Thursday, November 30, 2017

Page 1420

Are--are you okay?’ said Garovel, sounding surprised. The reaper was on the other side of an icy dome.

Of course I’m okay,’ said Hector. ‘I’m undead.’ He said that, but the right side of his face still felt like it was on fire. Not quite as on fire as it had been a moment ago, but still on fire nonetheless.

I--well, I know that, Hector. I just meant...’ The reaper growled and looked at Zeff. ‘Would you please get rid of this ice, now?

The icy dome vanished into nothingness, and Garovel reached for Hector’s shoulder.

The young man recoiled away from the reaper’s grasp. “I’m fine,” he said.

Are you serious? That looks like it hurts A LOT.

It did. Sweet goddess, it did. But that was kinda the point.

“I’ve had worse,” said Hector. He looked over at Zeff, who seemed to be in the middle of a silent argument with Axiolis.

Hector, c’mon. Let me numb the pain for you. That burn looks awful.

“Just the regen, then. Don’t numb the pain.”

Hector...

“It’s fine, Garovel. The pain will just come back later, anyway. I can deal with it right now.’

The reaper still looked reluctant but said, ‘If you say so.

He was still shaking, Hector realized. His head was fine, more or less, but the rest of his body was still pretty damn cold, even with the misty armor gone.

He could probably fix that now.

Hector clapped a fresh suit of iron armor around himself. Sure enough, it was as warm as he’d intended it to be.

Well, maybe this was a little warmer than he’d wanted. Okay, it was kinda too hot, actually.

He nailed it on the second try.

That was better. Nice and toasty. Like a cozy metal blanket. That didn’t make much sense, he supposed. Iron was not at all soft, much less cozy. Yet that was still an accurate representation of how he felt. Somehow, his iron seemed more like his than ever before.

It was a familiar and altogether welcome sensation, wearing his own armor again. He planned to leave it on, even after his body warmed up completely.

Zeff finally looked over at him, and Hector was ready to meet the Lord Elroy’s stern gaze through the visor of his iron helmet.

“I will not make that armor for you again,” said Zeff. “From now on, protect yourself from the heat of the Undercrust.”

Are you fucking kidding?’ said Garovel. ‘You’re really not going to apologize for what you just did?

“He doesn’t need to,” said Hector. “Zeff was just trying to give me the push I needed. And it worked, didn’t it?”

Bullshit. That was way out of line.

Zeff snorted. “You expect your enemies to be more considerate than I?” He glared at the young man harder than he ever had before. “Do you even realize how many people look up to you now? All of my kin. They don’t see your weakness. They think they can depend on you.”

Hector just listened.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Page 1419

“...Z-Zeff?” said Hector. His teeth had started chattering.

The man folded his arms and kept staring. “Warm yourself.”

Hector was confused. “What?”

“Warm yourself,” Zeff repeated. “Use temperature manipulation and warm yourself.”

Aw, shit. He had an inkling where this was going, but it was difficult to even think straight, and talking was even harder than usual. “But, uh--y-your armor is way too s-strong. I c-can’t--”

“Fine,” said Zeff, and he raised his arm.

The misty armor became suddenly lighter but didn’t go away. Hector could still feel himself getting colder and number by the second.

“I’ve weakened it for you,” said Zeff. “Try now.”

Hector dropped to his knees, finding it difficult to maintain his balance.

He could hear people saying things. He could hear them in his head, too. Reaper’s words. Shouted, maybe. But he couldn’t actually listen to them, anymore. It was all just background noise.

Whole thoughts were escaping him now. What was happening? Freezing. Right. A way to neutralize servants. Probably gotten to his brain, then. That was why it was difficult to. To. To...?

Whatever.

Had to materialize. Not even sure why. Just had to be done. Something. Anything. For the head.

A helmet.

Hey, he could feel it. Warm metal. What a familiar sensation. Probably just room temperature, though. Warm only by comparison to how insanely cold he was.

Good but not good enough.

Annihilate and try again. Make it warm. How, though? Didn’t matter. Couldn’t think. Just make it warm. No, make it burn. Make it hurt.

Holy shit, pain. Something was definitely hurting. All around his... head? Yeah. His head.

But pain was good. Pain was not numb. Numb was bad.

Story of life, eh, Garovel?

Garovel?

Oh shit. Needed more pain. To bring everything back.

And there it was. More pain. More burning. More heat.

Hey, what was that? Hissing? Oh, the sound of steam. He could hear again. It was working. It was working so well that he could smell burning flesh.

Oh, wait.

Hector spasmed back into control of his faculties. He was on the floor, and his face was melting.

Wow, this was painful. Not so much because it hurt any worse than the sort of pain that he’d felt previously and often. Rather, it was extra painful just because it was sustained. It hurt sharply and kept hurting sharply. No diminishing so that he could catch his breath or rethink his life choices.

Just a continual, searing pain.

He was still thinking, though, he realized. Despite being able to feel it. What was this, anyway?

It was like he had a spare compartment in his mind, just for appreciating how awful things were, right now.

Shouldn’t he be doing something with this knowledge?

Oh, good, he was already screaming in agony. How long had that been going on for? He should probably do something else now.

Hector dematerialized the red hot iron from around his head. Cool relief immediately washed over his face--so immediately, in fact, that it hurt in its own, new way, and he couldn’t stop his whole body from shaking.

--ector?! Hector!

Ah, hey, Garovel,’ said Hector, perhaps calmer than he should’ve.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Page 1418

Hector had a notion. ‘How about the names? Hun’Sho and Hun’Kui? It’s not a coincidence that they sound similar, is it?

Ah. Yes, well. You are not wrong. Where the name Hun’Kui literally translates to “people of the ash,” the name Hun’Sho literally translates to “people of the fire.” And there is considerable history there.’ The reaper spared a glance at the Hun’Kui in their party. ‘Rather gruesome history, unfortunately.

Hector caught the implication. ‘Is that... going to a problem here?

Well, it was a thousand years ago, so I’d like to say no, but...

I should keep it in mind?

Wouldn’t hurt.

What happened, exactly?

In short? The Hun’Kui were slaves. And the Hun’Sho were their masters.

Oh.

And the reason I thought the Hun’Sho had gone extinct, was because I thought the Hun’Kui had killed them all.

Oh...

The Hun’Sho did some pretty monstrous things. But they did some pretty incredible things, too. During their peak, they were the brains behind almost every major technological advancement in the Undercrust--and a few on the surface, as well.

Really? Like what?

Metallurgy was probably the biggest thing. The most famous blacksmiths on the surface only became such because of Hun’Sho knowledge.

Huh.

It was a bit unfair, really. If you had access to the Undercrust, you could probably gain a significant technological advantage over your adversaries. It might be the primary reason why holes that lead to the Undercrust are still largely kept a secret, even today. Historically speaking, they were priceless.

Hector’s mind went to the ardor-fueled weaponry that he’d seen so much of during his time in the Undercrust. Garovel’s explanation was sounding pretty spot-on.

Carver stopped in front of a tall structure, one that looked somewhat dilapidated by comparison to those around it. Then he turned to the Hun’Kui and began speaking to them while motioning toward it.

What’s he saying?’ Hector asked.

...“I believe you will be most comfortable here. Apologies for for its current state. It has been abandoned for a few years now, but there should be ample room for the four of you. Let me know if there is anything else you need.” Hmm.

After that, the Hun’Kui and surface dwellers split up, and Hector wasn’t sure why, until Carver led the rest of their group around a corner and down another street, where they arrived at a decidedly unique building. A dome.

Carver brought them inside, sealed the heavy door behind them, and began removing his climate suit.

The other two who were wearing suits looked rather reluctant to do the same, but Hector could feel the difference right away. He was suddenly freezing his ass off. The misty armor was doing far too good of a job in this place.

He had to tap the Lord Elroy on the shoulder. “Hey, Zeff, uh, you’re turning me into a popsicle now...”

For a time, the Lord Elroy just looked at him.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Page 1417

Hector couldn’t take his eyes off the Hun’Sho. There must have been fifty of them, at least, all looking down at the group from various interconnected bridges above.

Lava people,’ he thought, still incredulous. ‘There are fucking lava people...

Yup,’ was all Garovel said.

How do--?’ He struggled for an appropriate question. ‘I mean... how can they even EXIST? How can you have a body made out of fucking lava?!

Well, technically, their body isn’t made of lava. The lava is a coating which they naturally secrete. Like clothes are to you. If your clothes were made out of your own sweat, drool, piss, and shit.

What.

It’s much more hygienic when they do it, though. I know the thought is tempting, Hector, but don’t cover yourself in your own excrement. You’ll get someone sick.

He was genuinely lost for words now.

Carver started talking to the group again. “Now, if you would please continue following me, I will show you to a place where you can all get some rest. I doubt I am the only one who is tired, yes?”

A few grumbles of acknowledgment was all he got in response, and they began walking again.

Carver led them down the central path, right into a waiting crowd of Hun’Sho, which parted for them as they got closer. Carver began speaking to them, perhaps trying to allay their concerns. The Hun’Sho were not shy about answering the man, but Hector had no idea what any of them were saying.

Do you know their language, too?’ Hector asked.

Sure do,’ said Garovel. ‘Ancient Hunese. Quite a bit different from the Modern Hunese that I’ve been hearing the Hun’Kui speak.

What are they saying?

Well, they are expressing their confusion, for obvious reasons. There are a few comments about how weird you all look. Especially you. Wow, they’re really curious about you in particular. Your armor has them a bit spooked, I think.

