Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Page 3103

By the time they landed, Zeff was more than ready to go. Being alone with his thoughts was becoming something that he greatly disliked. Too much sitting around and contemplating was liable to drive him crazy.

Well. Crazier, he supposed.

The tropical climate on this island wasn't exactly what he was accustomed to. The thick, muggy air and blindingly bright sun didn't suit Rainlords at all. Frankly, he'd never understood the appeal of such places as tourist destinations. People thought this was beautiful and not just obnoxious? To his mind, the ideal weather was that of a bright but still overcast sky accompanied by a very faint drizzle, gentle enough that it felt more like a cool and pleasing mist against one's skin.

He'd learned that about himself as a young man during his travels with the Vanguard. He'd seen much of the world in that span of time, but nowhere had he ever found more desirable weather than at home. He'd quickly grown to miss it back then, and judging from this place here now, he soon would again.

The little island that they'd chosen to use was barely even capable of receiving their small fleet of aircraft. The tiny airfield was already over capacity before the last of them touched ground. Dimas Sebolt used his gravity manipulation in order safely move a few planes out of the way, parking them outside the simple chainlink fence that encircled the compound.

It was inconvenient, but the seclusion of this place was the important thing. If they'd chosen a large airport as their landing destination, then it would have complicated matters significantly with Vantalayan authorities.

At least, that was Zeff's understanding of it. He was no pilot.

The short trip to the mainland took a few more hours. It was hard not to be impressed by Dimas' ability to carry so many people through the air like this. The man was noticeably slower than when flying alone, but the sheer utility of his power was undeniable. He'd not been neglecting his training, it seemed.

Page 3102

If nothing else, though, Zeff did have to give credit where credit was due. If the young Lord of Warrenhold was actually able to contribute in a fight between warriors as powerful as Bloodeye, the Man of Crows, and the Sunsmith, then perhaps... well, perhaps he could worry about Marcos and Ramira just a tiny bit less.

Hector had certainly proved that he would go above and beyond to protect not just them, but all Rainlords.

Which was another odd matter unto itself.

The way Zeff's brethren had been treating Hector. They'd grown so attached to him so quickly. Perhaps to an unhealthy degree, even.

When the Saqqafs informed everyone that Hector had fallen into some kind of strange coma, the others had not taken that news well.

In fairness, though, Zeff hadn't taken it so great, himself. He just wasn't accustomed to being one of the least angry people in the room. He'd certainly understood them being upset, but the last thing anyone needed right now was a fight between allies.

The Blackburns and Delagunas had gotten particularly riled up, which was especially surprising considering that those two Houses had largely been avoiding one another so as not to provoke a fight of their own. To see them actually finding common ground on something...

Well. It was its own kind of progress, Zeff supposed. Still strange, though.

He couldn't help wondering how the captive Rainlords were going to view their young Lord Darksteel once they were free. Zeff had a disquieting feeling that they wouldn't be well-pleased at the way everyone else fawned over the boy.

Historically, Rainlords didn't appreciate being told that they had to follow some foreigner. If they came to see him that way...

Bah.

A problem for a future day, Zeff supposed. Getting everyone out of Vantalay safely was the only thing he should've been worrying about now.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Page 3101

His mind drifted between each of his children for the full length of the flight.

Gema. Where in the world was she during all this? Could Parson have been telling the truth about her when he said that she was working for him? Zeff found it hard to believe anything that had come out of that man's mouth. But maybe it didn't even matter. Truthfully, he had no idea what he would say to her when he saw her again.

When he saw her again. Yes. Not if. When. As for Francisco, well... at least Zeff would be able to recover him during this trip. Cisco had been taken away by the Vanguard, so he should theoretically still be with the other captives. Unless those Vanguardian bastards had separated them for some reason. Zeff was trying to temper his expectations, but it was difficult.

Marcos and Ramira might've been "safe" at Warrenhold, but that wasn't reason enough to stop worrying about them. He just had to keep reminding himself that as long as Hahl Saqqaf was so close by, they would be fine.

Hahl Saqqaf and also... Hector, he supposed.

Honestly, Zeff still couldn't really believe it. Even a month later. The news that Hector had not only rescued the Sunsmith's entire Hahl but also been the one to slay the Man of Crows...

And then he'd fallen into a damn coma while activating some kind of powerful forge for Abbas? What in lakefire was going on with that boy?

Zeff had gotten to talk to him briefly before leaving. The kid seemed in perfectly good health again, which wasn't so surprising for a servant, but still. It was confusing. Was there a term for being both proud of and worried about someone at the same time? If so, Zeff needed to learn it.

Page 3100

He wished he could believe as Axiolis did. That would make things simpler--or it seemed like it would, at least.

Increasingly, he'd been wondering if he could just choose to start to believing in Lhutwё. At times, he thought yeah, maybe. At others, he thought no, he'd just be pretending. Belief had to be genuine, didn't it? It seemed to him that "belief" was often the thing that gripped the person, not the other way around. If he didn't feel such a grip, then was it even possible for him to genuinely choose belief?

Or was that perception of it the illusion? Were assessments wrong from the ground up?

Questions for philosophers, he supposed. And he certainly wasn't one of those.

Lakefire. Maybe he'd figure everything out one day, if he lived long enough.

But probably not.

Axiolis had more to say regarding traditions that he thought should return. The reaper had quite a list. Zeff was only half-listening by the end it, but among them, he noted arranged marriages.

That tradition had not entirely left the Rainlords yet, but it had certainly been on its way out. Before everything. Zeff had even harbored quite strong feelings about it. He hadn't wanted to push Emiliana into a marriage at such a young age. Or at all, really.

She'd always been a rather obedient child. She probably would have gone along with it and never voiced her true feelings until it was far too late.

Or maybe that was just his own rationalization for not wanting to give up his little girl.

Thinking about her now was particularly painful. The thought that she was in the clutches of the Monster of the East... that he'd allowed her to be taken...

Ugh.

According to Hector, the Monster was treating her well and even teaching her to control her mutations. He had to wonder if that was really the truth, though. Perhaps Emiliana had cooked up a comforting lie in order to prevent him from going out of his mind with worry.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Page 3099

He wondered what he was becoming. He felt like an entirely different man from even just six months ago. It was frightening to think about.

But it didn't feel wrong.

Which was perhaps the most terrifying thing about it. A strong part of him didn't want to remain the same. He'd obviously been too weak before. Change was much needed.

He just hoped he wasn't deluding himself. Was this what it felt like when all those other servants he'd heard about over the years suddenly snapped and went on their killing sprees? They probably thought their actions were well-justified all the way up until their reapers were forced to release their souls, didn't they?

He was on a thin rope. It used to be a narrow road. It had always been difficult to stay on the correct path, but now it felt like any slight misstep might just be the end.

And yet.

If this was all according to Lhutwё's will, then perhaps there was a certain amount of relief to be found. Somewhere.

Truthfully, he'd never much cared for his title as the Water Dragon of Sair. The thought that he was somehow Lhutwё's "chosen one" among all his kin--that had just never sat right with him. And it still didn't. The more he thought about it, the more he saw candidates who were far more worthy than he of such prestige. If his power was the result of divine intervention and not that of a random genetic lottery, then why him? Why not someone more competent? More stable? More...?

Fitting.

He supposed that was where the whole "faith" side of things came into the equation. Having faith that Lhutwё had put him on this path for good reason--that one day, in this life or the next, everything would make sense.

Page 3098

If he were to truly believe that his ancestors were watching over him, that was obviously comforting during difficult times. But also, there was the notion that his ancestors might be judging his actions. What other reason would they have for observing?

They would want their honorable legacy to continue, would they not?

And he, therefore, should do everything in his power not to disappoint them.

He wondered if Mariana was there now, watching him. Would she disapprove of his recent decisions?

Heh.

Perhaps in the opposite manner to what he had previously been thinking. She probably would have wanted him to depart much earlier, to leave the children alone so that they could grow and mature without him smothering them all the time.

She'd been a rather cold woman, hadn't she? But that had also made her moments of warmth all the more special. And she had always shown him respect, especially in front of other people. She'd firmly believed that it was her job as his wife to always try to make him look dignified and respectable, both as a lord and as the father of her children.

God, he missed her. For so many reasons.

He sure could've used her help in maintaining that dignified facade, these days. With each passing day, he felt like he was turning into more of a barbarian. Having the kids around had allowed him to stifle that sentiment, but only sometimes. It was more like putting a lid on a boiling pot, instead of actually turning the heat down.

Which made him feel even worse.

Marcos and Ramira should have had more of a calming effect than that. He loved them with all his heart, didn't he? Was that not enough?

How many more ways could he fail as a father?

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Page 3097

Zeff had to think back. The madega at Rheinhal? He recalled seeing it, but only just. It had only been there during his very last visit to the fortress before the fighting broke out, when he and Ax had met with General Lawrence and Dergoz.

When the Vanguard's betrayal had become clear.

'...If I'm remembering correctly, that madega hadn't been at Rheinhal before the Vanguard moved in,' said Zeff.

'Yes, I think you're right. So they transplanted it themselves. Which is even worse. Only Rainlords should handle madegas--and even then, only when necessary.'

Zeff knew what he was getting at. Axiolis had taught him about this when he was younger.

Shortly after the mass slaughter of House Elroy, in fact.

