Sunday, January 31, 2021

Page 2978

Watching Agrian work was kind of amazing, Hector felt. Seeing the tree take shape, knowing what it would eventually become--he couldn't pull his eyes away.

Well, he was a sucker for construction, too, so maybe that factored into things a bit.

By the time the vision slowed down again, the sprout had grown into a full blown tree--not quite the gargantuan one that Hector had come to know in the modern day, but still pretty damn impressive. And the room that would contain the Forge had finally finished taking shape, too.

Agrian was already working on the Forge, as well. The base was about halfway complete, which was somewhat surprising in its own way, Hector thought.

The base of the Forge was just a big stone slab--or that was what it had looked like, at least. But at this incomplete stage, Hector could see a cluster of living roots inside it, seemingly pulled up from underground. Agrian was pouring a murky, dark green liquid in there, too, and as he did, the roots therein began to flex and glow with an ethereal white light.

That kind of light was familiar, Hector thought--specifically, because it wasn't touching its surroundings. It was like the way that reapers could glow in the dark without actually lighting up anything around them.

After he finished pouring, Agrian started doing something to the stone. Touching it all over. As if giving it a massage or something.

Pretty weird, but at this point, Hector had expended just about all of his bewilderment. Honestly, he felt like nothing else about this vision would be able to surprise him. He was prepared to just accept whatever crazy shit happened next and roll with it.

That notion was soon proven wrong, however, when he watched Agrian take a break from his work and step outside the tree, perhaps for a breath of fresh air. There, he witnessed a new figure approach Agrian.

A hulking, feathery figure.

Page 2977

Smoke still filled the area, making it obnoxious to breathe. Hector could see the scattered piles of sludge struggling to regather themselves. They weren't succeeding, though. Agrian's earthen cages were maintaining a solid grip on them.

The danger seemed to have passed.

Wow.

If only all his battles were this easy, Hector thought.

Agrian turned toward him again, sizing him up. The man said something, but there was no way in hell Hector could understand whatever language that was. Nykeirian, maybe? That was the language the books in the tree had been written in, right?

Boy, a reaper sure would've come in handy right about now. Hector wondered how Garovel was faring through all of this.

The vision began to speed up again.

It accelerated much faster this time, judging by how fast the sprout was growing now. And the natural disasters seemed to stop, too.

Hmm. Yeah, they probably hadn't been very natural at all, had they? But why'd they stop? He had a feeling that it wasn't because of his intervention. Maybe the blond dude had died in some distant country or something and therefore left Agrian alone, finally.

Hector could see him doing something to the sprout as it continued to grow. He placed some kind of bulbous orb in the middle of it, which seemed pretty weird until Hector realized what was happening.

The trunk of the sprout gradually expanded outward, around the orb. And Agrian kept replacing the orb with wider and wider ones, until finally he placed a big, wooden slab there.

This must've been how he'd managed to create such a huge room in the middle of the tree without killing it. He hadn't dug all that space out after the fact. It had been hollow from the beginning.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Page 2976

One surprise after another. So he could actually feel that, too? He wiped the slime off with his other hand, glad that not much had actually flown this far.

Agrian had been hit by it, too, and had stopped what he was doing to look around. Yeah, okay. He was definitely noticing the sludgy abominations now. And as he was looking around, his eyes suddenly stopped.

On Hector.

Oh.

Okay.

So this was happening now.

The surging flames reacquired both of their attentions. The creeping monsters weren't far behind in that regard, either.

Another tidal wave of dirt doused the entire western horizon, and Hector wondered if he might be able to accomplish anything remotely similar with this weird new power.

He put his hand toward the eastern horizon and imagined a tidal wave of iron blanketing all the fire there.

And... to his own amazement, it actually worked. The flames vanished in seconds, as if the oxygen had been sucked right out of the atmosphere or something.

Then a row of rock pillars sprang out of the ground, surrounding every abomination at once. They began trying to squeeze through, and then the pillars all connected to each other with nets of spikes, shredding the monsters like so much cheese.

And Hector was in awe again. There'd been dozens of them mere moments ago, and now they were little more than piles of trembling goo on the ground. Maybe Agrian didn't need any help, he thought.

Until, that was, he saw the fires that Agrian had just put out flare up again. Hector put it out for him with a simple wave of his hand. Then he turned, expecting to see the eastern horizon alight again also, but... it wasn't.

What the hell, man?

Well, whatever. He suppressed the flames to the north and south, too, feeling a bit like some sort of fire god all of a sudden.

Page 2975

Hector looked at his open palm, even more unsure of what had just happened than ever. An iron javelin probably wouldn't have been enough to repel the monster like that. It would've just stuck into it like a pincushion, probably.

So did that mean his iron was working differently in this place? Or was this just some other kind of power entirely? Granted to him by the Forge for this vision, perhaps?

Or maybe this was all him. The effects of Domain. Or Focus. Or the Supreme Will. Or whatever.

He didn't have the luxury of standing around and mulling it over, unfortunately. The monsters were multiplying, he noticed.

Their sludgy bodies quivered grotesquely before splitting apart--but the strangest thing was that they didn't seem to lose mass when doing so. Not like those worms from the Undercrust did. It was more like these things were making up straight up clones of themselves. And some were starting to walk on too legs, raising their arms up toward Agrian.

And toward Hector, too.

Agrian was still busy working on suppressing the flames, throwing dirt around like a dark ocean against a stubborn, burning coastline. Whether he'd noticed the monsters--or could even see them in the first place--Hector couldn't yet tell.

Hector attacked with his "iron" again. This time, he tried to imagine something more effective against sludge than a javelin. A big iron cylinder with, hollow inside to keep the sludge contained, but also with a perfectly-fitted block shooting down through it from the top.

A kind of makeshift hydraulic press, was what he was going for.

Instead, the chosen monster simply splattered apart like it had been hit with a bomb.

Hector blinked as black goo flew everywhere, even making it all the way over to him and hitting him in the face.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Pages 2974

The weird slime monsters were creeping closer, seemingly unbothered by the flames.

Agrian slapped the ground with both hands, and a massive tidal wave of dirt flew up in the distance, blanketing half the fire on the horizon in an instant.

Hector was amazed, but within moments, the flames had somehow returned. And for some reason, Agrian didn't seem to notice the inhuman abominations coming his way, either.

Man, this looked bad. Hector wished he could help. He wondered how the hell Agrian was going to get out of this shit.

And damn, this heat was crazily realistic. He knew from firsthand experience. On many occasions, he'd been this close to a raging fire--typically whenever Garovel had led him to a burning building while out on patrol--and it felt exactly like this.

The Forge really knew how to create convincing illusions, didn't it? Well, fire was apparently its specialty, after all. It made sense.

...Right?

As he continued watching the scene unfold in real time, he couldn't ignore the growing question in the back of his mind.

This was all an illusion, wasn't it?

Obviously, the Forge didn't have the power to send him back in time or some shit. That wouldn't make any sense. It'd cause one of those paradox things that would destroy the fabric of the universe or whatever.

Admittedly, he wasn't exactly an expert on this stuff. His certainty waned by the moment.

Because, even if it made no logical sense to him... what if, somehow, it was real? And he ended up just standing here like a stupid asshole, gawking the whole time?

Agh.

Just as a test, he tried putting his hand out and summoning an iron javelin to skewer the closest slime monster.

No iron materialized.

The monster, however, still recoiled and shriveled away from him as if it had been hit.

Page 2973

Was the vision breaking down, Hector wondered? He sure hoped not, because he had no idea how to fix it. But hmm--Rasalased had mentioned something about a "retelling" being "strenuous" for the Forge, hadn't he? Was this what he'd meant?

Agh. So confusing.

The holes in the air kept growing. And distorting. Seemingly bending space--or the image of space, perhaps--around them.

Until at length, pitch black hands began reaching out of them.

And at that sight, Hector could only gape.

Inhuman figures emerged from their dark depths, crawling out like spiders with too-few limbs. They flopped onto the ground in mushy heaps, writhing there in apparent silence. Their forms were so strange that Hector's eyes had a hard time holding onto them. They seemed to have arms--kind of --but where were their heads? Or their torsos, even? In one moment, they looked vaguely humanoid, and in the next, they looked more like a pile of black sludge.

Not entirely unlike a worm of the Undercrust, he thought.

But not entirely like them, either. He could sometimes catch sight of horrified faces buried buried beneath their dark, slimy flesh, as if people were trapped inside their bodies, struggling to get out.

What in the fuck was happening here? How were these things involved with the wildfire?

The vision began to speed back up again, but only to real time. The inferno came alive in all its terrifying fury. Hector could feel the searing heat and smell the choking smoke as well as if he were actually there.

Agrian and the sprout were only a few steps away, and the illusion was so complete that he almost felt as if he might actually be able to go over and touch them. Maybe his hand wouldn't simply phase through the image this time--or at least, that was his what impulses were telling him.

He kept a solid grip on his faculties, though, trying to pay attention.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Page 2972

And it was all back-to-back, too, Hector noticed. If they were talking about a span of like two thousand years or whatever, then yeah, sure, all this stuff was bound to happen sooner or later, but the sprout was still barely up to his waist. He may not have been a botanist, but didn't that mean that all these disasters were taking place within like five years of one another or something?

The vision slowed again, this time on a raging wildfire. The forest in the distance was already consumed, lighting up the the entire horizon. The grass was alight, too, and the flames were approaching quickly.

Until they weren't.