Not too surprising, he supposed. ‘They’re not gonna attack us or anything, right?

Doesn’t seem like it.

As they continued, the street grew noticeably more polished and reflective, and so did their black-and-gray buildings, which Hector couldn’t help ogling somewhat. What were they made of, he wondered? Obsidian, maybe? He didn’t know much about volcanic rocks, but he was growing more interested in the subject by the second.

And that architecture. He recognized the horizontal window shapes from the ruined city they’d just come from. The doorways were different from what he was accustomed to seeing, as well. Double doors were everywhere, but instead of being rectangular, they formed elegant, half-moon shapes.

In fact, he didn’t see any sharp edges, whatsoever. Every structure had a smoothed or rounded look to it, and combined with that omnipresent, marble-like polish, the entire settlement managed to achieve a kind of gentle glistening effect.

Alright, Garovel, I’m ready for my next history lesson.

The reaper laughed. ‘Okay, um. Gee. Where do I begin?

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Page 1416

“Yes and no,” said Carver. “It has been years since I have seen another ‘normal’ person like myself--if these servants and Hun’Kui gentlemen will excuse the term. Yet I have not been alone. But rather than telling you, would it not be better to show you?”

The group exchanged uncertain looks as they started walking again, this time down a long corridor with the only light being at the end of it.

He’s not lying,’ said Garovel privately. ‘I’m sensing a lot of... souls on the other side of this tunnel.

Hector noticed the reaper’s hesitation. ‘Why the pause?

I just... well, they’re not quite “souls” in the traditional sense.

There are traditional souls now?’ said Hector. ‘How complicated does this shit get, Garovel?

That’s not what I mean. Just... geez, I can hardly believe what I’m sensing, right now. Maybe it really would be better to just to wait until he shows us.

Shows us what?

Exactly.

Hector had lost his ability to be surprised by Garovel’s intentional crypticity. He hadn’t lost his ability to be annoyed by it, though.

They soon reached the end of the corridor, but none of them were prepared for the view that awaited them.

Carver kept walking while everyone else stopped to gawk. Then he turned and gestured widely with both hands. “Welcome to Himmekel, the Paradise Vault.”

The very first thing that drew Hector’s eye was the sky-high lavafall. It wasn’t particularly wide, but it was so tall and so intensely bright that it became the main source of light for the area.

But not the only source of light. And that was the second thing Hector noticed: how many other, smaller lights there were. And what they were.

They were people.

The lights were people.

They glowed. Red and orange and yellow. Molten beings. Not unlike the golem he’d just seen.

Or, wait a minute, were these golems, too? They were the size of regular humans, but maybe that didn’t matter?

He needed some answers and so reached for the only question he could think of. ‘Garovel, what the fuck am I looking at?

The reaper was slow to answer. ‘Hector,’ he said privately. ‘Meet the Hun’Sho. A branch of humanity that I thought went extinct a thousand years ago.

Hector’s eyes widened. He had no idea what to say to that.

The group started inching forward with Zeff in the lead, and Hector just kind of mindlessly followed, still too dumbstruck to do much besides listen and observe.

“Now, I’m sure you all have many questions,” said Carver, “but first, let me assure you that, whatever you’ve heard about their kind, these Hun’Sho here are very gracious, magnanimous, and welcoming. So long as you do no violence upon them, none will be done upon you. Trust me. I have been studying their ways for five years.” Then he turned to the Hun’Kui specifically and began speaking Hunese, perhaps repeating himself in order to make sure they understood.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Page 1415

They arrived at a ruined structure that looked like it might’ve once been something quite spectacular, judging from the long, flat steps leading up to it and the empty grounds all around it, perhaps where one or more courtyards had been.

Had it been a castle of some kind, Hector wondered? Axiolis had mentioned something about royalty, hadn’t he? Maybe this was some sort of palace.

A sobering thought, he felt. He could hardly imagine how much time, effort, and resources would have gone into construction. And to think that it could be reduced to a state such as this? Little more than knee-high walls and a pile of rocks?

As if he needed any more reason to feel small and powerless in the grand scheme of things.

Carver led them up the steps and through the vibrating rubble. The distant battle between the two giants had not ceased or even shown any signs of doing so. Hector was not the only one who was still trying to keep an eye on it, partially out of wariness and partially out of simple awe. When would they ever get another chance to see something like this?

The feldeath loosed a burning beam of black light that cut through the golem and tore into the cavern ceiling. A half-dozen building-sized stalactites crashed down on a section of the city that was much too close for Hector’s liking. Dust and wind rushed past the group, disturbing the broken castle grounds and unsettling more debris.

After that, everyone’s pace quickened noticeably, and they soon arrived at a large door in the floor of a blown-out chamber. Carver set to work opening it--a process which apparently involved inserting a key into a hole beneath a hatch in the floor, then flipping a series of adjacent switches.

It took several attempts. Carver threw the group a few embarrassed looks and apologized after finally getting it open. “I have not done this in quite a while,” he said. “The mechanism is rather old and could do with a bit of maintenance, it seems.”

At last, he led them down a short ladder and then a spiraling staircase. A very long, spiraling staircase, Hector discovered. He had fun changing his iron box into appropriate shapes so that it could continue following the group--so much fun, in fact, that he would’ve left the damn thing behind if not for Mr. Sheridan’s pleading.

He did finally manage it after reassessing the problem and treating it like a new form of training. Making the iron box grow and shrink as necessary, becoming less like an iron box and more like an iron caterpillar. Or worm, perhaps. Squirming its way down the hole, the ladder, the narrow and curving steps.

Garovel seemed to get a kick out of the whole ordeal.

Hector was the last to reach the bottom of the staircase, and they’d apparently been asking Carver more questions while they waited for Hector to catch up.

“You’ve really been down here for five years all by your lonesome?” Mr. Sheridan was saying.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Page 1414 -- CLII.

Mr. Sheridan looked confused for a moment, but then seemed to realize. “Ah! Yeah, probably wouldn’t even hit at this range, eh?! I’ll get closer!”

“No, just--!” There wasn’t time to explain properly. “Just focus on the worms! Don’t attack the feldeath, no matter what!”

“Roger that!”

More worms arrived, and Hector resumed his defensive duties. Thankfully, the others seemed to making genuine progress. Zeff in particular was dealing with thinner and thinner crowds of worms each time Hector looked over in his direction.

At length, however, their battle was interrupted. A strange sound rang out, like one long musical note, the likes of which Hector had never heard before. It made every worm in sight shudder and curl up into a ball.

The group stopped and exchanged confused looks with one another. After a second, though, Zeff began skewering dozens of worms at a time with icy stalagmites.

Someone’s there,’ said Axiolis, pointing toward Zeff’s side of the street, which made the man stop again.

Sure enough, a figure appeared, carefully stepping around or over the balls of worms. The same sound continued to ring intermittently, and Hector became fairly certain that it was coming from whatever was in the figure’s left hand.

As the figure drew closer to Zeff, it became clear that it was a man in a climate-controlled suit.

The Lord Elroy spoke first. “Hello...”

“Ah, you speak Mohssian!” the stranger said. “How unexpected! Greetings!”

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” asked Zeff.

“Perhaps the explanation should wait,” the man said, motioning to the battle between the molten golem and the feldeath still raging in the background. “I have a place where we can talk at our leisure. It is not far from here.”


Chapter One Hundred Fifty-Two: ‘To thine scorching heart...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

It hadn’t taken much more convincing to get the group to agree to follow the stranger, who soon identified himself as a biologist, anthropologist, historian, and “generally curious individual” by the name of Carver.

“How did you end up here?” Diego asked as the man led them to wherever they were going.

“Oh, it’s a rather long story, but the unfortunate point of it is that my companions and I were separated during an exploratory venture. Not to worry, though. My companions and I were eventually reunited. But at that time, I decided to stay, as I had grown quite fond of this place.”

Hector, and perhaps everyone else present, found that difficult to comprehend.

Zeff posed the next question. “How long have you been down here?”

“Ah, I would wager that it is going on five years or so now,” said Carver. “It has been quite the educational adventure. Full of more thrills than I care to remember. But from the looks of your lot, I somehow begin to think that my own tales would fail to impress.”

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Page 1413

~~Thanksgiving Special (Page 4 of 4)~~
In a blink, the worms were amassing, already the size of a school bus and still growing.

No swatting that one away.

He needed to think bigger. In fact, what was he doing? He should’ve already been thinking bigger to begin with. He dropped to one knee and slammed his palm against the ground.

An iron plateau filled the entire road before him. He’d given it a slope, too, so it sent every single worm in his line of sight flying away from him, even the big one.

Yeah. That was more like it. There was no need to feel intimidated, he realized. Even if he couldn’t put them down for good, he didn’t have to.

They were still coming, of course, slithering over the top of his iron, but that wasn’t a problem. Rinse and repeat. He annihilated his work, letting the worms drop, and then remade it, launching them even farther into the distance. When they came still another time, they had combined to about the size of the one that had brought down the train.

So what? Hector sent that one flying, too.

That bought him a significant amount of time to breathe, and he looked over to see how the others were doing. Zeff and Diego were doing just fine, unsurprisingly, but Manuel seemed to be having a rough time, so Hector helped him out and flung a few clusters of worms away for him. The man spared him a nod.

Hector saw his own worm returning, again bigger than before and this time barreling toward the group at the speed of a freight train.

All that momentum could prove difficult to simply launch backward, he felt. He was considering creating a ramp for it instead when Robert Sheridan stepped into his line of vision.

