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 their 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 like 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 pointed 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 train 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 see the worm. Not yet, anyway. He doubted that it had 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 over 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 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 16, 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.

Wednesday, March 15, 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.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

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.

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.

Saturday, March 4, 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.

Friday, March 3, 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.”

Thursday, March 2, 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.

Wednesday, March 1, 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.