Axiolis told him that, in ancient times, the people of the rain believed the madega trees carried within them the souls of their ancestors. As long as the madegas stood, the noble dead could remain in this world and watch over their children while still enjoying their well-earned eternal rest. Like windows from the afterlife, was how Ax had put it.

It had been a mild comfort at the time, thinking that his family might still be watching over him. He wasn't sure when he'd stopped believing that. Maybe he never really had in the first place.

How did one distinguish genuine belief from wishful thinking? Even all these years later, he couldn't tell.

Now that he was older, though, he felt able to take a longer view of things. He could look at that belief in a different way. Instead of just questioning whether its truth value was determinable, he wondered whether there was any utility in believing such a thing. From a communal perspective.

And he felt... as though there was. Perhaps.

Page 3096

Zeff didn't avert his gaze from the window. 'What does that mean?'

'I don't know if Lhutwё is punishing us for turning away from Him,' said Ax. 'I doubt it, but I don't know. Either way, I believe there's a reason this is all happening to us. We are His favored people. Whether this was a direct punishment by His will or just one more trial in the long history of our kin, it makes little difference. In the end, He wants what is best for us. For everyone.'

'...That's a convenient way of looking at it, don't you think?' said Zeff. 'If it's punishment, it's for our own good. If it's just rotten luck, then it's a test of our resolve or purity or whatever else.'

'Perhaps. But it is also the correct way of conceptualizing problems. You fix nothing by lamenting your ill fate or cursing the Heavens for doing this to you. The only way forward is to think seriously about what you can change and then go after it like your entire world depends on it. Because sometimes, like right now, it does.'

Zeff made no response, just let the reaper's words stew there in his mind.

'And to that end, it's crucial that we figure out how to improve ourselves as servants of Lhutwё. I've thought our people have been going astray for ages now. So if you're asking whether I think we should turn to the old ways for answers, then I think you already know my response.'

Zeff did. '...What old ways do you have in mind, exactly?'

'Many. Mandatory military service for non-servant subjects. Building newer, stronger fortresses. The protection and nurturing of the madega trees.' The reaper paused for a sigh that sounded partly like a growl. 'We never should have allowed the Vanguard to occupy Rheinhal, where a madega had been transplanted. That was sacrilege.'

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Page 3095

'Ax,' said Zeff as he continued staring out the window.

'Yes?' The reaper was clinging to his shoulder. There'd been some contention over whether or not Axiolis should accompany him or stay behind to look after the kids, but they'd eventually reached the conclusion that Zeff needed to have access to pan-forma in the battle to come.

'Do you think... that everything that has happened to our family might be... some sort of divine punishment?'

The reaper was quiet for a time.

The question had come out of nowhere, it felt like. His mind had been largely clear until it just popped in there. Moreover, it had been years since he last talked to Axiolis seriously about anything spiritual. He'd been quite comfortable with his secular worldview, and even now, he didn't feel particularly different about it.

But...

Maybe he'd been thinking about it, on and off, for a while now. It would've made a kind of sense to him, he supposed. And perhaps, it would've explained the inexplicable. If only a little.

The reaper's slowness to answer surprised him, though. Axiolis had always been quite upfront about how he still believed in the old water god--and about how he didn't care if he ended up being the last one in the entire world who still held onto that faith. He always said that it was a travesty that the modern Rainlords had let go of their roots by allowing such old and cherished beliefs to slip away from them.

So he would've expected Ax to jump at that question, to tell him that yes, of course it was punishment--or whatever else. In a way, it might just vindicate everything that the reaper had been saying for years.

But Ax didn't do that. 'It is the eternal folly--and yet also the eternal responsibility--of man to struggle for an understanding of the divine,' the reaper said.

Page 3094

Marcos and Ramira were staying back at Warrenhold, where he hoped they would be safer.

He had to be a part of this push to save everyone. He had to. If he'd stayed behind, and then the rescue effort failed? If everyone died in some distant land while he sat on his hands?

He wouldn't know what to do. His soul might just break in half.

Assuming it hadn't already, that was.

As he gazed out the window of the plane, down through the scattered clouds and out across the Gulf of Emerson, he tried to keep his mind clear. To remain calm. And surprisingly, it was working. Maybe he was becoming accustomed to the stakes being this high. And years of meditation had to have had some benefit.

How they'd gotten their hands on this airplane, he still didn't entirely understand, but it wasn't the only one. Somehow, they'd cobbled together a small fleet of variously sized aircraft for this trip. He'd heard something about a group of Sebolts who'd been squirreling them away in isolated locations all across Eloa, but he'd yet to inquire further.

The current plan was to land on an island to the south of Vantalay, and then have Dimas Sebolt carry everyone who couldn't carry themselves the rest of the way.

They'd gotten clearance from the Ridgemark Private Military Police to land in the city if they wanted, but they decided to take extra precautions. If the RPMP ended up betraying them, the airplanes would be an easy pressure point. Plus, the city limits were a war zone, which meant the city itself could become one at any moment, too.

This whole endeavor was an enormous risk. Everyone knew that. They'd dispatched almost all of their best warriors now, leaving Warrenhold with barely anyone left to defend it in the event of an attack.

Which was all the more reason why they had to succeed. No matter what.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Page 3093

He felt like he was needed everywhere and therefore letting someone important down no matter what he chose.

He felt like he was useless.

But he was also tired of agonizing over his decisions. After everything that had happened, maybe it didn't even matter which path he took. He was too old to be getting lost in his angst. One way or another, consequences would follow.

How he dealt with those consequences was what really mattered.

Irritatingly, he was reminded of his time working under Parson Miles. Zeff hated that bastard with every fiber of his being, but he still remembered when that wasn't so, when he actually thought the man to be a surprisingly wise teacher.

"Worry is a double-edged sword, Zeff. It'll help you prepare for the worst, but it'll also drive you crazy. At some point, you have let go and take decisive action, lest decisions be made for you."

And as much as it pained him to admit, he had come to agree with that sentiment. One way or another, he had to do something. Waiting around for news was driving him mad.

The only other decisive action he could think to take... would be to take Marcos and Ramira and leave Warrenhold behind entirely. To go off on their own, far away from all this madness. To abandon the other Houses in order to take care of his own.

And that obviously wasn't going to happen.

But why? That's what he'd been forced to ask himself. Because his fellow Rainlords would hate him? Disown him?

No.

Because his kin were in need. It really was that simple, wasn't it?

So he'd made his decision. Maybe it was the wrong one. Maybe it would cause him no end of misery in the future. But at least he'd made it.

And that was why he was on his way to Vantalay, right now.

Page 3092 -- CCLXV.

"So you mean to say that Gohvis instructed Emiliana Elroy in Sto, and she, in turn, instructed you?" said Abbas.

"...More or less."

"That still does not explain how you managed to master it in so short a time. Unless you are also telling me that you have spent hundreds of hours honing that particular technique in your meditations."

Well, he'd definitely spent hundreds of hours meditating overall. That probably didn't count, though. "It was more like... two or three hours, actually."

"What? Impossible."

Hector exhaled a breath, not wanting to get into it. He'd already told Abbas about so many different secrets that he'd been holding onto. It'd probably be fine to tell him about blessings, too...

But it also seemed like a pain in the ass to explain. And he was fairly certain that it would just provoke even more questions.

"Look, we're getting kinda sidetracked here," said Hector. "You should stay focused on the Candle."

Abbas gave him another look but didn't argue. "You have more to tell me about its operation, I take it."

"Yes, I do."


Chapter Two Hundred Sixty-Five: 'O, slumbering Dragon...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

The timing of everything couldn't have been more awkward or more uncomfortable. The news that his brethren were being held captive in Vantalay, that there was finally a visible path to freeing them--that was incredible.

But then there was Hector's coma. And the threat of war coming to Atreya, to Warrenhold specifically.

Zeff Elroy was torn. Again.

It seemed like he always was, these days. It felt like he had a thousand reasons to leave, and a thousand reasons to stay. His captive kin. His still-missing children, Francisco and Gema. His best friend, Asad. But also his two youngest, Marcos and Ramira. His sister, Joana, and her children. And yes, even Hector.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Page 3091

"Well, uh... technically speaking, I guess it was... Gohvis who taught it to me. Sorta."

Abbas didn't even react this time. He just returned a flat stare.

Worwal picked up the slack for him. 'Gohvis taught it to you,' he said, his tone thick with doubt.

This was getting messy, Hector felt. Maybe he should've tried to explain about blessings first, instead, but that didn't seem like it would've been much easier.

Not to be outdone, Garovel decided to pitch in for his servant, too. 'You've heard about Emiliana Elroy, haven't you? How she was kidnapped by Gohvis?'

'Ah, yes.' Worwal's skeletal gaze settled slowly onto Hector. 'Qorvass did mention that. She was also bonded to Rasalased. And you and her are able to communicate through the Shards.'

"I remember now," said Abbas. "That was why Asad decided to let you keep your Shard. As a means of maintaining contact with her. A favor for his friend Zeff as much as for you."

'And quite the extension of trust, as well,' added Worwal. 'He all but granted you the formal status of Shardkeeper.'

Asad. A background thought process lingered on him, reminding Hector of how worried about the guy he was. And with a whole month gone by now, too. He dreaded to even think about how Asad was faring in Morgunov's clutches, right now.

