Friday, January 19, 2018

Page 1495

Is that really all you have to say?’ said Garovel, able to sound less annoyed than Hector figured he was probably feeling.

And apparently, that was all Malast had to say, because he did not respond, instead choosing to simply close his eyes.

Hector thought the strange man might genuinely fall asleep until Eleyo stepped forward in the sparse light.

“Pardon me, but what did you mean when you said that I could become a god?”

Malast sighed another time but still didn’t open his eyes. “This is why I could never take interest in you like the others could. You always need everything explained to you. It’s exhausting, you know that?”

“What ‘others’ are you talking about?” said Eleyo.

“See? It’s always more questions with you people. I’d feel bad for you, if I could bring myself to care a little more.”

That response seemed to give Eleyo pause, and Hector couldn’t blame him. What the hell were you supposed to say to something like that?

Eleyo managed to find something, though. “Perhaps you would like to ask us some questions, instead.”

That got the eyes open. “Hmm.” Malast looked them over. “Normally, I would say that you have no answers that would interest me, but alright. You. Iron One.”

That was him, Hector knew. “Y-yeah?”

“Have you met a god before?” said Malast.

Oh, boy. Hector considered how to answer that. He eyed Garovel.

Say whatever you like,’ the reaper said privately.

“...Sort of,” Hector decided to say. “It’s, ah... tough to say without knowing exactly what you consider to be a god.”

“And did you receive a blessing from this sort-of-god?”

“Ah-ah,” intervened Eleyo again, “he answered one question of yours, so now you must answer one of ours. I believe that is only fair.”

Yet another sigh from the God of Boredom. “Fine, go ahead.”

Eleyo didn’t wait to consult anyone else about what they should ask. “Why are you here?” he said.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You cannot answer a question with another question,” said Eleyo.

“I’m pretty sure I can,” said Malast.

“Then we will do the same for yours,” Eleyo countered. “Is that what you want?”

“No, it isn’t. There. I have answered one of your questions properly. Now I can ask a second.”

Hector heard Eleyo growl, but Malast had won that round, it seemed.

“Iron One,” said Malast. “Did you receive a blessing from this god of yours?”

“...What does ‘blessing’ mean?”

“You are not allowed to answer with a question,” said Malast, eyeing Eleyo. “Answer to the best of your understanding.”

Hector exhaled. “Right... uh.” He supposed he had some idea of what Malast meant. “I believe he did bless me, yeah. I mean, he even said as much, so...”

“What is this ‘blessing’ you speak of?” reiterated Eleyo, having apparently decided that Hector’s question was worth asking next.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Page 1494

Now Hector was confused. And more than a little unsettled. “Who are you, exactly?”

The stranger sighed. “Fine, I’ll ask the other one. You there.” He removed his right hand from his cheek in order to point. “The one in hiding. How about it? Would you like to become a god?”

“...Sure,” came Eleyo’s voice, “but not by any measure other than my own. What is a god to you?”

“To me?” the stranger said. “Nothing. A friend. A companion. It is you who have revered us as such.”

Having apparently heard enough now, Garovel decided to chime in. ‘Are you telling us that you’re a god?

“Eh.”

What the hell kind of answer was that? Hector couldn’t decide if this man was terrifying or just kind of a weirdo. And he really hoped it didn’t turn out to be a combination of the two, because that would basically make him Ivan 2.0, and Hector was definitely not looking for a repeat of that encounter.

You’re a servant,’ said Garovel. ‘Where’s your reaper? I’d like to talk to them.

The man gave a dull laugh. “I suppose it only makes sense that you would assume that. You are seeds, looking up and admiring the great trees that you wish to become. But I am no tree, little ones. I am a gardener.”

That gave everyone noticeable pause.

The stranger scratched his brow. “At least, I would be, if I cared a little more. Or at all, really. But I don’t, so... I suppose I’m more like the guy taking a nap under the trees while they flourish and grow wild all around him.”

Mm,’ said Garovel, his tone still thick with doubt. ‘Well, do you have a name, at least?

“...Malast,” the man finally said.

Malast,’ echoed Garovel. ‘As in, “the Idle God,” Malast?

“An unflattering name. Never cared for it much. I prefer the God of Boredom. Or the God of the Underworld, even if it is less appropriate--and certainly too grandiose for my tastes.”

So you ARE claiming to be a god,’ said Garovel.

Malast gave another sigh. “I guess.”

Well, in that case, would you mind giving a little demonstration of your godly powers for the cynics among us?

“Nah, I don’t really feel like it.”

Then I’m afraid I don’t believe you’re a god.

“Okay.”

And that was it. Malast just sat there, not saying anything else.

Hector looked from Garovel to Malast, then back again, but neither budged, though Garovel looked much more annoyed.

Hector felt a push on his shoulder and turned to see Diego there, trying to get his attention. The man was still unable to talk, apparently.

“Oh, hey, uh, could you undo whatever you did to my friend here?” said Hector.

Malast looked over at him with flat eyes. “Nah.”

Hector didn’t know what to say to that.

“But, hey, wait a second,” said Malast, “doesn’t that count as a demonstration of my power?”

Pfft, no,’ said Garovel. ‘I know a guy who could do that, easy, and he’s not a god.

“Oh,” said Malast. And he gave a yawn. “Oh well.”

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Page 1493 -- CLX.

((Double Wednesday -- Page 2 of 2))
Hector still wasn’t quite sure what to think. Even as he stared directly at that gargantuan pile of treasure before him, he didn’t feel much amazement. It just didn’t feel real--not yet, anyway--and he was wary of allowing it to.

Diego raised a hand for everyone to stop again.

They were close now--close enough to make out several of the items in the cove in more detail. A globe. A pair of gloves. A bejeweled sword. A doll posing mid-twirl. A painting of a temple or something. A statue of a man in a chair.

Wait. No.

That was an actual man, actually sitting there.

Hector blinked behind his visor. Were his eyes playing tricks on him? Hadn’t he been gray as stone a second ago? Perhaps he was still a little disoriented from that weird teleport. Now the man looked as normal as normal could be, though maybe a bit strange in attire. He wore a white tunic, tied together with strings near the collar, and brown pants and shoes. And his chair--tall and featureless stone.

But he really was a normal man. Not a Hun’Sho or a Hun’Kui. Not wearing a climate suit, either. Blonde hair, average height, pale skin, mid-forties by appearance, maybe.

And he was staring right at them, too, while he rested his cheek on his right fist. He had something in his lap as well, with his left hand draped over it. Some kind of jar? Hector couldn’t really tell.

“So you’ve come,” the stranger said. He sounded profoundly uninterested in what he was saying, as if he were making a passing note to himself rather than actually speaking to someone.

Diego was bold enough to speak the question on everyone’s mind. “Who are you?”

“I thought I sensed three of you,” the man said. “Yet I only see two.”

“...What are you talking about?” said Diego. And he tried again. “Who are you?”

“Oh well. Frankly, I’m surprised Ettol managed to get even one of you here, let alone two.”

Diego turned to the person next to him for help, who just so happened to be Hector. “Am I talkin’ to myself here?” said the Lord Redwater.

Hector just returned an armored shrug.

Diego turned back to the stranger. “Hey, you in the chair! Who the hell are you?!”

“Be silent,” the stranger said with sudden weight in his voice.

And Diego tried to respond, but he couldn’t. Hector saw him open his mouth as if speaking, but no words came out. Diego’s expression turned to confusion, then to shock.

“You there,” the stranger said, sounding wholly apathetic again. “Iron One.”

Hector twitched, realizing whom he meant. “Y-yeah?”

“How would you like to become a god?”


Chapter One Hundred Sixty: ‘He Who Sits...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

“...Excuse me?” said Hector.

“Are you hard of hearing?” the unnamed man said. “I asked if you would like to become a god.”

“...I don’t know what that means. And what did you do to my friend?”

“I ordered him to be silent.”

“Y-yeah, but how did you do it?”

The stranger gave him a puzzled look. “What do you mean? I ordered him.”

Page 1492

((Double Wednesday -- Page 1 of 2))
When he regained enough of himself to actually observe his surroundings, Hector realized that they were completely different. The others were standing beside him instead of above him, and it was pitch dark in all directions.

Save one.

Straight ahead.

A mountain of apparent jewels lay there, glowing and sparkling softly in the darkness.

Holy lakefire!’ said Lorios.

“That’s it, isn’t it?!” said Manuel. “The Sosho’Diyu?! It must be!” The man took a couple steps forward, but Diego extended a hand in front of him.

“Everyone,” said the Lord Redwater, no longer even remotely jovial, “be exceptionally cautious. We currently have no idea where we are, what just happened, what we’re looking at--or even whether any of this is real.”

Manuel fell silent at that, as did everyone else, even the reapers.

Oddly enough, though, Hector did have an idea of what had just happened. Vaguely, at least. True, that briefest glimpse of so many ethereal lights suspended in space hadn’t been much to go on--but it was enough.

“Just now,” said Hector, “I’m pretty sure that was teleportation. It was more disorienting this time, but I’ve seen it before.”

Diego looked at him. “That was--?” He stopped himself, gears turning in his head.

Garovel had some private words for him. ‘That’s what it was like when you were teleporting all over the place with Ibai?

Yeah. Wait, you weren’t with me?

No, I was quite busy cowering underground, remember?

