Monday, January 23, 2017

Page 1289

((The Monday Triple: page 1 of 3))
“I’m just taking an interest in what my best pal--which is you, by the way--is up to,” said Jercash.

“Mm.”

“You don’t need to hide anything from me. I am only here to support you in whatever capacity you require. And if that means unraveling a bit of the age old mystery that is you, then so be it.”

Gohvis made no response.

“Alright, fine. I’ll tell you more about my plans, if you tell me more about yours.”

“There is nothing more to tell.”

“Bullshit! There’s something way off about this library. I’m sure it’s just chock full of juicy secrets.”

“I am merely using it to preserve knowledge.”

“Yeah, and my nineteen ex-wives all married me for love.”

“I am sure it was your inability to let things go that won them over.”

“C’mon, just clue me in a little bit. For old time’s sake. I already know your endgame. Just tell me your next move.”

“Studying is my next move.”

“Ugh, alright, then what’s the move after that one?”

“More studying.”

“What’s the move after your all done studying?”

“Researching.”

“That’s the same thing! I wanna know when you’re gonna punch somebody!”

“I won’t know that until I do more research.”

“I will blow up this damn library.”

“Jercash. I genuinely do not have any short-term plans that you would be interested in.”

The man just looked at him.

“Shall I bring in the Weaver and have her read my mind for you?” said Gohvis.

“Yeah, I already know her power doesn’t work on you. Nice try, though.”

Gohvis gave a hulking shrug and returned to his desk. He began sifting through the books that he had stacked there.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Page 1288

“You seem stressed,” said Gohvis.

“I am!”

“Perhaps a nice book would help you unwind.”

Jercash looked like he wanted to scream. After tapping his fingers against his forehead for a few silent moments, however, he composed himself. “...I still can’t believe that one of the most feared men in the world decided to become a librarian.”

“I think it suits me,” said Gohvis. “I only wish I had known about this place when I was younger. It would have saved me considerable grief.”

Jercash ventured over to Gohvis’ desk. “Your mutation studies are going well, then?”

“They are.”

“Does that mean this dream of yours is--?” Jercash cut himself off as his gaze fell upon Germal and Emiliana. “Who’re they, by the way?”

“My pets. You needn’t worry.”

Emiliana raised an eyebrow from behind her mask.

Jercash squinted. “Hey. We recognize you. You’re Germal, aren’t you?”

“I am.” The one-horned man shuffled urgently forward to offer a handshake. “It is a sincere pleasure to meet you, sir. I am a great admirer of your work.”

“We’ve met before, haven’t we?”

“Yes, sir, although that was many years past. I am flattered you remember.”

“You’ve earned yourself a few accolades since then.” Jercash broke for another laugh. “The Gentleman of Palei. The Vanguard sure didn’t like that nickname, did they?” He snapped his fingers a few times. “What was the one they tried to push on you, instead?”

“Ah, I am afraid I do not--”

“The Liar of Lyste. That’s right. Quite catchy, in its own way.”

“Perhaps a bit too catchy, where Lyste is concerned,” said Germal.

“Ah, well, don’t worry about it too much. What’re you doing, hanging around with the likes of him? Is he keeping you here against your will?”

“Oh, you see--”

“Leave them be,” Gohvis interrupted. “We still have much to discuss, do we not?”

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Page 1287

((The Saturday donation bonus: page 3 of 3))
“Mm,” Jercash hummed, eyeing the jar another time. “So how’d he do, then?”

“I expected worse,” said Gohvis.

“Oho! High praise, coming from you.”

“He will still require babysitting for a while longer, I think.”

“Well, yeah. Hell, with your little fire buddy running amok out there, I wouldn’t mind being babysitted, myself.”

“You fear Jackson that much?”

“You don’t?’

“Hmph.”

“That’s not a no.”

“Contrary to what you may have heard, I have no interest in fighting him,” said Gohvis.

“That doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in fighting you. From what I’ve heard, he hates you more than anyone. Even Vanderberk. Hell, even my boss. And everybody hates that guy.”

“What has that old loon been up to lately, anyway? I have not been keeping up with--”

“Whoa, whoa. No changing the subject. I want to know what you plan to do if Jackson hunts you down.”

“If that happens, I will probably fight him.”

Jercash’s expression went flat. “That’s it? You’re just gonna fight him head on?”

“Probably.”

“Ugh. Come on, man. I’ve got plans, here, and you’re part of them, remember? And even if you weren’t, I still wouldn’t want you to die! You’re the only real friend I have left!”

The Monster gave a low laugh--low enough, in fact, that Emiliana mistook it for a growl, at first, before being entirely surprised that he even could laugh. “Your concern is touching.”

“You think I’m joking? Well, I’m not, goddammit. In fact, if I’m being completely honest, you’re probably the only person whose company I find even remotely enjoyable, anymore.”

Emiliana wasn’t quite sure what she was witnessing.

Gohvis still seemed amused. “I shall try not to die for your sake, then.”

“I’m not in the mood for your sarcasm, asshole. If you die, then who does that leave me with, huh?” He held up the jar again. “This shithead? Gimme a break!”

Page 1286 -- CXL.

((The Saturday donation bonus: page 2 of 3))
Chapter One Hundred Forty: ‘O, virtuous Wicked...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Emiliana followed Germal’s ushering lead off to the side of the main path as the stranger approached.

Gohvis opened one of the drawers in his desk and retrieved a large jar from it. He circumnavigated the metal globe in the middle of the room in order to greet his visitor.

“So,” came the man’s two voices, “is there a reason you’ve been jilting my messengers, or do you just like making my life difficult?” He pulled the hood of his coat off, revealing his bronzy complexion more clearly, along with a dark, beastly mustache.

“It is not my fault if the Dáinnbolg kills them before they make it here,” said Gohvis.

“You could’ve met them halfway. I’m sure they made it close enough for you to sense them, at least.”

“I have been busy.”

“And I haven’t? You DO know that the Vanguard’s nearly got us by the short-and-curlies, don’t you?”

“I have complete confidence in you, Jercash.”

“Oh, is that right?” the man laughed. He shifted something that he was carrying beneath his raincoat. “I never thought it would be your kindness that you would kill me with.”

Gohvis offered him the jar. “For all your complaining, you certainly took your time getting here.”

Jercash accepted it. “Eh. I kind of didn’t want him back. Guy’s a real prick, y’know.”

“I do know.”

“Is that why you showed him who’s boss?”

“He wanted to prove himself,” said Gohvis.

“Ah. Where’s Elinox?”

“Who?”

“Vanderberk’s reaper.”

“In the jar with him.”

Jercash held the jar up to his ear and shook it. “Awfully quiet in there.”

“The whining was obnoxious.”

“Agh. How bad is it?”

“The reaper should recover in a day or two.”

Page 1285

((The Saturday donation bonus: page 1 of 3))
The Monster stood before an immense desk loaded with stacks of books that were as tall as he was. Beyond the desk, Emiliana spotted an enormous globe. It didn’t seem to be what Gohvis was interested in, but it caught her attention nonetheless, what with the way its polished metal shimmered against the countless amber lanterns spread throughout the Library.

As they drew nearer, Emiliana heard Chergoa’s soundless voice speaking continuously.

--thus, the Primordials grew to know shame for all they had wrought, and only then did the Void deign to claim them. The land, the sea, and the sky lamented their loss, and the Heart of the World raged in molten fury. But the Void refused to return them until they learned the meaning of--’ The reaper stopped reading when she noticed Emiliana.

“What are you doing?” Emiliana asked.

Gohvis asked me to translate these ancient tablets for him,’ said Chergoa.

Emiliana wasn’t sure what to say to that. She wanted to ask why the reaper was helping someone like him, but she supposed refusing wouldn’t have been very smart, either.

“Your timing is unfortunate,” the Monster said with his two voices. “We will speak later. Leave now.”

“Is something the matter?” said Germal.

Gohvis opened his lipless mouth to speak, but paused and seemed to change his mind. “Nevermind.” He grabbed the black mask that he’d confiscated from Emiliana before and offered it to her. “Put it on. And remain quiet.”

And Emiliana was confused but not for long, because after a few moments, she felt it. Another enormous soul had arrived. One to rival Gohvis’ own, perhaps.

She did as he’d asked of her. Not that he’d needed to. If anything, she was more comfortable in the mask.

