Sunday, December 31, 2017

Page 1466

You like that bullshit I came up with?’ said Garovel privately. ‘Pretty impressive, huh?

Hector had to admit, the speed at which the reaper had answered her was surprising. ‘Am I crazy, or did you seem... prepared for that question?

Heh. You’re really keeping that armor on because it gives you something to hide in, no?

Hector wanted to deny it, but he couldn’t.

That’s what I thought.’ The reaper floated over to Hector’s other shoulder. ‘Don’t mind me. I’ll just continue being incredible over here, if you need anything else.

“Lord Darksteel.” This time it was Manuel again. “Might I ask what you think of these Hun’Sho people so far?”

Okay, this “Lord Darksteel” business was getting a little out of hand, Hector felt. As awkwardly flattering as it was, he figured he should tell them--

I would be interested to hear your opinion as well, Lord Darksteel,’ said Lorios.

Yeah, Lord Darksteel,’ said Garovel, though he was still keeping his voice private. ‘Go on. Tell them what you think. And don’t tell them to call you Hector, either. I’ve had enough of that shit.

What? Why not?

They’re showing you respect. Just accept it gracefully like a proper lord would.

But--

Better hurry and answer ‘em. They’re waiting patiently.

Hector had to force himself not to groan in exasperation. “Ah...”

Manuel, Elise, and Lorios were all looking at him.

Slow and deliberate speech, Hector reminded himself. Careful, measured words. He’d done it before in front of total assholes. He could do it again in front of these nice people. Probably.

Oh god.

“I think,” he heard himself say, “that... the Hun’Sho... are very polite.” Why the hell was that simple-ass sentence so difficult to get out? Agh. He had to give them more of his thoughts than just that, he knew. “Almost... too polite, actually.”

Manuel nodded. “I understand what you mean. I, too, have thought that they might be concealing something from us. Which is their right, I suppose, but given Lord Diego’s behavior... I am growing more concerned about them.”

“I have to agree,” said Elise. “And their treatment of the Hun’Kui is troubling, as well. It’s like the Hun’Sho are pretending they do not even exist.”

Sadly, I doubt there is much we can do to help them reconcile,’ said Lorios. ‘We should probably just be glad that they aren’t trying to kill each other.

Hector was more than happy to just listen. He hadn’t gotten to know these three very well at all, which might have been why he found it more difficult to speak to them, compared to Zeff or Diego.

And after that conversation with Emiliana earlier, he supposed he was feeling even more self-conscious than usual. He really didn’t want to fuck things up with these people, too.

Though, a strong part of him still didn’t feel like he’d fucked up with Emiliana, either. He’d said what he’d wanted to say--and meant it. If she’d gotten mad at that, then, well...

Ugh.

There was one thing he knew for sure, at least. All this time, he’d been absolutely right to be terrified of social interaction.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Page 1465

Hector and Garovel excused themselves and followed Manuel out of the building.

Hector got to wondering about Torveis as they walked. Certainly, the man was not lacking in politeness. Most of the Hun’Sho were like that, it seemed, but Torveis in particular had struck Hector as even more so. Somehow, it made Hector not want to even humor the idea that the man had been lying to them.

But then, wouldn’t that be what a liar wanted? Wouldn’t that be a compelling reason for a liar to go out of their way to be polite in the first place?

Then again, Hector knew that he wasn’t exactly a paragon of honesty, himself. He’d told plenty of his own lies, hadn’t he? Some quite recently.

Whatever the case, Hector figured he shouldn’t jump to any conclusions or rush to any judgments.

Manuel’s group remained mostly quiet en route to Carver’s biosphere.

So why did you come to get us?’ asked Garovel along the way.

“It was at Lord Diego’s behest,” said Manuel. “He also said to not go near any mirrors.”

...What?

“I can’t say I fully understand, either,” said Manuel. “But he didn’t seem like he was joking. He has gone to retrieve the Water Dragon. He said he will explain further once we have all gathered.”

Hector needed a moment to remember who “the Water Dragon” referred to. The last time he heard someone call Zeff that was at Dunehall when Ivan, of all people, said it.

When they made it back to the biosphere, Diego was not there, so they decided to take a seat in the main room and wait for him.

Hector reworked his armor for the cooler environment instead of simply removing it. Heavy though it was, he was beginning to feel more comfortable with it on than with it off, perhaps because he had spent so much time learning to materialize it perfectly around his body. No longer did it feel too bulky around his torso, too tight around his neck, or too loose around his feet. Best of all, though, he had finally managed to curve and interweave the joints just right so that they stopped pinching him when they touched. Even with a thick layer of cloth for added protection, that had occasionally been a nuisance.

He still wanted to try out some different styles of visors for his helmet, though. Perhaps he could still improve his visibility in some way.

“Lord Darksteel?” came a feminine voice. It of course belonged to Elise Garza, who was staring at him. “Why do you keep your armor on? Are you afraid we will attack you?”

Oh shit. He hadn’t even considered what they might be thinking. What was he supposed to say here? ‘Garovel, help...

Of course we aren’t worried about that,’ said Garovel. ‘But my “Lord Darksteel” here is ever vigilant, you see. We have had some rather nasty surprises in the past, and perhaps as a result of that, he has developed a habit of keeping his guard up even when things seem peaceful.

She couldn’t hear any of that, of course, as she was not a servant, but Manuel was kind enough to relay it to her.

Hector breathed silently in relief.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Page 1464

I see,’ said Garovel. ‘Pretty strange how Avar would choose to appear to you in the form of an animal you’d never seen before.

“Such is His vast knowledge and power,” said Torveis. “Perhaps He thought I would be less moved by His presence if He took the form of an animal I had previously seen.”

That would make sense. But I was beginning to wonder--or dare I say, HOPE--that you had been to the surface, yourself. I would have been extremely interested to hear what your opinion of the surface world was after having seen it with your own eyes.

For a moment, Torveis just looked at him. “I should like to go there, one day, but as yet, I am afraid I have not.”

Pity.

And a suddenly heavy silence drew out.

He’s probably lying,’ said Garovel privately. ‘This man has been to the surface before.

Hector had about a dozen questions, the first of which was, ‘Hun’Sho can survive on the surface?

Yeah. Their magma lets them regulate their body temperature pretty efficiently.

Why would he lie about that?

I don’t know, and that’s what’s bothering me.

Maybe Avar really did take the form of a bird in his dreams.

Yeah, sure.

Torveis revived the conversation. “Perhaps you could tell me of more animals from the surface. I have heard that you have quite a large variety, compared to the Undercrust.”

Heh, he’s a really good liar,’ said Garovel, still privately. Then he switched over to public voice. ‘That’s true. The environment on the surface is a bit more forgiving, though it can be dangerous in many other ways.

“I am intrigued. Please do tell me more.”

And Hector just listened as Garovel did so. The reaper spoke of many different animals, some of which Hector didn’t know much about himself and therefore was almost as interested to learn of as Torveis appeared to be.

But all the while, Hector couldn’t help feeling as if a shadow had been cast over the conversation, as if it were mostly just an act now.

He wondered if Garovel was right, and Torveis really had been lying; or if that was just Garovel’s cynical bias, and Torveis really had seen the God of Fire in his dreams before ever knowing what a bird looked like. Of course, he was much more inclined to believe Garovel, if only because he barely even knew Torveis, but still, it was pretty obvious now that Garovel didn’t know everything. Even if the reaper liked to say otherwise.

At length, a new voice arrived.

“Lord Darksteel.” It was Manuel Delaguna and his reaper, Lorios. They were also accompanied by the non-servant woman from before, whose name Hector had since learned was Elise Garza.

Hector noticed the look on Manuel’s face first. “Is something wrong?”

Lorios floated forward and addressed Torveis. ‘We apologize for interrupting, but might we borrow these two from you for a minute?

“But of course,” said Torveis, gesturing with one hand. “I feel I should apologize for monopolizing them to myself for quite some time now.”

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Page 1463

Torveis looked at Hector. “Jests aside, is that true? Do you believe me?”

Hector tried not to look like a deer in the headlights. “Uh, I... I don’t know yet. But, ah... I’m trying to keep an open mind, I guess.”

“And you would be convinced if you heard what Avar said to me?”

Hector bobbed his head to the side. “Depends on what he said. I shouldn’t promise to be convinced before I even hear it, should I?”

“Aha, I suppose not. Very well, I shall tell you.”

Truthfully, Hector was still mainly hung up on the whole “core of life that spins with the planet” thing, but it didn’t seem like Torveis was the one who would be able to explain that to him--at least, not in a way that he understood. Maybe it was something he would ask Emiliana about later. Assuming she ever intended to speak to him again.

“Avar’s message was one of great hope,” Torveis went on. “He said unto me that my people should take heart, for though we have struggled and been hurt for many long years now, He will return for us when the time is right.”

Not the most persuasive, Hector felt, especially that bit at the end. He could only imagine how Garovel’s doubt was growing.

Torveis had more. “He also said that the time is near, as He has already reawakened into this world.”

Mm,’ said Garovel. ‘How long ago did he tell you this?

Torveis’ molten lips pressed together briefly. “...About three hundred years ago, I suppose.”

Garovel was at least considerate enough to keep his roaring laughter private.

“If I am to be completely honest,” said Torveis, “it has been almost as many years since Avar last spoke to me. Which, I admit, is somewhat disheartening, but I believe it may be caused by his reawakening. Perhaps the reason he no longer appears in my dreams is because he is himself no longer slumbering.”

