Saturday, March 31, 2018

Page 1642

((Triple Saturday -- Page 3 of 3))
Zeff shut his eyes, scratched his brow, and breathed slowly and deeply. “Rasalased. I see. Frankly, I wasn’t certain I believed that you had ever spoken to him in the first place, but now, I suppose I do.” The man sighed with irritation. Then he opened his eyes again and glowered. “Why are you only telling me this now? Why not immediately after we returned to the surface?”

Hector didn’t much care for the look the man was giving him. It reminded him of their staring contest on the train. “I didn’t want you to worry any more than you already were. It wouldn’t have helped anything.”

“I would have gotten us to your Warrenhold much more quickly than you did. That would have helped quite a bit.”

“Not if someone snapped a picture of your ice flying through the sky.”

Zeff scoffed. “Unlikely. It was dark.”

“It wasn’t worth the risk. The whole point of going to Warrenhold is so that you guys can lay low there. We can’t jeopardize that just to save a few extra minutes.”

“Hmph. That was not your decision to make.”

“Yes, it was. I’m not going to let what happened at Dunehall happen at Warrenhold, too.”

Zeff glared at him but made no response.

“The reason I’m telling you now is because I thought if you have a faster way of getting us through this blockage, then you should just do it. Don’t waste time training me. Even though I--uh... ah, even though I appreciate the thought and... er...”

Zeff raised an eyebrow in the middle of his scowl, but he still wasn’t saying anything.

Hector had lost his momentum, though. Maybe it was a mistake to try to express his gratitude at that particular moment.

Shit.

Zeff’s displeasure seemed to diminish, however. “Fine. No training, then. Observe closely and try to pick up what you can. And provide structural support.”

Hector wasn’t sure what he meant. “Structural support?”

Zeff turned toward the blockage again. “Your iron is much more suitable to construction in this environment. Even if I soul-strengthen my ice, it will eventually melt after we leave the area.”

Ah. Hector felt like he understood, but Zeff didn’t wait for him to say so.

The Lord Elroy raised both hands in front of him and then pressed them against the rock. Jets of water materialized all around the man. They were small but so numerous that Hector almost mistook them for a single archway. They disappeared into the rock, leaving a visible cut behind, and after a moment, Zeff stepped back from the rock so that ice could push out a huge chunk of freshly carved stone.

And just like that, there was a tunnel, though it had not reached all the way through the other side. With the Scarf of Amordiin, Hector quickly came to understand its current, dead-ended shape.

“Support,” reiterated Zeff as he proceeded in to the tunnel.

Hector knew exactly what he was referring to. He could sense the instability in the rocks. There were cracks everywhere among the gigantic boulders and tiny pebbles. The slightest shift could collapse this tunnel in an instant.

Page 1641

((Triple Saturday -- Page 2 of 3))
Zeff eyed Axiolis and Garovel as well. “You two should probably keep your distance as well.”

Is what you’re going to do really that dangerous?’ said Garovel.

“Only if it goes awry,” said Zeff, eyeing Hector again.

Try to be careful, then,’ said Axiolis, and he moved to leave.

Garovel, however, did not. He remained exactly where he was by Hector’s side.

Zeff stared at the reaper, waiting.

Hector could feel the silence growing uncomfortable. ‘Garovel...

Rather than responding to him in private, the reaper just came right out and said it to Zeff’s face. ‘I’d rather not leave my servant alone with you.

Zeff met the reaper’s gaze. “Why not?”

Because you haven’t been treating him very well, lately, and it annoys me.

Zeff made no response.

Before the tense silence had an opportunity to return, Hector decided to intervene. “Garovel, please. It’s fine. Just--I’m sure there’re a lot of things you want to talk to Axiolis about, aren’t there?”

Garovel’s looked at Hector, and his skeletal face twisted somewhat. He didn’t say anything, though.

Garovel,’ Hector tried again, more firmly this time. ‘I’ll be fine.

After another silent moment, the reaper seemed to relent and said nothing more as he floated off to join Axiolis.

“I see that I have not endeared myself to your reaper,” said Zeff after they were alone.

“He’s just... protective of me, I guess.”

“Indeed. And that is an admirable quality. But you should be careful not to allow his protectiveness to become an obstacle to your progress. That would be bad for both of you.”

“I... don’t think I need to worry about that. Garovel likes to get me involved in crazy shit pretty frequently, too.”

“All the more reason to keep up with training, then.”

“Oh, believe me, I know.”

Zeff turned toward the wall of rocks and cracked his knuckles. “Let us stop dawdling, then. How is your precision crafting coming along?”

An odd and rather vague question, Hector felt. “Uh... okay, I guess? What do you mean, exactly?”

“Can you materialize drills yet?”

“Ah--I don’t know. I haven’t really tried.”

“They require careful and continual application of very powerful velocity states. I will demonstrate, and then you--”

Sensing that this could become a rather long conversation, Hector felt he should finally tell Zeff what he had been meaning to. “Ah--uh, b-before we get into that, there’s something I should tell you.”

Zeff dropped his hands to his sides. “Go on, then.”

He took a moment to consider how to phrase his next words. “...I have reason to believe that Asad and the others are currently being held prisoner by someone.”

Zeff’s face flashed with anger. “What?! How would you know that?!”

“I... spoke to Rasalased again after... uh... well, just before we got back to the surface. And he said that Asad was being held prisoner. By a “lost sheep,” whatever that means. That was all he told me, though.”

Page 1640

((Triple Saturday -- Page 1 of 3))
Hector put the rags on anyway. Evangelina Stroud probably wouldn’t be very pleased if she saw what had become of her gifts, but oh well. At least they covered his balls. And his cooling-variant armor would cover the rest of him.

The first chamber that they found themselves was an expectedly dark one. They still had their lamplights from before, but Hector discovered that his had broken during the fall. So had Manuel’s, apparently, though Diego’s and Zeff’s lights were both fine.

Ah. They’d probably strengthened theirs with their souls, Hector figured. He wished he would’ve thought to at least try that with his own lamp, even if his soul wasn’t yet strong enough to have actually protected it. Would’ve made for a good test, at least.

Oh well. He didn’t even need it anymore, now that he had the Scarf. When he concentrated, he could sense the exact shape of the pitch black room they were in. It was bulbous, though also a bit lumpy and uneven in places. There were only two ways out. One was a large corridor to Hector’s right, and the other was the hole above everyone’s head--the Warrenhole, as it were.

He still wasn’t sure how he felt about that name.

The group made their way to the right and continued onward. They tried to maintain a brisk pace, but Hector could see the hesitation in everyone’s movements, too. The footing here was rocky, and their last adventure in the Undercrust was likely still fresh enough in everyone’s mind to cause them due concern for what they might encounter next.

As they moved, the corridor began to widen and grow taller, until it was nearly as spacious as a basketball stadium. Eventually, however, they came upon an equally enormous blockage. Truck-sized boulders filled the entirety of the passageway, and it was so dense and deep that Hector couldn’t sense any air flowing through it.

“Well, this is quite the setback,” said Diego, rapping his knuckles against one of the largest rocks. “How long’s it gonna take to get through here, do you think?”

Hector could already see Zeff stretching his arms.

It won’t do to be reckless here,’ said Garovel aloud. ‘Cave-ins like this are a frequent occurrence in the Undercrust for a reason. If we’re not careful, we could end up causing another one, which would only serve to prolong things even more.

“I am aware,” said the Lord Elroy. He looked over at Hector, then at Diego and Manuel. “Hector and I will take care of this. You two give us some space to work.”

Diego’s brow rose. “I can help.”

“Get some rest,” Zeff said. “You look like you could use it.”

I look like I could use it?” said Diego. “You haven’t looked in a mirror lately, have you?”

“I feel fine,” said Zeff, firmer now. “Rest. Or meditate, if you prefer. But keep your distance.”

Deigo shrugged. “Alright, whatever you say. Let’s go, Mannie.”

“Please do not call me that,” said Manuel.

And they and their reapers ventured off.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Page 1639 -- CLXXVII.

At length, however, Hector thought of something he wanted to ask. ‘...When did you change? And how?

My views didn’t change until about a hundred years after I became a reaper,’ said Garovel. ‘That was when I decided to start traveling. As for “how”... well. There wasn’t any singular cause, I’d say. It was more a cumulative effect. I was slow to change my mind--as you might expect from someone who’d lived that way his entire life.

...Is that why you decided to start taking servants? To make up for... all of that?

The reaper paused again. ‘Yes. That would be fair to say.

I... see.

It’s also why I would like to turn Warrenhold into a place of safeguarding knowledge, if possible. Maybe it’s too little, too late, but I’d still like to try, nonetheless.

Hector didn’t know what to say.

Garovel left it at that for a while, and Hector just allowed his thoughts to swirl in his mind, not really holding onto or trying to unpack any of them. He felt like he understood Garovel much better now, and yet he didn’t know what to make of that understanding.

He didn’t feel like he disliked Garovel any more, though. And that was strange. Because he should have, shouldn’t he? Was his friendship with Garovel making him completely overlook this?

That didn’t seem right...

But maybe there was more to it than just that. It was so long ago, and Garovel obviously regretted it. And Hector didn’t know any of the people whom Garovel had killed, so...

Ugh.

