Thursday, December 31, 2020

Page 2906

It wasn't like he had much room to advocate for himself, either. He'd allowed Collins to be killed, Ivan to be captured, and any element of surprise regarding an invasion of Sair to be lost.

But the most gut-wrenching aspect of it, the thing that really cut into his heart like a knife... was how Morgunov had spoken to him when taking command away from him. The Mad Demon hadn't gotten mad, not even in that strange, happy-yet-obviously-angry manner of his. He hadn't punished him or even threatened to do so.

Instead, he just said, "It's okay, Casty. I'm sure you tried your best." And gave him that look.

That look of utter dismissal. Of low expectations being met.

Absolutely soul-crushing. For a man of Caster's ambition, there was almost nothing more damning than that.

But in the end, it was just another example of what they'd been talking about in their meetings for years. The hard cap. Or "the Wall," as some liked to call it.

It always came back to that, sooner or later. No matter how confident he was feeling after a good day or a strong victory, it was just a matter of time until someone or something reminded him of reality.

Oh, what he wouldn't give for the chance to break down that Wall.

They talked about coming to terms with it. They talked about learning to accept themselves for what they were. They talked about looking for other ways to grow their power, to round themselves out and "achieve wholeness," as some put it.

But as he climbed this cursed tower in a dead continent on the edge of the world, he was in no mood to kid himself. If he really believed any of that horseshit, he wouldn't be here, right now. He would've told Paulie to shut his fool mouth and leave him alone.

Page 2905

That had been a concern of many, in recent years. The loyalty of the Monster of the East. And now, with the war, it was a bigger question than ever, Caster felt. Why had Gohvis not involved himself in the war effort yet? Dozer may not have been taking to the front lines like Morgunov was, but he was at least sending forces to fight. Where were Gohvis' mutants? Why weren't they helping?

There were some who questioned the Monster's loyalty. And Caster was one of them.

He hadn't stopped thinking about it. If Gohvis hadn't intervened at Dunehall, Caster could have seized a glorious victory right then and there. Ivan would not have gotten involved--and even if he had, then Caster would have been there to help him when that damnable Abbas Saqqaf showed up and somehow captured him.

There was no doubt in Caster's mind that, together, he and Ivan would have conquered Dunehall and all of Moaban completely.

And he would have the respect of his peers and superiors--of Morgunov, most importantly.

Instead, he was a joke. And elsewhere in Dunehall, the other Rainlords had managed to slay Collins. Now, Ivan's forces were in shambles, leaderless and getting their members poached by countless other sects who were looking to take advantage of their weakness.

Where before, Caster had commanded eight different sects, now those same men were so few in number that he'd had to combine them into only three.

That wasn't even the worst part, though. The worst part was that after Dunehall, for whatever reason, Jercash had actually given him a promotion. He'd granted him control over all operations in Calthos. It hadn't made much sense to Caster at the time, but he'd tried not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

And then, before he'd even gotten the chance to take decisive action, Morgunov arrived and took everything away from him again. Bloodeye and Crowe were placed in charge, while he was all but demoted.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Page 2904

Caster scratched his neck, thinking.

Well, he wasn't about the carry Paulie's ass the rest of the way up this tower. Tired as he was and without enhanced strength to help him out, that would not go well.

And besides, Caster was not a large man. In height, he barely broke a hundred and fifty centimeters. He had no delusions about that. Growing up, that had been his single most defining characteristic, and the world rarely ever let him forget it. Paulie might've been his junior by over a century, but that didn't change the fact that the kid outweighed him by thirty kilos or more.

So he left Paulie where he was and kept climbing. He'd worry about the kid on the way back down. Depending on what he found up there and how bad Paulie's condition turned out to be, he might just destroy kid's brain and have his reaper regenerate him. It would mean weaving a tale about what had happened to him during their "training," but that was already sounding more appealing than trying to drag him all the way back to Eloa.

The wind outside the Tower picked up and began howling through the empty windows, casting hail throughout each floor like little daggers, sometimes making it all the way to him in the center of the building. He soon got used to it, though, as the climb continued with no end in sight.

He was left alone with his thoughts for a long while.

He remembered hearing that Gohvis had a home out here on Exoltha. He wasn't about to run into that dragon bastard, was he?

Of all the members of Abolish that Caster had ever met, Gohvis had to be one of his least favorites. Everyone was afraid of him, but the guy rarely ever helped with anything. He didn't even seem like a part of Abolish, really. Caster had no idea why Dozer put up with him. He highly doubted that Morgunov would, if Gohvis worked for him.

Page 2903

Caster didn't know what to think, now. He'd never believed in any gods, excepting perhaps the Void, but that wasn't a god, really. That was the supreme consciousness that existed within all things. The collective will of the universe. And even his faith in that wasn't terribly strong. He certainly didn't consider himself nearly as fanatical as many of his peers and subordinates.

But if this Tower was real, then perhaps so was Malast.

Ugh. He felt too old to be taking up a new belief system. Even if this Malast was real and everything he said turned out to be true, Caster would probably just... shrug, at this point. To be genuinely moved, Caster felt like he'd have to be shown something so utterly spectacular that it defied his own capacity for imagination.

Boy, these stairs were taking a while. The long trek through the Storm hadn't exactly been a picnic, and without a reaper to pep him back up, he was beginning to feel the familiar and unwelcome touch of fatigue. From the sound of the slowing footsteps over his head, Paulie was feeling it, too.

Without warning, the Tower shook violently, and light filled his vision for a moment, blinding him. The booming crash of thunder that he'd heard a hundred times before arrived again, louder than ever this time.

Disorientation held onto him for a few moments longer, but his passive soul defenses were enough to keep him steady. Lightning had just struck the building, he was fairly sure.

His ears were still ringing as he continued the climb, so he couldn't hear Paulie's footsteps anymore. Therefore, he was surprised when he reached the next floor and found Paulie crumpled over.

Hmm.

Still had a pulse. Still breathing. Just unconscious, probably. Might have been blinded or had his ear drums ruptured, though. Or both.

Caster tried to slap him awake, but the kid wasn't moving.

Wonderful.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Page 2902

There was no front door, just an empty hole to walk through. As he stepped foot inside, he tried to inspect the building more closely. Thankfully, he did think to bring a flashlight, at least. The pitch black stone looked pristine, and as he shone his light up to it, he could see embossed lines in its surface.

"This way!" came Paulie's voice from deeper in.

"Don't run off on your own," Caster called out. He couldn't even see the kid anymore, but he could hear ascending footsteps. Caster looked for a staircase.

What were they supposed to be looking for? This place was empty. A reaper would have helped right about now in searching.

Being of sufficient age, Caster was able to vaguely sense the soul power coursing the building. If he busted down the walls, he would no doubt be able to see the flowing soul power with his own eyes quite clearly, but as long as it remained embedded within an object, it was still mostly invisible to him.

He found the staircase in question and took it. The next floor looked just as empty as the first, and he could hear Paulie's urgent footsteps already ascending to the next floor again.

They didn't actually have to go all the way up this thing, right? It was touching the clouds. It could have a hundred stories or more, for all they knew.

"Paulie, do you still hear the voice?" shouted Caster.

The kid took a moment to answer. "Yeah! It says to keep climbing!"

Of course it did.

He was beginning to hope that it would tell Paulie to jump off the roof when they got there.

Caster had asked Kalikos about Malast, this so-called "god" that Paulie was hearing. Apparently, as far as gods went, Malast was some kind of lazy son of a bitch who never did anything for anyone. So this whole trip made even less sense than Caster had first thought.

Page 2901

"We should hurry inside," said Paulie, "before more hail arrives." He didn't wait for Caster and ran ahead.

It was true. The kid wasn't looking so great. His clothes were in tatters, and apart from his missing arm, he was also covered in blood, having been skewered by hail on several occasions. Caster had been able to protect him from a lot of it but not all, especially when the hail whipped around in the wind and attacked from the different angles.

Caster's own attire was still mostly fine, though. A bit of soul-strengthening applied to the cloth was all it took to prevent it from being shredded. Alas, he hadn't thought to do the same for Paulie's clothes until it was a bit too late.

If they'd known more about what they would be facing, they might've brought some soul-strengthened hazmat suits. The time crunch would've made that a bit difficult, however.

Caster approached the building at a more leisurely pace, uncertain if it would truly prove to be the refuge that Paulie was obviously hoping for.

How in the world could any manmade structure still be standing in a place like this? Even assuming it was strong enough to prevent the Dáinnbolg from battering it to dust, how had all these feldeaths not blasted it into oblivion? It couldn't be luck that had allowed it to survive all this time.

Which was another issue. When could such a thing have possibly been built? And by whom?

Frankly, he hadn't even expected this so-called "Tower of Remoria" that Paulie had been going on about to even exist. Sure, he couldn't deny that a sliver of hope in the back of his mind had been there, quietly nagging at him--an absurd notion that they might actually discover something relevant to the path of destruction.

But now that he was looking at this tower, that notion didn't entirely feel like hope anymore. It felt more like worry. Deep, terrifying worry.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Page 2900

They didn't have access to regeneration, either, because neither of them had wanted to tell their reapers where they were going, much less bring them along. If they both ended up dead, then well, their reapers would realize eventually.

