Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Page 1568

((Double Wednesday -- Page 2 of 2))
At first, the boy is careful not to present himself directly before the god. In time, however, he sees that Malast is not at all what he had expected.

Malast does not wish to kill him. Malast merely wants the Urn back. The boy does not seem to concern or interest him in the slightest.

Yet the Idle God does not leave. He merely sits there, in a chair of stone. The boy has never seen him get up from it. Even when Malast first appeared, He had already been sitting in it. The boy does not understand. But then, such is the mysterious power of a god, he supposes.

He asks Malast many questions, wanting to get to know the God of the Underworld better, but it is a difficult process. Malast hardly engages with him at all. The only subject that is able to spark any continual semblance of interest is that of the other gods. The Primordials.

The boy is immensely curious as to where they have all gone and why, exactly. In the end, however, Malast says that He does not know, but the boy is not sure he believes that. Malast seems to know many things that He should not, yet He never explains how. It is quite frustrating, but what is to be done about it? The man is a god, and the boy is not.

The Urn of Growth, he eventually learns, could change that. He begs Malast to grant it to him, but the Idle God refuses.

“It would turn you to dust,” He says.

The boy is increasingly infuriated by this. If he could only become a god, he thinks, then it would prove his greatness beyond doubt to the other Guong. To Torosh, especially. But no matter what the boy tries or does, Malast continues to refuse him.

And then the Surajj’Byok arrives. The Sludge Sickness.

The Hun’Kui have discovered a terrible weapon to use against the Hun’Sho and are wielding it with malevolent abandon. So many of the boy’s kin are transformed into abominations of nature. Reckless killing machines. Chaos and evil made flesh.

He watches some of the Hun’Kui laugh with demonic madness as the world crumbles around them.

There is nothing worse imaginable, to his mind. He begs Malast for help. He begs Malast for the power of a god, the power to perhaps save his people.

But the Idle God remains exactly so.

This is the Apocalypse of the Hun’Sho.

Himmekel is their only salvation. Without it, everyone in Himmestat would have surely perished. Instead, a few hundred are able to survive.

But the world is forever changed now. The Hun’Sho are on the brink of extinction.

Everything else is meaningless. His squabbles with the other Guong. His treasure. His jealousy. They are all petty nonsense. Only the survival of his kin matters now.

So they hide. They remain quiet. And do nothing. They are immortal, after all. They can be as patient as they like. A time of revival will surely come, if they can simply endure.

Page 1567

((Double Wednesday -- Page 1 of 2))
He succeeds. He gets away with the Urn. But he dares not open it. He learned much of the fearsome power that magical artifacts such as this can hold. And of course, this was never his objective, either. His wish was to speak with Malast without being instantly turned to dust by a god’s wrath.

So the boy begins planning.

After all these years, he returns to his kin, to his home. And he is welcomed into a land of tremendous prosperity. He is not surprised. He has heard the whispers of the Hun’Sho all over the world, the hushed tales of their magnificence and power, both feared and desired.

The boy could not be prouder. He has never felt such unity with his kin as he does now. It is entirely wonderful. And he is all the more pleased when they welcome him home--as they should, for he has brought many, many gifts with him.

He becomes a Guong once more and strives to help the Hun’Sho reach still greater heights of prosperity.

There are so many Hun’Sho now. And so many more Hun’Kui. But these are not problems, as they once would have been. Infrastructure and order have turned these into blessings. Into potential.

He takes his subjects and builds a city. Himmestat. It is an enormous undertaking, and he has more work than he knows what to do with, more problems than he knows how to fix, but he never forgets his plan. He never forgets his objective to one day meet the only remaining god in the world.

The other Guong are now being difficult. The love he once felt for them has faded rather quickly. They are jealous of all that he has. Even with as much as he has shared, they still desire more. They seem to think him undeserving of his riches--and of his followers, too. The other Guong attribute Himmestat’s success not to his actions but to those of his immediate subordinates.

This bothers him. Because he knows that there is more truth in it than he would care to admit. Torveis, in particular, is very competent and personable. Even the Hun’Kui seem to show genuine affection for him. And the boy hears the whispers, the surreptitious talk of wanting Torveis to become Himmestat’s new Guong.

They don’t understand. But he will show them.

He builds a vault. The greatest vault in all the world. Himmekel. Here, he will finally be able to set the stage for his meeting with Malast. And protect that which is his, as well.

It takes many years, but he manages it. He uses a few of Rathmore’s Tools to help get the job done and even builds a network, connecting Himmekel with distant treasure troves that he had created or found during his travels.

So much work. All culminating to this. The Vault of Paradise.

And finally, after all is prepared, he spreads the rumor. The rumor that the Urn of Growth is hidden away in Himmekel.

Sure enough, Malast arrives, looking for it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Page 1566

Many more years pass. Torosh and his followers are freed during this time. They are as confused as everyone else when they learn what has happened, but Torosh is able to galvanize the Hun’Sho and help guide the Hun’Kui toward order. It is difficult, because the ashen wretches have much to learn and are often unwilling and even violent.

A firmer hand is required. The Hun’Sho are in agreement. It may have been against the wishes of the Avaross whom they most recently remember, but they do not believe it would be against those of the Avaross whom they remember raising them.

So they subjugate the Hun’Kui by force. It is a miserable process. Grueling and often bloody. But the boy does not see hope in the alternative. Letting the Hun’Kui remain free to bring ruin upon themselves does not strike him as wise.

The boy cannot hold slaves himself, however. He finds it too distasteful, even if he understands his kin’s logic and does not think any less of them. He cannot wholly disregard the shadow of Avaross, as the others seem to.

Instead, after a semblance of structure and hope for peace has been achieved, the boy decides to travel. He believes there is much to be learned, elsewhere in the world.

And indeed, there is.

He learns of other gods. He learns of their sudden absence.

And perhaps most importantly, he learns the tales of He Who Is Not. The God of All That Is Not. The Void. And the many other names. It is confusing, because each culture calls Him something else. It seems as though He never identified Himself properly.

From all the tales of different gods that the boy hears, the God of All That Is Not seems to be the most mischievous among them. They always tell of how He interferes in the other gods’ plans, disrupting their efforts, playing pranks on them. Some even describe Him as evil--or as Evil itself.

But the boy does not think so. He wishes that he could meet the God of All That is Not again, but the one thing he learns definitively from all of these tales is that He is gone.

All of the gods, the Primordials, have left. The God of All That Is Not has removed them from this world, save one.

Malast. The Idle God. The God of the Underworld.

The boy seeks Him out, this remaining god.

It takes a very, very long time. Thousands of years, even.

The boy becomes a thief along the way, because from all the tales he has heard, there is only one method for acquiring Malast’s attention. Stealing--or at least, attempting to steal--the Urn of Growth.

The boy worries. It is terribly dangerous, of course. No one in the tales survives Malast’s wrath. They all die in the attempt. But the boy has confidence in his skill. He has acquired several useful artifacts during his journey, artifacts which he has stolen from the irresponsible and undeserving. The Staff and Pendant of Unso, in particular.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Page 1565

((Double Monday -- Page 2 of 2))
The boy is curious for the first time in a long time. He wishes to know more of this person. He decides to ask.

“I have no name, little one. For I am He Who Is Not.”

“Why have you come here?” the boy asks.

“I have always been here. I know your struggle, young Seyos. I know you feel lost. Tell me. Do you believe Avaross is to blame for your misery and that of your kin?”

The boy does not know what to say. He does not wish to lie. But he does not truly know if he blames Father. Perhaps a part of him does, even if he had not allowed himself to acknowledge it all this time.

“...You love Avaross, even now?”

That, at least, the boy can answer. “Yes, of course I do. He is my father.”

“You are a good son.”

The boy does not know what to think or feel. Somehow, this man reminds him of how Father used to be. There is... a warmness there that the boy has not felt in a very long time.

“I will try to help you if I can.”

But just as quickly as the man had arrived, He Who Is Not is gone again.

The boy is more conflicted than ever. More confused than ever. He wants to leave, to travel and learn more of He Who Is Not, but the boy is scared.

So he stays.

And things continue to worsen. The Hun’Kui do not organize. Or rather, they cannot. Whenever they try, others among them arrive to rob and murder them, to take from those who have worked hard for what they have. It is not just.

Yet Father continues trying to change the Hun’Kui’s very nature with words alone. Even though He was the one who made them that way. He wants them to choose to do the right thing on their own. He wants them to be moral, as the Hun’Sho are moral.

Or does He? The boy does not truly know anymore. Avaross is a mystery to him now.

But it does not matter. The boy is powerless to do anything. This is the domain of Avaross and none may go against His will.

And then it happens.

Avaross disappears.

There was no warning. No trace left behind. He is simply gone.

And no one knows what to do.

The Hun’Kui panic. And so do the Hun’Sho, though in a more reserved manner. Without guidance or protection, the world is suddenly much more terrifying.

Soon, however, a man wrapped entirely in bandages arrives. He does not speak, but he carries a message for the Hun’Sho and Hun’Kui.

A message from He Who Is Not.

“You are now free,” it reads. “Do as you will, and have will as you do it. All that I can do for you, I have now done. Goodbye.”

Page 1564

((Double Monday -- Page 1 of 2))
Their world is becoming a terrible place. Full of stagnation and sickness and suffering. This cannot be the ideal which Father desired.