Hector felt intensely uncomfortable with himself. He didn’t think any less of Garovel. But he might’ve thought less of himself.

Maybe he was just thinking that way because it was familiar, though. Easier.

Agh. So confusing. He couldn’t tell if he was being honest with himself about any of this. He only knew that it felt very strange and that he didn’t like it.

In time, Garovel spoke up again. ‘I can sense the bottom. You should try to protect your Scarf, if you can. Don’t want to get blood all over it.

Hector removed it and boxed it in iron.

Then he blacked out.


Chapter One Hundred Seventy-Seven: ‘Attend to thee...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

When he awoke, Hector was nude. He was not surprised, though. While he hadn’t felt the impact from the fall, it must have surely been enough to obliterate his whole body and force Garovel to regrow him from scratch. Mere iron armor certainly hadn’t protected him from that shit.

The clothes he’d been wearing were soaked in blood and flesh and even splintered bits of bone, but Zeff was there to jetwash and steam-press them for him.

They weren’t in very good shape afterward, though. The Lord Elroy wasn’t the most delicate launderer. Maybe they weren’t supposed to be cleaned with water. And of course, the multiple fights with worms and the impact from the fall just now probably hadn’t done them any favors, either. They were hardly even recognizable compared to when he’d first gotten them, which was only a week or so ago, back in Babbadelo.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Page 1638

There arrived a very long silence as Hector deliberated over what to say. He knew that he wanted to say something, and perhaps Garovel could somehow tell, because the reaper was giving him plenty of time to think.

Would more context help, Hector wondered? He wasn’t so sure that it would. And it wasn’t like Garovel hadn’t provided any, already. A culture where bloodshed was common as eating and sleeping, the reaper had said.

Hector was grasping. ‘Was it... like, ah... w-were you following orders? Or I mean, was it, uh, peer pressure or something?

...I suppose I could make those arguments,’ said Garovel very calmly and slowly. ‘And there would even be truth in them. Certainly, if I had refused to follow orders, I would have been flogged and possibly executed. And there was definitely an element of peer pressure to it as well. Every culture has peer pressure, to some extent, else it wouldn’t really function as a culture.

But if I am being entirely honest with both myself and with you, then, no. I believed quite strongly in what I was doing. I truly thought that those innocent people were simply not innocent. I thought they were evil and traitorous.

Hector frowned inside his helmet. ‘I don’t suppose... there’s any chance they actually were evil and traitorous, is there?

The reaper gave a weak laugh. ‘You’re really trying to give me the benefit of the doubt, aren’t you?

I just... I don’t know.

Well. Contrary to what I may have said in the past, I am not omniscient. So maybe they were traitorous in some capacity. Maybe they were even evil, by some strange definition. But the fact of the matter was that I didn’t have any good justification for believing so. And yet I did.

Hector didn’t have anything to say.

Garovel wasn’t done, though. ‘The killings were horrible enough, obviously, but I also don’t want to understate the seriousness of burning down those libraries. These days, the whole world is a library, thanks to technology, so the loss of one is not nearly as much of a tragedy. In those days, though? I’m certain I helped destroy knowledge that could not have been found anywhere else. Probably even knowledge that remains lost even to this day. There’s no way to tell. And when I imagine the potential rippling effect of that lost knowledge throughout history... it makes me wonder how many other innocent people might have been saved.

That’s... that’s unknowable, Garovel. You shouldn’t think like that.

It was the reaper’s turn not to say anything.

And there was more silence. Hector wanted to say something, but this was all a lot to take in, and he didn’t want to say something he didn’t mean. He especially didn’t want to say something that he knew was wrong, because even if it sounded good, it probably wouldn’t help.

Garovel had just bent over backwards to tell him the truth. Hector didn’t want to betray that effort by lying to him.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Page 1637

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 3 of 3))
But anyway,’ said Garovel, ‘it wasn’t what you might call a “good war.” Or--okay, maybe that sounds like an oxymoron and simply an impossibility--and maybe it is. War is obviously terrible. But what I mean is, it wasn’t a war that we had a good reason for fighting. We were the aggressors, and we were trying to destroy all these libraries before they could “sow disorder” or “stir dark sentiments” among our people. That was basically the extent of our justification for it. And even though I believed it at the time and for many years thereafter, when I look back on it now... well. I’m ashamed of myself, to say the least.

Hector wasn’t sure what to say.

...But perhaps that doesn’t really give you a complete pictures of things,’ said Garovel. ‘I’ll put it more bluntly. Over the course of the war, I burned down seven different libraries and slaughtered dozens of innocent people in the process.

Now Hector really didn’t know what to say.

Of course, they didn’t seem so innocent to me at the time, nor was I acting alone, but that doesn’t absolve me of my crimes, I think.

It... it was three thousand years ago, Garovel.

That doesn’t absolve me, either, Hector.

I... I don’t... uh...

It’s okay. You don’t have to say anything. And you don’t have to overlook it, either. It’s a part of my past, and even though that’s not who I am anymore, I wanted you to know about it.

He felt like he had to say something, but he didn’t know what. Garovel had really killed people? Innocents?

He was having a hard time with that. He didn’t want to believe it. But then again, life was different three thousand years ago. And it was a different culture. And... and...

...Why did you tell me that?’ said Hector.

The reaper took his time answering. ‘I... don’t want to hide the truth from you. Even when it’s terrible.

But that’s...’ Hector sighed in his own mind. A part of him--a rather strong part of him--wished that Garovel hadn’t told him. He didn’t want to think of Garovel as having done something like that. ‘Did you... did you really kill innocent people? Like, non-combatants who couldn’t fight back?

...Yes.

Somehow, that one word hurt Hector more than he thought it would. It was so difficult to understand, to consolidate with everything he had already known about Garovel. This was someone who had resurrected him for the expressed purpose of rescuing innocent people, and yet...? Now Garovel was saying...?

Agh.

It was one thing for Garovel to have fought and killed people in a war. Other warriors. That was what Hector had been thinking the reaper was going to say. Even that thought had made him uncomfortable, but now, he felt like he would’ve understood that a lot better, at least. When you were in a war, you were fighting for your own survival as much as you were to achieve victory for your side. It wasn’t pleasant to think about, maybe, but it was understandable.

Killing non-combatants was beyond that, though, Hector felt. That was significantly more awful.

Page 1636

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 2 of 3))
Garovel took a moment before continuing. ‘So there was a war. But that wasn’t such a rare thing. My people were a brutal sort. We fought all the time, often amongst ourselves. It’s hard to truly articulate how different life was, compared to civilization as you know it today, but that was one of the biggest things. Bloodshed was as common a thing to us as eating or sleeping.

Hector just listened.

Part of the reason for that may have been because reapers were a well-known part of our culture, and there was a prevailing idea among the Lyzakks that death wasn’t really the end. It was easier--mentally, that is--to risk our lives in deadly combat, because we knew that we could live on after our mortal end. At the time, we believed it was a measure of our courage and dutifulness in life. If we lived a “worthy” life in other words, then we would get to come back as a reaper and watch over our brethren.

And I was certainly no exception. I believed that wholeheartedly. It wasn’t until much, much later, after I’d already become a reaper myself, that I began to realize it was simply a hereditary, luck-of-the-draw type thing. That was quite the horrific revelation, let me tell you. Thinking that you’d lived a good and worthy life and that all of your fellow reapers were the same--that was a comforting belief. Until it was gone, that is. I’d never felt so deluded and ashamed of myself as I did then.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, I suppose. That’s not even part of this story, really. This is just about what I did during the war.

Hector thought of a question and decided to interrupt. ‘Did this war have a name?

Not one that many have heard of, I should think. But in Mohssian, it would’ve translated to “the Thousand Books War.”

It was a war over books?’ said Hector.

More or less. See, my people weren’t very, uh, shall we say, “literarily inclined.” We had a habit of going around and destroying places where any sort of writing was being kept.

Why?

It may be hard to believe by today’s standards, but writing was a very controversial development in our culture. The idea was that writing things down made you “careless of mind,” because if you wrote something down, then you wouldn’t have to remember it. And that was considered a trick of sorcerers and saboteurs in an effort to weaken our culture and our people.

We did, however, write things down in stone. Even long before I was born, that was a revered tradition. Which, I freely admit, was maybe a bit hypocritical of us, but the difference, at least in our minds, was that because stone made the task so much more difficult, it couldn’t be “abused” for trivial matters. You would only bother with the arduous task of writing something in stone if it was something that you really, REALLY wanted to write down.

Huh...

Page 1635

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 1 of 3))
Alright, then. Here goes.’ Garovel paused, perhaps to gather his thoughts. ‘It’s a story from when I was still alive. It took place on the continent now known as Exoltha.

Ah--sorry to interrupt so soon into it, but, uh... I seem to recall you telling me that you weren’t sure what your homeland was called nowadays.

Hmm, did I?

Yeah. It was back when you first told me about the Lyzakks. Your native people, you said. And then later, you told Ibai that you grew up on Exoltha. Or the Dáinnbolg, is what I think you called it. Either way, I’m pretty sure everyone knows about the dead continent nowadays.

How strange,’ said Garovel.

Right? It’s almost like you were lying or something.

You’re probably just remembering wrong.

Don’t think I am.

