Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Five: ‘Thy temperate descent...’

Hector felt like some kind of robot in this thing. And not a cool robot, either. A robot that could barely move or function at all, was his impression.


Agh, this shit is so heavy,’ he thought.


That’s because you’re basically wearing a refrigerator on your back,’ said Garovel.


Sounded about right. ‘How are the non-servants supposed to move around in these suits?’ Hector asked.


They’re not,’ the reaper said. ‘Their suits are much newer and lighter. But the Sandlords don’t have enough for everyone. So you get the old and shitty one.




Heh. Be thankful you get a suit at all. At least you’ll get to see the Undercrust this way.


Hector tried to stand up, but the bulky suit resisted too much, and he just kind of settled awkwardly back down. He eyed Garovel through the visor in his helmet.


Just think of it as training. Like you’re wearing heavy armor. And building muscle mass.


Does muscle mass even matter for servants?


Kinda. If you arm wrestled Dimas, for instance, and you both were using your super human strength, he’d probably still beat you, ‘cuz he has more natural muscle mass.


Huh...’ A weird example, sure, but Hector hadn’t thought about it that way before. He’d been under the impression that doing push ups and stuff like that was a complete waste of time, but he supposed now that it wasn’t. He’d have to remember that whenever he found time to train again.


He looked over to the other side of the room and saw the huge containers being carted in. Climate-controlled pods, Hector knew. Garovel had told him about them earlier. With so many non-servants needing to the make trip through the Undercrust, some would have to do so in medically-induced comas, packed together in cooling chambers like sardines.


Simply getting everyone down into the Undercrust was going to take a while, Hector had learned. The passage was identical to the one in Warrenhold--the only difference being that the Sandlords had built a working elevator for theirs.


A simple enough idea, certainly, but Garovel made it quite clear what an impressive technological feat it was. The sheer distance the elevator needed to travel was problematic enough, but the added complexities of tectonic movement and regular maintenance meant that Hector shouldn’t get too eager to build one at Warrenhold.


Even with the elevator, however, several days would be needed for all the Rainlords to make the trip. The hole was simply not wide enough for more than a handful of people to go down at once.


As Hector understood it, the elevator had been carrying people down practically nonstop since the Rainlords arrived at the Swallow’s Nest. And being that Hector and Garovel hadn’t gotten here until a few days afterward, much of their traveling party was already waiting for them down there.


Hector boarded the elevator as soon as it returned, sharing it with the Najirs. It wasn’t exactly spacious, especially in this refrigerator suit, but at least there was a place to sit. And light.


A kind of grinding hum filled Hector’s ears as the elevator shifted and began moving. The noise was a bit faint, though probably muffled by his suit, he figured.


This trip down was going to take six hours, according to Qorvass. And apparently, that was considered quick.


Hector was surprised to see that Jada wasn’t wearing a suit like he was. Asad and Imas, sure, but Jada, too? He wondered how old she was as a servant.


Well, if nothing else, at least he’d have plenty of time to pester Garovel with questions. He tried to remember all the different ones he’d been meaning to ask.


So how old do I need to be in order to not need this suit?’ Hector asked. ‘As a servant, I mean.


Bare minimum?’ said Garovel. ‘Eight years. Your passive soul defense would be strong enough to protect you from all the heat, though you’d still be sweating like a dog. Which doesn’t make sense, because dogs don’t sweat. They primarily use their tongues in order to cool off. Point is, though, you’d still be uncomfortable, even at eight years old.


Thank you for shoehorning that extra bit of trivia in there.


Well, if you’re not laughing, you’re learning. Win-win, right?


Yeah, but I was already--whatever. Is there anything else I should know about the Undercrust before we get down there?


Oh-ho yeah,’ said Garovel, all but laughing.


Hector waited. ‘...Well?




Garovel, don’t be an asshole!


Alright, alright. I was about to bring this up anyway. Ever heard of something called a feldeath?


A what?


Feldeath. As in, a death that’s... fel.


What are you even saying, right now?


You would’ve heard of it in myths and legends, if at all.’


Doesn’t ring a bell,’ said Hector.