That... kind of made sense, if Hector wanted to be generous. And maybe it was just the result of Garovel’s sustained and echoing guffaw, but Hector was starting to feel bad for Torveis. “Ah... d-do you know what Avar looks like? Or maybe what He will look like when he returns for you?”

“I do not know if He will retain the same form when he arrives, but in my dreams, he appeared before me as a great and majestic bird.”

Garovel’s laughter abruptly cut off. ‘You know what birds look like?’ he said publicly.

“...Ah, yes, one of the surface-dwellers described them to me. I am afraid I cannot recall which, but I remember them speaking of many of your animals from the surface.”

And Hector noticed Garovel’s brief silence.

But Carver only arrived here five years ago,’ the reaper said, ‘and you said the last time Avar spoke to you was around three hundred years ago.

“Yes. I was only able to recognize His form in retrospect.”

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Page 1462

Kind words, thank you,’ said Garovel. ‘But I would still prefer you to exercise more caution in the future. Even if it is rather durable on its own, your core is still your greatest vulnerability. And let me assure you, there are plenty of surface-dwellers who are most definitely NOT deserving of your trust.

Torveis laughed lightly. “My brethren have often berated me for my carelessness as well, but I shall try to take your words into consideration.”

Hector had a question now. “What is that thing, exactly? Y-your core, I mean. Like, what’s it made out of?”

Rock and ardor, no?’ said Garovel.

“That is correct,” said Torveis. “It is said that Avar himself bestowed it upon us, giving birth to the first of our people.”

“Avar?” said Hector. “Not the Heart of the World? I mean, it's just--I would’ve guessed, ah... er... considering it’s like your actual heart and everything...”

“Ah. Yes, I suppose now that you mention it, there are those who believe it was the work of the Heart of the World, instead.”

“But you believe it was Avar?”

“I do,” said Torveis.

“Why?”

Torveis laughed again. “Well, there are many reasons. For one, Avar is far more benevolent and righteous than the Heart of the World. Much more deserving of my belief, I feel. And for another, I have seen Avar in my dreams. I have even spoken to him there.”

Hector didn’t have a response for that.

Garovel did, though. ‘Are you sure those weren’t just, y’know, dreams?

“Aha, perhaps they were,” said Torveis. “But I see that it is as I have heard, regarding the cynicism of your kind.”

Sorry if that was rude,’ said Garovel. ‘But I won’t deny that I’m very doubtful of religion in general. It’s nothing personal, if that makes you feel any better.

“It does not,” said Torveis, though he was laughing again.

Ah.’ Garovel looked at Hector briefly before returning to Torveis. ‘I’ve heard that your core is also how you keep track of time. Is that true?

“Ah, indeed, it is,” said Torveis. “I am sure it was simply moving too slowly for you notice when you were looking at it a moment ago, but my core spins in synchronicity with the planet.”

Yeah, I’ve heard that as well. Glad to know I wasn’t lied to.

Hector was having a hard time wrapping his head around that one. “How does it--? Ah... I mean, how does your core sync with the whole planet? That’s, uh...? I don’t understand...”

“We are close to the planet,” said Torveis.

That didn’t really help, Hector felt.

“I would tell you that this, too, is Avar’s blessing, but I fear that Garovel here would challenge me.”

That made the reaper chuckle. ‘So what does the God of Fire tell you in these dreams of yours, then?

Torveis folded his arms. “I am not certain I wish to tell you.”

Oh, come on, I’m genuinely curious. And I may not believe you, but I’m sure Hector does. He’s super gullible.

“Wow, Garovel, really?” said Hector.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Page 1461 -- CLVI.

Chapter One Hundred Fifty-Six: ‘O, banneret of the Underworld...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

“You see,” said the Hun’Sho man named Torveis with a hand over his open chest cavity, “as long as we have this, we do not require sustenance as you do.”

Hector stared with wide eyes as he listened. The man’s chest was largely hollow, apart from two dark, pulsing lungs and a small, glowing sphere suspended where the heart should have been. There were no bones or muscles. There wasn’t even any blood, unless a few streaks of dripping lava counted.

“And if I do this--” Torveis breathed in deeply, visibly inflating his lungs. The magma coating the outside of his body suddenly retracted inward, filling his open chest so completely that he had to close it again before it started leaking out of the front hole he’d made earlier. “--Well, you can see the result.”

Hector didn’t know what to say. On the outside, at least, the man no longer looked like a being of molten rock. Torveis looked far more normal--relatively speaking, at least.

In fact, he looked uncannily similar to the Hun’Kui. The ashy gray skin tone, the glowing eyes. The only real differences that Hector could spot were that the glow was more orange than white and that it wasn’t just the eyes glowing but also the mouth and several other porous marks all along the man’s arms, legs, and chest.

He didn’t think he should bring up the Hun’Kui, though.

“So that little round thing in there makes it so you don’t ever need food?” Hector decided to ask instead.

“Yes,” said Torveis. “As a matter of fact, I imagine that most of us here in Himmekel did not even understand the concept of food until Carver first appeared.”

“That just seems crazy to me...”

“At times, however, we may choose to absorb extra rock in order to replenish any core magma that we may have lost. So perhaps you may find that similar.”

“Hmm. How would you lose your, uh... core magma?”

“Overexertion or being wounded, perhaps.”

“Huh...” Hector wondered what qualified as a wound, then. He noticed that the big hole that Torveis’ had made in his chest had sealed back up already. And the man hadn’t seemed particularly concerned about ripping his own skin open, either.

This is the first time I have ever seen a Hun’Sho’s core in person,’ said Garovel, who had been hovering by Hector’s side. ‘It was quite bold of you to show us, was it not? And awfully trusting, too.

“Trusting?” Magma began gradually accumulating all over Torveis’ body again, oozing out of the holes in his skin--thankfully not through the eyes or mouth, though. “Ah, do you mean in the event that you decided to attack me?”

Pretty much, yeah,’ said Garovel. ‘Not that we would do such a thing, of course.

Torveis tilted his head. “I had not considered that, but I suppose you are right. All of the surface-dwellers whom I have met have struck me as quite trustworthy, and you are no different, I feel.”

Monday, December 25, 2017

Page 1460

~~((The 12 Pages of Christmas + Double Monday = Page 14 of 14))~~
Diego took the Kag from Jasirok in order to inspect it more closely. “So of course you can’t tell us what this key unlocks. You wouldn’t recognize the lock that it belongs to even if you saw it every single day for the last seven hundred years.”

“I...” Jasirok’s shoulders slumped a little, and he returned to his seat by the large mirror.

“Ah--I didn’t mean that as an insult,” said Diego. “It was just an observation. I wasn’t blaming you or anything.”

Still, the Hun’Sho man looked rather disheartened.

Nice going,’ said Yangéra privately.

Agh.’ Diego didn’t know what to say to him. ‘Could you help me out here?

Uh, so this Ettol guy,’ said Yangéra publicly, ‘he wanted to know about the Sosho’Diyu, too, right? But do you know if he actually learned anything? Do you remember any of the specific questions that he was asking about it?

Jasirok was quiet for a bit longer. “I... recall him asking about Guong Seyos quite a few times. He expressed an interest in meeting him.”

Oh, that’s right,’ she said, apparently trying to sound more optimistic, ‘you guys are all immortal, aren’t you? So if Seyos survived like you said, then he could still be alive! And if anyone knows where the treasure is, it would be him!

“Indeed,” said Jasirok. “However, I do not know if Guong Seyos was a real person.”

“What?” said Diego.

“The elders appear to believe he was, and they lived through those events, so I do not wish to doubt them, but I have lived in Himmekel for my entire life, and I have never met anyone named Seyos, Guong or not.”

Hmm. Perhaps he changed his name.

“If that is true, then I do not know how we will find him,” said Jasirok.

“We could ask one of your elders,” said Diego. “It sounds like they would know everything we need.”

Jasirok’s expression soured. “You will not find them cooperative. As I said before, I was ordered not to speak to you of this matter.”

“Maybe we can convince them. I can be pretty persuasive, when I want.”

The molten man shook his head. “You will fail. I assure you. Even Ettol could not sway them, as I recall, and they all seemed rather fond of him.”

Diego frowned.

“Additionally,” Jasirok continued, “when you do not succeed, the elders will know that someone spoke to you against their wishes. And they will likely realize that it was I, as they have heard me voice my dissent before.”

“Ah...”

The conversation all but died there. Jasirok was already looking defeated.

Diego couldn’t see a reason why the Hun’Sho would want to keep such a secret. But then, he still didn’t really understand the Hun’Sho themselves. Perhaps this was some sort of cultural thing. Pride or embarrassment, maybe.

Whatever it was, it was obnoxious.

C’mon, Diego,’ said Yangéra privately.

What?

You’re weirdly good at figuring this sort of stuff out,’ she said. ‘Can’t you think of something?

He actually could.

“...Who was the first person to go missing?” said Diego.

“Oh, that--”

Without warning, an enormous red-and-orange hand lunged out of the mirror on the wall. It grabbed Jasirok by the torso, yanked him out of his seat, and pulled him back through the mirror before Diego could so much as blink.

The mirror shattered, and Diego and Yangéra were left staring.

Page 1459

~~((The 12 Pages of Christmas + Double Monday = Page 13 of 14))~~
You don’t seem particularly concerned about these strange people,’ said Yangéra.

Jasirok merely tilted his head at her.

She exchanged glances with Diego. ‘Are you not worried that they are behind the disappearances, somehow? I thought that was why you mentioned that the disappearances only started happening after they first arrived here.

“No, no,” said Jasirok. “That was only to give you a sense of chronology. I do not think Ettol and his comrades are to blame.”

