Monday, December 11, 2017

Page 1432

((Double Monday -- Page 2 of 2))
A terrible thought occurred to Hector. ‘You ARE okay, aren’t you?

Yes, I am fine. Gohvis is not mistreating me, if that is what you are implying.

You’re sure? You can tell me. I won’t...’ He won’t what? He won’t tell Zeff? Ugh. This whole situation was quickly becoming a conversational nightmare, Hector felt.

I am sure,’ said Emiliana. ‘Gohvis may not be... well, I do not know what to think of him. He has not harmed me nor Chergoa, however, nor do I get the impression that he intends to.

Good news, certainly, but it still left Hector with the million troas question. ‘Why did he kidnap you, then? He even went against his own allies.

He wants to study my mutation ability. Even I do not quite understand. He has yet to fully explain himself. I’m not sure he ever will, either.

Huh...

But none of this is why I wished to talk to you right now.

He took a long breath, as if to prepare himself for whatever crazy new shit she was about to tell him. ‘O-okay. I’m listening.

I want you to... ask me questions about various subjects.

Not nearly as crazy as he’d been expecting. Way more confusing, though. ‘I don’t follow.

Agh...’ She broke for another small sigh. ‘How do I explain without giving too much away...?

Hector was lost as he waited in silence.

Let’s just say... that for the foreseeable future, it appears as though I will have considerable free time on my hands. Free time which I will be using... in order to conduct various types of research.

Uh...?

So... I was thinking that I would prefer to focus my research into things which might be beneficial to you and my father and everyone else.

Hector’s brow lowered as he processed what she had told him.

Do you understand?’ she asked.

I... think so.’ So in other words, Hector gathered, wherever she was, she had easy access to a large amount of information. Like some kind of Abolish database? He supposed that would make a certain degree of sense, given Gohvis’ status.

So ask me something,’ she said. ‘It does not matter how old the information you’re looking for is. There is a good chance I’ll be able to find something about it.

H-hold on,’ said Hector. ‘Isn’t this incredibly dangerous? What if someone catches you?

Oh. No. It’s not like that. I do not have to hide my research. In fact, Gohvis is... encouraging me to pursue whatever interests me.

What the hell? Hector would’ve liked to ask more about that, but he felt as though she would recoil from the conversation entirely if he started trying to figure out what she was clearly intending to keep secret from him and her father.

That didn’t mean he wouldn’t still try, though. It just meant that he didn’t want her to realize he was doing that.

Page 1431

((Double Monday -- Page 1 of 2))
Toward the end of the first day of training, however, there had been another important interruption. He hadn’t recognized what it was, at first, as he’d nearly forgotten what this strange, pulsing sensation meant. As soon as he remembered that it was the Shard calling out to him, he scrambled to find it among his scant belongings.

He’d decided to stow it among the spare clothes that he was borrowing from Carver, since the climate-controlled environment of the dome was probably safer than carrying it around everywhere. On the one hand, he didn’t really think that the Undercrust’s heat would melt one of the Shards created by Rasalased, but on the other, he doubted the heat would be good for it, either. And he did recall Qorvass mentioning that there used to be a lot more Shards, suggesting that they were, in fact, not indestructible.

As soon as he had the Shard in hand again, he reached out with his mind. ‘Emiliana?

...Yes, I am here.

He had about a thousand questions for sure, but just hearing her response was a relief in itself. At least now he’d be able to tell Zeff something about how she was doing. Maybe that would be enough to make the man stop looking at him like he wanted to choke him.

Hector, before I say anything further... please, you mustn’t tell my father that I am contacting you.

Well, shit.

It is not that I want him to worry. It is just that... I...

Hector more or less got the picture. ‘You’re worried FOR him.

Yes...

He rubbed his forehead as he sat down on the edge of his bed. ‘Look, uh... I have to tell him that you’re okay, at least. Whatever else is going on with you right now, he deserves to know that much, doesn’t he?

...He deserves much more than that. But he... well, you...’ She paused for a sigh. ‘You are still with him, are you not?

Yeah.

How is he?

...Better than I would be, if I were in his shoes.

...A non-answer.

Hector took a curt breath. ‘He’s... persevering.

So, then... you think that if you were to tell him that I do not wish him to know where I am, he would take that news well?

Abso-fucking-lutely not. But from her tone, the question sounded rhetorical, so Hector decided not to answer it directly. Instead, he chose to take a different approach. ‘However he takes it, it’s not really your problem, is it?

...Excuse me?

I mean... even if he gets super pissed off, his reaction will be MY problem to deal with, not yours. Because he won’t know where to find you unless you tell us.

There came a rather long pause. ‘I suppose you have a point. I had not thought of it that way.

So you don’t mind if I tell him you’re okay?

More silence.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Page 1430

Just being outside of Carver’s biosphere afforded Hector ample opportunity for practice. Zeff had not been kidding when he said that he wouldn’t be making armor for him anymore, so that was what Hector had been doing for himself: creating freezing cold iron armor.

Over and over and over again.

It tended to heat up pretty damn quickly, so he constantly had to annihilate and remake it. At first, he struggled just to make it not crack and shatter immediately. That was a thing, apparently. These sorts of extreme temperature differences caused instantaneous and even explosive structural damage to his iron.

Garovel had been more than happy to explain that lovely little aspect of thermodynamics after Hector nearly tore his own head off.

In time, though, he managed to stabilize his work. Adding his soul to his iron helped, though not by much. Really, his most significant breakthrough was simply deciding to give his armor layers. The outermost layer was the hottest and therefore least likely to crack or break under the Undercrust's heat, while the inner layers were progressively colder, providing degrees of both insulation and structural support.

It worked surprisingly well, even if it was a bit bulky. Whenever he started feeling too warm, he simply annihilated the outermost layer and then added a new innermost layer. This way, he could maintain a relatively cool temperature around himself at all times, rather than having to deal with sudden flashes of flesh-melting heat and bone-chilling cold like he’d been doing in the beginning.

He ended up quite pleased with the result, but his new armor also had a secondary effect which he did not expect.

It made him more approachable.

He still had streaks of steam rising off of his armor--a fact which he found quite interesting--but it was nothing like it was before. To the Hun’Kui, Zeff’s misting armor must have made him look like a walking cloud of freezing death, whereas this armor looked much more solid and humanoid.

Eventually, one of the Hun’Kui decided to come talk to him while he was trying to meditate in front of Himmekel’s massive lavafall.

Unfortunately, the Hun’Kui man was speaking Hunese, and Garovel was off somewhere with Diego.

He thought he heard the word “Senmurai” again, but that was about all he caught. He tried to explain that he didn’t understand, and eventually, it seemed to sink in. The Hun’Kui nodded furiously and left him alone again, but he occasionally still spotted one or two of them watching him from afar.

It was a bit unsettling, but he figured they didn’t mean any harm.

He tried to focus on his meditation. It was more difficult than it had ever been, since he had to constantly maintain his armor, but he enjoyed the added challenge, even if he didn’t see much in the way of success. It was like trying to achieve a new level of concentration. Clearing his mind of all obfuscating thoughts, while at the same time materializing new layers of his armor at regular intervals.

He felt like it was possible. He just had to keep trying.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Extra Pages and Whatnot

Couple important announcements for you.

First, I've been posting two new pages to my Patreon page every day for the last few weeks. And because of that, I've been able to build up a very helpful backlog of new pages compared to the main site here. Currently, that backlog consists of 23 extra pages, and it will continue to grow. If you'd like to get these pages early, the price is one dollar per month. If not, however, I completely understand. I don't like to spend money, either. Which brings me to my second announcement.

Here on the main site, I'm going to post an extra page every Monday. One at midnight and one at noon. I figured that everyone seems to dislike Mondays, so I should do something to make them better, if possible. I'll call them Double Mondays, 'cuz that sounds catchy. In time, as I continue to build up my backlog, I plan to start throwing out more free extra pages, but we'll see.

Oh, and super secret third announcement: expect some extra pages on Christmas Day.

Anyway, thanks for not giving up on me, everyone. Your support means the world to me. In fact, if I had a choice between the world or your support, I'd choose your support. Yeah, that's right. I'd blow up the Earth. For the sake of my readers or something. I'd like to see some other writers compete with that shit.

Page 1429

Without any clear objective or direction, everyone in the group spent most of their time mingling among the Hun’Sho. The four reapers practically insisted on it, though their servants didn’t require much convincing, save perhaps Zeff.

Unsurprisingly, the Lord Elroy seemed the most anxious to leave and expressed little interest in the Hun’Sho or Himmekel or even the Sosho’Diyu.

That last one was almost certainly what was on everyone else’s mind the most, Hector felt. They all seemed convinced that it was here, somewhere, which made him rather dubious about the sincerity of their attempts to “learn about Hun’Sho culture,” as Diego Redwater had put it. Without a doubt, that man seemed the most determined to stay, though Hector did notice the Hun’Kui behaving somewhat similarly. In particular, it was in the way they followed Diego around. They probably figured that if anyone was going to find it, it would be him.

But still. As unsavory as Hector found their behavior, he knew that he was not so different himself. When he thought about what he might be able to do with such an apparently valuable treasure... When he thought about Warrenhold and all the money it would need... not to mention all the people who would be staying there...

