the final tale, the foreigner was actually a revolutionary from Acacero who’d abandoned the cause. He claimed to have stumbled upon the treasure after fleeing a great battle, but he never provided any kind of proof. The only reason the fever took hold in the city was because so many fools and desperate losers were eager to believe him.

And perhaps even more worrisome than any of these stories was the fact nobody knew what this foreigner looked like. According to Diego and Carlos, many people claimed to have met and even spoken to the foreigner, yet none could describe him or provide any physical evidence of his existence. No videos. No pictures. Not even a name.

All in all, it didn’t bode well for the treasure’s existence, and it was no small wonder why the hunters grew more discouraged by the day. With no solid leads to go on and so much danger afoot, the hunters had begun transforming into little more than territorial gangs whom civilians hired for protection.

The few true hopefuls who remained would be traveling with the Rainlords. The prevailing thought among them seemed to be that the only place left to look was in the tunnel where only a handful had dared go before. The tunnel near a worm nest. The only tunnel that led to Capaporo.

Naturally.

And now, at the end of four quiet days of training and relative relaxation, Hector found himself waiting to board another train, this one more than twice the size of the last as it had to carry Rainlords, hunters, militiamen, prisoners, and three very large, very dangerous boxes full of eggs.

Twenty-six cubes orbited around Hector as he observed the efficient packaging line of Rainlords carefully loading up the many pods full of non-servants. He’d gotten into the habit of maintaining objects in orbit wherever he went, thinking of it as a kind of background practice. This many still required considerable concentration, though.

His gaze fell upon an approaching man whose face he recognized but only vaguely. When the name hit him, however, Hector’s eyes widened, and he shifted uncomfortably.

That was Melchor Blackburn coming toward him. The one they called Darktide.

Page 1357

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Diego Redwater, Carlos Sebolt, and a few others had been meeting with the Akassu hunters in order to keep everyone abreast of any and all developments on that front, but the news hadn’t been encouraging. According to Diego, treasure hunters all over the city had been growing increasingly demoralized in their efforts, which was one of the reasons why the Akassu had sided with the militia in the first place. More and more, they were trying to find alternate means of making their fortunes, as most people now believed that either the treasure did not exist or that it was nowhere near Babbadelo.

It didn’t help that there were conflicting accounts of how this treasure-hunting fever even got started in the first place. Diego said that they’d heard three separate tales now, the only shared trait among them being that it all began about a year ago when a foreigner came to town.

In the first tale, the foreigner boasted loudly to all who would listen that he had lain eyes and even his hands on the great treasure, Sosho’Diyu. As evidence, he flaunted a small cache that was full of precious gems, which he had supposedly plundered from it. Furthermore, he claimed that he intended to return for the remainder of the treasure soon, and no one had seen him since.

In the second tale, the foreigner was not alone. He had some sort of terrible partner, and the whole reason they were able to boast of their wealth was because they ran rampant through the city, stealing it from everyone. They pillaged whatever they pleased and even abducting women and children. Nevermind that no one seemed able to identify any of these abducted people. Diego and Carlos believed this story had the least credibility.

Page 1356

As for local politics, the Rainlords managed to negotiate an uneasy truce among the warring factions by using the food they’d captured as leverage. Zeff and Axiolis did not seem confident that the peace would last once the Rainlords left Babbadelo, but there was nothing for it, they said. There was only so much they could do for the people here, they said.

And Hector would have liked to say that they were wrong, but he couldn’t. He was far from an expert on political matters. If Garovel agreed with them, then so did Hector, even if he didn’t want to.

That being said, Hector certainly didn’t believe the Rainlords were being negligent or lazy. They were even going so far as to take custody of several important political prisoners who--according to varied accounts by the government, militia, treasure-hunters, and citizenry--posed the greatest threat to a continued peace. The Rainlords would be bringing these prisoners with them to Capaporo, where more secure facilities awaited them.