Oh yeah? What makes you so confident, huh? Your memory’s not that good.

Maybe not like yours, but I can remember stuff. Sometimes.

Yeah, when it’s inconvenient for me, apparently.

Why did you lie?

Well, technically, I didn’t.

Technically, you said you didn’t know something that you actually did know. That’s a lie, Garovel.

No, see, while Chergoa and I did grow up on Exoltha, the small region of it where we lived was eventually broken off from the rest of the continent and therefore isn’t a part of it anymore. It became a group of islands and drifted rather far away.

Drifted? Islands don’t float, do they? I mean, they’re made of rock.

Islands DO drift, though admittedly not as quickly as these did. And you’re right, islands normally do not float, but these ones do, because they’re man-made. And I genuinely do not know what they’re called nowadays, either.

Hmm.

So you see, I didn’t actually lie.

...Right. You just left a ton of stuff out.

Well, it wasn’t especially important at the time and would’ve needlessly complicated the conversation, okay? And as you already know, I don’t particularly like talking about this part of my past very much. Now will you stop breaking my balls and let me continue on with my story?

Go ahead.

Alright. So I was still alive and in the flesh. Living on Exoltha. And no, before you ask another pedantic question, we didn’t actually call it Exoltha in those days.

I wasn’t gonna ask that.

Mm. Regardless, for ease of storytelling, I’m just gonna keep referring to it as Exoltha, okay? Okay. Anyway, it began, like many stories, with war--

I’d still like to know more about those man-made islands, by the way.

Stop interrupting, dammit.

Sorry. It’s just, I mean, this was like three thousand years ago, right? So who made them? A servant?

Yes. Now do you wanna hear this story or not?

Of course I do.

Then shut up for a minute.

...Fine.’ If Hector was being completely honest, though, a part of him would’ve liked to keep stalling. He might’ve kept trying, if the reaper hadn’t started to sound sincerely annoyed.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Page 1634

Oh, you mean like you’ve BEEN doing? I’ve been feeling a lot of hostility, y’know.

My apologies,’ said Hector dryly. ‘I don’t know what came over me. I’m sure it would’ve been a boring story, anyway.

Oh shit. Really? You’re doing this, now?

Doing what? It’s just--now that I’m thinking about it, I’m not even sure why I decided to bet for it in the first place. I mean, if you had anything interesting to say about your past, you probably would’ve told it to me a long time ago.

This isn’t gonna work, Hector.

What isn’t?

First of all, I know that YOU know that I have tons of interesting stories left to tell. I’m three thousand years old. You can’t possibly believe I’m out of material, already.

Whatever you say, Garovel.

The reaper snorted a laugh. ‘You sack of a crap! Stop trying to piss me off!

I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Fuckin’ liar.

It’s alright, Garovel. You don’t need to be ashamed of your boring history. I understand.

Wow.

Hector laughed but decided to change tactics. With how stubborn the reaper was being, he was getting the impression that they were wading into sensitive territory here. ‘Do you really not want to tell me, though? I mean, you know, it actually IS okay, if you don’t want to. Seriously.

The reaper made no response.

...Garovel?

Um. Well. It’s not that I don’t want to tell you anything at all about my past. Because--and I’m being serious here--there’s plenty to tell. Obviously, I could pick a story from almost any point in my life, and you’d probably be fine with it. But... I’ve been thinking for a while now that there is... one story in particular that I’d like to tell you, even though it’s not one I like to tell.

...So that’s why you’ve seemed so reluctant about this.

I planned on telling it to you, sooner or later. It’s just easier to put these sorts of things off.

Why don’t you like telling it?

There are a few reasons. It’s quite personal, for one. And for another, it could be bad if other people found out about it. There’s sensitive information in it. But mostly... I think... the main reason I don’t like telling it is simply because... it doesn’t paint me in a very flattering light.

Oh...

While it did happen a very, VERY long time ago, I won’t blame you if you think less of me after I tell it to you.

Suddenly, Hector wasn’t so sure he wanted to hear it anymore. ‘Uh... shit, Garovel. It’s really that bad?

I would say yes. But then again, I don’t really know. I’m not sure what you’ll think.

O-okay. Um.’ He tried to prepare himself. ‘I’ll try to keep an open mind, then.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Page 1633

((Triple Monday -- Page 3 of 3))
Something, uh...’ Hector remembered. ‘Names! They have names!

Oh, right, yeah. What about them?

Shit, what about them? ‘What, uh...? Ugh...

Oh, are you trying to ask what the name of this hole is?

Yeah! That’s it!

Well, I don’t actually know, sadly. I’d never even heard of Warrenhold before Voreese told us about it, and I definitely didn’t know that it had a path to the Undercrust in it, much less the path’s name.

Oh.

We can ask Voreese next time we see her. Or we could just name it ourselves. We could call it the Warrenhole. Heh.

Wow...

A thousand troa says that that’s what Voreese calls it.

You don’t have any money to bet with, Garovel.

I’ll just use yours.

Why would I take a bet against my own money?

Look, stop being logical. I thought you were disoriented.

I think it’s passed now.

Well, shit.

Speaking of owing me stuff, though, I haven’t forgotten our last wager.

Hey, I wouldn’t have owed you anything. Voreese is DEFINITELY going to call it Warrenhole.

Garovel.

What?

You’re trying to change the subject.

I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Bullshit. We had a wager, and you lost.

That’s funny. I remember you disqualifying yourself by cheating.

No way. I won fair and square, and we both know it. Now you have to tell me something significant about your past.

Eh, I dunno. I mean, given the circumstances and my overall generosity as a person, I think we can probably just consider it a draw.

Hector couldn’t help laughing. ‘You’re so full of shit.

Tell you what. I’ll tell you something significant about my past, if you do what you promised, too.

It WASN’T a draw, Garovel.

It kinda was, though.

Hector wasn’t going to budge on this. ‘You tried to redefine the definition of your second guess after the fact. That doesn’t count as a draw at all.

That’s YOUR interpretation. My interpretation was you tried to cheat by pretending my second guess was wrong.

You’re unbelievable.

You’re just scared of having to pay Lynn a compliment.

Of course I--agh! Whatever.

Just one compliment! It’d be easy! Here, I’ll even help you prepare. You can tell her her eye patch looks nice.

What the fuck kinda compliment is that?

The easy kind. And I’m saying that’s okay.

It sounds sarcastic.

Well, don’t say it in a sarcastic tone, then.

I’m not gonna say it at all! I won the wager, jackass!

Just because you keep saying that doesn’t make it true.

I hate you.

I hate you, too, buddy.

Hector gave a mental sigh. ‘Fine. If you really don’t wanna tell me about yourself that badly, then I’m not gonna force it out of you.

Page 1632 -- CLXXVI.

((Triple Monday -- Page 2 of 3))
He couldn’t stay here forever, he was beginning to think. He would have to move, eventually.

But not yet. He could wait for her. Just a little longer.

Then he finally heard something different. The horse. Rustling movement. Trotting off.

The rider was leaving, Parson realized.

He waited. He listened. He hoped. If the horseman was gone, perhaps his mother would return to him now.

And he kept waiting.

Had the horseman carried her off with him? Was she never going to return?

Eventually, Parson could abide the wait no longer. He had to know. He stood on unsteady legs and stepped out from his hiding place. He searched the area for the rider’s camp from the previous night.

When he found it, he also found his mother.

She was on the ground, covered in blood. Her clothes were torn, and her throat had been cut.


Chapter One Hundred Seventy-Six: ‘Descend, and have care...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

The first part of the fall was a bit rough. Hector hadn’t quite nailed the correct trajectory when he’d jumped in, so he soon ended up hitting the wall and bouncing off of it. He ping-ponged back and forth for a while before finally managing to correct his angle of descent with iron. He armored up during that time as well, finding it better to scrape against the wall with metal than with bare flesh.

Once that was done, though, the journey became quite peaceful. And long. It was a strange feeling, to be sure. As he got accustomed to the sensation and relaxed a bit more, his senses began to blend together, which eventually became disorienting as well. At times, he wasn’t even sure if he was falling. It almost felt as if he were simply suspended in midair, instead.

That’s not too surprising,’ said Garovel privately after Hector had told him about it. ‘The human body is in no way adapted to falling such a great distance. That, and I’ve heard gravity can get pretty screwy in these holes, too. I’m sure your brain doesn’t appreciate that very much, either.

It was true that he felt a little woozy at times. He tried to maintain his focus, though. A question. He had to think of a question. ‘Ah... oh, uh. By the way, um... you mentioned it before, didn’t you?

...What? Mentioned what before?

Uh... ah...

You okay there, buddy?

Y-yeah, I think so. Sorry.

Want me to knock you out and just wake you up when we get there?

N-no, that’s okay. This is... this is good training. I think.

Hmm. If you say so.

But you DID mention something before...

Garovel laughed. ‘Yes, Hector. I have mentioned lots of things before.

No. I mean. But. Yeah.

Garovel laughed harder. ‘This is more fun than I expected. I like disoriented Hector.

Ah... er...’ Dammit, there was something. He was trying to remember. ‘You mentioned something about these giant holes, didn’t you?

Mm, sure?

Agh...

C’mon, buddy, you can do it.