Hector did not. Large parts of that whole experience were simply a blur in his memory, especially the period immediately after their encounter with Rasalased.

“So what’s the plan, then?” asked Mr. Sheridan. Rather than looking at the apparent treasure, he was facing the opposite direction, using his small lamplight to cut through the murky blackness all around them.

The others seemed to realize in unison that the man had the right idea and so decided to join him in trying to illuminate their surroundings. Working in tandem, they were marginally successful.

It was a tremendous cavern, seemingly. The rock walls in each direction were so distant that everyone’s lamps were barely strong enough to reveal them.

Next, they followed Diego’s lead in illuminating the path to the treasure, and eventually, after they’d worked up enough nerve, they began inching toward it as a group.

It was farther away than it first appeared to be. A trick of depth perception. The vast majority of the jewels were much larger than they’d seemed. Where they’d previously looked pea-sized, now they were looking more like golf balls. And their individual glows began to reveal distinct colors as well--blue or white or yellow, mainly.

There was a whole lot more than just jewels, as well. As they grew nearer, a kind of cove in the side of the glimmering mound revealed itself, and within it, Hector spotted a number of golden chests and shelves with all manner of unfamiliar objects on them.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Page 1491

Fortunately, Hector knew from the research he did all the way back in Atreya that the melting point of iron was around fifteen hundred degrees Celsius, and this magma didn’t seem to be quite that hot. Less fortunately, it was still hot enough to make control of his iron more difficult, causing it to weaken and bend against Hector’s wishes. Temperature manipulation helped, as expected, but he had to work quickly, because as per the First Law of Materialization, once his iron was created, he could no longer affect its temperature.

He grew his iron all the way to the bottom of the pool and then began making his platform in order to lift it all out. He created a funnel for it so that the magma could safely spill over to exactly where he wanted it to, and soon enough, he’d moved the entire pool into a large iron tub.

There’d been more magma there than perhaps anyone had expected, and once Hector annihilated all of his excess iron, he and Diego were both able to jump down into the now-empty moat around the monument.

“Hah!” came the exultation from Diego, and Hector looked over to see the man crouched down again, examining the bottom of the moat with a lamp in hand. “I do believe we’ve found our keyhole, boys and girls.”

Even now, Hector almost couldn’t see what the man was talking about. The keyhole in question blended into the dark rock so well as to be nearly invisible.

Diego readied the Kag with his right hand, then threw one last look up at all the faces staring down at the two of them. “I hope you won’t think less of me, but if it turns out that this Kag actually doesn’t fit in this little hole here, then I may need one of you to hold me while I have myself a good cry.”

Just hurry up and get on with it,’ said Yangéra.

Diego exhaled audibly. “Okay, here goes.”

He slid the Kag into place, and it appeared to fit.

But nothing happened.

Try turning it counterclockwise,’ said Garovel.

With noticeable strain and using both hands, Diego did so.

A deep shunk rang out, and Hector felt a sudden vibration in his feet.

But after a moment, it went away.

There was only silence as everyone waited, holding their expectations in check while they looked around, wondering if anything was going to happen.

Then the world bent in half.

Hector’s vision distorted like a smeared painting, and he lost all sense of direction or balance or footing. For a brief time, he felt as though he was floating through empty space.

A familiar feeling.

And for an even briefer time, he could see. Everything. Ethereal lights. In all directions.

As soon as he grasped what he was looking at, it was gone, and he was standing on his own two feet again, senses gradually returning to him.

He shook his head, as if to shake away the disorientation itself, and his hand searched for the wall of the moat, but it wasn’t there.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Page 1490 -- CLIX.

((Double Monday -- Page 2 of 2))
There was a maze-like etching all over the body of the monument. The marks were so faint that even with the light being emitted by the pool of lava directly below, they were still almost invisible to the naked eye.

Mr. Sheridan was talking again, but Hector wasn’t listening.

What are these marks?’ he asked Garovel.

...They’re a signature,’ the reaper said privately. ‘Rathmore put them on all of his works.


Chapter One Hundred Fifty-Nine: ‘Pursue thine bounty...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Their inspection continued for a while longer, but they had nothing to show for it. Despite Garovel’s assessment, they found no apparent means of doing anything with the monument. No keyhole. No mechanism of any kind.

And though the reaper clearly did not wish to, they eventually decided to go meet up with Diego and tell him what they had discovered. He was the one in possession of the Kag, after all.

However, Garovel decided not to bring up Rathmore’s name. As far as everyone else was concerned, it was just a strange monument of entirely unknown origin.

And indeed, it really was almost everyone else. They ended up bringing more than just Diego back to the park with them. Manuel, Lorios, Elise, Carver, Mr. Sheridan, and all four of the Hun’Kui came along as well. Only Zeff and Axiolis were left out, which seemed a bit of a shame, but the consensus in the group was that Zeff wouldn’t come with them even if they went to go ask him.

Diego walked around the monument several times, rolling the Kag between his hands all the while, breaking only to scratch his chin or his temple intermittently.

So?’ said Yangéra. ‘What’re you thinking?

Diego crouched down in front of the molten pool, then looked over at the reapers. “You guys really can’t tell me anything else about this thing?”

The reapers all shook their heads.

Hector wondered if Garovel’s choice of secrecy was truly the right one, but he figured he would just trust his judgment for now.

“Hmm.” Diego smacked his lips. “Hey, Hector. C’mere for a sec.”

A bit confused and curious, Hector ventured over and crouched down beside the man, in front of the pool.

“...Think you can safely move all this lava for me?” said Diego quietly.

Hector blinked. “Hmm...”

“I’d do it myself, but it’d probably be easier for a materializer,” said Diego.

“Ah... alright.” Hector rubbed his gauntleted hands together, gathering his concentration.

He’d never tried to materialize anything inside lava before, but as he feared, it proved impossible. It was still too close to a solid, it seemed, and therefore too dense for his iron molecules to accumulate. Pushing all the lava out on a simple platform would not work. He would have be a bit more creative.

He started by adding iron to the stone wall that already existed around the pool, and from there, he began growing his material downward and into the lava.

Couple announcements

So I've been wanting to increase my output a little bit, and I just recently hit 100 patrons on Patreon, so now seems like a good time. From now on, in addition to Double Mondays, I'm gonna start doing Double Wednesdays and Double Saturdays. Similarly, on Patreon, since I'm already posting twice everyday, I'm gonna start posting three times on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays.

It's not a huge increase, I know. Only two/three more pages a week. But I think the incremental approach is good.

Also, if you wouldn't mind and haven't already, I'd appreciate it if you would vote for TZKS over at Top Web Fiction. If you're not familiar with TWF, it's a good place to find new stuff to read from authors who aren't me. Similarly, voting there is a big help toward increasing our ranking and thereby making new people more likely to give TZKS a try.

Anyway, thanks for reading as always, everybody. There's still lots more to come.

Page 1489

((Double Monday -- Page 1 of 2))
They moved to the edge of the park, where they could speak in private while overlooking much of Himmekel. There was a decent view of the lavafall here, blocked only by a couple of the Vault’s many black bridges.

“Hoo boy, these Hun’Sho are somethin’ else,” said Mr. Sheridan. “When I tell the folks back home about these people, they’ll flip. Or call me crazy. Probably the latter, actually, unless I’m able to bring proof with me.”

Hector wasn’t terribly interested in that subject, but he did see a way for it to lead into the subject which did interest him. “...Do you have some kind of proof in mind?”

“One of the Hun’Sho themselves would be best, obviously, but they don’t seem too interested in leaving. Real shame. So I was thinking maybe that monument over there would be a good substitute. Only problem is how I would transport it all the way back up to the surface.” He motioned toward the pointy stone that Hector had seen earlier.

“Why?” said Hector. “What would a rock prove?”

Mr. Sheridan gave him a smirk. “That ain’t no normal rock, son. I don’t rightly know what it is, but I know a shot from my lovely little .38 right here didn’t leave so much as a scratch on it.” He produced a handgun from the pouch on the side of his hip and gave it a showy twirl. “And this baby packs quite the extra kick, if you know what I’m sayin’.”

Hector did. But he had a different question. “...Why were you shooting the monument?”

“Oh, it wasn’t me. It was Hermeios. Those nice fellas were all curious about my weaponry, and I always love opening new minds to the wonderful world of advanced personal protection technology.”

“Right...”

“And credit where credit is due--the guy hit that monument dead on. Seemed like a real natural. Maybe a bit too eager, but I made sure to impart the importance of good trigger discipline.”

“...You weren’t concerned about letting a stranger hold your gun?”

“Not as long as I got my back up.” He returned the gun to his pouch and pulled out a second, slightly larger one. “Though, I wouldn’t call them strangers, exactly, either. I’ve gotten to know Hermeios pretty well, these past couple days. Swell guy. Real understandin’ and SO polite.”

Hector saw Garovel drifting toward the monument and decided to follow.

The reaper inspected it up and down. He pressed a skeletal hand against it. ‘I can’t phase through it.

Hector was inspecting it now, too--though he had to keep a greater distance of the pool of lava in the way. He scanned the rock for some sort of hole or indention--anything that seemed like it might be related to the Kag--but he saw nothing. Just flat, smooth stone.

Well. Actually, no. Not perfectly smooth, Hector eventually noticed.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Page 1488

“Do you have many books in Intar?” said another of the Hun’Sho.