Kalikos occasionally checked in on him, and Caster had to act like everything was fine, like he wasn't staring death in the face and trying not to blink first.

They'd told the reapers that they were going on a training retreat deep into the Otoron Mountains in Calthos. The reapers didn't come with them because, technically, their respective sects were still on duty. The extra respite that they had been granted after the victory over Sair was conditional. They could still be called back to fight at any time, so the reapers needed to stay behind in order to alert them if such orders arrived.

All things considered, the timing was rather convenient--which was perhaps how Paulie had managed to convince him. After all, if they didn't go now, then who could say when another opportunity would present itself? This war seemed like it could go on for a long while. Even if the lingering fighting in Sair died down completely, they would doubtless be sent to a new front within a week; and if they got separated, then it would become that much more difficult to coordinate a little excursion like this.

What utter madness.

He just had to keep reminding himself that he was undead. He didn't actually have to worry about being killed here.

Probably.

He did recall a few old rumors that some feldeaths could, in fact, kill you permanently even if your reaper wasn't present, but those were just rumors, he was fairly sure. They'd never been confirmed. Which they would've been, if they were true.

...Right?

Yes, of course they would've. The eggheads in Research loved that kind of stuff. They wouldn've looked into it and told everyone all about it. Or maybe Morgunov himself would've.

Definitely.

An even-larger-than-usual explosion in the distance made him turn and stare.

Page 2899 -- CCLIV.

Chapter Two Hundred Fifty-Four: 'The Roar of Old...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

The Eternal Storm was even more ferocious than he'd heard. The raging winds, the skewering hail, the earth-shaking thunder. It was small wonder why everyone avoided the Dáinnbolg. Even if all the feldeaths disappeared tomorrow, it wouldn't revive this dead continent unless this storm was somehow quelled.

A gargantuan figure stood in the darkness, barely visible until lightning flashed across the sky and briefly illuminated it.

A tall, narrow building, it was. It looked like it reached all the way up into the dark, long-hanging clouds above, though he couldn't quite tell that for sure from here on the ground.

"This must the be place. It looks just like the voice said it would."

Caster Egmond had no idea what he was doing here. How in the world had he let Paulie talk him into this nonsense? Not only was this going to be a gigantic waste of time, it had already proven to be an insanely dangerous waste of time.

They'd been on Exoltha less than a day, and yet within that brief span of time, Caster had seen more feldeaths with his own two eyes than in the rest of his life combined.

They were everywhere. Even now, he counted five of them on the horizon. Hulking, ethereal reptiles of various sorts. Some with huge shells like turtles, others looking more like dinosaurs. Some had twenty limbs or more. All had eyes that burned with white flames, and beams of black and white energy frequently spewed from their mouths as they attacked each other.

That was the only reason the two of them were still alive, Caster felt. Most of the feldeaths were more concerned with fighting one another than with them.

They'd certainly had a few close calls, though. Paulie was missing his right arm, and half of Caster's face was scorched black and still stinging.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Page 2898

"Alright," said Hector, "but is there anyone else? Literally, anyone you can think of. If they're trustworthy and could help, then I'll do my best to bring them here for you, even if I have to go halfway around the world."

Something about the boldness of that statement made Abbas want to tease him. "Perhaps Xixa would be of some use. I hear she is quite good at keeping things to herself."

Hector paused at that, his expression unreadable, but Garovel spoke up in his stead.

'Yes, I'm sure the Goddess of the Secrets would be very helpful. If she existed. Or are you saying you know where we can find her?'

"I'm afraid not," said Abbas, exhaling half a laugh. "And while there might be plenty of individuals out there who could assist me, I do not think it worth the risk. As you said, Hector, trustworthiness is a key factor. But Forges are so highly prized that someone whom I currently believe to be trustworthy might soon discover the motivation for betrayal upon seeing it."

Hector frowned but bobbed his head to the side a little, as if acknowledging the strength of his point.

"I am certain that I will be able to revive it," said Abbas. Which wasn't entirely true. He was certain that he would either do it or die trying, at least, but that wasn't something that he wanted to admit. Not even to Worwal. "I only need time."

The Lord of Warrenhold stepped closer. "You'll have all you need."

Hmm. He did have a way of saying comforting things, didn't he? Why was that, exactly? Something in his tone? In his expression, maybe? Abbas couldn't quite put his finger on it.

"By the way," Hector went on after a time, "there was something I wanted to ask you. What are your thoughts on building a castle around the Forge?"

Abbas blinked.

Page 2897

For a moment, Abbas just gave him a look. He shifted his gaze back to the crater in the distance, then back to Hector. "...Are you alright?"

The boy was keeping his armor on for some reason. "Oh, uh, yeah. I'm fine. I was just, er... experimenting with my ability a little and, uh..." He threw a glance back toward the crater, too. "I'm still working out the kinks. You know how it is, I'm sure."

Mm. Indeed he did know. A fair explanation, he supposed.

He decided to let the matter drop. Whatever the truth was, Hector most likely did not wish to appear weak in front of him. That was probably why he wasn't removing his armor. If he'd really been "experimenting," then his clothes might very well be soaked in his own blood, right now. And considering how long he'd taken to shamble out that crater for using his materialization to carry himself closer, he'd probably been trying to buy time for himself to finish regenerating.

Fair enough. Abbas couldn't fault him for caring so much about appearances. Any leader needed to be aware of such things. Abbas and Worwal were not the only ones here, after all. A handful of his family members were waiting by the car and probably saw that little display, too.

"Unfortunately, progress has been slow," said Abbas, turning to go sit back down. Worwal asked him privately to turn the page again, and he did so. "And I suspect it will be for some time."

"I see," said Hector. Garovel phased through his armor as he closed the door behind him. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Thank you for the offer, but I am afraid not."

"Are you sure? Anything at all? I could bring someone here to assist you, if you want. Haqq Najir, maybe?"

"Haqq should remain focused on my armor until its repairs are complete," said Abbas. He eyed the Forge again. "And this... well, let's just leave it at that, shall we?"

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Page 2896

What in the world was he doing, Abbas wondered? Had he just arrived? It looked like a meteorite had struck the field.

Not the most graceful of landings, apparently.

Come to think of it, though, he had not actually seen Hector flying during that last battle--unless he was feeling extremely generous with the term "flying," perhaps.

Abbas just stood there in the doorway, turning pages absentmindedly as he watched Hector hobble closer.

Broken a few bones, eh?

Ah.

Abbas was beginning to get the picture.

It was true that Abbas hadn't quite gotten a clear understanding of the young Atreyan lord's strength, but he also hadn't given it much thought, either. The boy had saved his life. And finished off the Man of Crows.

Could that have really all been a fluke? He hadn't thought so.

Now, though?

Hmm.

Perhaps.

And not terribly difficult to believe, either. It would not be the first time that Abbas had seen a young servant best a much older one through little more than good fortune.

But from everything else that he had seen thus far, there was obviously still more to this young man than that just luck. The Lord of Warrenhold? Encountering Rasalased? The strangeness of his power? A nest of Wrobels at his disposal? And a Fusion Forge, too?

He would have been a fool to dismiss all of that as luck, too.

No. There was, at the very least, a certain... grit to this young man. It was difficult to describe, having known him for so short a time.

He would have to pay closer attention in the future, Abbas decided.

Hector's composure improved as he got closer, until he finally zoomed the rest of the way and landed gently in front of Abbas.

"Learn anything yet?" the young man said, ever so slightly out of breath.

Page 2895

Abbas admired his mentor for many reasons, but that was not one.

And Dolf had known that, too.

"That's good," the man had once told him. "That's how it should be. You are my apprentice, not my clone. A copycat is never as good as the original. SO take what I have to teach, and then pursue further knowledge in your own way." And he'd laughed. "Who knows? Maybe one day, my accomplishments will look quaint compared to yours!"

Abbas remembered thinking, at the time, that he'd been sarcastic in saying that last part. But now, all these years later, and after having had a couple apprentices of his own, Abbas felt differently.

As a teacher, the idea that his students might one day achieve wondrous or remarkable feats--that was one of the most appealing thoughts in the world.

Dolf hadn't been joking, Abbas had come to believe.

Somehow, that seemed more relevant than ever.

It had been some time since Abbas felt the that familiar burn of ambition within himself. As a young man, it had been there all the time. A constant pressure to prove himself to his elders and his peers.

When had that changed, exactly? The slow grinding of age had whittled him down, it seemed. He'd like to think of it as "growing," but was that really so? Was it growth when the motivation deep within one's soul had diminished so greatly?

Hmm.

Perhaps the gods were giving him another chance. If he allowed it to, perhaps this Forge could reawaken his ambitions from all those years ago.

Heh. He felt like such an old man.

A thud arrived from outside, heavy enough that he could feel the ground tremble briefly beneath his feet. He stood up to go take a look, while still holding onto the book in his hands and turning pages for Worwal.