Assuming it really was money. He’d been starting to wonder what really qualified as treasure. There were certainly other things in this world that could be considered far more valuable than gold or gems or whatever. He was carrying one such item already, he knew. And he hadn’t forgotten all those weird names that reapers had rattled off not so long ago.

Garovel, at least, seemed certain that the treasure was something along those lines.

Do you have any specific theories about what it could be?’ Hector had asked him.

One or two, maybe,’ Garovel had said. ‘But I’m not prepared to share them yet.

Why not? You’re always trying to tell me about your dumb theories.

Hey. You’re hurting my feelings.

If I apologize, will you tell me?

Maybe.

Then maybe I’m sorry.

Sheesh. I’m thinking that the treasure might have something to do with Rathmore. Since his Flame is so near, then it would stand to reason.

That doesn’t tell me much, Garovel. Or anything, really.

Yeah, well, I don’t want to make a specific prediction and then turn out to be completely wrong later.

Oh, come on. I don’t care if you’re wrong.

Yeah, but I do. I hate being wrong.

Believe me, I’ve noticed.

Oh, shut up and go back to your meditation or practice or whatever you’re doing over there by yourself.

With everyone else on the job, Hector didn’t feel the need to socialize with the Hun’Sho as much. He did, however, feel the need to keep up with his training, especially now that he could use temperature manipulation.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Page 1428 -- CLIII.

Carver was still going. “--and then, we could go to an amusement park and get ice cream and go on a roller coaster ride. I’d probably vomit, but it’d be okay, because of the recently-eaten ice cream, see? That’s a trick my uncle taught me when I was a kid. Good god of fire, I miss processed sweets like that. I wonder if there’ve been any big technological breakthroughs with sweets and other foods from the surface. I feel like there must have been. The world is so full of--”

“I’m sorry.” Hector held up a gauntled hand. “Could you, ah, go back to telling me about your expedition?”

“Oh, um. Certainly. What would you like to know about it?”

“Mainly... I’m curious about your companions. They must have been strong to make it all the way here, right?”

Carver’s expression tightened somewhat. “Yes, I suppose they were.”

Hector merely waited for elaboration, which was slow to arrive.

“...They were like yourself. Servants of reapers. Very reliable as bodyguards, certainly, but I’ve known them since I was just a sprightly Melmoorian lad. Ettol, in particular, has always been like an uncle to me. So strong, yet so persuasive, too. I swear, he could convince a pack of hungry wolves to play fetch with him, if he wanted. Why, there was this one time when I was twelve--”

Ettol?’ said Garovel.

You know of him?

No. But that name is peculiar.

How so?

In Ancient Melmoorian folklore, Ettol is a kind of trickster deity. The God of Impulse. It’s not a normal name that someone would give their kid--or even a name that many people would recognize in this day and age.

...So you’re saying this guy’s uncle is some kind of ancient god?

No, Hector,’ the reaper laughed. ‘I’m saying it’s probably an alias. Or Carver is lying to us. That’s always a possibility.

Or it’s an ancient god.

I highly doubt that.

Look, Garovel, I just found out that lava people exist. I’m open to the possibility of ancient gods existing, and I think you should be, too.

Okay, Hector. Whatever you say.


Chapter One Hundred Fifty-Three: ‘Countenance in greed and fury...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Two days transpired as the group tried in vain to work out their next move. According to the reapers, the titanic battle above Himmekel had not ceased, and according to the various Hun’Sho they spoke to, it would not be ceasing any time soon, either.

“Enkir and Dunikei have been locked in a stalemate for generations,” a Hun’Sho by the name of Torveis had told them.

Hector had been surprised that any of the Hun’Sho could speak Mohssian at all, much less modern Mohssian, but all was explained when Carver revealed that he had taught them several of the surface world’s languages.

“It may be many years before they decide to take another break,” Torveis had said. “The worms are a more recent threat, though I imagine they may prove an even bigger obstacle if you all wish to leave Himmekel soon.”

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Page 1427

Sounds about right, I guess,’ said Garovel. ‘Ask him if any of them ever leave this settlement.

“Do any of the Hun’Sho ever leave this place?” said Hector.

“No, they do not,” said Carver. “They are generally quite fearful of venturing outside the Vault. As am I, of course, but that is mainly because of the feldeath and the golem. And all those worms, too, I suppose. And the possibility of earthquakes and falling rocks. And the notion that my lamp might die on me, stranding me in the darkness with basically no hope of making it back here safely.”

“...And the Hun’Sho aren’t afraid of those things?”

“Not all of those things, no. And certainly not as much as me. Because, well, they are somewhat immortal.”

That was news to Hector. “Excuse me? What does that mean?”

“They do not age.”

“...Huh.” Hector glanced at Garovel, who gave an affirming nod.

Carver raised an eyebrow. “You seem far less surprised than I was when I first found that out. In fact, I am still not quite sure that I believe it. It is true that I have not seen any Hun’Sho show signs of aging, but I have only been here for five years, and perhaps that is simply not long enough.”

Hector supposed he didn’t have much room to be too shocked by that particular revelation, given his own status as a servant.

It still felt really weird when he thought about it like that. Immortality.

Better to just not think about it that way then, he decided.

Ask him how the hell he ended up in this place to begin with.

Didn’t he say he was part of an exploration team or something?

Yeah, but ask for details.

“...So, uh. How did you end up down here all by yourself, again?”

“I was part of an expedition that went horribly awry, essentially. Not so unlike you and your friends, actually. Diego described some of the details of your misfortune for me. What charisma, that guy. I have to admit, I’m envious of him. I really hope I can be friends with him. He was so nice, even after I made a fool of myself and started acting like a blustering idiot. If I had those kinds of social skills, why, my whole life would have gone so much more smoothly. Maybe I could have even convinced Janice Greenwood to go out on a date with me back when we were--”

Hector kind of stopped listening. ‘Garovel, this guy is all over the place...

Can you blame him? Think about it. Sure, he said all that stuff earlier about scholarly work and studying the Hun’Sho, but you have to remember, he’s also been stuck in a hole of molten death with a bunch of fiery weirdos for the past five years.

Not an inaccurate summation, Hector supposed.

Honestly, I feel bad for the guy,’ said Garovel. ‘And I’d find it suspicious if he didn’t seem at least a little crazy by now.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Page 1426

Carver chewed on his upper lip for a second. “Look, um... Lord Darksteel, was it? That’s, ah, what the others said your name was when I asked.”

“You can just call me Hector.”

“Ah. Okay. Splendid. But, ah, as I was saying... um...”

This guy was suddenly almost as bad with words as he was, Hector felt. “...Y-yes?”

“L-look, I’m just gonna level with you, Hector. I’ve been starved for normal human interaction for YEARS now. S-so, I’d like to go ahead and apologize ahead of time, in case anything I say or do comes across as really weird or... o-or... perhaps... clingy.”

Garovel, what is happening right now?

I don’t know, but I’m enjoying it.

Carver wasn’t done. “The thing is, with the rest of your group, um... I think I’ve already poisoned the well in that regard, if you know what I mean.”

Hector did not.

Carver sighed. “I’m sure they think I’m super weird now...”

Hector...

What?

Console him or something!

How?!

Tell him he’s wrong!

“I, uh... I’m sure they don’t think you’re that weird, Mr. Carver.”

“Thanks, but you weren’t there. You didn’t see what I did.”

“...What did you do?”

Carver hesitated. He glanced back through the doorway, as if to check if anyone else was listening. Either that, or he was considering running away. “I told everyone... um... you see, I told them... that... I... loved... them.”

Hector took a breath in order to respond, but his brain didn’t have anything for him. And neither did Garovel, it seemed.

“Look, it just kinda slipped out, okay?! I used to think I was a loner-type, but my god! This is just ridiculous! I haven’t seen another normal human being in I-don’t-know-how-long! This place is a barren wasteland when it comes to satisfying social interaction!”

“I thought you said you liked it here,” said Hector. “Educational or whatever.”

“I do like it here! And the Hun’Sho are fascinating! But--! They’re also just--! Agh...!”

“...Are they not very good company?”

“No! I mean, they’re great! They’re wonderful! So kind and considerate! You won’t find anyone more courteous and polite!”

Hector heard a “but” coming and waited.

“...But they’re so stuffy! Ugh! You have no idea! And they’re kinda weirdly arrogant, too. They’re not really human as you and I understand the term. Half the time, they treat me like I’m some kind of pet. They’ve taken such good care of me that I don’t wish to complain, but... agh...”

Hector felt bad for the guy, but this was also new information. He couldn’t help being curious. “Uh... what else can you tell me about the Hun’Sho here?”

Carver perked up a little. “Well. Just about anything you want me to tell you, I suppose. What would you like to know?”

Hector glanced at Garovel. ‘Ideas?

Ask him how long they’ve been down here.

Hector did so.

“About twelve hundred years, if what they’ve told me is true,” said Carver.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Page 1425

...As a matter of fact, I did,’ said Garovel.

Hector waited for Garovel to elaborate, but when it seemed like that wasn’t going to happen, he decided to ask the pressing question. ‘...Was he your servant?

No. But he was the servant of a good friend of mine. A good friend who also went mad and died with him.

Holy shit, Garovel. I’m so sorry that, uh... I mean, I’m sorry that you went through that.