“Of course!” said Mr. Sheridan. “Though, ours are typically quite fragile--and flammable, specifically--so it would be quite the trick to transport them safely here to you, but for the right price, I think we can--ah! Hector! My young friend! What are you doing standing over there all by yourself?” Mr. Sheridan smiled wide and waved him over as he looked across his audience again. “Have I told any of you fine folks yet about how this young man saved my bacon?”

“Bacon?”

“What is bacon?”

“My life!” the man clarified. “He saved my life!”

“Ah, so bacon is life.”

“Yet another strange new Mohssian word. How interesting.”

“No, I didn’t mean--! Ah--shoot! Uh--!”

Hector listened as Mr. Sheridan tried to clarify even further, but it didn’t seem to go very well for him, and at length, the man gave up and addressed Hector again.

“How are you finding Himmekel? It is a majestic place, no?”

“Uh--yeah.” Hector decided against telling him about the current quest to find a keyhole. Even assuming Mr. Sheridan could be trusted, there were too many Hun’Sho around who would overhear. “What are you doing here, by the way?”

“Oh, just enjoying some of the finest company that Himmekel has to offer!”

Hector would’ve given the man a dubious look if his helmet wasn’t in the way. “Are you really trying to sell stuff to the Hun’Sho?”

“Aha. You overheard that, did you? Well, what can I say? I am an enterprising man. I hope you will not think less of me for it, because I do not plan to change any time soon!”

The man’s sheer enthusiasm took Hector by surprise and pulled a small laugh out of him. “S-sure,” said Hector, “but, uh--I mean, do these guys even have anything to pay you with?” He threw a quick look over the Hun’Sho listeners. “Um, no offense.”

They merely returned curious expressions.

“Oh, don’t be silly,” said Mr. Sheridan. “Wealth is relative, and payment does not require currency. I’m sure these fine gentleman and I can reach an accord with just a bit of amicable appraisal and negotiation. Why, just a couple years ago, I made an arrangement to have fresh fish shipped all the way to a tiny little village that had nothing to its name but dirt. Dirt, I tell you! But am I sore about how that deal ended up? No sirree Bob! In fact, I’m more than pleased! And this other time, I arranged to have--”

He’s definitely planning to rip them off,’ said Garovel privately.

Hector was getting that impression, too. ‘Wouldn’t that mean he’s already got his eye on something?

It sure would. We need to talk to him alone. See if we can get any useful info out of him.

Okay.

And it took a while, but at length, Hector managed to wrest the man away from the Hun’Sho--or free them from him. Hector wasn’t quite sure which.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Page 1487

Hector wasn’t quite sure what the reaper meant. ‘So, what? You’re saying... someone in Abolish actually has a smart plan for overthrowing their own boss?

Oh, I don’t know about that,’ said Garovel. ‘Maybe it’s a good plan. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s not a plan at all, and I’m completely misreading everything. All I’m really saying is that I think something big is happening within Abolish right now. Something that could threaten the status quo--or dare I say, even destroy it.

You sound surprisingly optimistic.’

Is it so surprising, though? Abolish has been getting its ass handed to it, lately. You heard the news about Jackson taking down not just one, but TWO of Abolish’s biggest threats, didn’t you?

Hector certainly did. He recalled Asad’s sister going around and telling everyone. ‘The Star of the West. Wonder what he’s like.

I’ve heard nothing but good things about him. And now it sounds like he’s the de facto second-in-command for the Vanguard.

I wonder what he would think of this whole Rainlord situation.’

Assuming he knew the whole story? Tough to say. But even then, I doubt he would side against the Vanguard.

Hmm.

Whatever the case, Abolish is gonna have a hard time dealing with him.’ Garovel broke for a laugh. ‘And YOU, apparently. Lest we forget how you made Abolish eat shit AGAIN when you took down Ivan.

I definitely did NOT take him down.

Completely on your own. No help needed. Made him look like a punk bitch.

Hector sighed but couldn’t help laughing just a little.

At least, that’s what I’ve been telling everyone,’ said Garovel.

Hector’s eyes widened at the mere thought of that. ‘You’re just joking, right?!

I am. Calm down. Hilarious as that would be, I don’t think I’d be laughing when Morgunov himself showed up to take revenge on you.

Ugh...

Hector turned a corner and found himself in an apparent park. It was small, but there was a walled off pool of lava in the middle with a tall, sharp monument rising out of it like a rocky needle. The area also boasted a cliffside view of Himmekel to Hector’s right, along with a few stone benches where a handful of Hun’Sho were seated.

Someone else was with them, Hector noticed as he got closer. Someone in a climate-controlled suit.

“--like you wouldn’t believe!” came a familiarly deep voice. “Why, in six months’ time, I could have quarterly shipments arriving here all the way from Boregard! There would be no need to leave! I could bring the wonders of the surface world directly to you! Convenience at its finest!”

“Boregard is the name of your homeland?” said one of the Hun’Sho.

“My hometown, actually,” said Mr. Robert Sheridan. “My homeland is a place called Intar. Quite lovely this time of year, if you can get used to the clamor. It’s the center of the world, you know! Busiest country on the planet! And the most productive, when accounting for quality.”

Friday, January 12, 2018

Page 1486

Ah,’ said Garovel. ‘What can I say? Talking is kind of all we’ve got goin’ for us, so yeah, reapers tend to “overdevelop” our conversational skills a bit. It’s one of the reasons why I said we’re good liars. We get a lot of practice in.

Hmm.

In fact, that’s a good rule of thumb for you: whenever you meet new reapers, expect them to talk a lot, and be wary of those who don’t. There are really only three types of reapers who don’t talk much. The young, the crazy, and the ones with a lot to hide.

Huh...

At our age, if you don’t talk, the inevitable boredom will drive you crazy. And that may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not. Talking is an important coping mechanism for us.

That... explains a few things, I guess.

Someone like Tenebrach, though--he’s an example of the third type. Of course, I only met him the one time, but he didn’t talk much. As expected. A guy like that SHOULD have a lot to hide. It’d be weird if he didn’t.

Wait, who are you talking about?

Tenebrach. Sermung’s reaper.

Oh. Right.

But anyway, I’ve digressed from what I was talking about before.

Abolish’s religions.

Right. The variation in Abolish’s beliefs has been growing rather rapidly in recent years. According to the Rainlords, it’s even gotten to the point where Abolish has become this weird melting pot of personality cults.

You mean for more than just Morgunov and Dozer?

Yes. Apparently, there’s also been some very divisive rhetoric going around within their ranks. There’ve even been rumblings about a secret group of Abolish reformists. Though, maybe they’re not so secret anymore, if we’re hearing about them now.

Is that... good? Because it sounds kinda good.

Possibly. I mean, it sure would be nice if Abolish stopped going around trying to kill as many people as they can. But I don’t have confirmation that this reformist faction is actually trying to achieve that. And honestly, I doubt it is. More than likely, all this reformist stuff is just the result of a simple power struggle.

Hmm. Politics isn’t exactly my strong suit...

Well, you’re a lord now, so you better learn quickly.

Ugh...

A power struggle would also be pretty insane, though--especially now. Maybe not as "simple" a matter as I just suggested, now that I think about it.

What do you mean?

Morgunov and Dozer have been in power for close to three hundred years. And it’s not like no one’s been trying to take it from them. The gap in strength between them and everyone else is gigantic. So how would you go about trying to bridge that gap?

Uh...

At this point, if you’re a member of Abolish, and you want to seize control of it for yourself, the most obvious plan is to just wait for the Vanguard to kill one of them for you.

I guess so. But if your plan is obvious, then it probably sucks.

Exactly.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Page 1485

Yeah, I suppose that could be a problem,’ said Hector. ‘And that reminds me, um... Well, maybe I should’ve asked this a long time ago, but does Abolish have, like, an official religion?

They have at least two, actually.

...What do you mean “at least?”

Well, the essential split is between the Morgunov faction and the Dozer faction, as you would expect. But each side also has its own degrees of extremism. So extreme, in fact, that they become almost unrecognizable from one another.

I don’t, uh...? Give me an example.

Okay. On Dozer’s side of things, the religion is called “Nualism”--or “the Way of None.” It’s rather grim, from what I’ve been hearing, but the variation in it comes from differing interpretations of “the Void’s will.”

The Void is like their god?

More or less. I think they’d tell you that the Void is actually not a god and instead just a silent, collective consciousness inside all of us, but I’m digressing again. Point is, the followers of Nualism are disagreeing about what they think the Void wants them to do.

In what way, though? Can I get some specifics?

Specifically... in regard to the killing of children.

Hector stopped walking in order to look at Garovel. ‘Oh...

I did say it was grim.

Yes, you did.’ He looked out over the stone railing of the bridge he was on and absorbed the glimmering view of Himmekel for a moment. So far, this hunt for a keyhole hadn’t been turning up much, and as he observed the branching pathway ahead of him, as well as the half-dozen bridges both above and below, he couldn’t help feeling like it was pointless to keep searching.

But oh well. He decided to pick the center path and kept walking, trying to make sure that he was still paying attention to everything he was seeing while talking to Garovel.

So,’ Hector went on, ‘does that mean that some of the... Nualists or whatever are actually against killing kids?

Yeah.

That’s... good, isn’t it?

Sure. Y’know, apart from all the ones who AREN’T against it, that is.

Ah--but they’re fighting each other over it, right?