And since Capaporo was also their own destination, that was as far as they intended to take the worm eggs as well. Custody of the eggs would transfer to the local government there, who would then deliver them to Ornamegir.

Hector hoped that would be enough for things to remain settled, but he was already thinking of when he might be able to return and check up on the state of things in Babbadelo. Probably not for quite a long while, he figured.

And of course, there was still the matter of the treasure, the Sosho’Diyu.

He would have been lying if he said he wasn’t interested in finding it. It was hard not to be, what with how the reapers talked about it, about the potential it held. Moreover, he kept thinking about how useful it might be for revitalizing Warrenhold. Assuming it was money. The reapers seemed to think it was something else, though they didn’t know what.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Page 1355

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“Hand signals are the most common in practice,” said Asad, “but you could conceivably use any manipulable part of your body to achieve the same result.”

“Words, as well,” said Zeff.

Hector cocked an eyebrow. “Words?”

The Lord Elroy nodded. “Yes, you assign your skill to a certain word. You name it, essentially. It can work very well.”

“However,” said Asad, “it must be said that in the heat of combat, speaking the name of your attacks before you do them can certainly give your opponent an edge, especially if they have good intel on you.”

“Yes, but it must also be said that such tactics can serve to intimidate or confuse them,” said Zeff. “There are pros and cons to it.”

Do you have any personal examples of named attacks?’ said Garovel, sounding somewhat amused.

“Not currently,” said Zeff, “but I have been trying to assign my newest skill to a name. I’ve found that it helps if the name itself is befitting, but that can also be... difficult.”

I think “Water Bomb Drill” sounds just fine,’ said Axiolis.

“I think it sounds a bit long and silly,” said Zeff.

“Just stick with movements,” Asad advised Hector. “Save yourself the trouble.”

Hector’s mind was sufficiently blown by all of these revelations. Immediately, new ideas began to stir in his head, and he wanted to spend every waking moment trying to completely revamp his skill set.

It seemed like Zeff and Asad felt similarly with their own powers, along with several other Rainlords who joined them later on, most notably Joana Elroy, and very briefly, Horatio Blackburn.

Hector had been concerned about House Blackburn and would have liked to know more about how they were doing, but Lord Horatio was not particularly talkative, and Hector didn’t want to pry. So again, he decided that could wait until Warrenhold.

Page 1354

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When it came to instructing Hector, the Lords Elroy and Najir seemed somehow even more motivated than before. Hector found them sometimes competing to answer his questions first--which, frankly, wasn’t the most helpful thing in the world. He soon got into the habit of pointing at the one he wanted to explain whenever they started trying to talk over each other.

Importantly, he finally managed to get a full explanation of this “mapping” technique that he’d been curious about.

“Mapping is very valuable for accomplishing feats with your power which might otherwise be too difficult or sophisticated to perform at your current skill level,” said Zeff.

Needless to say, Hector was most certainly listening.

“The core idea,” Zeff went on, “is that we are able to ease the overall burden of concentration on ourselves by making use of simple, physical triggers.”

“We often do it unconsciously, to a limited extent,” added Asad. “I’m sure I have seen you do it already, as well.”

Hector squinted, trying to think back.

“Hand motions are the most common example,” said Zeff. “Strictly speaking, it is not necessary for us to move our hands at all when performing materialization.”

“Which is not to say that our bodies are not necessary,” said Asad. “Our bodies operate as conduits for the power from our brains, but movement itself is not required. It is, however, helpful for concentration. And mapping is simply a more advanced form of this.”

Zeff held up a fist and half-extended his middle and index fingers. “I, for example, have mapped my ability to create highly pressurized water drills to this hand sign.” And sure enough, a small water drill appeared above the knuckles on his fingers. “This particular skill requires constant creation and destruction, as well as a very strong velocity state. When I originally mapped it, it was quite difficult for me to perform. Now it is trivial and made even more so by the mapping.”