Yeah...

And Hector was abruptly reminded of just how old Garovel really was, how much the reaper must have seen and experienced and endured. It was sometimes all too easy to forget that. Hector got the sense that Garovel preferred it that way, even now, with how little emotion the reaper was showing.

Sometimes, people just go crazy, Hector. Even normal, everyday people. And in our line of work? Reapers and servants? All the madness that we see? It’s more common than most of us care to think about.

Was it really that simple, Hector wondered? Could people really just snap? For no reason at all? Hector wasn’t sure he believed that. But Garovel was speaking from experience, and Hector didn’t have much cause to challenge him on it. Not right now, anyway. Maybe some other time, he would.

At length, they encountered Carver again, sitting alone in some sort of small drawing room. He stood when he noticed them.

“Ah, I was worried you might have gotten lost.” He craned his neck as if confused. “You are the same armored gentleman from earlier, no?”

Oh, right. He must have looked completely different in his iron armor now. “Yes.”

“I have already showed the others to their rooms. Please allow me to do the same for you.”

“Thank you...”

Carver took two big steps to his right and motioned toward the door there. “Aaand I’m done! Your room’s right here! Aha! Hope that walk wasn’t too exhausting for you!”

The man seemed to be fishing for a laugh, so Hector tried to give him one.

Carver cleared his throat. “Sorry. That was funnier in my head.”

Hector followed him through the door, still dragging his iron box of gun parts along. Thankfully, there was just enough space for it in the corner by the bed. He finally sat down with a sigh of relief and wondered what kind of material this weird, rubbery mattress was made from. The clamor of his armor was also rather loud in this confined space, but he didn’t quite feel like removing it yet.

Then he noticed that Carver was lingering in the open doorway, observing him.

Hector racked his brain, worrying that he’d forgotten some sort of important courtesy. “...I appreciate your hospitality,” he tried.

“Oh, think nothing of it,” said Carver.

And that was all he said.

And he still did not leave.

And everything became abruptly awkward.

“...Was there something else?” said Hector.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Page 1424

This is what I need you to understand,’ said Garovel. ‘This mystery... this is something that I have discreetly been trying to solve for around two millennia now. So it’s rather important to me that you not tell anyone else about it.

O-okay...

I’m serious, Hector. Not anyone. Not Roman. Not Lynn. Not the Queen. Not even Ramira giving you puppy dog eyes.

Aha... yeah, I get it. I won’t mention Rathmore to anyone. But, uh... you still haven’t explained WHY you want to keep it a secret. Is this knowledge somehow dangerous?

Of course it is. Rathmore’s Materials have all sorts of absurd powers that even I still don’t know about. If other people start studying them or otherwise trying to unlock their secrets... well, that’s the sort of thing that entire nations go to war over.

I see...

But it’s not just about preventing war for me, either. I’ll admit that a part of me is still hoping to harness their power for myself, one day. Or for yourself, that is.

Hector wasn’t sure how to respond to that. As ridiculous as it sounded, he could still understand the basic sentiment. The desire for power. For strength. He’d been feeling it more and more, lately, for obvious reasons.

He did come up with a question, though. ‘You say you want to keep all this stuff a secret, but wasn’t Axiolis the one who recognized Rathmore’s Flame? And doesn’t that mean he already knows about it?

Not necessarily. Lots of people know the name Rathmore. The name has become famous even among non-servants. All the monuments saw to that.’ Garovel allowed a beat to pass. ‘But yeah, it’s possible that Axiolis knows something. We need to be careful of him.

Garovel, you’re starting to sound really paranoid. I thought you liked Axiolis.

I do. He’s great. But hiding beneath that greatness could be the cold, black heart of a treacherous bastard.

Wow.

I’m not kidding, Hector. That’s how reapers are. We’re lying, power hungry, duplicitous sons of bitches. And we’re good at hiding it, too.

...I’ll have to take your word on that one.’ Hector scratched his head and looked over all the plants another time. ‘Can we rejoin the others now? I want to see the rest of this place.

There’s still more I should tell you, but fine. That was all of the most important stuff, I think.

They left the verdure behind, and Hector let Garovel lead the way back to everyone. En route, however, another question occurred to Hector and began getting the better of him.

...Hey, what about Rathmore? If he was such a big deal, then what happened to him?

The Vanguard happened to him.

They killed him?

Yeah. He was a nice enough guy when he was younger, but he became more and more of an asshole as he got older. Provoked a few wars. Ethnic cleansings. Human experimentation.

Wait, did you... know him personally?

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Page 1423

Hector’s brow lowered as he tried to recall what Garovel was talking about. The only other thing he remembered about Rathmore’s Gate was smashing into it after taking a hit from Harper.

But Garovel was right. That was strange, wasn’t it? With as hard as he’d hit the damn thing, it hadn’t so much as cracked.

So what are you saying?’ said Hector. ‘I mean, it’s weird ‘n all, but what’s the big mystery about, exactly?

You see, Rathmore was one of the most famous integrators in history. Or infamous, depending on who you talk to. And one of the reasons he became so well-known was because of his “Materials.” Which was actually a bit of a con job on his part.

Con job?

Rathmore’s Gate. Rathmore’s Flame. Rathmore’s Looking Glass. Rathmore’s Knife. Rathmore’s Light. And so on and so forth. He named all of these monuments after himself because of all the weird shit he did to them--like infusing a molten rock golem into one of them, apparently. But the fact of the matter was, all of those monuments existed BEFORE him. He just modified them.

So... they used to just be normal monuments?

No, see, that’s the point. They weren’t normal at all. Rathmore was only able modify them the way he did because they were already abnormal.

Abnormal in what way?

They were indestructible by any known method.

Hector cocked an eyebrow beneath his helmet. ‘If they were indestructible, then how was he able to modify them at all?

The reaper shrugged. ‘I didn’t say it wasn’t impressive, what he did. I just wanted to make it clear that his so-called Materials were never really HIS to begin with. That was the con job, in my opinion.

Hmm. So where’d all these indestructible monuments come from, then?

That’s the big mystery. Nobody is quite sure.

Seriously? Does that mean they’re even older than you are?

As far as I am aware, they pre-date the existence of reapers entirely.

Whoa. By how much, exactly?

Dunno.

Hector’s eyes widened as he thought more about it. So that was why Garovel had called it one of the oldest mysteries in the history of Eleg. ‘Why didn’t you ever tell me about this before?

Didn’t come up.

We were literally AT Rathmore’s Gate! You didn’t think I’d be interested in its history?!

Well... okay, I’m sort of... lying a little bit, actually.

Hector’s brow lowered again. ‘Excuse me?

Sorry. It’s a force of habit when it comes to this subject, I suppose. See, this mystery... Rathmore’s Materials... well, it’s something that I’ve been keeping to myself for a very long time now.

What do you mean? Keeping it to yourself? You just said it’s one of the oldest mysteries in the world.

Yeah...

What, were you lying about that, too?

No, no. That was the truth. What I’m saying is... despite its incredible age, there are very few people who know of it. And I kinda prefer it that way, Hector.

Oh...

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Page 1422

Hector struggled for another plant-related question, wanting to keep up the conversational momentum, but no further ideas were coming to him besides just being amazed by all the fruits and vegetables.

Dammit, weren’t there a bunch of other questions that he’d wanted to ask Garovel just a little while ago? There absolutely were. What the hell were they?

Hold on.

Garovel was being suspiciously quiet all of a sudden, Hector felt.

“...Something wrong?” Hector asked aloud since it was just the two of them.

The reaper did not answer him, only floated slowly through a cluster of green corn stalks.

“Garovel? Are you... are you sulking over what happened? I thought you’d just keep complaining, not get all weird on me.”

What? Oh, no, that’s not it. Sure, Zeff acted like a horse’s ass, but if you don’t care, then I don’t care. I’m over that already.

“Oh,” said Hector, a bit taken aback, because it didn’t sound like the reaper was being sarcastic. “Well, uh... Really? I mean, I wouldn’t mind if you were still a little not over it.”

Garovel floated closer and kept his voice private. ‘Hector, um. Before we rejoin the others, there’s something we should discuss. And I’m sorry if this seems like it’s coming out of nowhere.

Hector took the hint to stop talking aloud. ‘...What is it?

Remember the Sosho’Diyu? That treasure everyone was going on about back in Babbadelo?

Of course.

There is an almost one hundred percent chance that it is somewhere here in Himmekel.

Hector paused to acknowledge that thought. ‘That... would make sense, I guess.

And also... I need to tell you about one of the oldest mysteries in the history of the planet.

Hector blinked. ‘Uh. Okay?

It’s most commonly referred to as Rathmore’s Materials.

Oh, yeah. I wanted to ask about that before, but there wasn’t time. Why does the name “Rathmore” sound so familiar?

Do you remember Rathmore’s Gate?

Uh...

Where you, Roman, Harper, and the Queen fought Abolish back in Atreya?

Oh! Yeah, it was a rock formation! Rathmore’s Gate.’ Hector tilted his head as he tried to remember in greater detail. ‘Come to think of it... YOU were the one who first mentioned it, weren’t you? You asked if Voreese knew of it so that we could regroup there.

Good memory. Do you happen to remember anything else about that particular rock formation?

Um... no, should I?