The vision slowed too much, perhaps. Everything was reduced to a crawl. Flames mid-flicker. Smoke mid-billow. Countless glowing embers wafted in place, as if stuck in glass. There was one right in front of his face, and Hector couldn't help reaching out to try and touch it.

His fingers phased right through it. No surprise there, he supposed. Super weird and kinda awesome, but no surprise. He wasn't actually here, after all.

How trippy, he thought. The world in slow motion. A raging inferno, too.

Hmm. He didn't know what else he could do here other than admire the spectacle. Why had the vision slowed down so much? This seemed a little excessive. Was the Forge trying to show him something that was particularly fleeting?

He looked carefully, but nothing looked all that strange, really. Agrian was there. The sprout was there. And the flames all around. He couldn't even see the blond dude around, this time.

After a spell, however, he heard a new noise. The vision had sounds of if its own, but they'd all slowed down so much as to become a kind of low, background hum at this point.

This new sound did not belong. While the world remained slow, this sound was much more recognizable to his ears--in terms of speed, at least. He couldn't fully place what it was, though. Maybe like a combination of cloth ripping and glass tearing. Repeatedly.

Then a dark hole appear in front of him. Several of them, in fact. All in midair.

Page 2971

Even after the apparent drought ended and greenery returned to the rest to the area, Agrian's trouble did only seemed to worsen. He started working on some sort of cabin or primitive shelter, presumably to take up permanent residence next to the sprout, but before he could finish it, the thing went up in flames.

Hector spotted a group of unknown figures in the background, all carrying weapons. They were gone before he could discern much else about them, and only Agrian remained, covered in blood as he sat cross-legged, apparently meditating in front of the sprout.

He built another shelter. This one lasted a bit longer before being struck by lightning and going up in flames, too. So he built still one more shelter, this one even more primitive than the first two, probably because he didn't expect it to last very long, either.

And the vision slowed down again, showing Hector a scene of the man holding back a literal flood. He'd raised giant walls of dirt and rock in a big circle around the sprout and wooden hut, but the water was so high that some of it was still splashing over the top.

Hector spotted the blond man again, high in the sky this time, just hovering there and watching the scene unfold. Not lifting a single finger to help. And smiling wide, too.

That particular sight was enough to make Hector wonder if that blond dude was somehow the cause of all this crazy weather.

The vision sped back up again, and the insanity continued. Windstorms. Another drought. Hail the size of baseballs. Lightning crashing down in huge clusters. A dozen tornadoes. More flooding. A fucking earthquake.

Even as he watched it all happening with his own two eyes, Hector still wasn't sure how the sprout was surviving so much shit.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Page 2970

Hector observed the stranger's work with increasing interest. Could this be the Forge's creator? Agrian?

He tried to get a better look at the guy's face, but the constant teleporting made it surprisingly difficult. The dude seemed to have a receding hairline and a pudgy face, along with a scowl permanently etched into it.

The vision slowed down to a normal speed, and just as Hector began to wonder why, a new figure appeared at the edge of the hole.

This one was more finely dressed, with a chiseled jawline and perfectly coiffed blond hair. He said something in a language that Hector didn't understand, but Agrian, who was still toiling away in the dirt, ignored him. The man said something else and began laughing.

That clearly got under Agrian's skin, as he stopped working, and Hector could see his shoulders trembling. From the back, it might've appeared like he was crying, but looking at his face, no, that was anger.

Rage, actually.

Agrian didn't do anything, though. He went back to work, and the stranger went away.

Hmm.

Hector supposed he didn't need to know exactly what had been said in order to get the gist of what was going on here. The vision sped up again, and Agrian's work leapt forward. Seeds were planted; the hole was filled; and a tiny tree sprouted forth.

Once it was growing, he seemed to be monitoring it constantly, watering it and continually tending to the soil all around it.

Then Hector noticed that all of the grass around it died, leaving only dry, cracked earth. Even in the distance, the forest was brown and dwindling, with dozens of trees fallen over or momentarily on fire.

Hector worried for a second that the growing Forge might've been the cause of all this, but as he watched Agrian trying to shield the sprout from a punishing sun, watering it constantly, even hunching over it with his own body after the tent he erected blew away in the wind, Hector changed his mind.

Page 2969

Well, this was a new experience. This place felt somehow familiar, but he couldn't tell why. It was just an empty field. A forest in the distance.

Was the Forge showing him this? And if so, why?

A figured melted into existence in front of him. Once it was fully formed, though, it appeared more real and lively than he did.

He'd never seen clothes like those before. The ornamentation on them was elaborate, lined with silver and bright crimson, and yet there was still something primitive about them, too.

Hector was reminded of the vision that he'd seen with Pauline Gaolanet. This whole thing felt different than that, but not by much. And if this was a memory from the Forge's past, then was that an ancient person standing there in front of them?

It was just a guy. In a field. Looking around.

Hmm.

Not very informative.

Then the figure melted out of existence, but only briefly. He reappeared a few feet away, crouched down this time, seemingly to inspect the ground. Then he disappeared again, only to reappear another few feet away, now with shovel in hand, digging.

The hole expanded quickly as the figure kept flickering in and out of existence around it.

A time lapse, Hector supposed.

The hole grew deeper and more narrow as the man worked. Hector stepped closer to the edge for a better look. The figure's clothes kept changing between flickers, as presumably the days also were. Weeks or more must have passed by the time the man finally set his shovel down.

And the hole was enormous now. Big enough to fit an entire house, certainly. Maybe even two.

The flickering didn't stop there, though. The man kept blinking in and out of existence, only this time he was almost always on all fours with his sleeves rolled up and his hands in the dirt, sometimes elbow-deep. And the dirt itself was gradually changing, too, turning a darker, richer brown color. Where before it had been hard and riddled with rocks, now it was beginning to look quite soft and even.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Page 2968 -- CCLVIII.

The unintelligible noises continued, changing wildly. It sounded more like a broken subwoofer or something than a spoken language. How in the world could Rasalased comprehend any of this?

"Excellent," said Ras. "If you wish to be made whole again, then please, embrace us. I know little of your kind, but I am certain that the process will be made much easier with your cooperation. Young Abbas here will guide you through it."

Oh, hey, he could sense Abbas' soul beside him again.

"Uh--ah--y-yes, I shall do my best?" That definitely wasn't a question, but Abbas' obvious uncertainty made it sound like one.

More thrumming arrived.

For quite a while, this time.

Hector could sense the darkness trembling more than ever now. It felt like he was in a bubble with heavy rain falling upon it--or a meteor shower, perhaps.

"...Oh," came Rasalased's voice again. "Well... ah... I do not think that will be necessary. You are not yet whole, after all. A full retelling would be strenuous for you. And you have my assurances that these young souls are worthy of your trust. They would not--"

The rhythmic sounds cut him off, growing still more intense.

"Ah. You do not trust me, either... of course... I only meant--"

And the bubble shattered.


Chapter Two Hundred Fifty-Eight: 'A walk in the Dark...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Everything was truly black now. Hector couldn't sense a thing. No Abbas. No Rasalased.

Even his own soul was questionable. Was he still here? Where WAS here, even?

The world rose up all around him, ascended from the seemingly infinite pit below him. All within a few moments.

He was outside. In a field. A thin, ethereal fog covered everything, making him feel like he had to squint.

Ah, he could feel his body again. Or could he? The fog covered his own hands, he noticed. Like the fog was part of him. Or he was part of the fog.

Hmm.

Page 2967

"Well, I wouldn't want to pressure them into rejoining the fight," said Hector. "I just want them to be safe. And if they're already safe where they are, then that's fine, too.

"I see. Such an attitude may see you perpetually involving yourself in the problems of others, Young Hector."

"Ah. Well. Maybe so. But that's better than waiting until those problems involve themselves with me, I think."

"Heh. Perhaps. Or perhaps not."

"So it sounds like you actually CAN locate the other Sandlords for us, if you want to."

"Yes. But please allow me to think it over. I will decide whether or not to assist you in this effort soon. For now, let us concentrate on the task before us."

"Alright, then. Thanks for your consideration, regardless of what you choose."

"Speak as you were, Young Hector. With force. I shall assist you."

Hector gathered his focus again. It was a little weird without his body. No eyes to close. No breathing to steady.

Hmm. Speaking with force, huh? That was one way of putting it, he supposed.

"...Show yourself to me, Candle," he said. And weirdly enough, he heard Rasalased echoing each word with a slight delay.

Was that what he'd meant by assisting? Hector didn't get the chance to ask.

The deep expanse around them pulsed. And kept pulsing. Like a heartbeat at first, but then quickening into a more constant thrumming.

And then an impact arrived, something that he felt with his very soul. He didn't know how to describe it, other than that it was forceful and sudden. It didn't hurt, exactly, but it definitely felt strange.

"Ah," came Rasalased's voice again. "Worry not. I will shield you from any assault."

Assault? What assault?

"Good Candle!" Ras called out more loudly. "Do not fear! We would see you mended and resurrected!"

The thrumming intensified and soon reached an overwhelming degree. It sounded at once muffled and all-encompassing.

"No! Your creator did not send us! We discovered you by chance alone!"

More thrumming, this time with varying rhythms.

Hector began to understand. Rasalased was... talking to it. Somehow.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Page 2966

"So are you saying that you'd prefer I didn't try to reunite everyone?" said Hector.

No answer arrived.

"...Rasalased?"

"I... I do not know, Young Hector."

And again, Hector found himself surprised. Rasalased was uncertain? And openly so?

That was new. And worrying.

Hector could appreciate his honesty, though. "Do you think it would be better to leave them alone for a while?"