Page 1353

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Hector didn’t know how to respond to that.

Alright, fine, let’s suppose for a minute that Rasalased DID give that knowledge to you somehow. What difference would it make? Would it change what you’ve accomplished?

That’s... that’s not the point, Garovel. It’s not about getting the credit. It’s about... agh, it’s about understanding what the fuck is happening. With my own limitations. And--and with... just... the world itself. I mean, shit, Garovel. Trying to understand the world around us doesn’t suddenly stop being important just because it might be... inconvenient. Or unpleasant.

Oho.

What, am I wrong?

Heh. Well, when you put it like that, it’s hard to argue with you.’ The reaper paused, perhaps thinking. ‘But no, I still think you came up with it yourself. True, the timing is a bit suspicious. We only met Rasalased a little while ago, and now you’re doing this. But you know who ELSE we only met a little while ago? Asad and Zeff. And THEY were the ones who actually bothered to teach you about materialization. Therefore, I submit to the committee of your pedantic brain that it was NOT a magical sand god granting you heretofore lost knowledge, and that instead, it was simply inspiration from your new teachers.

Also, if we approach the subject from a completely different angle, then perhaps someone in the past DID think of your idea and just didn’t tell very many people about it. Hell, perhaps someone out there right now already knows about this technique, but they’re keeping that information to themselves, because... well, that’s a smart thing to do. Knowledge like this could be very dangerous, and generally speaking, a wise teacher avoids teaching his enemies how to kill him.

He had to admit that the reaper had made a few good points, but Hector remained dubious nonetheless.

For the most part, though, he tried to focus on his training for now. All other concerns could wait until they had made it safely to Warrenhold.

Page 1352

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With the way everyone was talking about it, Hector wondered if this discovery had truly been his own. Sure, it had felt like it was, but as more time passed, that feeling faded, and his mind searched for other possible explanations.

One in particular popped into his head, and it had bothered him enough that he decided to consult Garovel about it. ‘...I can’t be the first person to have ever thought of this,’ he’d said.

Why not?’ was all Garovel said.

Wh--? What do you mean?! Because I can’t! There’s just no way! I mean, fuckin’... We’re talking about everyone who’s ever lived! It’s just impossible that no one else has thought of this before.

Is that because you think you’re not smart enough?

I... no, well... I mean. Kinda. Yeah. Pretty much. I mean, how many materializers have there been? Like, total? It must be, fuckin’... billions or something, right?

All throughout human history? Mm, probably not billions. Maybe millions. Maybe. Hard to say. Remember that the number of materialization users is a subset of the number of reapers. And there haven’t been THAT many of us, comparatively. If we’re including all reapers who’ve ever existed, I’d only estimate that number to be around fifty million, at most. And even that might be wildly optimistic.

Fifty million is a shitload.

Not really. Fifty million is one twentieth of one billion. And how many humans have ever lived? That number is in the neighborhood of a hundred billion. At least. So the overall pool of materialization “inventors” is probably a lot smaller than you’ve been thinking.

Hector wasn’t buying it. ‘I still don’t think it’s possible.’

Well, whether or not you think it’s possible doesn’t change the fact that it happened. Maybe you should stop being so hard on yourself.

...Or maybe I didn’t really do anything.

Excuse me?

Maybe it was Rasalased who thought of it. Maybe he just planted the knowledge into my head or something.

Ugh, god, don’t even start with that. Just take the fucking credit, please.

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To put it mildly, Asad and Zeff had shown a keen interest in learning how Hector was keeping his iron in orbit. They had insisted on repeated explanations and varied types of demonstrations.

At first, they seemed to be having trouble wrapping their heads around the concept, and after a few hours, Hector had begun wondering if there was something else going on with this technique that he didn’t quite comprehend himself yet.