Mm. Well, there’s a moderate chance that we’ll run into one, so I should probably warn you so that you don’t shit your pants.


...Why would I do that?


Because they’re some of the most dangerous and terrifying beings in existence.


Oh, is that all?


Bit of background is probably needed here,’ said Garovel. ‘So you know how, after a normal person dies, their soul is removed from their body and begins to degrade over time?


Uh, yeah? I think. I remember you saying something about the soul becoming a prison of agony within a couple days.


Ah, good memory,’ said Garovel. ‘Technically, I said “raw agony,” but that’s neither here nor there. The point I’m getting at is that souls have power. As you’ve seen. Many times now. And over the course of human history, an absolutely RIDICULOUS amount of people have died. Each one leaving a soul behind, a little packet of power. And even with all the reapers in the world--try as we might--sometimes, we miss them.


I think I see where this is going...


Mmhmm. Now, if we miss a few souls here and there, nothing happens. It’s very sad and unfortunate, of course, because those souls are left to suffer constantly until one of us finally stumbles onto them, but beyond that, there aren’t any “real world” consequences, as it were.




But, let’s say... an entire town gets wiped out. And let’s also say that no reaper finds them for, maybe, a decade or two. Or a century, even. All those souls just sit there. All that power. Think for a second about the potential there. A reaper and a servant together, only TWO souls--but given long enough to synchronize? Those two can become virtually unstoppable.




Over time, even without a reaper to bind them, all those souls together will coalesce. It’ll become like a melting pot, cooking by the heat of that same “raw agony” that I mentioned before. Their shared suffering gradually fuses them together. And that is how a feldeath is born.




Now, a whole town being obliterated and then completely forgotten, even by reapers? Historically, that is a rare occurrence. At least, on the surface world, it is. There’ve only ever been a handful of feldeaths on the surface, which is why they’re regarded as largely mythical up there. But in the Undercrust... not so much.


Why’s that?


In the past, there were a lot of isolated places in the Undercrust. Communication and traveling were so difficult that people just didn’t do them. In fact, I’m sure that’s still the case, to a large extent. Advancing technologies make it easier and easier, but still. We’re talking about solid rock that is so thick, a man could spend his entire life trying to tunnel through to the other side and still die of old age before he gets there. And what happens when there’s a cave-in? Which is a frequent occurrence, by the way.


So you’re saying the Undercrust is a breeding ground for these feldeath things?


Sadly, yes. By now, I imagine there must be tens of thousands of them down there.


How... uh... how dangerous are they, exactly?


Depends on how many souls they were born from and how old they are,’ said Garovel. ‘But, broadly speaking, if you happen to see one, and your name’s not Sermung, you should probably just run.


Seriously? They’re that strong?


Potentially, yeah. And since there’s no real way to gauge their strength until you’re neck-deep into a fight with one, running is the preferred solution. But there is some good news.


Really? Are some of them friendly?


Garovel laughed. And then kept laughing. ‘Ah... no.




The good news is that they’re only REALLY dangerous if you piss them off.


What does that mean?


It means don’t piss them off.


Yeah, I got that. I meant, more like... how do I avoid pissing them off?


Well, don’t attack them.


Wasn’t really planning on it.


Also, don’t be named Hector. They hate that.




No, they like Garovels just fine.


Please stop.


Ask me a good question, and maybe I will.


Agh. Alright. So... as long as we don’t attack these feldeath things first, they’ll leave us alone?


No no no. If they sense us, they’ll try to kill the shit out of us. But they’ll only half-ass it, is the thing.


You’ve lost me.


The thing about feldeaths is that, as long as you don’t antagonize them, they’ll only take a swat at you. Like how a dog snaps at flies buzzing around its head. That’s pretty much how feldeaths see us, I’d wager. Annoying bugs.




They’re actually kind of animalistic, in many ways. Even though they’re arguably the deadliest creatures in the world, they’re not necessarily a big threat to humanity.


They aren’t? But couldn’t they just waltz into a city and kill everyone?


They could, and that’s what everyone worries about, but historically speaking, that’s an exceptionally rare occurrence.


It is? Why?