At the far end of the room, a pair of doors opened, inviting some of Exoltha’s furious wind and sleet inside, along with a man in a raincoat.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Page 1284

Emiliana had to stop walking and eye the bones anew. The previous Keeper? The skull did look vaguely humanoid, but it was far too large, and the cuspids were much too long and sharp. Not to mention, the cranium was wildly misshapen.

Or, wait. No.

It wasn’t so much misshapen as it was smashed in, she realized. There were cracks all along the sunken cleft where the forehead should’ve been, and most of the occipital bone was simply missing.

She was almost afraid to inquire any further. “...Did Gohvis do this?”

Germal gave an affirming nod. “The Keeper would not allow him to take more than one book at a time.”

“So he killed it?”

“The creature had been in thrall to the Library since eons past. Letting it live would not have been a mercy.”

Emiliana wondered about that. She crouched down and ran her fingers along the front, side, and upper sections of the old Keeper’s skull. It was as she thought. “...And punching it so hard that its brain flew out the back of its head? You call that a mercy?”

Germal seemed confused. “How--?” He blinked a couple times. “You figured that out from touching it just now?”

She pointed to the fractured indention above the eye sockets. “The brow bone is incredibly thick--noticeably more so than the rest of the skull. If not for that, I imagine the impact would have caused the entire head to explode.”

“Impressive. I am student of anatomy, too. But then, I suppose we all are, hmm?”

“I didn’t do it to impress you.”

“Hmph.” Germal started walking again. “The creature died so quickly that I doubt it felt any pain. So yes, I would still call it a mercy.”

Emiliana gave the bones one last look and then followed.

It didn’t take much longer to find Gohvis.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Page 1283

“Fine,” Ibai pouted. “Where do I find this Keeper of the Library, then?”

“Bottom floor, most likely,” said Germal. After a beat, he seemed to remember something and added, “Oh, and the current Keeper is Gohvis, by the way. Perhaps I should have mentioned that earlier.”

Emiliana just kind of stared at him.

“Ah, Gohvis, huh? I suppose--” Ibai was interrupted by the Library again, but this time, it wasn’t an explosion.

Instead, it was only a simple rumbling. Which grew more intense. And kept growing more intense. Until Emiliana was sufficiently unsettled and began to prefer explosions.

Every single bookcase in her line of sight was shaking, even the ones on the other side of the room’s center pit.

Ibai smacked his lips. “Well, I’m going to go now.” He teleported away just as the room erupted into a storm of paper.

Thousands of books and pages flew together in the center of the room, coalescing into a single, connected form, and a kind of hulking serpent was born. It spiraled in place for a moment, hovering, and then snaked up and over to the floor directly above them. A cluster of familiar crashing noises soon followed. Then there was a pause. Then more crashes.

The pattern repeated from there, and Emiliana got the feeling that it wouldn’t be stopping anytime soon.

At length, Germal began leading her downward again. “...Is your friend going to be okay?” he asked.

“...I have no idea.”

When they finally did reach the bottom floor, the first thing Emiliana noticed was a gargantuan pile of bones just sitting there by the stairwell.

“Are these dinosaur bones? Shouldn’t they have a proper display exhibit or something?”

“Those are not dinosaur bones,” said Germal. “Those are the Library’s previous Keeper.”

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Page 1282

((The Wednesday Triple: page 3 of 3))
“Ibai, what are you--?” But Emiliana didn’t get to finish her thought.

The bookcase next to them exploded into a flurry of pages that went straight for the middle-aged Rainlord.

But he wasn’t there anymore. “Hey, this one looks interesting,” came his voice from behind Emiliana and Germal, making them both turn. He pulled a book off the shelf there, and it exploded, too. But still not in time to catch him, apparently. “A History of Worms and Greatworms, by Leonardo Erickson.” He was standing next to her again. “I think I’ve heard of him. He was a famous Vanguardian scholar, wasn’t he?”

Another explosion of books arrived. It missed Ibai again, but Emiliana caught some of it instead and earned herself several enormous paper cuts extending all the way up her right arm.

“Oh!” Ibai bit his lip as he observed her from yet another new angle. “I’m terribly sorry about that. Maybe we should talk somewhere else.”

“Yes, maybe we should,” she said, wincing and nursing her arm. She would’ve liked to have that heightened pain tolerance that Germal was talking about earlier.

He avoided another flurry of books and paper. “Okay!” he said. “We’ll catch up later! I’ll show you all the cool books I found!”

“Do try to be careful, please.”

“Aha! Sure thing!” He paused. “Oh, but wait, here! You might like this one!” He offered her a book titled The Many Mysteries of Mutation, by Agam Elroy.

And she very nearly took it from him before catching herself. “If I take that from you, the Library will come after me, too!”

“Really?”

“Yes! Didn’t you know that was why it was trying to kill you?!”

“Huh. I thought it just didn’t like me.”

“No! You need to put those books back or get permission from the Keeper of the Library!”

“Aw, do I have to?”

“Yes!”

Page 1281

((The Wednesday Triple: page 2 of 3))
Another tremor arrived, but it was more noticeable this time, because a crashing sound followed it, as well as a whole lot of rustling paper.

Emiliana and Germal both looked out over the anciently baroque handrail, searching for the source of the commotion amongst the layered sea of bookcases. They couldn’t find it, but the noise never quite died down, only lessened to a background murmur.

“What do you think that was?” Emiliana asked as they continued on.

“At a guess, I would say the Library ate someone just now,” said Germal, “but... then again, perhaps not. It is not usually so aggressive.”

She squinted. “Are you saying that it normally eats people in an unaggressive manner?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. The Library usually consumes you via a kind of hypnosis. You begin reading, and then... you simply never stop. The desire to continue reading overpowers all others in your mind, even thirst and hunger and rest. And with every bit of knowledge you discover, with every new secret you unlock, a small part of your soul is overtaken by the Library. In the end, I suppose, you do learn all of the Library’s secrets. The only problem is that, by that point, you’ve become part of the Library.”

That sounded awfully familiar, Emiliana felt. “How do you know so much about it?” she asked.

“The acquisition of delicate information is my trade,” said Germal.

“...That is not an answer.”

“Alright, fine, Gohvis told me.”

The noise from before resurged and stole their attention again. This time, it sounded closer.

“You have heard the Library make these sounds before?” Emiliana asked.

“Yes, but only once. Gohvis had just discovered this place, and the Library was upset that it could not eat him. But that was years ago, and--”

A brown shade appeared, and then Ibai Blackburn was standing there next to her. “Hello, Em!” he said, all smiles. “Isn’t this place great?!” He had a whole stack of books under one arm.

Page 1280

((The Wednesday Triple: page 1 of 3))
As they continued, it was hard to not feel a bit overwhelmed by this place. Suffice to say, in her entire life, she had never seen so many books at once. Or even cumulatively, for that matter. And this scent. She had never thought of “knowledge” as a smell before, but that was what came to mind. Musty, papery, inky, dusty.

Comforting, in an odd way. Welcoming, perhaps. Intoxicating, too, somehow. As if every word on every page was simply waiting to be read.

She couldn’t claim to have ever been an avid reader, really, but this place was making her wish she was otherwise. Surely, there must’ve been all sorts of juicy secrets hidden around here. Why else would Gohvis be interested in a library?

She stopped following Germal and, almost unconsciously, found herself drawing closer to the nearest bookcase. A quick peek wouldn’t hurt. Her hand searched for a book.

Abruptly, Germal was right there next to her, holding her wrist. “I would not do that if I were you.”

“Why not?” she asked.

“The Library of Erudition has three very important rules, so listen well,” said Germal. “First, you can never take a book without the Keeper of the Library’s permission. Second, any book you do take will return to the Library within twenty days. And finally, if you attempt to break either of the first two rules, the Library will devour your soul and every bit of knowledge that you carry.”

Emiliana just stared at him.

He moved her hand back down to her side for her. “Perhaps I should have mentioned that before we came here,” he said.

“Yes, perhaps.”

“The Library is a great honey trap, of sorts. I have heard that it has a will of its own and that it can be rather malicious.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Page 1279

Emiliana found that rather difficult to believe but didn’t think being rude would prove useful, so as sincerely as she could manage, she simply asked, “Why?”

“Because, for one thing, as far as I have been able to tell, he always acts either defensively or with great precision,” said Germal. “Unlike many of his contemporaries, he rarely causes collateral damage. And for all their talk, many of the Vanguard’s strongest cannot truthfully make the same claim.”