"Perhaps. Or perhaps not."

Ah, Hector had been wondering when he would pull that card again.

"You are the more mystifying factor, Young Hector. I cannot tell if you would be able to get through to them."

"Hmm. Well, I wouldn't really need to. Abbas would be the one who got through to them."

"...No. He would not."

"What?"

"I do not think that Young Abbas would be able to bring my kin back together. In their current state, they would reject him and maintain isolation."

"Are you serious? Even with their own subjects being in such desperate need of their help?"

"They would not view it that way. They would see only certain death."

Oh, fuck. "But Abbas could..." Could what? Hector didn't know how to finish that thought.

"Eventually, yes, Young Abbas would get through to them, I suspect. After this war has reached its conclusion, perhaps."

That... actually made sense, Hector thought. After suffering such a horrific loss, it was entirely reasonable that the Sandlords might want to keep their heads down and wait out the storm. They had families to think of, after all. They could try to pick up the pieces after everything calmed down. And if they thought that Abbas would try to lead them back into the conflict in order to retake Sair right away, then...

He didn't like how believable that line of thinking was. And understandable, too. Hector couldn't exactly blame them for prioritizing themselves, right now.

Rasalased was not done talking. "You, however, would be an unpredictable element. Heh. As ever, it seems. I do not know how your presence might affect their spirits. Perhaps you would also fail. Or perhaps not."

Page 2965

"Rasalased," said Hector, "an Age is a really long time, you know. What exactly has you so curious here? I mean, what do you hope to find?"

The Dry God fell briefly quiet. "A way forward," he said.

Hmm. He'd been meaning to ask Rasalased what he knew about Fusion Forges for a while now, but there was still one other matter that he felt to be more pressing. "Hey, uh... while I've got you, do you think you could locate the rest of the Sandlords?"

"Ah... you would seek out my scattered kin and protect them, too?"

"Er. Yeah."

"Very kind of you. And quite bold. You invite much danger with such an endeavor."

"I... am aware of that."

"Heh. Or perhaps you are hoping to bring them to heel while they are weak? To make them not only dependent upon you, but forever grateful for it, too?"

"Rasalased, what--?"

"I jest. I know your heart, Young Hector. Your mind may be a mystery to me now, but I shall not forget what I saw of you during our first encounter."

Hector didn't know what to say to that.

"I speak in jest, but others will not. Should you continue down this path, there will come much turmoil."

Mm. What else was new, Hector thought?

"I warn you. My kin are greatly fractured now. This most recent blow has struck them deeply. At their faith in one another. I fear they may not recover."

That surprised him. "Really? You think it's that bad?"

"No, I do not think it. But I fear it. As many of them currently do. Their souls wither in isolation and doubt. I sense their collective sorrow from afar, and it bleeds into my own. A great mess of confusion."

"I'm... sorry to hear that." He didn't much care for this pessimistic streak from Rasalased, though. "But your people have come back from worse. A lot worse."

"Indeed we have. But not for many, many years."

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Page 2964

"Let us not delay," said Rasalased. "Speak as you were."

"Are you sure Abbas will be okay?"

"Of course. Do not let him distract you, Young Hector. Speak as you were. With your soul's priority in hand."

Uh. Hmm. "You're being kinda pushy, Rasalased..."

"Am I? My apologies, then. I have not felt so eager in an Age. My curiosity may be getting the better of me. I mean not to alarm you, Young Hector."

Hector stuck on that. "In an Age, huh?"

"Indeed."

That was a peculiar statement to make, Hector thought. Having only recently become more interested in history, Hector may not have been fully knowledgeable about the subject of Ages, but he did know that they were currently in the Seventh Age and that the Sixth Age--a.k.a. the Late Imperial Age--had been marked by the collapse of the last great empire, the Mohssian Empire.

As he understood it, Ages were not demarcated by a specific amount of time passing but instead by major historical events. The Seventh Age, therefore, did not yet have a similar nickname of consensus among historians--and probably wouldn't until the Eighth Age rolled around.

However, no Age thus far had been less than six hundred years, and they were currently only on the 291st year of the Seventh Age--or 291 7A--so it was a fair bet that this one would last for a while longer yet.

As Hector recalled, according to Garovel, Rasalased was well over a thousand years old but not more than two thousand, which would've placed his birth pretty deep into the Sixth Age but not quite the Fifth, a.k.a. the Conquering Age.

It was perhaps a strange direction for Hector's mind to wander off into, but it did put things into perspective quite a bit. And it made him want to ask Rasalased all sorts of questions about history.

Heh. Then again, he did have an even older reaper to ask. He had a feeling Garovel might get jealous if he started consulting Rasalased about history, instead.

Page 2963

"Our... exploration?" said Hector.

"Indeed. It has been some time since I have been able to visit a new space. This is quite refreshing. And perhaps a bit unsettling."

Hmm. "It's been some time, huh? But Rasalased. Time is not time, right?"

"Aha. Indeed, that is so. Especially in this place. The flow is entirely distorted, varying wildly depending on where we go. That is assuredly the major peril to unwitting souls that venture here. One wrong step, as Young Abbas put it."

Hector might've blinked if he could feel his face. "Ohhh... I think I understand. You're saying that if we pass through the wrong area, our perception of time will become totally skewed? Meaning we could... lose, like, entire years outside while in here it'd only feel like seconds?"

"An extreme example. But not outside the realm of possibility. And also not the worst that could happen, either."

"Wait, really?"

"Of course. Because time is not time, that is a solvable problem. Perception, you see, is the thin rope on which the false idea of time dangles. When that rope becomes tangled, one of two things may occur. You may fall into an endless myopia of existential self-destruction. Which is indeed terrible. Or, you may learn to overcome the falsehood--to see through the great ruse that is time--and remake yourself anew, free of its linear vice grip."

"Uh..."

"Compared to that, having this hungry furnace of creation tear your soul apart like a starving Storm Bear would be much worse. Shredded hellishly into countless pieces of struggling cognitive misery. Do you not agree?"

"That... does sound pretty bad..."

"Yes." A beat passed. "But I am sure you will be fine, Young Hector."

"Ah, yeah, thanks..." At times, Rasalased had a really horrifying way with words, Hector was realizing.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Page 2962

"Looking arou--? Hector, agh, I don't even know what to say that, to be quite honest. But you need to stay with me. If you make one wrong step, then your soul could become lost in here forever."

"Wait, what? I thought said that this Forge wouldn't do that."

"It won't, so long as I am able to guide you. But if you go wandering off by yourself, then anything could happen."

Anything, huh? Hmm. "...That kinda makes me want to do it even more now."

"Hector, please! This is no laughing matter!"

"Okay, sorry," said Hector. He couldn't help laughing just a bit, though. He felt like he'd been doing just fine a moment ago, but even so, he figured that he should probably listen to his elder on this one. "Lead the way."

The Lord Saqqaf's soul seemed to relax a little, perhaps from a sense of relief. "You had me worried for a minute there. Now allow me to show--"

"Young Hector, what have you gotten yourself into now?"

"Who in the hell is that?!" said Abbas.

Oh geez. "Uh, that's, er--"

"Ah, Young Abbas. You can hear me, can you? How wonderful."

Abbas' soul was back to its rigid, bristling form. "Who's speaking?! Identify yourself!"

"Ah--, no, that's Ra--"

"Be at ease, Young Abbas. I mean you no harm. Long have I wished to converse with you in this way." And then he said something in Valgan that Hector didn't understand.

Abbas responded--also in Valgan and much more intensely.

Then Rasalased said something else. Then Abbas. Then Rasalased again.

Hector wished he had Garovel here to translate. "Hey, guys, would you mind--"

Abbas shouted something. He was not calming down, it seemed.

"Er, is everything okay?"

"Yes," said Rasalased.

But not Abbas. In fact, Hector waited for him to say something, but the man was dead silent.

"...Abbas? You alright?"

"I have partitioned him off on his own," said Rasalased. "I believe he requires a moment to settle down. Do not worry. I will continue to explain the situation to him in tandem. In the meantime, let us continue our exploration."

Page 2961

In any case, he tried to keep that in mind as he concentrated here.

Because this was important, he reminded himself. In fact, there might not be anything more important in his entire life, right now. This Forge could be the difference between Warrenhold's survival and its destruction. Between Atreya's survival and destruction. Between Garovel's. Between the Rainlords'. And the Sandlords'. And everyone he'd grown to care about so much.

Everything might be riding on this, he felt.

So if he needed to harness his Supreme Will or whatever the fuck it was in order to make this Forge listen to them, in order to make Rasalased listen to him, then fine. It was certainly worth a shot, at least, no matter how weird or unfitting or embarrassing it might feel to him.

When he reached out again with his soul, he tried to pour all of his focus into it this time. All his concentration. All of his effort. And determination. And certainty. And gravity.

And he issued the command.

"Show yourself," he said.

Those two words resounded through the dark sea around him. He had no idea how. Where had those words even come from? Where was his mouth? How was he hearing anything?

Hmm. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that he was feeling them, rather actually hearing them.

In any case, he also felt something there. Something waiting in the black.

Indeed, just as he thought, it was not empty.

He tried again.

"Show yourself to me, Candle."

The darkness shuddered this time, bending inward. And a sound arrived, though he couldn't make it out. Too distant. Muddled. Could've been words. Could've been music.

He was about to try again when Abbas' voice arrived.

"Hector! What in the world are you doing?!" The Lord Saqqaf's soul was suddenly there next to him, hovering in the darkness. "Why did you go off on your own?! How did you go off on your own?!"