He opened the primitive wooden door and saw Hector there in the distance, standing in the middle of an elongated crater.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Page 2894

~~Christmas Day Special - (page 24 of 24)~~

It was a long-held dream, one that he'd gone back and forth on over the last twenty or so years. Sometimes, it seemed entirely achievable. Other times, he chastised himself for not staying focused on more realistic goals.

Just creating the prototype suit had been so incredibly laborious. And it still wasn't even done. Rather, it felt like a constant project, always tweaking, always refining. A slow crawl toward strength.

He may have achieved victory over Ivan, but he knew only too well how close it had been. That was a victory with an asterisk next to it.

Obviously, not every suit needed to be as powerful as this one, but at the end of the day, what was more important? Creating the Mudarra'un or continuing to improve upon the prototype?

Ideally, he would be able to do both. Pragmatically, he knew that to be impossible.

He had hoped that perhaps this Forge would be able to change that, but now he was more uncertain than ever about that possibility. Given its apparent age, there was absolutely zero chance that the creator had intended for it to be used on machinery.

That might be a problem.

Or it might not.

And worrying about it was making his stomach turn.

He took a moment to steady his mind, to quell his emotions. That's all anxiety was, ultimately. An emotion. A persistent one, perhaps, but an emotion, nonetheless.

First and foremost, he was a man of rationality. To calmly assess every situation, to think everything through as much as time allowed--that was the ideal that he had always striven to achieve.

That was another lesson that he had taken from Dolf--though not by Dolf's design. That man, in so very many ways, had been the furthest thing from rational. True, he did have his moments of it--and Abbas had been supremely relieved whenever they occurred--but those who knew Dolf would have certainly characterized his life as one of constant, fiery passion.

Until it had been snuffed out, that was.

Page 2893

~~Christmas Day Special - (page 23 of 24)~~

This was why he'd tried to start with the Forge, first. Going through all of these texts was obviously going to take ages, but there'd been a chance, at least, he could have learned what he needed from the Forge right away.

A shame.

At least he could relax his mind a little while he let the reaper read. The strain of that dive through the ardor was probably not something he should ignore--even if he'd been about to do just that. He could handle another two or three dives, most likely, before requiring real rest.

Meditation was a fair substitute, though.

Or it would have been, if he didn't have so much trouble settling his thoughts.

Even at his age, with all his experience, he still encountered this problem, sometimes. His younger self would probably have expected to grow out of this by now. But worries only ever seemed to grow with age. And power.

What would become of his kin? That nagging question lay at the root of every concern that crossed his mind.

Before this war had come to their doorstep, Abbas had harbored an idea. It was an absurd notion at this state in time, far beyond his or Haqq's ability to achieve. But if he'd pushed for it more, if he'd worked harder... then perhaps they wouldn't have had to flee from their homes. Perhaps they wouldn't have had to suffer such disgrace--or not to this extent, at least.

It wouldn't have stopped Morgunov, most likely. But it might have stopped his horde of madmen.

This armor. Creating copies of it, lesser ones if need be. That was the idea.

That had always been the ultimate goal when designing it: to one day make it usable by much younger servants. Or perhaps, dare he imagine it, even non-servants.

The Mudarra'un--or the Armored, in Mohssian. An entirely new warrior class. An elite group of soldiers, trained in the use of his armor.

Page 2892

~~Christmas Day Special - (page 22 of 24)~~

He could feel his consciousness slipping. This frustration wasn't doing him any favors. The tether was weakening. He had to pull himself out before the risk became unacceptable.

So he did.

His eyes opened, and his hand came away from the glass. And he felt his own body again. Breath in his lungs. Flesh and bone wrapped around his soul.

He gave a long, tired sigh.

This wasn't going to be easy, was it?

After a few moments of allowing his thoughts and emotions to settle, he moved to press his hand against the glass again.

But halfway, he stopped himself.

Perhaps he needed to rethink his approach. There was far more ardor in this machine--if it could even be called that--than he had expected. At this rate, searching for the name could take days, weeks, or even months. Hell, maybe longer. He didn't really know how deep the ardor was, yet.

He looked around the chamber. It wasn't just the Forge in here. This place was obviously some kind of ancient workshop. Hector and his associates may have already inspected it from top to bottom, but perhaps it would be prudent to give it a look himself. They said they hadn't found the name in any of those books over there, and he believed them, but there could still be useful clues therein.

Honestly, he didn't know what he was looking for. He had a faint hope that something he learned would help him to locate the name when he dove back into the ardor. Some kind of historical context, maybe?

He couldn't read the language that these books were written in, but fortunately, Worwal could.

So they set to work--Worwal reading, Abbas turning pages. He counted twelve books on this shelf, and perhaps another ten or so on a different shelf by the door.

But if he had to sit here and let Worwal read every single one of them, cover to cover, then he would.

Page 2891

~~Christmas Day Special - (page 21 of 24)~~

Hmm. But looking at the quality of the ardor's flow, the Forge seemed to be in rather good condition. He couldn't spot any major breaks or diversions--no "hemorrhaging," as it were.

He had a feeling there were many smaller "bleeds" going on elsewhere, though. He would have to inspect the Forge with a fine tooth comb before he dared to try and reactivate it.

Which was a whole other problem--and an even more dangerous one, in fact. Right now, he was just searching for the name in order to help him comprehend what this thing was truly capable of. If and when the time came to actually turn the Forge back "on," that was when the real fireworks would happen.

The kind of fireworks that could kill him and Worwal in the blink of an eye. That was why it was so important to ensure that repairs had been done properly before trying to flip that metaphorical switch. Worst-case scenario, the Forge would explode and leave a city-sized crater behind.

Admittedly, that possibility seemed quite unlikely--and not just because he was confident in his ability to do everything correctly. This Forge had a gentleness to it. An explosion would be "out of character" for it, he felt. If it were to destroy itself, it would probably go some other way. Ah, an implosion perhaps.

It could still suck him and Worwal, though. And they would still be just as dead.

His search continued for what felt like a long while. He could sense many tiny knots in the ardor's flow, but without the name, they were all but impossible to read. Perhaps Dolf could have done something with them at this stage, but alas, he could not.

The name, the name. Where could it be? He sincerely hoped it had one. If it didn't, then he was searching this entire sea for nothing.

Agh.

Page 2890

~~Christmas Day Special - (page 20 of 24)~~

Slowly, the ardor at the edge of his senses was becoming clearer. He tried to move press onward, to "move closer," but it was a deceptive process. He couldn't expect the desired change to be immediate or even obvious. It would appear when it appeared. Hopefully.

To perceive memory, he would first need to perceive the ardor's flow. Information often was usually found within any disturbances there, sometimes referred to as "whirlpools" or "knots." Without a clear view of that flow, they might as well have been invisible.

Oh, goodness. Yes, the ardor was coming into focus.

But there was so much here.

He'd expected a lake, but this was a sea.

Just how old was this thing? Had it been created this way? Or had it been accumulating ardor over time? Already, this seemed to dwarf the amount of soul power that had existed within the Earth Cruncher.

That didn't necessarily mean it was more powerful, however. With a machine of creation, what truly mattered was the creative potential that had been poured into it--and the skill of person who hoped to use it, of course.

...But yes, this was surprising. Why was there so much? And it was so dense, too. Streams layered upon streams, so close together that they almost appeared to be flowing through each other.

Almost. Because, of course, that was impossible. If the flow was disrupted to such an extent, the ardor would lose clash and begin to leak, eventually dissipating.

This was simply a masterful use of space. The efficiency with which these flows had been pressed so closely together--Abbas had to admire the craftsmanship. If he survived long enough and reached the point where he could create a Forge of his own, he would have to remember this technique.

Unfortunately, this density was also going to make his search more difficult. Oh, and gods forbid if he had to make repairs. That already sounded like a nightmare.

Page 2889

~~Christmas Day Special - (page 19 of 24)~~

As he pressed himself more deeply into the Forge, he had to be careful. Getting a good, clear look at the ardor therein was the goal, but that was also where the temptation lay. Go too fast, stretch too far, lose concentration, and this slumbering beast would swallow him whole before he even realized what had happened.

Or at least, that was how Dolf had described it. Abbas wasn't terribly keen to find out how accurate that had been.

The ardor was there. Just at the edge of sight. If it was possible to squint with one's mind's eye, then that was what he was doing now. Strain to see. To understand.

What was your name, damn you? If you recalled that much, then there was a fair chance that you were still operational. If not, then... well, this was going to get a lot more complicated.

He lost time. Hours, maybe. There was a moderate chance that time was simply flowing differently in this strange space. If he hadn't been relying on his own body as a tether back to reality, he would have known even less. Days or even months could have transpired without his knowledge. Years. Decades.

Time might've become little more than an illusion in this place. Hell, for all he knew, it could've started going in circles.

It was confounding, to be sure. But the distortion of time was almost certainly a factor in how objects like these were able to keep memories within them, Abbas knew. Such fleeting pieces of information would normally be lost to time's arrow. But here, it could be preserved. The steady march of entropy could be held at bay. For a while, at least.