I suppose not. Curious as you are, I remember waiting for you to ask me more about it, but you never did.

Why would I have asked you more about some seemingly random rock formation?

You didn’t notice? Ah, I guess you were pretty busy at the time, weren’t you?

Notice what?

That, despite how brutal and devastating to the local environment that battle was, Rathmore’s Gate was still standing after it was over.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Page 1421

“What a joke,” Zeff went on. “My kin all look at you and think that you can handle the same level of responsibility as I. Or Asad. Or Dimas or Salvador or Melchor. They look at you and see our equal. Hell, they may even see our superior!”

Hector frowned but kept his expression otherwise steady. Zeff was just spouting nonsense now, Hector felt. Surely, none of the other Rainlords actually believed that.

The Lord Elroy turned and began walking away. “Grow or die, Hector.”

Axiolis lingered.

Hector thought the reaper might apologize on the servant’s behalf, as he’d seen other reapers do several times in the past, but Axiolis surprised him.

The reaper only observed him in silence for a moment longer before following Zeff.

Well, that was fine. Hector didn’t really think Zeff had done anything to apologize for, anyway.

Garovel seemed to feel differently, however. ‘What an ungrateful piece of shit,’ he said in the echo of privacy.

Garovel...

What? You’re gonna defend that guy’s behavior?

Hector sighed. Right now, he really just wanted to go catch up to everyone else. He was still standing here in the entryway like a jackass while they were all off exploring the facilities and probably asking Carver all sorts of interesting questions.

As he finally started to progress deeper into the building, he found himself wondering if any of the others had witnessed any part of that incident just now. He hoped not. That would be pretty humiliating.

But y’know,’ said Garovel, ‘the more I think about it, the more I find that man’s behavior hilarious.

What?

Weren’t you listening to what he said? He feels THREATENED by you, Hector. Maybe even jealous.

THAT was your interpretation? Garovel, you couldn’t be more wrong.

Psh. Of course you’d say that. Let me guess. You think he’s just trying to be a good teacher or whatever.

...Yeah, maybe I do think that.

You’re too nice for your own good, Hector.

And you’re too patronizing for everyone else’s good.

Really? You’re gonna insult ME now? I’m on your side, you prick.

So is Zeff. We’d both be worm food by now if it wasn’t for him.

Ugh.’ The reaper sounded genuinely disgusted.

The next room over had multiple new doors to try, and Hector decided to go through the one on his right before Garovel had a chance to continue that conversation.

Now there was a sight he hadn’t seen in a while.

Plants. A whole lot of them, too. The chamber extended much farther than he’d expected, and the entire thing was filled.

Hector blinked when he realized. ‘These are the plants from the surface that you were sensing earlier.

Garovel floated among two rows of fully grown apple trees. ‘Yeah,’ was all he said.

Hector was more than ready for the new subject, however. ‘How do they grow so far underground like this?

The reaper pointed at the lamps in the rather low ceiling. ‘Artificial sunlight. It’s impressive technology. I’ve never seen results as good as this.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Page 1420

Are--are you okay?’ said Garovel, sounding surprised. The reaper was on the other side of an icy dome.

Of course I’m okay,’ said Hector. ‘I’m undead.’ He said that, but the right side of his face still felt like it was on fire. Not quite as on fire as it had been a moment ago, but still on fire nonetheless.

I--well, I know that, Hector. I just meant...’ The reaper growled and looked at Zeff. ‘Would you please get rid of this ice, now?

The icy dome vanished into nothingness, and Garovel reached for Hector’s shoulder.

The young man recoiled away from the reaper’s grasp. “I’m fine,” he said.

Are you serious? That looks like it hurts A LOT.

It did. Sweet goddess, it did. But that was kinda the point.

“I’ve had worse,” said Hector. He looked over at Zeff, who seemed to be in the middle of a silent argument with Axiolis.

Hector, c’mon. Let me numb the pain for you. That burn looks awful.

“Just the regen, then. Don’t numb the pain.”

Hector...

“It’s fine, Garovel. The pain will just come back later, anyway. I can deal with it right now.’

The reaper still looked reluctant but said, ‘If you say so.

He was still shaking, Hector realized. His head was fine, more or less, but the rest of his body was still pretty damn cold, even with the misty armor gone.

He could probably fix that now.

Hector clapped a fresh suit of iron armor around himself. Sure enough, it was as warm as he’d intended it to be.

Well, maybe this was a little warmer than he’d wanted. Okay, it was kinda too hot, actually.

He nailed it on the second try.

That was better. Nice and toasty. Like a cozy metal blanket. That didn’t make much sense, he supposed. Iron was not at all soft, much less cozy. Yet that was still an accurate representation of how he felt. Somehow, his iron seemed more like his than ever before.

It was a familiar and altogether welcome sensation, wearing his own armor again. He planned to leave it on, even after his body warmed up completely.

Zeff finally looked over at him, and Hector was ready to meet the Lord Elroy’s stern gaze through the visor of his iron helmet.

“I will not make that armor for you again,” said Zeff. “From now on, protect yourself from the heat of the Undercrust.”

Are you fucking kidding?’ said Garovel. ‘You’re really not going to apologize for what you just did?

“He doesn’t need to,” said Hector. “Zeff was just trying to give me the push I needed. And it worked, didn’t it?”

Bullshit. That was way out of line.

Zeff snorted. “You expect your enemies to be more considerate than I?” He glared at the young man harder than he ever had before. “Do you even realize how many people look up to you now? All of my kin. They don’t see your weakness. They think they can depend on you.”

Hector just listened.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Page 1419

“...Z-Zeff?” said Hector. His teeth had started chattering.

The man folded his arms and kept staring. “Warm yourself.”

Hector was confused. “What?”

“Warm yourself,” Zeff repeated. “Use temperature manipulation and warm yourself.”

Aw, shit. He had an inkling where this was going, but it was difficult to even think straight, and talking was even harder than usual. “But, uh--y-your armor is way too s-strong. I c-can’t--”

“Fine,” said Zeff, and he raised his arm.

The misty armor became suddenly lighter but didn’t go away. Hector could still feel himself getting colder and number by the second.

“I’ve weakened it for you,” said Zeff. “Try now.”

Hector dropped to his knees, finding it difficult to maintain his balance.

He could hear people saying things. He could hear them in his head, too. Reaper’s words. Shouted, maybe. But he couldn’t actually listen to them, anymore. It was all just background noise.

Whole thoughts were escaping him now. What was happening? Freezing. Right. A way to neutralize servants. Probably gotten to his brain, then. That was why it was difficult to. To. To...?

Whatever.

Had to materialize. Not even sure why. Just had to be done. Something. Anything. For the head.

A helmet.

Hey, he could feel it. Warm metal. What a familiar sensation. Probably just room temperature, though. Warm only by comparison to how insanely cold he was.

Good but not good enough.

Annihilate and try again. Make it warm. How, though? Didn’t matter. Couldn’t think. Just make it warm. No, make it burn. Make it hurt.

Holy shit, pain. Something was definitely hurting. All around his... head? Yeah. His head.

But pain was good. Pain was not numb. Numb was bad.

Story of life, eh, Garovel?

Garovel?

Oh shit. Needed more pain. To bring everything back.

And there it was. More pain. More burning. More heat.

Hey, what was that? Hissing? Oh, the sound of steam. He could hear again. It was working. It was working so well that he could smell burning flesh.

Oh, wait.

Hector spasmed back into control of his faculties. He was on the floor, and his face was melting.

Wow, this was painful. Not so much because it hurt any worse than the sort of pain that he’d felt previously and often. Rather, it was extra painful just because it was sustained. It hurt sharply and kept hurting sharply. No diminishing so that he could catch his breath or rethink his life choices.

Just a continual, searing pain.

He was still thinking, though, he realized. Despite being able to feel it. What was this, anyway?

It was like he had a spare compartment in his mind, just for appreciating how awful things were, right now.

Shouldn’t he be doing something with this knowledge?

Oh, good, he was already screaming in agony. How long had that been going on for? He should probably do something else now.

Hector dematerialized the red hot iron from around his head. Cool relief immediately washed over his face--so immediately, in fact, that it hurt in its own, new way, and he couldn’t stop his whole body from shaking.

--ector?! Hector!

Ah, hey, Garovel,’ said Hector, perhaps calmer than he should’ve.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Page 1418

Hector had a notion. ‘How about the names? Hun’Sho and Hun’Kui? It’s not a coincidence that they sound similar, is it?

Ah. Yes, well. You are not wrong. Where the name Hun’Kui literally translates to “people of the ash,” the name Hun’Sho literally translates to “people of the fire.” And there is considerable history there.’ The reaper spared a glance at the Hun’Kui in their party. ‘Rather gruesome history, unfortunately.

Hector caught the implication. ‘Is that... going to a problem here?

Well, it was a thousand years ago, so I’d like to say no, but...

I should keep it in mind?

Wouldn’t hurt.

What happened, exactly?

In short? The Hun’Kui were slaves. And the Hun’Sho were their masters.

Oh.

And the reason I thought the Hun’Sho had gone extinct, was because I thought the Hun’Kui had killed them all.

Oh...

The Hun’Sho did some pretty monstrous things. But they did some pretty incredible things, too. During their peak, they were the brains behind almost every major technological advancement in the Undercrust--and a few on the surface, as well.