But no. That wasn’t the problem, he came to realize. The real reason they were having a hard time learning it was simply because he was so bad at explaining it. Ultimately, Asad and Zeff both figured it out and were soon making material orbit around themselves, as well--and much more impressively, too. Zeff managed to make an entire chair for Ramira to sit on and float around him--a feat which she seemed to enjoy greatly, even if it did begin melting rather quickly. Asad, meanwhile, put a dozen different glass swords into orbit, all of varying shapes and sizes.

Needless to say, seeing all of that took a bit of the wind out of Hector’s sails.

Still, Hector didn’t think he would be forgetting their initial reactions anytime soon. The looks of utter confusion and disbelief on their faces--a part of Hector was still reeling from those looks. He wasn’t at all sure what to think.

These were two men whose skill with materialization he revered completely--and not just because of their reputations, but because he had personally witnessed what kind of incredible things they could do. And the idea that he could have anything to teach them? That he could’ve thought of anything that they didn’t already know? Or been taught by someone else who was even more knowledgeable?

Hector was having a hard time accepting this as possible. As were several of the reapers, by the looks of it.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Page 1350 -- CXLV.

“Hmm”?’ said Garovel. ‘What do you mean, “hmm”?

Hector explained himself. It took some time. He had to go over his experimentation and thought process.

When he was done, Garovel just stared at him for a while.

Hector...

...Yeah?

I’ve never seen anyone do such a thing with materialization before,’ the reaper finally said.

And Hector was confused, because Garovel didn’t sound like he was joking or trying to trick him. But then, maybe that was part of the trick.

Garovel turned and floated quickly back toward the others. ‘I need to hear what Asad thinks of this immediately.’

For a brief time, Hector merely stood there, watching him go.

Huh.

Okay, well, maybe it wasn’t a trick.


Chapter One Hundred Forty-Five: ‘The intervening calm...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

The next four days passed with a degree of peace--and indeed, even enjoyment--that Hector had not been expecting. The Rainlords met with both the local government and the Akassu treasure hunters several times to negotiate terms, but despite wishing to attend these meetings, Hector had other things to do.

Most importantly, perhaps, he and Garovel needed to wait for Roman and Voreese at the location that they’d specified in their letter. Garovel said that Roman must have received it by now and could therefore show up at anytime, but unfortunately, even though they turned it into a new camping venture of their own, along with Asad’s family and several Rainlords, Roman and Voreese never appeared.

But that was fine, according to Garovel. There was still the meeting place in Capaporo, and perhaps Roman and Voreese were already there. He instructed Hector to leave an iron message behind in case they appeared here later.

Beyond simply waiting for Roman, however, Hector also spent the four days practicing materialization with Asad and frequently Zeff, who came and went from the meetings, keeping them apprised of all new developments.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Page 1349

Hector found that the initial difficulty with walking had come from trying to maintain the orbit independently around him, but when he visualized all of the motions and shifting angles of creation and destruction as relative to himself--as an extension of himself, even--it became much easier.

But it did require active concentration, still, and that was the real hump that he wanted to overcome. As enjoyable as it was to have a tiny satellite floating around him, he wasn’t really any closer to figuring out this “binding” memory technique.

He supposed the only way forward was to simply continue maintaining its orbit as much as possible, and then eventually, it would become second nature to him. Like riding a bike. Probably.

At length, Garovel finally looked over in his direction again.

Hector, what the fuck?!’ the reaper shouted, still with the echo of privacy.

Hector had expected Garovel to be surprised, but even so, he was a bit taken aback by that reaction. He wasn’t sure whether he should laugh or ask if he’d screwed something up.

Garovel pointed at the cube as it moved. ‘What the hell is this shit?! Are you really doing that?!

Uh... yeah?

The reaper just gave him a look that Hector didn’t recognize.

Hector added a second cube, this time orbiting it along the opposite diagonal path over his other shoulder. ‘I was just, uh... I was just testing some stuff out. Why do you sound so upset?