How long that "while" might be--well, that was anybody's guess. How long could a Forge last before eroding to dust? If left alone, perhaps these things had the potential to outlast humanity. Ardor was the fuel of the planet, after all. The relevant time scale could have been approaching the cosmic for these bad boys.

Shame they usually ended up obliterated long before nature could run its course.

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~~Christmas Day Special - (page 18 of 24)~~

This would be tricky, Abbas knew. He had to do something that was generally considered incredibly stupid by integrators.

He had to begin the process of fusing his own consciousness with a material object. In this case, the Forge.

For reasons that were perhaps very obvious, the use of this technique was greatly discouraged. A sufficiently terrible mistake at this stage might mean trapping himself in this Forge for all eternity--or at least until Worwal decided to take mercy on him and release his soul.

Abbas was confident that wouldn't happen, though. Mostly confident.

Dolf Rachman had taught him of this method. With normal objects, the fusion of the consciousness was a supremely stupid and pointless activity. There was nothing to be gained, other than the potential loss of one's own body. It was akin to walking a narrow ledge across the side of a cliff. The balance and skill required to do it were technically achievable, but the risk was so great--and the reward, so small--that there was little point in learning.

When it came to soul-infused or ardor-infused objects, however, this that was not the case. One could discover any number of useful things about the object in question while dancing at the edge of brain death.

The trick, of course, was to not actually fuse his consciousness with the Forge, to hold himself back just enough so that he could catch a glimpse of the true nature of the thing.

He wanted to find its name. With the name, he would probably be able to unlock other bits of dormant information. The name was like a key in that way. Or the first in a line of dominoes, perhaps. It depended on how one wished to conceptualize it.

Which was an important aspect to this whole thing, by the way. His chosen method of conceptualization of this process would affect the clarity of his searching ability. If he didn't maintain a strong grasp on what he was doing and why, it would not work. Or it would just take an incredibly long time.

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However, what became of that cabbage farmer was still a matter of dispute. Some argued that his anonymity was destroyed by that event and that he went on to be known by the much more famous name of Ferrico, another emperor of that Age.

Others claimed that the cabbage farmer was actually Unso's rival, Isaac, in disguise and that the whole affair had been a ruse in order for Isaac to get close enough to Unso to kill him.

And still others said that it was all some sort of cosmic fluke, that the cabbage farmer somehow killed Unso's reaper without even realizing it and that afterwards, the farmer was himself killed by ambitious upstarts seeking to make a name for themselves by slaying the man who had brought down an emperor.

For his part, Abbas leaned more toward the first theory. While it did seem difficult to keep such incredible power concealed, he wasn't convinced that it would be impossible, especially if one had centuries to devote toward that quieting effort.

It did make him wonder what sleeping giants might exist in the modern world, however. And what would it take to stir them?

A continental war, perhaps?

Hmph. He was letting himself get distracted. He tried to focus on what was in front of him.

This Forge was all that mattered, right now. He needed to let everything else melt away.

He kept his hand pressed against the glass and closed his eyes.

The art of sensing ardor was a strange thing. On the one hand, it was as obvious as soul power. Any reaper or sufficiently aged servant could detect it. But on the other hand, there were many subtle complexities to ardor that were lost on those who had not actively worked with it for years.

Ardor. The so-called "planet force." The Earth Cruncher had not utilized it, but this one clearly did. He could sense its presence all throughout the base that the giant orb rested upon.

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He partly expected the world to erupt into fire around him or for his mind to be assaulted by a tidal wave of ardor. That would have at least given him something to work with.

But it was silent. Still.

Not quite dead, though.

The tree would not be alive if that were the case. It was deeply connected to the Forge, though he was not yet sure how. Was it drawing life from the Forge's dormant power? Or was its life force sustaining the Forge? Perhaps a bit of both? Mutualism would be an interesting strategy to employ in the creation of such a thing.

He wished he knew who had made it. In terms of historically famous integrators, there could not have been many candidates. Hamenszoon was likely still too recent, so perhaps someone like Unso or Skapa. But then again, if someone that famous had been its creator, then how could it have ended up here, abandoned?

He was just guessing, of course, but it seemed more plausible to him that this Forge had been created by a so-called "secret emperor." That was, someone who held the requisite level of power but never revealed it.

It was difficult to know how many such people had existed throughout history. Some reapers argued that none did, that it was simply impossible to keep such might secret for long. And he could see the logic in that. But he'd also read accounts of past emperors being bested by completely unknown warriors. Unso, for example, had been slain by a cabbage farmer, of all things, when the emperor tried to seize his land from him.

That account had read like something out of a mythic legend, though Abbas had since met several reapers who swore up and down that it was true.

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In any event, with the way the war was going, Abbas felt that there was little chance of him being allowed access to the Golden Hour now. He hoped that someone would be able to do something with it, though. Anyone, so long as they weren't with Abolish, would do.

Forges were too important to be left idle and unused. In the right hands, they had the power to enact incredible change in the world. For good or ill.

As far he knew, there were only six Forges in the world--and that was counting the one in front of him now. Perhaps there were more, squirreled away and lost to history like this one, but he doubted it. They were simply too highly sought after.

How many wars had been fought over these objects, he wondered? It was hard to say. Even with reapers constantly watching, so much had still been forgotten to the ravages of time. And oftentimes, the self-appointed stewards of remembrance were themselves secretive.

Abbas had visited the Prime Archivers in Luugh multiple times for this very reason. If anyone could help him learn more about Forges that had been lost or destroyed, it would be them. Theoretically.

He had never met a more uncooperative group of reapers. They weren't "hostile," exactly, but they refused to aid him in his search and demanded exorbitant payment each time he visited.

It had many years since his last trip, but even after double-checking with Worwal, he did not recall ever reading about a Forge that matched this one's description. A giant glass orb in the heart a giant tree.

Assuming that really was glass.

It seemed to be, but looks could be very deceiving when it came to Forges. Or so he had read.

He took a deep breath and pressed his bare hand against it.

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They had always protected that thing with an absolutely absurd level of paranoia, due in no small part to that blasted Magician of theirs. By all accounts, that man had been guarding their only Forge like a jealous housewife for nearly two centuries now.

And for what? What technology did the Vanguard have to show for all that effort? What had the Magician come up with that was so vital to their enterprise?

Perhaps they were keeping that, too, a secret, but Abbas doubted it. More likely to him was that this so-called Magician of Light was, in truth, incompetent and arrogant. How the man had convinced the Vanguardian leadership that he should be the one to look after the Golden Hour, Abbas could only imagine.

But it was the world that had been suffering as a result of such foolishness.

Meanwhile, Morgunov was obviously making great strides with his own work. There was little doubt in Abbas mind that the Mad Demon had a new Forge of his own and was using it to create these mechanical nightmares. Either that, or his old one, the Cauldron of Chaos, had not been truly destroyed during the Jungle Wars like the rumors had said.

Supposedly, Sermung himself had put an end to it, so Abbas was inclined to believe that was the truth. Sixty years was certainly enough time for Morgunov to have created a new Forge for himself.

Hmph. Abbas remembered overhearing some of the younger servants in the Golden Fort discussing Morgunov's absence from the world stage over the last few decades. They dared to hope that he might have grown tired of waging war or become otherwise indisposed permanently.

Abbas couldn't fault them for their youth and inexperience, he supposed. But there had never been any doubt in his mind that the Mad Demon was working on something this whole time. More than just one thing, most likely.

He didn't even want to imagine what other horrors that madman was waiting to unleash. He had a feeling that Uego had just been a taste of what Morgunov had in store for them.

Page 2883 -- CCLIII.

~~Christmas Day Special - (page 13 of 24)~~

Again, he found himself gaining altitude unintentionally and had to compensate. That was going to be a reoccurring issue, wasn't it? He'd have to keep that in mind.

But this speed. It was exhilarating. Going this fast through the open air, with the whole wide world stretched out below him? It was like a dream.

Was this really his top speed, though? He kinda doubted it.

What if he just kept applying that same force over and over again? Would he keep accelerating? And how was his control? He'd just been going in a straight line this whole time, but obviously, that wasn't going to do the trick in an actual fight.

He decided to try banking left.

Holy fuck, everything went wrong at once.

Turbulence, vibrations out of balance, losing altitude.

He tried to compensate and overcorrected. The turbulence made it too difficult to tell what the right balance was, and he ended up zooming almost straight up--which he had to correct again, only now it was even worse.

Then the outer layer began coming apart, breaking away from him in chunks that went sailing off in their own directions. And with his thoughts disorganized, his concentration disrupted, and iron flying haphazardly all around him, Hector began to enter freefall and saw the forest quickly rising up to meet him.

And he only managed to hold on to one cogent sentiment as all of that was happening.

Yep. This seemed about right.


Chapter Two Hundred Fifty-Three: 'That which eludes Knowing...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Abbas had never seen anything like it. Even the Earth Cruncher didn't truly compare. They were only similar in the most superficial of ways.

He wished he had more to contrast it with, but he'd only heard of others, never gotten close to them. He'd actually been hoping to change that soon, what with the Vanguard having grown so eager to win his favor. In time, he was sure that he would have finally been able to gain access to their famed Golden Hour in Intar.