That was hard to argue with, she supposed. All things considered, she didn’t really know as much about the Vanguard as perhaps she should have; but after hearing the Lady Stroud talk about what transpired at Rheinhal... Emiliana didn’t think she would be forgetting the names Sanko, Parson Miles, and Xavier Lawrence anytime soon.

“For another thing,” Germal went on, “Gohvis is not trying to annihilate humanity, as you have no doubt heard. On the contrary, he is trying to ensure its survival.”

Beyond all others thus far, Emiliana found that claim to be exceptionally dubious. She decided to keep her mouth shut, however, as she began to notice tall bookcases replacing the walls of the corridor. And indeed, they soon arrived at their destination. The hallway opened into an enormous chamber--much more enormous than she had been expecting, in fact.

It was a great stairwell, she saw, and each floor was filled with thousands of books. The wide pit in the middle of the room offered a view that went both above and below, and while she could see a distant ceiling, she couldn’t see a bottom floor.

Germal led her downward, and she tried to glimpse the titles of some of the nearest books, but they were in a language she didn’t recognize.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Page 1278

((The Monday Triple: page 3 of 3))
“What do you mean, ‘paper boy’?” asked Emiliana.

“A deliverer of news,” said Germal. “It is as mundane as it sounds.”

A rather brief and dismissive answer, Emiliana noticed. She tried a different angle. “How old are you?”

Germal found the question amusing. “A word of advice, cedo. Inquiries such as those are invitations for lies. You will have to choose your words more skillfully than that if you wish to learn anything useful from strangers.”

They came to an intersection of seven different hallways, and Germal chose the far right one.

Emiliana followed. “...So you are not going to tell me how old you are?”

“Would you trust my word if I did?”

“You’ve yet to give me a reason not to.”

“Ah. In that case, I am three years old.”

“...No, you aren’t.”

“And now I have given you your reason.”

Emiliana smacked her lips. “Very well. If you will not tell me about yourself, then what can you tell me of Gohvis?”

“Ha! He is not prone to talking about himself.”

“Yeah, I guessed as much. But is he as bad as everyone says?”

Germal stopped walking to look at her. “Everyone? Who is everyone, cedo?”

She wasn’t quite sure what he was asking. “Um...”

“You have not heard what everyone says, I should think. If you believe that everyone thinks him evil, then you have heard but one side of the debate.”

“Tell me the other side, then.”

Germal continued walking. “The Black Scourge. The Monster of the East. In this place, and many others, those names are all but heresy. Speak them aloud and you are liable to receive a lashing that you will not soon recover from.”

Emiliana just listened.

“Gohvis is a hero to many--and I do not mean only our kind. There are some places where he is even revered as the greatest hope for all humanity.”

Page 1277

((The Monday Triple: page 2 of 3))
“Oh, did I ruin it?” said Germal innocently.

In an instant, Koh torpedoed into Germal and ripped one of his arms off. Germal shrieked as blood splattered across the corridor.

“REALLY?!” the man screamed. “WAS THAT NECESSARY?!”

Koh seemed content now, however, and had lain back down to start gnawing on his prize.

Germal gave a throaty groan as he tried in vain to stifle the bleeding with one hand. “Unbelievable. You realize, now we must arrange a meeting with Nerovoy? Which will put us behind schedule.”

Koh didn’t appear to care very much.

Emiliana had a handful of fresh questions, but she decided to start with the most courteous one. “Are you alright?”

“Yes, yes,” said Germal, sounding more annoyed than pained now. He pulled off his half-shredded overshirt and began trying to tie it around the open wound. “Heightened pain tolerance was one of my earlier modifications. I would highly recommend it, as soon as you are capable.”

Emiliana helped him finish wrapping it, more or less. She did know how to dress a wound properly, and that was most definitely not proper, but she supposed it didn’t matter so much for a servant. The main concern was just to avoid getting blood everywhere.

They decided to leave Koh alone after that.

Emiliana posed her next question while they walked. “So this Nerovoy is your reaper, then?”

“Yes,” said Germal.

“Why is... he or she not with you now?”

“He and I are rarely together,” said Germal. “The nature of our job keeps us very far apart.”

“What job is that?”

“Oh, it is quite dull. I doubt you would be interested.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

“Heh. If you must know, I am but a glorified paper boy.”

Page 1276

((The Monday Triple: page 1 of 3))
Emiliana took a step back unconsciously as she recalled where she had learned of “the Man-Eater of Melmoore.” It was her mother’s doing. From time to time, the woman had forced her to study the names and accounts of notorious servants around the world.

As the name implied, the Man-Eater was supposed to have devoured upwards of four hundred people over the last sixty years or so. He’d become something of a Melmoorian bogeyman, and Emiliana even remembered reading one story about a village that formed a cult around his legend and conducted human sacrifices in order to appease him.

Looking at him now, Emiliana wasn’t sure what to believe.

Koh puffed on his cigar and then swished it over to the other side of his mouth. He leveled his orange-eyed gaze her way.

“I think he wants you to pet him,” said Germal.

Emiliana didn’t think he wanted that at all.

“Go on. He will not hurt you. I give you my word.”

She frowned and began moving her non-clawed hand slowly toward Koh’s huge head.

For a time, Koh merely watched her hand approach, but then, apparently, he grew tired of waiting and met her halfway.

The top of his head was surprisingly fluffy. She scratched behind one of his ears, and the giant dog went abruptly limp and shut his eyes. He nestled up closer to her, and she brought her clawed hand up to use on the other ear. He seemed to appreciate that quite a lot.

After observing for a short while, Germal decided to interject. “Strange to think he used to be a grown man, eh?”

Emiliana’s mouth flattened. Somehow, that idea began to spoil her enjoyment, and she pulled away.

Koh’s eyes popped open, and he growled at the horned man again.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Page 1275

The name didn’t mean much to Emiliana, but maybe Chergoa would be able to tell her more about it. She’d have to ask her later.

As they continued on, they met several other mutation users. Emiliana had seen a few of them already but hadn’t gone so far as to speak with any of them. None of them looked particularly welcoming, but Germal seemed to have no reservations about initiating a conversation with each one.

The first was an apparent beetle-man with an enormous sword on his back. Germal asked him about Vantalay, to which the beetle-man grumbled about there being a spike in terrorist activity. Germal asked if he required help, but the beetle-man said that Gohvis had already promised him reinforcements.

After the beetle-man, they encountered a gorilla-man, a hawk-man, a falcon-woman, a crocodile-man who expressed interest in following Gohvis’ example, a kind of chimera-creature mixing several different animals together, and one very large dog with a cigar in its mouth.

Not a dog-man. Just a dog. Or perhaps wolf. Emiliana had never seen a wolf in real life before, but she had difficulty believing that they were supposed to be this size. On all fours, it was nearly as tall as she was and seemed closer to the weight-class of a tiger, if not beyond it.

Ironically enough, despite not being able to speak, the dog was the one they spent the most time talking to.

“This is my traveling companion,” said Germal. “His name is Koh. Perhaps you have heard of him?”

A bit hesitant, Emiliana just shook her head.

“The Silver Devil of Dante?” said Germal. “The Man-Eater of Melmoore?”

Emiliana blinked, because that last one did ring a bell.

Koh growled and bumped into Germal, knocking him on his ass.

Germal chortled as he stood back up and brushed himself off. “Forgive me. Koh does not like those names.”

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Page 1274

((The Saturday donation bonus: page 3 of 3))
Chergoa occasionally chimed in to check on Emiliana, but the reaper was apparently being held somewhere, temporarily. According to Chergoa, Gohvis claimed that he would allow the reaper to roam freely soon, because the ground of Exoltha served as a kind of natural soul net and did not allow reapers to phase through it--or at least, not safely.

Emiliana had spent the intervening time in her room, mostly, while she mulled her situation over and played with the lone Shard in her possession. She was simply amazed that she hadn’t lost the thing on the way here.

She did wonder where Ibai Blackburn had gotten off to, though. She even ventured off in search of him a couple times, but the layout of this place was beyond confounding, and she hadn’t seen the man even once since they’d arrived here. She just hoped Gohvis hadn’t changed his mind about killing him.

And so, at the moment, the prospect of having an actual guide for this labyrinthine building was quite appealing, even if she didn’t know what to make of Germal yet.

She decided to accept his offer of a tour, and they left the room together.