Really? Like what?

Metallurgy was probably the biggest thing. The most famous blacksmiths on the surface only became such because of Hun’Sho knowledge.

Huh.

It was a bit unfair, really. If you had access to the Undercrust, you could probably gain a significant technological advantage over your adversaries. It might be the primary reason why holes that lead to the Undercrust are still largely kept a secret, even today. Historically speaking, they were priceless.

Hector’s mind went to the ardor-fueled weaponry that he’d seen so much of during his time in the Undercrust. Garovel’s explanation was sounding pretty spot-on.

Carver stopped in front of a tall structure, one that looked somewhat dilapidated by comparison to those around it. Then he turned to the Hun’Kui and began speaking to them while motioning toward it.

What’s he saying?’ Hector asked.

...“I believe you will be most comfortable here. Apologies for for its current state. It has been abandoned for a few years now, but there should be ample room for the four of you. Let me know if there is anything else you need.” Hmm.

After that, the Hun’Kui and surface dwellers split up, and Hector wasn’t sure why, until Carver led the rest of their group around a corner and down another street, where they arrived at a decidedly unique building. A dome.

Carver brought them inside, sealed the heavy door behind them, and began removing his climate suit.

The other two who were wearing suits looked rather reluctant to do the same, but Hector could feel the difference right away. He was suddenly freezing his ass off. The misty armor was doing far too good of a job in this place.

He had to tap the Lord Elroy on the shoulder. “Hey, Zeff, uh, you’re turning me into a popsicle now...”

For a time, the Lord Elroy just looked at him.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Page 1417

Hector couldn’t take his eyes off the Hun’Sho. There must have been fifty of them, at least, all looking down at the group from various interconnected bridges above.

Lava people,’ he thought, still incredulous. ‘There are fucking lava people...

Yup,’ was all Garovel said.

How do--?’ He struggled for an appropriate question. ‘I mean... how can they even EXIST? How can you have a body made out of fucking lava?!

Well, technically, their body isn’t made of lava. The lava is a coating which they naturally secrete. Like clothes are to you. If your clothes were made out of your own sweat, drool, piss, and shit.

What.

It’s much more hygienic when they do it, though. I know the thought is tempting, Hector, but don’t cover yourself in your own excrement. You’ll get someone sick.

He was genuinely lost for words now.

Carver started talking to the group again. “Now, if you would please continue following me, I will show you to a place where you can all get some rest. I doubt I am the only one who is tired, yes?”

A few grumbles of acknowledgment was all he got in response, and they began walking again.

Carver led them down the central path, right into a waiting crowd of Hun’Sho, which parted for them as they got closer. Carver began speaking to them, perhaps trying to allay their concerns. The Hun’Sho were not shy about answering the man, but Hector had no idea what any of them were saying.

Do you know their language, too?’ Hector asked.

Sure do,’ said Garovel. ‘Ancient Hunese. Quite a bit different from the Modern Hunese that I’ve been hearing the Hun’Kui speak.

What are they saying?

Well, they are expressing their confusion, for obvious reasons. There are a few comments about how weird you all look. Especially you. Wow, they’re really curious about you in particular. Your armor has them a bit spooked, I think.

Not too surprising, he supposed. ‘They’re not gonna attack us or anything, right?

Doesn’t seem like it.

As they continued, the street grew noticeably more polished and reflective, and so did their black-and-gray buildings, which Hector couldn’t help ogling somewhat. What were they made of, he wondered? Obsidian, maybe? He didn’t know much about volcanic rocks, but he was growing more interested in the subject by the second.

And that architecture. He recognized the horizontal window shapes from the ruined city they’d just come from. The doorways were different from what he was accustomed to seeing, as well. Double doors were everywhere, but instead of being rectangular, they formed elegant, half-moon shapes.

In fact, he didn’t see any sharp edges, whatsoever. Every structure had a smoothed or rounded look to it, and combined with that omnipresent, marble-like polish, the entire settlement managed to achieve a kind of gentle glistening effect.

Alright, Garovel, I’m ready for my next history lesson.

The reaper laughed. ‘Okay, um. Gee. Where do I begin?

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Page 1416

“Yes and no,” said Carver. “It has been years since I have seen another ‘normal’ person like myself--if these servants and Hun’Kui gentlemen will excuse the term. Yet I have not been alone. But rather than telling you, would it not be better to show you?”

The group exchanged uncertain looks as they started walking again, this time down a long corridor with the only light being at the end of it.

He’s not lying,’ said Garovel privately. ‘I’m sensing a lot of... souls on the other side of this tunnel.

Hector noticed the reaper’s hesitation. ‘Why the pause?

I just... well, they’re not quite “souls” in the traditional sense.

There are traditional souls now?’ said Hector. ‘How complicated does this shit get, Garovel?

That’s not what I mean. Just... geez, I can hardly believe what I’m sensing, right now. Maybe it really would be better to just to wait until he shows us.

Shows us what?

Exactly.

Hector had lost his ability to be surprised by Garovel’s intentional crypticity. He hadn’t lost his ability to be annoyed by it, though.

They soon reached the end of the corridor, but none of them were prepared for the view that awaited them.

Carver kept walking while everyone else stopped to gawk. Then he turned and gestured widely with both hands. “Welcome to Himmekel, the Paradise Vault.”

The very first thing that drew Hector’s eye was the sky-high lavafall. It wasn’t particularly wide, but it was so tall and so intensely bright that it became the main source of light for the area.

But not the only source of light. And that was the second thing Hector noticed: how many other, smaller lights there were. And what they were.

They were people.

The lights were people.

They glowed. Red and orange and yellow. Molten beings. Not unlike the golem he’d just seen.

Or, wait a minute, were these golems, too? They were the size of regular humans, but maybe that didn’t matter?

He needed some answers and so reached for the only question he could think of. ‘Garovel, what the fuck am I looking at?

The reaper was slow to answer. ‘Hector,’ he said privately. ‘Meet the Hun’Sho. A branch of humanity that I thought went extinct a thousand years ago.

Hector’s eyes widened. He had no idea what to say to that.

The group started inching forward with Zeff in the lead, and Hector just kind of mindlessly followed, still too dumbstruck to do much besides listen and observe.

“Now, I’m sure you all have many questions,” said Carver, “but first, let me assure you that, whatever you’ve heard about their kind, these Hun’Sho here are very gracious, magnanimous, and welcoming. So long as you do no violence upon them, none will be done upon you. Trust me. I have been studying their ways for five years.” Then he turned to the Hun’Kui specifically and began speaking Hunese, perhaps repeating himself in order to make sure they understood.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Page 1415

They arrived at a ruined structure that looked like it might’ve once been something quite spectacular, judging from the long, flat steps leading up to it and the empty grounds all around it, perhaps where one or more courtyards had been.

Had it been a castle of some kind, Hector wondered? Axiolis had mentioned something about royalty, hadn’t he? Maybe this was some sort of palace.

A sobering thought, he felt. He could hardly imagine how much time, effort, and resources would have gone into construction. And to think that it could be reduced to a state such as this? Little more than knee-high walls and a pile of rocks?

As if he needed any more reason to feel small and powerless in the grand scheme of things.

Carver led them up the steps and through the vibrating rubble. The distant battle between the two giants had not ceased or even shown any signs of doing so. Hector was not the only one who was still trying to keep an eye on it, partially out of wariness and partially out of simple awe. When would we ever get another chance to see something like this?

The feldeath loosed a burning beam of black light that cut through the golem and tore into the cavern ceiling. A half-dozen building-sized stalactites crashed down on a section of the city that was much too close for Hector’s liking. Dust and wind rushed past the group, disturbing the broken castle grounds and unsettling more debris.

After that, everyone’s pace quickened noticeably, and they soon arrived at a large door in the floor of a blown-out chamber. Carver set to work opening it--a process which apparently involved inserting a key into a hole beneath a hatch in the floor, then flipping a series of adjacent switches.

It took several attempts. Carver threw the group a few embarrassed looks and apologized after finally getting it open. “I have not done this in quite a while,” he said. “The mechanism is rather old and could do with a bit of maintenance, it seems.”

At last, he led them down a short ladder and then a spiraling staircase. A very long, spiraling staircase, Hector discovered. He had fun changing his iron box into appropriate shapes so that it could continue following the group--so much fun, in fact, that he would’ve left the damn thing behind if not for Mr. Sheridan’s pleading.

He did finally manage it after reassessing the problem and treating it like a new form of training. Making the iron box grow and shrink as necessary, becoming less like an iron box and more like an iron caterpillar. Or worm, perhaps. Squirming its way down the hole, the ladder, the narrow and curving steps.

Garovel seemed to get a kick out of the whole ordeal.

Hector was the last to reach the bottom of the staircase, and they’d apparently been asking Carver more questions while they waited for Hector to catch up.

“You’ve really been down here for five years all by your lonesome?” Mr. Sheridan was saying.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Page 1414 -- CLII.

Mr. Sheridan looked confused for a moment, but then seemed to realize. “Ah! Yeah, probably wouldn’t even hit at this range, eh?! I’ll get closer!”

“No, just--!” There wasn’t time to explain properly. “Just focus on the worms! Don’t attack the feldeath, no matter what!”

“Roger that!”