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He tried to keep that in mind as he began to make the outer layer move. He started off slow, wanting to get a feel for things. The vibrations shifted along with him, grinding slightly differently as they pushed the static armor horizontally through the air.

Hmm. Pretty manageable so far. The different angles of force that needed to be applied simultaneously were a bit tricky, but he wasn't struggling. It was just new to him.

Time to ramp up the speed, then. He angled himself downward like a missile in order to reduce air drag, gathered his concentration, and sent himself flying.

The canopy of trees below were rushing past now. And the Scarf was telling him all about the buffeting winds around him.

Yeah, that was better. Pretty fast. He was already moving more quickly than he'd ever gotten on that hovering pod thing.

The vibrations were significantly different, too. They were weaker on the bottom than he expected, and now he was starting to gain altitude without meaning to. Those trees were getting smaller pretty quickly.

But he could adjust. He just had to pay attention to the angles of vibration. Lighten the application of force below. Simple.

Alright. Cool.

...Hmm, this was going a little too smoothly. He was almost disappointed. It was still a little nerve-racking, but eh. Obviously, he'd been through a lot worse.

How fast could he really go, he wondered?

In theory, he should've been able to fly just as fast as he had been able to ping pong himself around before. Those giant boulders had been utilizing velocity states, which were still the underlying principle of this mobile outer layer. Same basic concept, just being applied differently. And constantly.

He wanted to see what would happen. It was dangerous, of course, but. Welp. Benefits of being undead.

He punched it. He made the outer layer around his feet and legs push him as hard as could manage.

And he soared.

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~~Christmas Day Special - (page 11 of 24)~~

It worked surprisingly well. And easily. That was probably another benefit of Focus, he felt. In fact, it was so easy that Hector had a feeling that he wasn't even utilizing Sto properly. Instead, he might've just shoved the noise perception into a background thought process and ignored it. That probably wasn't how this sophisticated "state of altered consciousness" stuff was supposed to work.

But hey, if it did the trick, it did the trick. He didn't see much point in agonizing over it right now, especially during an experiment.

He focused on his work. The vibrations from the scraping were an interesting aspect of it. The grinding along the top side of his armor was not nearly as strong as the grinding along the bottom side. Which made sense, he realized. The bottom was serving as a "cradle," going against gravity and holding the weight of his entire body plus the static armor, whereas the top side had basically no pressure being applied to it at all.

He'd had to take all of that into account when creating the outer layer in the first place, of course. If he gave both sides the same amount of force, then either top would float away or the bottom wouldn't be able to hold his weight.

So in a way, these scraping vibrations were helpful. If he paid close attention to them, he could literally feel the difference between the pressure being applied to the bottom side and top. Perhaps, then, he could use that as a kind of gauge. If the difference in the vibrations were to grow too great, then that would probably be a bad thing, right? So maybe it could serve as a good warning mechanism for the overall balance of this technique.

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He told Garovel to keep his distance while he tried this out. The last thing he wanted was to accidentally hurt the reaper somehow.

For the outer layer, he decided to keep things simple. It didn't need to be as complexly fitted together and interlocking as his static armor. That would've just made it needlessly difficult to maintain its constantly-moving form. Plus, it would probably reduce air resistance more if it was simplistically shaped.

And so, he began to create the outer layer. It melted into existence around him, smooth and already moving while stationary. It coated his entire armor, save only for the eye slit and a small hole at the neck for the Scarf of Amordiin to fit through.

When he dematerialized the hovering platform beneath him, Hector half-expected to drop like a stone. But he didn't. He stayed in the air. The coating was working.

The scraping against the static layer was intense, however. It was even louder than he'd thought it would be. Metal grinding against metal--but it was all around him, becoming almost like the roar of an engine but more piercing. Not to mention, the vibrations that the technique sent throughout his body were their own kind of disorienting.

For a time, he just hovered there, trying to give himself time to acclimate. If he concentrated, perhaps he could dull the noise--in his mind, at least, if not in reality.

And he had a thought. Maybe he could use that thing Emiliana had told him about here. Sto. A "storage state" technique of the mind.

While he couldn't place the actual noise into storage in his mind, maybe he could place his perception of that noise in there. To isolate it. And numb himself to it. To make it so that the only way for him consciously hear it was if he concentrated on it.

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Knowing a thing or two of aerial combat now, Hector felt like his flight capabilities were significantly lacking. Sure, he'd managed to stabilize it since first coming up with the technique, but it was far too slow to be useful in a real fight. He'd certainly learned that lesson the hard way. Having to ping pong himself through the air in that battle at the border had not been ideal. If not for the Scarf enhancing his spatial awareness beyond normal means, that strategy would have been useless.

He needed to develop greater speed and control.

And seeing the mechanized armor of the Sunsmith in action again was making him think that perhaps he didn't need the little "hovering pod" that he was previously using to fly. Even if it was stable, it was obviously unwieldy and not very aerodynamic.

But if he could integrate his flying technique directly into his armor... that might open up a world of possibilities for him, Hector felt.

How to do it, though? He had an idea, but frankly, he wasn't entirely sure it was possible.

The basic principle of the hovering technique was to create a constantly-rematerializing "cradle" below a static iron platform for himself to stand on. The static component was key, since he couldn't very well stand on a platform that was constantly moving.

...But could he wear armor that was constantly moving? It wasn't like he would slide out of it while he was completely covered.

It might rip the flesh off his bones, though. If it was moving was enough to counter gravity, then that probably wouldn't tickle, he imagined.

He was tempted to give it a try, just to see how bad it would be. Maybe it would be surprisingly okay.

Ultimately, though, he decided against that. The more reasonable solution seemed to be in utilizing layers, just as the hovering technique normally did. A static inner armor with a gravity-countering outer armor.

With that idea in his head, he sat on a big hovering platform at the edge of the city and took a long, deep breath.

Oh, boy, these first attempts with experimental new techniques never went well, did they? And his whole body was going to be wrapped up in this one.

Page 2878

~~Christmas Day Special - (page 8 of 24)~~

Their conversation continued for a short while longer as they discussed the bank's potential expansion into Lorent. By the end of it, though, Hector still wasn't entirely sure what to think. The only thing that was clear was that the Queen didn't exactly love the idea, but she wasn't trying to forbid him from doing it, either.

Maybe she could tell that he wouldn't be very happy if she just came right out and told him no. Or maybe she felt that that would be overreach on her part.

Frankly, he wasn't sure what he would've done if she had forbidden him from expanding. He didn't want to go against the Queen, obviously, but he also didn't want to let down his investors, especially the Rainlords. And her authority didn't extend to Lorent. If she'd acted like it did, then... well, maybe it would still be justified since he was one of her subjects.

Hmm.

In any event, once they they were done talking, Hector considered returning to Riverton Hall with the Queen. Technically, there were plenty of things he could discuss there with various Lorentian officials. It wouldn't be a wasted trip, and he had made the journey all the way here to the capital, already.

In fact, that was part of the reason why he'd let Abbas leave first. In the back of his mind, he'd intended to remain with the Queen and hitch a ride back to Atreya with her.

But all of a sudden, he couldn't help feeling like none of the encounters at Riverton Hall were particularly pressing. The only thing that seemed truly urgent right now was the Forge. He very much wanted to go meet up with Abbas again and see if he'd discovered anything new yet.

Perhaps that was a silly notion. He and the Queen had only talked for an hour so.

But he decided to go for it, anyway. Besides, he wanted to try out some new things with his materialization on the way back.

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~~Christmas Day Special - (page 7 of 24)~~

Geez, Hector thought. Just how far ahead was she thinking here? "She's not that old, Your Highness..."

She gave him a look. "It has been making me wonder if we should try to find a reaper for her. That would give me peace of mind. Somewhat, at least."

He scratched his brow at that notion. A reaper for Amelia Carthrace? Hmm.

The Queen was still giving him that same look, as if there was more she was trying to say.

"...The Rainlords don't have any available reapers, if that's what you're getting at," he said.

"Hmm." She looked away, then promptly looked back at him again.

And again, he understood without explanation. "I... don't think the Sandlords have any available, either. But I suppose I could check..."

"It would not be ideal if the reaper has divided loyalties," said the Queen, "but if it cannot be helped, then so be it. As long as it is a division between allies, then I suppose it would suffice. Assuming the reaper is trustworthy, of course. I would want to meet them. Several times, in fact, before any commitment is made."

"You're talking like it's already been decided..."

The Queen breathed a slight laugh. "True. I have been thinking about it for a while, I suppose, so my mind is already made up. Do you think Amelia might have a problem with it?"

Now there was a question. As much as he might've liked to think that becoming a servant was all upsides and no downsides, he knew that wasn't quite true. Even assuming they could find a reliable reaper--which was a big assumption--the Madame Cathrace might not love the idea of letting herself be killed as part of the process.

That would be like the ultimate trust exercise. And it wouldn't be terribly unreasonable if she didn't want to go through with it, he felt.

"I honestly don't know," said Hector. "And, uh... I'm not really sure how I would broach the subject with her, either..."