Apparently, the man had finally finished building his gun. And the thing was massive. More like a cannon than anything, Mr. Sheridan had it mounted on his shoulder as he took aim. The man pulled the trigger, and a volley of projectiles launched in rapid succession, leaving a visibly hot trail in their wake.

The first projectiles didn’t explode--at least not immediately; instead, they dug into the beast’s bulk. Then the rest of the projectiles hit, and the chain of explosions--but not through combustion, as Hector had expected. Instead, the explosions were all lasers, and for a couple seconds, the worm looked like it was at the center of some kind of deadly disco ball, getting diced into thousand tiny pieces.

And then Mr. Sheridan shot a volley of more conventional explosives, too. In the end, the beast had been reduced to a smear on the road.

A bit awestruck, Hector heard the man laughing that same crazed laugh again. But when he saw Mr. Sheridan reload the cannon and point it at the feldeath, Hector coated the trigger in iron and grabbed his arm.

“Do NOT shoot the feldeath!” Hector shouted over the noise of the swarm around them.

Page 1412

~~Thanksgiving Special (Page 3 of 4)~~
The golem met the feldeath’s four blades with two fists, and the impact was so immense that Hector saw the air distort around before realizing a shock wave was imminent.

He raised a defensive iron wall for their group, and Zeff’s ice joined it.

The force pushed the paired walls back, pressing right up against the group, so Hector kept adding iron to the front and sides, hoping to distribute more of the blow. Debris flew by in elephant-sized chunks, several of which slammed into their barrier, denting and cracking it in multiple places.

But it held. And when they annihilated their wall so they could see the continuing battle, Hector was relieved that the subsequent blows were not nearly as devastating as that first one. They only made the ground tremble and waves of briefly hotter air wash over them.

Hector could only wonder how hot that air really was if he was able to feel it even through his cooling armor.

The two giants did not battle on their own for much longer, however, because the worms arrived in force and swarmed them both.

What followed was probably the biggest clusterfuck of pure chaos that Hector had ever witnessed, and he was only too grateful to be standing at a relatively safe distance away from it.

Fire, lightning, and darkness all collided amid hulking figures.

A scythe wreathed in black cut right through the golem’s torso, bisecting it horizontally along with a dozen worms--and none on the receiving end of that blow so much as flinched. All body parts, including the golem’s, reattached within moments, so quick that Hector questioned whether anything had even happened.

The golem punched a hole right through the feldeath’s midsection, and the skeletal monster’s whole body lost its form, only to turn into black goo and fly around the golem’s extended arm, reconstituting itself at the golem’s exposed backside.

And the worms. They dropped like flies, but they didn’t stay down. They kept swarming back up, almost always bigger than before, not that it seemed to matter as they were sliced and smashed and roasted and--Hector couldn’t even tell what else.

He had to wonder if such a fight would ever actually end.

Unfortunately, the worms did not focus solely on the giants, and boy, were there plenty more to go around. Soon enough, there were worms bearing down on them from every direction.

Before they were completely swarmed the servants all formed a square around the non-servants. Zeff, Diego, Manuel, and Hector each took one side while most of the non-servants laid down covering fire as they saw fit.

These worms were much smaller than what he’d seen previously, which made it a simple enough task to swat them away and keep his side clear, but there were just so many. It was a writhing sea before him, angry and seemingly endless. There was scarcely time to think or even breathe.

And worse still, he knew from experience that, at any moment, all these worms could fuse into one enormous monstrosity and become a very big problem.

Which they did.

Page 1411

~~Thanksgiving Special (Page 2 of 4)~~
At such close range, the sheer amount of light coming off the creature was blinding. Once the group was clear of the amassing lava, they started running again. Hector was surprised to find his iron box unharmed, save only a melted corner. He increased its pace as well but honestly didn’t have high hopes that any of the weapons therein would survive whatever the hell was going to happen next.

A molten rock golem,’ marveled Garovel privately as they ran. ‘Never seen one of those before.

Was that what that was? Hector hadn’t made that connection, but he supposed it made sense. ‘Does that mean it’s on our side?’ he asked.

In theory, yeah.’

Hector looked back and saw the whole city being illuminated. The previously black expanse of cavern above them was suddenly alive with the burning reds and oranges of the golem’s molten glow. And maybe it was the light playing tricks on him, but Hector thought he saw something else there, too, moving among the giant stalactites above.

Wait!’ came Axiolis’ voice. ‘Everyone, stop!

Hesitant, they all still did as he said.

Axiolis explained himself. ‘The worms surround this entire city, directly ahead of us as well. We should not venture too far away from the golem, else the worms will swarm.

True enough, but we shouldn’t stay too CLOSE to the golem, either,’ said Garovel.

Then we may already be at the optimal distance from it,’ said Yangéra.

And no one looked pleased, but no one argued, either.

With that, the party stayed put, torn between bad and worse circumstances.

The reapers kept talking to one another, trying to brainstorm seemingly, but it didn’t sound like they were making much progress to Hector.

As he listened, his gaze returned to where it had been before, to the stalactites far above the golem’s still-expanding bulk.

And that was when Hector saw a second thing that he would not soon be forgetting.

At first, it was just a kind of murky darkness hanging high in the air, noticeable because of how undeterred by the golem’s light it was, unlike the rest of the fleeing shadows around it.

Until it took form.

It became a skeleton--not terribly unlike every reaper he’d ever seen. But it was so much larger. Impossibly gigantic. The equal of the molten golem. It had flames of its own, as well, but these were black as night and grew to cover its skeletal body in a way similar to a reaper’s shroud.

Oh hey,’ laughed Garovel, though he sounded rather nervous to Hector, ‘I guess we were wrong. The mist wasn’t for a golem OR a feldeath. It was for both. How wonderful.

That was one explanation that Hector had not needed. He’d certainly never seen a feldeath before, but he’d still been able to recognize what it was almost immediately.

The feldeath began to descend, and four colossal scythes materialized into its skeletal hands--of which there were somehow now four as well.

Page 1410

~~Thanksgiving Special (Page 1 of 4)~~
No one answered him.

Well, that was a bust. It surprised him, though. He thought for sure that at least one of the reapers would’ve had some idea what this place was. It made him further wonder precisely how old this city was. If it were relatively new, then it would make sense that these reapers from the surface didn’t know about it at all, but as he stared at the crumbling infrastructure all around him, that didn’t seem particularly likely.

They arrived at a monument of some sort, and the first thing Hector noticed about it was that it seemed to be perfectly intact, unlike every building he’d seen so far.

It was an enormous flame, as big as a house and eternally still, being carved from pale gray stone. Around it flowed multiple streams of lava, all of which appeared to be factored into the design of the foundation.

Oh my god,’ came Axiolis’ voice, and everyone who could hear him turned to look.

Yangéra was the one to ask it. ‘What’s the matter?

Do you not recognize this flame?’ he said, looking over his fellow reapers. ‘This is Enkir, also known as Rathmore’s Flame. It was a famous marker of Hun’Sho royalty.

Hector had multiple questions all of a sudden.

Wow, so this was a Hun’Sho city?’ said Garovel. ‘I suppose that would explain why it’s in ruins.

Hector had to ask a private question. ‘Who’re the Hun’Sho?

Garovel floated closer but didn’t have the opportunity to answer him.

Uh-oh,’ said Lorios aloud. ‘I’m not the only one sensing that, am I?

No,’ said Axiolis. ‘It seems the worms have decided to come in here after us.

Time to start run--

A tremor cut Garovel off, and it was strong enough that Hector and everyone else had to fight to maintain their footing. The tremor did not dissipate, either, and indeed, seemed to only grow stronger with each passing second.

Hector reached out for an explanation. ‘Garovel, what’s happening?!

Remember how we said not to disturb the mist?!’ said Garovel privately. ‘Well, the worms are disturbing the mist!

And then Hector saw the monument from earlier come alive with molten light. Lava flowed up from the base of the stone and through the curves of the flame, igniting it in its entirety and glowing with such increasing intensity that Hector had to shield his eyes.

Magma gushed forth like a geyser, and crystalline ice materialized over the party, protecting everyone but the cluster of Hun’Kui, who did not look terribly fazed by the sudden bath of lava.

The pool of liquid hot rock kept growing, and the group began to slowly move out of its path while they were either shielded from it or swimming through it.

That was when Hector saw something that he would not soon be forgetting.

The magma began to move against its own flow. It began to grow upward. And it began to take form. Two broad pillars connecting at the top--legs to a torso. Bulky and hunchbacked. Then came the arms. Then the head.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Page 1409

I sense them as well,’ said Lorios.

As do I,’ said Axiolis.

Same here,’ said Yangéra.

“Okay,” said Diego, who’d apparently become the spokesperson for every non-reaper in the group. “So what’s the big deal? I mean, I know plants are fairly uncommon in the Undercrust, but is that all we’re going off of?”

No, the thing is,’ said Garovel, ‘these are plants that we recognize. By their “soul-signature,” if you will. And I don’t think any of us have ever sensed these types of plants anywhere but the surface.

Another chorus of agreement arose from the other reapers.

“What in the world?” said Diego. “You’re saying that there are plants down here that shouldn’t be able to survive in this environment? How is that possible?”

That is a very good question,’ said Garovel. ‘And it is why we are going to investigate.

A few more beats of silence passed.

Then Diego, as if realizing something, said, “So we have no idea how we’re going to reach Capaporo and reunite with everyone.”

Correct.

“Meanwhile, they’re probably freaking out, worrying that we’re all dead.”

Probably.’