Page 1631

((Triple Monday -- Page 1 of 3))
They abandoned their home and ran. As his mother pulled him into the dark and open wilderness, Parson looked back at the dwindling Trintol behind.

It was burning.

He could hear more screams like the one earlier, equally as horrible or more.

And he saw horsemen. Not just in the village but around it, too. One of them was riding toward them.

“Mother!” he tried to whisper. But there was too much chaos. Too much noise. She didn’t seem to hear him. Or she was simply too focused on running.

He didn’t need to be dragged, anymore. His legs were carrying him in stride with her now. He was almost dragging her, even.

But when he looked back, the horseman was still coming. It was dark, but his mother definitely noticed the rider now. She grabbed Parson and dove into a line of underbrush and rocks.

Without any shoes on, Parson’s feet were getting cut up and bleeding, but he hardly even noticed. He could still hear the horse trotting, closer than ever now. His mother stopped and held him in place with her, huddled low behind a large stone. He could barely make out the contours of her face despite being close enough to feel her breath, to hear her heart beat, even.

His own heart was pounding harder than it ever had, too. He wanted to go back to running, but she was holding him too tightly in her arms and kissing his forehead.

The horse’s clopping steps stopped, suddenly.

And they waited.

“Out with you, woman!” came a man’s shout. “I know you are here! I saw you flying the town!”

Parson could feel her trembling.

“Make this easier for yourself and come out! I will not hurt you!

His mother forced him to look up at her.

“Stay,” she said beneath her breath. “Stay, boy.”

He felt entirely unable to control himself, but he managed to nod, somehow.

Then she stood up.

He tried to hold onto her, to keep her where she was, but she was stronger than him.

And she left him there.

He didn’t move. She had told him to stay. That was all he could think about. He had to listen to her.

He tried to listen for what was happening, but he could only vaguely make out a voice every now and then. A horse neighing. A bush rustling. A bird cawing. The wind howling.

He waited. He waited a very long time. He grew cold, but for the longest time, it didn’t bother him. He was too occupied with listening, with waiting. When was she going to come back? What was taking so long? What was happening?

He wanted to know. And he also didn’t. Just thinking about the answers to those questions made him feel far colder than he already was.

At length, however, dawn broke, and he began to feel the wilderness around him. The cold, the wind, the dirt, and the hunger.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Page 1630

When they saw the rider fall from his horse and not get back up, the Trio ran to meet him.

Damian went straight up to the downed man as the horse ran off on its own. He prodded the guy with a stick he often carried around, then put his hand under the man’s nose. “He’s still breathing, I think.”

“Why’s he dressed like that?” said Steven.

“It’s a uniform, stupid,” said Parson. “Soldiers wear ‘em.”

“I’m not stupid! I just ain’t never seen one before!”

“Neither have I, but it’s obvious. You should pay more attention when the grownups talk. They say all sorts of things when they think we can’t hear ‘em.”

“I do pay attention! I just ain’t never--”

“Those are Melmoorian colors,” said Damian. “That means he’s one of ours.”

Parson ran around to the man’s other side. “We should drag him back to the village, then.”

“What if they just think we’re playing another prank?” said Steven.

“How could this be a prank?” said Parson. “We can’t fake a dead body.”

“He’s not dead,” reiterated Damian.

“Just shut up and help me.”

“He looks heavy,” said Steven.

“So what?” said Damian. “You a weakling?”

“No! I’m super strong!”

“Coulda fooled me with those twig arms of yours,” said Parson.

“Shut up! I’m stronger than both of you!”

Damian and Parson both laughed. “Go ahead and prove it, then,” said Damian. “Grab his feet, Torocles.”

“What? I told you, I’m Steven!”

“Idiot,” said Parson. “Torocles was the strongest man who ever lived. Ain’t your mother ever read you that story?”

“What? Yeah, of course she has! Shut up!”

And it took a while, but with group effort, they managed to drag the man all the way back to Trintol.

The adults were all aghast at the sight of the stranger. They quickly shooed the boys away from him and then carried him off to Damian’s house, the largest in the village.

The Trio tried to follow and sneak a look in, but even Damian couldn’t find anything else out. The adults were too wary of them. And when night started to fall, Parson had to go home disappointed.

“Boy,” his mother said, taking that punishing tone that he’d heard so many times before. She raised her hand, and he braced himself, but she didn’t smack him. Instead, she patted him on the head and ran her fingers through his hair. “You did a good thing today. I’m proud of you.”

What a weird feeling, that was.

He went to bed happy.

He awoke to his mother shaking him. “Parson! Get up, Parson!”

It was still the middle of the night. “Ma? What’s going--?”

She all but threw him out of his bed. “Get up! We have to go!”

He didn’t dare protest. He followed her blindly and confusedly. What were all these noises from outside? Shouting and rushed footsteps? Horses, too?

And a scream. A terrible scream. Enough to make his blood run cold. He would’ve frozen in place at the mere sound of it if his mother hadn’t been dragging him by the arm.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Page 1629

((Triple Saturday -- Page 3 of 3))
Of course, it was only a pretend war. A game. Not like the real war that was raging in the south and the northeast.

“Think we’ll ever see them again?” said Steven one day, while they were lounging around a hole that they had recently dug out for themselves as a hiding spot. He had stopped wanting to be called Peter a month ago, nor did he want to go back to Jonah. And rather than quarrel with him over something that they didn’t really care about, Parson and Damian merely went with it. Besides, it made for an extra means of confusing people in the village, which was always a plus. “Our fathers, I mean. Think they’ll ever come back?”

“Of course they will,” said Damian. “Why wouldn’t they?”

Steven scoffed. “Idiot. Don’t you know what war is? It’s where people die. Lots of people.”

“I know that. But they’re not gonna die.”

“How do you know?”

“He doesn’t,” said Parson. “He’s just being optimalistic.”

“Do you even know what that word means?” said Damian.

“Do you?” said Parson.

Damian folded his arms. “You shouldn’t use words you don’t know the meaning of. It makes you look stupid.”

“Shut up. You don’t know anything.”

“My mother says the war is going great for our side,” said Damian. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

“Hmph,” Parson huffed. “As if she would tell you the truth.”

“You callin’ my mother a liar?!”

“No, I’m callin’ YOU a baby!”

And they fought again, but it didn’t have the same kind of genuine anger behind it that it used to. They were both content to let it end in a draw. Steven tried to get them to shake hands. They both just slapped him instead for trying to order them around.

Not long after that, tragedy arrived and hit them like a ton of bricks.

Stefol passed away. The Miles family dog had simply grown too old.

The Trio didn’t know how to react. This was their first experience with such things.

But they were sad. That much, they knew. Even Damian, who’d been bitten not that long ago. They’d all gotten to know Stefol much better in the recent months, Parson included. The old dog had seemed fuller with life during that time than Parson ever recalled before.

Then, at his mother’s recommendation, Parson decided to make a memorial for Stefol. The other two members of the Trio joined him.

Alas, it was a task which would never see completion.

“Hey, what’s that?” said Steven, pointing toward the horizon.

Parson saw what he meant. Smoke in the distance.

“A fire?” said Damian. He sat atop a tall boulder that they’d been trying unsuccessfully to roll up a hill for the past day or so. They hadn’t been exactly certain what they were going to do with it if they ever managed to actually get it up there, but it had seemed like it would make a good fixture for Stefol’s memorial.

Soon, they caught sight of a rider as well--a lone man on horseback crossing over the hills and coming toward Trintol. He was slumped forward in the saddle, not riding properly at all.

Page 1628

((Triple Saturday -- Page 2 of 3))
However, the next time Parson, Damian, and Peter met, there was much less animosity. While Parson still couldn’t exactly say that he liked Damian, there was a degree of camaraderie between them. They had a common enemy in the girls now. And arguably the adults as well.

And so it was that they became a trio, of sorts, and spent their days scheming away, trying to come up with various ways of terrorizing the girls. One time, they gathered as many frogs as they could find and released them like a plague upon the girls’ most frequent haunts. No one ever knew who was responsible. Another time, they gathered up crickets. And still another time, they gathered up fleas.

They regretted that one, though, and resolved to start coming up with plans that didn’t involve animals.

They relied on Peter for a while, helping him to hone his craft as a liar. First, they tried to trick the girls into thinking that Peter was a prince. It didn’t work so well. Then they tried to convince the girls that the well on the south end of the village was haunted.

“By what?” one of the girls asked.

“By the ghost of Mad Man Morris!” said Peter.

“And who is that?”

“He was a lunatic and a murderer! He killed his whole family and laughed while he did it! They say he fell down the well and died, but you can still hear his moans at night!”

The girls didn’t believe them, of course. But they convinced them to visit the well at night in order to prove their courage, at which point, Parson had already climbed into the well and was waiting for them. After a few timely moans of “agony,” the girls quickly decided to leave.

And the next day, they began to hear rumors of the ghost in the well.

It was all they could do to contain their pride and laughter.

That meager taste of success was all the motivation they needed to push themselves toward ever greater heights. Story after story, prank after prank, the trio began to grow rather infamous as troublemakers.

But by far, their most triumphant venture was when they covered Damian in sheep’s blood and told everyone--with the greatest of sincerity and commitment to their roles--that he’d been be mauled by a pack of wild coyotes.

They had the whole village in an uproar.