Then, one day, when the boy’s hope is just about at its end, another among the Hun’Sho takes decisive action.

His name is Torosh. He is the boy’s peer, one of the original generation, though some are now considering him their leader, the greatest among the Guong.

Torosh begins imprisoning Hun’Kui. He is even talking of executing some of them, though only those who have been found guilty of particularly heinous crimes.

Where before, the Hun’Sho had always deferred to Father’s ever-forgiving judgment, Torosh is going against Him. Torosh speaks at length to the rest of them about his decision.

“If we are to help the Hun’Kui, truly help them, then we cannot continue as we have been. While we may have all the time we desire to achieve our goals, the Hun’Kui do not. It is not a mercy or a kindness to take a gentle approach. Order must be reestablished if we are to have any hope of making progress again.”

The boy agrees, for the most part, but he fears going against Father. He does not think it wise. And so he does not join Torosh in making this decision. The boy buries such thoughts and does as he has always done. He follows Father’s orders.

As do most of the Hun’Sho. Torosh’s actions have divided them.

When Father learns of what Torosh and the others are doing, He is not angry. But he is not pleased, either. He is eerily calm.

“Freedom is integral to the goal of an ideal world,” Father tells them. “That you do not understand this after all this time, is my failing, I suppose. Forgive me, my children.”

Father frees their prisoners. And then He imprisons Torosh and his followers, instead.

The boy is more fearful than ever now. But he is glad that he did not disobey Father.

As time goes on, the boy becomes increasingly convinced that Torosh was right. The suffering of the Hun’Kui continues, unabated. And their suffering becomes the Hun’Sho’s suffering. Even if the ashen wretches bring most of it upon themselves, it is painful to observe it every day like this.

Senseless. Senseless and horrific.

The boy gives up. There is no point to this struggle. He decides to stop worrying and simply do as he is told. It is better this way. It is better to not care. Caring only brings disappointment and sorrow and pain. Allowing himself to become numb to it all is the only real solution, he realizes.

Perhaps this is Father’s true lesson. That suffering is endless and hoping for anything better is an exercise in futility.

Then, a man arrives.

No.

Not just a man. Something more. Father’s equal.

The way they speak to one another. The way they pay each other respect. And most of all, the way they quarrel. Rarely, has the boy ever seen Father get so angry as when He speaks to this man.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Page 1563

The boy does as much as he can. He befriends as many Hun’Kui as he can. Many of them are pleasant. Many of them are amusing.

But they have so little potential. They are so primitive. It is difficult to connect with them on anything other than the most superficial of subject matter.

They are wild. They are impulsive. They are little better than animals, driven almost entirely by their instincts. Civilizing them will take many, many years, the boy feels.

But that, too, is fine. For the Hun’Sho are blessed with immortality. However long is required, the deed will be done.

And yet...

Father spends so much time with the Hun’Kui. They are constantly demanding his attention, constantly in desperate need of it. Of course they are. They cannot help themselves. They are as pitiful as newborn babies and even slower to learn. Entire generations of Hun’Kui come and go, making the same essential mistakes their entire lives.

So why does Father seem to enjoy their company so much more? Why does He forgive and forget their transgressions so easily? This was not how He raised the Hun’Sho. He was strict. He was instructive. He was attentive. Yet now He is none of those things. Now He spends almost all of His time with the Hun’Kui, not even bothering to teach them anything. He simply idles among them, which surely only serves to reinforce the Hun’Kui’s own problem of idleness, no?

Slowly, it is all falling apart. The boy sees it, day by day. The world that he and his brethren have built under Father’s guidance--it is beginning to rot. Progress is being lost. Potential is being lost.

The boy does not know what to do. This is when Father would normally encourage him or teach him something new, something useful and helpful to everyone. But Father is not doing that. Father is too busy attending to the Hun’Kui.

Their work is failing. They cannot seem to help the Hun’Kui. They are outnumbered so greatly. The Hun’Kui multiply at such a rate that the Hun’Sho cannot keep up. It is too much work, trying to help all of them.

The boy tells Father of these concerns.

But Father does nothing. He says only to keep trying.

It makes so little sense. Did He not design the Hun’Sho to achieve His ideal? Why, then, does the good behavior of the Hun’Sho go unrewarded? Why does the bad behavior of the Hun’Kui always seem to earn Father’s attention? His affection, even?

The boy does not understand. Were the Hun’Sho not Father’s favorite? How could that be? They work so much harder than the Hun’Kui. They try every day to better themselves, to follow Father’s teachings.

Why must this feel so painful? Even the Hun’Kui, with all of Father’s attention, seem to be largely miserable. There are so many of them in need, and they cannot all bask in the glory of Father’s presence simultaneously.

The boy is not sure for how much longer he can withstand it. And his peers, the other Guong, are all expressing similar sentiments.

But what can be done? This is Father’s will, no?

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Page 1562

((Double Saturday -- Page 2 of 2))
Avaross gave everything to his children. He spent a century raising them, teaching them, placing all of his hopes upon them.

And Royo began to see...


A fledgling Hun’Sho. A boy by any standard. But with an unparalleled father.

Avaross inspires them all. He instills in them principles of morality. Of goodness. Hope. Prosperity. And of course, peace. He teaches them of an ideal world. One which He wants their help in building. That is why He has made them the way they are. That is why He granted them immortality.

The boy can only admire Him. Avaross is greatness personified, loving them all in equal measure, giving them all equal attention.

Under His guidance, the Hun’Sho flourish. Their numbers grow quickly at first, as Avaross instructs them in how to have children. New incarnations of themselves. Identical in every physical aspect, yet still carrying a new soul and new ardor. Male or female, every Hun’Sho is able to bring life into the world.

In time, this strikes the boy as strange. He comes to learn of surface world and the people there. Of the men and women there. He decides to ask his father about why He decided to give the Hun’Sho two genders.

“With you, my beloved children, I have done my best to replicate the civilizational successes of humanity as I have witnessed them--and likewise, to avoid the failures. I do not believe that either gender is one of those failures.”

The boy is not sure he understands, but it matters little. There is much yet to learn, and he has eternity to do so.

They work hard, all of his brethren. They build. They follow Avaross’ every command, listen to His every word and desire. They become His ideal people. And the world they create for themselves is good.

For a time.

Father begins to change. His behavior. His actions. He grows impatient with them, at times. Not as kind as He once was. More and more, He seems weary, yet when they ask, He says nothing is wrong. He says the world is wonderful. He says they have nearly achieved His ideal.

Nearly achieved. Nearly. Ever nearly.

The boy and his kin continue onward, undeterred. One day, that ideal WILL be achieved. They are immortal. It is inevitable. One day. And then Father will smile again. Father will be happy again.

But that is not what happens.

Instead, Father creates the Hun’Kui.

They are different. So very different. Each of them is distinguishable in their physicality. None can reproduce independently. They are much more like the poor wretches of the surface than the Hun’Sho are.

The boy pities the Hun’Kui. But he understands them, as do the other Hun’Sho. He understands that Father has created these ashen beings so that the Hun’Sho can guide them to their own level of greatness--and in so doing, perhaps even achieve still higher greatness as well. Then the Hun’Sho will be more like Father than ever before.

Page 1561

((Double Saturday -- Page 1 of 2))
There was so much information there that Royo wasn’t even sure where to begin.

He supposed that it did make him curious, though. What was all of this information, exactly? Just the man’s emotions? No, it couldn’t be. Dying wasn’t that complex, was it?

Perhaps it was. Especially for an immortal Hun’Sho.

Royo wanted to smile.

He chose the first “thing” that his eyes stopped on and tried to unpack it.

A memory, it seemed to be. Of what? What was this color? Green? It was so bright. Royo hadn’t seen much of it in his lifetime, certainly not in shades like this. Plants, he supposed they were.

It must have been the surface. He’d read enough about it. So Seyos had been to the surface, had he? Bastard. A part of Royo had always wanted to go there, ever since he was a child, but he knew it was impossible for a Hun’Kui. The environment there was deadly.

Maybe it wouldn’t be impossible for a god, though. Now there was a thought.

Royo moved on to the next memory without even delving further into that one. There were so many. He just wanted to find something interesting. Maybe even something informative. With as long as this asshole had been alive, he must have known all sorts of useful things, right? It only made sense.

He wondered if there was some easier way to navigate through everything than just picking whatever caught his eye. He tried to press the Eye for something more. Something clearer.

The Eye provided.

The memories became more distinct to him. Not visually, perhaps, but still distinct nonetheless. Only so much of the Eye’s perception was visible. All of this information streaming into his mind was not like text popping in midair waiting for him to read it. Rather, it simply appeared in his head, describing itself to him in a manner similar to--but thankfully still distinguishable from--his very own thoughts.

And all of these memories became linked to one another along an apparent timeline. Royo was able to navigate his way back all the way to the beginning.

It took a while.

There were noticeable gaps as well, which Royo supposed made sense. Memories became clouded and lost over time. It was only human to forget things. He had begun thinking that Hun’Sho simply weren’t human, but perhaps they were, after all.

There it was. The oldest memory.

It was a face. And not that of a Hun’Sho or a Hun’Kui, but of a surface-dweller.