As they walked down the first corridor, she thought of her first question. “Does this place have a proper name? I heard Gohvis call it ‘the Library,’ but I am not certain if that was a name or... um...”

“Perhaps you are confused by the noticeable lack of books around here, hmm?”

She bobbed her head. “That is one reason, yes.”

“Would you like me to show you where the books are? That is undoubtedly where we will find Gohvis.”

“Oh, um. Yes, please do.”

“Very well.”

“But... you never answered my question.”

“Hmm? Oh, the name of this place. Yes, of course. This is the Library of Erudia. Or the Library of Erudition, if you prefer.”

Page 1273

((The Saturday donation bonus: page 2 of 3))
Extended tremors were frequent as well, usually following the abundant lightning but not always. Loud rain, louder hail, and ferocious blizzards were all equally common, from what she’d seen so far. It felt as if the weather in this place could change by the minute, and oftentimes, the entire building would shudder in its wake.

Why have you brought us to Exoltha?’ Chergoa had asked, much to Emiliana’s surprise.

The Monster had not answered her, however. “I advise you not to set foot outside the Library,” he said. “I may not stop you, but the Dáinnbolg certainly will.”

And through the observation glass, Emiliana had seen it. A creature of unbelievable proportions, rising out of the ground--melting out of it, like some kind of phantom.

Its hulking form drew nearer, and Emiliana got much too good of a look at its grotesque body of black-and-red fire. Its five arms were long, spindly things that each looked big enough to cradle an elephant like a baby, and its gaunt face seemed to be less of a face and more of a loose amalgamation of constantly moving and twisting ridges.

“What is that thing?!” said Emiliana.

“A feldeath,” said Gohvis. “One of the many inhabiting this place. They do not like it when you look at them.”

It was close enough now that it was practically breathing on the observation windows. Assuming it even did breathe, in the first place.

A-are we safe from it in here?’ asked Chergoa.

“Probably.”

It opened its mouth, and a blinding light poured forth. Even with the unwanted filter on her eyes, Emiliana had to squint nearly to the point of closing them. And when the light subsided, it did not altogether disappear. Rather, it was replaced by that of a roaring inferno, as the creature had engulfed the exterior of the observation chamber in fire.

Gohvis didn’t seem too concerned about it, though. They retired downstairs soon afterward, and Gohvis took Chergoa with him, leaving Emiliana to her own devices. She hadn’t seen him since, but she could still feel his weighty presence in the air.

Page 1272

((The Saturday donation bonus: page 1 of 3))
The man had certainly gotten her attention. “Enlightening in what way?” she asked.

“For example, two horns are indicative of a predisposition for mammalian traits. Three horns are indicative of reptilian traits. Seven are indicative of avian. Ten, amphibian. Thirteen, I believe, are arachnid. And so on.”

Emiliana noticed the most obvious omission. “What do four horns indicate?”

“I was rather hoping you would be able to tell me,” said Germal. “The reason I broached the subject at all is because I have never seen four horns before.”

That figured, she supposed, her expression growing briefly bitter. “What about one horn, then?”

Germal smiled. “Alas, I am also something of a curiosity.”

How odd. Emiliana decided to take this man’s words with a grain of salt. Primarily, she wondered what kind of mutations he had subjected himself to. Aside from that lone horn, she could see no other obvious modifications. And from what she knew of mutation, the ability would activate itself if he didn’t use it for too long.

She considered asking him about it, but she wasn’t sure how to phrase the question, and Germal asked something else before she could figure it out.

“Has anyone given you the grand tour, yet?” he said.

Gohvis had showed her around a little when she first arrived, but only enough to know where a few things were. She’d seen a kitchen, a handful of bathrooms, a whole lot of locked rooms, and one immense observation deck at the top of a flight of stairs.

That place had been particularly informative. The encircling view of the world’s most notorious storm was something to behold. Bright as any cloud-covered day in one moment, dark as night in the next, followed by a string of lightning strikes that lit up the rocky and barren landscape like a strobe light.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Page 1271

Upon seeing Emiliana sitting there on the edge of her bed, the stranger stopped. He said something in a language she didn’t understand. After a beat, he said something else in what sounded like another language she didn’t understand.

She merely tilted her head at him.

“Mohssian, perhaps?” he said.

She perked up. “Y-yes, hello.”

“Ah, there we are. My apologies, cedo. I could have sworn that this was my room.”

Emiliana wasn’t sure how to respond.

“Alas, I do not recognize you,” he went on. “Have you been here long?”

“Only a few days.” She shifted slightly as she wondered if she should even be talking to this person.

“I see. Well, it is lovely to meet you, cedo. My name is Germal. Would you grant me the honor of knowing yours?”

She hesitated but said, “Emiliana.”

“Ah. A name with its roots in the old Arman language, if I am not mistaken.”

Perhaps it was time to ask some questions of her own. “How many languages do you know?”

The horned man paused pensively. “Eight, if I am trying to impress. Three and five-quarters, if I am not.”

She merely tilted her head at him again.

Germal took a step farther into the room, but he left the door open. His attire looked like something a casual school teacher might wear, but the way he spoke seemed far from casual to her ears. Perhaps it was just his accent, though. She couldn’t place it.

“Forgive me if I am mistaken,” he said, “but you seem quite young, cedo, and those horns on your face--has anyone explained their significance to you?”

“What do you mean?”

He motioned to his own horn. “As a first experience with mutation, these are extremely common. Nearly universal, in fact. But few people know that the number of initial horns can be very enlightening.”

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Page 1270

At length, she heard Hector again. ‘...Emiliana?

Yes?’ she said.

Could you not hear him?

No, I did not hear anything.

Huh. He was trying to talk to you just now, though.

Ah, then... perhaps this only works for the two of us.

You might be right,’ said Hector. ‘You’re holding one of the Shards, right now, aren’t you?

Yes.

That makes sense. I mean, sort of. We both met Rasalased.

And my father didn’t.

Yeah...

Another long silence.

Then Emiliana realized there was still a question that she desperately wanted an answer to. ‘How are Marcos and Ramira? Are they safe?

Yeah. They’re doing just fine. They’re right here with me, too.

Relief ran through her. ‘What about my father? How is he doing?

...Well, he’s been through a lot, but... I mean, he’s handling it better than I would, I think. A lot better.’ Hector paused. ‘At the moment, though, uh... he doesn’t seem too pleased with me...

Why?

I think he’s mad that only I can talk to you.

Oh.’ She smiled faintly at that.

And yet another intervening silence arrived.

As she thought about it, there were about a million other questions she wanted to ask--how the hell they survived their encounter with the Salesman of Death, for instance--but she was having difficulty deciding which question was most important.

Unfortunately, before she could make up her mind, the tall, forest green door on the other side of the room began opening, and she hurriedly pocketed the Shard. ‘I have to go,’ she threw out to Hector, but she didn’t hear an answer, presumably because she had stopped touching the Shard directly.

Maybe it would’ve been better to keep touching it in her pocket, but she still wasn’t quite sure how this all worked, and she didn’t want the distraction right now.

The one who entered was not Gohvis. Instead, it was a mostly average-looking man, save for the large, arching horn in the middle of his forehead.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Page 1269 -- CXXXIX.

((The Wednesday Triple: page 3 of 3))
Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Nine: ‘Solicitous souls, take heart...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Emiliana couldn’t believe what she’d just heard. Had that really been Hector just now? Was she hallucinating again?

The whole room trembled briefly as the storm outside raged with the strength of an earthquake for a moment, but she was growing accustomed to that by now and so didn’t allow it to distract her.

...Emiliana?

She nearly laughed. ‘Hector! It IS you!’ She wasn’t sure if she was happier knowing that it really was him or just knowing that she wasn’t going crazy.

How...? Uh...? What is happening, right now?

I have no idea,’ she said, still smiling. She wasn’t wearing her mask, as Gohvis had taken it from her.

Where are you?

Oh, I--’ And she hesitated. Impulsively, she wanted to say. Of course she did. But what logic would there be in that? So that Hector would come after her? Or, perhaps more likely, her father?

No.

She couldn’t allow that. There was virtually no doubt in her mind that Gohvis would kill anyone who tried to take her away from this place.

...I don’t know where I am,’ she said.

...Are you okay?’ said Hector. ‘Is Chergoa?

Yes, we are both fine. Gohvis has not harmed us.’ Well, technically, he had broken every bone in her body on the way here, she supposed, but he hadn’t permanently harmed her, at least.