More worms arrived, and Hector resumed his defensive duties. Thankfully, the others seemed to making genuine progress. Zeff in particular was dealing with thinner and thinner crowds of worms each time Hector looked over in his direction.

At length, however, their battle was interrupted. A strange sound rang out, like one long musical note, the likes of which Hector had never heard before. It made every worm in sight shudder and curl up into a ball.

The group stopped and exchanged confused looks with one another. After a second, though, Zeff began skewering dozens of worms at a time with icy stalagmites.

Someone’s there,’ said Axiolis, pointing toward Zeff’s side of the street, which made the man stop again.

Sure enough, a figure appeared, carefully stepping around or over the balls of worms. The same sound continued to ring intermittently, and Hector became fairly certain that it was coming from whatever was in the figure’s left hand.

As the figure drew closer to Zeff, it became clear that it was a man in a climate-controlled suit.

The Lord Elroy spoke first. “Hello...”

“Ah, you speak Mohssian!” the stranger said. “How unexpected! Greetings!”

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” asked Zeff.

“Perhaps the explanation should wait,” the man said, motioning to the battle between the molten golem and the feldeath still raging in the background. “I have a place where we can talk at our leisure. It is not far from here.”


Chapter One Hundred Fifty-Two: ‘To thine scorching heart...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

It hadn’t taken much more convincing to get the group to agree to follow the stranger, who soon identified himself as a biologist, anthropologist, historian, and “generally curious individual” by the name of Carver.

“How did you end up here?” Diego asked as the man led them to wherever they were going.

“Oh, it’s a rather long story, but the unfortunate point of it is that my companions and I were separated during an exploratory venture. Not to worry, though. My companions and I were eventually reunited. But at that time, I decided to stay, as I had grown quite fond of this place.”

Hector, and perhaps everyone else present, found that difficult to comprehend.

Zeff posed the next question. “How long have you been down here?”

“Ah, I would wager that it is going on five years or so now,” said Carver. “It has been quite the educational adventure. Full of more thrills than I care to remember. But from the looks of your lot, I somehow begin to think that my own tales would fail to impress.”

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Page 1413

~~Thanksgiving Special (Page 4 of 4)~~
In a blink, the worms were amassing, already the size of a school bus and still growing.

No swatting that one away.

He needed to think bigger. In fact, what was he doing? He should’ve already been thinking bigger to begin with. He dropped to one knee and slammed his palm against the ground.

An iron plateau filled the entire road before him. He’d given it a slope, too, so it sent every single worm in his line of sight flying away from him, even the big one.

Yeah. That was more like it. There was no need to feel intimidated, he realized. Even if he couldn’t put them down for good, he didn’t have to.

They were still coming, of course, slithering over the top of his iron, but that wasn’t a problem. Rinse and repeat. He annihilated his work, letting the worms drop, and then remade it, launching them even farther into the distance. When they came still another time, they had combined to about the size of the one that had brought down the train.

So what? Hector sent that one flying, too.

That bought him a significant amount of time to breathe, and he looked over to see how the others were doing. Zeff and Diego were doing just fine, unsurprisingly, but Manuel seemed to be having a rough time, so Hector helped him out and flung a few clusters of worms away for him. The man spared him a nod.

Hector saw his own worm returning, again bigger than before and this time barreling toward the group at the speed of a freight train.

All that momentum could prove difficult to simply launch backward, he felt. He was considering creating a ramp for it instead when Robert Sheridan stepped into his line of vision.

Apparently, the man had finally finished building his gun. And the thing was massive. More like a cannon than anything, Mr. Sheridan had it mounted on his shoulder as he took aim. The man pulled the trigger, and a volley of projectiles launched in rapid succession, leaving a visibly hot trail in their wake.

The first projectiles didn’t explode--at least not immediately; instead, they dug into the beast’s bulk. Then the rest of the projectiles hit, and the chain of explosions--but not through combustion, as Hector had expected. Instead, the explosions were all lasers, and for a couple seconds, the worm looked like it was at the center of some kind of deadly disco ball, getting diced into thousand tiny pieces.

And then Mr. Sheridan shot a volley of more conventional explosives, too. In the end, the beast had been reduced to a smear on the road.

A bit awestruck, Hector heard the man laughing that same crazed laugh again. But when he saw Mr. Sheridan reload the cannon and point it at the feldeath, Hector coated the trigger in iron and grabbed his arm.

“Do NOT shoot the feldeath!” Hector shouted over the noise of the swarm around them.

Page 1412

~~Thanksgiving Special (Page 3 of 4)~~
The golem met the feldeath’s four blades with two fists, and the impact was so immense that Hector saw the air distort around before realizing a shock wave was imminent.

He raised a defensive iron wall for their group, and Zeff’s ice joined it.

The force pushed the paired walls back, pressing right up against the group, so Hector kept adding iron to the front and sides, hoping to distribute more of the blow. Debris flew by in elephant-sized chunks, several of which slammed into their barrier, denting and cracking it in multiple places.

But it held. And when they annihilated their wall so they could see the continuing battle, Hector was relieved that the subsequent blows were not nearly as devastating as that first one. They only made the ground tremble and waves of briefly hotter air wash over them.

Hector could only wonder how hot that air really was if he was able to feel it even through his cooling armor.

The two giants did not battle on their own for much longer, however, because the worms arrived in force and swarmed them both.

What followed was probably the biggest clusterfuck of pure chaos that Hector had ever witnessed, and he was only too grateful to be standing at a relatively safe distance away from it.

Fire, lightning, and darkness all collided amid hulking figures.

A scythe wreathed in black cut right through the golem’s torso, bisecting it horizontally along with a dozen worms--and none on the receiving end of that blow so much as flinched. All body parts, including the golem’s, reattached within moments, so quick that Hector questioned whether anything had even happened.

The golem punched a hole right through the feldeath’s midsection, and the skeletal monster’s whole body lost its form, only to turn into black goo and fly around the golem’s extended arm, reconstituting itself at the golem’s exposed backside.

And the worms. They dropped like flies, but they didn’t stay down. They kept swarming back up, almost always bigger than before, not that it seemed to matter as they were sliced and smashed and roasted and--Hector couldn’t even tell what else.

He had to wonder if such a fight would ever actually end.

Unfortunately, the worms did not focus solely on the giants, and boy, were there plenty more to go around. Soon enough, there were worms bearing down on them from every direction.

Before they were completely swarmed the servants all formed a square around the non-servants. Zeff, Diego, Manuel, and Hector each took one side while most of the non-servants laid down covering fire as they saw fit.

These worms were much smaller than what he’d seen previously, which made it a simple enough task to swat them away and keep his side clear, but there were just so many. It was a writhing sea before him, angry and seemingly endless. There was scarcely time to think or even breathe.

And worse still, he knew from experience that, at any moment, all these worms could fuse into one enormous monstrosity and become a very big problem.

Which they did.

Page 1411

~~Thanksgiving Special (Page 2 of 4)~~
At such close range, the sheer amount of light coming off the creature was blinding. Once the group was clear of the amassing lava, they started running again. Hector was surprised to find his iron box unharmed, save only a melted corner. He increased its pace as well but honestly didn’t have high hopes that any of the weapons therein would survive whatever the hell was going to happen next.

A molten rock golem,’ marveled Garovel privately as they ran. ‘Never seen one of those before.

Was that what that was? Hector hadn’t made that connection, but he supposed it made sense. ‘Does that mean it’s on our side?’ he asked.

In theory, yeah. .’

Hector looked back and saw the whole city being illuminated. The previously black expanse of cavern above them was suddenly alive with the burning reds and oranges of the golem’s molten glow. And maybe it was the light playing tricks on him, but Hector thought he saw something else there, too, moving among the giant stalactites above.

Wait!’ came Axiolis’ voice. ‘Everyone, stop!

Hesitant, they all still did as he said.

Axiolis explained himself. ‘The worms surround this entire city, directly ahead of us as well. We should not venture too far away from the golem, else the worms will swarm.

True enough, but we shouldn’t stay too CLOSE to the golem, either,’ said Garovel.

Then we may already be at the optimal distance from it,’ said Yangéra.

And no one looked pleased, but no one argued, either.

With that, the party stayed put, torn between bad and worse circumstances.

The reapers kept talking to one another, trying to brainstorm seemingly, but it didn’t sound like they were making much progress to Hector.

As he listened, his gaze returned to where it had been before, to the stalactites far above the golem’s still-expanding bulk.

And that was when Hector saw a second thing that he would not soon be forgetting.

At first, it was just a kind of murky darkness hanging high in the air, noticeable because of how undeterred by the golem’s light it was, unlike the rest of the fleeing shadows around it.

Until it took form.

It became a skeleton--not terribly unlike every reaper he’d ever seen. But it was so much larger. Impossibly gigantic. The equal of the molten golem. It had flames of its own, as well, but these were black as night and grew to cover its skeletal body in a way similar a reaper’s shroud.

Oh hey,’ laughed Garovel, though he sounded rather nervous to Hector, ‘I guess we were wrong. The mist wasn’t for a golem OR a feldeath. It was for both. How wonderful.

That was one explanation that Hector had not needed. He’d certainly never seen a feldeath before, but he’d still been able to recognize what it was almost immediately.