Mm, I dunno if they’re actually “fighting.” I just know they’re disagreeing enough to consider themselves not part of the same religion.

Huh...

Degrees of extremism, like I said.

Right...

There are a lot more deviations like that, supposedly. More than I previously thought there were, even. I’ve been learning quite a lot about Abolish recently, thanks in no small part to all of the reapers I’ve been able to talk to during our travels.

Oh yeah. I always see you guys grouping up and talking to each other.

You make it sound like we don’t want you involved in our conversations. You’re always welcome to come listen, y’know.

I try to. It’s just, I mean--you guys go on forever. It’s hard to pay attention for that long.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Page 1484

You made me feel like an asshole for saying that, too! And I was right the whole time! You’re a cheater, y’know that?!

A religious surprise party is not a real thing, Garovel! And a shrine is not a party!

It could be! Depends on how you spin it!

Hector was lost for words.

The nerve of this guy,’ huffed Garovel. ‘And to think, you even tried to make me feel like I was cheating, didn’t you? Was that because you knew that you were the one who was cheating all along?

I wasn’t cheating.

Seriously, how could you do such a thing?

I didn’t.

Hector, this is a betrayal of the highest order.

No, it isn’t.

I’m speechless.

Oh, I wish you were.

Y’know what? I take back all the nice things I said about you just now.

You didn’t say any nice things about me.

Well, maybe I was thinking them, then. I take back those thoughts.

Okay? Ouch, I guess.

I’m glad you understand.’ The reaper drifted over to the side of Hector’s field of view. ‘By the way, what made you want to build a bunch of a religious shrines in Warrenhold?

Oh, uh... well, I’ve kinda been thinking about it for a while, really. Pretty much since we first got there, actually.

Why?

It was just, uh... Some of those rooms that we saw. They were in total ruins, but they looked like they used to be really pretty. The rainbow shrines in particular. I guess, ah... I guess ever since I saw those, I’ve been wondering what those shrines were actually used for. Because, I mean, all eight of Warrenhold’s towers have one, so they were probably pretty important to someone, right?

Rainbow shrines...?

Hector blinked. ‘Do you not remember them?

Um. Sure I do. They were--ah--very colorful, weren’t they?

Hector laughed. ‘You really don’t remember?

Kind of? Not really.

Wow. This is the first time I’ve remembered something that you didn’t.

Alright, don’t get all cocky. Your little shrines probably just didn’t impress me enough to make me remember them, is all.

I see.

Anyway, I don’t think a shrine of the Rainlords’ water god is typically supposed to be rainbow-colored. So are you gonna completely tear the shrines down and rebuild them?

Might have to, considering how destroyed they were. I’d kinda like to preserve the rainbow coloring, though, if I can. It seems like it could have some historical significance or something.

Hmm, maybe.

Do you know of any religion that used rainbow-colored shrines?

Can’t say that I do. But that coloration might be all the clue we need. Perhaps Stasya built those shrines as a tribute to ALL religions, not just one.

I was thinking that, too, actually. It would make sense with what Voreese said about Stasya wanting Warrenhold to become a center of trade between the surface and the Undercrust. She could’ve wanted those shrines to be welcoming of all different faiths.

Well. The ones that can get along with one another, at least.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Page 1483

Fine,’ said Garovel. ‘For my third guess... I’m gonna say that... uh... you... you plan on starting your own religion.

Hector snorted into a full laugh. ‘Holy crap, no. Wow, Garovel...

You’re gonna call it Hectorism. And you’re gonna use it to teach people all about the many types of dicketry that you’ve become a master of.

This means I win the game.

People will come from all over the world to learn about what a complete dick you are. I imagine you’ll have many followers, all trying to achieve the same pinnacle of dickness that you have.

Are you done?

I dunno. Are you sure you weren’t spouting a bunch of bullshit?

What?

I’ll concede my loss here, but now you’ve gotta prove that I really did lose. You have to tell me the truth about what you’re trying to keep from me.

Oh. Hmm. Alright.

Heh. You’re gonna tell me just like that? I thought you’d be more reluctant, considering what a big deal you made out of this whole thing.

Hector saw his chance for a killing blow and decided to take it. ‘It’s fine. I kinda hate keeping secrets from you, anyway.

Garovel fell quiet again.

Hector just waited, not sure what to think now.

Hector, that was... That was sudden. And unfair. Right in my nonexistent heart.

You do that shit to me all time,’ said Hector. ‘We’ll be talking all normal or whatever, then you’ll get super sincere and nice on me out of nowhere. And I’ll get self-conscious and feel weird.

Yeah, but I’m allowed to do that to you, because I’m such a sincere and wonderful guy in general. I’m just being my natural, charismatic self. You can’t take such a pure thing and... and weaponize it against me like that.

“Weaponize it?”’ laughed Hector. ‘Wow.

It’s like a friendliness bomb. Which is too much power for one man, clearly.

Alright, whatever. We’re getting sidetracked.

So tell me your secret already, then. I’m waiting.

It’s nothing major,’ said Hector. ‘I was just planning on building some religious shrines once we get back to Warrenhold.

Wait a minute, what?’ said Garovel. ‘Religious shrines?

Hector heard the surprise in Garovel’s voice and hesitated somewhat. ‘Yeah?

...What for? You said you weren’t planning to convert to any religion, right?

They wouldn’t be for me,’ said Hector. ‘They’d be for the Rainlords, mainly. But I’d also like to include some shrines for other religions as well.

Hold on. So you’re telling me... you’re gonna build these shrines as a gift to the Rainlords, and what? Keep the shrines a secret so that you can reveal them with one big celebration?

Uh... maybe. I don’t know how I want to do it yet. Why do you ask?

Because! Don’t you see?! That means my second guess was actually right! You ARE planning a religious surprise party!

What?!

Monday, January 8, 2018

Page 1482

((Double Monday -- Page 2 of 2))
That gave the reaper pause. ‘What do you want?

Hector already had something in mind. ‘I want... you to tell me more about your past.

Garovel met his gaze evenly for a moment. ‘My past, huh?

Yeah.

Could you narrow it down a little? I’ve got more than three thousand years’ worth, remember?

Hmm.’ Hector folded his armored arms. ‘Alright. Then I want you to tell me something that you’ve never told any of your previous servants before.

Garovel was quiet again.

And it has to be something significant, too,’ Hector added. ‘Not like... just a story about how you once ate a nice meal and went to sleep or some bullshit like that.

...Alright,’ said Garovel. ‘I can agree to that.

Okay, then.’

It looks like we’ve got ourselves a game.

Yeah, it does.

A briefly heavy intermission passed as they stared at one another, letting the ambient hissing and rumbling of Himmekel fill the air.

Hector had to break the silence for a confession, however. ‘...With all this build up, though, I’ve kinda forgotten what the game was even about.

I have to guess what it is that you’re obviously trying to hide from me.

...I’m trying to hide something from you?

Yes! Something to do with your sudden interest in gods! Don’t try to act all innocent now, Hector! It won’t work!

Oh, right, yeah. I remember what it was now. Sorry.

Yeah, right. You’re a sneaky little bastard, you know that?

Shut up and take your three guesses already.

Alright, I will! For my first guess... I’m gonna say that you’re thinking of converting to a religion. And the reason you’ve been keeping it from me is because you think I’ll disapprove. Which I probably will, but that’s beside the point.

Wrong.

What?! Bullshit! You know this game doesn’t work if you lie, right?!

I’m not lying, Garovel. I haven’t been thinking about converting to any religion.

Then what the--? Gah... Fine. Hmm. For my second guess... I’ll say... you’re planning some sort of religious surprise party.

Hector squinted. ‘...What the hell is a “religious surprise party?”

Like a... celebration of something religious, I guess?’ said Garovel.

Isn’t that a little vague? I mean, it’s still wrong as fuck, but shouldn’t these guesses be more specific? I feel like it’s cheating if you can just say shit that’s too generalized or whatever.

Oh, shut up. I’m on my last guess here.

Yes, you are.

Ugh...

Don’t cheat now,’ said Hector.

Fuck yourself.

Hector just laughed.

Alright, then,’ said Garovel. ‘Final guess. Hmm... What would you be trying to hide from me? Agh... shit. I’ll be honest. I really thought it was that first thing. Goddammit, Hector.

Don’t look at me look like that. You’re not getting any sympathy from me. There is some real shit on the line here.

You’re a dick.

And you’re a jackass.

Page 1481

((Double Monday -- Page 1 of 2))
Atreya isn’t the only place where people worship her, y’know,’ said Garovel. ‘She’s been popular all over Eloa for thousands of years, especially during the peak of the Mohssian Empire. In fact, I’d say that was one of the major reasons why the Rainlords never really got along with the rest of the Empire very much. They refused to let go of Lhutwë and accept Cocora into their hearts like everybody else was doing.

Yeah, that sounds like the Rainlords alright.

Hector, why are you so interested in gods all of a sudden?

N-no reason.

You hesitated. That means you’re lying.

N-no, it doesn’t. I do that shit all the time. I can’t help it.

Yeah, I don’t believe you,’ said Garovel. ‘And if you’re lying to me, then I’m guessing that it’s because you’re planning to do something that you know I won’t like.

I... ah...

Something to do with gods, obviously.

Now who’s the detective? Sheesh.

Just tell me what it is and save me the trouble of guessing.

Hector considered it briefly. ‘I thought you liked guessing games.’