Well, for one thing, they tend not to wander around very much. They just kinda hang out in their own territory. And annihilate anyone that gets close.




Unfortunately, their territories can be pretty enormous. These days, though, Sai-hee famously devotes a lot of resources to keeping track of feldeath movements and protecting cities from them. The Vanguard helps out quite a bit, too--oftentimes, Sermung himself, as I understand it.


Hector couldn’t even imagine what a fight between a feldeath and an emperor-level servant would look like. ‘Geez...


Anyway, the takeaway from all this, is that you don’t want to attack a feldeath, even if you’re doing it defensively. Because that’ll make it mad at you, and if it gets mad at you, it’ll chase you. And you never wanna be chased by a feldeath. Ever.


Are they super fast or something?


Yes. But also, they don’t give up. They’ll chase you to the other side of the planet, if they have to.


Hmm.’ Hector paused, thinking. ‘That’s weird.


What is?’ said Garovel.


Well, uh... I mean, if you get far enough away, shouldn’t they give up? Like, once you’re out of their... sensing range... or whatever? They wouldn’t know where you are anymore, right? So how could they keep chasing you if they don’t know where to go?


I think the problem with that is their “sensing range,” as you put it,’ said Garovel. ‘Once they memorize your soul, they’ll be able to track you no matter where you go.


Hector paused again. ‘No, that doesn’t make sense.


Garovel gave him a look. ‘What do you mean?


Well, earlier, you said that if they sense us, they’ll try to kill us. So if their sensing range is like half the planet, then they should always be sensing tons of people.


No, when I said that, I meant “sensing us within their territory.” I’m sure their ability to sense souls goes beyond just their chosen territory. The fact that they usually keep away from cities is pretty strong evidence.


If that’s what you mean, then that’s what you should’ve said. How am I supposed to understand all these explanations that you love so much if you don’t say what you mean?


Alright, Captain Pedantry, calm down. I apologize.


Apology not accepted.


Wow, Hector.


Hector could feel the vigor wearing off. He’d needed it just to get inside the elevator. He was beginning to notice, however, that whenever the vigor wore off, it didn’t leave him feeling quite so exhausted as it used to. Perhaps his body was finally getting accustomed to it. Frankly, he thought it never would.


A different question popped into his head. ‘So, uh... are there any other terrible hellbeasts of the Undercrust that I should know about?


Oh, definitely. A couple are even comparable to feldeaths, actually.


Are you serious? Like what?


Golems, for one. Rock beasts.


The fuck is a rock beast?


Exactly what it sounds like. A big ass monster made of solid rock.


Like a bunch of rocks held together by a soul?


No, they don’t have souls.’ Garovel paused for a pensive expression. ‘Or at least, not really.


Then, how the--?’ Hector needed a second to locate the question he wanted. ‘What? How are they alive, then?


They’ve got something that functions like a soul, at least for them. We call it “ardor.” Or “the planet force.” Because that’s where it comes from. It’s like a normal human soul, except MUCH more powerful.


Hector’s eyes widened as he let his imagination run with these ideas. ‘...I feel like you should’ve told me all this a long time ago.


Eh. What would’ve been the point?


I... well, I mean...’ He couldn’t find the words.


Anyway, golems are very strong. They’re pretty docile, though, so we generally don’t need to worry about them. In fact, occasionally, they’ve been known to protect humans.


For real?


Yep. But you know what we DO need to worry about? Worms.


Hector cocked an eyebrow inside his suit. ‘Worms?


Ugh. Worms are the worst. They have ardor, too, and they are definitely NOT friendly.


...Worms, though? How can a worm be dangerous?


Oh, you innocent child. Worms on the surface are harmless. The worst you’ve got are parasitic ones--which, admittedly, are not fun. But in the Undercrust... oh... Thankfully, the really big ones are rare.


Hector was almost afraid to ask. ‘How big are we talking, here?


Garovel paused, perhaps thinking it over. ‘What’s the biggest animal you know of?


Uh... elephant?


Bigger than that.


No, wait, uh. Blue whale.