Why not?

“Because the disappearances began while they were away. Only Carver has been here all along, and... I mean no offense to him, but he is rather weak--in both body and spirit. I have no reason to believe that he could harm any of us by himself.”

Harsh,’ said Yangéra privately.

But not inaccurate,’ thought Diego.

Yangéra returned to her public voice. ‘Well, if you don’t think Carver and his friends are responsible, then do you have some other theory?

“I... do not,” Jasirok admitted. Then he stood up from his chair. “However, I did find this.” He moved toward his cabinet and opened it to retrieve a small object.

It was a pyramid, pitch black and perfectly shaped--apart from three stubby protrusions, one on each of the top sides.

Diego just waited for Jasirok to explain, but Yangéra got there first.

This is a Kag, isn’t it?

“You recognize this object?” said Jasirok.

It’s a kind of ancient key. Do you know what it unlocks?

Jasirok seemed confused. “Key? What does that word mean?”

The reaper struggled for an explanation. ‘It’s something that allows you to open something else.

“I see...”

If you didn’t know what it was, then why were you showing it to us?

“I found it in the residence of the first one who went missing. I had not seen the like before, so I decided to take it with me for study. I had yet to learn anything of it until just now.”

Hmm. Well, my question remains the same. Do you know what it unlocks?

“I... I am still not quite certain I understand,” said Jasirok. “Unlocks?”

The reaper sighed. ‘Like a door? Or a box? This key should have an accompanying lock, somewhere.

“I do not--”

“There are no locks in Himmekel,” said Diego.

They both looked at him.

He eyed Jasirok. “It was something I noticed earlier. You guys don’t have locks on any of your doors, windows, cabinets--anything. Pretty strange for a place that’s supposed to be a vault.”

“I... do not know what you mean.”

“Exactly,” said Diego. “You hardly even understand the concept of locking things up. In fact, privacy in general isn’t a very big concern among your people, is it?”

“I suppose not...”

“The only lock I’ve seen since coming here was at the very front entrance that Carver led us through, the one up in the ruins of Himmestat.”

Hmm.

Page 1458

~~((The 12 Pages of Christmas + Double Monday = Page 12 of 14))~~
Diego supposed they should just get to the heart of the matter already. “So what is it that he told you not to talk about, then?”

“Our missing brethren.”

“Missing?” said Diego. “Your people have been going missing?”

“Yes. Ever since Carver’s arrival five years ago, certain members of our community have begun to vanish without explanation.”

Diego didn’t understand. “Why would you guys want to keep something like that a secret from us?”

“...I do not know,” said Jasirok. “On this matter, I find the others’ behavior extremely irrational and worrisome.”

“Hence why you’re coming to me, I guess.”

“Indeed.”

Diego took a deep breath and scratched his neck, realizing where the conversation was headed. This was turning into a lot more than he had bargained for. “So you want us to help you find them, then?”

“Very much so, yes.”

Shit,’ said Yangéra privately.

You want me to refuse?’ he asked her.

Oh, please. We both know you’re not going to refuse, no matter what I say.

That’s because we both also know you don’t really WANT me to refuse.

She just grumbled at him.

“In the beginning,” Jasirok went on, “I believed that they were merely leaving Himmekel entirely, perhaps having decided to venture out on their own for some reason I did not comprehend. However, I then decided to wait at the entrance and watch for anyone else leaving. I wanted to ask them why they were doing so, but I never found the opportunity, because I saw no one leave. And yet, during this same period, another person vanished.”

“Hmm,” Diego hummed.

You said it only started happening after Carver’s group appeared five years ago?

Jasirok nodded. “I thought Carver might know something of the cause, but I have asked him many times, and he says he does not understand it, either.”

Could he be lying?

“I suppose, but I do not think so. If he were truly behind the disappearances, then I imagine he would have left Himmekel with his companions when they visited two years ago.”

“What else can you tell us about these companions of his?” asked Diego.

“Oh, they were very charming,” said Jasirok. “Especially Ettol and his reaper. Those two befriended almost everyone in Himmekel.”

So there were servants among them. Diego supposed he should’ve expected as much. “What did this Ettol person look like?”

“Ah... I recall him having a distinct face, though I do not remember in what way.” Jasirok’s expression struggled. “I am sorry. Truthfully, you all look rather alike to me.”

How annoying. But then, Diego couldn’t fault the guy much, either--not when he could barely tell the Hun’Sho apart, himself.

What about his other companions?’ said Yangéra. ‘It was not just Ettol and his reaper, was it?

“No, there were others,” said Jasirok. He paused to think about it. “However... I am sorry. I cannot seem to remember much about them...”

Diego’s brow twitched. This was beginning to sound familiar.

Page 1457

~~((The 12 Pages of Christmas + Double Monday = Page 11 of 14))~~
At that question, Jasirok hesitated.

Uh-oh. Diego knew he had to help him out, lest this venture find itself dead in the water already. “...Maybe they just haven’t been looking hard enough,” Diego tried.

Yangéra’s beady, smoldering eyes squinted at him. ‘Even you can’t really believe that, can you?

He really couldn’t. But that was beside the point. “I’m just saying, it wouldn’t hurt to take another look around. Or two or three more looks, maybe.”

Whatever. As long as it doesn’t delay us in reuniting with everyone.

“No argument here.” By now, Diego could only imagine how worried Dimas and the others must have been. Two whole days without any contact? If he were in their shoes, he would be thinking the worst.

And certainly, Zeff Elroy was not going to let up, either. Diego doubted he would be able to convince that man to stay even a second longer than they absolutely needed to. As soon as that device of Carver’s was ready again, Zeff would probably show up like a tornado and try to sweep everyone out of here.

Diego didn’t entirely disagree with that sentiment, either. At this point, with how unlikely finding the treasure was beginning to seem, Diego mostly just wished that they had some way of getting around that feldeath more easily. He remembered it all too clearly, that giant beam of dark energy that it had shot out. Another one of those, at just the wrong moment, could probably obliterate their whole party in the blink of an eye, Diego felt.

“There is a reason,” came Jasirok’s voice.

Diego had lost track of the conversation. “Reason for what?”

Jasirok still looked reluctant to say more, but after he a moment, he said, “There is a reason why I think there may be areas of Himmekel that even we do not know about.”

Diego’s expression brightened. He’d already given up on that argument.

The molten man seemed to need another push to get his explanation out, however, and Yangéra was the one to provide it. ‘Go on.

“Before I do,” said Jasirok, “I feel I must confess something. This reason... is also why I wished to speak with you in the first place.”

“What?”

“The Sosho’Diyu does interest me, of course, but it is of secondary importance to what I am about to tell you.”

“Why all the build up, then?” said Diego. “If it’s the most important thing, why not tell it to us first?”

“Because...” Jasirok’s voice lowered to a whisper. “I was ordered not to speak of it.”

Diego’s gaze flickered. “Ordered? By who?” And he stopped himself from saying anything further, but he wondered how the hell that coincided with Himmekel being a “community of equals,” like he’d been told.

“By... my father,” said Jasirok.

Ah. If it was a familial hierarchy rather than a broader societal one, then Diego could see how the discrepancy might be explained. But still, “ordered” had been an odd choice of word on Jasirok’s part. Perhaps it could be chalked up to Mohssian not being the man’s native language.

Page 1456

~~((The 12 Pages of Christmas + Double Monday = Page 10 of 14))~~
Diego waited for Jasirok to elaborate, but when it seemed like he wasn’t going to, he asked, “Why not? What stopped him from getting his treasure back?”

Jasirok opened his mouth, then shut it again.

Is that when the Hun’Kui rose up?’ said Yangéra.

Jasirok looked at her. After a moment, he gave a solemn nod.

So the Paradise Vault, which was meant to save mere treasure, ended up saving hundreds of lives, instead.

“Yes. In here, I am told, the Surajj’Byok could not reach us.”

That caught Diego’s attention. “The what could not reach you?”

“Ah...” Jasirok looked up at the ceiling, then at Yangéra. “I do not know how to translate that word.”

She seemed at something of a loss as well. ‘Uh... some sort of sickness? Byok means sickness, doesn’t it?

“Yes,” said Jasirok. “That is right. The great blight could not reach us in here.”

Diego tilted his head. “This is the first I’m hearing of any illness.”

“It was the wicked tool of our ashen thralls,” said Jasirok lowly. “In their madness, they unleashed it upon us and brought ruin to the world.”

Diego wanted to ask more about it, but a specific question was eluding him. And moreover, Jasirok did not look especially receptive at the moment. This was the first time Diego had seen what looked like anger on a Hun’Sho’s face. The molten man’s glow had noticeably intensified, illuminating almost every corner of the apartment now.

Yangéra came up with a question, instead. ‘What became of Guong Seyos and his treasure?

Diego blinked. He definitely should’ve thought of that.

Jasirok’s glow settled, though it took a minute. “...Guong Seyos survived, though he was Guong no longer. His treasure, however--I do not know what became of it, though I believe it may be the Sosho’Diyu that Carver and his companions were searching for.”

Diego’s heart sank. “Do you mean to say that the treasure never even made it to the Vault in the first place?”

Jasirok bobbed his head to the side. “Perhaps, but...”

Diego perked back up a little.

“Others may disagree with me,” said Jasirok, “but I am of the opinion that the treasure is here. Somewhere.”

You sound confident,’ said Yangéra.

“Would it not make the most sense?” the molten man said. “If Guong Seyos built the Vault of Paradise to protect his remaining wealth, then the very first thing he would have done upon completing it is move that wealth into it, no?”