You’re gonna be like that, are you? Alright, fine, I’ll play.

You get three guesses,’ said Hector.

Oh, you’re giving me a hard limit? Seems a bit unfair.

Wouldn’t be much of a game if I didn’t. If I let you have all the guesses you want, then you can’t lose. There would be no stakes.

Heh, stakes, huh? This is getting serious, now. What do I get if I win, then?

Hmm. What do you want?

Garovel fell silent as he mulled it over. ‘I want you to ask Lynn out on a date the next time you see her.

Hector stopped walking for a second to look at Garovel. ‘Well, so much for that game, then. You’re right, Garovel. We should just concentrate on finding that keyhole.

Okay, okay, just hold on,’ the reaper said in hurry. ‘That was too much. Fine. I don’t want you to ask her out on a date. Instead, I just want you to give her a compliment.’ After a beat, he added, ‘Intentionally, that is. Accidental compliments don’t count.

Hector took some time to deliberate, frowning inside his helmet as he tried to imagine it. ‘How...? I... agh, so I’m supposed to just shoehorn a random compliment into a conversation with her out of nowhere?

Doesn’t have to be out of nowhere,’ said Garovel. ‘I’m sure you could figure out a sneaky way to work up to it. I’ve got faith in you, buddy.

Hector grumbled to himself, wanting to call the game off again but not seeing much justification for it this time.

C’mon,’ said Garovel. ‘If you can talk Ivan down from killing everyone, then I’m pretty sure you can at least pay Lynn a compliment.

Hector scowled. ‘Only if you win. You’ve gotta guess right, first.

Of course. And for my first guess--

Hold on. What do I get if I win?

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Page 1480

Alternatively, it’s possible that even the successful mutation users themselves didn’t understand their own power well enough to be able to explain to anyone else. I’ve heard about that happening among their kind. Accidental breakthroughs and such.

...Then, isn’t it possible that Avar himself was just a really powerful servant?

Of course.

So you agree that Avar could’ve actually existed, then?

In some form, sure. But not as a true god.

Hector was abruptly reminded of his conversation with Eleyo. ‘What would you consider to be a “true god,” in that case?

As in, an otherworldly being with untold knowledge and power. Descended from a higher plane of existence, perhaps.

So you don’t think Rasalased is a true god?

No. Powerful as he was--or IS, I guess--he still has pretty obvious limitations. Otherwise, he would’ve put a stop to that fight at Dunehall himself, don’t you think?

That was a pretty good point, Hector felt. But still, he wanted to keep prodding. ‘So... a god can’t have limitations?

Mm,’ said Garovel. ‘That’s pretty much my whole problem with the term “god” in a nutshell right there. It’s unscientific and not well-defined. By certain standards, I’m sure Sermung could be considered a god. But so what? What does labeling him that tell us? That he’s just really powerful? We already know that. If anything, all it would do is build up a weird, cult-like mystique around the guy--which is something I would find extremely dangerous and intensely creepy.

Hmm...’ Hector was running out of arguments. ‘I guess you’re right...

Garovel laughed. ‘You sound so disappointed. Do you really want true gods to exist that badly?

Ah... I don’t know if I’d say that I WANT them to. But I’m just... trying to keep an open mind, I guess.

Given the many, many fables I’ve heard about all these gods over the years, I’m quite glad that they don’t exist, myself.

Really? There’s not even ONE god you like?

Oh, sure. There are several I “like,” as fictional characters. But I certainly wouldn’t “like” it if they were running around out there, doing all sorts of crazy shit all the time.

Hmm. Who’s your favorite god, then?

Garovel hesitated. ‘From a purely fictional standpoint, you mean?

Of course.

...Well, I’m quite partial to Cocora, I suppose.

Hector blinked inside his helmet. ‘Really? I... I wouldn’t have guessed that.

Why not?

I... I don’t know. I mean, why is she your favorite?

Mm, I guess I just find the whole “purity” and “goodness” shtick to be pretty appealing. In her stories, she’s always very compassionate and so forth.

Huh.

Why do you keep sounding so surprised?

I just... I didn’t picture you as a fanboy for the Goddess of Light.

“Fanboy?” Really, Hector?

It’s okay, Garovel. I understand.

Oh, you do, huh?

Hey, is that the real reason why you decided to go to Atreya originally? So you could hang out with all the other Cocora lovers?

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Page 1479

Where do I think the Hun’Sho came from?’ said Garovel. ‘What do you even mean by that? Be more specific, dammit.

Hector stopped to rethink his question. ‘I mean, like... well, okay, uh... Are they even considered human?

Ah. That’s a question of some historical significance, actually. While I personally consider them to be human, I’ve known quite a number of people who would say otherwise.

But... like... biologically, I mean. They’re so different from us. And, just... I mean, how did they become like that? They used to be normal, didn’t they? Or were WE the ones that changed?

No, no, the Hun’Sho were definitely the ones who changed. It was just a very, VERY early instance of a successful mutation user. So early, in fact, that when it happened, most of us had no idea what it was. So you see, it’s not all that surprising that it came to be interpreted as the work of a god. Because at the time... it kinda was. In a sense.

...How do you know all that, though? I mean, did you know the original Hun’Sho mutant yourself? And like, how were they able to use mutation in order to fuse ardor into their body like that?

Alright, ease up with the interrogation, Detective Goffe. I can’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to this stuff. No, I did not personally know the mutation user who gave rise to the Hun’Sho, but it is widely known about in the reaper community.

But doesn’t that mean it really could’ve been Avar or whoever?

Oh, don’t start with that. The reaper community used to be very close with the Hun’Sho, because they could see and even talk to us, unlike basically every other race in the world.

Wait. “Basically” every other race? Does that mean there ARE others?

Well, there are the forest people of Jaskadan. They’re pretty friggin’ weird, too.

Forest people?’ said Hector. ‘Like with plants growing out of their bodies or something?

More or less, yeah.

...And you think those people were the result of some ancient mutation user, too?

Sure do.

...Even though our understanding of mutation back then was really shitty?

You’re not wrong about that, but the thing is, historically speaking, wildly exceptional servants have always existed. People who were so far ahead of their time that it almost defies belief. The builder of Warrenhold was one such example, you may recall.

Hector did recall. ‘Stasya.

That’s right. Is it so unthinkable that someone managed to wield mutation as skillfully as she wielded integration? Someone who figured it out long before the rest of us did?

Why wouldn’t they have shared that knowledge, then?

Any number of reasons. Maybe they thought it would be dangerous. Maybe they were just greedy. Hell, maybe no one wanted to listen. You have to remember that mutation users were often treated like they were either diseased or just monsters.

Hmm.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Page 1478

What was worse, from what Garovel was telling him, there was plenty of ardor in the rocks all over Himmekel, blocking his sight.

And all of that was assuming that the trick of it would be something as simple as a hidden room. Hector wasn’t so sure it would be, not after hearing about someone being pulled into a mirror. It seemed plausible to him that the only way to get wherever they were trying to go was through another mirror.

But what was the Kag for, in that case?

He tried to focus on his task, though. Diego had gone to inspect any other mirrors he could find, which meant entering more Hun’Sho quarters without alerting any of the other Hun’Sho. And Hector didn’t envy that job. He’d never really been one for stealth. Maybe he could ask Roman to give him a few pointers, if they ever actually managed to meet up with the guy again.

And so, as they conducted their meandering search, Hector decided to make use of the downtime as he often did.

Hey, Garovel.

What?’ the reaper said privately.

Is there anything else about the Undercrust you haven’t told me?

Oh yeah. Tons.

No, I mean, like, any really important stuff that you’ve maybe not mentioned yet? Of the same caliber as lava people existing, for example?

Hey, I already told you that I thought they’d gone extinct.

Yeah, but even if you’d known they hadn’t, would you have told me about them?

Of course.

You wouldn’t have tried to keep it as another one of your surprises?

Garovel paused. ‘Well, who can really say for sure?

Garovel.

What?!

Are there any other big things left to tell me like that?!

Probably! The Undercrust has a lot of stuff in it, okay?!

Okay, so tell me some of them!

Agh! Don’t just put it all on me! How about you ask a more specific question instead of making me think of everything, huh?!

Just fuckin’... tell me something, Garovel. I don’t care what it is.

Oh, no, we’re not doing that. I see that trap for what it is. I come up with something I think is super neat and cool. You end up incredibly bored and unimpressed. I end up feeling like a complete tool.

I wouldn’t--

Uh-huh, sure. Now you listen here, Hector. You’re my servant, alright? And this an order. Exercise those critical thinking skills of yours and come up with something good.

What the hell? You NEVER give me orders. You give instructions and advice, not orders.

Yeah, because I’m such a nice guy. You’re welcome, by the way. But this time, it’s an order. Go on. Consider it a new type of mental training. Critical thinking is hugely important, y’know.

Ugh, fine. Where do you think the Hun’Sho came from?

Well, I--hey, you came up with that way too quickly.

Well, I already had it in mind.

You were supposed to think long and hard before asking something. That’s why it’s called critical thinking. You’re supposed to think about it as if your life depends on it.

But my life DOESN’T depend on it.

That’s beside the point.

Would you please just answer the question, already? You’re being even more obnoxious than usual.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Page 1477 -- CLVIII.

Elwood looked pleased with his new shadowy toy. “So does this mean we’ll finally get to leave this place?” he said.