“And without you there to guide them, they won’t know where to go, so they’ll be stuck in Capaporo.”

Mmhmm.

“This plan bites,” said Diego.

Never said it didn’t,’ said Garovel.

“Ugh...”

Hector didn’t disagree with the man. He wondered how the other Rainlords would react to this development. Things must’ve looked really bad from their end, but would they simply give up on them? Hector hoped they would. With the way the reapers had been describing the sheer volume of worms here, trying to fight their way here... even with as much strength as Asad, Dimas, Salvador, Darktide, and all the others had at their disposal...

It seemed like a terrible idea. One of the worst Hector could imagine, in these circumstances.

But then again...

These were Rainlords.

Hector honestly didn’t know what they would do. And he wanted to pose the question aloud, but he caught a glimpse of Diego’s face. And Zeff’s.

They were probably even more worried about it than he was. Bringing it up now wouldn’t change that, nor would it improve their own predicament.

On the bright side,’ said Garovel, making everyone perk up ever so slightly, ‘our companions, Roman and Voreese, the ones you haven’t met yet, should also be in Capaporo. So if they all meet up together, then even without us there, there’s a good chance that they will make it to Warrenhold safely.

True enough, Hector supposed. He found it difficult to imagine Roman and Voreese hitting it off with the Rainlords and everything going as smoothly as Garovel was suggesting, but again, he kept that to himself. If nothing else, he could appreciate Garovel’s attempt to maintain morale.

As they continued on, Hector tried to think of a new topic of conversation, preferably something that wouldn’t instigate the same feeling of helplessness as the last subject.

The ruined buildings gave him an idea, at least. “...Does anyone know what this city was called?”

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Page 1408

Hector tried to intervene privately. ‘Garovel, is this really the time?

I’m just trying to keep everyone from freaking out,’ the reaper said, also privately.

Diego grew impatient as the group kept walking. “Well, go on, then. Tell us your magnificent theory.”

Oh, well, it’s not MY theory, per se. Just one I’ve heard, like I said.’ Garovel allowed a beat to pass. ‘But anyway, yes, it has to do with golems, too, actually. And how they’re created.

Oh?’ said Axiolis. ‘I’ve not heard this before.

Neither have I,’ said Lorios.

Before continuing, Garovel looked to Yangéra, doubtless wondering if she knew what he was talking about. When she shook her head, Garovel’s next words sounded positively delighted. ‘Well, the idea is simple enough. Whenever ardor accumulates in one place like this, it begins to bleed into the environment, and then, over a period of decades or possibly centuries, sentience is achieved, and the very land itself comes to life in the form of a golem.

As he listened, Hector laughed through his nose, quietly enough that it must have blended into the muted hiss of his armor. He couldn’t helping thinking about how much Garovel must have been enjoying himself.

Or in other words,’ Garovel went on, ‘all of this mist that we’re sensing here could, in truth, be nothing, for now. But ten years from now? Or a hundred? Perhaps a golem will arise.

Interesting,’ said Axiolis. ‘But what causes the ardor to accumulate in one place like this?

That’s not, um, well--that’s not entirely clear. It just seems to occur naturally. But I know some have argued that this gap in our understanding of how or why it happens makes for a compelling case that the planet is indeed sentient, and that it decides such things according to its whims or what have you.

Mm, I see.’ Axiolis did not sound terribly convinced.

“That’s great ‘n all,” said Diego, “and, uh, I’m glad we’re safe from the worms ‘n everything, so I don’t want this to sound like I don’t appreciate what a spectacular job you reapers are doing, but, um... Do we know where we’re going, right now?”

Hector appreciated that question.

...Not entirely,’ admitted Axiolis.

“Not entirely,” echoed Diego, nodding with feigned understanding. “How ‘bout partially, then? If we don’t entirely know, then what are the parts that we do know? Could we focus on those, maybe?”

Could you please not sound so condescending?’ said Yangéra.

“Oh, this isn’t condescension. I assure you, my tone is one of humbleness and admiration.”

Impressively, Diego earned a snicker from Yangéra with that one.

We do sense something else,’ said Garovel, ‘which is what we’re heading toward, currently. But unless I’m mistaken, I think we’re all a bit confused about what it actually is.

“Bein’ pretty vague,” said Diego.

Garovel sighed publicly. ‘Alright, well, below us and still quite a ways ahead, it seems like there are a lot of plants there. That’s what I’m sensing, anyway.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Page 1407

They found an apparent road, inlaid with long and flat stones, some of which reflected the light of the party’s lamps, illuminating pieces of the dark path and thereby making it mildly more clear where they were going. It was only so useful, however, as the path was regularly interrupted by large piles of rubble that needed to be cleared. Diego and Manuel made short work of such tasks while Zeff and Hector kept watch over the party’s front and rear, respectively.

And maybe it was just Hector’s mind playing tricks on him, but as they continued slowly onward, he could feel a heavy silence among the group, a kind of unspoken discomfort. But then, perhaps that was just because of the reapers. If recent experiences were anything to go by, having so many reapers in close proximity to one another without any of them speaking very much... that just didn’t bode very well, Hector felt. Like a bad omen, of sorts.

At length, the Lord Elroy was the one to break the atmosphere. “What is this strange aura?” he asked.

Ah,’ said Garovel. ‘you can sense that, too, can you?

Hector didn’t know what they were talking about.

“I can,” said Zeff. “But only just. What is it? Do any of you know?”

It is ardor,’ said Axiolis. ‘It covers this entire area like a blanket, so dense that it’s become a kind of mist.

“Is that bad?” said Diego, while Manuel Delaguna was busy explaining the half-silent conversation to the non-servants in the group. “Because it doesn’t sound so great.”

It is hard to tell,’ said Axiolis. ‘It could be nothing, but regardless, let us not disturb the mist if we can help it.

Somehow, Hector doubted that it was nothing and so had to speak up, “Supposing it’s not nothing, uh... then what would it be? Hypothetically, I mean.”

The reapers hesitated visibly.

Hypothetically,’ said Axiolis slowly, ‘it could mean that a rock golem is slumbering here. Which would be wonderful. Golems are quite docile and friendly toward humans.

It might even help us fight the worms, if they decide to follow us into this area,’ added Garovel.

Indeed.’

Diego had the same question that was occurring to Hector. “If it’s so wonderful, then why should we avoid disturbing the mist?”

Because,’ said Axiolis, again slowly, ‘it could also be a feldeath.

No one said anything. Even Manuel stopped translating for the non-servants.

Manuel’s reaper picked up the slack. ‘We should clarify that, while it is yet unclear at this point, a golem is the more likely case,’ said Lorios.

Of course,’ said Axiolis. ‘I have been able to sense particularly strong ardor from much of the rubble around here. And rubble is made from rocks. Which is what golems are.’ The reaper didn’t sound as confident as Hector would’ve liked.

Garovel helped him out. ‘Or it could be nothing, like Axiolis first said. In fact, I know of a fascinating theory regarding the seemingly pointless accumulation of ardor.’

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Page 1406 -- CLI.

Chapter One Hundred Fifty-One: ‘What remains of a Falling...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

So the worms have given up?’ Hector asked, still not entirely clear on what seemed like an ever-changing situation.

Uh, I’m not sure,’ said Garovel privately. ‘They’ve slowed down or stopped chasing us, but I don’t know if that means they’ve genuinely given up. My knowledge of worms is a bit spotty, in case that wasn’t already obvious.’

Then ask one of the others about it,’ said Hector.

Aww, but--ugh, fine.’ He switched over to a public voice. ‘So do you think they’ve left us alone or what?

No,’ said Axiolis. ‘Judging from the movement patterns, they still seem agitated to me.

Why are they keeping their distance, then?’ asked Yangéra.

Probably because they are hesitant to enter this area for some reason,’ said Axiolis. ‘It would make sense if this area was the territory of a rock golem. In which case, we have lucked out.

Hector’s pessimism was doubting that.

Have we, though?’ said Garovel, perhaps feeling similarly. ‘We’re still both surrounded AND stranded. Doesn’t seem like the greatest luck to me, even if the worms have given up. Which, by the way, you’re also saying they might not have?

Mm, indeed,’ said Axiolis. ‘They may just need to cluster up in order to overcome their anxiety. They are not exactly the brightest creatures in the world, so that may take them a while.

Then let’s make use of that time,’ said Yangéra. ‘We should put some more distance between us and them while we can.

Agreed.

Yeah.

Alright.

And the group began walking again, though at a more cautious pace than even before they were being chased.

Hector had the opportunity to observe the various crumbling structures all around them. He’d never seen the like before. Most windows were longer horizontally than they were vertically, and whatever the faintly foggy material was that occupied them couldn’t have been simple glass, as it would have surely melted at this temperature.

He tried to recall if he’d seen material like this in Babbadelo, but if he had, it was escaping him. He thought about asking Garovel if he remembered, but the reaper had never seemed to give too much of a crap about architecture, so he probably wouldn’t. That, and he didn’t want to distract Garovel from his observational duties, right now.

Regardless, he wished they had more light. Even with all of their lamps probing around, the thick darkness still made it difficult to see very much at one time. And of course, pretty much every building was in shambles, too. That made it considerably harder to spot the architectural differences between here and the surface.

What a shame. He would’ve liked to get a look at an intact roof, but he couldn’t find one.

Still, it was interesting to him that this place even had buildings to begin with--or at least this many. Babbadelo had so few by comparison. Everything there had been carved out of the natural rock formations.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Page 1405

Royo figured he should reciprocate and give Lenos a hint toward his own identity. “When will you learn? I’ve always tried my hardest to set a good example for you. And everyone else, too. That’s why, unlike you, when I speak, people listen.”