Bigger than that. Well, longer, anyway. Maybe not heavier. Yeah, a blue whale is a decent comparison. They’re similar sizes.


How is that possible?’ said Hector. ‘I mean, what do they eat?






Including people and reapers.




Oh, and it gets better. Some can generate electrical currents so strong that they can barf lightning at you. Or acid. Or lightning AND acid--which can combust. And their bodies are all squishy and slimy and tough as hell, due to the ardor.


Okay, so then... between these worms and feldeaths, which is worse?


Worms, no question,’ said Garovel. ‘Like I said, unless you piss them off, feldeaths will just take a swipe at you as you pass. Dangerous, sure, but you can just run. Worms, though--those motherfuckers will chase you. And they’re not slow. They’ve been known to steamroll through entire cities, just eating everything.


Hmm. But in terms of, like, power level or whatever--aren’t feldeaths stronger than worms?


Not necessarily. The strongest worms could fight a feldeath no problem. But they’re incredibly rare--or at least, they were. I suppose they could be extinct by now, but I kinda doubt it.




Y’know, killing worms was how Sermung got really famous,’ said Garovel. ‘Originally, that is.


Hector blinked.


You see, the previous leader of the Vanguard was killed by a worm--arguably the most dangerous one that has ever lived. I remember, they called it Nla Erujeje. “The Great Terror.” By this point, Sermung had already made a name for himself as a worm slayer, but in those days, there were many such warriors. And besides, this was something else. This was another level. The beast that had killed the most powerful servant in the world? Everyone in the Undercrust lived in fear of that thing. Renowned warrior after renowned warrior fell to it, and the beast only grew stronger each time.


Wow... you mean, it could, like, absorb their powers or something?


More or less, yeah. That’s what makes worms really dangerous. The big ones, anyway. The slime covering their bodies is like a nasty glue that slowly digests anything that gets stuck in it, allowing the worm to absorb whatever it touches into its body.


That... sounds horrible.


It is.


And Sermung killed the strongest one ever?’ Hector asked.


That, he did.’ A beat passed, and then Garovel added, ‘Arguably the strongest one ever, that is.


Hector hesitated with his next question. ‘Is there... like, a similarly strong one that’s still alive?


Not as far as I know,’ said Garovel.


That didn’t sound as conclusive as Hector would’ve liked.


If one like that did exist, I have to imagine that either Abolish or the Vanguard would’ve launched a campaign to kill it. But you never know.


Wait, Abolish fights them, too?


Oh yeah. Morgunov and Dozer have both been known to hunt worms.


Why would they bother? Aren’t worms basically doing their job for them?


I can’t pretend to fully understand their motivations, either,’ Garovel admitted. ‘But it’s not so unthinkable that Abolish would want to protect its own interests. Worms don’t exactly pick sides, and you can’t fight a war very well when a giant slime monster is flattening your fortresses and devouring your resources.


I guess that makes sense.


Plus, I bet they want to study them. As far as mad scientists go, Morgunov is right up there at the top. Or so I’ve heard.


Hector gave a grim frown. ‘You’re just full of comforting thoughts, today.


Also, some worms leave trails of toxic sludge behind, rendering places completely uninhabitable for decades.




Alright, fine, you want comfort? I saw a golem kick the shit out of a worm, once. It was awesome.


Really? You saw it happen? And you’re not lying to me like an asshole?


Yes, really. The golem was protecting a little village. And that same little village went on to become a big center for tourism. The people there took the dried husk of the worm and turned it into a monument. The golem stuck around, too, and kept on protecting everyone there.


That’s amazing.


See? I can offer comfort.


I appreciate it.


Abruptly, Hector realized he was sweating. The increase in temperature had been gradual enough that it snuck up on him, and he was suddenly reminded of why he was wearing this cumbersome suit.


Should I turn this thing on?’ Hector asked.


Yeah, go ahead,’ said Garovel.


Hector flipped the series of switches on his chest and then hit the button in the center. The cooling unit on his back roared to life, loud enough that Hector nearly jumped, and after a few moments it settled into an only slightly quieter hum, like a wild dog growling endlessly behind him.