“Hmm,” was all Damian said.

“Some of us do have lives of our own, you know,” said Lucia.

“Oh, yeah, about that.” Damian gave her a toothy smile. “You actually don’t, anymore.”

Everyone just looked at him.

Lucia was the one to ask, “What does that mean?”

“I’ve had you all declared dead!”

Cisco heard a few groans.

“Plane crash is the official story,” said Damian. “So don’t worry. Your friends and associates won’t miss you. Well, okay, poor choice of words. They won’t be wondering where you are, is what I meant.”

“What about the family business?!”

“It’s alright,” said Damian. “I liquidated all of your assets. Almost all, anyway. A good forty percent or so.”

“That is NOT almost all!”

“Eh, it’s just money, and we’ve got more than enough of that already. What’s important is that we have each other!”

More groans.

“You’ve just gotta look on the bright side!” said Damian. “Now you’re all free to do as you please! Nothing tying you down!”

“Aside from you, you mean,” said Elwood.

“Yes, aside from me. But I know what’s best, so that’s no big deal, right? Come on, everybody! Don’t look so down! This is the start of a new chapter in all of your lives! The funnest chapter! I’m gonna show you guys all sorts of neat stuff!”

“So does that mean you’re going to let us leave after all?” said Elwood.

“Of course I will! Eventually. Maybe a few months from now.”

That sparked the loudest chorus of groans yet.

“Just think of it as your important ‘bonding time’ with one another.” Damian let a beat pass, then set his gaze on Dunstan specifically. “And if, for whatever reason, you guys don’t start bonding soon, then that’s fine, too. Rest assured! I won’t give up on you! I’ll keep you here for however it long it takes! Years! Decades, even! I’m very patient!”

Cisco watched Dunstan’s expression transform into one of exhaustion.


Chapter One Hundred Fifty-Eight: ‘A search in spirit...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

There were more places to look than Hector realized. While he didn’t mind the opportunity to explore Himmekel more, it soon began to feel a bit hopeless, trying to find a keyhole in this giant place. That, of course, was why they had decided to split up during their search, but even still, Hector was left to wonder if they would really be able to find anything like this.

It seemed like the reapers should have been able to locate a hidden room behind a false wall or whatever, but that was not the case, apparently. If there was no soul for them to sense on the other side of said false wall, then the reapers had no way of knowing there was a hidden room there.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Page 1476

That’s a lovely sentiment,’ said Rezamaar, ‘but we don’t really have quality, either. Aside from yourself, our strongest fighter is my sweet baby Dunstan here. And he still needs time to grow.

Don’t worry,’ said Feromas. ‘We’ve got recruitment plans in the works. And we’re also going to do a bit of aberration harvesting. Which reminds me. Damian, why don’t you give everyone their final gift?

“Right!” said Damian, rummaging through his pockets. He retrieved a fistful of pearly white rings--identical to one he was already wearing, Cisco noticed. “Now, these are only rings, so they’re not as strong as they might otherwise be, but they’ll help keep you safe. And choose your finger wisely, because once you put it on, it’s not coming off unless the finger comes with it. Everybody take one. Come on. Don’t be shy now. I made sure there were enough for all of you.”

When Cisco received his, he examined it more closely. It had a polished sheen to it on the outside rim, but the inside was much plainer. ‘Is that... bone?’ thought Cisco.

I believe so,’ said Dennex privately. ‘This ring is the remains of an aberration. I can sense its sinister power.

Cisco watched as everyone else was putting theirs on. ‘Should I really wear this?

I don’t think you have much choice, right now.

Ugh...’ Cisco frowned as he stared at it. He’d wanted to become an aberration hunter, but was this the end result of that? Or was it just some twisted approximation? Would the Vanguard have made him wear this thing, too?

Maybe so. The Vanguard had certainly demonstrated that it wasn’t nearly so noble as he’d hoped it was.

You can cut your finger off later, if you really hate it that much,’ said Dennex.

Cisco took a slow breath and put it on, choosing his middle finger on his right hand. It felt like any other ring would, at first. Then a sharp pain bit into his finger, and he could feel it go all the way to his bone, like it was attaching itself to him.

But there was no blood. And it didn’t look like his skin had actually been broken. It just felt like he’d been cut into. But that, too, was fleeting. After a few more moments of agony, the pain was entirely gone.

The others were already manifesting shadows around themselves. A deep and dark red, each one was, which suggested to Cisco that all of these bone rings had come from the same aberration. Though, perhaps not. Surely, there were repeated colors among aberrations. Perhaps they’d all just come from the same type of aberration, assuming there were such classifications.

Regardless, as he began to see the red shadow melt out of his flesh and take form, began to feel its presence in his mind, began to control and mold it as he wished, Cisco couldn’t help feeling entirely disgusted.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Page 1475

I see,’ said Rezamaar. ‘And are you a king, too?

Damian paused at that. “No, but perhaps I should be. I’ve never had a kingdom before, but that was the whole point to all this, wasn’t it? Because now I do!”

Feromas sighed. ‘Please don’t encourage him.

But it’s so much fun,’ said Reza, laughing. ‘I would’ve thought that by now, you’d just roll with it like I am.

Believe me, sometimes I wish I could,’ said Feromas.

“The King of the Humans!” said Damian. “That’s who I’ll be!”

That name doesn’t suit you in the slightest,’ said Feromas.

“The Trouble Master! The Builder of Bridges! Aha! That’s me!”

This old guy might have been even crazier than he had realized, Cisco felt.

Dunstan decided to speak up now. “Are you talking about Dozer and Morgunov, Grandpa?”

Cisco blinked, not having made that connection but suddenly seeing how it could make a certain degree of sense out of Damian’s ravings.

“Those two clods? Nah. They’re always a step or two behind. Though, yeah, it definitely would’ve been annoying if they found out I was still alive, too.”

Cisco observed Dunstan’s disappointed face. That had almost been clever. Cisco would’ve believed it.

“Well, anyway,” said Dunstan, “isn’t it about time you explained why the hell you’ve gone so far out of your way to gather us all together like this?”

“It’s a team building exercise!” said Damian. “I thought that would be obvious by now, given the jackets!”

Dunstan eyed his own again. “Yeah, but to what end? Why do you want us to be a team so badly? Hell, I still don’t know how you were even able to find me the way you did.”

“Heh, I have my ways,” said Damian.

And by “ways,” he means “associates who can handle all the hard stuff for him,”’ said Feromas.

“Hey, don’t give away my ways!”

Feromas ignored him. ‘Dunstan, the goal here is simple. We’re building a fourth servant empire.

“No, a kingdom! Not an empire! Weren’t you listening?! I’m a king, not an emperor!”

Whatever.’

“You want to build an organization that can take on the Vanguard?” said Dunstan, almost laughing. “That’s great and all, but I think we might need a few thousand more servants on our side.”

“Silly Dunstan. It’s about quality, not quantity. Like my wife here. Sure, I could have like ten more, but even all put together, they wouldn’t be as good as her!”

Cisco and everyone else looked to Grandma, who oddly enough, did swoon a little bit as Damian kissed her on the cheek.

Well. Alright, then.

Cisco supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised. While it was true that she’d been acting normally enough up until now, she had been married to this lunatic for a very long time, presumably. She probably wasn’t a normal person at all, servant or not.

And the same could likely be said of all of these Rofals, Cisco figured.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Page 1474

~~((The 6 Pages of New Year's + Double Monday = Page 8 of 8))~~
“Oh, and I also got some coloring books,” said Damian. “I remember how a lot of you guys liked those.”

“When we were six, maybe,” someone said.

Damian glanced over his audience again. “Okay, maybe I got those for me. I’m just saying--feel free to take advantage of them, if you want. I won’t be upset.”

Cisco heard Feromas sighing.

“Ooh! And here’s the best part!” Damian rummaged through the last few bags and pulled out two armfuls of red leather with black stripes. “Matching jackets! Now we can be like a proper gang! Or a team! Yeah Team Rofal!”

Cisco had to set his other gifts down in order to receive this one. The back had an elaborate and admittedly impressive design on it--silvery wings burning with red-and-black flames, all placed in front of two giant, menacing eyes, which also carried flames in their pupils.

It also had “C. Ellis” emblazoned on the front. It was even the right size.

And as much as he didn’t want to admit it, Cisco actually kind of liked it.

The other Rofals gave various--though not necessarily unreceptive--grumbles as they examined their own jackets.

After that, Damian sat everyone down to explain a few things. Namely, he told them about the existence of reapers and servants. He informed them of the existence of the Vanguard and Abolish, as well as Sai-hee.

Cisco knew all of this already, of course, as did Dunstan, but most of the audience looked like they didn’t believe him at all. Until he ripped off his own hand and grew it back right front of them. Dunstan even spoke up at one point to say that Damian was, in fact, not just being his usual crazy self.

Once the pieces finally started to fall into place for everyone, perhaps realizing previous mysteries in their own lives were suddenly being solved, they began asking questions, chief among them coming from the eldest woman of the group, Damian’s wife, a woman that Cisco had yet to get an actual name for, as everyone had just been calling “Mother” or “Grandma.”

“Why in the world have you waited so long to tell us all of this?!” she said, sounding equal parts furious and confused.

“Yeah, sorry about that,” said Damian. “I didn’t want you guys spreading all this information around and causing a stir. The whole reason I wanted to start this family was to lay low for a while, not draw attention. And let me tell you, it would’ve been very bad if either the King of the Fairies or the King of the Demons found out about us!”

