Friday, May 7, 2021

Page 3177

As he hung there in the air, smoky wings flapping, Banda wasn't sure what to do, anymore.

Fear was not something that he had felt in many, many years, but the uncertainty in this situation was honestly terrifying. Banda had just celebrated his 141st birthday, and Grigozo was well over a thousand, but here and now? They felt like nothing more than ignorant children. Even with their blended minds working the problem together, it made no difference.

Ah, but no. The fear was mostly coming from Grigozo's end, wasn't it? Of course. That only made sense. Reapers tended to act far more courageous than they actually were. Deep down, most of them were cowards, Banda knew. The only reason they managed to keep their facades up as well as they did was because of their immense levels knowledge and experience.

When they encountered something truly unknown, however--that was when their true characters revealed themselves.

Agh. What a damn hassle. Grigozo's mind was already a big enough pain in the ass without an infection of crippling terror.

He looked over the glimmering towers another time. He needed to think clearly.

At this point, it was beyond obvious that the mission was a failure. They had yet to gather any intel about Warrenhold's layout. And Darksteel himself was down there, just waiting for him to make a move. To overextend. To make a mistake.

No.

The intelligent thing to do now was to pull back and report the failure. It would sting, of course, and he'd no doubt have to deal with all sorts of shit from his more insufferable peers, but that was the correct move.

Because then they could prepare for a real fight. Not whatever this mess had turned into.

Page 3176

To Banda's mind, there were only two people who could have an aura like that. Either Darksteel or the Sunsmith. One of them was already here, he realized.

And from all reports, the Sunsmith was a very aggressive combatant, flying around in a suit of mechanized armor and attacking head on. This aura did not seem fitting to him. Darksteel, on the other hand, still had a general air of mystery surrounding him among Abolish's reports. Plus, there were the deadly traps that his men had succumbed to, as well.

This ominous aura had to be Darksteel, Banda thought. It just made more sense.

The most unsettling thing, however, was how the damned souls within him were reacting. Their thrashing and screaming stopped almost entirely. Their sudden unease was palpable. It was if they had been nothing more than rowdy children at a dinner table, now becalmed and obediently eating upon the arrival of their stern father.

Madness.

These were tormented souls trapped within Chaos itself--the vicious embodiment of endless suffering. Malice incarnate, literally.

Or so he'd come to believe.

Why would they suddenly begin behaving this way? Was his understanding of these damned souls mistaken? Was there more to them than Lozaro had said?

In midair, Banda found himself hesitating.

What in the world was going on here? Darksteel was down there. Somewhere. Why wasn't he attacking? Even the lazy assaults from his puppets had ceased, Banda realized.

Yes, it had to be Darksteel, didn't it? He was more sure than ever, now. The Sunsmith wouldn't be pulling this shit, surely. Booby traps and mind games. Using Sparrows and auras to mess with their heads.

Was it all an illusion? Even the way the souls within him were reacting? Impossible.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Page 3175

The entire area morphed within his mind. The auras filling the area, bumping into one another, clashing, blending, interacting with one another in countless indescribable ways.

And sure enough, there the Sparrow was. A blurry blob soaring through the air. Not even that far away, really. At this distance, if he just lunged for it at full speed, he might be able to catch the bird before it realized what was going on. That would be important. Sparrows were damned fast fliers, after all. This might turn into an obnoxious chase if he didn't end it straight away.

As he was about to make his move, however, his mementori shuddered. He sensed something down below, concealed among the metal towers.

A terrible aura.

What in the fuck was that?

Its form was certainly different from all the other auras in the area. It wasn't another wrobel. In fact, it kept following the bird, tracing the path with its own.

And it was reaching up toward him, too. Spiking up toward him, even. Poking holes into Banda's own aura like a rapier through wool.

One spike reached all the way to his body and pierced his chest. It didn't hurt, of course. It was just an aura.

But he definitely still felt something. The intent behind it. The underlying mind.

It was the presence of a courteous demon. Threatening him gently yet darkly. Wrapping its amorphous hands around his beating heart and squeezing ever so slightly. Just enough to let him know. What he would be facing. If he chose to proceed.

Never had he felt the like before.

Since acquiring mementori, Banda had experienced several overwhelming auras before. Among allies, there was Bloodeye, Lozaro, Jercash, Morgunov, and Dozer. Among enemies, the Surgeon Saint, Vernon, Kane, and Grant.

This was different from all of those. And yet frighteningly similar, also.

Page 3174

The trouble was, a skilled wrobel might still be able to conceal itself even from mementori, especially if it had experience fighting other wrobels.

But it wouldn't be quite so clear cut as with the other senses, either. With those, Sparrows had an indisputable advantage so long as they realized what senses needed to be blocked. Why they didn't simply block all senses all the time, he couldn't rightly say. Perhaps it was more taxing for them. Whatever the case, mementori was at least contestable for him. Even if the wrobel realized what he was doing and tried to block him, he would be able to fight back.

Because aura was everywhere. In all things. Around them. And complicated still further by time. The bird could try to conceal itself within one aura, but the disappearance from its memory would leave a noticeable trail. And plus, one aura would in turn impact those around it. The auras of the trees. Animals. Even in the atmosphere itself.

The cascading ripple effect would be difficult, if not impossible, to fully hide. Only the most powerful wrobels in history would be able to accomplish such a feat without flaw.

According to Grigozo's memories, that was. Banda hoped the reaper wasn't wrong about that as he took the plunge and activated mementori.

Immediately, his body began to burn. A consuming flame over the entirety of his being. Damned souls trying to tear his flesh apart from the inside, to claw their way to freedom, to seize his conduit away from his mind.

He suppressed them with vitriol. Raw anger. Old and long-tempered. Burning hotter than any of those wretched fools could. It required all of his and Grigozo's concentration. One had to maintain mementori, and the other had to remain aware of the environment around them, of the unfolding battle.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Page 3173

He looked back toward the stupid lackeys that he'd brought. They weren't just a bunch of good-for-nothings. Well, okay, yes, they were. But on this occasion, it wasn't entirely their fault, at least. The Sparrow had gotten to them.

And he knew from Grigozo's own experiences that a Sparrow was capable of so much more.

He needed to neutralize that threat right now. In all likelihood, the Sparrow was trying to remain hidden despite involving itself in the battle, so it probably didn't yet realize that he knew it was here. Clearly, it didn't know that he could detect it by smell, else it would have undoubtedly blocked his mind from registering that little bit of information.

That was how their psychic powers worked. Direct mental manipulation to prevent all forms of detection.

Utter bastards.

He inhaled deeply through his giant, reptilian nostrils, searching for a direction. Yes. To his left. Far below. Somewhere among those annoying metal towers with their blinding glare from the late afternoon sun.

He moved in closer, avoiding more metal assaults with ease, letting them phase through his smokey form as he kept sniffing the air.

Ah. The bird was moving, wasn't it? Trying to keep its distance from him now. Did it think he was onto it? No, probably not. His sense of smell hadn't been blocked. If it realized, the bird would be able to disappear entirely.

Unless, that was, he resorted to an entirely different sense. One born of Chaos. One that was too dangerous to use all the time, because it came with the unfortunate effect of empowering the damned souls clawing at him from within.

Lozaro called this sense "mementori." It was, in short, the ability to detect auras--and with greater levels of aptitude, to decipher the memories hidden therein.

Page 3172

Regardless, a wrobel was a major problem.

He hadn't thought about them in many, many years. Or Grigozo hadn't, rather. But that smell. It brought everything back in an instant.

With the benefit of hindsight, Grigozo's encounter with wrobels had been a supremely rare event. It certainly hadn't felt that way at the time, though.

Being enslaved by them for half a century had left quite the lasting impression on the reaper. As a young, still-living man, Grigozo had been pulled from his family and into their thralldom. For years, the Sparrows used him for all manner of errands. Cooking for them. Washing their feathers. Cleaning up after them. Fetching items for them. Lying for them. Helping them hide from the rest of the world.

A hellish existence, with only fleeting moments of freedom here and there. Little glimpses of himself as he once was. Able to control his own body for a few precious minutes. Only to have it all ripped away from him again when the Sparrows realized their slip up.

In the end, Grigozo finally used one of those fleeting moments to stab himself in the heart with a kitchen knife.

He'd thought his nightmare done. And yet, it wasn't the end at all. Because he revived as a reaper. And his slavery continued, though the wrobels had to find new uses for him.

It wasn't until the eldest Sparrow in the nest eventually died of old age that Grigozo found his opportunity to truly escape. He fled into the ground. Down and down and down. All the way into the Undercrust.

Those memories came readily into Banda's mind, needing little to no time for him to process them. More than anything, they were instincts now. Emotions more than ideas.

And everything made sense.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Page 3171

Better to stop screwing around, then. He had to concentrate hard in order to bring Grigozo's mind under control.

Another iron assault arrived, and Banda decided to avoid this one instead of trying to devour it. As much as he like adding materials to the brew, that last meal had been a bit too spicy for his tastes.

His powerful wings allowed him a magnificent degree of control in the air, and the ability to become one with his own smoke made attacks trivial to dodge. If he couldn't get out of the way, he could instead just let it pass right through him.

Moreover, the smoke would make it easy to infiltrate the castle and have a quick look around. It would've helped even more if Grigozo's reaper senses could give him some advanced warning of what was down there, but unsurprisingly, the place was guarded against that. No doubt, Darksteel had someone constantly reinfusing it with soul power, assuming he wasn't doing it himself.