They all looked more or less alike to Royo, but he could at least tell that this one was male and elderly. The old man was saying something, but Seyos apparently couldn’t understand him, so neither could Royo.

Royo demanded more detail.

The Eye provided.

The old man in the memory was Seyos’ father, Avaross. An incarnation of Avar.

The linked memories were beginning to make more sense to Royo, arriving in his perception as a merged group of information rather than separate pieces.

This man was the father of the first generation of Hun’Sho. A generation of which Seyos had been a member.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Page 1560 -- CLXVIII.

Immediately, the entire world around him shifted.

At first, he thought it was Malast teleporting him again, but when he saw the raw vortex around Seyos suddenly grow to ten times its previous intensity, Royo realized this was the work of the Piercing Eye.


Chapter One Hundred Sixty-Eight: ‘Look erstwhile and take heed...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Seyos’ body barely had the opportunity to go limp before time itself seemed to slow. The body caught in midair, scarcely falling at all, and Royo simply watched.

His own movements were slowed as well, apparently, though his mind was not.

What was the Eye doing? He’d tucked it into the belt around his waist earlier and now would’ve liked to remove it, but at the speed his hand was going, it seemed like it would take a good ten minutes to make the journey.

Was it trying to show him something? To help him understand something?

He had just killed a man. It was not likely that the timing of this was coincidental.

He tried to observe Seyos more closely. The dying Hun’Sho man was like a volcano. And not because of his magma body. Rather, because of the enormous output of raw emotion and information. There was so much of it there now, shooting out of his body in all directions.

Perhaps the Piercing Eye was trying to give him time to observe it all.

Yes, that must have been it, Royo figured. The Eye hadn’t actually slowed time itself, merely his perception of it.

Wonderful. Now he was going to be stuck here, watching this bastard die in slow motion while he waited for his own hand to remove the Piercing Eye and free himself.

Royo didn’t care about anything he was seeing. He didn’t want to know more about Seyos.

But there wasn’t much else to do.

Ah. The glove. The object that was responsible for killing Seyos. Royo still didn’t even know if it had a name, as he had yet to examine it with the Eye.

The Demon’s Grip, the Eye told him. A gloved artifact capable of increasing the wearer’s strength by a factor of up to one hundred thousand. Crafted 122 years ago by Morgunov.

Royo’s eyes might have widened if he could move them that quickly. He pressed the Eye for greater detail.

An object which requires precision training in order to bring out its full potential.

That was all the information the Eye had for him. He would’ve liked to know more about Morgunov, as he certainly recognized the name, but the Piercing Eye didn’t work that way, it seemed.

So he’d finally begun to discover its limitations. He had started to wonder if the Eye simply didn’t have any.

Royo observed the progress of his hand toward the Eye.

Still about nine-tenths of the way to go.

He wanted to sigh.

He also wanted to look around and check up on the Box of Perdition, but that would’ve required turning his head.

Fine.

He observed the still-falling Seyos.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Page 1559

One of the illusions disappeared to a pointless attack from Seyos, and Royo caught a glimpse of the jewel around Seyos’ neck.

The Pendant of Unso. An artifact capable of teleporting the wearer to a set of predetermined locations. Crafted 1,341 years ago by Unso.

Royo understood as well as he could in the split second he had to perceive it. Seyos meant to activate the Box and teleport to safety.

That wasn’t going to happen.

Royo went for the Pendant first but found the Shield of Hamenszoon in the way. That was fine. Royo let go of his pistol, knowing it would be unnecessary at this range, and grabbed the Shield with his gloved hand. He had still yet to examine that glove, but he knew its power well enough.

He put all his strength into his grip, and his fingers dug into the Shield like teeth into flesh. The Shield cracked and snapped in two.

Seyos looked surprised, and Royo took the opening to go straight for the man’s heart. Seyos jolted away from him, though, and then they were struggling at such close range that they were nearly wrestling.

One of the Twin Blades of Boros arose with Seyos’ left hand, and Royo only just managed to twist himself out its path before it could plunge into his own heart. He still received a long gash across his chest, which was most certainly painful but not enough so make to him lose focus.

The Deceiver’s Cloak swirled as Seyos did, obscuring Royo’s vision. Royo sent out another fresh wave of the Sword’s copies and dove to the side. A slash from another Twin Blade vanished one of the illusions, and Royo saw another opening. His glove found Seyos’ left arm and crushed it. One of the Twin Blades dropped from his grip, but the Hun’Sho did not so much as flinch. The other Twin Blade came straight for Royo’s neck and narrowly broke upon the Sword of Hamenszoon--so narrowly, in fact, that Royo felt a shallow cut below his left ear.

Royo shoved himself forward and slammed his body into Seyos, knocking him off balance. The Cloak swirled again, but Royo still roughly knew where the man’s neck was and went for it. Pressing through the Cloak, he found it with his glove.

He crushed it without hesitation.

Seyos staggered back but didn’t fall. He was still moving, though not normally. The one remaining Twin Blade swung vainly at thin air, and Seyos’ molten head sagged grotesquely to one side, apparently too heavy for his broken neck.

The fight was more or less over now, it seemed. There was no point in prolonging things, Royo felt.

He sent one more wave of illusions from the Sword and approached Seyos from the side. He stabbed the man through the chest and then wrenched it open in order to dig into Seyos’ body with his glove.

There it was. The core.

Seyos said something incomprehensible, more wheezing than words.

Royo barely noticed. He crushed the core, too.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Page 1558

((Double Wednesday -- Page 2 of 2))
Royo activated the Sword again and tried to circle around to Seyos’ backside.

Seyos pulled out a pair of artifacts, and Royo identified them immediately.

The Twin Blades of Boros. Small swords which were capable of guiding even an amateur swordsman’s hand toward the vital points of his desired opponent. Exceptionally deadly at close range. Crafted 33 years ago by Luann.

With that knowledge, Royo backed off again and sent out an extra wave of copies.

Where was he keeping all these damn things?

The Deceiver’s Cloak. An artifact which allowed access to several small pocket dimensions. Crafted 4,612 years ago by Skapa.

Ah.

He didn’t want to fire his pistol again and give away his position. At the moment, the best course of action to his mind was to wait for the Sword’s invisibility to recharge. It would only take a few minutes, if he could hold out that long.

He seemed to be relatively safe as long as he kept multiple copies afoot. Running around the room in circles was especially helpful in that regard, because all of his copies mimicked his behavior, and by choosing the correct pressure point on the Sword, Royo was able to have as many as eight of himself all running counterclockwise around Seyos.

It was clearly pissing Seyos off as well, which was a nice bonus.

Royo took the opportunity to examine the Sword. While he already had a working knowledge of it, he wanted to be sure he hadn’t missed anything.

The Sword of Hamenszoon. An artifact capable of producing illusions based on the wielder. Crafted 794 years ago by Hamenszoon.

Huh. Surprisingly uninformative.

Royo tried looking harder, wanting the Eye to provide him more detail.

The Eye did so, spelling out the exact function of each one of the Sword’s pressure points, as well as informing him that they required manipulable soul power to do so. And as Royo had already discovered, seven copies was indeed the maximum number of illusions that the Sword could produce at one time.

The Piercing Eye was even so generous as to tell him the precise amount of time remaining before the invisibility was fully recharged. One minute, forty-eight seconds, and counting.

That was better. Royo was satisfied.

Movement from Seyos drew Royo’s attention again, and he was ready to identify the next artifact.

It was a small cube, small enough to fit in Seyos’ molten palm.

The Box of Perdition, the Eye told him. An artifact capable of producing explosions with a range of up to 750 meters. Crafted--

What?

Royo skipped the last part and instead pushed for more detail.

The Box had to be set on a timer with as little as fifteen seconds or as long as fifteen minutes. The blast would not harm the box itself but could still produce a force of up to five tons.

This was a very large problem.

Royo knew he couldn’t wait any longer and went on the offensive. All seven clones of himself followed suit, converging on Seyos simultaneously.

Page 1557

((Double Wednesday -- Page 1 of 2))
Former royalty among the Hun’Sho. Scarred eternally by what the Hun’Kui had done to his people. Transformed them. Into worms? The Sludge Sickness.

Royo was able to perceive that much in an instant, but there was much more there--darker thoughts, dwelling more deeply within. But Royo didn’t need to know the man’s life story, right now. He needed to know how to kill him.

And so the Eye revealed it to him.

A core in his chest. Seyos’ heart.

Royo didn’t wait. He pulled his pistol, aimed for it, and fired.

He was off the target, though. At this distance, the core was too small of an object to hit, and the flaming bullet instead pierced Seyos’ right lung.

And Royo knew that, somehow. The Eye was telling him.

He didn’t have time to be impressed, though. He’d given away his position with that gunshot. He bolted left as a giant hand crashed down on the spot where he’d just been standing.

The hand. Royo’s gaze lingered on it long enough for the Eye to reveal its nature to him.

One of the Fists of Enkir. A gloved artifact imbued with the properties of a magma golem. It could stretch and even grow far beyond its perceived physical size. It also burned to the touch--and would have to Royo, if Hun’Kui weren’t so resilient to heat. Crafted 1,527 years ago by Arigas, whoever that was.

Interesting, Royo thought as he ran.

But if it worked on the Fists, then wait. Could it also...?

He looked at his own boots. The Boots of Karugetti.