Diego liked his logic. “Makes sense to me.”

You don’t think he might have removed the treasure afterward in order to make more room for your people?

“That would... also be a possibility, yes.”

Yangéra allowed that stinging bit of rationality to sink in.

“But if it were here,” said Diego, “where do you think it might be?”

“I can hardly hazard a guess,” said Jasirok, “but I do think that there may still exist areas of the Vault that remained unexplored, even to this day.”

Yangéra gave a huff of obvious disbelief. ‘Really? Your people have been down here for a thousand years. How could you have not found every little nook and cranny by now?

Page 1455

~~((The 12 Pages of Christmas + Double Monday = Page 9 of 14))~~
Jasirok seemed to not know what to say.

“Ah, um, anyway.” Diego decided to take the seat nearest the door. “You wanted to discuss the Sosho’Diyu with me, didn’t you?”

Yangéra perched herself on his shoulder. ‘And you were going to tell us why this place is called the Paradise Vault.

“Yes, of course.” Jasirok took a seat by the mirror on the other side of the room, which was still well within leisurely speaking distance. “I know only of the story, as I had not been born yet, but my elders have told it to me many times. It begins with Guong Seyos of Himmestat.”

Oh,’ said Yangéra, ‘is Himmestat the name of that city we found on the way here, then?

“Yes,” said Jasirok. “The City of Paradise.”

Diego was still a bit lost. “Ah--sorry. Guong Seyos? What does that mean?”

Guong is the Ancient Hunese title for a king,’ said Yangéra. ‘Or at least, a certain type of king. One of divine appointment, as I recall. A normal king would’ve just been called a Guo. And “Seyos” was the name of that king, yes?

“You are very knowledgeable,” said Jasirok.

I try my best.

“Don’t compliment her too much,” said Diego. “That’s pretty much the only thing she’s good for.”

I’m also good for preventing my loved ones from making life-ruining mistakes.

Diego shot her a look. Oh, how he wanted to dive back into that argument. But for now, there was something else he wanted to know. “So... this guy called Seyos was some sort of ancient king of the Hun’Sho?”

“Correct.”

The reason Diego found that interesting was because of something he’d previously learned about the Hun’Sho here in Himmekel. One of the very first things he had asked about was who their leader was. But all of the Hun’Sho had said that no one was. They had said that Himmekel was a “community of equals.” A few of the Hun’Sho hardly even seemed to understand what he was talking about, as if the entire concept of leadership was foreign to them, somehow.

Yet now Jasirok was saying that they previously had a king.

Of course, a thousand or so years left a lot of opportunity for a regime change, but he still found the discrepancy interesting. He wondered now if some of the Hun’Sho who’d acted the most ignorant had just been playing dumb with him. If Jasirok had heard this story many times, then surely, the other Hun’Sho would have as well, right?

Jasirok continued. “Seyos was a powerful Guong, supposedly the most powerful of his time. He had accumulated such vast wealth that even other Guong came to him, asking to share his fortune with them. Which he did. And he used that fortune as leverage over them, growing his influence even more. But the other Guong did not like this, as they were full of pride; and so, over many years, resentment slowly built between Seyos and the other Guong.

“Eventually, this resentment led to Seyos demanding all of his treasure back. But of course, the other Guong refused and even claimed that they would take everything else he had, too. So Guong Seyos built a grand vault to keep his remaining treasure safe. He made it much larger than necessary, because he planned to attack the other Guong and retrieve his borrowed wealth, but alas, this never came to pass.”

Page 1454

~~((The 12 Pages of Christmas + Double Monday = Page 8 of 14))~~
“I will know,” said Jasirok.

“Y-yeah, but how?” said Diego.

“I simply will.”

Diego frowned but was not surprised. Was this just another one of their “close to the planet” things? Perhaps the Heart of the World or the God of Fire would tell them when the time was right. He’d heard those two mentioned frequently enough when asking the Hun’Sho about their beliefs.

But if that’s all it was, then why didn’t they just say so?

As they walked, Diego saw several other Hun’Sho coming and going, some of whom he even thought he recognized. It was hard to tell, though. He hadn’t gotten to the point where he could suss out the subtle distinguishing features between different Hun’Sho faces yet, and he was starting to worry that he never would. At most, he was beginning to see slight differences in the overall brightness with which some of the Hun’Sho glowed, but that was about it. Not to mention, looking directly into their faces for too long could be a bit hard on the eyes, like staring into a dim flashlight.

At length, they finally reached their destination when Jasirok stopped in front of a door and opened it for them. It had not been locked, Diego noticed, nor did it appear to have any sort of locking mechanism. It simply slid open with nothing more than a push.

Curious, Diego felt. “This is your home?” he asked.

“Indeed,” said Jasirok. “Please make yourselves comfortable.”

Diego wondered if he should add ‘privacy’ to the growing list of things that the Hun’Sho seemingly did not care about.

And perhaps ‘spaciousness’ also deserved to be on there.

The whole apartment, if it could even be called that, was little more than two rooms. Diego spotted a small shelf full of knickknacks, a tall stone cabinet, a few chairs, a large mirror, and a bed--which, after everything else he’d learned, he found somewhat surprising. So they really did need sleep.

Noticeably missing was a bathroom. He wondered if there was a communal one elsewhere in this apparent dormitory. Certainly, running water wasn’t really an option down here, so he was curious about what sort of facilities they did use. Carver’s biosphere had proved surprisingly well-equipped and even surface-like, sporting a functional sink and bathtub, though the water had been quite limited until Zeff intervened.

Diego had yet to broach that particular subject with anyone else, and by now, his curiosity was just about boiling over. He decided to just go ahead and ask the question that he most wanted an answer to. “Hey, do you poop?”

“Poop?”

Diego!’ said Yangéra privately.

“I am unfamiliar with that word,” said Jasirok. “What is poop?”

“Uh... like... excrete waste?”

Jasirok merely returned a quizzical look.

Why did you ask him that?

I wanted to know!

Diego scratched his head. “Heh, ah... well, it doesn’t matter. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then I guess that answers my question.”

Page 1453

~~((The 12 Pages of Christmas + Double Monday = Page 7 of 14))~~
Diego gave the man a smile. “How could I possibly turn down such a generous invitation?”

Jasirok nodded and took the lead.

They followed him down the next side street and came to a towering, pitch black staircase that spiraled both up AND down, Diego noticed. This rocky ground that he’d been walking on was the same level on which they’d first arrived in Himmekel, so he’d been thinking that the town didn’t go any lower. Apparently, that was not the case.

He and Yangéra followed Jasirok downward, through the narrow hole that soon branched out into a multitude of hallways, several of which they simply passed by as they continued their descent. Jasirok exited at what Diego counted to be the eighth floor below Himmekel’s ground level.

The corridor was much larger than he expected as well, gradually widening out enough so that four or five people could have walked abreast in relative comfort. But he couldn’t tell how far it extended, because only darkness lay ahead.

In fact, there was no light anywhere down here, save that which Jasirok and the other Hun’Sho emitted. Diego supposed that made sense. These people probably didn’t have much need for light sources of any kind, and if they were really as ‘close to the planet’ as they’d been saying, then Diego further suspected that they might also have something akin to a reaper’s extra senses.

He decided to ask about it. “Hey, Jasirok, can you sense where this hallway ends?”

“Of course,” the molten man said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. He looked like he wanted to ask a question of his own, perhaps wondering why Diego had asked such a thing, but Jasirok held his tongue.

If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you?’ said Yangéra.

“I am only seven hundred and twenty-one,” said Jasirok.

Ha. You say “only,” but you are even older than I am.’

“Truly?”

Yes.

“Oh my. But then, I am almost certainly not older than you in terms of genuine life experience, I should think.”

“Does that mean you were born here in Himmekel?” said Diego.

“Yes, and I have never yet left it.”

Diego exhaled silently through his mouth as he tried to imagine that. Growing up here of all places? In such confinement? He decided to ask a question that he’d asked of almost every other Hun’Sho he’d met. “Do you wish to leave this place?”

“Eventually, yes. I must admit, your presence here has sparked my curiosity a bit.”

“But you don’t intend to leave anytime soon,” Diego surmised.

“Certainly not.”

It was an easy conclusion to reach, considering every other Hun’Sho had told him much the same thing. “Why not?”

“The time is not yet right.”

That, too, was the answer he’d been expecting. Despite how many times he’d brought the subject up previously, he had yet to receive any real elaboration on that point. He decided to give it another try, though. Perhaps Jasirok would be more forthcoming than the others. “How will you know when the time is right?”

Page 1452

~~((The 12 Pages of Christmas + Double Monday = Page 6 of 14))~~
The Hun’Sho man looked at the ground. “Or... what would it be called in your language? The... ‘Grave of the Underworld?’ Yes, I think that is it.”

Diego was glad that the man seemed not to notice his surprise, because he was very much reluctant to just come right out and admit that he definitely wanted to discuss that subject. Thus far, he had not mentioned that name a single time to any of the Hun’Sho, nor had he heard it mentioned by anyone else. In the likely event that the Hun’Sho wanted to keep the treasure to themselves, Diego had felt it would be beyond imprudent to simply ask about it directly like some simpleton.

Yet here this man now was, this Jasirok, ready to offer him information out of nowhere.

Diego didn’t trust the coincidence.

But it wasn’t like he could just flatly refuse the guy, either. This was the first lead he’d found. Of course he had to learn more.

He needed to measure his next words carefully.

“I would be happy to talk about any subject you please,” said Diego. “But why is it that this Sosho’Diyu seems to interest you so?”