So Ibai couldn’t get away, then.

No. Gohvis is... inescapable, it would seem.

I see...

There came a long pause, as apparently neither of them knew what to say next.

Hector was the one to pick it up again. ‘Oh! Your father wants to talk to you. Here, I’ll put him on.

Emiliana held her breath as she waited to hear her father’s words.

But they never came.

Page 1268

((The Wednesday Triple: page 2 of 3))
“Would you mind letting me hold one of the Shards again?” said Hector.

Asad hesitated. “Why?”

“I... I think Rasalased might be trying to talk to me.”

“...What makes you think that?”

“Uh... it might sound a hard to believe.”

“I’ll try to keep an open mind.”

Hector frowned. There was no dancing around it, he supposed. “I can sense the Shards. Somehow. Like... like they’re alive. And. Sort of. Calling to me? Does that make sense?”

Not really,’ said Qorvass, who’d apparently started listening.

The reapers had finally stopped blabbering on about treasure, Hector realized.

Asad was already digging through his bag, however. He pulled out a Shard. “Here.”

Qorvass looked noticeably more reluctant than his servant, and the pair of them paused in silence briefly, perhaps exchanging words between themselves.

Hector accepted Asad’s offer. His cloud-coated hand touched the Shard, and a shiver shot up the length of his arm and straight into his brain.

And a sense of familiarity washed over him.

But nothing else happened, seemingly.

He’d stopped walking with the group, he realized, and began to feel a bit light-headed. He needed to pay better attention to his surroundings, he told himself, rubbing his forehead. He’d been letting himself get distracted way too easily, especially in this new and dangerous place. He was supposed to be staying alert.

“Are you okay?” Asad and Qorvass had stayed back with him. The others had stopped just ahead of them, and Garovel was floating over now as well.

“Y-yeah...” He inhaled deeply, thinking. The daze in his head was clearing. He couldn’t hear Rasalased. But maybe he needed to initiate the conversation. He wasn’t sure how else to begin, so he just tried to concentrate on the Shard, to think into it. ‘...Hello?

...Hector?’ came the response.

And he blinked. Multiple times. Because, somehow, he could immediately tell who he was talking to. And it wasn’t Rasalased. It was Emiliana Elroy.

Page 1267

((The Wednesday Triple: page 1 of 3))
After that, the reapers continued on discussing ancient treasures, some they’d already mentioned, some they hadn’t. Regardless, Hector found it difficult to keep listening. The pulse of the Shards had his attention again.

Or, in a way, it felt almost like they wanted his attention.

Then again, maybe they did. They did have a mind of their own, after all. Maybe Rasalased wanted to talk to him or something.

Now there was a thought.

He wanted to consult Garovel about it, but the reaper was still conversing with the others.

So instead, he found himself saying, “Hey, uh, Asad...”

The Sandlord turned to look at him.

He wondered how to broach the subject without sounding like a lunatic. “Uh... I, uh... I forgot to ask you earlier. Were you and Qorvass able to talk with Rasalased?”

Hector had, of course, already told them about meeting the Dry God. As soon as he’d returned the Shards to Asad, it was the first thing that came up. And to say that Asad and Qorvass were surprised, would be an understatement. Rather, they had required about an hour to fully process that bit of information, asking disbelieving questions intermittently, not all of which Hector and Garovel were able to answer.

And so, when Asad looked at him now with an expression that was equal parts doubt and disappointment, Hector understood why. “No,” said Asad, “we haven’t managed it, yet.”

That was strange. Hector thought it would be easy for Asad, now that they’d “woken” Rasalased up or whatever, but maybe it wasn’t that simple. Maybe that encounter with him really had a been a freak accident, after all. He did recall Chergoa mentioning something about a “hyper anomaly,” though he was pretty sure she’d been joking.

Whatever the case, it didn’t change what he wanted to ask, here and now.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Page 1266

Their game continued for quite a while, and as much as he would have liked to know more about the ancient treasures of the world, Hector found it difficult to keep listening to them just endlessly naming things.

But it reminded him. Didn’t they already have some legendary treasure with them? His eyes went to the bag on Asad’s back.

He could still sense the Shards there. In fact, he’d been sensing them this whole time and just kind of gotten used to the feeling. For the most part. It was like a slow, gentle pulse that existed underneath everything. Easy to overlook when he wasn’t focused on it, but always there, like a heartbeat.

He’d yet to mention this to Garovel, as it had simply slipped his mind, but clearly, he needed to.

...Is it the Sosho’Diyu?’ said Axiolis.

Yes!’ Mevox finally said. ‘That’s it! You got it!

Ha!

Aww...

“What is this Sosho’Diyu, then?” asked Zeff.

Mevox was eager to answer. ‘It’s supposedly the final resting place of one of the greatest thieves in history. He was so great that no one ever learned his name, in spite of the fact that he stole enough money to bankrupt five kingdoms.

“Wow,” said Zeff.

Is that all you know of it?’ said Axiolis.

Uh,’ said Mevox. ‘Yeah, why?

Because that is not the whole story.

Oh? Do go on.

The Sosho’Diyu is a term from the Aidai language. In Mohssian, it roughly translates to “the Grave of the Underworld.”

Oh... I’m guessing there’s a reason for that, huh?

Yes,’ said Axiolis. ‘This thief, as you said, was unknown, but the story also goes on to say that he stole something so immeasurably valuable that the Gates of Hell opened, and the God of Death came to claim it from him.

A beat passed as, apparently, no one knew what to say to that.

Huh,’ said Mevox. ‘Well, that’s a bit of a mood killer.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Page 1265

((The Monday Triple: page 3 of 3))
Ugh,’ said Iziol. ‘MUST you speak that way?

Yes! Now quit interrupting me!

The reason is a treasure hunt.’

Oh, you thunder-stealing bastard!

“Treasure hunt?” said Asad.

Rumors are swirling that--

No, shut up!’ said Mevox. ‘Rumors are swirling that there’s a crazy treasure trove somewhere around here! Something that’s been thought lost for centuries!

Wait a minute,’ said Qorvass. ‘Centuries? You’re not talking about the Hand of Arkos, are you?

Actually, no, I’m not,’ said Mevox.

Oh,’ said Qorvass. ‘Well, forget I said anything, then.

Axiolis chimed in now. ‘Are you talking about the Shifting Spear of Logante?

Nope, not that, either.

What about Lost Library of Erudia?’ tried Garovel.

Are you kidding? Why would that be here?

I dunno. That’s why I asked.

Ooh!’ said Iziol. ‘Is it the Repeating Discs of Karugetti?

Nope, that’s not--wait, what? You already know what it is!

I just wanted to participate.

Garovel tried again. ‘How about the Crown Jewels of Yena Maria?

Still nope.

Is it the Golden City of Arnuwe?

No.

The Golden City of Pomurnen?

No.

The Golden City of--

It’s not one of the golden cities. Those probably don’t even exist.

Hey, don’t be like that.

I do not suppose it is the Fountain of Lhutwë, is it?

Oh, wow, no. Could you imagine?

I could, yes.

What about the Daring Doll of Damian?

That dumb shit?! Thank god it’s not that!

How about the Undulating Arch-Throne?

Mevox broke for a hearty laugh, then said, ‘Oh, I wish. That would be amazing.

Could it be the Rolling Fists of Chaos?

Nope.

“Perhaps you should give them a hint,” offered Asad.

No!’ they said in unison.

Be quiet, Asad.

Page 1264

((The Monday Triple: page 2 of 3))
“If you can make a falling object float in place so easily, then your ability should already be more than strong enough to manipulate temperatures. It is just a matter of raising your skill level to match your raw power.”

Hector tried to take those words to heart. After so many failed attempts on his own, he’d been growing discouraged and thinking that he just wasn’t strong enough to manipulate his iron’s temperature yet, but clearly, they knew better than he did. He just had to keep at it.

When they finally rejoined the other Rainlords, Hector’s newfound status as a walking rain cloud was enough to earn more than a few looks. But at least it was quieter than that damn refrigeration suit. The steam did cause a kind of low hissing, but it wasn’t so bad, comparatively. Hector was already getting used to it.

Either that, or perhaps Zeff had muffled the noise, somehow. The man had managed to ensure that Hector’s eyes were never covered too much, so maybe that was possible, too. After everything he’d seen Zeff do and heard him say, Hector had come to have quite a lot of faith in the man’s mastery over materialization.

