Friday, May 7, 2021

Page 3177

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

Page 3176

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

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

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

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

Madness.

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

Or so he'd come to believe.

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

In midair, Banda found himself hesitating.

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

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

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

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Page 3175

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

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

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

A terrible aura.

What in the fuck was that?

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

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

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

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

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

Never had he felt the like before.

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

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

Page 3174

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Page 3173

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

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

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

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

Utter bastards.

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

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

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

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

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

Page 3172

Regardless, a wrobel was a major problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And everything made sense.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Page 3171

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

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

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

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

He just had to find the way in.

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

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

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

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

No. It was Grigozo's memory.

Of a wrobel.

He smelled a wrobel.

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

Page 3170

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

His sense of smell, for instance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 3, 2021

Page 3169

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

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

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

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

What was he doing?

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

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

Agh.

Hey, wait a minute. What was that smell?

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

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

It exploded into molten iron and splashed all over him.

Agh, fuck! It burned!

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

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

Yes. Yes, that was better.

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

Page 3168

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

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

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

Or so the tale had been spun.

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

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

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

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

But made so much more potent in this form.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Page 3167

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

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

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

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

He should've just ignored orders and come alone.

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

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

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

He loved it, though.

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

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

Page 3166 -- CCLXX.

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

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

At length, however, Banda had apparently had enough.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Page 3165

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page 3164

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

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

Then everything happened very quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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