Of course, when everyone realized the truth, the Trio caught hell to a greater degree than they ever had before, but it was worth it, Parson felt. He’d never laughed so hard in his life or had so much fun.

In time, some of the other boys wanted to join their little gang, but it was far too late for new members. The Trio were in agreement that they should keep things exactly the way they were.

The other boys didn’t take the rejection well, perhaps because the Trio lobbed curses and mud at them, and for a while thereafter, the Trio went to war with all the other boys in Trintol.

Page 1627

((Triple Saturday -- Page 1 of 3))
As the days went by, they spent more and more time together, mainly because ‘Peter’ followed Parson around at every opportunity.

What an obnoxious brat. Parson wondered if this was what it was like to have a little brother. Peter claimed to be older than him, but when Parson asked the boy’s mother directly, surprise, surprise, that turned out to be a lie. Parson had a full year on him.

Parson’s next encounter with Damian was at the summer festival. All the boys in the town had gathered to play a game of tag. Some of the girls tried to join in, but the boys chased them off. Parson wouldn’t have minded their company, especially not that of Alisa Brandt, but oh well. He hoped he would find an opening later so that he could kick dirt on that stupid pink dress she was wearing. Where did she even get a dress like that, anyway? She couldn’t have made it herself. It was way too nice.

Damian tagged Parson while he was distracted.

Agh. Stupid Alisa and her stupid dress. What was she laughing about, huh? It really bothered him.

He had to tag Damian back. For some reason, no one else would do. It had to be Damian. So Parson chased him down and ignored everyone else.

The other boys took notice fairly quickly, but Parson didn’t care. Maybe it was because he wasn’t feeling quite so timid, anymore. He’d been in a fight. He had this weird little minion following him around. Parson’s confidence had grown. And he absolutely didn’t want to lose to Damian, lord’s son or not.

Eventually, Parson managed to tackle him. It was rougher than they were supposed to play, but that was how these games went. The boys all knew that. And so did the girls, probably, watching them the way they did.

But Damian didn’t seem to take it that way. He socked Parson in the jaw, and then they were rolling in the dirt, kicking and screaming, punching and clawing.

The other boys had to pull them off of one another before the adults showed up.

And that was the strangest moment of all. Everyone understood without any words being spoken that, regardless of what they had just been doing, the grownups couldn’t find out. Parson just didn’t want to get punished. Were the other boys the same way?

It seemed to be working. They could pretend. He didn’t even mind acting like Damian was his best friend.

But just as the adults were turning to leave, one of the girls ratted them out.

“They were fighting!” she said. “We saw them! Didn’t we, girls?!”

The other girls all agreed with her--even Alisa, who scrunched her face up and stuck her tongue out at Parson in particular.

Traitorous wenches.

This was why girls couldn’t be trusted.

The boys were all punished. Parson’s mother whipped his ass so hard that it hurt to sit for the next few days.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Page 1626

After that, Parson made a habit of avoiding Damian whenever he saw him. He was a timid boy, Parson, and Damian was older by almost a year.

Then Parson met another boy who lived in the village, one whom he had seen around a few times but never learned the name of until their mothers forced them to play together.

The boy’s mother said his name was Jonah, and he even answered to it when she called for him. Yet, when Parson was alone with him, the boy suddenly started acting otherwise.

“Don’t call me that!” he said, hanging from a tree branch like a monkey.

Parson was confused. “Don’t call you what?”

“Jonah! My name’s not Jonah!”

“Then why did your mother--?”

“Shut up! She’s stupid! She doesn’t know anything!”

Parson didn’t believe him, but he decided to play along. “Alright, so what’s your ‘real’ name, then?”

Jonah hopped down from the tree and landed with showy toughness. “My real name is Parson.”

Parson’s face scrunched up. “What?! No, it isn’t!”

“Yeah, it is!”

“Nuh-uh! You’re a liar!”

“No, I’m not! My name’s Parson! You have to call me that from now on!”

“No, I don’t! Liar!”

“Yeah, you do! That’s how names work, idiot!”

That was it. “Oh yeah?! Maybe I’ll tell your mom that you said she was stupid!”

“What?!” That seemed to rattle him. “You better not!”

“Or what, huh?!”

“Or--! Or I’ll tell everyone your stupid dog bit me, too! Then you’ll be sorry!”

So Parson punched him.

Then Jonah punched him back.

It was the first fight Parson ever got into. It really hurt.

When both boys returned with black eyes and ripped clothes, their mothers were indignant. Parson got ten whips with father’s old belt. His mother didn’t seem to have any trouble carrying out the sentence in the man’s absence, nor did she care to listen to his claims that Jonah had it coming.

When he saw Jonah the next day, though, the boy seemed different.

“I’m sorry for what I said before.” Jonah’s eyes were at his feet.

Parson checked to make sure the coast was clear, wondering if his mother was putting him up to this.

Oh. Yep. There she was in the window, watching them.

Better put on a good show for her, then. “Don’t worry about it,” said Parson, and he stuck his hand out to shake on it. “I’m sorry, too.”

Jonah took the handshake with a big smile.

Huh.

It was only supposed to be for pretend, but as they continued to spend more time together, it became clear that Jonah didn’t realize that. The little jerk actually took the words to heart.

Well, that was fine, Parson supposed. He still didn’t like Jonah very much, but it was better than another spanking.

And they became friends. More or less.

“My name really isn’t Jonah, though.”

Parson rolled his eyes. “So what is it, then?”

“It’s Peter. You have to call me Peter from now on.”

“Ugh. Fine. You’re Peter now.”

“Yes! Thanks, Parson!”

“Sure.”

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Page 1625 -- CLXXV.

Hector wondered if he should even bother greeting his own mother before setting out again.

Probably not, he decided. Garovel had said she was sleeping, anyway. No point in disturbing her. Oh, but he should’ve asked Mr. Easton how she was doing, at least.

Bah.

He hunted down a phone in order to give Gina a quick update and also ask for one in return, but she hadn’t heard from Roman since she’d last spoken to Hector. It was nice to hear her voice again, but he knew he didn’t have time to enjoy the conversation--or even to explain fully. It sounded like she had quite a few questions for him--particularly why he was back on the surface without Roman--but Hector ended up just telling her that it was a long story and not to worry about it for now.

She didn’t seem pleased with being left hanging like that, but time was a factor here, and it looked like Zeff, Diego, and Manuel were ready to go again.

So they did. The group of four servants and four reapers made their way down to the lowest chamber in the Tower of Night and the heavy, round door to the Undercrust. Their reapers latched onto their bodies, and then one by one, with Hector going last, they jumped into the pitch dark hole.

It was going to be a very long fall.


Chapter One Hundred Seventy-Five: ‘When the world began to shift...’
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...171 years ago...


It was in the village of Trintol where they first met. A little place, by any account, not even large enough to make it onto a map. But it did have the sweeping vistas of the Melmoorian countryside going for it. The rolling green hills in all directions and the view of the aptly named Storm Mountains in the east--together, they offered a view that was quite uncommon.

Shepherding was the trade that kept Trintol afloat, and that was the first job that the six-year-old Parson Miles ever held. He wasn’t very good at it. Stefol, the family dog, did a lot of the work for him. His father might have been able to teach him, if he hadn’t been drafted into the war.

But Parson was not alone in that regard. It was much the same for all the other children in the village, even Damian, the lord’s son.

They met when he saw Damian throwing rocks at Stefol. And Stefol, though he was old and rather small for a Melmoorian Shepherd, did not appreciate that gesture very much. So the dog chased the boy down and bit him on the ass.

Needless to say, that wasn’t a very favorable first impression.

Being the lord’s son, and a vengeful little shit, Damian tried to get Stefol put down. It was outrageous that a peasant’s animal should bite the son of a lord, he said.

But Trintol wasn’t much for that sort of thing. Everyone knew that the Lord Lofar, though he was currently absent due to the war, would not have approved of such retribution being taken, especially when the animal in question was an important part of the livelihood for the family it belonged to. Not to mention, everyone in town knew and liked Stefol more than Damian.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Page 1624

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 3 of 3))
“Oh,” said Mr. Sheridan, “well, you’re too kind. I am pretty exhausted, now that you mention it. Not as young as I used to be, unfortunately. If I could trouble you for a meal as well, I would be eternally grateful. Even more than I already am, I mean!”

“Of course,” said Hector. “Just give us a minute.” He pulled Mr. Easton aside in order to keep his next words just between the two of them. “Keep a close eye on this guy for me while I’m away. Be nice to him, but I don’t want him wandering around on his own. I don’t know if I trust him, yet.”

Mr. Easton just stared at him for a second.

“...What’s the matter?” said Hector. Shit. Had he said something weird just now? Or stupid?

The man blinked. “Nothing at all, sir. I’ll take care of it.”

“...Thanks.” That was a relief. Hector was about to break away from him until he suddenly remembered something. “Oh, and here.” He pulled out the Shifting Spear of Logante from the back of his waistband. “I want you to take this. Careful with it.”

Mr. Easton took it. “...What is it?”

Hector took a couple minutes to explain its basic functionality, going over the voice commands that Garovel had told him about earlier. Hector suspected that there were more commands that he didn’t know about yet, but Garovel was busy talking to the two new Najirs at the moment.