Good,’ said Yangéra privately.

“Ah, it is just--you see, the last group of outsiders to visit us were very keen on the subject, so I thought you might be as well.”

A rational explanation for the coincidence, Diego supposed. He allowed himself to relax, somewhat. But it did bring up another string of questions. “When did this last group of outsiders visit you, exactly?”

“Oh, it must have been a couple years ago now.”

“Hmm. You’re sure about that? You don’t have trouble keeping track of the days down here? On the surface, we’ve got the sun to go by.”

“The sun?” said Jasirok, almost laughing. “Ah, yes, I seem to recall reading about that method of timekeeping. Very quaint, but not at all necessary when one can feel the rotation of Eleg in one’s chest.”

Diego blinked. “Your brethren kept telling me about how ‘close’ they were to the planet, but I didn’t think it extended that far.”

“Indeed. It is about midday now, if you were wondering.”

“Heh, I guess I’ll have to take your word for it.”

Yangéra decided to interject. ‘This previous group of outsiders--are these the same people whom Carver arrived here with?

“Yes, they are. Why do you ask?”

It’s just, didn’t Carver come here five years ago? Not two?

“He did, yes. But his companions returned for him two years ago. I was surprised when he did not leave with them. I suppose he simply found the Vault of Paradise to be exactly that, hmm?”

“Why is it called the Paradise Vault, by the way?” said Diego. “Not that this place isn’t wonderful, of course. I just find the name curious.”

Jasirok opened his mouth to answer but stopped himself before glancing around and trying again. “Ah... I sense that this conversation may become quite long. Would you like to come with me to my home? I feel we would be able to speak more comfortably there.”

Page 1451

~~((The 12 Pages of Christmas + Double Monday = Page 5 of 14))~~
Yangéra tilted her avian head at him. ‘You’re surprisingly oblivious when it comes to this sort of thing, aren’t you?

Oh, shut up!

If it makes you feel any better, Elena Salamanca really was not good enough. Especially after what I’ve just learned.

Diego just palmed his forehead.

Think about it. If she thought you wouldn’t be loyal and yet still went as far as becoming your fiancée, then she was obviously just after your money in the first place.

Another horrible thought occurred to him, and he looked up at Yangéra. ‘Did you have something to do with her leaving me?

Of course not.

He didn’t stop staring, however. To his eyes, the reaper was a deceptively sweet-looking dove, glowing with a gentle white light, save her eyes, which smoldered with tiny black flames.

Diego, I would never do that to you.

Still, he kept looking at her.

She couldn’t even see me. How would I have possibly been able to sabotage your relationship?

His gaze narrowed. ‘By convincing someone else to do it for you.

Diego, sweetie. You’re talking crazy. Your happiness is too important to me.

That statement could be taken two different ways, he felt. ‘Yangéra,’ he told her. ‘I am going to look into this later. And you know me. I will find the truth, one way or another. So if you did do something, I’ll be much less upset with you if you tell me right now.

Her beak twisted as if it were human lips being pursed together.

He tried one more push. ‘Yangéra?

...Okay, it was me.

I FUCKING KNEW IT!

You were too smitten to see what a mistake marrying that woman would’ve been! I had to do something!

You insane asshole!

She didn’t even know how to cook!

Lots of women don’t know how to cook, Yangéra!

Yeah, well, not in MY day! It’s shameful and unbecoming of a proper wife! And she wasn’t even willing to learn, either!

His anger was only matched by his utter disbelief. ‘That’s it?! Is that the only reason?! Because she couldn’t cook?!

Of course not! That was just the example that epitomized the greater problem!

Which was?!

She treated you like shit! She had no respect for you as a boyfriend or potential husband!

What?! YOU have way less respect for me than she ever did!

Yeah, but the difference is, deep down, I still love you! She was just an ungrateful harlot!

“Um, excuse me,” came a new voice, and Diego turned to see a Hun’Sho gentleman standing there.

“Yes?” he said almost too calmly, though he shot one last glare at Yangéra. ‘This conversation is NOT over.

Oh, believe me, I can’t wait to continue it!

“You are the one they call Diego Redwater, no?”

“That’s me. And to whom do I have the honor of speaking?”

“My name is Jasirok.”

“What can I help you with, Jasirok?”

“Forgive me if you have no idea what I am talking about, but I was wondering if you would like to discuss something called the Sosho’Diyu with me.”

Diego’s brow rose.

Page 1450

~~((The 12 Pages of Christmas + Double Monday = Page 4 of 14))~~
Dammit, he could already hear the tears hissing as they evaporated in the heat of the Undercrust. Now he needed to focus on not devolving into a blubbering mess like last time.

Ooh, I really wasn’t thinking,’ tried Yangéra, still wrapped in the echo of privacy. ‘That was very low of me. I’m sorr--

Why didn’t she love me back?!’ said Diego.

Well, it probably had something to do with the fact that she was a gold digging whore and an all-around ungrateful bitch,’ said Yangéra.

Even through his extremely manly weeping, Diego had to breathe a short laugh. ‘No!’ he said, though only halfheartedly. ‘She wasn’t like that!

She was, Diego. She absolutely was.

He sniffled and rubbed his eyes.

There, there. It wasn’t your fault, sweetie. She betrayed your trust. I’m very sorry for bringing her up, okay? And you know what? I think it’s great that you’re still putting yourself out there like you have been. Sure, sometimes it rubs me the wrong way a little bit and makes me want to give you a hard time, but ultimately, I think it’s healthy.

...Really? You don’t think I’m a stupid asshole who’ll never find a woman who loves me?

Of course I don’t think that. If anything, I’m just preemptively jealous of whoever that woman turns out to be. Because I just love you so much myself. Alright?

Alright...

There we go. Now straighten yourself up. We can’t have other people seeing the big, bad Lord Redwater like this.

He started slowly shuffling his way back out into the street. ‘But what’s a lord without a lady...?

Oh, god...

We were gonna get married...

I know, sweetie. But she didn’t deserve you.

He stopped walking again. ‘Wait a minute. Did she...? Did she think the same thing that you were thinking just now? That I’m some sort of disgusting playboy?

Ah. Well... um...

His eyes widened. ‘Oh my god...!

Mm,’ was all Yangéra had for him.

He just stared at the reaper with his mouth slightly open.

...So you genuinely didn’t sleep with any of those women?’ said Yangéra.

NO!

Okay! I’m sorry! I--it--you...’ She seemed to be lost for words.

And so was he.

But if that’s the case, then you’ve seriously gotta stop being so friendly with strange women. I’m pretty sure that most of the family thinks that you’re a huge slut, too.

What?! Since when?!

Since, oh, maybe... you were about twenty-two, twenty-three?

That was fifteen fucking years ago!

Yeeeaaahhh...

Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?!

I... I mean, I made jokes about it pretty regularly. And so did other people.

I thought those were just jokes!

Well, they were. Mostly. I-I didn’t want to criticize you for your lifestyle, sweetie.

That wasn’t my lifestyle!

I am now realizing that, yes.

AGH!

Page 1449

~~((The 12 Pages of Christmas + Double Monday = Page 3 of 14))~~
Uh-huh,’ said Yangéra. ‘How about Anna Casal, then?

I never had sex with Anna,’ said Diego. ‘We were just very close, for a while.

I literally found you in the same bed together.

Yes! We slept in it! As in, actual sleep! No sex! She was going through a rough time, needed a shoulder to cry on, and then fell asleep in my arms!

You were both naked.

The rain soaked through our clothes! And we didn’t have any others to change into that night! AND we kept our underwear on, by the way!

Mmhmm. Hey, do you hear that? It’s the sound of me not believing you.

Look, I don’t need to explain my relationship with Anna to you. She is a special woman, but she and I were simply not meant to be. Someone with a filthy mind like you wouldn’t understand the platonic bond we shared.

Right. What about that one chick I saw all over you a few months ago? Did you ever even learn her name?

That was Bernice, and yes, while she was very forward, she was a foreigner who was only in town for the weekend, so the relationship didn’t last beyond that.

But you did have sex with her, is my point.

No, I didn’t.’ Diego hesitated, not entirely certain he wanted to elaborate. ‘In fact... things got a little awkward when I told her that I didn’t want to take things that far. I instead suggested trying a long-distance relationship first and seeing how things went. Her response was to kick me in the balls.

That information seemed to give Yangéra pause, perhaps because of how tragically believable it was. ‘...What about that bimbo supermodel you were with just a few weeks back?

She was NOT a bimbo! Her name was Marissa, and she was very nice! I only went to a couple ritzy parties with her as a favor. She was worried her friends would give her a hard time for showing up alone, so I played the role of studly arm candy. And maybe... sorta-kinda pretended to be her boyfriend a little.

...You did all of that for her, yet never slept with her?

She was just coming off of a bad break up and was obviously feeling very vulnerable. I didn’t want to take advantage of her.

Yangéra allowed a few beats to pass. ‘Nah, I still think you’re full of crap. What about Elena Salamanca?

At that name, Diego stopped walking and looked at Yangéra.

The reaper stopped as well. And perhaps she realized what she’d done, because she floated closer. ‘Ah--uh--I’m sorry, sweetie. I didn’t mean to bring her up. I wasn’t--

Diego’s expressionless face scanned his surroundings. There was a narrow alley to to his right.

He went for it.

As soon as he was out of public view, he found a wall, and he leaned against it while hanging his head forward.

He wasn’t gonna cry. He wasn’t. He definitely was not.