It worked, though. Boy, did it work. It felt like he’d been dunked in ice water. Quite the relief, at first, but soon, he decided to turn the knob on his stomach a couple times. The temperature in the suit gradually balanced to a comfortable level.


When the elevator finally began to slow down, Garovel invoked the vigor so that Hector could actually stand up again.


The elevator eased to a crawl, then jostled into a dead stop. The half-circular doors slid open, and Hector saw a crowd of earlier arrivals. Hector and the others exited and joined the mass of waiting Rainlords.


His suit garnered its fair share of attention. He could tell that the noise was disrupting a few conversations, so he tried to put some distance between himself and everyone else.


Garovel followed, of course. ‘This feels familiar,’ the reaper said privately, though with a hint of laughter.


What do you mean?,’ said Hector.


You all on your own while the other kids are having fun.’


Hector found a conspicuously bench-shaped rock and clunkily sat down.


Sorry,’ the reaper said. ‘If I’d realized this would happen, I might not’ve agreed to have you wear this thing.


I think I’ll be fine, Garovel.


Oh, is that so? Well, look at you, Mr. Well-Adjusted.


Hector snorted a quiet laugh. ‘Shut up.


I liked you better when you could barely even speak to people.


Hector shook his head. ‘What?


You heard me. In fact, you should try to channel that old part of yourself, from time to time--so that you don’t forget how to do it, I mean.


What are you even saying, right now? I honestly have no idea.


Hector, listen to me. That old shyness of yours could come in very handy, one day.


Hector just blinked, incredulous. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever heard anything so stupid in his entire life.


Don’t look at me like that. Hector, that meek persona could be used to trick people.


What?’ he said again.


You could use it strategically,’ said Garovel. ‘Think about it. You could intentionally give certain people the wrong impression. Make them think that you don’t know what you’re doing, that you’re incompetent, that you’re not a threat. Make them underestimate you, in other words.


...Y’know, usually, I can tell when you’re joking. But now, I’m just confused.


Hector, don’t you see? If you could but learn to harness the power of shyness within you, then you and I could rule this gullible world.


Okay, Garovel. Please shut the fuck up now.


The reaper laughed. ‘I’m only half-joking. A part of me is convinced that it would work. If you hone your acting skills, that is.


Excuse me? It’s not an act that I can just do! I was never acting!


I’m not saying you ever were. But you could take that experience and turn it into an act, is the idea. And then we could use it to trick people.


A part of Hector wanted to get genuinely upset at Garovel. It was still a sore spot for him, to be sure, but he knew the reaper didn’t mean anything ill by it. So instead, Hector merely sighed. ‘I don’t want to trick people, Garovel.


Excuse ME?’ the reaper said. ‘You don’t want to trick people? YOU? The guy who tricked the Salesman of Death into sparing hundreds of Rainlords?


Hector opened his mouth to argue, only to realize that he couldn’t.


Oh, I get it,’ said Garovel. ‘You’re trying to trick ME now. Well, it won’t work! I’m too smart!


That’s not--I don’t--’ Hector didn’t have the words and just ended up laughing.


Don’t play games with me, young man.


I’m not, uh--I mean, ah... aha... I don’t know what to tell you...




An awkward silence arrived.


Hector wasn’t sure how to articulate what he wanted to say. He’d already told Garovel that the whole deal with the Salesman had felt like some kind of crazy fever dream, but he didn’t know what else to say beyond that. And Garovel was as much in the dark about it as he was, apparently.


The prolonged quiet brought Hector’s mind back to Rasalased, to what the ancient Sandlord had done to him. “Tempered” his soul. Whatever that meant. It had to have been connected to what happened with the Salesman. Didn’t it?


Hey, are you meditating?’ said Garovel.


Uh... well, I was thinking about it.


Alright, then I’m gonna go talk to Qorvass. Let me know if you make any progress.


Hector gave a nod and watched the reaper float away. He certainly envied Garovel’s ability to make friends so quickly. The reaper made it seem so easy, like it was the most natural thing in the world. Then again, perhaps it was.