"I do not mind doing it," said the Queen.

Somehow, he wasn't surprised by that.

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~~Christmas Day Special - (page 6 of 24)~~

The Queen gave him a sympathetic smile--or a patronizing one. He couldn't quite tell which, and he didn't like the uncertainty he was feeling about it.

"I appreciate you saying that," said the Queen, "but I do not think you will have the time to monitor all of your accounts for such activity. And the more your bank grows, the more difficult that problem will become."

"So I'll hire someone," he said. "A whole team, if need be. It's important enough to warrant it, I think. And I'm sure Amelia will agree."

The Queen paused again. "Amelia, is it? You've grown quite familiar with her in these past few months, it would seem."

Had he? Oh. He didn't typically use her first name out loud, did he? Either way, that was beside the point. "That... doesn't seem relevant to what we were talking about, Your Highness."

"How much do you trust her, Hector?"

He blinked at that question. "Well... quite a bit. I mean, you appointed her to be my financial advisor, Your Highness."

She took a deep breath. "Yes, I did. However, I did not foresee how pivotal her role in things would soon become. By your side, she is on track to become one of the most powerful individuals in the country. And perhaps beyond, judging from the way you are talking."

Hector's posture stiffened in his chair. "Do you not trust her?"

She bobbed her head a little. "For the most part, I do. Her family is another matter, but her strained relationship with them makes that a moot point. My only issue with her--impolite as this may be to say--is her age."

Hector just cocked an eyebrow at that. Impolite was right. Damn.

"Oh, do not look at me like that," she said. "I adore Amelia. I truly do. And it is precisely for that reason that I worry what will become of your bank once she is no longer able run it for you."

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~~Christmas Day Special - (page 5 of 24)~~

Damn. She sounded like she wasn't going to change her mind, no matter what he said.

Hector still wasn't quite prepared to give up, though. He had one more argument up his sleeve. "Your Highness... my bank has a lot of investors who've taken a big risk by supporting me. Including the Rainlords. If the Bank collapses, they'll take a huge hit. Not to mention all the Atreyan lords who contributed." There was Roman, too, but Hector had a feeling that he'd be just fine.

"Considering the ingenuity displayed by both Amelia Carthrace and yourself, I highly doubt that the Darksteel National Bank will collapse. I am sure you will find a way to continue operations within all currently legal means. Turning a massive profit, however, may prove to be a challenge, yes."

Ingenuity, huh? "...Does that mean you wouldn't mind if we expanded our operations into Lorent?"

At that, the Queen paused for a long moment, eyeing him, then Garovel, then him again. "Is that a threat, Hector?"

He could hardly believe his ears. "Why would it be a threat?" he said, unable to conceal his bafflement.

The Queen didn't answer. She just kept staring at him.

Garovel decided to step in now. 'This is getting a little too heated for my tastes. Let's all take a breath and remember that we're on the same side here, shall we?'

The Queen indeed took the requested breath. She shut her eyes for a moment, too, before opening. "Hector... my entire reason for blocking foreign banks from jumping in to aid with the economy was to prevent foreign interests from tearing this nation apart like a pack of piranhas. If you expand into Lorent, it would create a new stream through which such piranhas might arrive."

Hector wished Amelia was here to help. He felt like he wasn't making his best possible arguments. But he kept trying. "If anyone ever tried to use my bank in such a way, I'd have their account terminated in an instant."

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Hector tilted his head. "...Wouldn't that be my problem to deal with, not yours?"

"If your bank continues to grow unchecked, it could become the entire nation's problem," said the Queen.

Hector furrowed his brow. "And if it continues to stagnate, then that could also become the entire nation's problem."

"Stagnate?" she said with obvious doubt. "In what way is your bank stagnating, Hector? Customers are flocking to you, are they not?"

"They are. Because the nation is in crisis. And yet we're still barely operating in the green. What happens when it's not? They'll take their money elsewhere, because we can't afford to lower our service fees and incentivize them to stay." Hmm. Maybe he was picking up a thing or two from all his conversations with Amelia.

The Queen paused at that, but she still looked unconvinced. "Why would they leave? The law applies equally to your competitors, does it not?"

Hector was a bit surprised to hear her say that. "Actually, no, it doesn't. Older banks are given more leeway. Once this crisis passes and people aren't quite so worried about stability anymore, the older banks that manage to survive will probably be able to make a killing while we collapse from the inside."

"Those older banks have earned that privilege through years of proving their credibility. I appreciate what your bank is doing for the nation at the moment, but it is still very young, and I do not think it should be given special treatment just because of abnormal circumstances."

He exhaled, trying not to sound exasperated. "Your Highness... I'm not asking for special treatment. I'd be happy if the regulations were loosened for all banks, not just mine."

"Hector, I am sorry, but the answer is no. I will not risk long-term stability for short-term gain."

"That's... I don't think that's what the choice is, Your Highness. I agree that unchecked growth would be dangerous, but it wouldn't be unchecked. And if the bank is allowed to generate revenue without charging our customers through the nose for it, then that will contribute to the long-term stability of the nation, too, don't you think?"

"I'm afraid I disagree."

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~~Christmas Day Special - (page 3 of 24)~~

"I'm... still pretty new to all this," said Hector, trying to be very careful with his words, "but it seems to me that... my bank would be able to grow a lot more quickly and help a lot more people get through this economic depression if those regulations weren't quite so strict. But Madame Carthrace tells me that you... feel differently."

"I do," said the Queen. "While I did not create those regulations, I think that they were placed there for good reason. And it is precisely in times of crisis like this one when influence and power shift in unexpected and potentially terrifying ways. I will freely admit that I am afraid of the Darksteel National Bank growing too powerful too quickly."

Wow.

Hector had to admire the way she just came right and said it. That still didn't exactly soften the blow, though. "...You think I would abuse that power?"

"As a matter of fact, I do not," said the Queen. "But your Bank is more than just you. How many employees do you have now, I wonder? And how many more would you need in order to cope with the explosive growth that you would undoubtedly see if I were to change the law purely for your benefit?"

Hector frowned. "I get what you're saying, but... Your Highness, there are still a lot of people suffering financially, right now. And we have the power to change that. If you're worried about something like... corruption in my bank--or whatever else--then let's address that issue. I don't think we should avoid the whole thing just because we're worried about one aspect of it."

"Respectfully, Hector, I don't think you do get what I am saying. The economy is on the road to recovery. The situation is improving. And at a historic pace, I might add. Just because we can make it go faster does not mean we should. We would be opening ourselves up to the same essential problem that the Vanguard is currently having: bloat. And once that becomes an issue, it is very difficult to fix."

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~~Christmas Day Special - (page 2 of 24)~~

"I will be sure to keep your ego in mind when making my final decision on the matter," said the Queen.

'Thank you,' said Garovel. 'I appreciate that. How much time do you have to decide, by the way? Is there an expiration date on this deal, or is this just going to become an indefinite thing that keeps getting brought up every time we meet? If it's the latter, then let me just say, I wouldn't mind as long as the stakes keep getting raised each time, too.'

"There is no expiration date," said the Queen, "but I do feel that it would be rather rude of me to go too long without giving them an answer. Most likely, I will send them a formal response within the next six months. It may not be final, however, depending on how interested Intar truly is. Negotiations for a matter such as this could continue informally for several years."

'Hmm. So you're saying that Hector and I have plenty of time to make them juice up their offer again.'

The Queen gave him a bemused smile. "...Juice up?"

'Yeah. To make juicier. Jucify. It's a technical term.'

'I'm not sure it is,' said Mehlsanz.

As the conversation continued, the two reapers began to overwhelm it for a time. Until at length, Queen Helen asked Hector about his plans for the lower Jagwa region of Lorent. The truth, of course, was that he didn't really know yet.

But that topic did remind him of something else. Something he almost wished he'd forgotten about. Even now, he was reluctant to bring it up. But he had to. Clarity was important for matters like this.

"Your Highness," he said slowly, "it's my understanding that... Madame Carthrace has talked to you about loosening some of the regulations regarding banks in Atreya?" It wasn't exactly a question, but he posed it like one.

The Queen eyed him steadily. "Yes, she has."

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~~Christmas Day Special - (page 1 of 24)~~

'I think it's a heritage thing,' said Garovel. 'The Mohssian Empire had a rich history, and Intar was at the heart of it. The people there might understandably have some lingering attachment to it. But yeah, it's super weird that any part of a republic should still be legally referred to as "Imperial" anything.'

Hector had to agree. It was strange to imagine that something from the Mohssian Empire still existed today in an official capacity like that. In a spare thought process, it made him wonder what a modern day Mohssian Empire might look like.

Probably wouldn't be very pretty, he felt.

'Still, that's a big upgrade,' said Garovel. 'Intar really offered us all that just because of little ol' Hector here? I'm blushing vicariously through him.'

The Queen tittered.

'That last one is particularly interesting,' said Garovel. 'Granting us more power in their government is no minor thing.'

'It is,' said Mehlsanz. 'It would give us a disproportionate amount of influence for our total population and land. But that's not saying much. We'd still be dwarfed by the larger territories--of which, there are many.'