He just had to find the way in.

What the hell was up with these aboveground structures, anyway? If he hadn't been told ahead of time that Warrenhold was an underground castle, he probably would've mistaken these things for the main location.

Ah, but wait. There it was again. That smell. Old and familiar. With regard to whose memory, though? Banda's or Grigozo's?

Well, it must've been Banda's, of course. Grigozo was a reaper. He hadn't smelled anything in millennia. It was silly to even humor--

Banda stopped in midair, his slit-eyes widening suddenly as the realization struck him.

No. It was Grigozo's memory.

Of a wrobel.

He smelled a wrobel.

Madness. If he hadn't been using both pan-rozum and his Chaos form at the same time, he never would've picked up on it. Access to Grigozo's memories was necessary, as was this monstrous sense of smell from his elongated snout.

Page 3170

Yes. The sensations of this form were what he loved best about it. The deluge of extra information. And the malleability of those senses, too.

His sense of smell, for instance.

He may have primarily based his Chaos form on various different pterosaurs, which had not, in fact, had very good senses of smell, but he had been able to fix that little problem by borrowing additional information from the good ol' Tyrannosaurus Rex.

His form wasn't perfect, of course. That was only natural. It involved Chaos, after all. And it was still quite new to him, besides. The melting, distended shapes that emerged from within this body were to be expected. Reaching through Eleg's memory in order to distort reality was no minor feat. It had its consequences.

And Banda could feel them. The anguished souls of this world, lost and forgotten within the infinite river of Chaos. Within the Void. He could feel how badly they longed to seize this body from him, how badly they longed to be free.

Ahaha. Pathetic ants. They deserved all their misery and more. Every soul did. And they knew they deserved it, too. They had to know. The idea of innocence? A farce. Denial. Nothing more than insects trying to take comfort in their own inadequacy, to ignore their failures out of some misguided conception of "fairness."

To him, therefore, their torment did not feel like torment at all. It felt like joy beyond measure. This form, Lozaro's discovery, was an affirmation of everything Banda had already believed to be true in this world. He might just have to thank the crazy bastard the next time he visited Jercash.

Ugh. Banda supposed he should concentrate on the fight. Grigozo's half of the mind wanted to be flighty and relaxed, but they were wasting time. And this Darksteel bastard was clearly quite dangerous, wherever he was. If he actually showed up in person instead of letting his puppets do his dirty work for him, Banda might be in trouble.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Page 3169

Another chunk of metal came for him, and he caught this one, too. How silly. It tried to grow spikes and skewer him, but they just broke against his scales like sticks against stone. He devoured the metal. More for the brew, as ever.

What was this metal, anyway? Hmm. Tasted like. Iron? Yeah. Iron. Very flat. Could use some spice. Oh well, though. Everything was appreciated.

But what to do next? Hmm, hmm. Just flying around up here was so much fun.

Ah, he was becoming lethargic. This form. And pan-rozum. Together, they had strange effects on him. Made his mind wander a bit. Probably Grigozo's fault, really. The dumb fuck.

What was he doing?

Oh yeah, the mission. Dammit, this was just supposed to be scouting, and now he was fighting. Well, fighting was better in its own way, he supposed. Nothing to get too upset about.

He just needed to make his way inside the stupid underground castle, then report back on its layout. That was all. Simple, eh? Entrance was a bit difficult to find, though. What was that down there? A fucking maze?

Agh.

Hey, wait a minute. What was that smell?

His nostrils flared as he sniffed. Again and again. A familiar scent. Old and familiar. Hmm?

Ah, another chunk of metal. He caught it in his mouth. Oh, a big one. This would make a nice addition to--

It exploded into molten iron and splashed all over him.

Agh, fuck! It burned!

He spiraled through the air, trying to fling it off of him with an accelerating spin. An unintended whirlwind whipped up around him. Messy. Molten goo flying everywhere.

No, no, he just needed to focus on the cold. That was the correct way to handle this. Mind over matter. It would fill his body with icy goodness and battle the searing pain for him.

Yes. Yes, that was better.

Mmm, soothing. Hot and cold together. Nice and even. Complementary. A treat for the senses. Ahhh.

Page 3168

Banda breathed deep. He inhaled and inhaled and inhaled and still kept inhaling. More air than was ever physically possible. His lungs bulged. His belly bulged. His entire body bloated up. And then he devoured it all.

More ingredients for the brew. Always good to collect. Never knew when it might come in handy. Especially for transfiguration.

That was the trouble with their kind, with transfigurers. They were limited by their own bodies. Never could bring their elements to the fullest use, since they didn't have access to everything that the elements could do.

Or so the tale had been spun.

For how long? Banda didn't know. Hardly mattered. But it made them underestimated. Which was good.

Sometimes. Not always. Because it also made them undervalued. Underappreciated.

Not by Bloodeye, though. And not by Jercash. They understood. They had the vision that others lacked.

Banda reached deep within, searching for something to use. That enormous air bubble that he'd just put in there could be combined with all manner of things. He could take a sliver of it right now, in fact, combine it with his osmium, and create a nice, classic mixture of osmium tetroxide. A staple of his arsenal since youth.

But made so much more potent in this form.

The leverage that this body granted him over his creations was so, so good. Anything he wanted, anything he could dream up--where was the limit? Hard to say, really.

He could strengthen or weaken bonds. He could enhance or slacken reactivity. He could increase or decrease density, even.

The laws of physics? They could suck a fat one.

And he just felt so... powerful. So strong. As if nothing in this world could stop him.

Finally. He could be free. To just enjoy himself.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Page 3167

Look at those dumb shits, just standing there like morons. What kind of men had Bloodeye chosen for--?

A chunk of metal, bigger than any of the previous ones, clobbered Banda in the face, sending him tumbling back in the air.

Agh, motherfucker. This shit was ridiculous. He so badly wanted to just cut his losses and leave already.

But he knew that if he reported back without having even set foot in this stupid fucking underground castle, then Roy would throw a goddamn hissy fit. Plus, he'd never hear the end of it, having lost so many men already.

He should've just ignored orders and come alone.

Another chunk of metal arrived, but this time, Banda was ready. He caught it in his massive jaw and gulped it down like so much popcorn. It didn't matter if it was materialized or not. It didn't even mater if the materializer was on the field. Once it entered his belly, it was his forever.

Another ingredient for the brew. They could always use more ingredients.

He still wasn't entirely accustomed to this form, truth be told. These scaly bodies with shifting flesh and fluctuating temperatures--they were difficult to control. It sometimes felt like it had a mind all its own, like it wanted to rebel against him.

He loved it, though.

The name Raptor truly fit him now. He wondered if he might be able to make it spawn some feathers for him, one day. These kinds of dinosaurs were supposed to have feathers, weren't they? And thanks to his smoke form in pan-rozum, he could already fly, so it only seemed appropriate.

Agh, that was the reaper half of his mind talking. Always far too pleased with himself. With everything. Really knew how to enjoy life, that one. Good for Grigozo. The dumb fuck.

Page 3166 -- CCLXX.

Hector decided to annihilate a bit more of his decoy castle on the opposite side to which the battle was taking place. With even more of his volume limit freed up, he could go to work on more golems. Instead of trying to make three at a time, he tried to make five.

And he succeeded. Soon enough, he had constant suppressing fire on the remaining three Abolishers, which became quickly became two.

At length, however, Banda had apparently had enough.

Bright flames engulfed the horizon with an explosive force that shook the earth and made the decoy castle quiver. The iron wall in front Hector shuddered visibly, and Hector's hearing was gone. He felt Garovel's hand grab his shoulder and the regenerative vigor course through him in that familiar way.

He had to text Pauline again, even while he reached out with the Scarf to try and sense what what remained of the battlefield.
fumes r toxic
He didn't really know how deadly Banda's osmium could be, but he certainly didn't want her to get caught up in it accidentally.

When he sensed Banda again, however, the man was different. No longer smoke, no longer man.

Indeed, just as Hector had feared, they were facing another monster.


Chapter Two Hundred Seventy: 'The Raptor of Kortan...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Banda was sick and tired of this shit. This was supposed to be an easy job. Simple reconnaissance. Go in with Invisibility, report back on what they found. All the men that Roy had foisted upon him? An unnecessary precaution, Banda had said. They'd only slow him down anyway, Banda had said. If anything, they'd just make the job more difficult, Banda had said.

And lo-and-fucking-behold, the situation had now devolved into a total clusterfuck.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Page 3165

Given the man's age, that would probably be bad enough to deal with on its own, but considering what happened with Bloodeye's weird transforming powers, Hector had to expect some kind of nasty surprise with this guy, too.

An enormous smokescreen filled the area around Banda, a tactic that the man probably didn't realize would not help him against the Scarf of Amordiin. Hector could still sense the man's location within it just fine.

So Hector riddled him with holes. Or tried to, at least. They didn't entirely take, instead getting stuck partway through his body and oozing out molten iron like blood.

Still, that had probably surprised him. And perhaps Banda learned a lesson from it, too, because he vanished into his own smoke. Becoming his own smoke, Hector realized. Just like he had watched Xuan Sebolt do with the power of pan-rozum.