As the Rainlords made their way through the streets of Babbadelo again, it was Mevox, reaper to Lord Salvador Delaguna, who began explaining what they’d learned from the Hun’Kui.

So the local government here is in complete chaos,’ said Mevox. ‘Seems our arrival here is badly timed.’ He paused for a low chortle. ‘Or, AMAZINGLY timed.

You are beginning to sound like a lunatic again,’ said Iziol, the reaper to Dimas.

I don’t need to hear that from YOU,’ said Mevox. ‘Anyway, like I was saying, this place is in chaos, right now, and the reason for it is dick-shittingly incredible.

Page 1263

((The Monday Triple: page 1 of 3))
Of course, it wasn’t truly still, like Zeff’s water had been. Hector could see the iron moving in place--and feel it, too, when he ran his finger across it--but the overall shape was almost trivial to maintain. It only took Hector a few seconds to get a feel for the acceleration of gravity, and then, like magic, he had it down.

Also like magic, he found it quite fun to stare at. He marveled at the iron cube hovering over the palm of his hand, feeling like a genuine sorcerer. But then again, he supposed he kind of was one--and had been this whole time, perhaps.

He was going to be playing around with this a lot, he felt. A perpetually falling-yet-stationary object. He wondered if it had any practical applications. He couldn’t think of any, at the moment, but... hell, even if it didn’t have any, that’d be okay, he supposed. The technique just had a kind of elegant simplicity to it, and he was slightly disappointed that he hadn’t thought of it himself. And a bit surprised that Garovel hadn’t known of it.

There was also another technique that they had been mentioning--something they called “mapping,” which Zeff seemed to finally be getting around to explaining, but as luck would have it, an interruption arrived before he could.

The other Rainlords had grown tired of waiting around for them and wished to proceed on, and Hector couldn’t really blame them. By now, they’d probably interrogated every single one of the Hun’Kui who’d assaulted them.

Shall we continue this later?’ said Garovel.

“Very well,” said Zeff, as the group began walking together. “In the meantime, work on your precision-crafting.”

“And temperature manipulation,” Asad added.

“Ah, yes.”

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Page 1262

Oh, hey, I’m familiar with that technique,’ said Garovel. ‘Even non-servants can do it, to an extent, no?

“What?” said Hector. “Really?”

“Yes,” said Asad.

Speaking is a good example,’ said Garovel. ‘Normally, it requires active concentration, but it’s certainly possible to hone one’s ability to speak without thinking. Rote memorization is one way to accomplish it, but you can also learn to just babble words generically while thinking about completely unrelated things or nothing at all.

“Wow,” said Asad. “You explained it better than I was going to.”

Heh heh.

“I wish you wouldn’t boost his ego like that,” said Hector.

Oh, come on, I haven’t gotten to explain anything this whole time.’

Beyond that, Zeff and Asad also lectured him on a few things he already knew about. Temperature manipulation, visualization, position and velocity states--the fundamentals, they called them. He didn’t mind listening to their perspectives. If anything, it helped reinforce a few things in his head.

They made him practice, too. That was probably the part that he enjoyed the least, and the part that they clearly enjoyed the most. They made him try his hand at a suspended iron cube, using layers like Zeff had described, but it quickly descended into a jiggling mess that could scarcely stay afloat, let alone hold its shape.

After laughing at him vengefully, however, they were courteous enough to teach him an easier method of accomplishing a similar feat. Rather than using layers, he could simply create an object in midair, and then “grow it” straight upward at a speed equivalent to the acceleration of gravity. From there, he needed only keep annihilating it from the bottom while continuing to grow it from the top.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Page 1261

((The Saturday donation bonus: page 3 of 3))
The reaper’s amusement infected a few of the others, even getting to Axiolis and Qorvass, apparently.

For their part, however, Zeff and Asad did not look altogether pleased as they began walking toward him in unison.

“The young lord wishes to learn,” said Zeff.

“Then it is our duty to teach,” said Asad.

And so they taught. For quite a long while, in fact. And arguably, at times, against Hector’s will.

First, Zeff completed the technique he’d been trying to demonstrate earlier. It turned out much more advanced than Hector expected.

From the cloud of steam surrounding a blanket of water, Zeff clapped a full suit of solid ice armor around Hector’s body. Then, he removed the cloud of steam, which made the blanket of water begin boiling--then hissing as it began turning to steam so quickly that the body of water looked as if it were melting into Hector.

When the water was almost all gone, the ice began disappearing as well. But it never quite did. Zeff had chosen to soul-strengthen vital areas of the ice armor; and moreover, to those areas, he had “bound” a self-regenerating condition. This was the technique that the Lord Elroy had been wishing to practice, apparently, and it resulted in an endless cloud of steam which followed Hector wherever he went--and without requiring Zeff to accompany him and maintain it, even.

Hector was suitably impressed, but Asad seemed upset that Zeff could pull such a thing off. Regardless, Hector all but demanded a full explanation for this “binding” thing that Zeff was using.

Asad took the liberty of explaining. “Essentially, it is a highly advanced memory technique which requires years of meditative training.”

That caught Hector’s attention.

“It allows the user to convert a task which normally requires active concentration into a task which does not.”

Hector’s brow rose as he tried to imagine that.

Page 1260

((The Saturday donation bonus: page 2 of 3))
That was good. Hector hoped they were making better progress than he was. With the sudden commotion about trying to not melt to death, he hadn’t even been able to think about why they’d been attacked. Perhaps it had just been a misunderstanding. Looking back, he supposed he had kinda helped escalate the situation.

He hoped they wouldn’t be upset with him. Something to worry about later, he supposed.

He turned back to Zeff and Asad.

They were still bickering. Only now, both of their reapers had joined in.

“Uh, guys...?”

They didn’t hear him.

“Guys...”

Still nothing.

He turned to Garovel.

Go on. You’ve got this.

But...

C’mon, Hector, you can do it. Command their attention as the Lord Darksteel of Warrenhold.

Well, shit. When Garovel put like that, Hector didn’t even want to argue.

Alright.

He took a moment to deliberate, then started decorating the two men in iron paraphernalia. Iron spectacles for Asad, a dangling pocket watch for Zeff, a waistcoat for Asad, and as soon as Zeff paused in apparent surprise, Hector popped an iron umbrella into his hand.

They both looked at him.

“Are you guys ready yet?” He added a top hat to Asad and a monocle to Zeff, making sure to hook it around the ear so it didn’t fall off.

“My apologies,” said Zeff.

“Mine as well,” said Asad.

Hector paused, then gave Asad a walking cane, and Zeff, a curly mustache with a strap around to the back of his head.

“Stop that.”

“What are you doing?” said Asad.

And at the question he’d been hoping for, Hector couldn’t help smiling just a little. “I was just trying to help you start acting like lords again.”

There came a brief silence, and Hector worried he might’ve pissed them off. Then Garovel exploded with laughter.

Page 1259

((The Saturday donation bonus: page 1 of 3))
“I do not require help in teaching Hector,” said Zeff.

“So you say,” said Asad, “but look at his face.”

“I know that I was, perhaps, a bit unclear, but I will do better. I know exactly where to begin now.”

“Why don’t you just let me take over for a bit. You deserve a rest.”

And for the first that Hector had seen, Zeff actually smiled.

“Oh, shut up,” said the Lord Elroy.

“I’m only thinking of your well-being,” said Asad, smirking now as well.

“Why don’t you stand back and observe? Perhaps you’ll learn even more than Hector.”

“Oho! Now THAT is an amusing thought--especially considering the fact, as I recall, our record is still 133 to 131 in my favor.”

“Hmph, that means nothing. The last time we fought was four years ago.”

“It hardly matters,” said Asad. “There exists no universe in which your skill is superior to mine.”

“Aside from this one, perhaps.”

Garovel chimed in for a private word. ‘I’m not sure if they actually want to teach you, or if they just enjoy competing with one another.

Water reappeared around Hector, this time surrounded by glass, but the two men didn’t stop arguing.

Well, at least it was slightly cooler now. He wondered what the other Rainlords were up to. The street had emptied of all bystanders a while ago, so he looked around for Dimas and soon saw him standing next to Horatio Blackburn and Salvador Delaguna, along with a slew of others that Hector recognized but couldn’t name. One of them might’ve been Zeff’s sister, but he wasn’t sure.