'True. And I wasn't suggesting that we should take the deal, just so it's clear. I, too, am an independence-loving man, at heart.'

'Heh. Are you sure you aren't just worried about losing your position of influence in the government if Helen gives up her power?'

Garovel paused at that. 'Oh, damn, I didn't even think about that, actually. Shit. Hector wouldn't be a lord anymore, would he? Oh, no, no, we can't have that. You have to refuse, Your Highness.'

The Queen laughed again, a bit harder this time. "I appreciate your enthusiastic support."

'I imagine Hector and all the other lords would be able to retain their titles,' said Mehlsanz. 'They just wouldn't have any legal authority in their regions anymore.'

'That's still unacceptable,' said Garovel. 'I'm power hungry, dammit.'

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Page 2870

A slight smile crossed the Queen's face, and she bobbed her head to the side. "Oh, I don't know... They DID improve their terms quite a bit after all the publicity Hector garnered for himself in Lorent."

Garovel chortled. 'How "improved" are we talking here, exactly?'

"More money," said the Queen. "Another billion troa for each of the great houses, to be precise. Plus, another ten billion on top of that for building new schools around the country. And two additional representatives in the Intarian Congress, as well as four additional electors in their Holy Imperial Council."

'Ooh,' cooed Garovel.

Holy Imperial Council? That name confused Hector, and it must've shown on his face, because the Queen offered an explanation.

"The Holy Imperial Council is how they choose their presidents. The territories each vote, and then the Council decides the winner based on a point-value system attributed to each territory before each election. More electors on the Council would mean that our people's votes matter more."

Huh. That sounded a little complicated, but he felt like he understood. It still left him wondering something, though. "Why do they call it the Holy Imperial Council? Isn't that kinda... weird and medieval-sounding?"

Garovel took the opportunity to jump in. 'Yep. That name is actually a remnant of the Mohssian Empire. Back then, the Holy Imperial Council had tons of power. They handled whatever affairs the emperor didn't feel like taking care of himself--which was usually A LOT. Nowadays, though, its only role is to elect the president. Kind of a traditional thing. The electors don't have any power of their own. They just vote for whoever their territories tell them to.'

'There've been many attempts to change the name,' added Mehlsanz. 'A few times, it even came to a full blown referendum. And it's been close, but in the end, the Intarians have always voted to keep the name the way it is.'

Page 2869

Mehlsanz's skeletal jaw just hung slightly open.

Hector hadn't expected this conversation to turn into such a deluge of compliments. He very much wanted to keep things focused on what was most important, but he wasn't quite sure how to do that. Technically, they weren't really off topic.

'Do you have any useful intel on Bloodeye?' asked Garovel. 'Anything you remember?'

Mehlsanz took a moment to think. 'Um... well, he was similarly infamous, though for slightly different reasons. Where Crowe was renowned for being something of a hero killer, Bloodeye was more renowned for his utter brutality. He doesn't take prisoners. Rumor was, he enjoys killing so much that he even sometimes goes against the orders of his superiors in order to do so.'

'Ah. One of those types.'

'Indeed.'

'What about his powers? Did you hear anything about them? He used some sort of transformational ability. I've never seen the like before. He pulled a freaking missile out of his mouth.'

Mehlsanz just looked bewildered.

The reapers kept talking, but it soon became clear that Mehlsanz couldn't tell them much else about the enemy.

At length, Hector thought up another topic that he wanted to ask the Queen about.

"Your Highness, are you seriously considering Intar's offer of annexation?"

'Oh yeah,' said Garovel. 'I thought you would've made up your mind by now, but the way you were talking about it to Abbas, it sounded like that wasn't the case at all.'

"Ah. Yes, well, that had more to do with my interest in Lord Abbas' perspective than with the offer itself. I felt that telling him about it would be a good way of hearing his earnest thoughts about the nation. Politicians often guard such feelings carefully."

Garovel still wanted clarification, though. 'So you're not really considering the offer, then?'

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Page 2868

'Hector killed him,' Garovel repeated. 'I watched it happen. It was pretty crazy and--if the Queen will excuse my language--fucking awesome as hell. Rarely have I ever been so pleased with the outcome of a battle.'

The Queen seemed surprised, but it was Mehlsanz who looked the most shocked by far.

'I don't...' She stared at Hector directly. 'H-how...? The Man of Crows... is incredibly dangerous.'

'Was,' said Garovel.

'You really killed him? Permanently?'

The intensity of her reaction was making him feel a little awkward again. He managed to give her a nod, though.

'Albert Crowe was an infamous killer of rising stars in the Vanguard. I personally knew three good servant-reaper pairs who died at his hands. I never encountered him myself, but from everything I heard during my time with the Vanguard, the man was an absolute menace to deal with. And now you're telling me he's dead at your hands? I... I don't...'

Hector felt the need to clarify. "I-it was just a lucky shot, honestly. His reaper picked the wrong moment to escape and gave me an opening to land a killing blow. And Lord Abbas beat the crap out of him beforehand, so he wasn't at full strength or anything. So, er, I just, uh--"

'He's being modest,' said Garovel. 'Not only did he kill the Man of Crows, he saved Abbas' life, too. Scored a lot of points with Hahl Saqqaf as a result, I think. They were singing his praises at Warrenhold.'

'I don't believe what I'm hearing,' said Mehlsanz. Her tone was on the brink of laughter. 'That's... phenomenal.'

'Yes, it is,' said Garovel. 'But it also probably pissed off Abolish quite a bit. There's a solid chance that Bloodeye will come looking for a rematch.'

'You fought Bloodeye, too?!'

'Oh yeah. Very strange powers on that guy. No idea what was going on there. Abbas still kicked the shit out of him, though.'

Page 2867

That was a fair point, Hector supposed. But he wasn't quite satisfied yet. "Alright. Then... what if Morgunov were to say that handing them over wasn't necessary? That we just had to not provide refuge for them, instead?"

The Queen sighed. "Are you just trying to think of how best to paint me into a corner?"

Hector relinquished a sympathetic smile. "Kinda."

She dropped her gaze down to the table and stared at it while she thought. And she kept staring.

Mehlsanz decided to chime in. 'Either way, it would be a major crisis. You can't take Morgunov at his word. Especially after what his men did to this country before.'

The Queen was still thinking, though. Perhaps even she didn't know what she would do in that situation.

Hector kept waiting for an answer, but the silence was growing rather extreme, and he began to feel like he was torturing her. "...Well, on the bright side, I don't actually think that Morgunov is going to show up around here anytime soon."

That made her look up at him again. "I agree, but why do you sound so confident?"

Now there was a sentence he'd never expected to hear. "Ah... I think Morgunov has already gotten what he wanted out of Sair. I kinda get the impression that he's more interested in his... er, 'scientific' experiments, now." Torturing Asad Najir, specifically, but Hector didn't feel like that gruesome little detail was necessary to mention here. The Queen had enough on her mind already, he felt.

"I see," she said with trepidation. "You think he will be preoccupied for a while, then?"

"Morgunov himself, yeah. His goons, maybe not so much. I, uh... er..."

Garovel stepped in now. 'Hector killed the Man of Crows two days ago.'

Mehlsanz's hollow eye sockets bulged. 'He did WHAT?!'

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Page 2866

Fortunately, Hector had already been thinking about the answer to that for a while now, himself. "Well, it would depend on the circumstances of the attack, but... probably, yeah. Especially now that I have the Forge to worry about."

The Queen kept her gaze fixed on him. "And if I were to order you to not get involved, would you listen to me?"

He took a deliberate breath. He'd been thinking about that question, too. And frankly, he didn't have a good answer yet. "Why would you order me not to get involved?"

"Perhaps to prevent Atreya from getting swept up in this war. Perhaps to prevent you from becoming a political pawn of a foreign nation. Perhaps simply because I feel you are needed more at home. Would my reasoning matter? Hypothetically speaking, this would be a lawful order from your queen, Hector."

Agh. Shit. He needed to choose his words carefully here. "Well... we both want to protect Atreya. But I don't think letting Lorent get invaded, especially by Abolish, would help keep Atreya safe, no matter what kind of promises they might make to you."

The Queen fell quiet. Maybe that hadn't been what she wanted to hear. Or maybe she was just thinking. Her expression was stone.

Hector found a difficult question of his own to ask. "If Morgunov found out the Sandlords were here... and if he made you the same offer that he made to Callum, that he wouldn't invade so long as you handed them over to him, would you take it?"

The Queen took her time responding to that one. "...No, I would not."

Hector had kind of expected that response, yet he still found it a little surprising, somehow. "You'd really risk antagonizing the Mad Demon?"

"It would antagonize the Sandlords first and foremost," she said. "And frankly speaking, I do not think we would be able to capture Abbas Saqqaf and 'hand him over' to anyone."

Page 2865

'That is very true,' said Worwal. 'Our Hahl is still intact. We have wonderful allies. And hope. I've seen times when all we had was the latter. And even that was debatable.'

Abbas made no response, but the expression on his face seemed to soften a little.