Only three of Banda's men were still moving, the rest having been caught by Pauline. They were going after the golems and getting quite close. Hector had no way of knowing who they were or how dangerously their abilities might be, but it didn't entirely matter, because the golems still shredded one of them to pieces before being brought down.

And by then, the golem that Banda had destroyed was already regrown and revving up more molten cubes. He started regenerating the downed two, in new locations this time, spread farther out.

All things considered, Hector didn't mind this state of affairs too much. Banda was definitely going to be a problem, but they'd whittled his forces down from twenty-seven to three, including Banda himself. And the bastards were stuck playing a deadly game of whack-a-mole that was clearly not in their favor.

Page 3164

Banda just stood there, staring, as did all his men.

A part of Hector wanted to walk out there and ask them what they were thinking, maybe try to add to the intimidation factor by showing up in person. But no. This was fine. The longer they waited, the more time Abbas would have to get here.

Then everything happened very quickly.

A glob of something hawked up through Banda's throat, and the man spat it out at the nearest golem with the force of a cannon. The flaming phlegm hit dead on and melted through the iron as if it were butter, but Hector still managed to launch three of the orbiting cubes from before the golem collapsed.

And from the other two, Hector launched everything at once, riddling the enemy group full of explosive holes.

The field instantly erupted into chaos. The thirteen enemy combatants scattered--or tried to, until half or more of them suddenly stopped moving. Frozen in place my a psychic assault from Pauline, as expected.

Hector was locked on the aberration, though. Banda had been shielding them with his body, but after that first barrage, the man had abandoned the effort, perhaps deciding that the Invisibility was not worth it since it clearly had not worked as intended.

The aberration went down immediately, torn to shred just as expected. And the Invisibility shattered.

Still, however, Hector motioned for everyone behind to stay. They could join the fight at any moment now, but he didn't want them to be put at risk until it was clearly necessary. He still had two golems remaining, and he was working on remaking the third.

Hector knew from Hahl Saqqaf's intel that Banda had the power of osmium transfiguration, capable of creating highly toxic and flammable compounds.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Page 3163

He put an end to the "alarm" system that he'd been using with the little clumps of metal, and silence finally returned. Banda and his men took notice, pausing at the sudden change.

Hector made the three golems' heads snap-turn in unison--dematerializing then rematerializing in an instant. Little cubes full of molten iron began orbiting around their bodies, readying themselves to be launched.

Banda's group hesitated again, watching the golems for a long moment.

Perhaps Banda could tell that this wasn't an empty threat now. Even if the man didn't exactly know what he was looking at, the intent had to be quite clear, no?

Controlling the orbiting cubes at a distance was certainly more difficult than just making them orbit around his own body, but it helped that the golems were immobile. And that the cubes were small. They wouldn't pack nearly as much of a wallop as the most powerful version of this technique, but they would almost certainly be more than enough to shred through that aberration like tissue paper. And with the thinned crowd, Hector had a pretty good lock on the aberration's location.

If Banda still felt bold enough to keeping walking forward, Hector would fire off a warning shot.

And wouldn't ya know it, Banda did exactly that.

At that first step, Hector fired off a molten cube right in front of Banda's face, exploding the rocky ground a few short meters away from the man.

Banda turned toward the sight of the explosion, perhaps to assess the damage done as the cloud of dust dissipated, then looked toward the golem that had fired the shot.

Hector made the missing cube regenerate as Banda watched.

And for a long time, no one moved.

Page 3162

Another one of the Abolishers bolted. Banda was there again to stop them, but two more followed suit this time and managed to break away from the group. Then another two, and another three, and then they were all just scattering.

Hector blinked to himself, hardly able to believe that his plan had actually worked. He could sense them fleeing. Twenty-seven enemy combatants, all running away. Wow.

Except.

Ah.

Not all. A few were returning.

Now Hector understood. Banda had thrown the aberration over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes while trying to keep the others pinned down. He'd probably wanted the aberration to keep as many people invisible as possible before they got too far away. Hector was fairly certain about that much regarding Invisibility, at least. It had a limited range, like a bubble.

Poor Banda. He didn't realize that he was wasting his time. If the guy wasn't an infamous, mass murdering psycho, Hector might've felt a little bad for him.

Banda only managed to round up thirteen others in the end, some by force and some who simply never left his side to begin with.

Hector had to be particularly mindful of those latter ones, he felt. Those men were loyal and unaffected by his intimidation tactics.

But the numbers had been thinned. Thirteen down from twenty-seven. Not bad.

'Banda's pissed,' said Pauline.

Yeah. Hector could guess as much just from his gait. The anger and intent was clear with each decisive step the man took toward Warrenhold. They started circling around the three golems that he'd erected earlier.

Okay. Hector felt like he'd done just about all he could with intimidation alone. There was probably no scaring off this Banda motherfucker. Things were about to get real bad.

But he had had one last tactic in mind.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Page 3161

And since they weren't budging, Hector went ahead and made a second golem. This one, he positioned on the left, close to the aberration. Ideally placed for launch a soul-infused barrage of iron spikes, if need be. Unless the aberration was really powerful--and Hector suspected that it wasn't--that would probably be an instant kill.

The Abolishers took immediate notice of the new golem, and this time, their formation shuddered noticeably. They clumped together a little more, backing slightly away from the second guardian.

Banda, whose aerial outline Hector had made sure memorize, moved through the small crowd and pulled the aberration into the middle.

Hmm. Damn.

Perhaps he'd just given up a valuable opportunity. The aberration would be much harder to kill now.

Bah. He made a third golem, this time on the right.

The group of Abolishers compacted further. They had to realize that they were almost surrounded now. There was only one direction remaining. The direction opposite of Warrenhold.

C'mon, you bastards. Leave. Get the fuck out of here, already.

Hector honestly didn't know if he would be able to win this fight. Conventional wisdom suggested that he stood no chance against someone as old as Banda, but at the same time, he felt like it wouldn't be impossible, either.

And perhaps that dangerous thinking. Perhaps that was the psychological problem of emergence that Garovel had told him about. The slow build up expectation reduced stress and therefore the likelihood of emergence.

Hector tried to remind himself that he had to be exceptionally careful here. His reputation was built on a mountain of lies and half-truths. If he started buying into it himself, that would very likely spell the end of everything.

Page 3160

Were they still hoping that they hadn't been detected? Hector couldn't sense any of their mouths moving, and Pauline wasn't telling him anything new, so they probably weren't talking to each others.

Hmm.

Hector still had some room left with his volume limit. He could probably make another golem. Maybe even two or three more.

He decided to text Pauline again, first.
can u tell me which 1 is the aberration?
Normally, he would've just been able to rely on Garovel for picking aberrations out of a crowd, but that couldn't be done against Invisibility, which rendered them entirely undetectable to reapers.

Hector couldn't recall if he'd ever talked to either Pauline or her father about aberrations before, though. There was a fair chance that she wouldn't have any idea what he was talking about.

'The one on the far left,' she said. 'Can you sense him?'

Ah. Well, that was a relief.

The one on the far left, huh? The Scarf of Amordiin was describing a lanky figure with fluttering hair and a long knife in one hand.

Truth be told, Hector still wasn't entirely sure how Invisibility worked. Did the "shadow" of aberrations like this function in the same way that it did for others? Could they still wield as a weapon? If so, then what was the point of that knife, then?

Regardless, the aberration was the easiest pressure point. If this turned into a fight, he would want to eliminate the Invisibility as quickly as possible in order to help everyone else see the enemy, too.

He still didn't want to strike the first blow yet, though. The ideal scenario here was to make them retreat.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Page 3159

If he could make them believe that an iron puppet really was moving autonomously, as part of some incredibly elaborate reactive trap system, then that might just scare the living crap out of these motherfuckers. And theoretically, he'd be able to launch attacks with it, too, if necessary.

He materialized the puppet right in front of them, wanting its appearance to be obvious. For its design, he didn't have long to dwell on it, so he just based it on something he'd seen once before. A rock golem from the Undercrust. The one that he'd seen fighting a feldeath in Himmekel.

This iron golem wasn't nearly so huge, though. He made about twice the height of an average person, feeling that was more than enough. And he gave it molten globes for eyes, too, so that it would have a glowing, menacing stare.

All in all, it was just a big lump of iron, one that happened to look humanoid, if rather bulky and too tall.

Hector held his breath as he waited for Abolish's reaction. If they realized that it was essentially nothing more than a scarecrow, then this was going to get very messy very quickly.

Hector could sense Roman and the others moving up behind him, all carrying Amir-9s with them. He held a hand without turning around, wanting them to wait. They all seemed to understand.

The Abolishers, meanwhile, still weren't moving. Hector could sense that all their heads were pointed straight at the golem, watching it intently as they were perhaps wondered if it was about to attack them. But they weren't taking the initiative. They weren't attacking it first or backing off, either.

Page 3158

This was good. And also not.

Hector liked knowing that these guys weren'timpervious to fear-based tactics, but at the same time, it seemed like Banda Toro was going to make things difficult.

Hector could scare the hell out of them all day long, but if Banda was there to call his bluff every time, then what difference would it make? Eventually, the rest of them would catch on.

Unless Hector made good on some of this fear.

And perhaps he could do that.

They still didn't know that he could sense them. They didn't even realize that he was up here aboveground. And as Pauline had mentioned, they were worried about a "reactive dust beacon."