Oh.

Uh.

Those were all pretty good questions, actually.

A pretty good answer came to mind, though--or what felt like one, at least.

"I'm just looking around."

Friday, January 22, 2021

Page 2960

He was reminded of his recent efforts to speak with Rasalased, of the "emotional command" that it had required. Maybe this was similar.

He'd been thinking that the issue was his emotional control, that was difficult for him manipulate his own feelings in such a way. But he'd begun to think that perhaps that wasn't it--or at least not entirely.

Perhaps it was "command" part that he'd actually been underestimating. It had seemed simple enough to just think about what he wanted, to concentrate on trying to reach Rasalased--or in this case, the Forge--but what there was more to it than that?

Thinking about what he wanted wasn't quite the same thing as actually issuing a command, after all. It was the difference between hoping for someone to do something and ordering them to do it.

That was a difference that a proper lord should be thoroughly aware of.

Probably.

It seemed pretty fucking weird that he would need to give an order to the Shard or the Forge to do something like that, but then again, nothing about them was normal. This was the territory of souls and ardor and... aura? Or will, maybe?

Or some combination thereof, perhaps.

Willpower. Hmm. When it came to issuing commands, the concept of willpower felt like the more relevant thing. And he hadn't forgotten what Malast had said about him having "the Supreme Will."

Hector had been trying to connect that particular dot with a whole bunch of others for a while now, but it was a stubborn puzzle, to be sure. And frankly, Hector found it hard to believe that he, of all people, could possess something that sounded so... well, supreme.

Honestly, half the time, he felt like he had one of the weakest wills imaginable, like he preferred to just be a total doormat and let everyone else have their way. He'd been trying to work on that, but it was still a constant struggle.

As for the other half of the time, though...

Uh.

Well.

Hmm.

Page 2959

He followed the Lord Saqqaf's lead and gently placed his bare hand against glass.

"Now concentrate," said Abbas. "Close your eyes, if it helps. Take hold of your soul and slowly press it into the Forge. Use your soul to try and sense the object's shape, its volume. Then look more closely, if you can. Don't rush it. This may take--"

Hector was long gone.

He'd lost track of Abbas' voice almost immediately--and he wasn't too bothered by it, either. Perhaps he should have been.

But this was so strange.

And yet so familiar.

The darkness all around him was like a warm ocean. Soothing. Reassuring. It was welcoming him. Like an old friend.

He didn't have many of those. In fact, he might've had literally none. His memories felt a little foggy. Distant. Requiring real concentration to summon them.

Hmm. That didn't seem good.

He felt a little too... loose, somehow. His mind was stretching, going everywhere. But there was nothing to hold onto in here. Just the darkness. An endless expanse.

He refocused. No wandering. That seemed dangerous.

His thought processes were all feeling a bit sluggish, weighed down in this darkness. But if he concentrated all of them on the same thing, he felt fairly normal again.

Yeah. That was better. Clearer.

Where was he? Inside the Forge? Something like that, probably.

This felt an awful lot like when he'd first encountered Rasalased. That probably wasn't a coincidence.

And just like that encounter, there was probably something here that he wasn't yet picking up on. When Rasalased had been totally dormant, that space within the Shards had felt entirely empty.

So what was he missing here? Hmm. Obviously, Abbas had wanted to show him something. The "true character" of the Forge or whatever.

He could try meditating more deeply. That was what had allowed him to reach Rasalased. Seemed like it might work.

But he wanted to try something else here.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Page 2958

'Hmm,' mused Garovel. 'I'd like to take some time and think about this name for a while, but we probably shouldn't delay, should we? You need the name in order to continue your work, don't you?'

"Yes," said Abbas.

'But you also mentioned something about the name being able to affect the Forge's capabilities, didn't you?'

"Theoretically, yes. In minor ways. A name will not change its fundamentally gentle nature, for instance."

'I see. And a bad name could end up being rejected by it a second time, I assume?'

"Indeed. Worwal is therefore disqualified from this exercise."

'I shall carry this resentment for the rest of my days,' said Worwal.

Garovel chortled but then fell quiet, thinking deeply no doubt.

Hector tried to do the same. This was probably the kind of thing that a proper lord should take seriously.

A good name for a big ass candle in a big ass tree... capable of creating objects of untold power...

Uh.

Uhhh...

"Hector," said Abbas, making the young man look up at the man again. "Perhaps I can assist. Come." He turned and stepped toward the Forge, motioning for Hector to follow.

Uh-oh.

Hector did as he was bid and found himself standing incredibly close to the Forge's enormous glass bulb again. Not since discovering what it was had he dared to approach it like this. While he appreciated what Abbas had said before about it not being the "type" of Forge that would suck out their souls and devour them, he couldn't help feeling pretty fucking anxious, regardless.

Abbas placed a hand on his shoulder as they stood there together. "Relax. It is dormant. It cannot possibly harm you. And your apprehension will do you no favors in witnessing the truth of its character for yourself."

"...Okay." Hector took a deep breath as he tried to steady himself. He watched Abbas place a hand on the glass and then look toward Hector expectantly.

Page 2957

'Well, this is quite a bit of pressure,' said Garovel. 'Whatever name we decide on right now could end up spreading across the entire world one day. It might even end up outliving all of us.'

Hmm. Damn. Hector had been racking his brain for a decent name a moment ago, but suddenly he felt like he shouldn't be the one to decide, anymore.

Worwal decided to chime in again. 'Allow me to suggest a name, then. I know the perfect one.'

Hector noticed a flat look cross Abbas' face.

'Alright, let's hear it,' said Garovel.

'The Candle of Reestablished Quietude.'

For a time, no one responded. They merely exchanged glances with one another.

'Bit of a mouthful, don't you think?' said Garovel.

'Hmm? Really? Well, how about the Renewed Candle of Glowing Radiance?'

Hector could see Garovel's skeletal expression twist, not wanting to shoot his fellow reaper down twice in a row.

Abbas saved him, however. "Truthfully, Worwal has never been very good at naming things. Which is another reason why I wanted the two of you to do it for us, by the way."

'Oh, here we go again,' said Worwal. 'Please don't slander me in front of our allies.'

"It's not slander if it's true," said Abbas. "I offered to let him name one of my sons. Do you want to know what he suggested?"

'Oh, very much, yes,' said Garovel.

"Meteorite. He wanted my son to be named Meteorite Saqqaf."

'I still want him to be named that, quite frankly. It's a great name. Very distinctive. Instead, you went with Nadim. How many other Nadims are there among our kin, huh? I'll never understand how all these repeated names don't drive everyone crazy.'

"You didn't even suggest the Valgan word for meteorite."

'Because it would be that much more unique.'

Abbas just shook his head.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Page 2956

'Do you know what happened to Agrian in the end?' asked Worwal.

'His reaper released him, supposedly,' said Garovel. 'Against his will, that is.'

'Mm. And the reaper's name?'

'Cantorix. Ever heard of him?'

'Afraid not.'

'Shame. If by some chance the reaper is still alive, he might prove useful in getting the Candle back up and running.'

'I admit I was thinking that as well,' said Worwal, 'but it would be incredibly unlikely.'

'Of course. If Cantorix had survived, then this Forge would almost certainly not have been abandoned.'

'Yes. It would have probably become a national treasure of Lorent, instead.' Worwal's hollow eye sockets fell to Hector for a moment, but he said nothing further.

'That, or it would've been destroyed,' said Garovel. 'In fact, I'd say that would've been the more likely scenario. How many Forges have there been throughout history? And how many have survived to this day?'

'Fair point.'

"Regardless, the Candle requires a renewed name," said Abbas. "I thought the two of you should decide, seeing as it is technically not my Forge."

'Wow,' said Garovel. 'That's... astoundingly honorable of you, Lord Saqqaf. Were you not tempted to give it a new name and claim ownership for yourself? Would've been a real dick move, but Forges are insanely valuable, and we wouldn't have been in a position to stop you. Hell, you might've even been able to keep us in the dark about the whole thing and act like nothing had changed.'

Abbas' expression remained blank as he met the reaper's gaze steadily. "I would have to be quite the heartless wretch to stab you in the back after all you have done for me and my family."

Garovel chuckled. 'I'm glad you feel that way, because I've known many people who would not agree with you.'

"As have I."

Page 2955

'Near the end of his life,' said Garovel, 'Agrian reportedly came to have such a vindictive nature that any perceived insult he suffered caused him to fly into a rage and level entire buildings before calming down again.'

'Ah...' Worwal's tone shifted to one of tired familiarity. 'He resorted to slaughtering innocents, then...'

'Well, er, actually, no. Not quite. According to several different sources, he went out of his way to never kill a single person directly, even his enemies.'

'What?'

'The stories disagreed about why that was, but none of them disputed its historicity. Some said he was, despite all appearances, quite softhearted and simply incapable of taking a human life, while others said that it was actually a strange sense of cruelty that motivated him in this way. They said that he preferred to destroy or otherwise remove all of a person's worldly possessions, leaving them with nothing.

'There was one tale about a king who insulted him over supper by saying that a locket that Agrian had gifted the king's mistress "had the craftsmanship of a drunken child." Agrian kidnapped him in the middle of the night and abandoned him in the wilderness, telling him to "try crafting something better." The king survived and made it back to his stronghold, which apparently wasn't what Agrian had in mind, because he kidnapped him and did it again.' Garovel broke for a pregnant pause. 'The king didn't make it back a second time. No one ever saw him again.'

Geez, Hector thought.