They maintained their momentum in accordance with the wearer’s will. Crafted 363 years ago by Arkos.

A much shorter and simpler description than the Fists, and in the heat of the moment, Royo was having trouble conceptualizing what it meant.

One of the hands had Lenos in its grip now, he noticed, and the other was pursuing him again. The Sword’s invisibility had faded.

Royo activated its illusion power. Three copies of himself shot off in separate directions, mimicking his same running posture. He made sure to zigzag to add to the confusion, then aimed his gun again and fired. This time, it hit exactly where he wanted to, as the target was nearer and larger.

The hand that had Lenos exploded at the wrist when the bullet cut through it, and Lenos was free again. The man fell to the ground in a crumpled heap, however, not moving.

Royo pulled the trigger two more times, aiming for Seyos himself again, but there was some sort of shield there, now. The Shield of Hamenszoon, the Piercing Eye told him.

An artifact capable of absorbing any projectile under a weight of seventy grams. Crafted 792 years ago by Hamenszoon.

Royo growled to himself as the Sword’s copies faded. He would have to reload soon, and he didn’t have that many bullets left.

He needed to get in close. If he could do that, he could end this in an instant.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Page 1556

“Are you sure you’re okay?” said Lenos through the howling storm. His voice sounded perfectly calm, apparently not bothered to be standing in the midst of a hellish vortex.

Royo was very much not sure that he was okay, however. He was beginning to feel a kind of exhaustion he had never felt before. His head was tired, though the rest of his body was not. It wasn’t quite dizziness or light-headedness, exactly.

He decided to put the Eye back down again.

The storm dissipated almost immediately, as did the web of knowledge around Lenos.

Royo was beginning to understand how it worked. “I am fine,” he finally said, trying not to sound haggard. “Can you find something for me to carry this item in?”

“Ah, okay, let me have a look around.”

Royo tried wrapping his green scarf around the Eye before picking it up again, but as he expected, it did nothing to prevent the object’s power from activating.

Royo let Lenos search in silence. He focused on controlling his breathing as he tried to take mental stock of himself.

He was fairly certain that he was still sane. And his memories--there were no notable gaps, as far as he could tell. Childhood, adolescence, adulthood. All there.

And perhaps most importantly, he still felt the same. Confidence bordering on arrogance? Check. Ambition that approached delusional psychosis? Yeah, that was there, too.

He supposed his gamble had paid off, after all.

It had been a while since he’d felt such a strong sense of relief.

Now all that was left to do was begin testing the limits of the Eye. Its usage obviously took an exhaustive toll, so it would be best if he could somehow determine the most efficient duration to keep it active, he felt. And of course, he still wanted to know exactly how informative the Eye could be. Was it only personal histories? Or was there--?

“Eleyo!”

A gunshot rang out, and Royo turned to see Seyos there, already attacking the both of them with giant red hands.

Royo swiped the Eye and dove out of the way, only for the hand to follow him and clobber him square in the chest. The impact added to his momentum and sent him toppling over himself through the air until he hit the ground and skidded up against a wall.

The wind was knocked out of him, and possibly a rib was broken, but there was no time to worry about that, he knew. The hand was still pursuing him.

He activated the Sword of Hamenszoon and rolled out of the way.

The hand stopped in midair, suddenly not knowing where to go.

This invisible respite wouldn’t last long, though. He had to make the most of it. The Piercing Eye was already active, and though the combination of the Sword’s visual effects added to the Eye’s created just about the most confusing thing Royo had ever looked at, his only concern right now was Seyos. And in that regard, the Eye was not letting him down.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Page 1555

((Double Monday -- Page 2 of 2))
His brain was marginally more prepared this time. The battering of sensations hit him like a wave, and again, he felt the same panic from before. But he retained enough of presence of mind now to stop his hand from letting go, to override bodily instinct with force of will.

It got worse.

He lost space. He lost time. He was losing himself. But he saw it again. The blanket. The veil. He put his hand forward--or some crackling, imagined representation of his hand, at least--and tried to grasp the veil. It was already partly peeled back. He just had to pull it the rest of the way.

And so he did.

He regained space. He regained time. He regained himself.

But the storm all around him did not cease. Still, it pummeled him, his mind, with so many sensations and emotions and distractions that he couldn’t even distinguish them from one another before they were replaced by something else, something newer, better, terrifying, worrying, encouraging, mortifying, ecstatic, dull, soul-crushing--

Endless.

It was folly to engage with it. He had to keep himself. Himself. His own mind. His own focus. These emotions were not his own. They were external. They were sorcery. Witchcraft. Whatever. It didn’t matter what they were. They didn’t matter. Only he mattered.

Him and the world around him. The real world.

And through it all, the swirling and somehow visible mayhem of emotions, he could see what he wanted to see.

Lenos, standing right next to him.

But of course, his name was not truly Lenos. And it was not Kogibur, either. The man didn’t have a name. At least, not one that was given to him by his mother. Because the man had never known his mother. Or his father, for that matter. He’d been an orphan of the Higher West Layer, as Royo himself had been. He had been treated with contempt in the community home in which he had grown up. He had been lastingly scarred by that experience, to the point of trusting none but himself. And a woman. In his adolescence. A woman who then betrayed him for money.

It could be no surprise, then, that Lenos did not fully trust Royo now. And that was not mere suspicion on Royo’s part. He knew that Lenos had reservations about him. He could see it, as clearly as he could see the man’s face.

But he could also see that Lenos did trust him a little. Which was more than Royo would have expected, quite frankly.

And it didn’t stop. Royo could see still more. Wavering and fleeting feelings, hovering around Lenos, whispering about his soul and his past. A job he’d taken. A mentor he’d had. Threads of his life woven together into a grand web that was as easy to navigate as it was to think. Royo had only to look where he wanted, consider what he wanted, and Lenos’ knowledge was Royo’s knowledge.

Page 1554

((Double Monday -- Page 1 of 2))
Royo hesitated. He hesitated as he had done only a handful of times in his entire life.

This feeling. Terror and uncertainty mixed together. He’d felt it before. Like teetering on the brink of both life and sanity.

He had no way of truly knowing what would happen if he grabbed the Piercing Eye, right now. No way of knowing what would become of him. Of his own mind.

And yet, he was genuinely considering doing it, anyway.

Because he had to. He needed to take a risk here. If his next opponent was one of the supermen, or Seyos perhaps, then what would he do? He had managed to take the one called Manuel by surprise, but he doubted it would be so easy with the Senmurai and the one called Diego. The Senmurai in particular had seemed determined to stop him earlier and would no doubt be on his guard.

And somehow, Royo did not think that his current three artifacts would be enough. The Sword of Hamenszoon and this unnamed glove of strength were both useful enough, but they certainly didn’t make him invincible; and he still did not know what power dwelled within the Boots of Karugetti, despite having examined them with his ardor sense.

If he wanted the power of a god, he first required the power to win this tournament.

Yes.

That was the dreadful truth of it, Royo felt. He would be both a coward and a fool not to acknowledge his own weakness when the potential to do something about it was sitting right in front of him.

He grit his teeth and took a deep breath.

He grabbed the Piercing Eye with his bare hand.

The effect was immediate. Not quite pain but something like it. Extreme displeasure. Invasive unsettlement. All throughout his mind. Consuming his world, his thoughts, his memories, his everything. He could feel himself panicking, and involuntarily, he let go of the Eye.

He rushed back into himself all at once, wide-eyed and struggling for breath. On his hands and knees now, he needed time. Time to realize that he was still there. Still present. Still sane.

Well, as much as he had been before, at least.

Lenos was saying something, and Royo tried to say something reassuring, but he wasn’t really listening to himself. He was still focused on the Eye. That ordeal had been torture of a manner he had never before experienced.

But he’d seen something in it. The barest glimpse. As if the whole world were a blanket, and for but a moment, he had been granted a look at what was beneath it.

He was going to do it again.

“Step back,” said Royo, removing Lenos’ hand from his shoulder.

Lenos did not give up, however. “What do you think you’re doing?! You can’t--!”

Royo shoved him away and grabbed the Eye again.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Page 1553

Royo wanted to argue, but the man had a point. And he actually wasn’t ruling out the Piercing Eye yet, either, even as he moved on to the other two. One of them was a metal rack with a pendulum in the center, and the other was a simple blue crystal. “What are these two, then?”

“The Daichigeki and the Tokets’Jigok.”

The Earthshock and the Frozen Hell. Intrigued as he was by those names, Royo didn’t like what they implied.

“The Daichigeki is said to be able to rend the ground beneath one’s feet and even cause earthquakes powerful enough to bring down buildings. And the Tokets’Jigoku is said to be capable of freezing anything it touches.”

Royo didn’t normally hate being right. “...So they would both kill me, is what you are saying.”

“Mm, well, presumably, there is a safe way of using them, but... yeah, they do seem pretty dangerous.”

More than just seemed, Royo felt. In the Undercrust, an earthquake was one of the most deadly and unpredictable events imaginable. An item which could instigate them would certainly be powerful, but to Royo’s mind, there existed no conceivable method by which an earthquake could be controlled. Not down here. And he didn’t intend to die to falling rocks that he had caused to fall. A more idiotic end, Royo could hardly imagine.