“Don’t lecture me, Eleyo. I know all about your reputation.”

Ah. So he’d already known. Royo was flattered but not terribly surprised.

Royo observed a change in the way the superhumans were carrying themselves, and the reapers all appeared to close ranks. Rumbling beneath his feet confirmed his fears, and moments later, a worm tunneled out of the ground ahead of them.

It was comparatively small, however, and did not prove to be nearly so grave a threat as their previous encounter. As quickly as it had appeared, the one called Zeff slew the beast whilst shouting at the top of his lungs. A single, glistening spear skewered it through the mouth, and a tower of ice erupted up out of the worm’s body, exploding it into frozen pieces.

The Senmurai raised a metal wall in defense of the Hun’Kui, but Royo still ended up taking a bead of ice on the arm.

It burned unlike anything he’d ever felt. Royo howled in agony and dropped to the ground.

Fortunately, the pain soon abated. Lenos helped him to his feet.

The bead of ice was gone, but his arm was numb, and Royo could see it twitching. As he steadied his haggard breath, he was made to wonder how something so small could have felt so torturous and debilitating. Ice truly was as terrifying as the rumors said it was.

There was little time to recuperate, however. The superhumans were ushering the group onward at an increased pace.

As they ran, the one called Zeff ventured closer and gestured with his hands. He even made a poor attempt to apologize in Hunese. He was not very familiar with the language, apparently. No surprise. Perhaps his reaper was feeding him words to say.

Royo accepted it as silently and as graciously as he could manage. As humiliating as it was, Royo understood that it had not been intentional. There would be no need to seek retribution from the one called Zeff. Royo knew the damage was most likely not permanent, and an accident was an accident, after all.

The cavernous passage they were using opened up as completely as Royo’s vision would allow, and suddenly there were no more walls, only pitch darkness.

Pitch darkness and a kind of... mist. Faint, but there. Squinting, he removed his goggles, and the mist vanished completely. He put them on, and the mist returned. Which told him that the mist was infused with ardor, if not entirely constituted from it.

The group slowed their run to a walk, then stopped altogether. He searched the superhumans’ faces for answers, but they were looking as confused as he was.

He rummaged through a rucksack that he’d procured back on the train, and he was pleased to find a directional lamplight. He pointed it ahead and switched it on.

A cone of light cut through the murky blackness, revealing large shapes in the distance.

Buildings, he soon realized. In quite poor condition. Crumbling, many of them. Very old architecture, as well.

As he moved his light to and fro horizontally, and as the others joined him in switching on their own lights, more and more structures came into view, and their discovery became more and more apparent.

They had found a city in ruins.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Page 1404

Lenos spoke up again, interrupting Royo’s silent ruminations. “Thank you for saving my ass back there, by the way,” he said, again in Hunese. “I doubt I would have made it if not for you.”

Royo gave him a look. “Yes, well, if you get the opportunity to return the favor--and it seems like you might--then I hope you do.”

“Of course.”

Now that he was thinking about it, there was a good chance that Royo could recognize or otherwise identify this man. There had been no lack of prisoners back in Babbadelo, yet Royo had only seen a handful aboard the train. Logic would dictate, therefore, that the local government had chosen the prisoners that they found the most problematic. A few possible candidates came to mind. He’d always tried to be aware of notable individuals whenever he traveled, and Babbadelo had been no different.

He needed more information, though. He couldn’t ask for Lenos’ real name, obviously, but maybe he could get a hint. “Do you have any hidden talents that might come in handy? Anything that you’ve been keeping from me, perhaps?”

“Ah...” Lenos rubbed his neck with his hand as he took a moment to think. “Not especially...”

No good. Lenos couldn’t tell what he’d been getting at? Or perhaps he was just reluctant to say. Royo tried again. “That reminds me. What was keeping you so busy back in Babbadelo? I didn’t see you around very much.”

“Oh, you know. The usual...”

Ugh. Come on. “So you were causing problems, then?”

Lenos squinted at him briefly, then smirked. “You know me. Just can’t keep my hands to myself, sometimes.”

Was that a clue? The look on Lenos’ face suggested as much, but Royo didn’t understand what he was getting at. “I hope you weren’t doing anything unwelcome or otherwise disrespectful. It would reflect poorly on the rest of us, you know.”

“Never. I am always the perfect gentleman. Though, I admit, this time I could have been more discreet. But what can I say? I was enraptured. Not feeling myself.”

Royo’s expression flickered. Was he describing the same thing that had happened to himself?

“Normally, I never get caught,” Lenos went on. “I consider it a matter of professional dignity.”

Professional? That one had to be a clue.

The man made it sound as if he were talking about a habit of promiscuity, but as far as Royo was aware, there were no laws in Babbadelo that would have imprisoned him for such behavior. Lenos had to be talking about something else.

Thievery? If he considered it a matter of professionalism, that made the most sense to Royo. And a thief who took pride in not getting caught must have also been a thief who had been doing it for a while. One who would have earned a name for himself.

And Royo had recently heard such a name. That of Kogibur, or the Roach.

A particularly unflattering name in the Undercrust, because as far as benign pests went, cockroaches were arguably the most reviled. But that was also because they were so resilient and difficult to get rid of. So in a way, perhaps it was a kind of compliment.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Page 1403

If nothing else, Royo could at least be relieved that he hadn’t allied himself with a slack-jawed idiot.

“It’s a little sore, still,” Royo answered, also in Hunese, “but don’t worry, Lenos. I’m fine.”

“Glad to hear it. We might make it out of this after all.”

“We might. But don’t relax just yet.”

A lull in their intentionally bland conversation arrived, and Royo was more concerned with hearing what the others were saying than in keeping it alive.

The lone woman of their group was talking to the one called Manuel. “I am sorry for causing you so much trouble.” She was wearing a suit similar to the one called Robert Sheridan, which told Royo that those two were different from the other surface-dwellers, more fragile perhaps.

“It is not your fault,” said the one called Manuel. “I am just glad you are not hurt. My brother would have never forgiven me.”

“I...”

“Ah--apologies. I didn’t mean to bring up--please forgive me.”

“You need not apologize,” she said. “You were as close to him as I was. If not more so.”

What was going on there, Royo wondered? Though it piqued his curiosity, it didn’t sound immediately relevant to his current predicament, so he tried to focus his attention elsewhere.

The Senmurai had been largely quiet so far, but it looked like the one called Diego had struck up a conversation with him.

“--don’t think so? Well, I do. In fact, I think we’re closer to it now than anyone has ever gotten. I mean, it would make sense, wouldn’t it? All these worms in the way? It’s no wonder no one else has ever returned. The slimy bastards are guarding it.”

‘...I guess,” was all the Senmurai said.

“You’re telling me you’re not curious? Just think about the possibilities. The potential. This could be our big chance. Yangéra thinks so, too.”

There came a noticeable pause.

“...She’s just saying that because she’s embarrassed. She doesn’t like people to know how much she loves and agrees with me.”

“I’m sure that’s it,” said the Senmurai.

“And I’M sure that I’m right about this. You guys should listen to me. I have great instincts when it comes to finding treasure. That train wreck was a blessing in disguise. You’ll see.”

Another pause.

“Lhutwë, of course. His will be done.”

Still another pause.

“That’s not true at all. I’ve always believed in Him when it benefits me.”

The more he listened, the more Royo thought the one called Diego sounded like a buffoon. But he could see the man still throwing glances back in his direction fairly regularly. Regardless of how he talked, that man hadn’t stopped being vigilant.

Royo had known a few men like that in his time. Men who acted one way while thinking another. They were often the most dangerous people he’d ever met.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Page 1402

“How did you manage to get your hands on this kind of firepower, anyway?” the one called Manuel was saying.

“Oh, it’s all about makin’ the right friends,” said the one called Robert Sheridan.

Royo observed from a distance as they armed themselves to the teeth. He’d been tempted to join them in their work, but they’d even been kind enough to toss an extra weapon his way. He’d already had one, of course, and this new piece required some reassembly, but he appreciated the gesture.

What he did not appreciate was the way that the one called Diego was looking at him. Pointed and semi-frequent stares. A suspicious man, it seemed. Perhaps he suspected. More likely, he was just being cautious around an abundance of firearms and strangers.

The reapers were doing the same thing. Looking around constantly. Surveying both their surroundings and themselves. He supposed the rumor that they made for excellent scouts was true, after all.

But what an unsettling sight, they were. Without his ardor-infused goggles, he would not have been able to see them, and he was considering taking them off for that very reason.

To his eyes, they were himself. They each had his own face, save the eyes, which cried blood, and the mouth, which dripped it as well. Their bodies, too, were mangled and twisted, at times ghostly and ethereal, and at others, slashed to ribbons and full of holes.

Horrific as it all was, and even though he wasn’t at all accustomed to it, it did make him wonder. Surely, everyone could not see them as such. The other Hun’Kui were wearing goggles, too. Perhaps they were hiding it like he was, but they did not look nearly as disturbed as he felt.

No, their appearance had to have been specialized in some way. Otherwise, it made no sense how they could all have his face without anyone else noticing.

Two of the other Hun’Kui were speaking to each other now, he noticed. But he couldn’t hear them, because they were speaking too lowly. He did, however, catch sight of them glancing in his direction.

That could prove problematic.

The only other Hun’Kui present was walking right next to him. This one, at least, was his ally--the still-nameless prisoner with whom Royo had escaped.