"Hmm," hummed Abbas. "Forgemakers are notoriously eccentric. That story rings true to me. And it would require a truly strange contradiction of a man to create a Forge that rejected its own creator."

'You might be right,' said Garovel. 'Though the term "eccentric" is a bit generous, I think. He had many similar stories that did not involve kings, stories where he would simply burn down someone's house and tell them to "start anew."'

"Ah..."

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Page 2954

That seemed to pique Abbas' interest. "I did not realize you were a Prime Archiver."

'It's not something I like to advertise. We didn't part on the best of terms.'

"I see..."

'In any event, Agrian was indeed a powerful servant in his day, but the stories about him were always... shall we say, embarrassing? He struggled desperately--and sometimes pathetically--to distinguish himself from his much more famous mentor. And sadly, it would seem he never quite managed it, if even the two of you haven't heard of him.'

"Who was his mentor?" said Abbas.

'Skapa,' said Garovel.

Abbas head reared back a little. "That is good news, then, surely. Skapa made several of his own Forges."

'Sure...' Garovel did not sound terribly convinced. 'Only, the stories about Agrian tended be more... cautionary in nature, rather than praiseworthy. Few of them involved him creating something that actually worked, and even in those, he was usually upstaged by one of his peers and made to look like a bitter fool by the end.'

'Wow,' said Worwal. 'I must say, you are not painting a very prestigious picture of our dear Forge's creator.'

Garovel paused for a brief sigh. 'Yes, well, I don't want to give you a false impression of him. But on the other hand, if he really did manage to create this Forge, then he must have been more skilled than the tales let on.'

Abbas brought a hand to his chin as he thought. "His personality may explain why the Candle rejects his name. Or perhaps there was a particular event that made it turn against him. Either way, it clearly does not wish to be associated with his memory."

Worwal gave a harsh laugh. 'That's quite the slap in the face. Abandoned by his own masterwork. Makes me feel a bit sorry for this Agrian.'

'I wouldn't rush to his defense too quickly, if I were you,' said Garovel.

'Oh?'

Page 2953

Garovel hovered to and fro behind Hector. 'So we'll need to give it a new name, after all, is what you're saying.'

"Yes and no," said Abbas. "I believe the word Candle is still accepted by it. It is the word Agrian's that it has a problem with."

'Ah...'

Hector felt like he was beginning to get the picture.

"Worwal and I have been talking about who this Agrian person might have been," said Abbas. "Unfortunately, he does not remember a famous integrator by that name. We were therefore hoping that you might know more, Garovel."

Hector's reaper was quiet as all attention shifted to him.

They had the room all to themselves, just the four of them. Abbas had made sure to send his own attendants away, and now Hector understood why. If this information turned out to be sensitive in some way, then they didn't want it getting out. Surely, if they asked every reaper at Warrenhold if they recognized the name Agrian, one of them was bound to know something, but that could also be a risk--maybe not right now, but in the future, once the reapers inevitably began to disperse back out into the world.

Abbas and Worwal wanted to play things ultra safe here, and he didn't blame them. Indeed, their next words confirmed as much for him.

'If you don't know anything, that's fine,' said Worwal. 'We were just thinking that the fewer people we have to bring into this little circle of trust, the better.'

'I understand,' said Garovel. 'And the truth is... I do know of Agrian. I find it a bit difficult to believe that he could have been the one to create this Forge, but... at the same time, it makes a strange sort of sense.'

Worwal folded his skeletal arms in front of his black shroud, long scythe poking out to his side. 'Don't tell me you knew him personally.'

'No, no,' said Garovel. 'But during my time as a Prime Archiver, many stories from around the ancient world came to my attention.'

Monday, January 18, 2021

Page 2952

Still, it was an encouraging sight, to say the least. Clear progress being made. The Forge wasn't yet fully operational, unfortunately, but whatever the heck Abbas was doing seemed to be working. And the fact that Abbas was even allowing him in the general vicinity in order to show him this was also a good sign. Before, there'd been significant concern from the Lord Saqqaf and the reapers that any observers would be endangered during such work.

Something about having their souls sucked out of their still-living bodies and consumed in their entirety.

Didn't sound like a fun time.

Abbas wasn't worried about that anymore, though, it seemed.

"This isn't that kind of Forge," he said. "It wishes only to stoke growth in its environment and abhors harm--perhaps even to a fault. The lack of aggression makes it safer to use but also limits its overall creative potential in certain ways. A fair trade off, I suppose--and one that I am more than happy with, given the circumstances. We will just have to accept the fact that the items born from this beauty will have a certain 'characteristic quality' to them. However, that in no way means they will be less useful."

'I see,' said Garovel. 'Were you able to discover its name?'

"I was," said Abbas, drawing himself up and smiling somewhat. "It was known as Agrian's Candle." His smile spoiled a little, however.

'Emphasis on WAS,' added Worwal.

'What do you mean?' said Garovel.

"That was most definitely its name. Of that, I am sure. And normally, a Forge's name is supposed to be a kind of 'key' to discovering almost all of its mechanical properties and intended method of operation. But this Forge... I do not know how to describe it other than that it has, in part, rejected its own name."

What in the world?

"I believe that may be why it was abandoned," said Abbas. "It no longer identifies with its own name and has therefore been rendered all but powerless. You saw how it flickered? It is like an engine that refuses to start."

Page 2951 -- CCVII.

"If you will not believe a word I say, then is there any point in me answering you?" said Germal.

"Good question," said Damian.

Another bout of tense silence arrived.

This time, it was Feromas who broke it. 'Overra. She has truly been captured by Morgunov?'

"Yes," said Germal. "Even if you think I am lying, that fact will be simple enough to check on your own."

'Hmph. And are we also to believe that you have some sort of plan to rescue her?'

"Indeed."

'How? If Morgunov has her, the only way she'll make it out alive is if he decides to let her go. Don't tell me that's your plan. To convince that lunatic to release her?'

"That would make things easier, to be sure, but no. Any plan that involves that man's cooperation is a last resort, at best."

'Then I ask again: how?'

"Can I count on your assistance, then?"

'If this sounds at all feasible, perhaps. If not, then you might as well turn around and walk away, right now.'

Germal took a long, slow breath. "...What do you know of Project Blacksong?"


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

Hector watched with quiet marvel, hardly able to believe his eyes. He'd seen a lot of crazy shit recently, but the Forge sputtering on and off ranked pretty high up there.

Abbas Saqqaf was just standing there, eyes closed with both hands pressed against the spherical glass.

And a whiff of light kept appearing and disappearing within the giant orb.

Functionally speaking, it wasn't all that different from a simple light bulb, Hector supposed--a thought which might have dulled the spectacle a bit--but he couldn't help being amazed, all the same. The light was just... suspended there within the glass, like a blinking star that had been plucked straight out of the sky.

The light was too fleeting to get a truly good look at, and yet he was beginning to see what Abbas had meant when he had described the fire of this Forge as being 'gentle.'

That light had a warmth to it that Hector could feel with his very soul, somehow. Or maybe with his aura. He wasn't too sure about that, actually, because Garovel didn't seem to be able to sense it.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Page 2950

To say that Cisco was surprised to hear Damian saying such things was an understatement. The old bastard knew he was crazy this whole time? And it wasn't all just an act, either?

The man's tone was different, too, to the point where it almost sounded like someone else was speaking, like he was using his vocal chords in a way that Cisco had never heard before.

Damian was so... calm. And severe. In an odd way, Cisco was reminded of his own father. The overall mannerism was just similar enough.

Germal sighed. "Do you really mean that? If you would just remain by my side, as Koh does, then your madness would never trouble you again. I swear."

"You think I forgot?" said Damian. "Or are you just playing dumb, as usual? If it's a choice between being insane or being your puppet, then that's no choice at all."

Germal shook his head. "My old friend... you would not be my puppet. I assure you. We would be companions. As we were always meant to be. Even if I wished otherwise, I do not have the power to bend you to my will in that way."

"Hmph. The Liar of Lyste, indeed."

"Why would I lie about that? I'm not the monster you think I am. If I were, why would I not simply force you to come with me?"

"Because it's not that easy, and we both know it," said Damian. "Your tricks are messy. And the more powerful the subject, the messier they become. But just because it's difficult for you doesn't make you harmless, old friend."

Germal turned away and paced a few steps back, scratching his head. "We're getting sidetracked. I didn't come all this way to have an argument with you."

"Hmph. How did you even find me?" Damian's gaze shifted to the wolf. "Was it really his doing? Or was that another of your little white lies?"

Page 2949

Damian folded his arms. "You seek an alliance now, of all times?"

"I seek to rekindle what we once had," said Germal. "You do not trust me. That's fine. Verify for yourself that what I say is the truth. Parson and Overra are in Morgunov's clutches. You, more than any living being on this planet, know what that means. The danger they face."

Damian's wrinkled face was like stone.

"If you would consign them both to a fate worse than death, then so be it," said Germal. "The bond between us will be well and truly dead, then. And I will go to rescue him on my own. But you should be aware that if I, too, am captured, then it is only a matter of time before he comes for you, as well."

"Hmph. Perhaps it would be better to have you take my secret to the grave, then," said Damian.

At that, Koh turned his massive head toward Damian and began growling.

And the air grew so oppressive that Cisco suddenly found it difficult even to breathe, much less move.

"...Hah. If you think you are capable of killing me, then feel free to try. I came prepared."

"I'm sure you did."

A long period of heavy silence followed, until at length, Germal broke it.