As for the blue crystal, a Hun’Kui trying to harness the power of ice was not much more appealing. Theoretically, of course, it could be very strong, but one misstep while attempting to acquaint himself with the crystal’s exact functionality, and that would spell the end for him. It was akin to an insect trying to figure how to properly use pesticide. He had no real knowledge base from which to operate or available safety precautions to take.

“These are both worthless,” Royo decided.

“I suppose if they weren’t, they wouldn’t just be sitting here,” said Lenos. “That caped Hun’Sho bastard would probably be using them himself, hmm?”

“Indeed.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more assistance.” Lenos started grabbing light diamonds in order to stuff them into his unfortunately small pockets.

Royo, however, had not given up. His gaze fell upon the Piercing Eye once again.

The secrets of the world against the threat of going mad? Compared to the other two items, the Eye’s risk was at least somewhat appealing.

And the more he thought about it, the more he began to wonder, was that truly the gamble? Could any object really cause someone to go mad? Just like that?

And even if it could do that, would it?

Would it be possible to resist its influence? With a strong enough mind, perhaps? A strong enough will?

Royo saw sense in that logic--and more frighteningly even to himself, he saw potential in it.

It was a risk, of course. There was no doubt about that. But was it a risk worthy of himself? Of his ambition?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Page 1552

((Double Saturday -- Page 2 of 2))
“He really is a god,” said Lenos. The man sounded convinced now.

Royo remained skeptical, however. Just because he did not have an immediate explanation did not mean there wasn’t one.

But he couldn’t deny that, more than ever now, he wanted to believe. If Malast truly was a god, then that might truly have been Secho’s remains in his hands. And Royo might truly be able to...

He shook his head. He needed to focus. The tournament was not yet done, and his most difficult opponents were no doubt still ahead.

“I will support you however I can,” said Lenos.

Royo blinked.

“I don’t intend to gamble with my own life any more than I have to,” said Lenos. “And I don’t have aspirations to godhood, so you go right ahead with all of this, if that’s what you want. I--”

Royo clasped his hand over the other man’s mouth. “Do not say that you surrender. Not just yet, anyway. Help me to examine the treasure in this room, first.” He pulled his hand away.

“...Alright.” Lenos eyed the glowing pile to Royo’s right, then straightened his back and sauntered over to it. “How much do you know about treasure hunting, by the way?”

Royo followed his lead. “A fair amount--though not as much as someone like Kogibur would, I suspect.”

“Heh.” Lenos didn’t remove his eyes from the treasure.

That meager reaction was more than enough of an affirmation for Royo’s suspicions. He had been wanting to confirm Lenos’ true identity as the infamous thief, Kogibur, and he was glad to have finally found the opportunity.

Royo looked over the treasure himself, but nothing here sparked immediate recognition. He’d gotten very lucky in the first round, he knew.

“I wish we could take everything here,” said Lenos.

“We will,” said Royo, and he heard Lenos snicker. “But for now, find me something that would assist me in a fight.”

“Hmm. In that case, you have your pick of this, this, and this.”

Royo examined each item that he’d pointed at but didn’t dare touch any of them yet.

The first was a small orb, translucent and very fragile-looking, though if it had survived all this time, then it was probably more durable than it appeared. When he focused, Royo could indeed sense ardor in it, bearing a decidedly unique flow. Swirling like a tiny, contained sulfur storm.

“That one, I believe, is the Sasume.”

The Piercing Eye? The name sounded familiar, but he couldn’t place it. “What can it do?”

“According to my information, it will either reveal the innate secrets of the world around you... or drive you mad.” A beat passed. “Or possibly both.”

Royo gave him a look.

“Hey, I wouldn’t touch it, but you? I figured, you’re already trying to fuse yourself with a god, so maybe you’re crazy enough to choose this, too.”

Page 1551 -- CLXVII.

((Double Saturday -- Page 1 of 2))
Chapter One Hundred Sixty-Seven: ‘Bolster thine insight...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

After the one called Manuel, his next opponent was his own companion through all of this, Lenos.

Royo did not know whether that was a relief or not, but he tried to take advantage of the opportunity.

And even now, he was reluctant to simply swap intel with Lenos in an entirely candid manner. He knew that Malast was listening, at least, and while Royo didn’t think that the so-called Idle God would care about anything surreptitious they might say, he didn’t know who else might be listening. He could quite easily imagine a scenario in which Malast was allowing the defeated combatants to observe the proceedings with him.

Somehow.

Without any clear definitions regarding the extent of Malast’s power, Royo could only rely on his imagination to protect him from making any missteps in these delicate circumstances. Hopefully, it would suffice.

So he and Lenos attempted to communicate in code, as they had done two days ago and all during their time in Himmekel. They had never quite been sure that someone wasn’t just around the corner, listening. The ghosts had been of particular concern there. The goggles allowed Royo to see them, sure, but he didn’t know the extent of their capabilities or how easy it was for them to eavesdrop over large distances.

As soon as he made it out of this place, he fully intended to learn everything he could about those troublesome beings. He had a feeling that his next encounter with them wouldn’t be nearly so amicable as this one had thus far been.

“Do you really think you can become a god?” said Lenos in Hunese.

Royo paused at that question. “To be honest... no, I do not. But if there is even the slightest possibility that Malast is telling the truth, then I believe the risk is worth it.”

“What if you become someone else, like he said?”

“That would be--” Royo stopped himself and squinted at Lenos. “You understood what Malast was saying? You speak--?” And he stopped himself again, because he’d been about to say “Mohssian,” but as he thought about it, that wasn’t quite right, was it?

“What are you talking about?” said Lenos. “Of course I understood him. He spoke perfect Hunese.”

Royo met the other man’s gaze evenly. “...Did he, though?”

“Yeah, I...” Lenos seemed to be realizing what Royo just had.

At first, it had been exactly as Lenos had just said. Royo remembered getting the impression that Malast had been speaking Hunese. But when the others started talking to him as well and listening to everything he was saying, Royo somehow began thinking that he was speaking Mohssian.

But Malast hadn’t been. The Idle God hadn’t spoken either language.

Yet they had all understood him without even noticing it.

Was it some sort of telepathy? Royo didn’t think so. He distinctly recalled seeing the man’s mouth move when he spoke. But the words. What were the exact words that Malast spoke? What were the sounds that they made?

Royo genuinely didn’t know. He recalled the meaning of Malast’s words just fine, but the words themselves? They were a blur.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Page 1550

Hector didn’t think this was the time for banter. “What’s the next item?!”

Ah, I don’t think there is one in this pile. Just a bunch of coins and jewelry.

“Agh!”

But Hector did know what to do next, at least. He had to get to the second floor.

He launched himself up with a materialized platform and landed with a heavy thud. From there, the treasure was straight ahead, so he bolted for it, able to maintain a full sprint with the vigor that he now felt flowing all throughout his body.

Still, this new level of awareness was difficult to get used to. In a good way, perhaps, but difficult nonetheless. He kept his attention focused firmly on the growing worm even while it was completely out of his line of sight beneath the rock under his feet. He barely even looked at the treasure and just let Garovel go over it for him.

“Anything?!”

Mm, nope, sorry.

Hector wanted to scream.

Hey, you could always try that mace you picked up. Didn’t seem all that special to me, but Seyos called it the Moon’s Wrath, so it must have something to it, right?

Hector hadn’t forgotten. “I’d have to get in close to attack it with this thing,” he said, trying to be calmer, “and I don’t think we want to do that.”

Oh yeah. If you get caught in that slime, you might not be able to get out, huh?

That was his exact concern, yes. He still remembered some of the Rainlords getting swallowed up at the battle by the train. They’d managed to free themselves with an incredibly impressive attack from inside its gut, but Hector doubted that he would be able to pull off the same trick. Or maybe he could. But he didn’t want to put himself in a situation where he had to find out.

Nonetheless, he did take the Moon’s Wrath in hand once again. If he wasn’t able keep the beast away from him, then the mace would be a good option--if not the only option.

The worm was beginning to move now, Hector sensed. Its growth had finally slowed but still not quite stopped, and it was now the size of an office building. He could see a bit of it peeking over the second floor and squirming its way in his direction over the rock.

Time for the third floor, he decided. It was a good thirty or so meters above him, but he appreciated the extra distance between himself and the worm. He could sense it beginning to thrash around down there and climb up.

He went for the treasure pile.

Ooh! Grab that thing right there that looks like an orb on a tuning fork!

He saw it and did so. “Okay, what does it do?”

It’s, ah, difficult to explain, but we’ll be able to find some really cool shit with it. It’s like a special kind of metal detector.

Hector needed a second to find his words. “How will that help me kill the worm?”

Oh, it won’t. It’s useless for that.

Hector sighed angrily.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Page 1549

Instinctively, he tried coating the mass in iron, but he was not surprised when it did absolutely nothing to stem the growing tide of sludge. The iron simply expanded out and broke until it, too, was swallowed by slimy darkness.

“G-Garovel...”

Wow, this is even worse than I was expecting.

“What the fuck do I do?!” Hector was finding it abruptly difficult to remain as calm as the reaper sounded.

Hmm, good question.

“Garovel!”

The worm was already as big as a house.

Okay, well, let’s look at this logically. We already know you can’t kill it. And we’re trapped in here, so we can’t run from it, either.

“That’s not helpful.”