They seemed to be talking to one of the Hun’Kui that Hector had encased in iron.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Page 1258

Zeff blinked as if suddenly remembering something, and then he said, “Oh, but that is merely the way that I am doing it. It is not the way that it should be done.”

Hector cocked an eyebrow. “Say what?”

Zeff annihilated the water around Hector and then refreshed it. “I am purposely using the most difficult method possible, because, as I mentioned earlier, I am trying to further develop my skills. But, ah--I should explain that, when working with layers to achieve perfect stillness, it is certainly not necessary to continuously strengthen the velocity states indefinitely. I am doing that because I am adding each new layer to the bottom while removing them from the top, which makes the acceleration due to gravity endless--or at least, until terminal velocity becomes a factor, at which point, in order to maintain the training regiment, you would want to--or, ah, no, that’s just going to confuse you. Um. Very well. So, as I was saying, if--ah--if you were to simply add each new layer to the top and remove from the bottom, the technique becomes much simpler to maintain.”

By now, Hector was just staring with wide eyes. “Uh...”

Zeff destroyed his water again, but instead of refreshing it immediately, he rubbed his forehead. “As a means of training, my method is ideal, but for general use, ah--you should not start by learning that. Ah, perhaps, no, we should begin with the layer-less version of this technique. Yes, and then from there, we can revisit--”

Axiolis’ sigh intervened as he floated up behind Zeff. ‘I apologize for my boneheaded servant. Knowledgeable though he may be, Zeff is not the most experienced when it comes to teaching.

Zeff returned a flat look.

Hey, Asad, would you mind helping Zeff? Perhaps you could keep him from confusing poor Hector here.

Oh, I highly doubt that,’ said Qorvass.

Asad gave his reaper a similar look as he stepped forward. “I would be happy to assist,” he said.

Qorvass seemed greatly amused by this. ‘Good luck, Hector!

And Hector just kind of frowned.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Page 1257

Hector would have liked to ask Zeff directly, but he didn’t think shouting through the water would work, so he just motioned with one hand for Zeff to stop and hoped the man would take his meaning.

Zeff seemed to.

Hector relayed his question to Garovel.

Hector would like to know how you’re able to hold this water in place.

Zeff annihilated the water around Hector’s so that the young lord could hear him. “I am applying a counter-force technique,” he said.

Are you talking about a velocity state?’ said Garovel.

“No, but that is the first step. I apply an upward velocity to my creation, which counters the downward effect of gravity.”

“I’ve tried doing that,” said Hector. “It never works, because gravity is a constant force, and I can only apply velocity once.”

“You are correct,” said Zeff. “That is what makes this technique more difficult. The key is to think in layers. Yes, you can only apply a velocity state once per creation, so the solution is to break your work up into many creations. Layers.”

Hector’s brow rose. “Oh...”

“With each layer, you apply a slightly stronger velocity state, because each new layer must not only counteract gravity but also support the layer on top of it, which has begun to be affected by gravity.”

Hector had very nearly forgotten to keep listening, having felt for a moment as if Zeff had just handed his brain a light bulb. Layers! Of course!

As excited as the idea’s potential made him, however, he did have concerns. “That sounds insanely hard. You’d have to constantly be applying higher and higher velocity states, or it’d completely fall apart, wouldn’t it?”

Zeff gave an affirming nod. “Applying a counter-force like this for an extended period of time is a good way of measuring a materializer’s overall skill level. Even the most powerful servants in the world will eventually have difficulty creating high enough velocity states to keep their work perfectly still.”

“I see...”

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Page 1256

((The Wednesday Triple: page 3 of 3))
Hector and Zeff found an empty side street and put some distance between themselves and everyone else.

Hector wasn’t entirely sure why this was necessary, and moreover, he was beginning to worry that he’d been suddenly drafted as Zeff’s practice dummy.

Would you mind explaining your work to Hector as you go?’ said Garovel, who Hector noticed was observing from a distance. ‘Truth to be told, I’ve been hoping that he would get an opportunity to learn from a fellow materializer.

Zeff rubbed his hands together. “Very well.”

And don’t leave anything out,’ Garovel added. ‘Pretend he’s a total idiot who doesn’t know the most basic stuff.

Hector frowned. He might’ve protested more, but he was starting to feel woozy and having trouble even just standing here.

Qorvass decided to chime in. ‘Alternatively, pretend he’s Asad and that he’s forgotten everything he’s ever learned.

“Hey...”

“I understand,” said Zeff.

Hector tried simultaneously to both listen carefully and also brace himself for whatever was about to happen.

“For this to work,” Zeff began, “I cannot simply douse you in freezing waters, because the extreme heat here would cause it to flash boil and explode. Which would probably kill you.”

“Oh,” Hector mumbled exhaustedly.

“Enhancing the water with soul power is a possible solution, but if I were to make a mistake, it might still flash boil and simply create an even deadlier explosion.”

“Fantastic...”

“Instead, I will begin with a cloud of steam.”

And sure enough, steam appeared all around him.

“Next, I will add a layer of water around you.”

Hector was immediately engulfed. An unsupported batch of water suspended itself in midair all around him.

And that certainly grabbed his attention. How was Zeff holding it in place? From everything Hector knew about materialization, Zeff shouldn’t have been able to control the water once it was created, and yet here it was now, holding an impossible shape and remaining almost perfectly still.

Page 1255

((The Wednesday Triple: page 2 of 3))
Asad scratched his cheek and gave Hector a stiff look. “...Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” said Hector, feeling more amused pity than disappointment. He looked over the reapers. “But, uh... what now? I mean, uh, I don’t want to be a burden on you guys, so if it’s easier to just go on without me, then we should do that.”

Mm, yeah, maybe that’d be best,’ said Garovel. ‘I’ll just revive you from scratch when we’re back at Warrenhold.

“No, no, no,” said Asad, “that will not be necessary. This is my doing, so I will make it up to you.”

“Uh, how?” said Hector.

“I will simply follow you around, making temperature-controlled armor for you,” said Asad. “Whenever it begins to melt, I’ll remake it.”

Hector bobbed his head. He supposed that would work, but it sounded like a lot of trouble to go through. He didn’t get a chance to voice his concerns, however.

“Allow me to do it,” said Zeff, still carrying the wounded Ramira in one arm.

Asad blinked at him. “Why? It was my mistake.”

“There is a certain technique I am trying to develop,” said Zeff. “I think this might prove a good opportunity to practice it. And besides, I owe the both of you so very much. So, please.”

Asad could only return an admissive nod.

Zeff looked to Hector now. “Remove the suit,” he said. “It will only get in the way.”

A bit hesitant, Hector did as he was asked, but he needed help toward the end. He couldn’t feel any pain from the heat, but he could certainly feel the way it made his muscles feel like they were turning to jelly, even in spite of the regeneration’s best efforts.

Page 1254

((The Wednesday Triple: page 1 of 3))
Ah--are you alright?’ Hector asked.

Dandy,’ the reaper said. ‘A bit surprised, though. What the hell was that weapon?

I was gonna ask you that.

Ugh,’ said Garovel. ‘Y’know, when I said I loved seeing new technology, this isn’t what I had in mind.’ Black and white smoke had begun to rise from the hole in his ethereal body--an indicator that it was very slowly repairing itself, Hector knew.

Hector, remembering that heat was leaking into his suit and cooking him alive, decided to just patch the hole in the chest with iron.

You’ve got a hole in back, too,’ said Garovel.

And he heard the clamor of his refrigeration unit abruptly stop.

Oh. Good.’

Uh... am I just fucked now?

Pretty fucked, yeah. But, hmm. Let’s see here. Hey, Asad!

Axiolis and Qorvass were already hovering toward them with their respective families following.

Having trouble?’ said Axiolis.

Do we have someone who can repair this thing?’ asked Garovel.

Qorvass inspected the damage. ‘Ooh, I do not think so. This looks quite bad.

Does it?’ said Garovel. ‘The hole’s not that big, though.

Yes, but it pierced the battery.

Mm. Did we bring a replacement?

“Yes, of course,” said Asad. “I told the Duxans to load up several spares just before we left. I made sure to...” He drifted off as his expression shifted into one of recollection. “Actually, no... I never did do that, did I...?”

Asad, please don’t tell me you forgot,’ said Qorvass.

And to his credit, the Lord Najir didn’t tell him.

Argh! I asked if you’d forgotten anything important right before we left!