"Does no remnant of camaraderie remain within that broken heart of yours?" the horned man asked. "If not for me, then for Parson, at least?"

"You tell me," said Damian. "You're the expert on feelings, aren't you?"

"Damian..."

"What? Is this not what you wanted when you tried to make me your puppet?"

"For the last time, that was not my intention. I was foolish and lacked experience with my--"

"Save your excuses. And don't apologize, either, for that matter." Damian paused for a throaty chortle. "Y'know, in a way, you granted me freedom. Going half-mad has had its perks."

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Page 2948

Cisco blinked upon seeing Damian. His head felt odd, but the warring thoughts abated, allowing him a kind of tired peace. He didn't let his attention waver too much, though. He'd never seen such a grave expression on Damian's face before.

"What do you want, Germal?" the old man said. His tone was not at all the jovial one that Cisco had come to know.

"You're looking well, all things considered. I'm glad."

"For a dead man, you mean?" Damian released his grip on the other man's wrist.

'Where is Nerovoy, you monster?' said Feromas. The reaper, too, sounded shockingly different from his usual self. Where Damian sounded flat and cold, Feromas now sounded like he was barely containing his anger.

The stranger, apparently named Germal, regarded the reaper with an icy look. "You should not ask questions you do not want the answer to, old friend."

'And you shouldn't be using that body or that voice, outsider. If you think your tricks will work here, you are sorely mistaken.'

"When will you accept that I am Germal truly?"

'Never. Act like him all you want. Fool as many others as you like. Damian and I know what you really are. Until you bring Nerovoy back, there is no hope for a viable union between us again. Of that, you can be sure.'

Germal broke for a sigh. "I had hoped that all this time would have allowed you to cool your head, but I see that is not the case."

'You devoured my best friend of two millennium, you unholy son of a bitch. If you think that's something I'll ever--'

"And what if your other best friend were to become endangered?" said Germal. "At the hands of the Mad Demon, no less. Would that give you pause?"

Feromas fell silent.

Page 2947

And indeed, the stranger did not answer him. Instead, he merely returned a smile.

A very striking smile. It had a warmness to it that was difficult to describe. Cisco had never seen the like before. What an odd feeling.

The stranger looked between Cisco and Koh for a moment. "What is your name, cedo?" he asked.

Cisco didn't quite feel like answering that. "What's yours?"

"Heh. You remind me of someone, cedo."

He wasn't sure what to make of that, so he said nothing.

The stranger turned toward Dunstan and stepped closer. "In any case, I came to meet with Damian. If he does not wish to reveal himself, then that is a problem." He raised a hand toward the other young man. "Would you mind assisting me?"

Dunstan's thick, furrowed brow suggested that he would mind. But he, too, chose to say nothing.

"I won't hurt you," said the stranger. "I ask for but a trifle. A moment of your time, only." His hand moved closer.

Cisco was intensely uncomfortable all of a sudden. Like the whole world was abruptly turning upside down or inside out, like everything was no longer as it should be, like he should speak up. Intervene. Anything.

Yet his whole body hardly seemed to be listening to him. And thoughts arose in his mind as if from nowhere, both for and against that nebulous feeling.

Something was wrong. Everything was fine. Do something. Relax. This horned guy was creepy as hell. He seemed kinda nice, actually.

Dunstan was just sitting there, too. And the reapers weren't saying anything, either. Surely, if this situation was so odd or disturbing, then one of them would do something, no?

It would all be over soon.

There was nothing to worry about.

The stranger's hand stopped, mere inches away from Dunstan's face.

Damian Rofal was standing there, gripping the stranger's wrist.

"Ah. There you are, old friend."

Friday, January 15, 2021

Page 2946

It wasn't entirely clear who the stranger was talking to, but Cisco could only suspect Damian. Was this guy implying the old man was already present but invisible or something?

Hmm. That... might explain a few things, actually.

Regardless, no answer arrived, leaving only uncomfortable silence behind.

"Koh can smell you, you know," said the stranger. "He never forgets a scent."

Ah, was that the name of the wolf? How interes--

Wait a minute. Koh?

Cisco had heard that before. Of course he had. "Did you just say Koh?" he asked, eyeing the beast anew.

The stranger regarded him for a moment, looking rather uninterested in him or his question, but then the man paused and tilted his head at him. "Why, yes, cedo, I did. Do you perhaps recognize his name? Or has he simply piqued your curiosity?"

At the insistence of his mother, Cisco had memorized the names of the most famous Vanguardians and Abolishers in the world. Oftentimes, that had made for tedious study, but the name Koh was one that had been easier to remember. Because it supposedly belonged to a giant, wolf-like monster.

At first, he'd thought that was super cool. He loved dogs, so he'd been keen to learn more. But when he'd discovered that Koh was also known as the Man-Eater of Melmoore and the Silver Devil of Dante, Cisco's enthusiasm had quickly been replaced with dismay--especially as he continued to learn more about him.

This wolf was, among many other things, a prominent member of Abolish.

Which meant that this one-horned guy was almost certainly the same.

Hmph. Fine. He wasn't about to let something like a name make him lose composure.

"...What does Abolish want with Damian?" said Cisco. He didn't expect this weirdo to actually answer that question, but the real purpose of it was to let everyone else at the table know who they were talking to. Maybe the reapers already knew, but judging from the expression on Dunstan's face, he didn't.

Page 2945

Cisco's fascination with the animal consumed his attention even while the conversation among the others continued. It wasn't his fault, though. Honestly, he'd always wanted a dog, and this specimen right here was one of the most incredible creatures he'd ever laid eyes upon. A part of him wanted to ask the horned guy if he could have him--along with any number of other questions.

'So who are you two, anyway?' Reza was saying. 'And what brings you here?'

"Oh, we are just a couple of travelers," said the horned man. "We are searching for someone. A man named Damian. Would you happen to know where he is?"

'Y'know, I had a feeling you might be looking for him,' said Reza. 'Are you old friends of his?'

"Yes. You could say that."

'I see, I see. Well, he has a tendency to just disappear. We're not sure when he'll be back. He kinda just shows up whenever he wants.'

The stranger's gaze lingered on Rezamaar for a moment, then shifted to the wolf. The pair seemed to share a silent exchange, and then the stranger said, "That is interesting. So you have no idea where he is right now, then?"

'Nope,' said Reza, still perfectly casual. 'He seriously just disappears. It's kinda spooky, actually. But hey, if you'd like to leave a message for him, I'd be happy to deliver it for you whenever he shows back up.'

"That is kind of you, but what I have to say is something that must be said in person."

'Mm, I see. Sounds important. Hope it's nothing too serious. Y'know, with all the craziness going on in the world, right now, I find myself becoming something of a worrywart. Which goes against my better nature, by the way.'

"Oh, I'm sure that's not true."

Reza paused. 'Which part?'

The stranger gave her a look but didn't answer. Instead, he said something entirely different and unexpected, no longer addressing the reaper, seemingly. "Please, show yourself. We did not come here for a fight, but if you keep hiding for much longer, I'm going to start thinking that you intend to ambush us."

Cisco was paying full attention now, as was Dunstan, who'd finally raised his head off the table.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Page 2944

'Not at all,' said Reza. 'I'm sure I speak for all of us here when I say that we're pleased by new company. Been going a bit stir crazy lately, you might say.'

The wolf was still pressing his head against Cisco's.

It was all too weird and sudden to process, but impulsively, Cisco couldn't help himself. He started petting the giant pupper.

Heh. The fella seemed to like it behind the ears a lot. He sat down next to Cisco's chair but was still so tall that he had to hunch over to stay around head level with the young man.

The horned man, meanwhile, was giving them a look and exhaling a weary breath. "Apologies for my friend here, cedo. He is a bit quick to become attached to young ones like yourself, and he has been starved for affection ever since we dropped Durendia off."

Cisco wasn't listening, though. He was too busy being awestruck. And quite pleased.

What species was this, he wondered? Judging by the relative height of the ears, length of the snout, and pure white coat, it looked like a Northern Ardoran wolf--perhaps a Jariki tundra wolf or a Katoa Mountains wolf, to be more precise--but this size was absolutely absurd.

Hmm, he supposed it could've also been an albino Western Eloan wolf--Dantean, maybe--but he thought albinism was associated with smaller-than-average sizes, not larger. Yeah, Northern Ardoran was the safer bet, he figured.

But still, he couldn't get over the enormity of this handsome fella. Wolves this size weren't supposed to exist. Not anymore, at least. It was like something out of prehistory, back when mammals were still competing with dinosaurs.

And what was that other smell, beneath the dirt one? Kind of ashy? Like smoke? Had this guy been near a fire recently or something?

Page 2943

Feeling his exhaustion weighing him down in his seat, Cisco considered just letting himself drift off to sleep right then and there. It was barely past midday, but they were prisoners, so what difference did it make? Dunstan seemed to be having the same idea. The guy hadn't moved in minutes.

As he was on the cusp of embracing that warm and familiar darkness, however, he felt something there on his right. A presence. Very large. And very near.

He scarcely opened one eye before noticing the form of a giant animal standing there next to him. A wolf. A white one. As big as a car.

And it was staring at him.

Cisco's eyes were suddenly stuck open, his fatigue forgotten. Had he fallen asleep? Was this a dream? What was he even looking at?

The dog was already quite close, and now it stepped even closer, raising its massive snout up to his face and sniffing audibly. The air being sucked into its nose was loud enough at this distance that it sounded like a small wind tunnel.

'Cisco,' came Dennex's urgent echo. 'No. Sudden. Movements.'