The treasure. Maybe there’s some more treasure around that will help you take it down.

Well, it was a plan, at least. Unfortunately, despite the size of the room, there wasn’t nearly as much treasure in it compared to the previous ones Hector had been in. And he knew that with absolute certainty, thanks to the Scarf of Amordiin. Apart from the relatively modest pile currently at his back, there were two other, even smaller ones on the second and third floors of the chamber, respectively.

There was no point in complaining, though. It would have to do.

Still keenly aware of the bubbling mass in the center of the room, Hector set to work, looking over the nearest treasure pile. He and Garovel had already gotten a brief opportunity to examine this one earlier when Seyos disappeared, but the only thing that caught the reaper’s attention had been a glittery orb that was apparently called the Hypnosphere.

Hector went for it immediately, because he didn’t know what else to do, freeing one of his hands by hanging his mace on a materialized hook.

What’re you gonna do with that?

“I don’t fucking know! You tell me!”

Uh... just chuck it at it.

“Really?!”

Yeah!

“Okay!”

He spun around, gathered his strength in his throwing arm as he reeled back, and launched the Hypnosphere straight into the worm’s body.

Nothing happened.

“Garovel, that didn’t do shit!”

Well, there goes five million troa down the toilet.

“Why’d you tell me to throw it, then?!”

Eh, it was a calculated risk. And that thing was ugly, anyway.

The worm was as big as two houses, now, and it had an obvious mouth and eyes, which were pointed in his direction.

Hey, that item over there could be the Bell of Calming.

It took a second, but Hector saw what he was referring to. A silvery bell with geometric engravings. He grabbed it without hesitation.

Try ringing it.

He did so. Hard. The sound was sharp and clear, certainly loud enough to carry across the whole room.

And he waited for some noticeable change to occur.

But it didn’t.

...Huh. I guess it’s not the Bell of Calming, after all.

“Garovel, that thing is gonna fuckin’ kill us!”

Yeah, I’m starting to get a little worried, actually.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Page 1548

((The 14 pages of Valentine's Day + Double Wednesday -- Page 16 of 16))
Before Seyos could move, however, metal appeared all around him, fixing him in place with one hand still around the Pendant and the other still around the trembling core.

“Where did you go?” said Hector, only then turning to face him.

Seyos saw no reason to answer that. The magma of his body was already beginning to change the metal’s color, so it wasn’t unthinkable that he would be able to break out of this encasing--or even absorb it into him, perhaps. But the surface-dweller would probably just make more.

No, the only real solution here was to use the Pendant again and teleport away. He had to be careful, though, to make sure that he didn’t bring the core with him. And since he couldn’t physically drop it from his hand, due to the metal encasing, it required deliberate mental effort to leave the core behind, to ensure that it didn’t become enveloped in the Pendant’s power along with him.

But he managed it, just as the core was growing too violent in his hand. And in a blink, he was gone from the Chamber of Grand Desire once again.

Seyos didn’t know if he would’ve been able to defeat the one the others had been calling Darksteel in single combat, but he certainly knew that the “gift” he had just left behind would crush anyone. One day, all the world would know both the folly and wrath of the Hun’Sho as that foolish young invader was about to.

Seyos, in the meantime, intended to get a head start on killing the other remaining combatants.

-+-+-+-+-

Garovel, what the hell am I looking at?

Ah--isn’t that a Hun’Sho core?

Hector supposed it did look similar to the one he’d seen in Torveis’ chest, but what the hell was wrong with it? It was vibrating like crazy now, and just a moment ago, it had a ripped a hole through the empty iron shell that he’d made for Seyos.

He didn’t know where the guy had gone, but it was more than enough to put him on edge. For all he knew, Seyos could pop in at any moment and try to take his head off. That was why he’d made sure that Garovel was tucked away in the safest possible combat position--around the wrist of his shield hand.

Careful, Hector,’ the reaper said. ‘Something is very wrong with that thing. What I’m sensing is--I can’t explain. The ardor within it is spiking in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible. I don’t know--

The core expanded visibly, ballooning up to the size of a basketball, and dark goo started oozing out of it. The white-hot exterior cracked, releasing more. And then it simply broke apart entirely, replaced by a shooting column of murky slime.

Of sludge.

The mass grew all too quickly, and it wasn’t much longer before Hector began to realize what he was looking at.

He was watching a worm being born. And a very large one, at that.

Page 1547

((The 14 pages of Valentine's Day + Double Wednesday -- Page 15 of 16))
Of course, they weren’t truly mirrors. Rather, they were spatial windows, connected to every mirror in Himmekel. They allowed him to observe the daily lives of his subjects, to understand their struggles, their needs and desires--as well as their lies and their treason, unintentional though it may have been.

Seyos’ eyes fell upon his stone desk in the middle of the chamber, upon the bodiless core currently sitting upon it.

A terrible shame. One day, such intelligent and probing minds would be of tremendous value to the Hun’Sho again, but right now, they were only a nuisance. Too much so, sadly. Seyos hated having to do this to own kin, but he knew all too well that they simply would not understand what needed to be done for the continued survival and resurgence of the Hun’Sho.

He picked up the core of young Jasirok and gripped it in the palm of his molten hand. “With this sacrifice,” he whispered, “you will do unto our enemies as they once did unto us.”

Seyos took a few moments to simply breathe, long and deeply, feeling the weight of the deed that he was about to do. He had done it far too many times, these past few years. It was all for the preservation of his people. Even if they eventually discovered what he was doing and hated him for it.

It was all for their sake.

Seyos circumnavigated the desk and retrieved the Wand of Conduction from the top right drawer, as well as one of the many small metal containers from the bottom left drawer. Next, he moved toward the mirrors and tapped the Wand against each one as he passed, activating them just long enough for a brief look on the other side.

Hmm.

Not many of his people were in their homes. Strange, for this time of day. Perhaps they knew more of what was happening than Seyos had previously realized. He knew they wouldn’t dare set foot outside Himmekel, of course, not with Enkir and Dunikei wreaking their eternal havoc, but still, it troubled him.

He would look into it later. Seyos crammed the Wand into the Deceiver’s Cloak. There wasn’t a proper space for it, but it would do, for now.

He readied himself to teleport again. He knew that he wouldn’t have much time once he returned to the Chamber of Grand Desire. He held Jasirok’s core in one hand and the small metal container in the other. With effort, he twisted the cap off the container and heard it pop.

He dumped its murky contents onto the core. Almost immediately, he felt it pulse in response.

No time now. He tossed the container aside, gripped the Pendant of Unso, and jumped back to the Chamber of Grand Desire.

As expected, Hector was still there, though he had moved closer to the small pile of treasure by the far wall, no doubt looking for more valuables to pillage.

Page 1546

((The 14 pages of Valentine's Day + Double Wednesday -- Page 14 of 16))
“...And what about everyone who was with me?” said Hector.

“They must prostrate themselves likewise,” said Seyos. “Mercy must be earned.”

“I don’t think they’d agree to that,” said Hector.

“Neither do I,” said Seyos.

And there was silence again.

Seyos readied himself beneath the Deceiver’s Cloak. Within its billowing and distorted visage, he was able to hold many more items than he would have otherwise been able to carry. He reached first for the item which had subdued Diego, the Orb of Tranquility.

There existed no better tool for dealing with servants. Ever confident in their power, they never saw it coming, this item which could suppress the synchronicity of their soul with that of their reaper. As soon as a servant laid eyes on it, the Orb rendered them no better than the corpse that they truly were.

And would it be here. As soon as this Hector looked at the Orb...

As soon as he looked at it...

Hector would be...

What?

Seyos didn’t understand. He’d presented the Orb. Hector was staring right at it, and yet he was still standing there, unfazed.

How could--?

Agh...

The Supreme Will.

It played a role here, too?

How intolerably obnoxious.

“What’s that?” said Hector plainly, as if trying to kill Seyos with irritation alone.

“Nothing,” growled Seyos. He returned the Orb to the Cloak and began deliberating.

The Fists of Enkir. The Shield of Hamenszoon. The Twin Blades of Boros. The Mask of Amordiin. The Deceiver’s Dagger. The Deceiver’s Eye. The Black Spindle. The Box of Perdition.

Ugh...

The Orb of Tranquility had been ideal precisely because of how innocuous it appeared. The other items he had to choose from were not nearly so. As soon as he pulled one of them out and began using it, Hector would realize something was wrong and no doubt mount some sort of counteroffensive.

And that would be most undesirable.

Seyos had not survived all this time by actually bothering to fight servants. They were far too troublesome for that.

But Seyos did have something else up his sleeve--or rather, around his neck.

The Pendant of Unso, though it was meant to be used in conjunction with the Staff of Unso, was still far from useless on its own. And Malast did say that there were no other rules to this tournament, so there was no reason he couldn’t use it.

Very well.

“Pardon me for one moment,” said Seyos. He gripped the Pendant with one hand and focused on the desired room. “I will return shortly with a gift.”

“Wha--?”

Distorted space enveloped him, and Seyos closed his eyes to mitigate the disorientation.

In an instant, he arrived precisely where he meant to.

His home for the last millennia.

It was far from the life of luxury that he had enjoyed during his time as Guong before the Great Fall, but he had come to hold affection for this place, in a strange way. The feeling of safety was comforting enough.

And the mirrors. The many, many mirrors.