Garovel took his time answering. ‘...Are you repeatedly creating and destroying new cubes so quickly that they look like one object in continuous motion?

Wha? No, I--that’s... hmm.’ Hector hadn’t even thought to try doing that. And why the hell hadn’t he? It sounded way simpler than the method he’d come up with. Maybe not easier, but definitely simpler.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Page 1348

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That might’ve also explained why the cubes flew so wildly off course. The non-growing sections of the cube would have gained their own, genuine momentum while being pushed along at such a speed by the still-growing sections. Not to mention, they would have begun to bear the effects of gravity--and possibly other environmental conditions? He wasn’t sure.

Hmm.

This was not a minor discovery, Hector felt. Clearly. With it, he would be able to, in effect, manipulate his iron after its initial creation--even to attack. Sure, it wouldn’t be easy and would probably require shitloads more practice, but...

With this, he could evolve his entire fighting style.

He wondered if Zeff and Asad had been intending to teach him this soon. Maybe they didn’t think he would’ve been able to do it. He wouldn’t have thought he could do it, either.

Heh. He wanted see their faces when he showed it to them later. Garovel’s, too, of course.

But first, it needed refinement. He had to practice more.

Abruptly, however, it occurred to him that he’d stopped keeping an eye on the captives. He annihilated his work and then briskly returned where he’d been sitting before. Thankfully, no one seemed to have noticed. He counted the number of captives, just to be sure none were missing.

Rather than sitting back down, though, he remained standing as he set to work again. Now that he knew not to add an accelerative force to the cube’s orbit, he found that it was almost trivial to sustain, almost as if he were keeping it to its path with one of his hands.

He tried out different centers of orbit, around his torso, around his arm, his hand, his leg. They were more difficult but not terribly so. He tried out different angles as well, and found a similar result. Then he tried walking while trying to maintain the diagonal orbit around his torso, and he began struggling again, but not for long. After pacing back and forth a few times, he was starting to get the hang of it.

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Another question was forming in Hector’s head, but he wasn’t quite able to articulate it to himself yet.

He decided to do one more test. He formed another hovering cube, but this time, he purposely made it float into the wall.

Nothing happened. But perhaps that wasn’t strange. Perhaps it needed to float faster. He swung the cube around and increased the speed.

Again, nothing happened. He tried one more time, increasing the speed even further, and sure enough, nothing happened. Not even a sound.

Which seemed strange to him. At that speed, the cube definitely should have made a noise when it collided with the wall. Moreover, the previous two cubes certainly had made noises.

So what was going on here?

Well, there was only one discernible difference that he could see. The first two cubes were distorted, while the third was not. They’d both changed into long, vaguely conical shapes--not identical to each other but still similar enough that it didn’t seem coincidental.

Hector blinked as he realized what had been bothering him. Yes. The reason that third cube hadn’t made a noise when it collided with the wall was because it hadn’t actually collided with it.

That was the way that “growing” his iron was supposed to work. Materialization could not occur within a solid object. He’d learned that very early on. So the cubes shouldn’t have been able to grow into the walls and thereby pierce, because he had been using this growing technique in order to make them move. Regardless of their speed, they should have simply reached the wall and stopped, not even colliding with it or make any noise, which was what the third cube did.

And yet they had.

Because their shape had changed. Because he’d lost control over their growth. The part of the distorted cubes which ended up colliding with the walls must have not been “growing” anymore. They must’ve simply been regular iron at that point.

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For a time, Hector merely sat there, mulling over what he’d just done. He supposed the only explanation was that his degree of control over iron was simply higher than he’d realized. Granted, he had lost control there at the end, but the point of interest was how fast the cubes had gotten before escaping him, not to mention how many revolutions around him that they had made.