By the end of the explanation, Mr. Easton looked a bit overwhelmed.

“...You don’t have to actually use it, if you don’t want to,” said Hector. “I know it’s kinda weird, uh... so...”

“No, ah--thank you. I will give it a try.”

And again, he was about to let Mr. Easton go, until he remembered another thing. “Oh, and uh, please make sure that Mr. Sheridan knows about Warrenhold’s weird, ah... psychological effects on people. I can’t remember if I ever told him about that or not, so...”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ah--thanks. Again.” And finally, he released Mr. Easton.

Hector breathed another sigh. There were so many things to take care of. And now there was some sort of financial crisis to worry about on top of everything else?

He was feeling pretty exhausted himself, now that he was allowing himself to relax a little. And he really would’ve liked to sit down and have a nice meal, too. He hadn’t eaten very frequently in the Undercrust, partly because of the food shortage in Babbadelo and partly because it wasn’t particularly to his tastes--especially after the numbing of pain wore off and he felt like he’d eaten a bowl of lava. Even Carver’s biosphere had only had vegetables.

The more Hector allowed himself to think about it, the more he began to crave a hearty meal. Or two. Or five.

Maybe it was better to just not think about it, then.

He observed the Najirs again. Asad had sent them here in order to open the door to the Undercrust for them, which was a bit unnecessary now of course, but as Hector recalled, Asad had also ordered Jada to go with them.

And yet she had ended up staying with Asad and everyone else, instead.

Hector wondered why. He also remembered Garovel mentioning something strange with them as well. Some sort of family difficulties, perhaps.

He empathized.

Page 1623

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 2 of 3))
Samira seemed more than a little caught off guard when the Lord Elroy moved in close and hugged her, even lifting her off her feet like a sack of potatoes.

Hector stared, arguably even more shocked by what he was seeing than she was.

“Oi--! Hah--! Y-yes! It is good to see you, too, Lord Zeff!” Her Valgan accent was much thicker than Asad’s, and her gold-and-black robes dangled loosely over her whole body, covering everything but her face and hands.

Zeff let her back down, leaving the woman looking somewhat traumatized by the experience, and then went for Midhat, first shaking the young man’s hand vigorously, only to pull him and lift him off his feet, too. “Oh, I haven’t seen you in ages! You’re almost a grown man, already!”

“Yes--I--Lord--thank--!”

Samira’s apparent reaper floated forward. ‘Lord Zeff, what are you doing? I am not sure this behavior is appropriate.

Ah, I apologize,’ said Axiolis. ‘Zeff and I have been through quite a lot, lately. We are genuinely overjoyed to see you.

The other reaper didn’t argue further.

Zeff let Midhat down. “I wish I could stay and talk more, but I must go and retrieve Asad.”

It was then that Mr. Easton approached Hector from the side and took his attention. His uniform was different than Hector remembered. The suit was even blacker than the man himself was. “Lord Goffe. There was no word of your return. We would have organized a welcome.”

“Ah, yeah. It was kind of sudden. I thought I’d be, uh--ah... well, it doesn’t matter now, I guess.” He took a breath and rethought his next words. “I haven’t actually ‘returned’ yet, though. I have to leave again for, like, a day or two. Then I’ll be back.”

“I see. I thought you might have returned after hearing the news.”

Hector paused at that. “What news?”

“So you haven’t heard. Two of Atreya’s four largest banks have collapsed. More than a million people have declared bankruptcy in the last two weeks alone.”

Holy fucking shit-grenades,’ said Garovel privately.

Hector just sighed and rubbed his forehead.

“They’re saying we’re about to see the greatest economic depression in the history of the country,” said Mr. Easton.

“Hoo boy.” Mr. Sheridan walked up behind Hector. “Sounds like a real pickle.” He offered Mr. Easton a handshake. “Good to meetcha. Name’s Robert Sheridan. West Intar Company.”

“Jamal Easton. Head of Security for Lord Goffe.”

“Oh! Head of Security, eh? You sure this kid needs anyone to protect him?! From what I’ve seen, he’s the one doing the protecting!”

“Ah. Well, yes...”

“Only teasing, of course,” said Mr. Sheridan. “Important fella, your lord here. Nothin’ but respect for him. Saved my life, y’know. Great guy. Just the best. I hope we can--”

“Mr. Sheridan,” said Hector. “I’m sure you’re tired. Mr. Easton will show you to a room where you can rest.”

Page 1622

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 1 of 3))
Zeff didn’t let up. “How close did you come to losing her, exactly? And how seriously have you been taking your training, recently? Did you train at all during the last two days?”

Diego just closed his mouth again.

“That’s what I thought.” Zeff pointed to the other side of the platform. “Go practice your pan-forma.”

“But we’re still tired from earlier, and--”

“All the better for your training, then. Go on.”

Diego looked like he wanted to argue, but he didn’t. He turned and walked over to where Zeff had pointed, and Yangéra followed.

Hector watched them go. “That was a bit harsh, don’t you think?”

“Warriors are not forged through comfort and coddling. I am sure Diego knows that, too, but it seems he needed reminding.”

“Still...”

“Focus on yourself,” said Zeff. “Do as I instructed. Put an object in orbit around you.”

Hector did so.

From there, Zeff kept pressing him further and further, bit by bit, trying to slowly and incrementally get Hector to find the new limit of his ability, but there wasn’t enough time left. The training ended up being cut short when they arrived at Warrenhold.

Hector controlled their descent with nervous and careful discomfort. When they finally touched ground again, he annihilated most of his work and left it in the shape of a short, wide staircase for everyone, pointing them in the direction of Warrenhold’s aboveground entrance.

No one was immediately around to greet them, but it was still the dead of night, so that wasn’t so surprising. Hector focused on what the Scarf was telling him, searching the area in a way that his eyes couldn’t with all this darkness.

Garovel got there before him, though. ‘Your mother and Madame Carthrace are asleep in their respective rooms in the Tower of Night. Mr. Easton is in the Entry Tower, along with four souls I don’t recognize.

He let the reaper lead the way.

It was a strange feeling, being back here again. Being home again, he supposed.

It was nice. That was what was strange about it.

Repairs to the Entry Tower were coming along, he noticed. The first chamber actually looked fairly nice now, if still littered with dirt and stone dust. No more cracks in the walls or the floor, and the stairs leading downward were no longer slightly bent or uneven.

And of course, there was electricity now, too. Actual, functioning lamps adorned the narrow entry hall, inviting them further in. Back when he had first left for Sair, Warrenhold had still been waiting on the new generator to arrive and lift them out of the candlelit darkness.

It wasn’t much longer until they found Jamal Easton and their two guests.

Hector had never met them before, yet he recognized them almost immediately from their dark complexion and the young man’s yellow eyes. Without a doubt, that was Asad’s son. Which meant the older woman next to him was probably the Lady Najir.

Zeff and Axiolis rushed forward to greet them. “Samira! Midhat! It is wonderful to see you both in good health!”

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Page 1621

Zeff was staring at him again, Hector noticed. Did he want to ask a question? If so, why wasn’t he saying anything? Maybe he was just waiting for an opening. The reapers were talking to each other again, so--

“You achieved emergence, didn’t you?” said Zeff.

All the reapers went quiet.

“...Yeah,” was all Hector could think to say.

“Good,” said the Lord Elroy. “We will test your new limits as soon as we have the space and opportunity to do so. In the meantime, how difficult are you finding it to maintain this... flying platform of yours?”

“Ah... it’s... kinda hard. It’s the same basic principle as the orbiting technique, but there are a lot more little things to account for. I feel like, maybe, a more aerodynamic shape than a simple platform could make things easier, but I’m not really sure. The added complexity might just screw everything up, instead.”

Zeff nodded. “Yes, perhaps it would. We can experiment with that when safety is not as great of a concern as it is now.”

“That’s what I was thinking.”

“But do you feel that you are already near the limit of your ability? Or do you think you can do more than this?”

A tough question. Hector took a few moments to try and take stock of himself. His concentration was divided again, he noticed. A split between maintaining the variable factors of the flight and simply considering Zeff’s words. Sure, the divide wasn’t difficult when compared to what he’d had to do during that worm fight, but after learning about his Focus, he was more mindful of the division in his thoughts than ever.

Which, in its own way, he supposed, was creating another divide, wasn’t it? Instead of splitting his attention in two, it was being split three ways now.

Kind of a waste, then, this third thing. But it was hard to get rid of, somehow. Agh.

“...No,” said Hector. “I don’t think this is all that close to my new limit. It’s tough, but I feel like it’s getting easier as I do it more.”

“Hmm.” Zeff folded his arms. “Let’s increase the difficulty, then. Try putting something in orbit around you, right now.”

Diego held up a hand. “Ah--do you think that’s really a good idea? Shouldn’t you guys save the training for later?”

Zeff regarded the Lord Redwater with a raised eyebrow. “Are you worried about safety? Because as has already been mentioned, we have not forgotten it.”

“Sure, but, c’mon, we just escaped the Undercrust and twenty-seven different brushes with death--at least, that’s what it felt like. Can’t you just take a moment to relax a little while we wait to arrive? You didn’t even sleep or eat anything while we were in Himmekel, did you?”

Zeff glowered. “You have little room to speak. Why were you and Yangéra so exhausted when we found you in front of Malast, hmm?”