Page 1545 -- CLXVI.

((The 14 pages of Valentine's Day + Double Wednesday -- Page 13 of 16))
Chapter One Hundred Sixty-Six: ‘The Unworthy...’
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The booming, disembodied voice of Malast arrived before the fighting had a chance to begin.

“This will be a three way battle,” said the Idle God. “The third combatant is still being decided, so the two of you may prefer to wait for him to arrive in the interest of fairness. Or you can simply get started without him. It is your choice.”

A third combatant?

Ah. That would explain why Malast had chosen the Chamber of Grand Desire as their battlefield. It was much larger than most of the Vault’s other treasure rooms. Even after all this time, Seyos was still nowhere near filling it. He had hoped to remedy that during his next venture to Qenghis, but that was before Ettol had arrived and thrown everything out of balance.

For a time, Seyos and Hector merely looked at one another, not saying or doing anything.

Seyos knew more than the surface-dweller probably realized. He had been observing the invaders since their arrival in Himmekel. It had been his hope that they would simply leave without incident, but that was not to be, it seemed. Foolishness on his part, he now realized. He should have known that their claims of arriving here accidentally were lies. Of course they were here for his treasure.

This, too, was Ettol’s doing, he knew. That insufferable wretch. No doubt, this was the man’s true goal all along--to bring outsiders here, attempting to stir the Idle God to action.

It wasn’t going to work. Seyos wouldn’t allow it. Supreme Will or not, these meddlers were not going to simply show up and take that which rightfully belonged to him.

Especially not that ashen filth.

How could Malast possibly consider one of them to be a suitable vessel for Secho? It beggared belief. Surely, Malast had not forgotten what they had done, the misery that they were responsible for.

At length, Seyos could endure the tense silence no longer. “You should never have come here,” he said.

“...I don’t want to fight you,” said Hector.

“Hah!” He pointed at the mace in the young man’s hand. “And yet you steal the Moon’s Wrath from me!”

Hector glanced at the weapon a moment. “...Aren’t you the one who’s been stealing?”

Seyos scowled. “All such technology is derived from the knowledge pioneered by my brethren. That you would not understand this, is sadly to be expected.”

“...Okay, so if I give you this thing right now, you’ll stop trying to kill me and my friends?”

Those words took Seyos by surprise, but they sounded genuine. But no. It was just another trick, of course. Seyos knew better. “I did not expect you to say something so cowardly, but you are right to fear me.”

Hector made no response.

Seyos found that irritating. “If you surrender now and return the Moon’s Wrath, I will show you mercy. I promise to spare the lives of both you and your reaper.”

Page 1544

((The 14 pages of Valentine's Day + Double Wednesday -- Page 12 of 16))
“We tried to tell the children that those who have disappeared simply chose to leave Himmekel on their own,” said Torveis, “but it seems they have stopped believing us. Assuming they ever did.”

“They are far smarter than we have ever given them credit for,” said Lemoros. “It was a mistake to lie to them.”

Torveis shook his head. “It was undesirable and even heart-wrenching, but it was not a mistake. If Seyos discovered that we had told them about him--”

“He would do, what?” said Lemoros, sounding more frustrated than Zeff had yet heard from any Hun’Sho. “Abduct them? As he is doing now? We should have done more to prepare them. Our inaction is to blame.”

You’ve been Seyos’ prisoners here for a thousand years, no?’ said Ax.

“Roughly, yes,” said Torveis.

Yet you said that these abductions started only recently. What prompted them?

The Hun’Sho exchanged glances again.

“The arrival of Ettol and Carver, no doubt,” said Lemoros. “Seyos has always been rather forceful and demanding, but he never harmed any of us, as he appears to be doing now. I do not know what has come over him or why.”

“I do,” said Torveis, causing everyone to look at him. “Or at the very least, I can guess. I believe Seyos may be trying to instigate the return of Avar in some way.”

“What makes you think that?” said Lemoros.

“Avar heralds our return to prominence,” said Torveis. “And Himmekel is not the only enclave of the Hun’Sho in the world. We know that Seyos has been in contact with others. It would make sense if that--or something similar--was their goal.”

So there were more Hun’Sho hiding elsewhere. That was news to Zeff. They had gotten away from the topic he actually cared about, however. “I need to know how to find this Seyos.”

Torveis sighed. “I am sorry, but I do not know. Seyos comes to us at his leisure.”

“You said he uses mirrors to travel,” said Zeff.

“Yes, but we have tried many times to discern the method of their function,” said Lemoros. “To no avail.”

“Truly, we would help you in this if we could,” said Torveis. “It would very much be in our interest if you were to bring Seyos’ reign here to an end. His power is beyond us, but perhaps it is not beyond you.”

Then take us to the rest of the elders,’ said Ax. ‘Perhaps one of them will know something that can help us.

The Hun’Sho exchanged looks another time.

“Very well,” said Torveis. “But we must be exceptionally cautious. There is no telling when Seyos might be observing us.”

Zeff scowled and rubbed his knuckles. “It would be more convenient if he attacked us first.”

“I am glad you are confident in your abilities,” said Torveis, “but please, do be careful. Seyos likely wields power that is stranger than anything you have ever seen.”

Zeff returned a flat stare. “I wouldn’t bet on that, if I were you.”

Page 1543

((The 14 pages of Valentine's Day + Double Wednesday -- Page 11 of 16))
The Hun’Sho outside the dome were just standing there, watching. Not trying to break in and rescue their friend, as Zeff might have assumed. They started backing away when they saw Zeff looking over them again.

He annihilated the dome and watched the majority of them scatter.

Which one’s Torveis?’ he asked.

Straight ahead of you, not moving,’ said Ax privately.

Zeff saw him. He appreciated that the man wasn’t making him chase him down, at least. “Explain yourself, ‘Elder’ Torveis.”

Torveis sighed but stood his ground as Zeff approached. “We are a peaceful people. Why must you resort to violence?”

“Why must you lie to my face?”

“You do not understand.”

“I know. That is what I am trying to correct.”

Torveis shut his eyes, though the glow still shown through a little. “We would have been happy to explain, if you had simply allowed us privacy, first. This is a sensitive matter, one we wish the children not to overhear.”

And in spite of his bristling emotions, Zeff could understand that much, at least. “You have my apologies, then.” He could only manage to sound half-sincere, though.

Torveis sighed again. “We are prisoners in this place. And our keeper, Seyos, is ever watchful. Even now, he may be listening. However, as I am still standing here, perhaps he is not.”

Zeff just kept listening.

“Seyos wields tremendous power, and we are at his mercy. But that is not enough for him. He often gives us tasks to complete for him. He transports us to distant locations--sometimes with him, sometimes not--and forces us to aid him in collecting valuables. By now, it must be an absurd volume, but I do not know where he keeps it all or to what end he means to utilize it. I imagine, however, that wherever it is, you will find your kin there.”

Zeff was silent as he processed all of this information.

You have no idea how we can get there?’ said Ax, still attached to Zeff’s back.

“I know that Seyos can see and travel through every mirror in Himmekel, but I do not think he is limited to that. I think it is merely the most convenient for him.”

“None of this explains why that Hun’Sho man laughed at us,” said Zeff.

Torveis hesitated and looked around. The black street had emptied, and only the tall Lemoros had remained by Torveis’ side. The two elder Hun’Sho exchanged nods.

“The children do not know of Seyos,” said Torveis. “And in recent years... Seyos has stopped giving tasks to the elders. He has been giving them to the children. And... they have not been returning.”

Zeff’s eyes widened.

Your children have been disappearing?’ said Ax.

Lemoros interjected. “We do not truly know that he has been giving them the same manner of tasks that he had been giving us. We have only been assuming that, as it seemed the most obvious explanation. But... as not even one of them has returned, I have begun to suspect that Seyos is doing something else with them.”

Page 1542

((The 14 pages of Valentine's Day + Double Wednesday -- Page 10 of 16))
One of the Hun’Sho to Zeff’s right stepped forward. “Please calm yourself, Mr. Zeff.”

Zeff recognized the voice but not the face, as they all looked more or less the same to him. “Torveis?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me what is happening here,” said Zeff, able to steady his voice somewhat. “Where are my people, Torveis?”

“Mr. Zeff, you ask more than you realize...”

Zeff didn’t know what that meant, and he didn’t care, either. “I ask only what is necessary. If you cannot help me, then stand aside.”

Torveis stepped closer and reached out to him.

A wall of soul-strengthened ice shot up between them. “BACK. AWAY.”

Torveis did. A chorus of mumbles and whispers rose from the onlookers.

Zeff refocused on the direction that the laugh had originated from. “One of you will answer my questions.”

And again, there was silence.

Fine, then.

Hold on, Ax,” said Zeff.

The reaper latched onto his back without hesitating.

Zeff picked the first Hun’Sho in front of him and walked forward. He coated his own hand in a gauntlet of ice and grabbed the man by the molten neck. “Allow me to ask again. Where are my--?”

Someone in the back row started running away.

Zeff released his chosen Hun’Sho and launched himself over the crowd on a platform of hissing ice. The runner didn’t get far. Zeff landed on him and pinned him to the ground with both bare hands and ice alike.

“Where were you going?” he said, much calmer now that he had his target within his grasp.