To Hector's mind, that could only be something like what he had seen from Leo in the Undercrust. A material that had been imbued with a reaction state. These Abolishers were scared that they had triggered some sort of reaction-state-based alarm system.

Obviously, he didn't know how to use reaction states, as they were an incredibly advanced materialization technique, but these intruders didn't know that. So what if he took that a step further, then?

Couldn't he create some pretty wild shit and disguise it as being part of a reaction state?

He could use the enemy's own battlefield expertise against them.

All those thoughts raced back and forth across multiple processes in his head, and Hector arrived quite quickly at the conclusion that, yeah, he liked that idea. It certainly sounded better than waiting around for them to make the next move.

He'd never had cause to create anything like an iron puppet before. From a purely practical standpoint, it just never made much sense. Anything that the puppet would do, he'd have to think quite hard about in order to accomplish via the rules of materialization in order to give the appearance that it was actually moving autonomously. In normal combat, it was far more efficient to simply launch attacks himself.

This was clearly not normal combat, however.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Page 3157

Better not to kick this hornet's nest unless he absolutely had to. If there was a chance that they could avoid a fight here altogether, then Hector needed to take it.

And to that end, he went with his countdown strategy. He materialized tiny clumps of iron in a wide radius around the Abolishers, letting them fall down and make more noise. He made sure to add little iron platforms below them as well, just to guarantee that the noise was crisp and loud. Wouldn't do if the clumps fell quietly into the dirt or one of Warrenhold's few patches of grass.

It was definitely catching their attention.

The clear, little tinks of metal moved around the group clockwise, drawing their looks each time. And once it made a full revolution, Hector added a second tink to each beat. Then a third. And a fourth.

The shift in their body language was obvious. Many of them were trembling as their heads darted to and fro.

They weren't doing anything about it yet, though.

That was fine. He could keep adding more, keep ramping up the noise. Garovel and the others had no doubt sent word to Abbas already. He might've had the numerical and age disadvantage, but a waiting game was in Hector's favor.

At length, however, after the tenth or so iteration, one of the Abolishers broke formation and bounded away from the group.

He was caught immediately and pinned against the ground by a lanky figure, the one who'd previously been at the front of the party. Was that Banda, Hector wondered?

Judging from the figure's mouth movements, more words were being exchanged, but Hector of course couldn't make out what was being said.

'You've successfully freaked 'em out,' said Pauline. 'Banda is threatening the one that tried to run away.'

Page 3156

They were taking their sweet time before resuming their trek toward the decoy castle.

Hmm. Hector wondered if he might be able to make them paranoid enough to turn around and leave. That was supposed to be an issue with older servants, right? Paranoia.

What was the most unnerving thing he could think of?

Maybe a countdown. A sound like a ticking alarm clock, starting off slow and then getting progressively faster and faster. If they heard that shit, how would these guys react? They were still just standing there, waiting. Ah, no, he could sense their mouths moving, too, as they whispered to each other.

Before he could even ask the question of her, Pauline told him what they were saying.

'They're discussing whether or not they should abort their mission.'

Wait, what? Seriously? Just because of a tiny clattering of metal that they'd just heard?

'They're worried they might have sprung some sort of trap. A tripwire alarm. Or a... a "reactive dust beacon." What the heck does that mean?'

Mm. Hector actually had a pretty good idea what that was, but this wasn't the time to explain it to her. He texted her one more time.
r they saying nything that confirms they r abolish?
'Oh. Uh... no, I don't think so. One of them just called the guy at the front "Banda," though. Does that help?'

It definitely did, and Hector's eyes widened. Banda Toro, the Raptor of Kortan, was one of Bloodeye's top men.

Shit.

Well, that was one problem solved. He almost preferred being uncertain, though.

If Bloodeye himself was 133 years old, then Hector guessed that his top guys would have to be pushing seventy, at least.

No one here at Warrenhold right now was that old. Nere Blackburn might've been the closest. Hector was fairly sure that she was somewhere around fifty. Maybe.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Page 3155

The trespassers were still coming closer. Hector knew he'd have to make a decision sooner rather than later. Were they hostile? Were they not? If he gave them a chance to explain what they were doing here, he'd be giving up the element of surprise, which could lose him the fight. And by extension, all of Warrenhold. And all of Atreya. And Lorent, too, for that matter.

Yeah. Those stakes were a little too high.

Abolish or not, if these people didn't have ill intentions, then they shouldn't have been trying to sneak up on him like this.

Hector inched a bit closer himself without coming out from behind the last iron wall that stood in between himself and them. Technically, there was one more wall but it wasn't iron. It was Warrenhold's original wall, the old and dilapidated one made out of crumbling stone. In fact, once they passed that broken wall, they would officially be too close, Hector decided.

He put a few iron cubes into orbit around himself as he waited for them to cross that arbitrary line. He removed the Amir-10 from his back and fitted it over his left forearm.

It was a bit of a pain to carry the thing around with him all the time since he couldn't materialize it like he could with the Amir-9, but hopefully, he'd get used to having it there.

The first of the trespassers crossed the broken wall, Hector sensed.

Hmm.

Maybe he could test these fuckers before going all out. See how they reacted to a sudden noise behind them. A small clattering of iron pebbles.

Ah. The sound made them all stop and turn to look. The iron was already dematerialized, though. Nothing to see over there, guys.

They didn't immediately attack the noise, at least. That was something. Not much, but something. It meant they were calm. Not jumpy.

Experienced, most likely.

Page 3154

Hmm. Well, even if she only got some of them, it would certainly help to thin their numbers out.

He didn't want to risk responding to her vocally, so he texted her instead.
how many can u get?
'Mmmmm... dunno,' she said. 'Hard to say. Odds are, some of them will be naturally resistant or even immune. And the more I freeze at once, the weaker the effect becomes. Soooo... if I had to guess, then I'd say, maybe... somewhere between ten and twenty?

Holy fuck.

It was a risk, of course. If they became aware of her presence, that could create all sorts of problems. Hector didn't know Abolish's exact policy regarding Sparrows, but Hanton had belabored the general point enough for him to worry about what might happen if word of a Sparrow's nest in Atreya got out into the broader world.

If he allowed Pauline to get involved directly, he would be playing with fire.

But then again, Abolish was on his fucking doorstep. Probably. Technically, there was still a slight chance that these trespassers weren't with Abolish, in which case a lot of people might get hurt for no reason.

Agh.

He supposed he shouldn't play the Sparrow card just yet. He texted her his response.
only do it if they atk me
'Mm, okie dokie.'

In the heat of battle, it would be easier for her to conceal her abilities, Hector felt. Hell, the enemy might even think that he was the one doing it. Human psychics were a thing, too.

Wait, they were? Where had he learned that from?

Eh, didn't matter now.

Hector sensed someone behind him, coming up through the Entry Tower. Was that Joana? He wasn't familiar enough with her spatial outline to tell for certain just by the Scarf alone, but it seemed like her. She had a few others behind her, too. Oh, hey, that was Roman there.

Good.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Page 3153

They were being cautious. They didn't know what to expect.

Hmm. What to do here...?

In all likelihood, this was just a scouting party, maybe not even intending to attack Warrenhold and instead just trying to gather intel and report back. And with twenty-seven enemy combatants, the odds weren't exactly in his favor, either. Plus, if even one of Bloodeye's top guys was in that group, then a straight fight would probably not go well for him, Hector thought.

It might've been best to leave them alone and wait to see if they left of their own volition.

Agh. But they kept getting closer.

Obviously, he couldn't let them get inside Warrenhold and discover how empty it was. That would almost assuredly invite an attack from Bloodeye himself.

But then again, maybe that would be good in its own way, countered a spare thought process. Warrenhold was the most defensible position, after all. If Bloodeye was busy attacking Warrenhold, then he couldn't attack random, helpless citizens in Lorent.

Would it really be that simple, though? And what if these motherfuckers got inside Warrenhold and just started attacking shit instead of leaving to report back?

No.

Definitely couldn't take that risk.

Had to do something about them now. He put a few cubes into orbit around himself as he deliberated. Thanks to the decoy castle, he was already near his volume limit in this area, so if he wanted to do something huge, he'd have to annihilate some of it first. Perhaps small, sneaky attacks would be better here. At least until the enemy knew where he was.

'I could freeze them in their tracks, if you want,' came Pauline's voice again.

That was true, he supposed. Sparrows did have that power, didn't they? Could she really do that to all of them, though?

Page 3152

He reached the bottom of the Entry Tower and blitzed up the stairs, glad to see that every floor was already empty of people. It took a while to reach the top, and he probably could have been moving faster with creative use of materialization, but he wanted to be able to sense everything ahead of him beforehand.

Once he reached the big double doors that led out onto the surface, he stopped. They were still closed, but he didn't need to open them. They weren't airtight, so the Scarf could sense what was on other side just fine.

The area immediately around the entrance seemed to be clear. He concentrated, trying to sense as far away as possible.

Still nothing.

Hmm.

He decided to text Pauline again.
how close r they?
Her response was fast, as usual.
About a hundred meters or so.
Oh. That was pretty far. And with the decoy iron castle up there, he could probably exit the Entry Tower just fine without being detected.

He opened the doors and stepped out, pouring all of his focus into the Scarf. The wind wasn't all that strong, but it helped a little. He could sense the full shape of the decoy castle, small as it was. No one was that close by yet.

'They're east of your position,' came Pauline's telepathic voice.