Page 1448

~~((The 12 Pages of Christmas + Double Monday = Page 2 of 14))~~
“I am so sorry,” Lerinki was still saying. “I hope you will still show us the dances of your people.”

“Oh, why, I’d be--”

I am afraid that Diego and I have other matters we must to attend to now,’ said Yangéra. ‘Perhaps he can show you his dance moves another time.

“Aww!”

“Please come see us later!”

“I will, of course,” said Diego. He had no idea what “matters” Yangéra was talking about, but he figured he should go along with it and NOT try to make her look like a jackass, for the time being.

They exited the small... hangout? He wasn’t sure what the structure was, because even though it looked like a place where people would normally gather to enjoy a meal, he had yet to see any of the Hun’Sho actually eat anything.

Regardless, on the open street again, Diego was feeling quite pleased with himself. ‘I think they liked me,’ he thought with a smile.

Um,’ said Yangéra privately, ‘just so you know, those women were not flirting with you. I’m pretty sure they don’t understand the concept of flirting to begin with.

Wasn’t the vibe I was getting.

Diego. The Hun’Sho reproduce asexually. And very rarely.

He thought about that for second. ‘So in other words... those two back there were probably virgins?

Ugh! That is the worst thing you’ve ever said!

What?! It was a joke!

I thought you were hunting for treasure, not pussy!

Whoa, hey! Don’t make me out to be some kind of sleazy piece of shit! I never said anything about having sex with them!

Oh, yeah, I’m sure your intentions back there were entirely pure.

Diego took a breath. ‘I’m just trying to get to know the local color so that, yes, I might discover some treasure. But there is more than one kind of treasure in this world, Yangéra.

Oh, here we go...

An encounter with a lovely lady of refinement and virtue, for example. That is one the most precious treasures I can imagine.

Sure it is, you horndog. Aren’t you at all worried that one of these women would burn your dick off?

Hold on. Where the hell is this coming from? You should know better than anyone that I’m not some manwhore.

Of course you aren’t.

Diego didn’t much care for her tone. ‘You really see me that way?

You’re really trying to tell me that you don’t jump into bed with any woman who will let you?

He furrowed his brow at her. ‘As a matter of fact, yes. I’ve never slept with a woman I wasn’t in love with, thank you very much.

Is that right?

It is!

What about Erica Torres, then?

Okay, that did get intense pretty quickly, but it was just heavy petting.

Yangéra gave him a look.

VERY heavy petting, I’ll grant you. But never actual sex.

Page 1447

~~((The 12 Pages of Christmas + Double Monday = Page 1 of 14))~~
It wasn’t the first time that Diego had heard the Hun’Sho talk to him about dancing. It seemed to be a big thing with them. “Sure,” he said. “Not to toot my own horn ‘r anything, but back in Aguarey, I was known as the Red Typhoon in all the night clubs.”

Hirkosa’s molten face looked more confused than impressed. “A typhoon is a type of surface world storm, no?”

“Yeah.”

“What does a storm have to do with dancing?”

“I could tell you,” said Diego, “but wouldn’t it be better if I showed you?”

Another Hun’Sho woman by the name of Lerinki leaned over the table. “Please do!” She touched his hand with her magma-covered one.

In his head, Diego screamed in agony. Even through his passive soul-defense, it felt like he’d just spilled boiling coffee on himself. But he didn’t let it show on his face at all. He was a transfiguration user. Pain was second nature to him.

He still found it difficult to respond immediately, however.

To her credit, Lerinki realized her mistake after a second and recoiled. “Oh! I am so sorry! I forgot myself for a moment! Did that hurt?!”

He laughed it off. “Don’t worry! I’m fine! Though I appreciate the concern!”

Both of the Hun’Sho women were staring at his charred and half-melted lump of a hand.

Yangéra invoked the regeneration for him. ‘Diego is fine, but you should be more careful around regular surface-dwellers,’ she said. ‘You could very easily kill one of them. They’re quite fragile.

When Diego and the others had first discovered that the Hun’Sho could both see and hear reapers, it had come as quite the surprise. None of them were servants, as far as he knew, but apparently that didn’t matter. The explanation that the reapers had provided was that the Hun’Sho were a race of people who had ardor fused into their very beings. And as such, a Hun’Sho’s “soul” was considered quite different to that of other races. Somehow.

Diego hadn’t gotten much clarification on that point. Not that he’d cared all that much in the first place. Their culture interested him more than their biology or whatever it was.

“I am so, so sorry!” said Lerinki. “I will be sure to be careful in the future!”

“Lerinki, you fool!” said Hirkosa. “Why did you not remove your coat first?!”

Diego cocked an eyebrow at that.

“Oh, you are right!” said Lerinki, and she continued to apologize, even as her molten hands began to peel back. The magma, that had thus far maintained the impossibly smooth contours around her hands without dripping at all, suddenly flowed back up her arm to reveal the much more familiar gray skin beneath.

She touched Diego’s hand again, and this time it felt quite cool--cooler, even, than the Hun’Kui women he had met back in Babbadelo. “Wow,” he marveled, “I didn’t know you could do that.”

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Page 1446 -- CLV.

“I don’t think people can be broken up into such easy categories as good and evil,” Hector finally said. “If they could, the world would be a lot simpler.”

“And that is exactly the point,” said Royo. “Actions are good or evil, not men. And yet, perhaps some acts that many would consider evil are not truly so--the seizure of power, being the relevant example to this conversation.”

“Hmm...”

“I think, therefore, that more good people should realize: if you have the opportunity to seize greater power without incurring too great a cost, then you should take it. Because certainly, if you do not, then someone else will.”

“...I suppose I agree,” said Hector, “but it’s the ‘without incurring too great a cost’ bit that worries me. Who’s to say what too great a cost is, really?”

“Who’s to say, you ask? Why, the only ones who can say, obviously! The fortunate or unfortunate ones who find themselves confronted with the choice! They are the ones to say. And do not fool yourself--they will have their say. They will make that decision. To the boon or cost of everyone around them. Such is the way of the world.”

Hector fell quiet again.

Royo felt as if he could go on, perhaps more specifically about the virtue of ambition and the far-reaching benefits to be gained from a culture which fosters it in their youth, but in the end, he reminded himself of his concerns about overreach and decided to hold his tongue.

Then he noticed the ghost wander up behind the young man. That ghastly visage still turned his stomach, but he tried not let it show on his face. The ardor-infused goggles hopefully helped with that.

“I shall take my leave,” said Royo. “It was a pleasure speaking with you.”

“Ah--same here.”

And he walked away. A part of him had wanted to ask about the ghost, among other things, but Royo thought it was too early to probe for that sort of information. Moreover, he worried what the ghost would think of him, what the ghost would tell Hector of him.

They unsettled him, those intangible phantoms. He almost didn’t want to know more about them, and instead wondered if it wouldn’t be better to simply avoid them as much as possible.

Probably not, he eventually figured. Remaining comfortable in ignorance was not how he preferred to live his life.


Chapter One Hundred Fifty-Five: ‘O, attentive Hunter...!’
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Boy, these Hun’Sho were an odd bunch. The more he talked to them, the more perplexed Diego Redwater became. Even Yangéra could agree with him on that count.

“Could you perhaps show us a dance from your homeland?” asked a very slender Hun’Sho woman by the name of Hirkosa. Her Mohssian was quite good--but then, such seemed to be the case with every Hun’Sho to whom Diego had spoken. “We would be more than happy to do the same in return.”

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Page 1445

Rather than responding, Royo merely looked at the armored young man and listened to the ambient noise of Himmekel around them--the thick sloshing of falling magma, the slight and ever-present trembling of earth, and of course the muted hissing of Hector’s visibly shifting armor.

Royo felt as though he should bring up a new topic, keep the conversation alive, but something made him hold his tongue. Something about this person standing next to him.

Certainly, when he had first heard how young the Senmurai sounded, Royo had been surprised, but he had also heard tales of how the immortal supermen could appear deceptively young. Yet now, after listening to all of his questions and his manner of speaking, Royo had the distinct impression that Hector was indeed as young as he sounded.

Young. And perhaps... impressionable?

Mm, perhaps not. After having actually listened to what Hector had been saying, the young man did seem to be amusingly stubborn in his way of thinking. And sure, Royo had molded more difficult personalities to his will, but there was also the ghost to consider.

Best not to wade into that territory, he decided. A valuable ally or friend was likely the most he could hope for here, despite how much he would have loved to have a loyal superhuman at his beck and call. And even that might be overreaching, if he didn’t watch his words.

At length, Hector was the one to speak again. “...I can’t say I disagree with your view of power.”

“Is that so?” said Royo.

“I’ve... I’ve seen a lot of power, lately. And... it’s exactly like you said. Power doesn’t discriminate against good or evil. Power is just power. Whoever has it, has it.”

“Indeed.” Royo couldn’t help smiling a little, feeling as if the young man wished him to continue his rant after all. “And I believe that is also why evil--or what we perceive as evil, at least--seems so prone to obtaining power.”

Hector turned his gaze away from the lavafall to look at Royo. He didn’t say anything, but that strange, sunken gaze beneath his armor told Royo that he was waiting to hear more.

“Imagine it,” Royo went on. “When an opportunity arises for an individual to seize power of any sort, what will that person do? A good man will hesitate. A good man will think, ‘Is this wrong? Am I being greedy? Will this power hurt someone?’ But an evil man will not think such things. An evil man will not hesitate. He will take that power as soon as he is able.”

Hector looked away again, perhaps thinking on those words.

Royo still had more to say. “What, then, are we to make of a circumstance in which a good man has an opportunity to seize power before an evil man does? If that good man hesitates in his goodness, and in so doing, allows the evil man to take that power from him?”