Diego opened his mouth but didn’t respond this time.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Page 1620

((Triple Monday -- Page 3 of 3))
“So, uh,” said Diego, once he was close enough, “how are you doing over here, Hector?”

That seemed like a strangely plain question. “Ah... I’m alright.”

“It just occurred to me to that, despite all the craziness we’ve been through together recently, you and I haven’t really spoken all that much.”

And as was often the case, Hector wasn’t sure what to say to that.

Garovel helped him out, though. ‘That’s sort of a running theme with Hector. He’s not the most talkative.

“He seemed rather talkative with Malast.” Diego rubbed his jaw.

Ah,’ said Garovel. ‘Yeah. Uh. Well, what can I say? He has his moments.

That’s one way of putting it,’ said Yangéra.

Hector didn’t know what to make of the way she was staring at him.

Garovel changed the subject. ‘I don’t suppose you managed to get away with any of that treasure, eh?

Diego frowned as he reached into his vest. “I only managed to swipe a few jewels there at the end.” He held out his hand to show his spoils. “What about you?”

We got a few things. We’ll show you later.

“Hmm. Looking forward to it.”

By the way,’ said Yangéra, ‘what the hell was all that stuff that Malast was saying about “blessings”? I’ve been meaning to ask.

Ah. That subject. Hector just let Garovel handle it, as usual. The reaper told them basically the same things that he and Hector had already discussed. Hector did notice that Garovel kept things vague when talking about Focus, however. Not that they had much detail to actually go into, of course, but still. It seemed like Garovel didn’t want to reveal even what little they already understood about the concentration boost it provided. Instead, he simply said that he and Hector were still trying to figure it out--which, in fairness, was not a lie.

From there, the two reapers took over the conversation for a while. Yangéra inquired about Warrenhold, and Garovel offered answers. He told her of how spacious it was, how it had seen better days, how they were currently in the middle of trying to restore it, how there was a lake near it, and how it was exceedingly durable thanks to an integrated material called nightrock.

Zeff and Axiolis came over as Garovel was explaining that last part.

It will be interesting to see Warrenhold again,’ said Axiolis.

Oh, that’s right,’ said Garovel. ‘Shenado said you’d been there before.

Somehow, I doubt that is all she said,’ said Axiolis.

Garovel chortled. ‘She said you hated it.

The other reaper’s skull-faced expression seemed to stiffen, somehow. ‘It is true that I have little love for that place. It caused considerable grief for our kin in the past.

I’ve heard,’ said Garovel.

Garovel reiterated details of Warrenhold’s “pest control” mechanism that they had learned from Voreese.

It didn’t seem to do much for Axiolis’ mood. Or Zeff’s.

Page 1619

((Triple Monday -- Page 2 of 3))
Agh,’ growled Hector. ‘Tell Diego to stand still for a minute.

Hmm? Okay. Hey, Diego! Quit moving around so much! Hector’s trying to do something!

The Lord Redwater looked confused but acquiesced.

That was better.

He vanished the legs of the giant table as they neared the highway, and then he slapped a coating around the bottom of the remaining platform. But it wasn’t just a normal coating. It was a hovering stabilizer, of sorts.

Hector couldn’t simply have the platform itself hover, because the platform needed to remain stationary so that everyone didn’t slide off of it like a moving walkway. This hadn’t been an issue before, because on the ground, he could have the top of the platform remain still while everything below it grew and pushed onward. In midair, though, there was no longer anything to push against, which was why this new, floating “holster” for the platform was necessary.

And it worked, just as he thought it would. The platform soared over the rushing cars below and up into the night sky.

Hector, holy shit!

It was actually quite difficult, Hector discovered. Even now, with everyone staying still, he was having trouble keeping the encased platform fully stable. That, and every little jostle was worrisome in its own way, threatening each time to destroy his concentration, which he very much needed right now.

The others were talking more loudly now, perhaps even to him, but he still couldn’t make out their words over the wind. And he was busy trying not to panic and drop everyone, anyway.

Why the hell had he thought this was a good idea? There were two non-servants in their group. They would surely die if they fell from this height or at this speed.

Hector, we’re going the wrong way now,’ said Garovel.

Agh. Shit.

The wind was becoming a problem. The higher they went, the more intense it got. And it was somehow easier to make the platform ascend than descend. Probably because in the beginning, he’d been most worried about crashing into the ground and killing everyone, so he’d decided to err on the side of upward movement, just in case.

The idea of descending was simply more frightening. That was the problem, Hector realized. It wasn’t that it was actually more difficult to pull off. He was just more afraid to do it.

But now he didn’t have a choice. They’d have to go back down eventually. And at this height, going back down a little was no big deal, right?

Goddammit. This whole thing was way more nerve-wracking than he thought it would be. He had to get a hold of himself. They were flying. Under their own power.

He tried to ease up. He had to weaken the force that he’d applied in order to counter gravity.

It worked. They began to lose altitude. But not without more turbulence. Considerably more. He heard a feminine shriek.

Sorry, Elise.

He stabilized his work and course-corrected.

Yeah. This was a better altitude. Still maybe a little too high, but the wind wasn’t so crazy, at least.

He opened his eyes. When had he even closed them? He’d been relying on the Scarf completely, he realized. Thankfully, he’d made sure to keep it wrapped snugly around his neck after removing his armor earlier.

Everyone was staring at him.

Not knowing what to do, he tried to pretend like he didn’t notice.

It didn’t work.

Diego started walking over to him, though he was obviously being slow and deliberate about it this time, which Hector appreciated. It was much easier to account for the balance changes.

Page 1618

((Triple Monday -- Page 1 of 3))
Garovel, are you being serious?’ said Hector. ‘You’re NOT useless! How could you even think that?!

I wonder.

Hector couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The reaper had done so much for him. He had to know that, right?

I’m not trying to sound depressed or pessimistic,’ said Garovel. ‘Rather, it’s the opposite.

What do you mean?

Hector, c’mon. You’ve kinda been on a tear, lately. If I don’t start working harder to step my game up, then you’re probably just gonna leave me in the dust.

I...’ Was that really how Garovel saw things? What was he even supposed to say to something like that?

It’s a GOOD thing, is what I’m saying. I want to make sure that I’m not holding you back.

Holy shit. That might have been the most flattering thing anyone had ever said to him. ‘I... you’re not... Garovel, that’s not true.

Oh, shut up. Yes, it is. Anyway, forget about it.

What the--?! How am I supposed to forget about it?!

I dunno. Maybe I shouldn’t have even brought it up. Point is, we need to stay focused on our objective. Also, there’s a highway coming up soon, so you should probably adjust your platform so that you don’t squash any of the cars or the people inside them.

That was a good idea.

Hector wondered briefly if he could make his iron move seamlessly around a group of cars in motion. He felt like he could, but something about the notion of experimenting with other people’s lives struck him as something he probably shouldn’t do.

Instead, he came up with a much safer experiment, something he’d been wanting to try for a while now.

As soon as he sensed the highway that Garovel was talking about, Hector slowed the pace of his iron, much to Zeff’s expressed chagrin. Hector eliminated most of the platform below them, keeping only a comparatively thin layer for everyone to continue riding on and four tall legs.

His work was suddenly much more akin to a giant, moving table.

The shift in weight caused a bit of turbulence, which seemed to alarm the others, rather understandably, but Hector got it under control.

He wanted to eliminate the legs entirely. He wanted the platform to simply float, like one of his cubes in orbit.

It was similar, in theory, but the weight differential made for quite the leap in difficulty. The larger the mass, the more impact gravity had on his work--and therefore, the more he needed to counter its effects. With just an iron platform, that was straightforward enough, but there were people here, too, and they were weighing the platform down in different places. The same kind of “balance” that he used for his cubes in orbit had to be greatly adjusted here.

And Diego certainly wasn’t helping, what with the way he was walking around, talking to everyone without a care in the world. The man probably had to get up close so that they could hear him over the wind, but still, at the moment, Hector was finding it rather obnoxious.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Page 1617

Why are you only telling me about this now?’ said Garovel.

Well, I--uh. I was still figuring it out. And I didn’t even think it was related to Rasalased’s blessing until I heard Malast mention it.

Huh...

And, I guess, uh... I guess I kinda thought it was just natural. Er, uh, I mean, I thought it was because of all the meditating I do...

Hmm. That’s reasonable enough, I suppose. And your meditation should be improving your concentration, too. But yeah, maybe not to THAT extent.

Ah...

Still. Your concentration was pretty good already. I’ve always thought you were a little absurd when it came to meditation. So if you got a boost ON TOP of that, then... Hmm. Hey, wait a minute. Is that why you’re able to just “tune me out,” sometimes? Like I’m some kind of friggin’ radio broadcast?

Uh... I don’t know...

It’s really obnoxious when you do that, by the way. Dunno if I mentioned that earlier.

Ah. Sorry. But, I mean, it’s not like I do it for no reason.

You could just ask me to be quiet. Y’know, politely. Believe it or not, I AM capable of that.

...I find that hard to believe.

And here comes the sass. Alright, fine. Maybe I do OCCASIONALLY talk a little too much, but c’mon, if we’re in a life and death situation, and you need to concentrate, then just say so!

Oh, you mean like when a worm is trying to eat us?