Ah. She no longer felt the need to text, huh? Hector searched for her with the Scarf and soon found her. She was indeed in her roost, just as she'd said.

That was helpful. She might actually prove invaluable in this situation, Hector thought. Hell, she kinda already had.

He moved east as she said.

When he neared the edge of decoy castle, he began to sense it. A small crowd in the distance, just standing there.

No, wait. Some of them were inching closer.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Page 3151 -- CCLXIX.

Chapter Two Hundred Sixty-Nine: 'O, defending lord...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Hector's brown eyes stuck on the message he took a moment to process what he'd just read.

And then his body was moving. Without even thinking, he was already going somewhere. Where? Strange he had to ask himself that.

The Entry Tower, he realized. The tower that bottle-necked up to the surface.

He needed to warn everyone, though.

'Garovel,' he thought urgently, 'Abolish is already here.'

'What?!'

'I don't know who or how many, but they're here. Make sure everyone is in the Tower of Night.'

'Alright, but--'

Garovel had more questions, of course, none of which Hector had the answers for. He didn't want to just ignore the reaper, though, so he split his focus between that conversation and texting Pauline back.
How many? r u safe?
He waited impatiently for her response as he sprinted across the main courtyard, splitting his focus another time in order to catch whatever the Scarf of Amordiin could tell him about the space directly ahead of him. Empty so far.

He armored up, too. Full plate. Familiar and comfortable.

Her reply arrived.
27. Not including reapers. And yeah, I'm fine. I just got here, but they can't sense me. I'm in my roost. These guys aren't supposed to be here, I take it?
Twenty-fucking-seven? When had they arrived? If they'd been casing the place for a while, then Hector would have sensed them when he was up there earlier.

And if they were using Invisibility, then they must have been trying to be careful.

Goddammit. They were really already here in Atreya? Fuck. Agh. This was no time incredulity. He had to focus on the problem in front of him. Explanations could come later.
prolly abolish. b careful
He didn't know how she managed to have such immaculate grammar when texting, but he wasn't about to try and match her when he had so much other shit to worry about.

Page 3150

That was where his mind was at as he prepping to leave. The current plan was to seal off the Tower of Night as tightly as possible, then make for the Candle and speak to Abbas directly in order to figure out their next move. It was a bit early, but Abbas might have some tools that would come in handy.

Plus, Hahl Saqqaf constituted the majority of their fighting force now, so they would probably want to rethink how everyone was distributed. Having some extra fighters here at Warrenhold would definitely help give Hector peace of mind when heading out to fight on the front line, which would presumably be somewhere in eastern Lorent.

As he'd just about finished packing a bag full of clothes, however, Hector's phone beeped at him. It had taken quite a bit of wizardry on Gina and her team of tech savvy people in order for cell phones to get reception underground like this, but he was quite thankful for it now.

The message was from Pauline Gaolanet. When she'd asked him for his number, he'd been a little surprised that a Sparrow could even use a phone, but apparently, she was quite an active texter. And she didn't take too kindly to it when he was slow to respond, which he almost always was, especially when compared against her speed.

Usually, she sent him weird memes. Or a message about how bored she was. Or a new demand for the "roost" that he was making for her here at Warrenhold. Or just random personal questions.

But none of those were the case this time. Instead, it read:
Hey, there's a bunch of invisible people hanging around outside your castle.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Page 3149

Food and water weren't concerns, either. Hector had been worried about the possibility of an attack ever since news of the war first broke, so he'd of course tasked Ms. Rogers with ensuring that they would have everything they needed in case anything happened. Hector checked on it just to be safe, but sure enough, he found the Tower of Night's storeroom filled to the rafters with non-perishable food and supplies. If they needed to, they'd be able to last months in here, no problem.

Assuming the walls weren't breached, that was.

Hector had to wonder how strong this nightrock really was. Thus far, he hadn't seen anyone actually break through it, despite multiple attempts from various Rainlords during construction, but that also wasn't quite the same thing as enduring an actual siege. Would Bloodeye or any of his men be able to break through?

Bloodeye had several notable names under his command. The biggest threats were Otto Konig, Banda Toro, Kyle Charge, Jonathan Smith, and Tomi Rika. They each had rather menacing monikers by which they were internationally infamous. On the bright side, though, Hector had plenty of intel on them, thanks to Hahl Saqqaf, the scouting efforts of Isaac's team, and also Gina.

Still, that was six big names right there. Any one of them could probably kill him in a one-on-one fight. Hector felt like the only reason he'd managed as well as he had in the fight against Bloodeye and the Man of Crows was because all his allies were around to help take the pressure off. He couldn't go into this with the same mindset.

The next fight would be far more dangerous, especially if Abbas didn't show up in time.

Page 3148

It was probably the latter, though. If Carl had that much power at his disposal, then he would have been able to take care of the Beast of Lorent all on his own. Sure, it was possible that the Vanguard had only very recently sent him more troops or something, but Hector doubted it.

It sure would've been nice if Jackson himself decided to show up to help, though. If the guy's reputation was anything to by, then Hector wouldn't mind meeting him. Plus, there weren't very many Rainlords around at the moment, so it might actually be safe to talk to him. Maybe.

The most recent rumors about Jackson weren't quite so pleasant, what with him supposedly having been gravely wounded by the Mad Demon, but that was a while ago. No matter what Morgunov's machines had done to him, Jackson had to have recovered by now.

...Right?

Hector tried not to linger on that particularly question too much. Hell, even if Jackson just sent some of his troops their way, that'd be great. The guy must've had tons of strong dudes working under him.

Eventually, Krigoth got back to him about Garovel's earlier question. Could the scouting team identify specific combatants in the enemy encampments?

'No,' was the reaper's unfortunate answer. 'Isaac's team has been looking for nearly an hour now, but none of the big names have appeared out in the open.'

'So the camps really could be decoys, then,' said Garovel. 'We have to assume that the major players area already on the move. Let's get everyone into the Tower of Night. It's the safest place for all non-combatants.'

Hector could only agree, and soon enough, everyone was moving. It was a bit overly cautious, he knew, since the attackers were almost certainly going to pop up in Lorent before Atreya, but if ever there was a time to be overly cautious, it was now. And besides, with so many people abroad, the Tower of Night had more than enough space. They wouldn't be cramped in here at all.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Page 3147

<"Hah! If there was, I wouldn't tell you,"> said Carl. <"It's far too early to be sharing privileged information like that with an outsider like you. We still don't even know if this attack is real. Zaman could be bullshitting us as part of some larger scheme. You shouldn't be so quick to trust that snake in the grass.">

Ah, that was more like it. "How about reinforcements from a private security firm, then? Last I checked, the Lorentian Security Council was talking about rehiring Greenworth for exactly this reason. Did that deal ever get approved?"

<"No, but I've advised the President to push it through using his emergency war powers.">

"Think he'll listen?"

<"Doubt it. And even if he does, I don't think Greenworth will be too eager to work with Lorent again. With the war on, mercenary groups will have their pick of clients, right now. And the last time Greenworth was here, our damn media raked them over the coals, which hurt their reputation internationally, no doubt. Other firms won't find that type of treatment too appealing, either, I'm sure.">

Damn.

<"Still, if we manage to land a new contract, I'll be sure to let you know.">

Hmm. That almost sounded nice of him. "Thanks."

Carl didn't have much more to tell him after that. Hector asked about how many he had available to defend P.J. and what their relative levels of strength were, but no matter how diplomatically he tried to phrase it, the man wouldn't provide him with details.

Hector hoped that was just because Carl was a stingy bastard and not because the guy was afraid to admit how weak they were.

Page 3146

He made the call to Carl Rondel next. He was relieved to hear that Ravi had kept his word.

<"Yeah, I just heard,"> said Carl. <"I'm mobilizing my forces now. How long you can get here?">

"To Riverton, P.J.?" said Hector. "I'm not sure that's where I should be going."

<"Hmm? You have somewhere else in mind?">

"Not yet. But I doubt Abolish would hit the capital first. And if all our forces are consolidated there, then our response will be equally slow whenever they do show up."

<"You planning to just sit on your ass in your castle, then?">

More biting words as usual from Mr. Rondel. Hector almost wanted to retort immediately, but he caught himself.

He wasn't obligated to tell Mr. Rondel anything about his plans. And in fact, he didn't even trust the guy all that much. It might've been better to keep his own movements to himself. If Abolish somehow found out that Hector wasn't at Warrenhold and decided to attack it while he was gone...

Well, that was a worst-case scenario that needed to be avoided at all costs.

But he also didn't want to outright refuse to say anything, either. That'd be unnecessarily hostile towards a potential ally. Maybe a little white lie would be better, then. "Yes," said Hector. "For now, I'll continue to wait here and observe. If P.J. gets attacked, I promise I'll dispatch reinforcements immediately, but I expect the first place that needs help will be somewhere else."

<"Hmph,"> was all Carl said.

Which was a bit surprising, actually. Hector had expected the man to give him a piece of his mind. "Any word on extra reinforcements from your end? Like from Jackson?"

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Page 3145

They certainly weren't looking at him like he was their peer, though. They were looking at him like he had all the answers, like he was above reproach or question.

The only outliers were Roman Fullister, Matteo Delaguna, Joana Cortes, Silvia Blackburn, and Nere Blackburn. For whatever reason, the Blackburns had decided not to take Nere with them to Vantalay, and with her being such an important figure in the family, Silvia had been chosen to stay behind and watch over her.