Fuck.

His main thought process, however, took note of the term Shardkeeper. That was the first time anyone other than Rasalased had said it to him. It made sense that Worwal would be familiar with it, of course, but Hector still found it a bit surprising.

And he kinda felt like Rasalased would disagree with the reaper on that point, too. Asad wasn't the one who could grant statuses like that. Even the whole Golden Council probably couldn't, as far as Rasalased was concerned.

Hector decided to keep that thought to himself, though.

Page 3090

Hector was starting to get accustomed to seeing that look of surprise on Abbas' face. "Er. Well, I don't know if I'd go so far as to say I've mastered it, but, uh..."

"Hector..." Abbas turned to look at the others in the room, their audience. Members of the man's own family.

They seemed to intuit that Abbas wanted some privacy and began exiting the hollow tree in single file. Even the reapers among them followed suit, save only Worwal and Garovel.

When everyone was gone, Abbas rounded on him again. "Hector. I may not know the details of your life thus far, but I do have some idea of how young you truly are."

Oh. Hmm.

"So how in the world have you learned Sto already?" said Abbas.

Uhh. Ehh. It was a fair question, Hector supposed, but how the heck was he supposed to answer it? "It's... hard to explain."

"Try. Please."

Hector reached inside his armor and retrieved his Shard of the Dry God. "Er, well..."

"Surely you are not about to tell me that Rasalased 'taught' it to you," said Abbas, already sounding incredulous.

"N-no. But, uh. I mean, would that be so strange if he had?"

"Yes! It would!"

Ah. Yeah, maybe it would.

"Hector, Sto is an incredibly difficult thing to learn. It requires hundreds or even thousands of hours of meditative training. In my entire life, I have met very few people who could use it in non-trivial ways like what you just described. No matter how wise Rasalased may be, I do not think that he could have helped you overcome that problem by any conventional teaching method. You would still have to put in the hours."

Mm. Well, Rasalased may not have taught it to him, but from the sound of things, the Dry God had definitely played a role in him being able to learn it so quickly. Hector had suspected as much, but this was quite the confirmation.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Page 3089

"When you first returned from your... trip within the Forge, you told me its new name, Cocora's Candle."

Had he? Oh, maybe that would explain why Abbas was already able to use the Candle at all.

"But you also said something else," Abbas went on. "You referred to me as 'disciple of the Fury.' Do you remember that?"

Hector had to stop and think about that one.

Uh.

Hmm.

"...Sort of?" said Hector, squinting and scratching his brow. "I remember saying something, but I think that, er... even at the time, I didn't know what was coming out of my mouth. I felt super weird." He still kinda did, actually, but that was beside the point.

"I see. Do you have any idea what the phrase means? Disciple of the Fury?"

"Uh... well... no, I can't say I do."

The Sunsmith's gaze grew abruptly more focused upon him. "Are you sure?"

Hector didn't understand, but it seemed clear that the man was not asking this for shits and giggles. Something about this line of questioning was very important to him.

Maybe it was worth the hassle to clarify, then--or to attempt to, at least.

"Ah... actually, no, I'm not sure. I saw... a lot of stuff inside the Candle. Like, more than I even know what to do with. So I've kinda... locked some of it away, for now. In my head, I mean. In order to process it later." Fuck, was any of this making sense? 

Abbas' curiosity seemed piqued, and he returned a sidelong look. "Locked away? Do you mean with a meditative technique?"

Hector was surprised that Abbas had picked up on that, but given the guy's age and station, it probably wasn't so strange for him to have such knowledge. "Yeah. It's called Sto. Are you familiar with it?"

"You have mastered Sto?" said Abbas.

Page 3088

"Oh, you don't need to worry about that." Hector rapped a knuckle against the orb. "This thing is pretty durable. Actually, now that you mention it, I remember seeing Agrian punch the hell out of it a few times. I think that was more out of anger than, like, an advanced technique, though."

"I... see," said Abbas.

Hector walked around to the side of the Candle that was nearest the door. "One time, he actually hit it so hard that he cracked it. He was super pissed." Hector looked for where said crack would have been but as expected, he couldn't pinpoint the exact location. "Somewhere over here. It healed itself over time."

"Ah. That is good to know..."

"But yeah, I wouldn't recommend being too rough with it. The Candle stopped working for Agrian after a while, and, er... I suspect that his poor treatment of it was a contributing factor."

Abbas followed after him. "Do you know if there were other factors?"

Ah. Tough question. He had to stop and think about that one. "...I think so. It probably had something to do with how the Candle felt about him. As a person, I mean."

"But it allowed him to use it in the beginning, did it not?"

"Yeah. It changed its mind about him over time."

"I... did not think that a Forge could have such an advanced degree of sentience as that. You truly believe that it passed judgment on him? On a moral level?"

Man, there was a lot of context to explain. Hector didn't quite know where to begin. "Uh, kinda..."

Agh. Talking. His old nemesis.

Abbas waited a moment for him, perhaps expecting elaboration, but when Hector's struggling took too long, he spoke up again. "Well, we can discuss that later. There was something more pressing that I wished to ask you about."

"Hmm?"

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Page 3087

Well, in any case, it was a relief to see the Candle actually up and running. Given everything that had happened, he would've been disappointed but not surprised if half or more of those memories had turned out to be part of some crazy fever dream.

But hmm.

Abbas was just standing there as he worked. The glass orb was lighting up nicely, sure, and he could see materials hovering into the center and swirling around, but the Candle was capable of so much more.

Hector tapped the Lord Saqqaf on the shoulder. "Can you summon the roots up from underground?"

The glow faded away as Abbas turned to look at him. "What do you mean?"

Crap. How to explain? He couldn't exactly show the man what he was talking about. He pointed at the stony base on which the giant orb rested. "The roots of the tree can be summoned out from there and manipulated directly. Kinda like surgical tools, I guess. You can do very intricate work with them."

Abbas eyed the Candle anew, looking it up and down.

Hector still had a lot more to say. "Also, if you move around the big globe while you're working, you might be able to improve the quality of your products, too. I saw Agrian circling around it--and even climbing up all over like a spider monkey, sometimes. Whenever he did that, it seemed like he was able to achieve a much brighter 'flame' inside. Or 'glow.' Oh, and that's another thing. Can you create sparks and fire within the orb?"

Abbas blinked a couple times, scratching his cheek. "Ah, n-no. Wait a moment. You're saying I should climb onto the orb itself?"

"Yeah."

"But. Would that not be too dangerous? For the Candle, I mean? I do not wish to damage the glass."

Page 3086

Hector's memory of actually renaming the Forge was a bit of a blur, however. He couldn't tell if that was because the memory was foggy like so many others or if the experience itself had simply been... blurry. He certainly recalled how fucking weird it had felt at the time.

His ability to communicate with the Forge directly had improved dramatically over the course of his stay, though he'd never been able to understand actual words from it like Rasalased could. It was just a matter of teaching the Forge to beep, pulse, or screech at him in increasingly sophisticated ways. By the end of their time together, he and the Forge had worked out quite the elaborate little code.

Now that he was out here again, Hector doubted he would ever be able to dive back into the Candle and talk to it like that again, but it had been nice while it lasted. Their code had been the key factor in allowing him to "rewind" and "fast forward" through all the memories as he pleased.

But again, the renaming... that was peculiar.

In retrospect, why had he even done that? Why had he even known that he could do it? Abbas had told him all about how important it was, about how naming it wrongly could ruin everything.

And yet, he'd just... done it. Like it wasn't that big of a deal. Like he shouldn't let Abbas handle it.

Why?

Because the Forge wanted him to.

Yeah. That was it, wasn't it?

In that particular moment, he'd come to know the Forge in a way that was inarticulable. For that briefest time, he'd felt as if... as if he was the Forge, and the Forge was him. There'd been no need to communicate anything. He could just... tell. What it felt. What it wanted.

Hmm. And the reverse had probably also been true, hadn't it? It could see everything about him.

All his private thoughts and shit.

Agh. Dang it.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Page 3085

When all was said and done, though, Agrian created seven different artifacts with the Candle before it stopped working for him. Toward the end, it had been nothing but failures each time, and Agrian's frustration had been obvious. He got so mad, in fact, that the very last thing Hector saw him do was light a torch and hold it close to a dangling branch, like he was about to set the whole tree on fire.

For some reason, though, Agrian changed his mind and then just walked away, never to return.

Hector wasn't even sure if fire could destroy something as powerful as a Fusion Forge. Then again, if Agrian had soul-strengthened it, it probably would've done some damage.

Either way, Agrian's decision to abandon the Candle instead of destroying it was interesting. Hector had to wonder if it was out of some lingering sense of respect that the man had for the Candle's other creator.

To his profound disappointment, Hector had never been able to figure out what that original dude's name was. He would've very much liked to rename the Forge after him. He was quite certain that the Forge would have approved.

But Cocora's Candle would have to do. It seemed like the next best name to use, because after going back and observing the original guy's life more closely, Hector had eventually come to the conclusion that the dude was a devout follower of the Goddess of Light.

There were a few clues that gave it away. The reading materials, for one. Many of them had the iconic symbol of the Shining Sun emblazoned on their covers or spines. That was kind of Cocora's thing, even in the modern day. Plus, Hector spotted him praying on a fairly consistent basis--or, looking like he was praying, at least. It looked different from when the guy was meditating, anyway.