Maybe it felt a little weird for him to receive consolation from someone who was so much younger than him. Over an entire century.

Hector had to wonder what that was like. Perhaps he had it all wrong. Perhaps after living as a servant for that long, Abbas had reached a point where age just stopped mattering to him altogether. In a way, that would make sense. Worrying over age differences all the time did seem like it would get a little exhausting after a while, especially if you don't have many peers left in your own age group.

That might explain why Lord Abbas never seemed to talk down to him, despite how young he was.

Or wait, did that explain that? Come to think of it, Hector wasn't actually sure how old Abbas thought he was.

He... he wasn't under the impression that Hector was super old, right? Asad probably mentioned it to him at some point, right?

Unfortunately, the more he let those questions stew in a background thought process, the more Hector came to realize that there was no good way to ask them.

After their meeting, Abbas and Worwal departed first, taking the vehicle and their accompanying entourage back towards the Forge and Atreya. Hector intended to stay in Lorent with the Queen and fly back with her.

And he was finally able to speak with her alone.

Somehow, it felt like ages since they had last been able to do this.

The Queen must have been waiting for this opportunity, too, because she didn't waste time with softball questions. "If Lorent is attacked, do you intend to fight in its defense?"

Monday, December 21, 2020

Page 2864

Second of all, he'd kinda been under the impression that she'd already decided not to accept Intar's offer. With how well the economy seemed to be recovering, it probably wasn't necessary anymore, right?

Then again, he wasn't an economist. And with how distracted he'd been lately, he was sure that the Queen had a much better grasp on that whole situation right now than he did. So if she was still considering it as an option, then maybe the recovery wasn't going quite as well he'd thought.

Or maybe there was some other factor he didn't know about.

Whatever the case, Abbas ended up advising her against taking the offer, though he admitted to harboring significant bias.

"It is nothing against Intar, mind you," he clarified. "At heart, I am simply an independence-loving man. My family instilled that in me at a very young age, and I do not think it is ever going to change. Nor would I wish it to."

The Queen's smile was a soft one. "The Sandlords of Sair declared independence from Calthos two hundred years ago, yes?"

'It was actually closer to three hundred,' said Worwal, 'but Sair wasn't officially recognized as a nation until about two hundred and twenty years ago, yeah.'

The Queen nodded while keeping her eyes on the Sunsmith. "And you yourself are... how old, Lord Abbas?"

"One hundred and fifty-four."

"Goodness."

"My parents were among the founders." His eyes dropped to the table. He fell quiet.

Hector didn't need him to say more in order to guess what was going through his head, right now. The guy had personally lived through the majority of Sair's lifespan as a nation. And it was directly threatened.

"...Sair may still be relatively young," said the Queen, "but that region is not. And your people are not. I may not be quite the student of history that my husband is, but as I recall, your kin have survived far worse than this."

Page 2863 -- CCLII.

If that rumor was true--and Caster was inclined to believe that it was--then Paulie probably wasn't being toyed with by some psychic. Which was perhaps a shame. Caster might've liked to learn more about psychic powers. It was doubtful that someone like him would be able to add such a thing to his repertoire, but it could be worth trying.

They were always talking about honing other skills, after all. He would've appreciated the opportunity, at least.

In any case, Paulie was probably just going mad. Or rather, more mad than he already was.

But that was fine. Caster wasn't the type to discriminate based on such things. Some of the best friends he'd ever known had been madmen. Before they'd gotten themselves killed. Or released. Or tried to kill him.

Caster could at least humor the lad. "Has this voice ever identified itself to you?" he asked.

"Yeah," said Paulie, "though, uh..." He leaned and lowered his voice to a whisper. "I'm not entirely sure I believe it."

Right. Caster had seen this behavior before, too. Trying to speak quietly so that the voices don't "overhear." Worried about how they'll react to what's being said.

Yep. Definitely madness.

"Go on," Caster urged, lowering his voice as well. "I won't tell anyone."

"Well, the voice says... it's a god."

"...I see. And does this god have a name?"

Paulie glanced around at the annihilated town. "Malast."


Chapter Two Hundred Fifty-Two: 'O, illuminating path...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

The meeting between Queen Helen and Lord Abbas lasted for quite a while longer. They discussed various possibilities and intentions for the future. The Queen was even so bold as to bring up the issue of Intar's offer to annex Atreya, apparently wanting Abbas' opinion on the matter.

Hector found that quite surprising, for a couple of reasons. It was incredibly sensitive information, first of all. If her political opponents or the Atreyan public caught wind of the offer, it probably wouldn't be good for her. The fact that she was trusting Abbas with such details--that alone spoke volumes to Hector about her feelings toward the Sandlords.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Page 2862

"Promise you won't tell anyone what I'm about to say?" said Paulie.

Absolutely not, but Caster had no qualms about lying. "Of course. If that's what you want."

"I... I've been hearing voices, lately," said Paulie. "Well. Just the one voice, I suppose. But it's in my head. When no one else is around. And it keeps telling me things. Whispering. It tells me to look harder at my ability. At our ability. It says there's more to be found."

Hmm.

Alright, well, that was a new one, at least.

Oddly enough, though, Caster still wasn't all that surprised. While it was true he hadn't heard this particular excuse before, it also wasn't terribly uncommon for people to be hearing voices in their head.

This was Abolish.

Half of them were insane. And the other half were also insane, if for no other reason than because they were willing to work with the first half.

And Caster worked, primarily, with that first half. He'd encountered many, many people in his life who claimed to be hearing voices in their heads. He recalled one gentleman who'd had his mind blown when he discovered that those voice were, in fact, his very own thoughts.

Caster had never had a particularly strong sense humor, but that had made him laugh.

He could recall other examples, however, which were not nearly so amusing. Old tales, mostly. Of psychics. People who loved to toy with vulnerable young minds, twist them to their will, plant ideas in their heads, or simply break them for no other reason than to prove that they could.

He hadn't heard stories like that in ages, though. Over half a century, at least. It was rumored that one of them had bitten off more than they could chew by trying to manipulate the Mad Demon and that in response, Morguonv had rendered their kind extinct.

Page 2861

Paulie, however, was not from his sect. So it was bit strange when the lad caught up to him on his way back to camp and struck up a conversation.

It started off with awkward pleasantries mixed with apologies. The boy seemed to be trying to figure out if Caster was upset with him for questioning Morgunov's genius.

He was.

But he also wasn't going to let that show. Trivial things were for trivial people. Until they were repeated and grew into non-trivial things.

Either way, Caster was ready to move past it, for now. "What do you want, Paulie?" he said.

"Ah, er, I just wanted to talk to you privately," said Paulie. "It's just, like, I know those other guys mean well 'n all, but I don't think they get it. They've given up, and they won't be happy until I do the same."

That wasn't it at all, Caster thought. They weren't concerned with their own happiness. They were trying to preserve what was left of Paulie's. The kid probably wouldn't be able to see that, no matter what anyone said to him, though.

Such was youth.

Caster kept those thoughts to himself. The boy had obviously come to him because he was looking for someone who wouldn't try to rain on his parade. It was a little obnoxious, but Caster supposed he could at least hear him out. There was still quite a long stretch of ruined town ahead of them, so there wasn't much harm in filling it with a pointless conversation.

And besides, the slow, grueling march of time would do plenty of enthusiasm-crushing without any help from himself, Caster felt.

"You were quieter than them," said Paulie. "I thought maybe you were... of a different mind, I guess. More open, y'know?"

"Open to what, precisely?"

"Possibilities. Listen, I... I've been... uh..."

Caster gave him a look, just waiting. Honestly, he already knew everything Paulie might say. But why was the kid getting so hesitant all of a sudden? Nerves? Paulie had never struck him as a nervous speaker.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Page 2860

Caster kept a cool head, though. "Let us call it a day, shall we? Good discussions, everyone." Best to end things here before Paulie stuck his foot in his mouth again and got himself killed.

Caster stood up, and the others all gradually followed suit. There was nowhere to put their folding chairs, so they mostly just picked them up or left them where they were.

In the middle of this blown out gymnasium.

The missing roof, broken floor, shattered windows, and crumbling walls did not provide the most comforting atmosphere in the world, perhaps. But privacy was more important, and abandoned areas like this were great for that.

And of course, they were not normal men. They were not comforted by pristine surroundings. At the end of the day, despite their status as outliers, they were still men of destruction. Perhaps there was something soothing in this type of environment.

The beautiful calm of a devastated world.

Artful, Caster felt. More so than any painting, certainly.

They all went their separate ways. Those who belonged to the same sect probably didn't want to be seen returning to camp together. It would just draw needless attention to themselves.

Caster, for his part, didn't care so much about that anymore. He always had men in his sect or others hanging around him for one reason or another. Such was the life of a Judicator. People were always looking for someone to pass judgment for them on this dispute or that one.

Lately, he'd been swamped by arguing Raiders, all looking for someone to decide who got what spoils from the war. Killing each other over and over didn't accomplish much when they were in disagreement, especially when their reapers refused to risk their own lives getting involved. So they relied on the Judicators to sort everything out. Sometimes, violently. But always decisively.