Joana, meanwhile, being the head of her own little House, had chosen to stay behind of her own volition. "Someone should be here to look after the children," she'd said.

Ostensibly, she'd been referring to all of the children from all of the Houses, but Hector had a suspicion that she was doing this especially for Zeff and his kids. He was her brother, after all, and she must have known how worried he would be to leave them here.

A part of Hector was still surprised by the fact that Zeff had elected to join the Vantalay rescue team. After everything that man had been through? Leaving Marcos and Ramira here where he couldn't protect them must have been a tough call to make, even for the sake of the other Houses.

Man. If Zeff knew what was happening right now, the news that Hector had just received... it would tear him apart.

He absolutely could not let Zeff down here, Hector thought. Or any of the other Houses, for that matter. There dozens of very young children here in Warrenhold now, their parents having all gone off to fight in a war and rescue their kin.

Hector was determined. No matter what happened, as long as he was still alive, nothing was going hurt these little Rainlords.

Page 3144

How could the Candle have even been aware of someone like Bloodeye? Sure, the guy had been around for a long time, but compared to the Candle, 133 years was nothing. As far as Hector could recall, Bloodeye had never personally visited the Candle, so where the hell did this information come from?

There was something about the nature of memory that he wasn't understanding here. Something about the nature of aura. The nature of souls and ardor, too, perhaps.

Well. That wasn't such a surprise, at least. There were tons of things that he didn't understand.

Regardless, the next thing on his to-do list was to inform Abbas Saqqaf of the news. A simple phone call probably would have done the trick, but because Ravi had chosen to come all the way out here to Warrenhold instead of doing that, Hector felt he should avoid phones, too.

Much of Hahl Saqqaf was already in Lorent, holed up at a few different locations, but thankfully, there were a handful of Saqqaf reapers hanging around here who could pass on a message.

After that, it was a matter of handing out Amir-9s for as many warriors to use as possible. Most of the stock that he'd been building up had gone into lining the castle walls--including that of the cavern in which Warrenhold stood--to help make the place even more difficult to break into, but obviously, that would only prove helpful if Abolish came here. He made sure that everyone coming to Lorent with him had a shield at their disposal, too.

As for who he actually intended to bring along, well... he'd hardly seen any of them in actual combat yet. All of the Rainlords' most seasoned warriors were in Vantalay at the moment, and even most of their intermediate warriors were abroad on missions. Which left him with a group that wasn't much older than himself.

His actual peers, in terms of age.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Page 3143

Hopefully, the progress they'd made with their respective hunts wouldn't be totally lost. With any luck, they would be able to pick up where they left off once this whole mess was sorted out.

Hmm. Sorted out? A spare thought process wondered about that sentiment. Wasn't it a bit assumptive on his part to think that way? So casually? This was a fucking war. The sovereignty of Lorent and probably also Atreya were on the line here, as were the lives of everyone in both countries.

And yet...

He was not afraid. He wasn't even all that worried, actually. He felt exceptionally calm.

He hoped he wasn't becoming arrogant. There was no reason to think that he could defeat Bloodeye in a normal fight. And for all they knew, Morgunov could show up, too. By all metrics, Hector should've been nervous as fuck, right now.

But he wasn't. His head was clear. Seemingly clear, at least.

He hardly felt like himself, though. Hell, he hardly even knew what "himself" was supposed to feel like.

All the crazy shit that he'd been through lately made this situation feel somehow smaller. Less terrifying. But it was that last trip through the Fusion Forge that had really messed with him. He wondered if he was even the same person, now.

Bloodeye. Also known as the Red Devil of Horsht. Full name: Neville Cornelius Roy. Born in Horsht 133 years ago. Regarded as one of the most dangerous men in the world.

How in the world had Hector learned all of that? He looked the guy up on the internet, only to discover those little details were indeed accurate.

There was so much information rolling around in his head now. Taken from the Candle itself. But it seemed incredibly strange that the Candle would know something like that despite having been half-broken and dormant for eons.

Page 3142

Perhaps the best strategy was to try and draw Abolish's attention to him, but that, too, could cause problems. Where exactly would he wish to draw their attention to? He didn't have a fortress in Lorent yet, and he certainly didn't want them to go anywhere near the Candle.

As that internal debate raged in a background thought process, Hector also remained focused on the conversation with Krigoth. "Does Isaac's team have an eye on any Abolish encampments, right now?"

Krigoth took a moment to check. 'Yes. Three. And they're all still on the other side of the Callum-Sair border. But they're close. If they wanted to invade Callum, they could cross the border in under an hour and be halfway to Lorent in under a day.'

'Assuming those encampments are not decoys, that is,' said Garovel. 'Can Isaac's team see activity in them? Can they still identify specific combatants like Smith, Konig, or Toro? Or Bloodeye himself, ideally?'

'I'll have them check again,' said Krigoth. 'Give us some time.'

'Alright.'

Instead of just waiting around for Krigoth to get back to them with an answer, however, Hector moved on to the other rooms where the other teams' reapers were waiting.

"Call everyone back to Warrenhold," he told both groups. The reapers had questions, of course, but Voreese and Garovel were ready to field them in Hector's stead.

Those two teams had been dispatched to Qhenghis and Ardora, so the return trip wouldn't be very quick, especially with so much of Eloa at war now. When they'd first departed, the continent was still at peace, and air travel hadn't been so heavily monitored--or even outright banned--in so many locations.

But it was the right move, Hector felt. Everyone not in Vantalay needed to be here now. Treasure had to come second.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Page 3141

The reapers for the various teams around the world had their own floor in the Tower of Night. Generally, they just stayed there, reading books or watching television while they waited for updates from their deployed servants. They had a rotating group of young servants and even non-servants to do the channel surfing and page turning for them.

Hector checked in with the scouting team in Callum first.

"Any updates on Abolish's movements?" he asked.

The lead reaper's name was Krigoth, partnered to Isaac Sebolt. It took him a moment to retrieve an answer for Hector. 'Everything's quiet. Why? Something wrong?' The entourage of visitors and urgency on their faces must have tipped the reaper off.

"We have it on good authority that they'll be launching an attack on Lorent soon," said Hector. "We'd like confirmation on that, if possible."

'I see,' said Krigoth gravely. 'Well, there's been no reported change. I'd like to say that we would have noticed any major troop movements, but if they're using Invisibility again, then I have to acknowledge the possibility that they could have slipped through Callum unnoticed.'

Hector was afraid of that possibility, too, but from what he understood, the Sandlords had come up with a few countermeasures to that tactic. And while Hector had been in his little coma, Hahl Saqqaf had been kind enough to share their tech with the Rainlords. Isaac's team shouldn't have been totally blind, but that was far from a guarantee.

They had to prepare for the worst, Hector knew.

Problem was, how to go about that? Lorent was huge. If Abolish slipped into the country, they could launch surprise attacks anywhere they pleased. It all depended on what their objective was. If they just wanted to terrorize the populace, that was one thing, but if they wanted another very public conquest like they'd done to Sair, then they might not care about stealth at all.

Page 3140

It wasn't at the forefront of his thoughts at the moment, but Hector was impressed by Ravi's apparent skill with materialization. The ability to fly like that wasn't easy and required great mastery over velocity states and possibly also temperature states, depending on what his element was.

That alone wasn't enough information to truly judge from, of course, but if he had to hazard a guess, Hector would place the man somewhere around Zeff's strength tier.

After he was gone, everyone started back toward the door to the Entry Tower. It was a bit harder to locate these days, thanks to all of the iron buildings that Hector had been materializing as part of Warrenhold's aboveground "decoy" castle, but thanks to the Scarf of Amordiin, Hector had no trouble finding it.

Maybe that was why everyone was following so closely behind him. This decoy castle may still have been relatively small, but it was already something of a maze. One day, when his volume limit allowed, he wanted it to become a full blown labyrinth up here, but maybe that would be taking things a little too far.

'We have to call back the Rainlords immediately,' said Voreese.

'Can't,' said Garovel. 'Not the ones in Vantalay, at least. Their mission there is too important to them. They'll never agree to return until its complete.'

"First things first," said Hector. He was using an iron platform behind everyone in order to bring their collected pile of Amir-9s with them. "We need the scouting team to confirm what Ravi told us."

"You think he was lying?" said Roman.

"No, but I've been wrong before," said Hector. "And I don't want to walk into a trap."

'You should probably also call Rondel yourself,' said Garovel. 'But give it a few hours and see if Ravi actually tells him first like he said he would.'

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Page 3139

The timing couldn't possibly have been worse, Hector felt. It was so bad, in fact, that a part of him had to wonder if Bloodeye somehow knew about their current lack of manpower here at Warrenhold.

Most likely not, Hector decided, but it was still quite the troublesome and nagging thought.

'Well, thanks for the warning,' said Voreese. 'If that's all you've got for us, then you can go now.'

Beldorix gave her a look but said nothing. A silent exchange seemed to take place between him and Ravi, and then the two of them turned to leave.

Hector felt a little bad about how curt she was being, but he could also understand why Voreese was in a rush to get rid of them. If this attack was imminent, then there was no time to waste. They would need to begin strategizing immediately, and having two Abolishers present for that meeting wasn't necessarily a wise idea.