Friday, December 22, 2017

Page 1444

“Many people,” said Royo, “when they hear the tale of Secho’s origins, view Secho as a martyr. They see his decision as an act of self-sacrifice for his wife, and they opine that it is this sacrifice which ‘earns’ his ascension to godhood.”

“But you don’t think that?”

“Of course not. How could it possibly be considered an act of self-sacrifice when, at the time of drinking, Secho does not know that one of the goblets is poisoned? The parable even describes his thoughts on the matter. He is concerned that the goblets have been swapped, perhaps in some manner of cruel irony, but never does he worry that he may die as a result of drinking from them.”

“Hmm. You have a point. What do you think the lesson of the story is, then?”

“As I said, it is about the natures of power, greed, and heroism--specifically, in regard to how they can be linked. Secho is a heroic figure. There is no doubt of that. He saves his wife, along with various others whom he encounters during his journey to the Sanctum. But he is also portrayed as ambitious, perhaps even greedy. We can infer that he did want to become a god. He simply did not want it more than he wanted his wife to live.”

“Okay...?”

“If all of that is the case, then Secho’s heroism is not truly ‘pure,’ which further demonstrates that it is not some vague notion of ‘moral worthiness’ that allows him to ascend to godhood. Rather, it is simply his ability to defeat a god. His ability, as an individual.”

“But he still would’ve died, if not for that last minute miracle, right? Which, uh... I mean, where did that come from? A different god? Or just nowhere? I don’t really...”

“It came from himself,” said Royo. “That is the ultimate lesson of the story, in my view. Simply put, power cannot be granted to you. True power cannot. Certainly, lesser power can be bestowed upon you, as by that of a king, but in such cases, you will always remain beholden to the granter’s will, which makes the granter inherently more powerful than you. True power, as that of a god, must be seized for oneself. And perhaps most frighteningly of all, true power does not discriminate based on any sense of morality. Whosoever has the ability--the will--can achieve it, be they for good or evil.”

Hector fell quiet.

Royo wondered if he had perhaps said too much. It had been some time since he had last engaged in a conversation so passionately. He had grown so accustomed to never truly speaking his mind to anyone that he now felt somewhat embarrassed, as if he’d revealed a part of himself that he had not meant to. “I must apologize,” he said. “I did not mean to rant at you.”

“Ah,” said Hector, “don’t worry about it. I was... I was the one who kept asking you questions.”

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Page 1443

“So what did he do, then?” said Hector.

“Secho worried that the Heart of the World had lied to him about the placement of the goblets, but he did not know for sure. So before he decided, he asked the Heart of the World a question: ‘Why have you presented me with such a terrible choice?’ ‘To show you your truest self,’ the Heart of the World told him. And based on that answer, Secho decided to drink from both goblets at the same time.”

Hector breathed half a laugh. “And that actually worked?”

“His wife was cured, yes, but the Heart of the World explained that there had been no goblet which would grant him the power of a god. That had been a lie, as Secho expected. Instead, that goblet had been simple poison.”

“Oh.”

“As Secho lay dying, the Heart of the World chastised him for his greed, telling him he was fool for thinking he could have both his wife and power. Rather than despairing, however, Secho laughed in the god’s face and said that he’d known all along he couldn’t trust the Heart of the World’s words, so drinking from both goblets was the only way to ensure that he drank from the one which would cure his wife.”

“Hmm.”

“Then a miracle occurred, and Secho ascended to godhood truly.”

“Wha? How?”

“It is explained thus: Secho, due to both his intention and ultimate decision, had effectively rendered the Heart of the World’s entire ‘game of choice’ meaningless. He completely avoided making the difficult decision between love and power, which was what the Heart of the World was trying to force him to do. Or in other words, he had ‘defeated’ a god. And in doing so, he became a god himself.”

“That’s... convenient.”

“I enjoy this story, because while it at first appears as though Secho will be granted the power of a god by another, that does not happen. Ultimately, he ascends to godhood independently, as a result of his own actions.”

“What difference does that make?”

“The entire ending of the story is about the temptation and promise of power. It is about how these things can be illusions and dangerous. The ‘goblet of power,’ for instance, was never even real. It was poison all along. And yet, the story does not wholly dismiss the notion of obtaining power, either. It simply provides an alternate explanation for it.”

“Eh... was it really explained, though? Seemed like it kinda just came out of nowhere, to me.”

Royo bobbed his head. “It certainly depends on one’s perspective. For me, I find the explanation to be not only interesting but also an important lesson--relevant even to this day.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes. A lesson in the natures of power, greed, and heroism. I should admit, however, that my opinion is generally considered to be one of dissension.”

“Why’s that?”

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Page 1442

“He flew into a rage and attacked Avar. Yet, Avar was the God of Fire, and Secho was only mortal. Avar subdued him without difficulty and spared his life, believing Secho to be of no threat. However, instead of quitting himself of his quest as Avar told him to do, Secho waited four days, until Avar fell asleep, and then snuck into the Sanctum without waking him.”

“Gods need sleep?” Hector asked.

Royo smirked. “So it would seem.”

“Hmm. What happened next?”

“Secho met with the Heart of the World, who--”

“Ah--sorry to keep interrupting, but... what is the Heart of the World, exactly?”

“The answer to that would depend on whom you ask. In this particular story, it is depicted as a sentient presence encased in a giant orb.”

“That’s... strange.”

“Mm. Shall I continue?”

“Please.”

“Secho met with the Heart of the World, who already knew that Secho had entered the Sanctum when he was not supposed to. Rather than killing or banishing him, however, the Heart of the World gave him a choice. Secho was presented with two goblets. If he drank from the left goblet, his wife would be cured. If he drank from the right goblet, he would be granted godlike powers, but his wife would die.”

“How would him drinking from the goblet cure someone else?”

Royo snickered. “You are a stickler for details, I see.”

“I’m just... trying to understand.”

“The veracity of these tales is not why they have survived for millennia, I feel. They were meant to impart wisdom via the means of a constructed narrative. It may be better to think of them as a manner of... primitive thought experiment. An early mechanism of hypotheticality by which the illiterate masses might be taught a sense of morality or wisdom--and hopefully, improve civilization as a whole thereby.”

“Ah... Okay, sure, that’s... that’s a really good point. But, I mean... if the writers wanted me to believe this stuff, then they should’ve worked harder to make it more believable, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps you are being a bit too hard on said writers. They did not have the benefit of a thousand extra years of accumulated knowledge as you and I do.”

“...A likely excuse.”

That earned a laugh from Royo. “Would you like me to continue with the story? Or have you grown too weary of it?”

“...Sorry, go on.”

“Very well. Where was I?”

“The Heart of the World gave Secho a choice between godlike power or his wife.”

“Ah. This is the part of the story I find most appealing. The decision. Secho was an ambitious man. And indeed, it was that very ambition which had caused him to ‘fail’ one of his tests, according to Avar. But after his encounter with Avar, Secho realized this about himself. And perhaps even more importantly, he had heard over the course of his journey about the capriciousness of the Heart of the World. Therefore, he did not trust this choice as it was presented to him and believed it to be some form of trickery.”

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Page 1441

The Senmurai made no response.

“Do you dislike the name?” asked Royo.

“...I’d rather you just call me Hector.”

Hector? What an odd name. Royo had never heard the like before. But then, he did not know very many names from the surface. “Very well, Hector.”

“What should I call you?”

The prideful part of him wanted to say Royo Raju, but he needed to keep his story straight. “You can call me Eleyo. It is a pleasure to make your formal acquaintance, finally.”

“Ah, likewise.”

More silence arrived.

Royo had another question prepared, but then Hector surprised him with one of his own first.

“Do you believe in a god?”

Royo blinked. That question had certainly come out of nowhere.

“I mean, uh, Hun’Kui in general,” Hector clarified. “Do you guys have... some kind of religion? I’m just... curious about Hun’Kui culture.”

“Yes, we have a few religions. There is Cushin’Sekai, the religion of the Heart of the World. There is Avarita, the religion of Avar, the God of Fire. And there is Secho’ta, the religion of Secho, the God of Growth. And probably others of which I am not familiar.”

“Hmm... Do you believe in any of them, yourself?”

“Not as such, no,” said Royo. And when Hector didn’t say anything, Royo decided to add, “But if I were religious, I think I would be most partial to Secho’ta.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because of the story behind Secho. He was not always a god, you see. He was a mere mortal who ascended after a long and perilous journey.”

“Oh. I guess that’s why they call him the God of Growth.”

“Indeed.”

“How did he actually ascend to godhood, exactly?”

“That is the part I like best. In the story, he embarks on a quest to save his beloved wife, who has fallen ill. Along the way, he endures many dangerous trials and tests of both honor and morality. At the end of it, he encounters Avar.”

“The same God of Fire?”

“Yes. When Secho and Avar meet, Avar claims that Secho has failed one of his tests and so refuses him entry into the Sanctum of the Heart of the World, where the secret to curing his wife awaits.”

“Are all religions in the Undercrust linked like this?”

“No, it is only the biggest three. For those who are devout in them, it is less a matter of what they believe to be true and more a matter of who they believe to be correct. But not just according to this tale of Secho’s ascension, of course. There are many other stories, and they usually include a moral dilemma or diverging sense of ‘wisdom’ between the three religions.”

“Huh... But, anyway, uh... what did Secho do next?”

Monday, December 18, 2017

Page 1440

((Double Monday -- Page 2 of 2))
However, even after watching the one called Carver confront multiple Hun’Sho with that same question in Ancient Hunese, a definitive answer was never achieved.