Ideally, this was a good thing. Ideally, the man would be helpful to their shared cause rather than a burden to it.

He was still waiting on proof of that.

And perhaps the man had read his mind, because his ally chose that moment to speak to him for the very first time. “How is your shoulder, Eleyo?” the man said in Hunese.

His shoulder? Eleyo?

Ah.

Royo understood. The man was pretending they already knew each other and had made up a name for him. Likely, he was worried that the two of them were the only ones not talking at all. And if they acted familiar with one another, their facade as militiamen would appear more credible to the others.

Smart.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Page 1401 -- CL.

Zeff could hear a few of the others chatting, including the reapers, but he wasn’t done with Hector. An important question had occurred to him. “Do you still have the Shard that Asad gave you?”

Hector threw Zeff a look, paused from his practice, and reached through the misty armor’s gap in the armpit to whip out the Shard. He held it out for Zeff, but the Rainlord didn’t take it.

“As long as it is safe,” said Zeff.

Hector said nothing, only recoiled his hand.

And maybe this wasn’t the appropriate time, but Zeff still felt compelled to ask, “Can you contact her now?”

The young lord’s expression was unreadable beneath his helmet. “I’ll try.” Hector closed his eyes and fell silent again.

Zeff waited. Impatiently, perhaps, but he waited.

When Hector opened his eyes again, he said, “S-sorry, it’s... it’s still not working.”

“Why?” growled Zeff, more at the universe than at Hector specifically.

Hector didn’t seem to interpret it that way, though. “I don’t know...”

It probably wasn’t the boy’s fault. Zeff knew that. Hector had no reason to lie that Zeff could think of.

Unless Emiliana was telling him not to say anything, of course. That was certainly possible. And it wasn’t difficult to imagine what her reason would be.

The Black Scourge. That bastard. What did he want with her? If he was hurting her in any way... it didn’t matter how powerful he was. Zeff would find a way to kill him.

If all of that was true, however, then Hector would be at fault. For listening to Emiliana over Zeff. For thinking that Zeff wouldn’t do what was best for his own child.

That was what was bothering him. That possibility.

But it was only that, he knew. A possibility. And an unlikely one. The boy was probably telling the truth. Probably.

Probably...

He scowled and heightened his pace in order to put some distance between Hector and himself.


Chapter One Hundred Fifty: ‘O, hidden Liege...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Royo Raju listened silently. The surface-dwellers seemed to be under the reasonable assumption that none of the Hun’Kui here knew Mohssian, and he didn’t see much point in correcting them.

Certainly, his life was currently depending on these people--and in fact, the one apparently named Manuel had already saved him from falling to his death--but Royo didn’t think that reason enough to give up a potential advantage.

Primarily, though, that was not his motivation. It was not the superhumans that he was truly concerned about. They seemed like they could be effectively lied to and/or reasoned with. It was the other Hun’Kui he needed to be careful of. If they realized that he was not, in fact, a real militiaman, then they would either tell the supermen or try to kill him themselves.

And those were far from desirable outcomes.

So he decided to stay quiet, to not draw any unnecessary attention to himself.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Page 1400

Much as he would’ve liked to scold the boy and maybe smack him until he started doing it correctly, this wasn’t the time or place for that.

Zeff flicked his wrist and set about the task of cooling the molten river safely. If he simply materialized an iceberg on top of it, the extreme temperature difference would cause the ice to explode and probably kill someone--if not everyone. A suitable application of soul-strengthening, however, prevented that problem, and then Zeff was able to quickly blacken and settle the magma flow as his continual supply of ice melted harmlessly over it.

He noticed the Hun’Kui behind him take a few steps back, perhaps able to feel an uncomfortable gust of cooler air wash over them. He knew he had to be mindful of their presence, too. If he put too much oomph into his ice and turned this place into a little winter wonderland, the Hun’Kui would almost certainly freeze to death within seconds.

It required a strange and delicate balance, this little entourage. Ice was as deadly to the Hun’Kui as magma was to the non-servants from the surface.

Garovel was the first to venture over the calmed river and strike up a conversation. ‘Glad to see you all in one piece.’

Likewise,’ said Ax. ‘So where to next? Time is short, and every direction but southwest will likely lead us into a fight with more worms.

Diego stepped forward. “If that’s the case, then what’s there to think about? Southwest it is.”

His reaper, Yangéra, floated by his side. ‘The train went northeast,’ she said.

“Oh.”

There’s also the concern of WHY southwest is so empty,’ said Garovel. ‘Call me suspicious, but it seems a little too good to be true.

Perhaps, but do you see any other options?’ said Ax. ‘Because I am struggling to.

Unfortunately, no, I don’t.

The longer we stand here, the more likely the worms will notice us,’ added Yangéra ‘I suggest we at least START going southwest, for now.

Agreed,’ said Ax.

I, as well,’ said Lorios, the reaper to Manuel Delaguna.

Guess I do, too,’ said Garovel.

The group began walking again, Axiolis and Garovel leading the way. Zeff noticed the large iron box that Hector was having follow them, and when asked, the boy stiltedly explained that it contained valuable firearms.

Hector opened the top of it, allowing his companion, Mr. Sheridan access while they were moving. Diego, Manuel, and a couple of the Hun’Kui gave it a look as well, and it wasn’t long before Hector was dragging half the party along in his iron box while they toiled away with guns.

Yet another ridiculous sight. Had the boy become a pack mule, now?

Zeff adjusted his pace in order to walk next to Hector. “You should be practicing your temperature manipulation,” he said, still trying to keep a lid on his annoyance level.

“Ah, oh yeah,” said Hector. And then he started doing exactly that. While still pulling the others along, the boy began making spheres appear and disappear repeatedly in front of himself.

Somehow, that was even more irritating.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Page 1399

Zeff tried to steady his thoughts, knowing he shouldn’t allow himself to get too distracted. Axiolis was here to warn him of any incoming danger, of course, but even so, it never hurt to be vigilant. And besides, there were few things more terrifying than being lost in the deep darkness of the Undercrust. Any of these people following him were liable to start panicking if he didn’t fulfill his role as the apparent leader.

Even Diego, potentially.

It wasn’t likely, sure, but Zeff had known even more brazenly confident men than him who had broken down in similar circumstances. There was perhaps no clearer example than in Lyste, some twenty years prior, during what would later be known in that country as the Great Right Turn.

It had been a quiet war for public opinion, until the very end, when all hell broke loose. They had faced overwhelming odds for five days straight, fighting such famous names as the Bloodeye, the Man of Crows, the Raider, the Liar, the Silver Devil, and even the Mad Demon himself.

That was the battle in which Field Marshal Kent and many other Vanguardians lost their minds and began attacking their own allies, including one another.

It was also the battle in which Field Marshal Lamont earned the name Iceheart, for killing Kent, his closest friend, in addition to every other broken traitor.

Zeff might not have believed that story if he hadn’t been there to witness it with his own eyes, if he hadn’t gotten to know Kent a little beforehand and seen the man acting seemingly normal up until then... and if Kent hadn’t been mere seconds away from killing him and Axiolis both.

It was doubtless to Zeff’s mind that in those few short days of fighting, the entirety of Lyste would have been consumed by Abolish were it not for Lamont. The man’s reputation had suffered from it, as he’d previously been more widely known as the Judge of Intar, but having been there himself, Zeff could never truly fault the man for what he had done.

And now it was strange, because as much as he hated the Vanguard, there were still those within it whose strength, both of body and of mind, he aspired to.

In a way, though, that made him even angrier. At the Vanguard and himself.

Zeff,’ came Axoilis’ echoing voice. ‘We’re almost there.

As they walked, the increasing incandescence all around their small party was a welcome change, even though the magma from which it came was less so. He could finally make out the rough silhouette of the cavernous passage that they were using, as well as various branching paths along the way.

When the young Lord Goffe came into view, Zeff stopped. The boy was apparently practicing his materialization over a broad river of magma. And not doing very well, it seemed, as parts of his iron bridge were already white hot and beginning to bend downward.

What a ridiculous sight. With everything he’d seen the boy do, this should have been child’s play by now. Had he not been doing as Zeff and Asad had instructed?

How irritating. Zeff really did not need anything else to be annoyed by, right now.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Page 1398

You’re free to give it a go, if you want,’ said Garovel, ‘but let’s not gamble with this poor guy’s life, eh? Because even with how advanced that suit he’s wearing is, I highly doubt it will protect him from the heat rising off that lava over there.

Hector’s mind went to his studies. He’d been meaning to work on temperature manipulation, and Asad and Zeff had even told him to do so on his own as homework, but he’d been neglecting it in favor of practicing other things--other, purportedly more difficult and, in theory, more valuable things.

But now he felt like he’d been slacking.

So while they waited for Zeff to show up, Hector took the opportunity to get in some extra practice.

-+-+-+-+-

Zeff was in no mood for any of this, right now. It was all he could do to keep himself from lashing out at any of these people tagging along with him and Axiolis. A handful of Hun’Kui militiamen, along with Diego Redwater, Manuel Delaguna, and one of the non-servant Garza girls whose face he recognized but name escaped him.

He knew they didn’t deserve his ire. He knew that. But he was so frustrated that he could hardly think straight.

Because he’d allowed himself to get separated from his children again. Again.

It just kept happening. In spite of his best efforts, it just kept happening.

After everything... what would Mariana think? She would chastise him, surely. That woman never held back her criticism. And she’d be right, too.