But he had one more question for them before they left. "Have you told Mr. Rondel about this yet?"

Ravi and Beldorix both paused.

Carl Rondel was the Vanguardian advisor to the Lorentian President, much like Ravi was the Abolish advisor to him. Hector knew that there wasn't much love lost between these two men, but if the fate of Lorent was suddenly on the line here, then none of that should've mattered at the moment.

Right?

Ravi was hesitating quite a bit, though. "...Not yet," he finally admitted.

"Ravi," said Hector, trying not to sound too disappointed in him.

"I will tell him as soon as I return to Riverton Hall."

"Can't you just call him?" said Roman.

"This is not information that can be shared over the phone," said Ravi.

"Sure, but time is of the essence here," said Roman.

"Then I will go fast." And without another word, Ravi grabbed his reaper and blasted off on a metallic platform, high into the sky. From there, he surged off into the distance within some kind of liquid jet stream.

Page 3138 -- CCLXVIII.

Chapter Two Hundred Sixty-Eight: 'The approaching bloodstorm...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Indeed, Hector's hunch proved correct. The news had been just about the worst thing he could've possibly imagined, right now. Or close to it, at least.

Abolish was about to launch a major offensive into Lorent, apparently.

"I'm sorry we can't provide direct assistance," Ravi was saying. His reaper, Beldorix, hovered right behind him, his skeletal face looking somehow even more dour than it normally did. "This warning is the best I can provide. I don't have the authority to go against Bloodeye's sect."

'That right?' said Garovel. 'A member of the Freeman Fellowship lacks the freedom to do as he pleases? Bit of a misnomer, in that case, don't you think?'

Ravi returned a strained look but made no response.

'Look, if you're just scared to fight him, then fine,' said Garovel. 'I wouldn't even blame you. He's a scary son of a bitch. But you don't need to dress it up in political excuses. This isn't Riverton Hall.'

"Th-that's not what this is," said Ravi.

Hector had never seen the man look so disheveled before. His normally pristine suit and tie were scuffed and misaligned; his dark hair, untidy.

It certainly wasn't a comfort, seeing him this way. The man had never presented himself to Hector as anything less than confident and secure.

'If we raise a hand against Bloodeye and his men,' said Beldorix, 'it won't just be Ravi and I who reap the consequences. The entirety of the Fellowship would be threatened. Our status within Abolish is still greatly contested. We have countless peers who would like nothing more than to finally be given permission to treat us as enemy combatants. If we fight alongside you, we would be providing them with the excuse they need in order to do exactly that.'

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Page 3137

'His reputational success didn't necessarily come at the expense of others, you know. As far as I'm aware, he was never branded as an idea thief or anything like that.'

'Yeah, yeah, I'm sure he was a swell dude. Gave to the poor and rescued lost kittens in his spare time, probably. What a homie. I'm just tired of hearing his name all over the fuckin' place.'

'Hmm. I feel like you're disproportionately upset at this guy for some reason.'

'Pah. He's long dead, so who cares if I talk shit on him? Who am I hurting, huh? His reputation has enjoyed plenty of overblown adoration already. What, was he a personal friend of yours or something?'

'Well, no, but--'

'Then fuck 'im!'

'Those aren't the words of a well-adjusted individual, Voreese.'

'Am I supposed to give a shit about that?'

'Ideally, yeah, kinda.'

The reapers' conversation kept devolving for a while, and Hector waited for them to circle back around to the topic of that "magic compass" that Roman and Voreese wanted, but they never did.

Instead, the reapers went abruptly silent, and then Garovel said something that Hector was not at all expecting. 'Ravi Zaman is here.'

That certainly caught Hector's attention. Ravi had never visited Warrenhold before--or even Atreya as a whole, as far as Hector was aware. The fact that the man was suddenly dropping by like this, totally unannounced, was actually quite alarming, Hector felt. Ravi was an important political figure in Lorent with not very much spare time on his hands, and even though Hector was on good terms with him, the courteous thing to do would have been to make known several days in advance that he intended to visit.

And Ravi was nothing if not courteous.

So Hector couldn't imagine that the man was going to have pleasant news for them.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Page 3136

Roman and Voreese exchanged silent looks. From the combative expressions on their faces, they were probably arguing.

'Well, sure, I've got all sorts of ideas,' said Voreese, turning to Hector again, 'but it'd really depend on what the Sunsmith is able to pump out. We of course understand that it's a difficult and time-consuming process, full of nuance. At this stage, it'd be totally irrational to have our hearts set on any one thing in particular. Whatever you're able to provide us with would be perfectly--'

"She wants a compass," blurted Roman.

Voreese hissed at him.

Hector was mainly just confused, though. "Why a compass?"

"A magical one," Roman went on. "Not terribly unlike that Tuning Orb of Creamy Spaghetti you already have."

'Karugetti,' said Voreese. 'The Tuning Orb of Karugetti. It's named after one of the most brilliant men who ever lived, you ignorant mouthbreather.'

"Whatever."

'This is the first time we're hearing of your interest in the Orb,' said Garovel. 'Why didn't you mention it before? We wouldn't have given it to the Vantalay team if we knew you wanted it.'

'Eh, as long as someone's getting good use out of it, that's all that matters,' said Voreese. 'And besides, the Tuning Orb probably sucks. It wasn't actually invented by Karugetti himself. It was invented by Arkos, who was like Karugetti but shit. Karu-shitty.'

'Wasn't he Karugetti's apprentice?' said Garovel. 'He probably named it that to honor his master.'

'He should've honored him by not being such a lameass.'

'Do you have some sort of personal beef with Arkos? This isn't the first time you've ragged on him, as I recall.'

'I just think he's a bit overrated, is all. Dude's gotten all sorts of fame and fanfare over the years, while so many other great minds throughout history have gotten the shaft.'

Page 3135

It took Hector a second to find the right words. "Er. Sorry about that."

"Don't be," said Roman, rolling his shoulder and stretching his neck. He was eyeing the spent cannon now, too. "Would you say that was more powerful than that orbit-y technique of yours or less?"

Hector scratched his forehead. "Uh... well, a few minutes ago, I would've said it was definitely less powerful, but now I'm not sure. I'd have do some testing and refining, I think."

"I see," said Roman. "Well, I'm up for taking another crack at it, if you don't mind. That made for some pretty intense practice."

Hector knew he was fine, but he still felt kinda bad.

And maybe Roman could tell as much from the expression on his face, because he said, "Is that pity I see? C'mon, this is no big--" He cut himself off, however, and his expression froze, eyes glancing at Voreese for moment before returning Hector. "...Oh, actually, agh, man, that really hurt, y'know? Damn." He dropped the Amir-9 he was holding in order to grab his right shoulder and present his bony, still-regenerating hand. "Ow. Gosh. Wow. Woe is me. This sure hurts."

Hector just cocked an eyebrow.

'Geez, Hector, that was pretty uncool,' said Voreese. 'How could you do that to Roman? So cruel, especially after all we've done for you, y'know? Man.'

Now Hector was just suspicious. He'd felt bad but not that bad. What were they playing at here?

'But y'know, if you'd like to make it up to us, we wouldn't mind getting maybe, perhaps, a nice little somethin'-somethin' from that Forge of yours. As like an apology gift.'

Ah.

Hector couldn't help but give a nodding laugh. "I suppose that could be arranged. Is there something specific that you have in mind?"

Page 3134

Voreese was still talking to him, but Hector just kind of motioned with his hands and she seemed to intuit what he was trying to say. While they waited, he took the opportunity to examine the aftermath of his iron cannon.

It was all contorted and bent out of shape. Molten goo was seeping out through visible fissures in the iron near the exit, and all the lingering steam looked like would've been sizzling quite loudly if he could hear it. He annihilated his work in pieces, wanting to understand the internal damage a bit better instead of just dematerializing everything at once.

Garovel arrived first, phasing up through the ground and grabbing Hector's ankle to invoke the regeneration.

Not long afterward, Hector sensed Roman's approach with the Scarf, and then the man's voiced arrived from above. "Excuse me, sir, but what the fuck was that shit?"

Hector pressed his lips together flatly, fighting back a smile as he turned to look. "Are you okay? I hope, er--"

Roman's right arm was missing. It wasn't bleeding, though, having apparently been cauterized already. Voreese flew over to help him, and it soon began regrowing. His pale, sweaty face regained color, as well.

'He did warn you,' said Voreese publicly.

Garovel hovered over to Hector, saying nothing but eyeing the truck-sized iron tube nearby as molten goo spilled out of it, visibily distorting the area with a heat haze.

Roman's feet touched ground with a slight thud, and then Hector noticed the collection of shields hovering in behind him. They'd been at this all morning, so there were quite a few of them.

'You didn't miss that last one, did you?' asked Voreese.

Roman exhaled a ragged breath. "No, I got it." He waved his hand and brought one of the shields closer, into his left hand and held it up.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Page 3133

The longer this took, the more concerned he became. The pressure had to be building up in there. Maybe it still wasn't hot enough?

Molten iron, then?

Hmm.

Alright, fine, molten iron.

He started on another round of replacements, this time with as much heat as he could muster. He decided to weaken the seal a bit more, too. Maybe that would be enough. And he was already wearing a bit of armor but not much, so maybe he should--

The explosion came so fast and so loud that, even after waiting for it this whole time, Hector couldn't help being taken by surprise. The boom arrived and shot the Amir-9 into the air like a cannonball, and Hector, standing off to the side, was thrown off his feet. The whole tube lurched backward and skidded briefly across the barren field, tearing up dirt and rock as if starting to dig a trench.