The feldeath began to descend, and four colossal scythes materialized into its skeletal hands--of which there were somehow now four as well.

Page 1410

~~Thanksgiving Special (Page 1 of 4)~~
No one answered him.

Well, that was a bust. It surprised him, though. He thought for sure that at least one of the reapers would’ve had some idea what this place was. It made him further wonder precisely how old this city was. If it were relatively new, then it would make sense that these reapers from the surface didn’t know about it at all, but as he stared at the crumbling infrastructure all around him, that didn’t seem particularly likely.

They arrived at a monument of some sort, and the first thing Hector noticed about it was that it seemed to be perfectly intact, unlike every building he’d seen so far.

It was an enormous flame, as big as a house and eternally still, being carved from pale gray stone. Around it flowed multiple streams of lava, all of which appeared to factored into the design of the foundation.

Oh my god,’ came Axiolis’ voice, and everyone who could hear him turned to look.

Yangéra was the one to ask it. ‘What’s the matter?

Do you not recognize this flame?’ he said, looking over his fellow reapers. ‘This is Enkir, also known as Rathmore’s Flame. It was a famous marker of Hun’Sho royalty.

Hector had multiple questions all of a sudden.

Wow, so this was a Hun’Sho city?’ said Garovel. ‘I suppose that would explain why it’s in ruins.

Hector had to ask a private question. ‘Who’re the Hun’Sho?

Garovel floated closer but didn’t have the opportunity to answer him.

Uh-oh,’ said Lorios aloud. ‘I’m not the only one sensing that, am I?

No,’ said Axiolis. ‘It seems the worms have decided to come in here after us.

Time to start run--

A tremor cut Garovel off, and it was strong enough that Hector and everyone else had to fight to maintain their footing. The tremor did not dissipate, either, and indeed, seemed to only grow stronger with each passing second.

Hector reached out for an explanation. ‘Garovel, what’s happening?!

Remember how we said not to disturb the mist?!’ said Garovel privately. ‘Well, the worms are disturbing the mist!

And then Hector saw the monument from earlier come alive with molten light. Lava flowed up from the base of the stone and through the curves of the flame, igniting it in its entirety and glowing with such increasing intensity that Hector had to shield his eyes.

Magma gushed forth like a geyser, and crystalline ice materialized over the party, protecting everyone but the cluster of Hun’Kui, who did not look terribly fazed by the sudden bath of lava.

The pool of liquid hot rock kept growing, and the group began to slowly move out of its path while they were either shielded from it or swimming through it.

That was when Hector saw something that he would not soon be forgetting.

The magma began to move against its own flow. It began to grow upward. And it began to take form. Two broad pillars connecting at the top--legs to a torso. Bulky and hunchbacked. Then came the arms. Then the head.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Page 1409

I sense them as well,’ said Lorios.

As do I,’ said Axiolis.

Same here,’ said Yangéra.

“Okay,” said Diego, who’d apparently become the spokesperson for every non-reaper in the group. “So what’s the big deal? I mean, I know plants are fairly uncommon in the Undercrust, but is that all we’re going off of?”

No, the thing is,’ said Garovel, ‘these are plants that we recognize. By their “soul-signature,” if you will. And I don’t think any of us have ever sensed these types of plants anywhere but the surface.

Another chorus of agreement arose from the other reapers.

“What in the world?” said Diego. “You’re saying that there are plants down here that shouldn’t be able to survive in this environment? How is that possible?”

That is a very good question,’ said Garovel. ‘And it is why we are going to investigate.

A few more beats of silence passed.

Then Diego, as if realizing something, said, “So we have no idea how we’re going to reach Capaporo and reunite with everyone.”

Correct.

“Meanwhile, they’re probably freaking out, worrying that we’re all dead.”

Probably.’

“And without you there to guide them, they won’t know where to go, so they’ll be stuck in Capaporo.”

Mmhmm.

“This plan bites,” said Diego.

Never said it didn’t,’ said Garovel.

“Ugh...”

Hector didn’t disagree with the man. He wondered how the other Rainlords would react to this development. Things must’ve looked really bad from their end, but would they simply give up on them? Hector hoped they would. With the way the reapers had been describing the sheer volume of worms here, trying to fight their way here... even with as much strength as Asad, Dimas, Salvador, Darktide, and all the others had at their disposal...

It seemed like a terrible idea. One of the worst Hector could imagine, in these circumstances.

But then again...

These were Rainlords.

Hector honestly didn’t know what they would do. And he wanted to pose the question aloud, but he caught a glimpse of Diego’s face. And Zeff’s.

They were probably even more worried about it than he was. Bringing it up now wouldn’t change that, nor would it improve their own predicament.

On the bright side,’ said Garovel, making everyone perk up ever so slightly, ‘our companions, Roman and Voreese, the ones you haven’t met yet, should also be in Capaporo. So if they all meet up together, then even without us there, there’s a good chance that they will make it to Warrenhold safely.

True enough, Hector supposed. He found it difficult to imagine Roman and Voreese hitting it off with the Rainlords and everything going as smoothly as Garovel was suggesting, but again, he kept that to himself. If nothing else, he could appreciate Garovel’s attempt to maintain morale.

As they continued on, Hector tried to think of a new topic of conversation, preferably something that wouldn’t instigate the same feeling of helplessness as the last subject.

The ruined buildings gave him an idea, at least. “...Does anyone know what this city was called?”

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Page 1408

Hector tried to intervene privately. ‘Garovel, is this really the time?

I’m just trying to keep everyone from freaking out,’ the reaper said, also privately.

Diego grew impatient as the group kept walking. “Well, go on, then. Tell us your magnificent theory.”

Oh, well, it’s not MY theory, per se. Just one I’ve heard, like I said.’ Garovel allowed a beat to pass. ‘But anyway, yes, it has to do with golems, too, actually. And how they’re created.

Oh?’ said Axiolis. ‘I’ve not heard this before.

Neither have I,’ said Lorios.

Before continuing, Garovel looked to Yangéra, doubtless wondering if she knew what he was talking about. When she shook her head, Garovel’s next words sounded positively delighted. ‘Well, the idea is simple enough. Whenever ardor accumulates in one place like this, it begins to bleed into the environment, and then, over a period of decades or possibly centuries, sentience is achieved, and the very land itself comes to life in the form of a golem.

As he listened, Hector laughed through his nose, quietly enough that it must have blended into the muted hiss of his armor. He couldn’t helping thinking about how much Garovel must have been enjoying himself.

Or in other words,’ Garovel went on, ‘all of this mist that we’re sensing here could, in truth, be nothing, for now. But ten years from now? Or a hundred? Perhaps a golem will arise.

Interesting,’ said Axiolis. ‘But what causes the ardor to accumulate in one place like this?

That’s not, um, well--that’s not entirely clear. It just seems to occur naturally. But I know some have argued that this gap in our understanding of how or why it happens makes for a compelling case that the planet is indeed sentient, and that it decides such things according to its whims or what have you.

Mm, I see.’ Axiolis did not sound terribly convinced.

“That’s great ‘n all,” said Diego, “and, uh, I’m glad we’re safe from the worms ‘n everything, so I don’t want this to sound like I don’t appreciate what a spectacular job you reapers are doing, but, um... Do we know where we’re going, right now?”

Hector appreciated that question.

...Not entirely,’ admitted Axiolis.

“Not entirely,” echoed Diego, nodding with feigned understanding. “How ‘bout partially, then? If we don’t entirely know, then what are the parts that we do know? Could we focus on those, maybe?”

Could you please not sound so condescending?’ said Yangéra.

“Oh, this isn’t condescension. I assure you, my tone is one of humbleness and admiration.”

Impressively, Diego earned a snicker from Yangéra with that one.

We do sense something else,’ said Garovel, ‘which is what we’re heading toward, currently. But unless I’m mistaken, I think we’re all a bit confused about what it actually is.

“Bein’ pretty vague,” said Diego.

Garovel sighed publicly. ‘Alright, well, below us and still quite a ways ahead, it seems like there are a lot of plants there. That’s what I’m sensing, anyway.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Page 1407

They found an apparent road, inlaid with long and flat stones, some of which reflected the light of the party’s lamps, illuminating pieces of the dark path and thereby making it mildly more clear where they were going. It was only so useful, however, as the path was regularly interrupted by large piles of rubble that needed to be cleared. Diego and Manuel made short work of such tasks while Zeff and Hector kept watch over the party’s front and rear, respectively.

And maybe it was just Hector’s mind playing tricks on him, but as they continued slowly onward, he could feel a heavy silence among the group, a kind of unspoken discomfort. But then, perhaps that was just because of the reapers. If recent experiences were anything to go by, having so many reapers in close proximity to one another without any of them speaking very much... that just didn’t bode very well, Hector felt. Like a bad omen, of sorts.

At length, the Lord Elroy was the one to break the atmosphere. “What is this strange aura?” he asked.

Ah,’ said Garovel. ‘you can sense that, too, can you?

Hector didn’t know what they were talking about.

“I can,” said Zeff. “But only just. What is it? Do any of you know?”

It is ardor,’ said Axiolis. ‘It covers this entire area like a blanket, so dense that it’s become a kind of mist.

“Is that bad?” said Diego, while Manuel Delaguna was busy explaining the half-silent conversation to the non-servants in the group. “Because it doesn’t sound so great.”