First his parents. Then his cousins. Aunts and uncles. Grandparents and great grandparents. Then Gema. Then Mariana. Then Francisco. Then Emiliana.

And now, even Marcos and Ramira.

It just kept happening.

He couldn’t stop it. No matter what he did.

What a fool and a failure he was. In every way that mattered. A terrible excuse for a father and a husband.

Perhaps this was just meaningless. This struggle. Endless. Fruitless. Doomed to be repeated as he inevitably proved too weak or too stupid in the future, as well. What if this path just kept going and never got any better, regardless of his every effort? Even regardless of how he tried to change or improve?

Was this what going mad felt like?

He wondered if that wouldn’t be for the best. If he went mad, would that not make things easier? He could just let go. Stop caring so much.

Could he choose that? Could he choose to go insane? Because he wanted to. In this moment, he couldn’t imagine a more appealing idea.

Except.

That other thought was still there. The one that wouldn’t stop bothering him no matter what. That one that kept telling him it wasn’t about him anymore. It didn’t matter what he wanted. It didn’t matter what would make him happy or sad or anything else.

And choosing to go mad, if such a thing were even possible, would be exactly that. Selfish. It wouldn’t solve anything. It wouldn’t make up for anything. And it certainly wouldn’t help his children.

So, no.

There was no easy way out. Not now. Not ever.

He’d known that all along, really. It was no great epiphany.

Mariana would have been disgusted with him if she knew that he had even been humoring such thoughts.

God, he missed her.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Page 1397

He doesn’t seem like he’ll panic,’ said Garovel. ‘Just answer him honestly.

“Well, ah,” said Hector, “we’re safe for now.”

“That so?”

“But there are still worms everywhere.”

“Figures.” The man frowned and smacked his lips together. “Guess I have to ask you to look after me for a bit longer, then. Sorry for the trouble.”

Impulsively, Hector almost said that it was no trouble, but he stopped himself. Because, well... honestly? It was. It really was. And Mr. Sheridan would probably know he was just saying that to be polite or whatever.

Hector didn’t actually mind, of course. This was the kinda shit he lived for. But it was definitely trouble. In fact, that was kinda the point.

But then again, maybe he should’ve said it anyway, even if it was just to be polite. Being polite was a good thing, after all, wasn’t it?

Shit, he was putting way too much thought into this.

And perhaps Mr. Sheridan had grown uncomfortable by Hector’s deliberating silence, because then the man said, “I promise I’ll make this up to you.”

Crap, he was being rude, wasn’t he? He hadn’t been talking nearly enough. Thinking back, he’d kinda been ignoring or otherwise not responding to a lot of the things that this guy had been saying so far. Sure, he’d been preoccupied with bigger concerns, but still...

And now he really didn’t know what to say. How was he supposed to respond to a promise like that? Just say “cool”? No, that would be stupid. He didn’t give a shit if this guy ever paid him back or not. That wasn’t important at all. So maybe he should just say “okay”? Eh, it was more neutral, but not much better, really...

Argh, why was this so difficult? Where’d all the worms go? Wasn’t there at least one who wanted to come fight him, right now? He wouldn’t mind.

A faint, red-orange light caught his attention. With only the tiny lamp in Mr. Sheridan’s hand, they’d been walking through an all-encompassing wall of darkness up to now, so he had to wonder where this new light was coming from. It seemed to be emanating from around corner.

Is that Zeff and the others?’ he asked Garovel.

No, they’re still a ways away. I think that’s probably just lava.

Hector’s brow lowered from behind his misty helm. ‘JUST lava?

You’ve never seen lava before?

Not up close, no. Not sure I want to, either.

Sure enough, when they were close enough, a rocky corner revealed itself to their lamplight, and they peeked around it to find a rushing river of lava in their way. It burned so intensely bright and was such a harsh contrast to the darkness everywhere else that Hector couldn’t look directly at it without his eyes beginning to hurt.

Hmm,’ hummed Garovel. ‘We’ll wait for Zeff here.

You sure? I could build a bridge over it, no problem.

Big problem, actually. Heat convection is a bitch, Hector. And you still haven’t mastered temperature manipulation with your iron yet, have you?

Ah...

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Page 1396

Hector allowed himself to stop concentrating on his iron and relax somewhat.

Hector,’ came Garovel’s voice through the pitch darkness. The reaper sounded rather annoyed.

W-what?

Oh, did you finally hear me? I’ve been trying to talk to you for a while, you know.

He, in fact, did not know that, but Mr. Sheridan interrupted before Hector could answer.

“Thanks for saving my bacon there, son.” A rustling noise was also coming from his direction, as the man was perhaps trying to stand up. Then a small lamp flicked on in the palm of Mr. Sheridan’s glove.

At last, Hector could see again. He started annihilating some of his iron so that they could get a look outside. The meager lamplight didn’t extend very far, though.

Hector, I can sense Zeff and Axiolis down here, along with a few other people.

That was a surprise. ‘You mean they fell down the hole after us?

No, I think there were more holes than just ours. From what I was able to tell, things got pretty crazy up there.

Where’s Zeff?

The reaper detached himself from Hector’s arm and pointed in the direction opposite to the one that Hector had been looking. ‘About two hundred meters that way. Seems like they’re already headed toward us. I suggest we go meet them halfway.

No argument here.’ Hector made a doorway in the box.

“H-hey, uh, son,” said Mr. Sheridan, causing Hector to pause and look back. “Would you mind helping me carry some of this?” He eyed the many, many gun parts strewn all over the box’s floor.

Oh right. Hector supposed all that stuff was pretty damn valuable. Not to mention, the big gun that they had been building was still there, too.

Hector stepped out of the box and motioned for the man to follow. When they were both clear, Hector annihilated all of the haphazard iron that he had created earlier while also remaking the box. Then he materialized an iron track for it and grew the box slowly along it.

“Hey, that’s pretty convenient,” said Mr. Sheridan as they started walking. “You interested in a job?”

Hector was hardly listening, however, as he had a more pressing question for Garovel. ‘Where are the worms?

All over the place.’

Not what he wanted to hear. ‘Should we be running?

Not as of yet. Fortunately for us, the worms seem to be going after the train.

Oh, so the train got away?

Yeah. It started moving a while ago, and now I can’t sense it anymore. All these worms must still be able to, though.

At that news, Hector allowed himself to relax a little more.

“--chances are, huh?”

Hector realized that Mr. Sheridan had still been talking. “Sorry, what did you say?”

“I asked what you thought our chances are,” the man said, less jovial than before. “Of getting out of this alive, I mean. You’ve got one of them reaper phantoms, right? And they can sense stuff, right?”

“Uh...”

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Page 1395 -- CXLIX.

Hmm.

Now this was a problem.

He had to be careful here. He couldn’t just add iron to the box in a blind panic. If he did, then its weight would also increase, making it more likely to lose its already tenuous grip on the wall.

But he couldn’t very well just not do anything, either. There was a good chance the box was going to fall on its own soon, anyway. And of course, the worm was still stomping around up there.

Where is the worm?’ he asked Garovel.

At your ten o’clock, roughly.

How far? Can you tell?

Only about six or seven meters,’ said Garovel.

Agh, that was too close. He didn’t want to just launch everyone up and out of the hole at once, not when the worm could turn on a moment’s notice and snatch someone out of the air.

So he went to work on a trio of iron ladders, instead, hooking them over the top of the hole in order to avoid adding any unnecessary weight to the box. Then he motioned through the dimness and said, “Up we go. Hurry.”

Hesitant, the company men did as they were told. Robert Sheridan waited with Hector while his three companions went first.

A man’s poorly lit face appeared over the edge of the cliff above. “Need some help down there?!” said the voice of Horatio Blackburn, who didn’t bother waiting for a reply as he helped the three climbers up, carrying them with an apparent materialization ability.

“Thanks!” Hector shouted up at him, then motioned for Mr. Sheridan to follow.

But before the man could reach a ladder, the worm came crashing down in quaking fury. The impact sundered the hole, and the iron box snapped off the crumbling wall and started to fall.

Hector spiked his iron out in all directions, hoping in blind desperation that it would catch onto something--anything. The box’s descent slowed but didn’t stop, until it abruptly caught on something. In the increasing darkness, Hector couldn’t tell what, but for an instant, when he looked up, he saw another silhouette at the top of the hole and thought he heard Zeff’s voice shouting something.

Then the rocks gave way all around them, and the iron box started plummeting again.


Chapter One Hundred Forty-Nine: ‘O, gathering Deep...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

He had to slow them down. Whatever it took. More iron. Everywhere. If he projected it far enough, it would find something to latch onto. More. Farther. Nothing else mattered. This guy next to him was going to fall to his death if he didn’t do this. Right now.

The box shifted and shook, then began to slow. Gradually. But it didn’t stop, even as Hector kept envisioning and adding to the gigantic network of iron spikes and hooks and spears and nets that must have been surrounding the box by now.

The bumpiness came and went as the descent continued for quite a while. Robert Sheridan tried to speak, but with the grinding and groaning of metal in all directions, Hector couldn’t hear him--nor did he try to, until finally, after what felt like an hour, the box came to a stop.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Page 1394

Hector recognized the name. The West Intar Company. Or just WIC. It had something to do with international trade, as he recalled.

That was about the extent of his knowledge, but by now, Hector had come to realize that the mere fact that he had heard of it before was also somewhat informative. Because if he didn’t need Garovel to tell him what it was, then this company was probably pretty damn famous already.

He was still going to ask Garovel about it later, though.