Aaand he’s gone again,’ said Rezamaar, though the Rofals didn’t seem to know what to make of it.

Damian looked at the reaper. “I didn’t go anywhere. And the Demon King is totally real. He’s the Great Deceiver! The Stealer of Hopes and Dreams!”

Oh, well, excuse me for doubting you,’ said Reza. ‘And the Fairy King? He’s real, too, I take it?

“Of course! He’s the Goody Guardian! The Wings of Judgment!”

Page 1473

~~((The 6 Pages of New Year's + Double Monday = Page 7 of 8))~~
“Yeah, but how often do you get a chance to flip a table with a game board on it?!” said Damian. “It’s a rare and precious opportunity that should be taken advantage of!” He threw Cisco a less-than-apologetic look. “You weren’t still playing that were you, Mr. Ellis?”

“I guess not,” said Cisco dryly. ‘Ellis’ had been Dennex’s concoction, apparently considering it best not to chance anyone here recognizing the name ‘Elroy.’

“I got you a present, too,” said Damian. “I figured Dunstan’s best friend could be an honorary member of our family, especially since you don’t have one of your own.”

Agh, try to have a little more tact,’ said Feromas. He turned his skeletal wolf’s head toward Cisco. ‘Sorry about him.

“It’s fine,” said Cisco.

That, too, had been Dennex’s doing, the logic being that they didn’t want this Damian fellow to go check up on the non-existent Ellis family in an attempt to corroborate their story.

By the time Damian started pulling presents out, the Rofals had all gathered in the main room, even Dunstan and Rezamaar.

“Now, first, we of course have our snow globes,” said Damian. He held out one in each hand, shaking them both to make the white flakes in the water begin floating. “When I saw these, I obviously had to buy all of them, so don’t be shy now! I have enough for everyone! Go on, everybody take one!”

Despite saying that, Cisco somehow ended up with three globes in his hands. One was of a snowman and a candlestick-man punching each other. Another was of a dragon burning down a snowy village. And the third was of a lion roaring on a snow-capped mountain.

Cisco had no idea where he was supposed to put these.

Then Damian started pulling out firearms. He handed them out like they were candy.

“I was only able to get pistols, but that should be fine for now,” said Damian. “They’re not loaded, of course, but I’ll show you all how to use them later.”

“I think most of us here already know how, Father,” said a middle-aged woman, who Cisco recalled as being Dunstan’s mother, Cecilia.

“Oh, of course you do, sweetheart, but it never hurts to brush up on the basics. Wouldn’t want any of you accidentally hurting yourselves. You, especially, Cecilia. I bet you haven’t fired one of these since you were little.”

“You might be surprised,” said Cecilia darkly. “I wanted to be ready, in case you ever visited me again.”

Damian gave her an unconcerned look. “And how well did that work out for you?” he said, wide-eyed and smiling.

She just scowled.

“If you’re a good girl, maybe I’ll tell you how you can actually kill me, one day!”

Don’t do that,’ said Feromas. ‘Oh god, please don’t do that.

Cecilia smacked her lips as she inspected her new pistol.

Cisco was surprised to receive a firearm, too. He checked to see if it really wasn’t loaded, and indeed, the detachable magazine was empty.

Page 1472

~~((The 6 Pages of New Year's + Double Monday = Page 6 of 8))~~
Dunstan grabbed the man’s throat. “Not so tough now, eh, Jonah?” He squeezed. “Remember when you did this exact same thing to one of my friends? Hmm? Made him cry out for his mother, remember? Should I make you do that, too? Your mother’s actually in the building, so maybe she’ll show up.”

Cisco noticed more Rofals coming out of their rooms on the second and third floors in order to see what the commotion was. Lucia had not moved from her curled up position on the couch, and Elwood was on his feet but not moving to help, perhaps because Dunstan was staring right at him while talking to Jonah.

Nice going,’ said Dennex privately.

The reaper had a point, Cisco knew, but he didn’t mind this so much. At least it was more interesting than playing another board game.

“Oh, but wait a minute,” said Dunstan. “You didn’t twist my friend’s wrist like this, did you, Jonah? That’s my mistake.” He let go of Jonah’s hand. Then he further tightened his grip on the man’s throat. “No, you just put a gun to his head, instead.”

Cisco could hear Jonah struggling to breathe.

You’re killing him,’ said Dennex publicly.

Maybe that’d be for the best,’ said Rezamaar. She didn’t sound like she was joking.

Cisco felt he might need to intervene now and stood. “Stop,” he said firmly.

But when Dunstan turned to look over at him, Cisco barely recognized him. The expression on the other young man’s face was unlike anything Cisco had yet seen from him during these past two weeks.

Dunstan was smiling. He was enjoying himself.

“Let him go,” said Cisco. “Didn’t you tell me you weren’t like them?”

Dunstan stared back at Cisco for a moment longer before his smile vanished. Then he released Jonah and walked away.

Rezamaar followed after him.

Cisco sat back down and breathed a silent sigh of relief. Maybe he regretted starting that whole thing, after all. Gathering information and amusement was one thing, but almost getting a man killed was quite another.

Not long after that incident, the front door flew open, and Damian Rofal came waltzing into the main room with a number of large shopping bags--several of which, he was not actually carrying. Instead, they hovered in midair around him, not terribly unlike his reaper, Feromas.

“Don’t worry, everyone!” the old man said loudly for the whole cabin to hear. “Pappy’s back, and he’s brought gifts for all his good little boys and girls!”

The table in front of Cisco flew up suddenly and shook the chessboard off of itself, sending its marble pieces clattering across the hardwood floor in dozens of different directions. Then it slammed back down with a wooden thud that made Cisco’s chair jump a little.

Damian began setting his many bags down on top of it.

Was that really necessary?’ said Feromas. ‘There’s a counter right over there, you know.

Page 1471

~~((The 6 Pages of New Year's + Double Monday = Page 5 of 8))~~
No words were exchanged, but everyone kept throwing glances and glares in Dunstan’s direction, and he wasn’t shy in returning them, either. Perhaps they were trying to tell him to leave without actually having to tell him, and perhaps he was doing the same.

All in all, it made for an intensely uncomfortable atmosphere.

But not an unfamiliar one.

In fact, after two weeks in this place, Cisco had long since grown weary of this. Maybe Dennex was right and staying totally quiet was the wisest course of action here, but frankly, it was obnoxious. And besides, Cisco had always hated this sort of passive aggression. He much preferred proper confrontation.

“So I hear you’re all a bunch of a criminals,” said Cisco.

Dunstan just about drowned in the glass of water he was drinking from.

Cisco didn’t avert his gaze from the other Rofals, though. He wanted to see their faces, their reactions.

Lucia laughed. Jonah glared. Elwood scowled.

“Is that what Dunce over there told you?” said Elwood. He was a tall man with a gravely voice and a strong, clean shaven jawline. He was wearing silky red-and-gold pajamas, but that didn’t inform Cisco of much, because everyone else was doing the same. There wasn’t a whole lot of motivation to get properly dressed when everyone knew they weren’t going anywhere. Not to mention, there wasn’t much variety of clothing available here, either.

“You shouldn’t put too much credence in what that loser says,” said Jonah. Compared to Elwood, this guy looked pretty small, though he was probably around average weight and height.

And they all had the same dark hair and thick, arched eyebrows.

“Okay,” said Cisco flatly. “So tell me what the truth is, then.”

And perhaps they hadn’t expected him to say that, because both men paused.

“Elwood here is an illegal arms dealer,” said Dunstan, having found his composure again. “And Jonah--well, he’s just a loan shark, but he gets his jollies from smacking kids around, probably to vent his frustration over how pathetic he is.”

Jonah shot up out of his seat and stomped toward them. “You fuckin’ little--!” He backhanded Dunstan hard enough to knock him out of his chair. “Cecilia shoulda taught you some fuckin’ manners!”

Kick his ass, Dunstan!’ said Rezamaar, grabbing his shoulder to invoke the servant’s vigor.

“That wasn’t necessary, Reza,” said Dunstan.

“What’re you talkin’ about, huh, bitch?!” said Jonah. “Get up so I can put your ass down again!”

And Dunstan did get back up.

Having fought Dunstan himself, Cisco knew this wasn’t going to be pretty. But at the same time, Dunstan didn’t look out of control. He seemed entirely calm. Cisco might have decided to step in, otherwise.

Jonah swung, and Dunstan caught his fist with one hand as if it were a tennis ball. Jonah barely got the chance to look surprised before Dunstan swept one of his legs, shoved him to the floor, and sat on him. He kept Jonah’s hand, though, and twisted the wrist a little.

“You little fucker--agh!”

Page 1470

~~((The 6 Pages of New Year's + Double Monday = Page 4 of 8))~~
He’d never even heard of a soul net that could do something like this, but Damian Rofal had been full of such surprises. The old man’s pet worms were probably the most notable in that regard. Even the other members of the Rofal family seemed to be uncomfortable around those things.

“Don’t worry,” Damian had told everyone gathered in the main room, “they don’t bite. They will give you a nasty shock, but it probably won’t be enough to kill you. And as long as you stay within the barrier, they’ll leave you alone. So just relax, everyone! Everything will be just fine! You’ll see!”