That wasn't a problem. Cisco could do little more than blink, anyway. But the reaper was seeing this, too? So he wasn't hallucinating? Perhaps he would've felt relief if he'd had the presence of mind for it.

Then the wolf licked his cheek. Its giant tongue was so coarse that Cisco felt like the peach fuzz on his face might get ripped off, but the drool it left behind probably prevented that.

Well, he was most assuredly awake now, at least.

'Hello there,' came Reza's voice from somewhere. She sounded a lot more composed than Cisco felt.

The wolf didn't acknowledge her, instead remaining focused on Cisco and even nuzzling its head against him now. It smelled like it had been rolling around in dirt, though its fur coat looked pristine.

A man, however, appeared from behind the animal and responded to Rezamaar. A man with a single horn on his head. "Hello. Please excuse our intrusion."

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Page 2942

The way Damian could disappear, for example, was very odd. Even the reapers couldn't sense him approaching or leaving. It was perhaps their largest problem right now, because it created an air of fear around them at all times. He could be right there without any of them knowing. He could be eavesdropping on any of their conversations.

It was a form of psychological manipulation, Dennex said--a way to make them second guess everything they were saying, and by extension, everything they were thinking. And of course, the thought that he could pop up anywhere at any moment would also make them more reluctant to try and flee.

Cisco didn't know if he agreed on that point. He thought the reaper might've been giving the guy a little too much credit. Damian was terrifying, sure, but he was also a chaotic mess, and that type of ploy seemed a little too calculated and cerebral for him.

Plus, Damian still had those big, underground worm monsters at his beck and call. Cisco had first heard about them from Dunstan--and thought him crazy, at the time--but he'd seen them a couple times with his own two eyes since then.

If nothing else, those things made it about a hundred times more difficult for the reapers to flee underground. Not that Damian even needed the help.

Lakefire. Come to think of it, Cisco was starting to wonder if Damian actually had any reason for bringing them to Melmoore. Maybe this was all just some random whim of his with no real justification behind it.

Would that be for the better or worse?

With Damian's constant vanishing, there was no way to know, really. He could've been going off and doing all sorts of things, talking to anyone, or even stealthily involving himself in the war. Sabotaging one or both sides, perhaps.

Hmm. Yeah, that seemed like something Damian would do.

Page 2941

The longer he stayed with these Rofals, the more entrenched he would become in their affairs--and the more motivation Damian would have to prevent him from leaving.

Or to hunt him down.

Agh. That might actually be the worst-case scenario, Cisco thought. If he somehow managed to slip away, he didn't want Damian to come looking for him. He knew his father was powerful, but Cisco didn't know if even the famed Water Dragon of Sair would be able to stop this crazy old man.

He definitely didn't want to bring the problem of Damian home with him.

And in that sense, maybe it would be better to remain totally ignorant of whatever Damian was planning. If Cisco didn't know anything, then Damian wouldn't worry about him leaking sensitive information.

If only it was that simple.

By now, it was clear that they weren't going to escape by any normal means. Brute force was obviously out of the question, and stealth wasn't looking too great, either. And as such, they needed to bide their time and gather more information.

That was how Dennex had explained it a few days ago, anyway.

And yeah, going by that logic, it might've seemed a bit stupid to keep up the escape attempts, but there was more to their reasoning. The escape attempts were still useful as a way of gathering their own kind of information--as a "limit testing" strategy, Dennex had said.

With each attempt, they tested the extent of Damian's capabilities. Thus far, it didn't seem like they'd gotten close to even making him break a sweat, but in time, that could change. They had to approach each attempt as a learning experience unto itself. The more they understood what they were facing, the better they could prepare for the next attempt.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Page 2940

Cisco collapsed into the seat across from Dunstan. He didn't plan on asking Reza what she was talking about, but Dennex did, apparently.

'Ask who about what directly?' the reaper said.

'Ask Damian about what his plans are,' said Rezamaar. 'I kinda feel like he'd just tell us if we demonstrated interest, y'know?'

'Are you serious? There's no way he'd do that after we've tried to escape so many times.'

'Yeah, but I don't think he's too worried about us actually managing to get away. So by extension, he wouldn't be worried about us telling anyone else about what he's up to, right?'

'Well, that man's mind is a mystery,' said Dennex, 'but I'm sure Feromas would never allow it.'

'Ah, yeah. The party pooper. We'd have to ask when he's not around, probably.'

'They're always together, though.'

'We'll have to figure out some way of separating them, then.'

'That seems impossible.'

Cisco stopped listening and rubbed his throbbing temples, but on the whole, he had to agree with Dennex. And while he appreciated both of the reapers' attempts to make their little quartet here feel like it had any agency whatsoever, he was a bit on the pessimistic side when it came to their current circumstances.

Perhaps it had something to do with how many beatings he'd taken over the last few days. Freedom was beginning to feel like a distant luxury that he would never be able to enjoy again.

And yet.

He wasn't prepared to give up, either.

He was a Rainlord. He didn't need hope in order to keep trying.

And he finally had a lead. He had to make it to Matteo Delaguna in Lorent. Or Atreya. Whichever one it was, he'd figure it out. Matteo could help him find his family. He was sure of it.

He just had to get away from Damian Rofal.

Page 2939

He made his way out into the crude veranda of the house that they'd been squatting in. All of the homes in this neighborhood had been abandoned, but with the Melmoorians having pushed the Ostrans back up north, there was a chance that the residents might be returning to this little suburb soon.

Maybe. Dennex seemed to think it would still be a while yet. After having been pushed out by the encroaching war front, the reaper suspected that the people who fled wouldn't be so eager to come back until the conflict was fully resolved.

Which made sense, Cisco supposed. But it also made sense to him that those people wouldn't want to just abandon their entire lives in this place, either. And from the sound of it, this war might continue for quite some time. Or at least, that was what he'd been overhearing from Reza and Feromas. They both agreed that, with so many active fronts, the tide would probably shift many times before the end. If one side started losing in Melmoore, they could divert forces from another front in order to pick up the slack and mount a counteroffensive.

Cisco had been trying to pay attention to any details like that. Damian wasn't sharing the reasoning behind his decisions--assuming he even had any--so Cisco had to make due with what the reapers were saying and whatever he could piece together on his own.

Feromas probably knew more than he was letting on, but then again, this was Damian they were talking about. Cisco wouldn't have been surprised to learn that even the old bastard's own reaper was being kept in the dark.

'Why don't you just ask him directly?' Reza was saying.

Dunstan was hunched over in his chair, resting his face on a small white table. He hadn't bothered to wipe off any of the dirt or blood yet, and he didn't look like he'd have the energy to do so anytime soon, either.

Her question went unanswered. Aloud, at least. Perhaps Dunstan was talking to her in his head.

Reza had a habit of not keeping private conversations private, Cisco had noticed.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Page 2938

Subtlety didn't seem like one of Damian Rofal's strong suits, Cisco thought as he finally managed to heave himself up onto all fours. Actually standing up wasn't looking too likely, however. His sense of balance was taking so long to return that he was beginning to worry it might not come back at all.

"Let's call it there for today," said Damian. Perhaps he'd grown tired of waiting for them to get back up. "Better luck next time, boys."

Cisco could hear a bit of laughter from the peanut gallery on his right. Several of the other Rofals had gotten into the habit of observing these sparring sessions with obvious delight. They never seemed to grow tired of watching Dunstan in particular get smacked around.

They weren't all like that, though. The littler ones mostly just seemed curious, and the grandmother, Damian's wife, kept trying to tend to Dunstan's wounds. Dunstan just kept brushing her off.

Cisco, however, didn't mind taking her up on her offer. She was a loony old lady, to be sure, but she had her moments of tenderness, he'd noticed. Plus, none of these people were undead. To Cisco's mind, that fact alone afforded them some leeway.

Servants were supposed to look after non-servants, even when they were assholes who might not necessarily deserve it. That was how he'd been raised to view this power of theirs.

Maybe Dunstan viewed things differently, but Cisco felt that way more strongly than ever. It was embedded into his heritage as a Rainlord. If he let that go, he would be a disappointment to both himself and his ancestors.

Dennex was allowed to hover over to him again, but Cisco didn't have him invoke the regeneration or numb his pain. Better to let wounds like this heal naturally for as long they could. Less of a hangover later.

Page 2937

Damian had also been disappearing with surprising frequency. One minute he would be there, and the next, he'd vanish.

At first, Cisco and Dunstan had thought that would be advantageous for making their escape, but they'd attempted it five times already, and Damian had always caught them without fail. One or both of them would suddenly stop moving. Or their reapers would come floating up out of the ground, seemingly paralyzed after trying to flee on their own.

And then the old bastard would insist on another sparring session and beat the daylights out of them both.

Damian never seemed to get angry about their attempts to flee, though. If anything, it looked like he found them amusing. And he never stopped giving them tips, either, even while smashing their faces in.

"All tuckered out?" came the old man's voice again. "Ready for bed?"

Cisco groaned and rolled over. He saw Dunstan a couple meters away, also struggling to get up again. Their respective reapers, Dennex and Rezamaar, were suspended in midair behind the old man.

"Have you thought about making a break for it when I'm asleep?" said Damian, sounding genuinely curious somehow.

Rezamaar answered him. 'Well, yeah, but Feromas will sense us and wake you up immediately.' She couldn't move, but she could still speak, apparently. She didn't sound terribly upset about the situation, either, come to think of it.

"True." Damian paused for a chuckle. "What if I make him promise not to wake me up, then?"

'Why would you do that?' said Reza.