Hector observed the group in silence for a bit longer, not really knowing if he should ask them anything else. If they truly did have a way of killing the worm, then he didn’t want to distract them with questions.

The same guy from before reengaged the conversation on his own, however. “The name’s Robert Sheridan, by the by. What’s yours, son?”

“Hector Goffe.”

“Good to meetcha, Hector Goffe. Is this your first time down in the Undercrust?”

“Y-yeah...”

“Pretty wild, eh?” Another short quake punctuated his sentence as the worm slapped its tail down in the distance. Each of the WIC men had to pause before they could resume building.

The giant gun was nearing completion, from what Hector could tell. It must have been almost twice as big as he was. Certainly not something a non-servant could wield unaided.

Oh god,’ said Garovel. ‘I’m sensing a lot more worms all of a sudden.

Where?’ said Hector.

Everywhere. If we stay here, we’ll be overrun in a few minutes. Everyone needs to get back to the train right now.

Already, Hector could see some of the other Rainlords pulling back from the fight with the worm, no doubt on the orders of their reapers.

Hector started moving the iron box again. “Hold on, everyone. We’re going back to the train.”

A few huffs of vague disapproval arose, but no one argued.

Then there came still another earthquake. But this one was different. Instead of going away after a moment, it persisted, and the ground began to shift and sink more violently than any time previously.

And then the ground was suddenly gone. The cavern floor splintered and heaved up all at once, becoming a hundred thousand tiny rocks suspended in midair, and Hector had nothing beneath his feet, save his own iron.

The box was falling, and he had to react. He grew iron hooks out of the box’s side and dug them into the nearest wall--which, unfortunately, was not as near as he would have liked. The box tipped over as it caught in the air and swung down, and Hector had to complete a barricade before anyone fell out. Now it really was an entire box of solid iron, with everyone inside thrown upside down with gun parts clattering around.

And if that wasn’t enough, there was no light inside, either.

So Hector breathed deep and visualized the outside of the box. The side was scraping against a cliff of unstable rock--the same unstable rock from which the box was also suspended, by way of the ten hooked spears he’d materialized.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Page 1393

Uh...

Really, Garovel? Nothing?

Hector, honestly, buying time might be the best we can do here. I mean, if the Rainlords can’t kill it, then...

Not exactly the keen insight that Hector had been hoping for, but he supposed he couldn’t really blame Garovel.

...That is, unless those non-servants from the surface have something else up their sleeves,’ said Garovel. ‘Which it seems like they might.

How can you tell?

Their souls are all gathered together, right now. Seems like they’re working on something. They’re to your right. Do you see them?

He did. And just as the reaper said, they were huddled up in a circle. ‘Ah. They’re standing over a pile of guns.’ He squinted. ‘And it looks like they’re taking them apart.

Well, let’s go talk to--

An interruption arrived in the form of yet another earthquake, and Hector found his bridge crumbling beneath him. He caught himself with an iron slide and curved it toward the group of gunmen. A few sideways tumbles and unintended front flips later, and he managed to find his balance and stick the landing right next to them.

They all turned to give him startled looks before relaxing again.

Ask them what they’re doing,’ said Garovel.

Before Hector got the chance, however, the quaking returned and so did the worm, thrashing its way alarmingly close.

Hector raised his hand flatly upward in front of his chest, and with it, iron appeared below the gunmen and their work, boxing them in instantly. Then Hector grew the whole box in his direction at launching speed, carrying the gunmen and himself out of the worm’s path.

The sudden motion knocked everyone over, apart from Hector, who kept his attention locked firmly on the sludge monster. Thankfully, it did not seem to have taken an interest in him for a third time. Yet.

“Thanks a bundle, Senmurai,” came a familiar voice, belonging to one of the gunmen. It was the crazy-sounding guy from earlier, Hector realized.

Senmurai? Hector wanted to ask what that meant, but there were more pressing matters. “Do you guys have a plan?” he asked instead.

“Oh, wow, you sound so young!” the man said with a laugh. “Couldn’t tell in all that crazy armor!”

“A plan,” repeated Hector. “Do you have one?”

“Son, don’t you worry. Good old-fashioned human ingenuity is here to save the day again.”

“Excuse me?” Hector could see the gunmen piecing something together from all the disassembled parts. Something quite large.

The guy gave another hearty laugh from inside his helmet. “There was never any problem so tough that it couldn’t be solved by a big enough gun!”

Hector’s eyes widened as he watched them continue working. At length, he couldn’t stop himself and just had to ask, “Who are you guys?”

“We’re with the West Intar Company. Search & Discovery Division. I’d shake your hand if mine weren’t so busy right now.”

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Page 1392

Garovel took a few moments to respond. ‘Unfortunately, we don’t have time to worry about that right now,’ he said privately. ‘I’ll look into it later. You just stay focused.

Hector couldn’t argue with that, though he wanted to. When he neared the train, a group of Hun’Kui militiamen slid a door open for him and helped Selena inside.

“I’m sorry!” she was saying through choked breaths. “I just wanted to--! I couldn’t--! I’m sorry--!”

Hector was at a loss for what to say, not even really understanding why she was apologizing.

It’s okay,’ Garovel told her. ‘This sort of reaction to worms is actually quite common. Don’t be too hard on yourself. We have to go now, but we’ll talk to you later, Selena.

She looked at Hector with tear-filled eyes for some reason.

Still, he didn’t know what to do. So he just gave a kind half-nod and then pulled away on his bridge of iron.

As he headed back toward the fighting, he couldn’t get what just happened out of his head. ‘Garovel...

Not everyone adjusts to combat as easily as you do, Hector. But I won’t forget about her, so for now, just put it out of your mind and concentrate.

Really, Hector wanted to ask about Selena’s reaper, but he knew Garovel was right. There would be time for that later. Assuming they lived through this battle, that was. He did have confidence in the Rainlords’ ability to take the monster down, but as he got closer to the mayhem again, it did not look like much progress had been made.

The worm still thrashed wildly around, occasionally catching servants out and sending them flying or just chomping them down. Perhaps most incredibly of all, Hector saw Darktide and Zeff come bursting out of the worm’s backside in a maelstrom of mercury and ice. Apparently, they’d gotten eaten during Hector’s absence.

One might have expected such a gaping back wound to slow the beast down, but it paused for hardly more than a shiver before continuing its rampage.

From his midair vantage point on his bridge, Hector tried to find an opportunity to reenter the fight, but seeing so many familiar faces charge in and get swatted away or be forced to dodge... well, it was a little disheartening.

Evangelina Stroud and Diego Redwater attacking in unison. Then a group of Blackburns, led by Horatio. A group of Delagunas, led by Salvador. A group of Sebolts, led by Carlos. And even the Najirs.

Everyone was struggling to do any kind of real damage. So what the hell did he think he was going to accomplish?

He knew that he was better suited to taking defensive action, but that didn’t seem to be the problem now. The remaining fighters looked like they were avoiding major hits well enough. But any time someone appeared to land a solid blow, the worm either brushed it off or its wounds simply reformed.

It wasn’t long before Hector was beginning to feel everyone’s frustration. ‘Garovel, how do we kill this fuckin’ thing?

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Page 1391

Through the ensuing chaos, the worm didn’t let up. And since the Rainlords had unfortunately gathered a bit closer together while the worm had been downed, the beast now had the opportunity to come bulldozing through the loose crowd that they had formed.

And Selena Cortes was still not moving, Hector noticed, even as the worm turned in his and her general direction.

No time to deliberate.

Hector materialized a sloped platform on the other side of Selena and used it to launch her into his waiting arms. “Grab on!” he shouted to her unnamed reaper, who made no argument.

With the worm bearing down on them and everyone around scattering like startled birds, Hector decided to go upward. Iron materialized below his feet and flung the four them into the air, high enough so that the worm would be able to pass harmlessly below.

Or at least, that had been the plan.

Instead, the worm decided to chase after them specifically and arched up to meet Hector in the air, and suddenly, its slobbering, sludging jaws were closer than ever.

Well, shit.

Even less time to deliberate.

Had to be simple. No thought required. Something he could make in an instant.

A giant iron bowl, of all things, materialized right in front of him in midair. He’d pointed the concave side at the worm’s face.

Its huge mouth fit almost too perfectly into it, and--for a few vital seconds--the bowl became a kind of muzzle. So instead of Hector, Garovel, Selena, and her reaper all being swallowed, they slammed against an iron wall with Hector’s shield.

Not that much of an improvement, but an improvement nonetheless.

The impact was enough to punt the four of them all the way across the cavern and into a far wall, cracking it and loosening a few stalactites from the ceiling.

Hector wondered how many bones in his body had just broken, but his armor and regenerative vigor were doing their jobs, and he managed to create another iron platform to catch everyone before they peeled off the wall and fell.

Rather than lowering them all back down to the ground, however, he looked for the train and tracks, which he discovered were not quite as far away now as he might’ve expected. He started growing his platform in its direction, adding tall support pillars as needed.

Selena sounded like she was trying to say something, but Hector couldn’t make it out. A part of him wanted to ask what was wrong, but something told him that was a question for later. Or possibly never.

Right now, with everything still as confusing as it was, he should probably just try to say something comforting, right? Something like...?

Uh...

Well, maybe saying nothing at all was okay, too.

God, you’re so useless!’ the girl’s reaper said aloud. ‘I can’t believe I ended up with such a--!’ But the reaper cut herself off, leaving the thought unfinished.

The following silence became suddenly uncomfortable.

Hector found himself blinking as he worked on his mobile staircase. He had to consult Garovel. ‘What the hell was she saying just now?