Page 3084

His entire reason for coming here was to watch how Abbas was handling the Candle, because he had a rather strong feeling that--even for someone as smart as the Sunsmith of Sair--this thing was a bit difficult to understand.

And Hector had seen its entire life. The memories might've been stuck in a weird, hazy vault right now, but in the short time that he'd been sifting through them, he'd been able to recall the single most important thing from his time spent within the Candle--what his overall goal had been, why he'd spent so damn long in there.

He'd wanted to understand the Candle's creation process as much as he possibly could. He'd watched and rewatched Agrian work with it countless times. He'd burned those scenes into his mind, trying to break down every conceivable thing he had witnessed.

He'd figured that he probably wouldn't get another chance to dive directly into the Candle's memories like that, so he'd decided to make the absolute most of the opportunity.

And boy had there been a lot. Even discounting all the time that the Candle had spent dormant--which was a fuckload, by the way--there had still been a ton of stuff to go through.

Agrian had used this thing precisely sixty-eight times. And Hector remembered them all.

Well, okay, a lot of those scenes were currently sitting in Sto, so if he wanted to go over them again with a fine-tooth comb, he'd have to open up that metaphorical vault, but he still retained the gist.

Not every single use of the Candle had resulted in a successful creation, and not every success was the final product. Many of them had just been for material synthesis, fusing things together for an item that wasn't fully realized until much later.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Page 3083

"Are you alright, Hector?" said Abbas, standing quite close to him now, right in front of the big glass orb.

Whoa. Hector hadn't even noticed most of those steps. His immediate memory of Abbas walking over here was like a slide show.

Okay. Maybe he was trying to do too much here. He decided to cut that one thought process some slack and abandon the organization effort for now.

Not that it was trivial to do so. The Candle's memories were their own brand of invasive. He had to "lock" them away in a kind of vault within his own mind, away from his conscious attention.

Thankfully, he knew of a mental technique that seemed perfect for the job--one that Emiliana Elroy had told him about. "Sto," she'd called it. A mental storage technique.

He'd tinkered with it a few times ever since she'd explained how it worked, but he'd never actually found a use for it. Until now, that was.

His head cleared up almost immediately. Which kinda surprised him, actually. Prepping Sto on the way here had been the right call, it seemed, even if it had made the flight a bit more turbulent at various points.

"Yeah, I'm fine. I just, er... have a lot to process." Hector motioned toward the glass. "Show me."

Abbas still looked like he had about a dozen more questions for him, but he didn't say anything. Instead, he pulled a metal slab out from behind his back and handed it off to Hector.

Hector just kind of took it without even thinking. What even was this? Wait, a heater shield? With a checkerboard pattern? What the--?

The glass orb lit up with a soft glow.

Oh, Abbas was just going now. Hector paid close attention.

Page 3082

Hector returned a confused look. "What? No, it requires integration powers, You should know that, shouldn't you? Only integrators can harness the power of Fusion Forges."

The others all exchanged looks with one another, reapers included.

"That is true," said Abbas. "Though I am a bit surprised that you know that."

Oh. Was that weird knowledge to have? Hmm. Yeah, Garovel had never told him that, had he?

"And I thought you might have become an exception to that rule," added Abbas.

Ah. Hmm. Man, what was up with those looks everyone was giving him? Was he acting crazy, right now? Were they worried about him? Was that what those expressions were? Worry? What did worry even look like, anyway?

Ugh, his mind was racing. It felt like every thought process was firing constantly. Moreover, he wasn't even sure how many processes there were, anymore. He recalled struggling with three, not so long ago. But he also recalled maintaining three fairly well, a bit later on.

Kinda. Hmm.

Were there four now? It sorta felt like four. Why was it so difficult to count them?

His head was everywhere. This definitely wasn't ideal. He'd been trying to organize his thinking throughout the trip here, but with so many different things to worry about, it was only too easy for a spare thought process to just pick something up and start going.

One of the processes was definitely more disorienting than the others, thought. Something about it. Was just. Off. Foggy and distant. And creeping into the others. Scratching for their attention, too. Trying to distract him totally.

It was the one that he'd assigned to the Candle's memories. The one trying to sift through and organize them.

A bit of an overwhelming endeavor, to say the least. That poor thought process. It was like assigning a worker ant to a mountain of quicksand. It was no wonder the others were struggling not to get sucked into that pit of information.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Page 3081

He didn't even want to imagine a world in which Abolish was able to take over the entirety--or even the majority--of Eloa. If the current state of Sair was anything to go by, that would be absolutely catastrophic.

And now he had his fingers in two different war-related pies. Here, with a possible attack from Bloodeye on the way, and in Vantalay, where apparently fucking Vanderberk had just showed up.

That last bit of news had been quite unpleasant.

With the Rainlords sending even more people over to Vantalay, that place was primed for all sorts of mayhem. But if they were able to free their captive brethren, then Hector felt that, together, they might be able to handle someone like Vanderberk.

Maybe.

Agh.

The situation with the VMP and RPMP also muddied those waters a bit, but eh. The fact that there was another faction for each side kind of split the difference, Hector thought.

He'd wanted so badly to go with them to Vantalay--and to take Abbas, while he was at it--but the situation here was still too tenuous. Abbas needed to stay in case Abolish showed up and also to hone his skills with the Candle as fast as possible. Both of things were the topmost priorities, right now.

Ideally, Abbas would be able to pump out some kind powerful item that might give them the edge they needed in this war.

And Hector had the knowledge to assist with that last bit. Kinda. Probably. That was why he'd come here so quickly, after all.

"First, show me what you're currently able to do with it," said Hector.

Abbas and his team all just kept staring at him for a moment.

Then the Lord Saqqaf stepped closer and said, "Do you think you are able to use the Candle yourself?"

Page 3080

'Wouldn't the other two marshals who survived the fight be able to tell everyone if Jercash hadn't actually been the one to kill Carson?' asked Hector.

'In theory, sure,' said Garovel. 'But eh. I feel like there are any number of ways that Jercash could manipulate things. Could be that he's just controlling the flow of information out of the country better than the Vanguard is, right now. Or it could be that the support he gets from his followers is stealthy enough that even Kane and Grant weren't able to determine the whole truth of things. To them, it might've seemed like Jercash was the only one doing anything.'

'Hmm.'

'Like if Jercash was getting support from, oh say, a genius integrator, for example.'

'He already has Morgunov, doesn't he?'

'Oh, that's definitely a possibility, too. A likelihood, in fact. But I just meant that he could have a second integrator all his own. One that nobody even knows about yet. Integrators are a pretty sneaky bunch, after all.'

Garovel was basically talking about someone around Abbas' level, Hector knew. Maybe even higher.

And yeah. Someone like that helping out an already powerful monster like Jercash would make for a horrifying complement.

The more he heard about the war, the more terrifying it seemed to become. The potential consequences of it. The idea that the Vanguard might just lose the whole war--or more specifically, that Abolish would win it.

Frankly, after everything he'd seen and heard regarding the Vanguard's treatment of the Rainlords, Hector didn't have a whole lot of affection for it as an organization. He was sure that certain people within it, like Harper Norez, were great and deserving of admiration, but as far as the continental war was concerned, Hector wasn't so much rooting for the Vanguard as he was against Abolish.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Page 3079

Garovel, however, seemed to think that there might be more to the Jercash story than what was being reported. According to his logic, even an emperor would struggle to take on three marshals simultaneously, so unless Jercash was suddenly emperor-class himself, there must have been some other factor at play there.

Most likely, Garovel said, Jercash had tricked them in some way. The guy was known as the Devil's Knife, after all. He had a reputation for catching people by surprise. And Garovel also suspected that Jercash was in the habit of taking credit for his subordinate's accomplishments, which would in turn suppress their notoriety and make their enemies misjudge their threat level.

'Normally, that's not really an option,' Garovel had told him. 'Abolish is full of greedy, glory-hungry maniacs who would sooner desert than allow their superiors to take their credit. Reapers included. But I've been gathering information on all the major players within Abolish for months now, and Jercash's followers are strangely devoid of mid- and high-tier threat. People like Bloodeye, for example. Jercash should have several guys like that working for him, but no one seems able to identify them.'

'So you think Jercash is able to control his men better?'

'That's one way of putting it. When it comes to Abolish, though, I'm not sure how much it could be about "control." His subordinates might just believe in him more than others. So they don't even mind if he gets the credit for everything. Like they're just THAT on board with what he's trying to do.'

'Hmm.'

'Whatever the case, it creates a huge problem for the Vanguard. He could have some insanely dangerous people working under him. Even if the Vanguard is able to pinpoint their exact abilities--materialization, alteration, whatever--it won't be that helpful if they can't gauge the current strength of said abilities. I guess what I'm saying is... Jercash could already have one or more marshal-level servants working under him, and if they're playing along with his game, then no one would even know it.'

Page 3078

Regardless, he didn't expect all of the Bank's troubles to be solved in the handful of hours that it took him to do all that, but he figured that he could have a sit down with Amelia later, and they could go over everything in more detail then.

Because there was a lot other stuff to worry about, right now.