“...I remembered my luggage.”

And, what?! You consider that progress?!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Page 1253

The commotion died instantly, and the Hun’Kui looked around in apparent confusion, as Hector had left only their heads uncovered.

They young Rainlords that they’d been bothering all looked toward him at once, and Hector wasn’t sure what their expressions meant. Had he made a mistake? Maybe he shouldn’t have interfered. It wasn’t like the Rainlords needed--

An unfamiliar sound rang out--a heavy, piping noise that simultaneously carried a whip’s crack with it.

Pain came knifing through Hector’s chest.

The street erupted into shrieks as the crowd around the Rainlords scattered, and Hector saw several more clusters of Hun’Kui letting everyone flee around them. One was aiming at him with a long, two-handed rifle of some strange kind. Tendrils of blue smoke--or something like it--swirled up from both the tip of its barrel and the back of its apparent loading chamber.

This time, it was the Rainlords’ turn to react. Everyone bolted away from Hector, and within as much time as it took for him to turn his head, the Hun’Kui were nearly all subdued--many by crystal or metal, some by threat of a blade or gun, and the last lingering few by a hand or foot pressing them into the dirt.

Hector, however, was more concerned with the gaping hole in his chest, and thus, his suit. And despite already having the vigor required to walk in this cumbersome thing, Garovel had not been numbing his pain. And so, he felt every bit of that searing air as it rushed in and scorched his flesh, exploding up through his punctured lung and burning his throat, mouth, and nose with every breath.

His body wanted to panic, of course, but he knew it wouldn’t last long. He knew Garovel’s help was imminent, and indeed, it soon arrived. All pain flew away from him as quickly as it had arrived.

But when he turned to look at Garovel, he saw that the reaper had a gaping wound, too.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Page 1252

((The Monday Triple: page 3 of 3))
Okay, but how does the funneling actually work?’ said Hector. ‘I mean, where does the heat go?

Oh, the heat is transferred into a “cooler,” which is an area where someone--likely a servant or team of servants--is working around the clock to maintain a low temperature. It would be a very tightly-controlled environment. They used to just be caves that had been lined with loads of heat shielding materials, but they might be different now. I’m curious to see one, but I don’t know if we’ll get the opportunity. We didn’t come down here for a tour, after all.

Hmm. But, uh... so these servants who are keeping that place cold... uh... are they not in the city itself? Or...?

Well, they could be, I suppose, but they’re probably not. The idea behind heat funneling was to construct a vast network that could cool many cities, without ever making it so that any one city was entirely reliant upon any one cooler--the logic being that, if, for whatever reason, a cooler failed, then the other coolers in the network would be able to pick up the slack.

Smart.

Before funneling was invented, it was just as you said. Very powerful servants would create “safe zones,” and everywhere else was pretty much off limits.

That made Hector want to ask what happened so long ago to make people migrate all the way down here in the first place, but someone bumped into him before he could formulate the question.

A loud group of Hun’Kui were crowding around a young Rainlord on his right, and even though Hector couldn’t tell what they were saying, their intentions seemed apparent enough from the way they were pushing into the comparatively small entourage of Rainlords.

The body language, the shouting, the unprovoked aggression--Hector had seen this plenty of times before in Atreya. Without even thinking, he flicked his wrist and encased every single one of them in iron.

Page 1251

((The Monday Triple: page 2 of 3))
Funnels?’ Hector vaguely recalled one of the reapers mentioning such a thing when he’d first learned of the Undercrust’s existence.

It’s an absolutely ancient technique. Perhaps the oldest method, even.

He still wasn’t quite sure he understood. ‘Oldest method of what, exactly?

Of creating survivable conditions here. Of colonization, that is.

Hector blinked.

The invention of heat funneling--down here? Historically speaking, it’s on par with the invention of agriculture. Its importance and influence to civilization here can’t really be overstated.

Wow, uh. Okay. How does it work?

It’s pretty simple. Have you ever heard the phrase “heat rises?”

Sure.

Well, that’s a lie.

What?

Or at least, it’s not the whole truth. Really, heat just flows from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration. From hot to cold. Until both areas are the same temperature. It’s part of nature’s eternal pursuit of equilibrium. We only think of heat as “rising” because heat affects the density of matter, and matter with a low density will generally get pushed up by matter with a high density. That’s why a rock sinks in water, and oil rises above it. But anyway, the point is, heat often gets conflated with the rising movement created by changes in density, even though heat itself is not prone to any particular direction.

...I feel like I should’ve known this, already.

Eh, you probably did, on some level. It’s fairly intuitive. And if not, well. That’s why I’m here, right? Don’t be too hard on yourself.

You’re not gonna call me stupid again?

Oh, yeah. You’re stupid.

Ugh.

Thanks for reminding me.

Happy to help.

Anyway, what was I talking about?

Uh. Heat funneling?

Right, right. So, ah, okay. Everything I just explained is an important part of how these cities down here maintain relatively safe temperatures. It’s hard for me to tell, since I can’t actually feel temperature, myself, but at a guess, I’d say that the streets of Babbadelo here are hovering around four or five hundred degrees.

Page 1250

((The Monday Triple: page 1 of 3))
Not quite a thousand,’ said Garovel. ‘My knowledge is a bit archaic when it comes to the Undercrust, but as I recall, the average Hun’Kui can comfortably withstand temperatures of up to eight hundred degrees. In thermoregulatory terms, they’re what’s called eurytherms, meaning they can live in an extremely wide range of temperatures. But that’s all relative to the Undercrust. If you tried to take one of them back up to the surface, they’d still freeze to death.

Oh.

In Fahrenheit, the surface has a temperature spectrum of three hundred degrees or so. One-fifty in either direction, that is. But the Undercrust has a much, much larger temperature spectrum, beginning around five hundred degrees and ending around four thousand.

That... sounds unpleasant.

Just a bit, yeah. For reference, any area that’s more than three thousand degrees is generally regarded as uninhabitable by the people here. They don’t even try to mess around with temperatures that high.’ The reaper paused. ‘Or at least, that’s how it was when I last visited a few hundred years ago. Maybe they’ve made some breakthroughs while I was gone. In fact, I hope they have. I love seeing new technology.

So, wait. They can deal with TWO thousand degrees? That still sounds completely insane to me.

Garovel pointed a bony finger upward. ‘Take a look up there.

Hector wasn’t sure what Garovel was talking about. He only saw a dark and very distant cavern ceiling amid a visibly warm haze.

But no, wait. After a few moments, he began to see it, even through his visor. There was something there. His eyes needed time to distinguish the deeper blackness from the rest, to interpret the faint contours in the darkness.

Holes?’ thought Hector. There seemed a few of them. Maybe five or six--he couldn’t be sure. They must’ve been gigantic to be visible at this distance.

Yes,’ said Garovel. ‘Heat funnels, to be precise.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Page 1249

Their eyes shone with white light, and if they had irises or pupils, then Hector couldn’t see them. It was such a strange yet familiar sight, like something out of a cartoon. Or perhaps a horror film--he wasn’t quite sure.

Everyone seemed to be completely bald, as well, even lacking eyebrows and facial hair. If not for their still very human-looking physiques, he might have thought they were from a different planet.

And boy, could he see their physiques. They barely wore any clothing at all. Occasionally, he’d spot someone entirely nude.

That much, he wished Garovel would’ve warned him about. Maybe it would’ve made him feel a modicum less uncomfortable right now. He tried not to stare.

It was difficult to discern their skin color, though. The poor lighting and the gloss on his suit’s visor didn’t help, but he was fairly certain that he saw slight variations in skin tone, at least.

As they proceeded on, however, Hector noticed changes among the crowd. More and more people wore clothes--or perhaps, harnesses was a better word for it, since the primary purpose of their clothing seemed to be in carrying things.

He supposed it made sense, though. Given the extreme temperatures down here, these people probably didn’t ever have to worry about staying warm.

What can you tell me about these people?’ Hector asked.

Well, there are several different races who live in the Undercrust,’ said Garovel privately. ‘In Mohssian, these gray folks with the glowing eyes are called the Hun’Kui--or “people of the ash.” They’re probably who you’ll be seeing the most of out in the open like this. There aren’t many other races who can withstand these temperatures as well as they can.

Their sheer numbers made Hector curious. ‘They’re not all servants, are they?

No.

Then, how do they survive? Isn’t it like a thousand degrees down here or something?