It is hard to tell,’ said Axiolis. ‘It could be nothing, but regardless, let us not disturb the mist if we can help it.

Somehow, Hector doubted that it was nothing and so had to speak up, “Supposing it’s not nothing, uh... then what would it be? Hypothetically, I mean.”

The reapers hesitated visibly.

Hypothetically,’ said Axiolis slowly, ‘it could mean that a rock golem is slumbering here. Which would be wonderful. Golems are quite docile and friendly toward humans.

It might even help us fight the worms, if they decide to follow us into this area,’ added Garovel.

Indeed.’

Diego had the same question that was occurring to Hector. “If it’s so wonderful, then why should we avoid disturbing the mist?”

Because,’ said Axiolis, again slowly, ‘it could also be a feldeath.

No one said anything. Even Manuel stopped translating for the non-servants.

Manuel’s reaper picked up the slack. ‘We should clarify that, while it is yet unclear at this point, a golem is the more likely case,’ said Lorios.

Of course,’ said Axiolis. ‘I have been able to sense particularly strong ardor from much of the rubble around here. And rubble is made from rocks. Which is what golems are.’ The reaper didn’t sound as confident as Hector would’ve liked.

Garovel helped him out. ‘Or it could be nothing, like Axiolis first said. In fact, I know of a fascinating theory regarding the seemingly pointless accumulation of ardor.’

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Page 1406 -- CLI.

Chapter One Hundred Fifty-One: ‘What remains of a Falling...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

So the worms have given up?’ Hector asked, still not entirely clear on what seemed like an ever-changing situation.

Uh, I’m not sure,’ said Garovel privately. ‘They’ve slowed down or stopped chasing us, but I don’t know if that means they’ve genuinely given up. My knowledge of worms is a bit spotty, in case that wasn’t already obvious.’

Then ask one of the others about it,’ said Hector.

Aww, but--ugh, fine.’ He switched over to a public voice. ‘So do you think they’ve left us alone or what?

No,’ said Axiolis. ‘Judging from the movement patterns, they still seem agitated to me.

Why are they keeping their distance, then?’ asked Yangéra.

Probably because they are hesitant to enter this area for some reason,’ said Axiolis. ‘It would make sense if this area was the territory of a rock golem. In which case, we have lucked out.

Hector’s pessimism was doubting that.

Have we, though?’ said Garovel, perhaps feeling similarly. ‘We’re still both surrounded AND stranded. Doesn’t seem like the greatest luck to me, even if the worms have given up. Which, by the way, you’re also saying they might not have?

Mm, indeed,’ said Axiolis. ‘They may just need to cluster up in order to overcome their anxiety. They are not exactly the brightest creatures in the world, so that may take them a while.

Then let’s make use of that time,’ said Yangéra. ‘We should put some more distance between us and them while we can.

Agreed.

Yeah.

Alright.

And the group began walking again, though at a more cautious pace than even before they were being chased.

Hector had the opportunity to observe the various crumbling structures all around them. He’d never seen the like before. Most windows were longer horizontally than they were vertically, and whatever the faintly foggy material was that occupied them couldn’t have been simple glass, as it would have surely melted at this temperature.

He tried to recall if he’d seen material like this in Babbadelo, but if he had, it was escaping him. He thought about asking Garovel if he remembered, but the reaper had never seemed to give too much of a crap about architecture, so he probably wouldn’t. That, and he didn’t want to distract Garovel from his observational duties, right now.

Regardless, he wished they had more light. Even with all of their lamps probing around, the thick darkness still made it difficult to see very much at one time. And of course, pretty much every building was in shambles, too. That made it considerably harder to spot the architectural differences between here and the surface.

What a shame. He would’ve liked to get a look at an intact roof, but he couldn’t find one.

Still, it was interesting to him that this place even had buildings to begin with--or at least this many. Babbadelo had so few by comparison. Everything there had been carved out of the natural rock formations.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Page 1405

Royo figured he should reciprocate and give Lenos a hint toward his own identity. “When will you learn? I’ve always tried my hardest to set a good example for you. And everyone else, too. That’s why, unlike you, when I speak, people listen.”

“Don’t lecture me, Eleyo. I know all about your reputation.”

Ah. So he’d already known. Royo was flattered but not terribly surprised.

Royo observed a change in the way the superhumans were carrying themselves, and the reapers all appeared to close ranks. Rumbling beneath his feet confirmed his fears, and moments later, a worm tunneled out of the ground ahead of them.

It was comparatively small, however, and did not prove to be nearly so grave a threat as their previous encounter. As quickly as it had appeared, the one called Zeff slew the beast whilst shouting at the top of his lungs. A single, glistening spear skewered it through the mouth, and a tower of ice erupted up out of the worm’s body, exploding it into frozen pieces.

The Senmurai raised a metal wall in defense of the Hun’Kui, but Royo still ended up taking a bead of ice on the arm.

It burned unlike anything he’d ever felt. Royo howled in agony and dropped to the ground.

Fortunately, the pain soon abated. Lenos helped him to his feet.

The bead of ice was gone, but his arm was numb, and Royo could see it twitching. As he steadied his haggard breath, he was made to wonder how something so small could have felt so torturous and debilitating. Ice truly was as terrifying as the rumors said it was.

There was little time to recuperate, however. The superhumans were ushering the group onward at an increased pace.

As they ran, the one called Zeff ventured closer and gestured with his hands. He even made a poor attempt to apologize in Hunese. He was not very familiar with the language, apparently. No surprise. Perhaps his reaper was feeding him words to say.

Royo accepted it as silently and as graciously as he could manage. As humiliating as it was, Royo understood that it had not been intentional. There would be no need to seek retribution from the one called Zeff. Royo knew the damage was most likely not permanent, and an accident was an accident, after all.

The cavernous passage they were using opened up as completely as Royo’s vision would allow, and suddenly there were no more walls, only pitch darkness.

Pitch darkness and a kind of... mist. Faint, but there. Squinting, he removed his goggles, and the mist vanished completely. He put them on, and the mist returned. Which told him that the mist was infused with ardor, if not entirely constituted from it.

The group slowed their run to a walk, then stopped altogether. He searched the superhumans’ faces for answers, but they were looking as confused as he was.

He rummaged through a rucksack that he’d procured back on the train, and he was pleased to find a directional lamplight. He pointed it ahead and switched it on.

A cone of light cut through the murky blackness, revealing large shapes in the distance.

Buildings, he soon realized. In quite poor condition. Crumbling, many of them. Very old architecture, as well.

As he moved his light to and fro horizontally, and as the others joined him in switching on their own lights, more and more structures came into view, and their discovery became more and more apparent.

They had found a city in ruins.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Page 1404

Lenos spoke up again, interrupting Royo’s silent ruminations. “Thank you for saving my ass back there, by the way,” he said, again in Hunese. “I doubt I would have made it if not for you.”

Royo gave him a look. “Yes, well, if you get the opportunity to return the favor--and it seems like you might--then I hope you do.”

“Of course.”

Now that he was thinking about it, there was a good chance that Royo could recognize or otherwise identify this man. There had been no lack of prisoners back in Babbadelo, yet Royo had only seen a handful aboard the train. Logic would dictate, therefore, that the local government had chosen the prisoners that they found the most problematic. A few possible candidates came to mind. He’d always tried to be aware of notable individuals whenever he traveled, and Babbadelo had been no different.

He needed more information, though. He couldn’t ask for Lenos’ real name, obviously, but maybe he could get a hint. “Do you have any hidden talents that might come in handy? Anything that you’ve been keeping from me, perhaps?”

“Ah...” Lenos rubbed his neck with his hand as he took a moment to think. “Not especially...”

No good. Lenos couldn’t tell what he’d been getting at? Or perhaps he was just reluctant to say. Royo tried again. “That reminds me. What was keeping you so busy back in Babbadelo? I didn’t see you around very much.”

“Oh, you know. The usual...”

Ugh. Come on. “So you were causing problems, then?”

Lenos squinted at him briefly, then smirked. “You know me. Just can’t keep my hands to myself, sometimes.”

Was that a clue? The look on Lenos’ face suggested as much, but Royo didn’t understand what he was getting at. “I hope you weren’t doing anything unwelcome or otherwise disrespectful. It would reflect poorly on the rest of us, you know.”

“Never. I am always the perfect gentleman. Though, I admit, this time I could have been more discreet. But what can I say? I was enraptured. Not feeling myself.”

Royo’s expression flickered. Was he describing the same thing that had happened to himself?

“Normally, I never get caught,” Lenos went on. “I consider it a matter of professional dignity.”

Professional? That one had to be a clue.

The man made it sound as if he were talking about a habit of promiscuity, but as far as Royo was aware, there were no laws in Babbadelo that would have imprisoned him for such behavior. Lenos had to be talking about something else.

Thievery? If he considered it a matter of professionalism, that made the most sense to Royo. And a thief who took pride in not getting caught must have also been a thief who had been doing it for a while. One who would have earned a name for himself.

And Royo had recently heard such a name. That of Kogibur, or the Roach.

A particularly unflattering name in the Undercrust, because as far as benign pests went, cockroaches were arguably the most reviled. But that was also because they were so resilient and difficult to get rid of. So in a way, perhaps it was a kind of compliment.