Like, for example, that damn war still going on. It would've been too much to expect for that whole mess to have sorted itself out while he was asleep, he supposed, but it sure would've been nice.

According to Garovel, the Vanguard had suffered another major loss. Field Marshal Carson had been killed by Jercash during the Kavian invasion of Hoss.

Which was a big surprise, to say the least. Garovel had discussed the matter with the other reapers at length, and no one had expected Jercash to pull off something like that. Apparently, he'd been alone against three marshals, and not only had he held his own, but he'd even managed to kill one of them.

Not exactly the most comforting news.

And hearing it reminded Hector of something Garovel had mentioned a while ago, back when he first heard about Abolish taking over Kavia. Garovel said that the Vanuguard's loss at the time might be warning sign that something was wrong. That was when Abolish had been taking a beating, internationally, losing first in Atreya--albeit on a small scale--then in Horsht to Jackson, then again in Sair with Ivan's capture. The Vanguard was supposed to have had both momentum and the numerical advantage on their side at that time.

Boy, how the tide had changed since then. Now it was undoubtedly the Vanguard on the backfoot.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Page 3077

That was why one of the first things he'd done was give her a call and tell her to move forward with the expansion. It wouldn't solve all of her problems for her, but it would give her some room to breathe, at least. And a quick, very public trip through Gray Rock would help with that other issue--which was why he'd dropped by City Hall and a few other places before heading all the way here.

That had caused quite the stir. Fortunately, there'd been camera crews already hanging out at some of those locations, and once they saw him, they seemed only too eager to drop whatever they were doing and start asking him questions. He hadn't actually answered very many of them--in truth, he'd only managed to say "hello" and "yeah" and "I've gotta go" a few times--but that was alright.

Hopefully. They got footage of him running off and flinging himself into the sky with his materialization, so that should've been proof enough that he wasn't some doppleganger or something. He wished he could've been more amiable and "lordly," but those were fucking television cameras, goddammit. Some of them might've been broadcasting live. He supposed it was good enough that he hadn't made himself look like some kind of stupid asshole.

He hadn't, right? Ugh. He'd been trying not to think about that, but it was difficult.

He wasn't really sure what the public perception of him was like, these days. He hoped it was positive, but he could also understand if everybody thought he was just some fuckin' weirdo with scary powers. And just the idea of appearing on TV and having to actually talk in full, coherent sentences--agh, it was enough make his stomach feel like it was doing flips.

Page 3076 -- CCLXIV.

"It is a relief to see you up and moving again, Lord Goffe," Abbas called out. He already had the Amir-10 ready for him. "There is much I would like to show you. Progress has been--"

Hector waved his arms at him in manner that seemed almost dismissive . "No, no, listen, listen. Abbas." His footsteps became more certain as he drew closer, and it didn't appear like he was slowing down, either. The group had to part down the middle for him as he walked through the door and toward the Candle. "I have to show you how to use this thing."


Chapter Two Hundred Sixty-Four: 'Thy scrambled visage...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Okay. Perhaps that had been the wrong thing to say. Hector supposed he couldn't blame Lord Abbas for giving a look like he was out of his mind.

Because. Well.

Maybe he was.

It was hard to explain. And probably too much hassle, right now. From everything Garovel had told him, time wasn't on their side.

There'd been so much to catch up on. Seeing the restoration of Warrenhold leap forward from when he last remembered it was a marvelous sight. They'd been working on the Bell Tower before, and now it was complete. They'd moved on to the Book Tower, which would probably be done soon, too, because it hadn't needed that much renovating in the first place.

And the Bank. Oh god, the Bank.

The pressure on Madame Carthrace had magnified dramatically over the past month. The influx of new clients had slowed, and without him around to give the go ahead, she'd been struggling with the decision of whether or not they should branch out into Lorent. Not to mention, rumors had apparently begun to circulate about where he was, which didn't exactly help build confidence with their investors.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Page 3075

It beggared belief, quite frankly. Which was why, when he got the news that Hector was finally awake again, Abbas became quite distracted from his work. He needed to talk to him again.

He was so distracted, in fact, that he considered just leaving for Warrenhold. With his suit of armor, it would be a rather quick trip.

But no. He was quite certain that Hector would come to him--and soon. No doubt, the young man would want to check up on the Candle. And Abbas very much wanted him to see it in action, too. That couldn't be done from Warrenhold.

So he waited. And tried to stay on task. Tried to keep his eye from wandering over to the Amir-10 as he again wondered what Hector would think of it.

Not really an adequate gift, Abbas felt. For the man who had almost single-handedly saved his entire Hahl? No. But it was a start, he supposed.

But on the plus side, Abbas didn't have long to wait. Perhaps Hector had already been en route to the tree the time Abbas received word of him waking up, because scarcely two hours passed before the young Lord Goffe arrived. And after so much anticipation, Abbas was more than ready to receive him.

Surprisingly enough, though, it was just him and Garovel. Abbas would've expected a whole host of Rainlords to join him. Instead, Hector landed with only slightly more grace than he had on his last visit. The running crater he left in his wake wasn't quite as deep or long, and if he had broken or dislocated any bones this time, it wasn't obvious.

Abbas and his various assistants merely waited at the tree's entrance as he shuffled quickly over to them, not bothering to dematerialize his armor.

Page 3074

But there was also the other part of what Hector had said. Disciple of the Fury.

Abbas had been thinking about what that meant over and over again.

Particularly that word. The Fury.

It stuck with him because he'd heard it used in that way once before, many years ago. One of his mentors, Dolf Rachman, had uttered it during one of his many barely-coherent rambles near the end of his life.

The very last time that Abbas had seen him, actually.

Dolf had always been half-crazy. It was part of his charm. And his genius. But on that particular occasion, "half-" had not been the word for it. Abbas remembered listening to him and thinking that the mentor he loved so dearly was all but gone.

"The life, the risk, the time, the shift. Displaced and distraught, the mind wanders and breaks. Words too meager, thoughts too thin, souls too fragile. Chaos cools against the Fury, the Fury. Chaos cools, and the Fury burns. It burns. It rages. It builds with anger and genius. Don't you see, Babo? The Fury is us. It's us. And right now, it is me. I am the Fury, Babo. I am the Fury, and the Fury is me."

Babo had been Dolf's nickname for him. Abbas had hated it, but Dolf never stopped using it, and now, looking back on it all, he kind of missed it.

But that was beside the point, of course. As far as Abbas was aware, no one else had ever heard that conversation. Not even Worwal. Only he and Dolf had been there.

So how in the world could Hector have uttered those words? How could he have possibly known to call him a disciple of the Fury? How could even the Candle have known to call him that?

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Page 3073

But of course, freeing Asad was borderline impossible at this time. It might be even more difficult than taking the whole of Sair back.

If it was to be at all doable, however, then Hector would be key. His connection to Rasalased might be the only way to even discover Asad's current location.

Just another reason why Abbas felt suddenly and inextricably bound to this young lord from Atreya.

He wasn't often given to dwelling on what the gods had in store for him or the world at large. Generally speaking, he saw no value in such questions. Whatever would be, would be. He preferred to focus on the material. On the scientific. On the things he had the power to affect.

But sometimes, when events were strange enough, his mind did wander into that realm. Sometimes, he felt like he might've caught a glimpse of what his ancestors called the Great Chain. The invisible bond of Fate. The guiding rope of the gods.

Back when Hector had let go of the Forge, after having been standing there motionless for two entire weeks and just before falling unconscious, the young man had said something that Abbas barely caught.

"Cocora's Candle welcomes you, disciple of the Fury."

The amount of strange things within that statement had only seemed to grow the more he thought about it.

Despite how little sense it made, when Abbas checked, Cocora's Candle did indeed turn out to be the Forge's new name. That was the missing piece he'd needed in order to get it working.

In fact, it had nearly started up all on its own after that. Abbas had insisted on reexamining it several more times first, which turned out to be quite the wise decision, as he discovered several spots in which the flow of ardor needed repairing. Nothing too serious, thankfully, but still. Better to not to take unnecessary risks when dealing with a Fusion Forge.

Page 3072

That was, perhaps, Abbas' next greatest fear, at the moment. If one of the other Hahls thought they could rule over the Sandlords at the Mad Demon's decree, then the resulting conflict would be just as bad as fighting Abolish directly. Or even worse.

That would, without a doubt, fracture the Hahls irreparably. There was no way in the black hells that Abbas would allow his children to ever be made subservient to the Mad Demon, and he was quite certain that several of his ruling kin felt precisely the same way. Hasan Duxan, Yusef Shihab.

And Asad Najir, of course, if he still counted.

Those men would sooner die than work for Morgunov. Abbas would've liked to say the same about the others, but...

These were trying times. When it came down to it, he honestly didn't know how the remaining four heads might react. Hamza Dagher, Navid Kattan, Tariq Haayen, Rahat Mateen. When so many lives were on the line? When so much power was waiting to be seized?

The War of the Three Sands had certainly proven that the loyalty among the Hahls was not above reproach. That conflict may have been long before his time, but Abbas didn't intend to ignore the lessons from it.

The last thing he wanted was to fight a war for the soul of his kin.

But if that was what had to be done, then he would not back down, either.