What? Oh. Hey. Look. You managed just fine, didn’t you? And sometimes--MOST times, even--I have insightful things to say. Which is my job, by the way. As a reaper, that is. I’m tasked with imparting all manner of mind-blowing wisdom.

Uh-huh...

I am a waterfall of knowledge, Hector. Trying to stem the tide of information that flows out of me is quite frankly impossible.

So in other words, I should just ignore you, sometimes.

...Yeah, probably.

Hector let a breath of laughter slip out, but the others didn’t seem to notice, no doubt because of the howling wind rushing past as they traversed the top of the forest.

Hector had added a guardrail, of sorts, to the platform, as well as a ridged grip for the floor so that everyone didn’t have to worry so much about sliding around.

If we’re being completely serious, though,’ said Garovel, ‘then you really shouldn’t make a habit out of ignoring me during battle. I can provide observational support, which could very well save our asses, someday. Granted, now that you’ve got that spiffy Scarf, you might not actually need all that much observational support, but the basic principle that two heads are better than one still applies, I think.

That’s... true.

I’m glad you think so.

We should probably work on that, though. I feel like we’re, maybe, not working together in combat as... efficiently as we could be.

...Maybe so,’ said Garovel. ‘And I’ve certainly been feeling a bit useless, lately. It would be nice to change that.

Hector blinked, because it didn’t sound like the reaper was joking. ‘What? You’re not useless.

Garovel made no response.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Page 1616

((The 17 pages of St. Patrick's Day + Triple Saturday -- Page 20 of 20))
Regardless, Hector wanted to try something more difficult, but he was reluctant to get too crazy with his experimentation. He wasn’t the only one riding this thing, after all.

“How long will it take to reach Warrenhold?” said Zeff.

At this pace?’ said Garovel. ‘Maybe three or four hours.

Zeff didn’t say anything to that, but he was probably still displeased with their current speed, Hector figured. Hector wouldn’t have minded increasing it even further, but Elise and Mr. Sheridan probably wouldn’t appreciate that very much, and their safety was most important.

Then again, as Hector thought about it, Mr. Sheridan had seemed like kind of a lunatic, so maybe he would have liked to go even faster.

Whatever. This pace was plenty fast, Hector felt, and four hours was making good time, considering their current location in the Carthrace Nature Reserve was on the opposite side of the country to Warrenhold.

But that was Atreya for you. He’d almost forgotten how tiny it was. After gallivanting all over Sair with the Rainlords, it was nice to be back home, where traveling didn’t take so damn long. That trip from Luzo to Moaban had been a little ridiculous.

Mr. Sheridan was eyeing him quite a bit, Hector noticed.

Hmm. Nervous, perhaps? Maybe because he wasn’t sure if Hector had completely forgiven him for trying to kill him during the tournament?

Good. Because Hector hadn’t. Nor did he intend to. Obviously, it was no big deal as far as Hector himself was concerned, but what about other people? How was he supposed to trust that Mr. Sheridan wouldn’t just up and shoot somebody else in Warrenhold? Someone who couldn’t simply regenerate?

Maybe Mr. Sheridan really did know better. Maybe he would never do such a thing to a non-servant. But after that incident, “maybe” wasn’t good enough for Hector. As soon as they reached Warrenhold, he meant to send Mr. Sheridan on his merry way back to Intar or wherever the hell he came from.

So,’ said Garovel in the echo of privacy, ‘any idea yet about what this second “blessing” is?

...I was kinda hoping YOU would know something,’ said Hector.

Bah. Wish we had more time to figure it out.

Might not even matter right now. Malast said it would take a while to grow.

True. But still. Can’t say I’m not curious. “Domain,” huh? And you already had this “Focus” thing from Rasalased, too? Do you have any idea what that one does, by the way?

He did, though he wasn’t quite sure how to explain it. ‘Uh...

I thought Rasalased just granted you the ability to materialize Haqq’s shield as you please, but that doesn’t sound like something that would be called Focus, to me.

Yeah, about that, ah... I think that’s because I can... kind of... concentrate on multiple things at once...

Garovel paused. ‘...Excuse me?

I mean, I’m still, uh... trying to figure it out. And maybe it’s not that simple. But, um... yeah. My concentration seems better overall, lately, I guess...

Page 1615

((The 17 pages of St. Patrick's Day + Triple Saturday -- Page 19 of 20))
Which way?’ Hector asked.

Garovel pointed to his left, and Hector grew the platform forward and then curved it around so that they would all be facing the direction that they were going.

He’d never used such a large volume of iron as method of transportation before. It was a bit strange but not difficult. In fact, the Scarf of Amordiin was making it rather easy.

Due to its ability to help him sense the movement of air all around him, Hector had a very clear picture of even the densest parts of the forest. He could sense where all the tree trunks were, where the leaves were, the underbrush, the rocks, and even the animals. A snake here, a rabbit there, a couple bears, a wolf, a group of monkeys, and tons of insects--though those were perhaps too small to sense individually. Maybe if he concentrated on them, but now wasn’t the time for that.

He focused on his platform. Because the open air was telling him so much, Hector could see all the gaps in the forest--and therefore, all the places in which he could materialize iron without crushing anything. Well, except maybe a couple shrubs here and there. They’d probably be fine, though.

It was helpful, because he didn’t want to obliterate the ecosystem. The area of the forest immediately around Rathmore’s Gate was still plenty ruined already. Hell, even now that he’d carried them some distance away from it, he could still sense entire trees that had been uprooted or splintered in half. He noticed one tree that wasn’t touching the ground. Instead, it was lodged horizontally in the canopy, dangling in midair. Some birds had made a nest on it.

All in all, it made for a type of training that he had never done before. Navigating the forest with a building-sized block of iron, creating and destroying his work around every single object and leaving it all unscathed--it certainly demanded attention to detail. And without the Scarf of Amordiin, he didn’t think he would have been able to do this, not without simply flattening everything in their path.

But after a while, Hector started to get the hang of it a little too well, he felt. Even as he increased the speed to accommodate Zeff, Hector found himself thinking that this wasn’t really challenging enough.

Even without his most recent emergence, he felt like he could have pulled this off as long as he had the Scarf. That was what really made this feel trivially easy. He could simply conceptualize his iron as if it were squeezing its way through all the holes in the forest, like a wave of iron jelly. Or iron sludge, perhaps.

Hmm.

Maybe that fight with the worm had more of an effect on his perception than he’d thought. He could visualize the beast’s movements pretty damn well now, after having followed it so attentively over such an extended battle.

Page 1614

((The 17 pages of St. Patrick's Day + Triple Saturday -- Page 18 of 20))
Well,’ said Garovel at length, ‘now we can get to Capaporo safely. It may take us another day or two, but at least there isn’t a feldeath and an army of worms in the way. As far as I know, that is.

Zeff stepped forward, trailing rocky dust behind him. He was quite the ragged picture, what with his wild and mussed hair that looked like it would fight any comb that tried to put it back in order. “Lead on, then,” he said, and he raised everyone up on a short platform of ice. “I’ll carry us to our destination as quickly as I am able.”

Hector intervened, wearing normal armor now instead of the cooling variant. “Wait, um--”

The expression on Zeff’s face did not suggest that the matter was open for discussion. “What?” he said flatly.

Hector held his ground, though. “Let me do it.” And he raised a platform of iron on top of Zeff’s. “You’re supposed to be keeping a low profile, remember?”

Zeff did not look like he cared.

Axiolis floated up behind the man. ‘This is Hector’s territory. Let’s defer to his discretion.

At that, the Lord Elroy seemed to relent, and everyone felt the iron platform sink a little as the ice beneath it dematerialized. “Go quickly, then. Everyone is waiting for us.”

Hector knew it. Better than Zeff did, probably. He hadn’t forgotten Rasalased’s words. That Asad was being held prisoner.

He was going to have to tell Zeff about that. And soon, too. For the moment, though, he focused on his materialization. If nothing else, it would be a good opportunity to test his new limits. A giant platform moving over a forest? That would take some doing. But Hector was--

“Hold on,” said Manuel Delaguna, which took a bit of the wind out of Hector’s sails. “Is someone missing?”

Everyone stopped to look around at one another.

The Hun’Kui weren’t with them anymore, of course, but that didn’t seem like cause for the concern in Manuel’s voice. Aside from them, Hector counted the four servants, the four reapers, Elise, and Mr. Sheridan.

Shit. Manuel was right.

Carver,’ said Yangéra. ‘He’s not here.

Eleyo--or Royo, I suppose--must have decided to keep him behind,’ said Garovel.

Why would he do that?’ said Lorios.

Any number of reasons,’ said Garovel. ‘At a guess, though, I’d say it has something to do with this “Ettol” figure we’ve been hearing about. Royo seemed interested in him before, and Carver claimed to be related to him.

Hmm.

There’s not much we can do about it now,’ said Garovel. ‘And if Royo wants him for information, then I doubt he’ll hurt him. He is probably not in danger.

Hector wondered about that. He honestly didn’t know what to make of Royo anymore.

“Hector,” said Zeff, sounding annoyed again. “Hurry up. We can move while they talk.”

The man wasn’t wrong, Hector knew. So he set to work, raising the platform up higher and higher until it cleared the canopy of trees.