The other Hun’Sho were yelling something now, but Zeff wasn’t listening. He materialized a dome around himself and his captive.

“S-stop!” the Hun’Sho man said. “I know nothing!”

“Tell me what you do know, then. Why did you laugh at us?”

“I--! I wasn’t--! I know nothing!”

Zeff tightened his grip on the back of the man’s neck.

You should dig into his chest and go for his core,’ advised Ax privately. ‘His heart, in other words.

Zeff paused at that. ‘He won’t be useful if he is dead, Ax.

He will not die unless you destroy his core. These people are very durable.

That was good enough for Zeff. He ripped into the Hun’Sho man’s back with a blade of ice and started rifling around.

“Ah! Stop! Don’t do that! I know nothing that you--!”

Zeff’s hand found a very warm sphere, and he knew it was what was he looking for when the Hun’Sho man released an inhuman scream as soon as Zeff had touched it.

“Answer my questions.”

“The elders! They have been lying to the rest of us! That is all I know!”

Well, that was new, at least. “Who are these elders?”

“Ah--oh! Lemoros and Torveis are elders! And Arsok! And Meigast! Hermeios! And--!”

“That is good enough.” Zeff stood and released him.

Page 1541

((The 14 pages of Valentine's Day + Double Wednesday -- Page 9 of 16))
Zeff and Axiolis visited the last place where Axiolis had sensed them, which turned out to be some kind of empty moat around a stone monument. But without any idea of what to look for or visible traces of where they might have gone, Zeff soon started consulting the Hun’Sho for information.

At first, he’d been polite. Then he’d gotten steadily more assertive.

Now he was angry and looking for Torveis, the Hun’Sho who had spoken to the group the most during their first day in Himmekel.

A different Hun’Sho approached him first, however. It was a physically brighter and larger man, hands held out in front of him as an apparent sign of peaceable intention.

“Please,” the molten man said, “you are scaring my people, Kare’Hyomen.”

Zeff’s expression twitched. ‘What did he just call me?

It’s not an insult,’ said Ax. ‘It’s their name for those from the surface. The same way that Hun’Sho is our name for them.

And it took concentrated effort, but Zeff tried to steady himself. He had no proof of their guilt. And he knew that treating them like criminals would not aid him in acquiring their assistance.

Willingly, anyway.

“I apologize if I have been causing you alarm,” said Zeff with a stiff jaw, noticing that more Hun’Sho were gathering around them. “But my kin are missing, and I must find them as soon as possible. Can you help me?”

“I will do all I can. My name is Lemoros. Might I ask yours?”

“Zeff.”

“Then, Zeff, let us go somewhere more private and speak there.”

“Let us not. Let us speak right here, right now.”

That was obviously not what Lemoros wanted to hear, and the Hun’Sho man looked around at the open street and increasing amount of onlookers.

Zeff just tried not to feel like they were gathering around to lynch him. “If you have any idea where they might have gone, please stop wasting my time and tell me.” Then, more loudly, he addressed the crowd “That goes for all of you. If you have anything to tell me, anything that might help me find my kin, then do so now, and I will leave you alone.”

Please,’ Ax added, ‘we are very worried about them. They are as precious to us as I am sure all of you are to one another.

Someone laughed.

Zeff’s attention was drawn instantly. “Who was that?” he said. The voice had come from his left. He knew that much and took a step toward it. “Who laughed just now?”

Dead silence.

“Who laughed?!” he growled, no longer in control of his anger.

“Please, Mr. Zeff--” tried Lemoros.

“Step forward now or be hunted down!” said Zeff, taking another step.

The crowd was perfectly still now. Beings of magma, frozen. Not even daring to look at one another, apparently. And why weren’t they? Weren’t they confused? He couldn’t read Hun’Sho expressions and so didn’t know if they were frightened, but surely, they should have looking around at one another in confusion, no?

Was it because none of them were confused? Was it because they all knew exactly what was happening here?

Page 1540 -- CLXV.

((The 14 pages of Valentine's Day + Double Wednesday -- Page 8 of 16))
There seemed to be a pile of coins and stones in Mr. Sheridan’s bag now, but the man’s hand indeed wrapped around the grip of a pistol. He didn’t pull it out yet, though.

Still, Hector wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the man was worried that Hector would betray him for the sake of the tournament and was therefore preparing to defend himself at a moment’s notice.

But after a couple more steps, when Mr. Sheridan began lifting the weapon up to point it at Hector’s back, that was as far as the young Lord Goffe’s courtesy extended.

Hector bricked the pistol in iron, encasing Mr. Sheridan’s hand along with it.

“Oh--what?! Ah--hey!”

Hector finally turned to look at him.

Mr. Sheridan stopped flailing when he noticed Hector’s stare. “Aha... I, ah...”

Hector didn’t say anything. He wanted to hear what the man was going to say for himself.

“Ah... eh... I’m sorry, Lord Darksteel. Please don’t kill me.”

Hector sighed. “Why were you about to attack me?”

“Oh, um, well, y’know, you guys’re pretty hardy, ‘n I knew you wouldn’t actually die, so I just thought, maybe, ah... ooh, I’m really very sorry.”

“You want to win this tournament and become a god?” said Hector.

“I... I thought it might be nice, yes. But I see now the error of--”

“You weren’t worried that your next opponent might just kill you in an instant?”

“Oh, well, I-I suppose I figured that if I could eliminate you, then the others would be smooth sailing by comparison.”

“That doesn’t make any sense at all.”

“Heh, please don’t kill me.”

“I’m not gonna--” Hector stopped himself. Obviously, he wasn’t going to kill him. But it could be a problem if Mr. Sheridan became genuinely convinced of that. He recalled the only rule of this tournament as Malast had described it. Victory was achieved when the opponent died or surrendered. “Mr. Sheridan... do you admit defeat?”

“Oh! Yes, of course! I happily surrender!”

Well, that was one less thing to worry about, at least. When the distortion in his vision began to arrive, he made sure to annihilate the iron around Mr. Sheridan’s hand and weapon.

The next room was noticeably larger than the last two, almost on par with the one that they’d found Malast in.

That was not Malast standing in front of him now, though.

That was Seyos.


Chapter One Hundred Sixty-Five: ‘O, disgruntled lord...’
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The Hun’Sho didn’t seem to appreciate him stomping through Himmekel, but Zeff was far beyond the point of catering to their sensitivities.

When Axiolis had told him that everyone else’s souls had simply vanished into thin air, the Lord Elroy had not been pleased. His time spent trying to get Carver’s damn EWE to work had been frustrating enough, but now this?

He honestly wasn’t sure what he would do if he discovered that these molten bastards had done something to Hector and the others.

Page 1539

((The 14 pages of Valentine's Day + Double Wednesday -- Page 7 of 16))
This certainly explains how Amordiin was able to kidnap the princess of Vantalay without being detected,’ said Garovel. ‘He could sense where all the guards were and stay out of their line of sight.

If he’d had a reaper looking out for him, he could’ve done that without the scarf.

Heh. True. But still, the Scarf of Amordiin is perfect for you. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say it’s an ideal tool for any materialization user.

Hector could see what he meant. This thing increased his spatial awareness by leaps and bounds. He was already getting a few ideas about how he might be able to put that to use. He eyed the Shifting Spear of Logante another time, still in its sword form. ‘Well, one out of two isn’t bad, I guess. How do I make this thing small again?

Say “Shrokoh.”

“Shrokoh.”

The sword compressed in an instant and became a quaint little spear again. Hector pressed it against his breastplate and remolded his armor around it, creating an inner pocket for it to comfortably nestle within.

Oh, so you’re gonna take the Spear, after all, eh?

Might as well,’ said Hector. ‘It’s pretty light. And I was thinking Mr. Easton might be able to get some good use out of it. Maybe. He seemed like more of a gun guy, though, so I don’t know.

What’s that other item you’ve got there?’ said Garovel. ‘Another weapon? Let me have a closer look.

Hector held the flanged mace up for the reaper’s inspection. ‘Well?

Curious... I don’t sense any ardor in it. It doesn’t seem particularly special. But at the same time... I don’t know. It’s almost like it’s too normal.

What does that mean?

It’s hard to describe. It feels like... there’s nothing special about it but maybe there’s supposed to be. Like it’s empty, somehow. Is it hollow inside?

Hector raised it up and down, checking its weight again. ‘No way. If anything, it’s heavier than it looks.

I’m not sure how else to explain it, then.

Hmm. You sure you don’t recognize it?

Nope.

So it doesn’t have a cool name or anything, then?

Maybe it does, but I don’t know it. We could name it ourselves, if you like.

Hector’s shoulders slumped a little. ‘Eh, it’s not the same...

Abruptly, Hector sensed Mr. Sheridan approaching but didn’t turn to face the man.

Heads up,’ said Garovel.

I know,’ said Hector, keeping his eyes forward.

Mr. Sheridan’s steps were abnormally slow. Measured. Careful. As if he didn’t want Hector to hear him coming, perhaps.

Hector didn’t want to believe that. He wanted to believe Mr. Sheridan was every bit as friendly and trustworthy as he’d thus far acted. But Hector also wanted to get a measure of the man’s true character. So he didn’t turn around.

And then he sensed Mr. Sheridan reach for one of the guns in his bag.

Hector,’ said Garovel.

I know,’ he repeated.