Freeing Asad would go a long way toward preventing that, he hoped. The man may have become something of a black sheep in recent years, but Lion of the Desert still meant something to his kin. Even if many of them today did not hold to the old ways very strongly, he suspected that most of them would still not wish to go against such a sacred figure in open war.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Page 3071

Abbas didn't want to kid himself. His "ascent" within the Sandlords was still relatively recent. Even disregarding the leap in fame he'd gained after defeating Ivan, his leading influence on the Golden Council only went back a mere twenty years or so.

It was tough to pinpoint an exact moment when he'd become the "strongest" among his kin. The nature of his power compared to that of the others was a bit odd. Sure, he'd been the oldest Sandlord since Mahir Dagher died and the oldest servant in all of Sair since Bernardino Blackburn died, but age alone wasn't the determining factor. Increases in soul power had diminishing returns, after all.

Regardless, in the grand scheme of things, twenty years was nothing. The blood of the Sandlords of Sair went back nearly two thousand years--or more, depending on how one was measuring.

Some within the other Hahls would no doubt see this situation as an opportunity to establish an entirely new precedent. The weakness of Abbas Saqqaf had been made plain for all to see. If someone else managed to succeed where he had failed, then why should Sandlords not follow their new leadership?

The Golden Council itself could be restructured or even discarded totally.

Whoever managed to retake Sair first would have so much leverage over the others that they could do practically whatever they wanted. They could rule. And their children could rule.

In a way, they might see this situation as a gift of the gods.

But of course, actually retaking Sair--or even just the Drylands--was easy to fantasize about but not so much to accomplish. One had to go in prepared for a fight against the Mad Demon of Abolish. And how in the world was that to be done?

Abbas just hoped that none of the other Hahls were foolish enough to try and parley with that lunatic.

Page 3070

If Bloodeye dared to show his face here without Morgunov at his back, then Abbas would make sure that little monster never bothered anyone ever again. But Bloodeye probably knew better, which would explain why there had been no news of an invasion this past month.

Instead, it seemed that Abolish was trying to solidify its grip on Sair. The Vanguardian forces had apparently just lost Aguarey and were having to retreat ever farther back into the Wetlands.

By all accounts, that should not have happened. Field Marshal Jackson had supposedly survived the disaster at Uego, so in theory, he alone should have been able to hold off the Abolish advance in Morgunov's absence.

So something was very wrong. Either Morgunov was still in play, or Jackson wasn't. Even with the Rainlords' scouts reporting paying close attention to the conflict, there was just so much misinformation being thrown around.

It would certainly help if they had Sandlord scouts out there, too. But on the subject of reuniting the Hahls, no progress had been made at all. Abbas couldn't really spare the time to reach out to them himself, so he'd left it to his sons, but thus far, they had only received silence or even outright refusal in response.

Abbas didn't blame them for their fear.

This was his fault. As the de facto leader of the Golden Council and the most powerful servant among his kin, it was his responsibility to keep them all safe. If he was in their position, his faith in the Golden Council's ability to protect everyone would be shaken.

The Sandlords had not been ousted from the Drylands in over a millennia. Worwal had mentioned that fact to him multiple times now, and every other Hahl had reapers who had witnessed that time period first hand, too. They would be advising the respective leaders of each Hahl about what kind of situation this was.

About how everything was now in flux. Even the hierarchy of power within the Hahls.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Page 3069

In any case, Abbas hoped to use this new understanding of pseudo-consciousness in future projects.

In fact, that might be the exact path he needed to follow in order to bring his dream of a new armored warrior class within the Sandlords into reality. He was very reluctant to get his hopes up too much, but at the same time, the burgeoning ideas in his mind were too tantalizing to the imagination.

The main problem with the prototype suit was that in order for it to be efficient, it needed to drill directly into the brain. Obviously, that wasn't viable for non-servants.

But if the suit could harbor this same kind of reactive pseudo-consciousness? Perhaps more than one, even? The amount of problems that might solve was...

Hmm.

Well, it was still too early to tell how far the idea would take him. He doubted that any single concept would make the dream achievable. But it was a step in the right direction. A big one, potentially.

The suit was a bit of a sensitive issue, though. It was the single most important weapon in his arsenal. In the event of another attack, Abbas needed the suit to be ready for deployment on a moment's notice. And as such, making any major changes to it would make that difficult.

But at the same time, anything he could do to further improve its systems might just be the difference between the survival and extinction of his Hahl.

Especially if the Mad Demon himself showed up.

That was Abbas' single greatest fear, right now. That Morgunov would invade Callum and then Lorent. Or worse, that he'd just skip through Callum entirely in order to attack them first.

Now that the suit was fully functional again, he was confident that it could handle anything short of an emperor.

Well. Mostly confident.

Page 3068

Abbas figured that if Hector's soul could not be enhanced directly by the shield, then the next best thing was to make it so the shield could protect his entire body--or one side of it, at least.

The curved variable was meant to help with that, as well. At the largest size with the curve toggled on, the Amir-10 would be like a half-cocoon, of sorts. Its thinner structure would also mean that it wasn't quite as durable as the smaller versions, but given Hector's deceptively young age, the protection that it provided would still be quite useful to him, Abbas felt.

The boy's comatose state had certainly been a cause for concern. Explaining the situation to the Rainlords had been a total mess.

Abbas could hardly believe how angry they'd gotten. More than once, it seemed like the situation would come to blows, which should've been the absolute last thing on any of their minds after everything else that had happened.

If not for Garovel's calming presence in that conversation, Abbas didn't know what would have happened. It was a marvel how the reaper could sound so self-certain when literally none of them knew what was going on.

But Abbas appreciated the assistance. Clearly, he had underestimated just how much the Rainlords cared for Hector. Which was doubly surprising, because he'd already thought they cared for him quite a bit.

What in the world was happening in this little corner of the world? In the domain of the young Lord Darksteel?

Even Abbas could feel himself being pulled in. He'd barely gotten to know the kid, and yet...

The notion that Hector might not wake up anytime soon... or ever...

Well, it was incredibly distressing. Perhaps a bit more than it should have been. Abbas would've been lying if he said that wasn't a major reason why he'd decided to work on the Amir-10 instead of some other project. He wanted to be able to present Hector with it when he woke up.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Page 3067

Of course souls could be used as memory. Reapers were living proof of it. Their immaculate memories were perhaps the best example imaginable. He had just never thought of that concept as comparable with more modern ideas of data storage.

Which was not to say that it had all been smooth sailing since having that epiphany.

He had not had an easy time trying to create a memory structure out of nothing but soul power. Even with the Spear as a blueprint, the task proved incredibly difficult. Several long sessions of meditative construction were required before even a glimmer of progress had been made with the Amir-10.

As a new prototype, he wanted its transformations to be simple yet still useful. He knew only too well about how easily a project could spiral out of control when pursuing an overly ambitious goal. Countless "inventions" from his youth had failed before even reaching the testing phase because of that very problem.

Brainstorming was arguably the most fun part, which was also why it was the most developmentally dangerous. Without the self-discipline to know when to stop fiddling with ideas and start actually getting the work done, an inventor was doomed to a career of disappointment.

So the Amir-10's transformations were primarily just in terms of size. Its default state was no different from the Amir-9, but it had three more variants--one smaller and two larger. Plus, there was an additional code word that would toggle a deeper curve in the face of the shield.

The smaller variant was primarily just to aid in portability, but it was limited by the fact that the weight of the shield would remain the same no matter what size it transformed into. The smallest variant was the thickest, while the larger ones were progressively thinner.

Page 3066

But it still begged the question. How much knowledge had been lost over the many long years? And how much of it might yet be rediscovered?

He supposed that the Amir-10 was now an example of this.

Abbas was able to use the Forge to help him examine the Shifting Spear of Logante, and as a result, he discovered the key factor to its voice-activated transformation commands.

That being, a pseudo-consciousness.

The Spear held within it a kind of semi-aware cluster of soul power. On its own, it could do nothing, but when it connected with a living body, it gained a reactive property. In a sense, the soul of the wielder was like a switch that completed the circuit of the Spear's soul power.

Abbas had never seen a pseudo-consciousness quite like this one before, able to recognize and react to auditory stimuli. It was quite advanced. The tricky part was that the voice commands had to be stored somewhere in order for the Spear to recognize them in the first place.

But where would that be? The Spear didn't have a computer built into it like his powered armor did. It was just metal.

And that, perhaps, was the greatest revelation of all.

The information was being stored within the Spear's soul. Or its "half-soul," such as it was. It wasn't alive. The pseudo-consciousness had a memory structure built into it for the purpose of holding the commands.

Abbas had no idea that such a thing was even possible. The ability to store data within a constructed pocket of soul power?

The implications were mind-boggling. With that alone, he could completely redesign his powered armor. And countless other inventions from over the years.

It was an overwhelming realization. Like he'd been overlooking something that should've been painfully obvious for the past fifty years. Or perhaps longer.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Page 3065

It still amazed him, sometimes, the fact that integrators of old could have created such things. Going by conventional wisdom, the knowledge that integrators possessed should have progressed in the same manner that normal technological innovation did.

But it didn't.

And precisely why that was... remained unclear, even to a rather old integrator like Abbas.

There were various theories, of course. One of the biggest was that it was simply a problem with integrators themselves--that as a group, they tended to jealously guard their secrets, lest that knowledge be used against them one day. Or alternatively, because they were too self-absorbed with their inventing to bother with things like teaching.