It was true that he hadn’t tested the limits of his materialization in a while. And had he achieved emergence recently? He didn’t think so, but as he thought about it, he realized that he wasn’t actually sure--a thought which he found slightly worrisome. Shouldn’t that have been something he could be certain about? Maybe this was all just the result of meditation. Or Rasalased’s “tempering,” perhaps.

Or both?

Agh. He couldn’t help feeling like he was losing himself, somehow. He wished he had more time to practice, to fully understand his current limits. He hated this feeling of unpreparedness. And he’d been feeling it all too often, lately.

He stood. If nothing else, he wanted to use what time he did have as efficiently as possible, and it occurred to him that he should perhaps locate the iron cubes and see what kind of state they were in before trying to draw any further conclusions.

It took a bit of searching, but he found them on the ground in front of an apparent sleeping quarters, having penetrated a second wall beyond the first and left a pair of cracked dents in a third.

He was surprised, however, to find that the cubes were no longer cubes at all. But after thinking about it more, he supposed that only made sense. When he’d lost control, they’d become distorted, because his control was the only thing making them hold their shape.

...And perhaps that was important to know. He squinted as he eyed the dents in the wall before him another time.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Page 1345

Hector took a deep breath, found his focus, and put a new cube into orbit.

When it came down to it, it was just a pattern. A fairly complex pattern, sure, but a pattern nonetheless. And if he thought about it like that, then it didn’t seem so difficult to memorize.

Two instances of creation, two instances of annihilation. Top and right, bottom and left. These were the constants. The easiest parts. The real difficulty of it stemmed from the shifting angles at which he had to maintain said constants.

But maybe he could think of the two instances of creation as just one. Two instances of adding to his iron. If he applied the same force to both of them, then...

The cube swung past his vision sooner than he’d expected, then swirled around again, quick as a curving arrow shot, and then again, so fast that it cut audibly through the air, and then several more times at such a speed that he wasn’t sure he was even doing it himself anymore.

Then it flew completely off course and punched a hole through the wall next to him.

Hector stared with an open mouth, not quite sure what had just happened.

He looked around, wondering if someone had taken control of his iron or something, but no one was paying any attention to him--well, aside from a few of the captive Hun’Kui, who were looking worriedly in his direction.

Hmm.

Whatever just happened, he needed to replicate it.

He started over, taking the same steps, trying to repeat his same thought process, and then--

Yep. The second cube did the same thing, making a new hole only a half-meter or so away from the first one.

Oh, wait.

That constant rate of growth he’d applied on the right side... that was equivalent to gravity, wasn’t it? And gravity was accelerative. As in, increasing. So... since there was no counter-force being applied by actual gravity like there was on the top side of the cube... then he’d essentially made the cube grow faster and faster... until his concentration could not keep up and he simply lost control of it.

Huh.

He scratched his head.

That was... almost worryingly easy, Hector felt. He would’ve thought that he’d have more trouble making the annihilation on the left and bottom keep pace with the accelerated growth on the right, but apparently not. It was like he’d barely even needed to think about it.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Page 1344

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He supposed it might prove easier to have it orbit around his brain, so that was where he started. He created the cube directly in front of his face, made sure it was hovering and stationary, then began moving it. He kept his head still as he concentrated, visualizing his work as it curved around to the right and beyond his peripheral vision.

Adding the curve felt a bit tricky, but he wasn’t having any trouble picturing its movement in his mind. He just needed to maintain its course until it curved all the way back around from the left.

He waited, trying not to get so eager to see it reentering his view that he ended up breaking his own concentration. It was on its way. Hopefully. He just needed to focus. It should’ve been getting close. Any second now, and it would--

There it was. It worked. But the sight of it floating there was enough of a relief that it pulled a small laugh from his lips, which did break his concentration. The cube distorted and then plummeted. Rather than destroying it, he let it clatter to the ground and then picked it up.