"Why wouldn't I? Could be fun."

'Don't let him bait you,' said Feromas. 'Even if I agreed to that, it wouldn't work. He can sense you in his sleep.'

"Aw, don't tell them that! It was gonna be a surprise!"

'Try being more subtle next time, then.'

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Page 2936 -- CCLVI.

Chapter Two Hundred Fifty-Six: 'Thine intervening ambitions...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

For what must have been the thirtieth time today, Francisco Elroy hit the dirt with a heavy thud. He decided to stay there for a while longer. He wasn't prepared to give up quite yet, but the thought grew more tempting each time he found himself kissing the ground like this again.

He was exhausted. And sore all over. His vigor had worn off a while ago, which should have been his cue to go rest, but he wanted to make the most of his training while he still could. For as much as he disliked Damian Rofal, Cisco had to acknowledge that these sparring sessions were invaluable.

And once he and Dunstan escaped, they might never be able to receive this level of instruction again.

Crazy as it was to consider, a part of him thought that maybe it would be better not to escape. To just let the old bastard have his way. To make use of these messed up circumstances for as long as they might continue.

The worst part was, it actually made sense. He could see the logic in it.

And maybe a bit more than just logic...

Now that Damian had taken him and rest of the Rofals away from that damn cabin in the mountains, things were quite different. He'd brought them out to Melmoore.

To the front lines of the continental war.

It had barely been a week since they'd arrived, and he'd already witnessed more real combat than in the rest of his life combined.

Witnessed, but not exactly participated in. The amount of actual fighting he'd done was still comparatively minimal. Why Damian had bothered to bring them to a war zone if he didn't intend to make them fight, Cisco had no idea.

He wasn't necessarily complaining about that part, though.

Page 2935

Her gaze lingered on him for a moment, eyes seeming somehow sharper, almost as if they'd turned into her true avian ones. "My father would not be pleased to hear any of this, I'm sure."

Hector gave a shrug. "I'd be happy to make a place for him here, too."

She frowned, then sighed. "Of course you would..."

He couldn't help chuckling a little at that reaction. "Did I just cause you to decide against it?"

"Perhaps."

He pressed his lips together flatly, not sure how else to convince her. He kinda doubted that Hanton would actually want to stay here, but he also didn't want to promise not to let him do so. Warrenhold was a fortress, after all. If Gray Rock was ever invaded, the Lord Gaolanet might have need of the protection that this place could afford him.

As would many others, Hector suspected. And in such circumstances, he didn't intend to turn anyone away without a good reason.

Her avatar straightened and took a deep breath. "I guess you'll have to entice me with an especially nice room, then."

Uh-oh.

"First of all, it has to have a good view. I want to be able to see really far away. Most of Gray Rock, preferably. Secondly, I want a nice, big cushion to sit on. It should conform to the shape of my body without being too squishy. And definitely don't just throw together a pile of sticks, okay? I'm not that kind of sparrow. My feathers are too big, and branches will just get stuck in them. Third, I want an open ceiling that also has a hanging perch. Sometimes I like to sleep like that. Fourth, I want a steady supply--"

"Should I be writing this down?"

"--of seeds. The good stuff. Safflower, sunflower, golden millet--oh, and walnuts. I like those. Even if they're still in the shells, that's fine. I also like my water slightly below room temperature. Cold but not too cold. Brisk, I would say, not icy. And yes, I would be writing this down if I were you."

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Page 2934

That pulled a laugh out of her. "Well... hmm. I wouldn't mind helping, but in order to maintain the illusion, I would have to remain in the area. Unfortunately, I can't just create a permanent illusion here for you and leave."

"Ah..." Hector looked at his surrounding work, sizing it up again and thinking. "So... I should create, like, a 'nest' for you around here, is what you're saying."

Her avatar's eyes bulged a little. "I... uh... you'd be willing to do that? To just give me a place of my own in your castle?"

Oh, maybe that was a bigger deal than he'd thought it was.

Yeah, it definitely was. What was wrong with him?

He'd done this before with Gina, too, he suddenly recalled. Just inviting people to stay in his home as long as they wanted.

Gina had probably been more deserving it, though. When it came down to it, he still didn't really know all that much about the Sparrows or Pauline herself.

Eh, but it would be aboveground. After all that craziness they'd been through together in Lorent, he felt like she was pretty trustworthy.

Hmm.

He scratched his neck. "Well, if I were to give you your own, er, spot here, what would you need in order for it to be comfortable?"

"Ah, wait a minute. Trying to use my desire to leave home as a means of learning more about my kind, is that it? That's rather underhanded of you, Lord Goffe. I thought you were the more straightforward and earnest type."

Um. That hadn't been it at all, but now that she mentioned it, it didn't sounded like a terrible strategy. She obviously found her father a bit stifling, and he did want to learn more about the Wrobels.

Still, though, that wasn't his priority. "...Look, I just want my castle to be as impregnable and cool as possible. And having a Sparrow around seems like it would help with that."

Page 2933

He connected the dots. "...Pauline?" he said.

"Aha, hello," she said with a nice smile. "I was wondering if you would be able to tell it was me. What do you think of my avatar? Nice, right? I'll be honest--if you don't tell me it's nice, I'm going to be upset."

"...It's nice." In another thought process, he was reaching out with the Scarf, trying to locate her invisible avian body. With so much open air out here, though, it was difficult. She might've been too far away.

"Your enthusiasm could use a little work, but I suppose that will do. So what are you doing?"

He slowly destroyed his platform and let himself back down to the ground. He supposed he could tell her the truth here. In fact, he'd been wanting to share a bit with someone. Beyond the fact that it was to prep for a potential siege, Garovel hadn't demonstrated much interest in his iron castle strategy--perhaps because it was taking a while. Probably thought it was tedious or something.

That, and he'd been thinking about asking one of the Sparrows for help on this project, anyway.

"It's a decoy castle," he explained. "Not terribly unlike your family's estate, actually."

"Oh?"

"I'm just trying to, ah... have a bit of forethought, I guess. In case Warrenhold is ever attacked."

She was quiet a moment as her avatar gave the nearest tower another look, the expression on her human face looking abruptly more serious than a second ago. "...Are you expecting an attack to arrive soon?" she asked.

Ah. Difficult question. "Not sure. Maybe. Better safe than sorry, though."

She gave an admissive nod.

"Hey, uh... I don't suppose you could work some of your illusory magic and help spruce it up a bit for me, could you?"

Her brow furrowed. "Excuse me? 'Illusory magic?' What do you think I am? Some kind of sorceress?" A whisper of a smile was creeping across her lips, however.

Hector took that as a cue to double down. "...A little bit, yeah."

Friday, January 8, 2021

Page 2932

It wasn't quite the majestic iron fortress that he'd envisioned in his mind, but maybe he could keep adding to it as his volume limit increased. Slowly. Over a period of many years.

Tch. Okay, he was kinda disappointed with this humble collection of metal towers. They were shinier than the others, which was sort of neat, but he couldn't help wanting more of them. There was still so much empty ground left to fill.

Maybe he should go out and try to achieve emergence again. That was the fastest way to increase his volume limit. Sure, it would mean risking his life--and probably endangering the whole country, come think of it--but a nice, big, shiny castle would make it all worthwhile, right? Garovel and the Queen and everyone else would understand, surely.

Nevermind the fact that actively trying to achieve emergence was supposedly counterproductive and might actually prevent it from happening. That was beside the point.

Dammit. Well, at least he would have something to look forward to in the years to come. In the meantime, he could focus on refining the towers and making them look pristine. Come to think of it, he'd probably have to remake them a lot, wouldn't he? They might start to rust after a while. He wondered how long--

"What'cha doing?" came a feminine voice from below him.

The interruption made him blink. He'd been perched atop an iron platform, inspecting the crenellations on his southernmost tower and trying to decide if a tiled roof with a high apex might look better. When he looked he down, he saw a woman with long blond hair and unfamiliar face, staring back at him.

His confusion lingered for a few moments more, first because she was quite pretty, and second because she wasn't actually there.

He could sense it with the Scarf. She was an illusion.

Page 2931

He figured that a good first step was to materialize a kind of rough "false castle" aboveground. As long as it was all materialized, it wouldn't matter as much if it got obliterated. Plus, since nobody would actually be living in it, he didn't have to worry about things like insulation and heating and plumbing.

It was mainly just to help conceal the doorway to the Entry Tower. The longer the enemy spent wandering around on the surface, trying to locate the way inside, the more time they would have to organize their real defenses.

And it was kinda fun just creating entire towers out of his iron. He found himself spending perhaps a little too long on them, comparing them against pictures of real buildings from around the world and trying to make them look as believable and cool as possible.

He'd never been to the beach before, but maybe this was what building sand castles was like. He'd always wanted to give that a try.

He couldn't go quite as nuts with it as he might've liked, though. It required a gigantic amount of iron, after all. Multiple buildings, each with multiple floors. And all that iron that he devoted to this project would count against his volume limit while he was in the area. He had to exercise some restraint, unfortunately.

His preliminary results were looking pretty alright, though, Hector felt. Nothing as visually impressive as Stasya Orlov's work, of course, but it was a decent start, at least.

It helped that there was already some aboveground construction going on in the first place, so he could weave the iron buildings into and around them. The only real issue was making sure that his phony iron castle didn't get in the way of any of the real buildings that were still going up. Sure, the ones up here weren't as important as the eight towers underground, but they would probably still get used eventually, one way or another. He didn't always want to receive guests underground, especially with all the Rainlords down there.