That explanation seemed the most plausible to Abbas. Integrators were infamous for their various eccentricities. In fact, a part of him felt that he himself was far too boring to be one.

Perhaps he would become a better inventor if he went mad.

Another popular theory for why so much integration knowledge seemed to have been lost was that someone--an organization of some kind--was actively suppressing it. That was a bit too conspiratorial for Abbas' taste, but he'd met quite a few people who believed it over the years. The motive, they usually said, was to keep humanity itself in a kind of perpetual darkness. To prevent them from solving essential problems via technology.

Heh. And if that was true, then the conspirators must have been quite frustrated over the last few centuries. Comparatively speaking, technology had surged forward by leaps and bounds, thanks in no small part to the work of integrators. Abbas had little doubt it would continue this way, as well. The compounding nature of technological progression meant that--at least in theory--it would only accelerate over time.

Page 3064

Technically, it would have been possible to just give the Amir-10 that property again simply by starting over from scratch, but that would have required months and months of work. There was an incredibly slow "leeching and baking" process that would need to be done in conjunction with his own soul, and he just couldn't spare that amount of time, right now.

It was disappointing, to be sure, and in order to help compensate for that loss, Abbas had decided to work extra hard and give the Amir-10 an entirely new feature.

A transforming property.

He'd gotten the idea from observing Morgunov's death machines, though this wasn't nearly as crazy. And still quite different, as well. Those were entire machines reorganizing themselves into different, still-operational designs. This was a reorganizing of the shield's physical structure, controlled by the wielder.

The greatest assistance in accomplishing this new development, however, was actually Garovel. One day, when Abbas allowed the reaper to observe his work and listen to his intentions, Garovel revealed that he and Hector had discovered an ancient item that was already capable of such a thing.

The Shifting Spear of Logante.

One of Hector's subordinates was holding onto it, and with a bit of polite asking, Abbas had been able to borrow it.

And what a boon it had been. The "Spear" could transform itself into a sword, an axe, a staff, a dagger, and perhaps others that had been lost to time. All via voice commands. Truly any incredible feat of craftsmanship.

Garovel mentioned that the weapon had failed to impress Hector, though. Which was not particularly surprising for a materialization user. Hector could simply use his own ability to achieve the same effects. But for Abbas' purposes, the Spear was ideal. A magnificent blueprint, of sorts.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Page 3063

Not that it mattered very much at the moment. He wasn't ruling Sair, right now. He was barely ruling his own Hahl.

But still. As long as he lived, Sairi independence was a priority, and submitting his country's citizens to the will of any international court system--much less one presided over by the Vanguard--was not going to happen.

If anything, recent events had only made his feelings about that even stronger.

And besides, he didn't believe that such a registry would even work. In the long-term, all it would do is give the government another means of persecuting law-abiding citizens. Anyone crazy enough to abuse the continental market or conduct acts of terror was not going to be deterred by a simple list. The only thing that would stop maniacs like that was real, attentive watchmen. Actual detective work.

But politicians didn't want to hear that. Or they thought that the public didn't want to hear it. Either way, the outcome was the same.

Plus, as far as Abbas concerned, a registry like that would go entirely against the Vanguard's purported belief that it should not involve itself in politics. Increasingly, that seemed more and more like lip service than a deeply held ideal. He did not wish to contribute to that trend.

Regarding the Amir-10, however, he had managed to make additional improvements to it. Its self-repairing mechanism now worked more quickly. About fifty percent faster, in fact. Quite a shocking gain, he felt. Most likely, it was due not just to the Forge facilitating the process but also because it had been a few years since he and Haqq had last worked on the Amir-9. The progression in their skill was undoubtedly a factor.

Abbas had also wanted to reactivate the Amir-10 with the soul-enhancing property that the Amir-9 used to have, but that wasn't to be, apparently. Whatever Rasalased had done to the Amir-9 had well and truly removed that ability.

Page 3062

The worst instances, naturally, had come from Abolish. Instances of dematerializing elements that belonged to critical infrastructure. Power plants. Farming equipment. Water pumps. All bringing terrible consequences with relatively minor effort on the saboteur's part.

There were more terror-striking examples, too. Bringing down a skyscraper with people still inside had been a popular one when Abbas was a child.

And that was just Abolish. There were economically motivated saboteurs to worry about, too. More than once, someone had flooded the continental market with a precious metal. They'd made a killing on their initial sales, which drove down the price as supply shot up. Then they waited, and after a sufficiently inconspicuous amount of time had past, all that supply would begin to mysteriously disappear, which would drive the price back up again. And the cycle would repeat, to the detriment of millions of people.

The Vanguard and others had long since formed various watchdog organizations to help prevent such crises, but even to this day, it would occasionally still happen. It certainly didn't help that materialized elements were indistinguishable from naturally occurring ones.

Abbas recalled hearing about some of the more authoritarian members of the Vanguard who wanted all materialization users in the world to be placed on a registry. That way, if any element was suspected of being used to manipulate the market, they would know who to investigate. And of course, any materializer who did not register would be subject to criminal prosecution in an international court.

Some countries had even agreed, Jesbol and Melmoore being among the early adopters. And Intar had hotly debated it a number of times. Perhaps in the future, a comprehensive registry of Eloan materializers would come to fruition.

For his part, however, Abbas had no intention of going along with such an idea.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Page 3061

The Amir-9 had featured four vertical lines of tungsten carbide while the rest of it had been composed of steel and titanium. The Amir-10 now boasted four more lines that crossed those horizontally, creating a checkerboard effect.

It may have been wiser to simply replace everything with tungsten carbide due its remarkable strength, but Abbas believed that alternating the chosen materials might one prove helpful against violent chemical reactions. Hydroflouric acid, for example, would eat through tungsten carbide more quickly than it would through steel.

Plus, there was the weight to consider. The shield was already quite heavy, thanks to tungsten being so much heavier than steel. The titanium was meant to counterbalance that, as it was lighter than steel, so it was tricky change to make. While weight wasn't necessarily an issue for the superhuman strength of a servant in battle, there was still the matter of lugging the thing around outside of combat.

Abbas doubted that Hector would be able to annihilate and rematerialize the Amir-10 at will like he could with the Amir-9. In fact, a part of him didn't want Hector to even try. It was entirely possible that Hector might simply annihilate the part of the Amir-10 and then simply rematerialize an Amir-9 as normal, rendering all his hard work useless.

But admittedly, another part of him was curious to see what would happen. Theoretically, the Forge's transmutation of the Amir could have made it so that Hector was no longer capable of annihilating it at all. Fusion Forge's were unique in that ability, but it was impossible to be sure without testing the shield directly.

This exact problem was one of the major reasons why the use of materialized elements in construction was a historically contested subject. The idea that someone might materialize an enormous amount of something, sell it all off for a tidy profit, and then be able to go around sabotaging projects as they pleased--that had caused considerable problems in the past.

Page 3060

Thus far, his actual creations were quite modest things.

And yet, not at all. Depending on how one looked at them, they could have been regarded as remarkable accomplishments.

He made a plant. It was just a tiny sprout, but still. It was an organism. Life. Created from nothing but raw elements and his own imagination.

On a technical level, it was incredible. Not something an integration user could do unaided, certainly. But on a pragmatic level... maybe not so much. That tiny sprout wasn't about to help them retake their homeland from Abolish, now was it?

He knew he had to be patient, but it was difficult when there was so much at stake. This pressure that he felt weighing on him in the back of his mind--it was nothing new. He'd felt it for years. But never before had it been quite so intense.

A constant reminder of just how much everyone was relying on him.

Hence the lack of sleep.

Thankfully, he'd also been able to make other, non-organic things. The sprout was arguably the most impressive creation, but only as a proof of concept. The most useful creation thus far was undoubtedly the enhanced shield that he had crafted for Hector.

The Amir-9 prototype shield that Hector had gifted back to him at Warrenhold was the ideal material for testing the Forge in this early stage. It was sophisticated enough that unaided integration on it was unfeasible, but it was also easily replaceable if the testing process proved too stressful and destroyed it. The young Lord Goffe had a whole room full of them, and Abbas didn't hesitate to help himself. He was reasonably certain that Hector wouldn't mind.

As a result, he'd been able to develop the Amir-10 prototype. Though perhaps it was deserving of an entirely new naming scheme, now.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Page 3059

A working Fusion Forge at his disposal. It was truly magnificent.

There was so much to learn and do. The potential spurred him on. He'd have to rest at some point. Probably. But for now, he was entirely consumed.

And loving every minute of it.

In here, the outside world mattered so much less. He was still aware of the urgency of his tasks, of course--they were perhaps the largest aspect of his motivation. But it was a process. It couldn't really be rushed. Urgency had no real weight.

He'd had to test the Forge's capabilities, first and foremost. Barring an imminent attack from Abolish, nothing else could have possibly pried his attention away from this place.

It began with merely trying to fuse simple materials together. Small, molecular bonds. Could the Forge create water from hydrogen and oxygen, for example?

And the answer to that was yes, though it had taken a few tries for him to get the hang of it. But that was a relief. He'd had a feeling since the beginning that this Forge specialized in organics, so it would have been quite the problem if it couldn't even synthesize water. Sure, he could've just synthesized it himself--a trivial task for even a mildly experienced integration user--but it wouldn't have boded well for the Forge's more advanced capabilities.