It was very hot to the touch, he found, and then realized that it would’ve been much more so if not for Zeff’s misty armor drenching and cooling it for him. The constant, low hiss of the armor was somehow easy to forget about, at times. But he knew that if he ever left Zeff’s range, the Undercrust’s searing heat would be sure to remind him. He was just glad that the Lord Elroy’s range was so enormous.

He tossed the lump of iron into the air and annihilated it again.

Alright, well, he’d come up with something that required active concentration. Now, this “binding” technique could convert it into something that didn’t require concentration...

...How the hell was he supposed to pull this off, exactly? Purely through memorization? Really? What was the best way to commit something like this to memory?

Shit. Maybe this technique was too advanced for him, right now. Come to think of it, the way they’d talked about it kinda suggested as much...

Eh, whatever. He wasn’t afraid of failing. He’d already failed harder at so many other things. Important things. This was kiddie shit.

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Hector gave it a shot. He began with an iron cube hovering over the palm of his hand, just as before. It still fascinated him, simply looking at it, falling eternally in place without ever changing shape. He concentrated and started adding on to it from the right while simultaneously annihilating from the left. And of course, he also had to make sure that he didn’t stop adding to it from the top while still annihilating it from the bottom, too.

It actually worked. The cube floated to the right, out of his hand, and he couldn’t help smiling to himself.

It became unsteadier as it drew farther away from him, however, and then its shape distorted.

He frowned and started over.

Maintaining that level of concentration was difficult enough, but he also had to keep in mind that the angles of both creation and annihilation were constantly changing as well. And worse still, the distance from himself--slight though it was--also seemed to impact his level of precision just enough to mess him up.

For such a simple trick, it sure demanded a lot of concentration. He was starting to understand why he hadn’t seen anyone else doing this so far. It probably wasn’t worth all the effort. He was probably just wasting his time.

But still, he didn’t want to give up. Because, somehow, it felt more personal than usual. Like he was inventing something. Even though he was sure someone else had figured this all out ages ago, he wanted to keep puzzling it out for himself, wanted to uncover all the little secrets that he could without relying on anyone else for help.

And, hmm. Maybe there was a simple solution to the distance problem. Maybe he could make the cube orbit around him in a perfect circle. Then the concentration requirements would never change.

He blinked at himself, mulling it over in his head a couple more times.

But what would it need to orbit, exactly? His body? Or his brain?

Hmm.

Page 1342

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Hector had the distinct feeling that things were going to start moving very quickly very soon, so he wanted to make use of this downtime while it lasted. He tried contacting Emiliana again with the Shard in his pocket, but when he received no response, he decided to work on his materialization skills.

He wanted to attempt the “binding” technique that Zeff and Asad had shown him earlier. He figured that would be more useful than simply meditating. And besides, he couldn’t very well close his eyes when he was supposed to be watching the captives.

First, however, he had to think of how to attempt the technique. The whole idea behind binding--as he recalled Asad and Garovel explaining it--was to convert a task that required active concentration into a task that did not.

That was about all the information he had to go on, though. He considered asking Garovel for more details, but the reaper was in the middle of a conversation with Atalim and Ezura.

Hmm.

Something that required active concentration...

What about making his iron move through the air? It was one thing to add velocity to a created object and be done with it, but could he possibly make that object fly according to his will? Against gravity, even?

No, strictly speaking. From everything he’d been told, as well as his own experimentation, such a feat was flatly impossible.

But Hector wondered if he could at least make it look like it was happening.

Certainly, he couldn’t control his iron once it was created. That seemed to be the First Law of Materialization, if such labels existed. But even so, he could always grow more iron out of his already-created pieces. And growth was a kind of movement, wasn’t it? And that other technique that Zeff and Asad had taught him earlier... the perpetually falling object...

Ideas swirled through his head, even though he couldn’t quite imagine any practical applications just yet.

Maybe, instead of keeping the falling object perfectly still, he could add on to it in a different direction while also annihilating it from the opposite direction. Wouldn’t that give the object the appearance of movement?