The listeners hadn’t looked pleased, but none of them had voiced any objections, either--apart from Damian’s apparent wife, whose loud and frequent questions the old man never bothered to answer. Instead, Damian would just sidle up to her, give her a quick kiss on the nose or the cheek, and then run away again.

And even knowing what Dunstan had told him, Cisco found it difficult to not feel pity for these people. None of them were servants, as far Cisco could tell. Criminals or not, they were still normal human beings, trapped here along with him and Dunstan by their insane patriarch.

And no one seemed to know what Damian’s plan was, either. Dennex and Rezamaar were going around, eavesdropping on everyone’s conversations, but that critical question had remained unanswered.

Damian himself had also been curiously absent, much of the time. Cisco thought the old man might have been going out in order to find and retrieve more family members, but by all accounts, there were none. Dunstan had been the last family member to arrive.

Ultimately, Cisco found himself with an abundance of downtime on his hands. He tried to make use of it as best he could by meditating and practicing with his ability, but he found it difficult to concentrate on such things with so much uncertainty hanging around him. There wasn’t any internet or even electricity for that matter, so catching up on the news was also impossible.

And that was perhaps the most worrisome thing.

Whenever he thought about his family, his imagination was left to run wild. From what little Dunstan had been able to tell him, the Vanguard had failed to capture his father or any of his other family members, but the Rainlords as a whole had still been dealt a massive blow.

Cisco wondered when he would see home again. Or if he ever would.

“Up for another game?” came Dunstan’s voice.

Cisco turned from the window and saw him standing there, chessboard in hand. Honestly, he wasn’t up for it, but there wasn’t much else to do, so Cisco just nodded and followed him down the stairs and onto the main floor by one of the cabin’s three fireplaces.

At least the extra warmth was nice.

A few of the other Rofals were enjoying it as well. As Cisco recalled, their names were Lucia, Jonah, and Elwood.

Dunstan didn’t seem to appreciate their company very much, nor they his.

Page 1469 -- CLVII.

~~((The 6 Pages of New Year's + Double Monday = Page 3 of 8))~~
“What about the Hun’Kui, then?” said Manuel. “They might be able to help us.”

“Ah, and I highly doubt they will tell the Hun’Sho of what we are doing,” added Elise.

On that point, Hector could agree. And those four Hun’Kui had been through hell with them, so there was at least a modicum of camaraderie to be had. His talk with Eleyo earlier had affirmed him of that much.

Still, he noticed Diego hesitating. And he wasn’t the only one who did.

“...Do you not trust the Hun’Kui, Lord Diego?” said Manuel.

“I don’t know,” the man said. “But I suppose asking for their help would allow us keep an eye on them.”

That’s true,’ said Yangéra. ‘Just don’t turn your back on them, everyone. Remember that they’re still strangers to us.


Chapter One Hundred Fifty-Seven: ‘A glimpse of Madness...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Francisco Elroy had to admit, the view from his room was stunning. The Omarest Mountain Range of Dante was known for its skiing even as far away as Sair, and now he could see why. The snow outside his window was unlike anything he’d seen in Aguarey.

Under different circumstances, he might have been able to enjoy visiting this luxurious, mansion-sized cabin in the middle of nowhere.

The question of why the hell he was here in the first place had still not been answered to his satisfaction. He understood that the crazy old guy named Damian Rofal was responsible, but beyond that, not much was clear.

The last thing he remembered before waking up here was fighting a group of Vanguardian jackasses in his school. And now he’d come to find that one of those very jackasses was here with him, not much more aware of what was going on than he was, apparently.

His reaper, Dennex, had advised him not to ask too many questions, however, and Cisco could see the wisdom in that, especially after what Dunstan Rofal, the Vanguardian jackass in question, had told him.

“My family is a bunch of criminals,” he’d said. “I suggest you not trust any of them. And my grandfather in particular is... well, he’s a lot more dangerous than I ever realized, it would seem.”

They’d been here for a couple weeks now, so naturally, Cisco had been trying to find a means of escape--with Dunstan’s help, surprisingly. But this place was much more of a prison than it looked. The building’s three floors may have had an open-air layout to them, and the furniture may have been as ritzy as Cisco had ever seen, and the food may have even been pretty damn good, but there was some sort of high-level soul net preventing not just the reapers from leaving, but people, too.

From what Cisco had thus far gathered, it had something to do with the tall, rocky spires that stood all around the structure. They looked normal enough at a glance and as of now, were half-buried in snow, but when he’d touched them a few days ago, he could feel them humming in a way that was most certainly unnatural.

Page 1468

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Maybe he was just in a weird mood. Somehow, he felt like he was back in school again, attempting the impossible task of making friends with normal people.

After that, Hector wasn’t able to speak up much more, but that may have also been the result of the conversation simply not going anywhere else. It was mainly just the Rainlords expressing their worries more, and Hector didn’t feel terribly compelled to say anything else, not when it might just further increase that worry.

Unsurprisingly, Garovel did a much better job of trying to comfort them than he could have.

At length, Diego finally arrived, though the Lord Elroy was not with him.

Where’s Zeff?’ asked Garovel.

“I explained the situation to him, but he didn’t want to stop his work,” said Diego. “He’s determined to get us out of here as soon as possible and doesn’t seem to care about much else, right now.”

Hector couldn’t say he was surprised.

“Will you explain the situation to us now?” said Elise. “We have been wondering what is going on for some time.”

“Of course.” Diego took a seat next to Hector. He explained about his encounter with the Hun’Sho named Jasirok and presented the pyramidal key known as a Kag for the group to examine. Then he told them about what he had witnessed.

A period of incredulity passed as the group asked for clarification, of which Diego and Yangéra could unfortunately provide little.

A giant hand appearing from a mirror.

A mirror?

Apparently, Hector wasn’t the only one to pick up on that coincidence, because Garovel was the first to ask, ‘Was there anything strange about the mirror?

“Not that we noticed,” said Diego. “I didn’t think to examine the mirror too closely when I first saw it, but it seemed normal enough. After it happened, though, the mirror shattered instantly. I brought one of the pieces, if you want to see it for yourself.” He rifled through his pockets and retrieved a jagged mirror shard.

They passed it around, though Elise was kept away from it, in case it decided to do anything else unexpected. When Hector and Garovel got their chances to examine it, they didn’t see anything particularly notable about it. It certainly didn’t have the odd, foggy look to it that Hector recalled the Courier’s mirror having.

But maybe that didn’t matter. Maybe it’s power had left it after breaking.

Afterward, the group struggled to figure out their next move.

“It seems obvious enough that we should try to locate whatever lock this Kag goes to,” said Diego, “but we have no idea where to start looking. And from the way Jasirok was talking, it sounded like asking the other Hun’Sho for help might be a bad idea.”

“I agree,” said Elise. “As nice as they have been to us, I simply don’t trust them very much. They could decide to hinder our investigation rather than help it.”

The three reapers all seemed to concur.

Page 1467

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“I am also concerned about what our kin in Capaporo are doing now,” said Manuel. “While a part of me is glad that they have not come for us in some haphazard fashion, I am also... surprised that they haven’t.”

What do you mean?’ said Garovel.

“Think of it,” said Manuel. “We are talking about the likes of Darktide, Grayguard, the Yellow Tempest, the Blue Bull, the Lord of the Drowning Sky, and the Lion of the Desert. Knowing what we know of these people, I find it difficult to believe that, even if they did believe us dead, they would not at least come searching for our corpses.”

Hector was beginning to notice a pattern with this Manuel fellow.

However, he had not heard a few of those names before. He didn’t know who Grayguard or the Yellow Tempest referred to, but the Blue Bull? Given what Hector remembered of the siege of Marshrock, that name could have only belonged to Salvador Delaguna. The man’s size alone accounted for the animal, and his cobalt transfiguration power accounted for the color. And the Lord of the Drowning Sky? That was a strange name, but he couldn’t imagine that it belonged to anyone other than Dimas Sebolt. That man’s aerial mobility was unmatched by any other Rainlord whom Hector had met--arguably any other servant he had met.

“So what are you saying?” said Elise. “Do you believe something is preventing them from coming after us?”

“Possibly,” said Manuel. “It has been nearly three days, yet none of the reapers have sensed them.”

I think you are worrying too much,’ said Lorios. ‘They could be searching for us right now and simply having trouble finding us. We fell a long way, remember? Not to mention all the monsters above us right now, making it more difficult to sense anything or anyone specific.

“That is true,” Manuel admitted. “But even so, I imagine Bloodhound would have been able to locate us by now.”

Okay, who the hell was Bloodhound? Hector wondered if Manuel was just making some of these names up himself.

He did find himself agreeing with Manuel, though. Especially with regard to Asad. After witnessing the lengths that the man had gone to for Zeff back in Sair, Hector doubted that even a nest of giant worms would prevent Asad from coming to help him again.

Oh, hey, maybe that was a way he could contribute to this conversation. He gathered his composure, waited for an opening, and said, “...I don’t think Asad would ever leave Zeff behind.”

“Yes,” said Manuel. “If recent events have proven anything, it is that the Lion and the Dragon care even more for one another than most of us realized.”

Hector couldn’t help smiling meekly beneath his helmet. Social interaction certainly was terrifying, but it wasn’t all bad, either.

He probably shouldn’t have been getting such a strong feeling of accomplishment for making such a minor contribution to the conversation, though, he figured.