Which he was finally beginning to get glimpses of.

The giant glass globe was apparently an all-purpose chamber. Everything happened in there. Collection, analysis, breakdown, fusion, refinement--and perhaps more that he hadn't yet discovered.

Even now, a month later and with a whole host of assistants at his beck and call, Abbas felt like he'd only scratched the surface of what this thing could do. Half the time, he didn't know whether he was frustrated or excited beyond words.

Page 3058 -- CCLXIII.

The trip to his favorite workshop would be a long one. It was all the way over in Ardora.

Jercash wouldn't be happy about him leaving Eloa, but eh. The sly boy didn't need his help. In fact, Morgunov might just have to start thinking of him as the sly man from now on.

Hmm.

Nope, that was too weird.

Still, he supposed he could at least send some extra assistance Jercash's way. It would be a pretty big downer if Jerky got overwhelmed by an uncharacteristically competent group of Vannies all of a sudden. A bit of insurance for his best boy wouldn't hurt.

Ooh, and maybe he could pay Dozer's forces a visit while he was in Ardora. It would be a little tough to make time for them, but his curiosity was sufficiently piqued to warrant the extra effort.

Now if only he could find the time to pay a visit to Exoltha, too. He wouldn't have minded going over there and giving Gohvis a swift kick in the butt for not helping out with the war effort. Germal might also be hiding out there, but Morgunov doubted it. That punk was probably runnin' around out there, gettin' up to all sorts of mischief.

Which Morgunov could respect, at least a little.

Didn't change the fact that he intended to do everything within his power to ruin that creepy little thing's day the next time they saw each other.


Chapter Two Hundred Sixty-Three: 'Bright steward, flash and burn...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Abbas couldn't even remember the last time he'd slept. Physical exhaustion just seemed like a way of life at this point. His body protested every movement he took, but he was barely even aware of it.

Mental exhaustion was not his problem. His mind was constantly racing. New ideas, old idea in a new context, new problems, old problems. This could be fixed. That could be attempted.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Page 3057

He waited.

The Omnivore Drive should kick in soon. Its function was to break down any material given to it, analyze its molecular structure, and then attempt to integrate any power-producing components that it detects into its own design.

A kind of self-upgrading mechanism. Similar in concept to the way that certain worms could absorb the abilities of those that they ate. That was where he'd gotten the idea from, at least.

He kept watching, crossing his fingers as the Mk. VI kept churning and grinding. It was thinking. Processing. C'mon...!

The noises all stopped. The machine settled. The pulpy, liquefied remains of its victims began oozing out from its bottom, forming a big red puddle.

Hmm. Nothing, huh? Just another mess.

Dang it.

He couldn't be too disappointed, though. This was what he'd expected to happen. He would've been surprised if the Mk. VI had actually come up with anything. The problem, most likely, was that the system was still not able to figure out what a "power-producing component" actually was.

As he'd feared, the Mk. VI would require more than just molecular analysis in order to achieve that goal. First, he would have to figure out how to make a machine that was capable of analyzing soul power and ardor.

A tricky problem, that one. He'd been trying it for ages with no success.

Maybe he needed go all the way back to the drawing board with this one.

Oh well. Nothing to get discouraged about. Failure was just one more step on the stairway to success.

In the meantime, he had plenty of other things to occupy his attention.

Thinning the crowd by only six probably wasn't enough, though. He decided to let the Mk. VI grab a few more. It was a bit of a waste, knowing nothing would come of it, but oh well.

Page 3056

He felt kinda bad, actually. He almost wanted to help 'em out. Revive some more helpers for 'em. Or maybe even jump in there and give 'em a hand, himself. That'd be funny, if only to see the looks on their faces.

And on any other occasion, he might've indulged such whims. But not today. Time was a factor, thanks to the question of whether or not Qorvass had managed to contact anyone.

Sadly, this was a no fun zone, at the moment.

So he had the Mk. VI get on with it.

The hulking metal body split apart down the middle, creating one massive pair of jaws. And out came a whirlwind of extra tentacles. The ones that were attached to the outside of its body became visually lost in the shuffle as the room filled squirming machine parts.

Six Vanguardian generals at once were caught and bound, as were each of their reapers. They struggled vainly against the snaking metal, and some of them even managed to break through a few of the tentacles.

But it didn't matter, of course. Where one tentacle was severed, ten more were there to replace it. And even the broken ones were quickly wriggling their way back toward reattachment.

And then, the tentacles all retracted, and the Mk. VI devoured them.

In an instant, all the noise--the whirring and scraping, the muffled cries and scream--came to an abrupt an end.

Except the grinding. Deep in the bowels of the Mk. VI's bulbous body, those people were being diced up, crunched down, and digested.

Still, even that was surprisingly quiet. Morgunov would've expected that the mangling and mashing of six whole people would be a lot louder than this. Hmm. Perhaps the sheer density of the Mk. VI's overall design had caused it to become an unexpectedly effective sound dampener.

Neat!

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Page 3055

So it was a shame that the boy had lost his damn mind and forced Morgunov to put him down. Out of mercy, really. He'd been a danger to himself and everyone around him. In fact, it was like he'd wanted Morgunov to do it. Like he was just barely sane enough to realize what was wrong with him but not enough to do anything about it himself.

Tragic.

And even the lad's reaper had become irrational about it. Refused to release his soul. Didn't seem to believe that Damian was truly beyond saving at that point. Which was pretty nuts, since even Parsey Boy had agreed that he was too far gone.

But then, Parson had become a pretty cold and callous little bastard by that point, hadn't he?

Almost made Morgunov proud. He might not have ever technically been Morgunov's apprentice, but there was something akin to that kind of relationship between them.

A rare and unspoken understanding.

If only the kiddo could see the error of the Vanguard's ways. Morgunov was sure that they could've had a beautiful friendship, if not for that one sticking point.

As for Germal...

Well.

That thing had considerable protection. Dozer, Gohvis, the Beast of Ardora. If Morgunov wanted to mess around with it, he couldn't do so lightly.

All in due time, though. He couldn't very well let Germal get away with sending Parson to interrupt his plans. Sure, it had ended up being more fun as a result, but it was the principle of the thing.

Morgunov was the one who played games with people's lives, not the other way around.

Case in point.

These Vannie generals weren't doing so hot against the Mk. VI. Even working together, it was like watching a group of schoolkids taking on a heavyweight boxer.

Page 3054

All of that was merely to say that Morgunov, in the back of his mind, always had reason to believe that perhaps some of his "dead" students might one day reappear before him.

In an attempt to kill him, for example.

And in that regard, the most prominent candidate in his mind was one Damian Lofar.

That little trio had been in his thoughts quite a bit, recently. And it began with Damian--or more accurately, with that whole mess that went down at Bellvine. Damian was the entire reason that he'd even been there, after all. That was the memory that had reminded him of interest in acquiring a pet "god," which in turn was what had motivated him to set off this whole continental war.

And then, coincidentally enough, who crossed his path next? Parsey Boy. And before any of the other Vannies got there, too.

That had to have been Germal's doing. Morgunov was convinced.

And if those two were back in action, then it somehow didn't seem beyond the realm of possibility that Damian might show up again, too.

Maybe that was just wishful thinking, though. Morgunov rarely ever regretted killing anyone, but little ol' Damian had been one of the few exceptions.

When Morgunov had first learned about Damian's power, about his control over a totally unknown force, he'd been ecstatic by the mystery it presented. It was exciting just thinking about what discoveries might be made by studying it. And as Damian had grown more powerful, that excitement had slowly but steadily increased along with him.

The boy could manipulate space, waves, and matter in ways that Morgunov had never quite seen before--certainly not all at once.

And gradually, Morgunov became convinced that Damian was the key to understanding the relationship between the three on a deeper level than ever before.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Page 3053

He'd asked her how she'd managed to survive the vaporization, and apparently, she'd rigged up an illusory double for her reaper, having anticipated that Morgunov might discover what they were up to and kill them.

Neat trick, for the time. Had to give her credit, but it wouldn't work on him these days.

And then, of course, there was ol' Hamish. Now there was a guy who'd pulled off a surprising escape. One of his brightest students ever, in retrospect. For the longest time, the lad's only real problem was his ego, but Morgunov had been sure to beat that out of him. True, it took a while, but Hamish eventually got the message.

And the kid's work in theoretical physics was truly something special. His ideas formed the foundation of the Red Rift that Lozaro got thrown into.

So it was a real bummer when he told Morgunov that he wanted to leave and go make a name for himself independently. And yeah, perhaps Morgunov had overreacted a bit, yelling at him like that. And threatening him. And all his loved ones.

But still, the lad hadn't been ready to strike out on his own yet. Just a few more decades wouldn't have been too much to ask. Plus, there'd been a big, messy war going on, and it just wasn't the right time.

Which was, presumably, why Hamish and his reaper decided to gamble everything on a battle with a feldeath.

In the ensuing chaos, Morgunov was sure that he saw them both get obliterated by an energy beam that was as wide as a building.

But apparently, the reaper just barely survived. And the feldeath that they'd antagonized was so bloody powerful that Morgunov hadn't been able to stick around and make sure that no traces of them remained.