Hector managed to catch himself before falling on his ass, at least, but his hearing was definitely gone, and his vision was taking a few seconds to come back into focus. He didn't need his ear drums to hear Voreese's voice in his head, though.

'Sweet, juggling titty twisters, Hector! I know said not to hold back, but damn! What did you even do just now?!'

He tried to explain, but it was kinda difficult when he couldn't hear the words coming out of his own mouth. His whole head felt like it was filled with cotton or something. He decided instead to ask Garovel to come heal him, to which the reaper replied that he was already on his way.

Apparently, the blast had been so loud that Garovel had been able to hear it from where he was.

Page 3132

From his research, he understood pressure and heat were linked. An increase in pressure corresponded with an increase in heat and vice versa. So what would happen if he used temperature manipulation to add even more heat to the system? What would happen if he began annihilating and replacing parts of the tube with molten iron?

Or near-molten, perhaps. If it were all gooey and soft and melting through the iron around it, then that probably wouldn't bode well for the project's overall structural integrity.

He'd have to be quick, too. Rapid annihilation and materialization was something that he'd practiced many times before, but never quite like this. If he was too slow or just chose his spots poorly, the iron walls might rupture.

He added some extra outer layers to the tube in order to help brace it, then he set to work.

The inner walls were replaced with heated iron. Emotional commands. Hot as he could imagine them without becoming molten in his mind.

From the outside, there was no visible change. The big tube of iron just lay there, unmoving. How much pressure would be required for it to shake or jostle?

He kept going. More replacements. More heat.

And to be on the safe side, he weakened the seal a bit more. If the walls did fail prematurely, he wanted it to be where the seal was. That way, it would at least explode in the intended direction. The Amir-9 was already position there, just waiting to be launched.

And still, there was no outward sign of movement.

The anticipation was getting to him a little. Just how big was this explosion going to be, exactly? Or was it even going to explode at all? The tensile strength of his iron wasn't too strong, still, was it?

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Page 3131

He'd never really given it much thought until now. It hadn't felt all that strange until it was no longer there.

Why wasn't it there? Had he ever felt this before?

Hmm. Maybe.

That time when Rasalased had reset his materialization--that had kind of felt like this. Sort of.

But this wasn't that. His ability hadn't reset.

There was something else.

This was more like... ah. Yeah. This was more like when he tried to materialize something into a solid object. It didn't work, because materialization couldn't accumulate within a physical space that was already occupied by something else.

That was one of the fundamentals of materialization. It was why he couldn't materialize an iron spike already in the ground, for example. He had to materialize it first, then puncture.

So was that what this was, then?

Hector circled around the tube as he contemplated, sizing his work up and down. Voreese was saying something, but he wasn't listening, even with a spare thought process. All of his mind was devoted to the problem in front of him.

He'd been thinking that he could just keep growing the iron inward, continually compressing the air therein to greater and greater extremes, but perhaps that had been foolish. Maybe once the pressure passed a high enough threshold, materialization within that space became impossible, no different than if it were a solid object.

Yeah, that would make sense, he supposed.

If so, then it kinda poked a giant hole in the viability of his experiment. The tensile strength of iron could be too high compared to the maximum compression that he could achieve with this technique.

Hmm. So no explosive decompression, then?

Dammit. That sucked.

Well. All hope wasn't lost just yet, Hector supposed.

He still hadn't integrated temperature into the equation yet. The plan had been for a heat-assisted pressurization chamber, after all.

Page 3130

He made it as big as a truck--a giant metal tube, propped up at an angle so that the open end was pointed up toward the sky in Roman's direction.

Then he grew the iron over the opening, sealing it shut. From there, he grew the iron walls slowly inward.

Simple enough.

He didn't really know when to stop, though. Without being able to actually see inside of the sealed chamber, he was working entirely in his head here, materializing based only on what he imagined the dimensions to be.

It was a massive tube. He'd made the iron quite thick. And up until the moment it was sealed, he'd been able to sense the exact shape from the inside using the Scarf of Amordiin. He just had to hold onto that memory, relative to slowly shrinking one in his imagination.

For this first test, he hadn't put the Amir-9 inside the tube, but a spare thought process began to wonder if perhaps he should. He was sure that it would be able to withstand just about any amount of pressure that he could create, but he didn't see much point to exposing the shield to it when he could just lay the Amir-9 over the sealed opening instead.

The idea was to let the pressure continue to build, then either weaken or just reopen the seal, allowing all of the air to escape in the desired direction. In this case, the sky.

But there was a problem.

He could feel it. With his materialization.

It was a difficult sensation to describe. He couldn't see inside the tube or know how much space was left, but he could feel that his materialization had stopped working.

He'd materialized so many different things before on so many different occasions, and he could just sort of... tell. There was a certain mental "feedback" that he got whenever he materialized something. A new kind of sense, perhaps. Like a quiet presence that should have been there but wasn't.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Page 3129

A vacuum wasn't necessarily useful for his purposes here, but the mere idea that he could so trivially manipulate air pressure had been enough to get the gears turning in his head even more. Because for instance, what if he did the opposite? Instead of creating an airless chamber, what if he purposely captured air and began compressing it?

It seemed relatively simple to do. Just materialize an open box, then seal it off. From there, he could shrink the hollow space inside, causing the air molecules trapped within to be pressed closer and closer together.

Theoretically, he could do this as much as he wanted. The only problem, he thought, would be in how much air pressure the iron itself could withstand. At some point, the air pressure would likely grow too powerful for the chamber to contain, and his iron would tear itself apart with explosive force in order to release said air.

And therein lay the foundation of his idea. A compressed air explosion. If it worked, then he was pretty sure that he would be able to find all sorts of uses for such a technique in combat.

He wasn't entirely sure it would work that way, though. Thus far, he hadn't found the occasion to actually test it.

And now that he did, he was abruptly more concerned with Voreese's safety than with the experiment itself. He supposed she'd be fine as long as he didn't soul-empower anything, but that would also lessen the value of the experiment. In a real fight, he would almost certainly want to employ soul power.

Ah well. Maybe it was better to take things easier the first time, anyway.

He was already materializing an open iron chamber by the time his spare thought processes were finishing that internal debate. He needed it to be large enough to shoot an Amir-9 out of it, and since there was no soul power to threaten Voreese, he figured that he could go a bit overboard with the physical specifications.

Page 3128

Of course, there was also the option of the orbital technique. He could simply coat the freshly materialized shield in iron and then launch it like he'd done so many times before. But that didn't seem like it would be very good practice. He already felt quite comfortable with that technique.

And frankly, he felt like that would be overdoing it. That technique, more or less, had been what killed the Beast of Lorent. While Hector didn't want to underestimate his good friend Roman, he also didn't want to turn the guy into a bunch of meaty chunks.

So he decided to try something new, something that had been rattling around in a brainstorming thought process for a little while now.

A heat-assisted pressurization chamber.

With the advent of his ability to manipulate temperature, Hector had been trying to think of less conventional ways that he might be able to make use of it. One of the things he learned when reading up on the physics of heat was that it could increase the pressure in a given system.

He couldn't exactly claim that his understanding of it was complete, but from what he'd been able to discern, higher temperatures caused particles to move faster, making them bump into each other and thereby increasing pressure when in a contained environment. That was why heat caused things to distort and expand.

And when he got to thinking about pressure, that started giving him other ideas. Because, for example, wasn't it possible for him to create a vacuum? Quite easily?

All he had to do was make a simple iron cube, then hollow out the middle. There would be no air inside.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Page 3127

"Hmm. Maybe." Hector held off on launching the next shield as he weighed his options. It might be kind of annoying if he ended up having to go hunt down a lost shield, but... maybe that would actually be a good exercise in an of itself.

First, he'd have to get a shield past Roman, though. And if this was suddenly a competition, then it wouldn't really be fair if just lobbed one on the opposite direction or something.

"Alright," said Hector. "I'll step it up a notch. But you have to warn Roman that I'm about to go harder."

'I do? Why? Wouldn't it be funnier as a surprise?'

"You're the one who specified 'healthy' competition."

'Yeah, but the first one could just be a prank. The healthy part could come after.' She drew herself up a little, looking suddenly a bit haughty. 'And frankly, Hector, I don't think you'll be able to get one past him, even without warning. So I'm giving you the advantage.'

"Just warn him, please. It's only fair."

'Ugh, fine.' She paused. 'There, he's been warned. Now hurry up. I'm not getting any younger over here.'

For a second, Hector just took her at her word, but then he decided to consult Garovel, who confirmed his suspicions. "No, you didn't."

'Wow, I can't believe you checked up on me. Where's the trust, man?'

"The same place the truth went, probably."

'Okay, okay, I warned him. For real this time. Satisfied, you little party pooper?'

After consulting Garovel a second time, he was. He gave her a nod.

Regarding how to proceed, Hector had a few choices. Simply upping the scale of the trebuchet might do the trick, but it would require entirely new refinement of the contraption's structural integrity. Most likely, it would collapse in on itself or worse several times before he got all the ratios correct. And while that might make for a fun exercise, he wasn't convinced that it would be enough to get past Roman. Voreese did seem pretty confident in him, after all.