But that was informative enough, in its own way.

His ancestors had driven their brethren to the brink of extinction, after all. And given their agelessness, it was highly likely that many of these Hun’Sho, if not all, had actually lived through it. When he realized that, Royo was no longer surprised by their behavior. Only annoyed.

Pure petulance. Refusing to speak to them would resolve nothing.

And so it was that, eventually, Royo ceased his futile and irritating attempts to cultivate a relationship with the Hun’Sho, instead deciding to focus on the Senmurai.

He was not the only Hun’Kui to want to do so, however. He observed one of the others attempt to make contact with him, but the Senmurai apparently did not speak Hunese. Royo wondered if his ghost could not translate for him, or if perhaps said ghost was simply preoccupied at the time. Unlike the other superhumans, the Senmurai spent more time on his own, away from his ghost, leaving Royo to wonder why. And at length, his curiosity could bear it no longer.

Standing in the middle of Himmekel, before its towering lavafall and beneath an archway of glimmering black rock, Royo Raju approached the Senmurai.

“Hello,” said Royo in Mohssian.

The Senmurai was expectedly surprised, judging from his delayed response. “...Hello.”

Royo waited for the obvious question to arrive.

“...You speak Mohssian?”

“Yes,” said Royo. “I apologize for keeping it a secret. I was not certain I could trust any of you.”

“That’s... understandable.”

“I am glad you think so.”

Silence arrived.

This, too, was as expected.

“...If I might ask,” said Royo, “why do you keep coming here alone?”

The Senmurai’s armor shifted visibly and sizzled. “This is a good place to train. The extra heat makes it more difficult.”

Training? Truth be told, Royo did not know much about the powers that the superhumans possessed. For some reason, the thought had never entered his mind that they, too, should have to hone their abilities.

How curious.

“If that is the case,” said Royo, “then why do the others not train with you?”

“...They don’t really need to. Not as much as I do, anyway.”

“They are more concerned about finding the Sosho’Diyu than you are, it would seem.”

“I don’t know about that...”

“Oh? You are interested in it as well?”

“Of course. Kinda hard not to be.”

“Heh. I was beginning to think that the Senmurai was immune to such worldly desires.”

The Senmurai paused. “I keep hearing that word. S-Senmurai? What does that mean?”

“Ah...” Royo had to stop and think about it. The meaning of the name had always been clear to him, but trying to impart that meaning into a different language was not so easy. “In Mohssian... it would roughly mean Knight of the Mist.”

Page 1439

((Double Monday -- Page 1 of 2))
They had resided here in Himmekel for over a thousand years, according to the one called Diego. And yet, these “people of the fire” showed no sign of wanting to escape this place. None of the Hun’Sho they spoke with seemed interested in leaving... or even just wanting to know about the outside world all that much.

These people demonstrated a lack of curiosity. Of ambition.

The one called Diego seemed to think it was due to their inability to age, that the Hun’Sho lacked any sense of urgency in their desires because they had all the time in the world to pursue them. Perhaps one day, they would leave and explore the world, but for now, they were content to remain here, where time was all but standing still.

Royo could see the logic in that interpretation.

But he did not trust it.

An entire society which lacked curiosity? Or the pursuit of betterment?

That was disturbingly unnatural. It was hardly even human, to his mind.

The only way Royo could rationalize the existence of a culture of such willful ignorance was by means of some coping mechanism. Perhaps the Hun’Sho had been prisoners in this place for so long that they had grown to love their imprisonment.

They had given up, in other words.

But that made sense. The Hun’Sho were a defeated people. Maybe not quite extinct as had been believed, but certainly broken in spirit.

In the ancient tales passed down by his Hun’Kui ancestors, the Hun’Sho were portrayed as a wicked and terrifying people, monstrously cruel and intelligent. Something to be feared and hated. Yet as he observed them now, beings that should have been legends brought to life, Royo found himself not only disappointed but also hating them for an entirely different reason.

They were pathetic. Shameful.

These people were blessed with immortality, yet what were they doing with it? Nothing. They whiled away the days down here as if time was of no value or consequence to anyone.

He could not imagine a greater insult to mortals like himself.

The superhumans at least seemed to understand that much. While Royo did not necessarily like them much more than the Hun’Sho, he did still have respect for them. They clearly possessed values. Principles. Dreams. Goals of their own. There was sentiment to be admired there.

The most maddening thing, however, was certainly the way that the Hun’Sho did not speak directly to him or any of the other Hun’Kui present.

At first, Royo had thought that they simply did not understand Modern Hunese in the same way that he did not under their Ancient Hunese.

But then he remembered that the one called Carver was fluent in Modern Hunese. And the man had mentioned teaching several languages to the Hun’Sho over the course of his last five years here.

“Did you not teach them our language as well?” Royo had asked him.

“Ah--I did, yes.”

“Then why do they not answer when we speak to them?”

“Ah, yes... that is rather strange, isn’t it?”

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Page 1438

“Yeah,” said the one called Diego. “Oh! Are you saying they’ll adapt to your little whatchamacallit, too?”

“That is exactly what I am saying. In order for this EWE to work a second time, it must be retuned.”

“Hmph. How do we retune it, then?”

“...Trial and error, unfortunately,” said the one called Carver. “On the bright side, it can be done from a... relatively safe distance away, provided you can see them in the dark. Which I have another device for. But, um, ah--I was hoping one of you fine gentleman would do it for me, this time. I must admit, it has always terrified me beyond measure.”

“Fine.” The one called Zeff took the box from him. “I’ll do it.”

“Oh, thank god!” The one called Carver suddenly hugged the other man. “You have no idea how happy it makes me to have such a dependable companion! Please never leave me!”

Everyone involved in the conversation just kind of stared, and the one called Zeff slowly peeled the man off of him.

The one called Carver was red in the face, though Royo did not understand what that meant. “I, uh--please, I apologize--ah, it was just a joke, you see--aha--um--”

The one called Zeff kept holding him at arm’s length. “How long will this take?”

“Oh, um, well...” The one called Carver bit his lip. “A few days, most likely. Perhaps shorter. Perhaps... longer. It sort of depends on your luck, I suppose. Just cycling through all of the potential frequencies. In theory, you could nail it perfectly on the first try. That would be amazing! But then again, you ARE amazing, aren’t you?! Aha!”

No one else laughed with him.

Royo had only pity for the poor bastard.

In the end, the one called Zeff did not nail it on the first try, as Royo had not even seen the man since. Though that was no great loss, to Royo’s mind. He did not much care for that man’s presence. He seemed perpetually on edge. And irritable, to boot. And with as much power as that superhuman had at his fingertips, Royo could all too easily imagine him simply snapping and going on a killing spree after someone said the wrong thing to him.

Given a choice, Royo much preferred the company of the other superhumans, and so he’d decided to use this downtime in order to learn more about them.

The most problematic on that front proved to be the Senmurai, who quite easily spoke the least and frequently went off on his own. He’d changed his armor, too, as if to compound the mystery further.

Difficult as he was, though, Royo had to admit, the Senmurai was the one who most intrigued him. More so than the Hun’Sho, even. Though, perhaps that was not saying much. What Royo had thus far learned of them, he did not like.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Page 1437 -- CLIV.

Chapter One Hundred Fifty-Four: ‘Hark! And unravel...!’
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At first, Royo Raju had spent the majority of his time following the one called Diego, but when it did not prove nearly as fruitful as he had hoped, he began wandering about on his own more. It certainly would’ve made things easier if he could speak or at least understand Ancient Hunese, but even with as prepared as he always liked to be, he’d never thought he would have much use for a dead language, especially when there were still so many other, living ones to spend his time on.

An oversight, apparently. And an extremely annoying one.

Now, he only knew what the superhumans deigned to tell him, which was not very much.

Of course, it was also quite possible, and indeed likely, that these Hun’Sho were simply not revealing very much. They had every reason not to want their treasure discovered.

Royo wondered what the one called Diego would do if he actually found it. Would he take it from the Hun’Sho by force? He doubted that the man had such conviction. Perhaps his curiosity was purely that. Curiosity.

Then again, he supposed that it would also depend on what the treasure turned out to actually be.

Ah, but he was twisting himself into knots over this blasted treasure again. Yes, it would be nice to get his hands on, but he couldn’t let it distract him from everything else. That was a good way to end up dead, he knew.

The more pressing matter, of course, was dealing with the worms. Potentially, the golem and feldeath could be snuck past--at great risk, of course, but it was an option. Instead, however, Royo had hoped to learn more about how the one called Carver had apparently been able to subdue all of the worms just prior to their encounter with him. The man was obviously not a superhuman like the others, given his need to wear one of those suits, so there must have been some other reason for it.

And eventually, he did learn that reason, though it was not nearly as helpful as he’d wanted it to be.

“Oh, that was because of this,” the one called Carver had explained, presenting a small, mechanical box in the palm of his hand. “It is what we call an EWE, or Enhanced Wave Emitter. You see, worms have a particular frequency at which they are vulnerable, and if you are able to strike that frequency with perfect precision, you can effectively put them to sleep.”

“Fantastic,” said the one called Zeff. “Then let’s use that to get out of here right now.”

“Uh, it would still be quite a hike to Capaporo,” said the one called Diego.

“Indeed,” said the one called Carver, “but there is a bigger problem to address, first. As I’m sure you are aware, worms are highly resilient, and perhaps the primary reason for that is their adaptable anatomy and biochemical makeup. You mentioned seeing them fuse and split apart multiple times, yes?”