Still, Garovel did seem a little too good at it, sometimes. It had not escaped Hector’s attention how many of their “alliances” were the result of Garovel’s plans or old connections. It was enough to make Hector wonder if Garovel had some kind of greater motive that he hadn’t told him about yet.


Just one more thing to ask about, Hector figured.


He tried to focus.


The truth was, a part of him had been dreading this, dreading what the result of Rasalased’s “tempering” might actually be. After the first few failed attempts at trying to use his ability, Hector had, perhaps, not been allowing himself as much time as he should’ve in order to continue trying. It was hard not worrying that his ability was gone for good, that his iron would not be returning--and the longer that thought remained there, the more disheartening it became.


But there was nothing for it now. He didn’t have an excuse to put it off, at the moment. No civilians in need of help or meetings to attend. Not down here.


So he steadied his breathing and searched his mind for that familiar feeling, the indescribable sensation that he’d always felt when summoning his iron. It was so strange. He’d never really been conscious of that feeling until now, when it was present but his metal was not.


It was so uncomfortable, so hollow. Another reason why he’d grown reluctant of these attempts. He didn’t like this emptiness.


But he had to ignore these feelings, he knew. He had to push onward. His power was there. It had to be.


Maybe he was going about this the wrong way. Maybe concentrating harder wasn’t the answer. Maybe he needed to meditate more deeply. Like how he’d done when he’d first met Rasalased. That time had certainly felt different, somehow.


Worth a shot, he supposed.


Hector cleared his mind again. No more thoughts. No more worries. No people, no abilities, not even himself. And then he recalled it: that sense of immeasurable enormity that he’d felt just before meeting the Dry God. Like floating through an infinite space and being slowly consumed by one’s own sense of triviality and smallness.


Then, through the eternal dark, there came a great ring. A shaking. A light. All at once, all connected.


It was enough to startle Hector out his meditation entirely, and he looked over at the crowd of Rainlords. And the few Sandlords. It was Asad Najir who Hector found himself focusing on. The epicenter of that ringing light--Hector had a sense that Asad was standing right where it would have been, if it were real.


Or, had it been?


And at once, Hector understood. It was the Shards. Hector had sensed their presence--their exact location, even. Hector had returned them to Asad after the battle at Dunehall, and now Asad was carrying them--in the inner pocket of the large bag over his shoulder, to be precise.


Hector just... knew they were there. As if he’d placed them there himself, as if he could see them right now through the bag’s rigid cloth.


As he realized all of these things in rapid succession, Hector could only stare. After a fashion, he blinked a few times and tried to think. He wasn’t sure what to do with this knowledge, but it was a bit unsettling. So he could locate the Shards of the Dry God. Was there some reason for this? Moreover, was there some use for it?


Didn’t seem like it.


Wait a minute. He felt something on his left hand. Inside the suit, he felt something. A familiar kind of... dust. Or powder.


He blinked another time. With his hands covered by the suit, he couldn’t look at them directly, but hope swelled in his chest as he imagined what it was. He concentrated, and sure enough, he was able to make the powdery feeling vanish, then reappear, then vanish again.


True, he’d been able to make powder already, but only when concentrating hard. This time, he hadn’t even been thinking about it. Maybe this was progress? It was enough to give him hope, anyway.


There was no point in stopping here, he decided. He pushed harder. He wanted a metal lump in the palm of his hand--outside the suit, this time.


He got a lot more than he bargained for.


A full heater shield materialized in an instant and dropped onto his left hand with unexpected heft, then clattered to the ground. Even inside his bulky suit, Hector had jumped with pure surprise.


A moment of stunned silence longer, and then Hector was laughing. ‘Garovel!


The reaper came rushing over, quick to notice Hector’s work on the ground. ‘Whoa. What’ve we got here?


Hector looked down at the shield. It was more than a little familiar. The vertical stripes. The darker color. It was metal, certainly. But that was not iron.


Disbelief struck, and Hector’s eyes narrowed. ‘It can’t be...


Is that what I think it is?’ said Garovel.


Hector waved his left hand, and the shield annihilated itself. Hector still couldn’t believe it. Another wave of his hand, and the shield reappeared, this time resting comfortably in his grip. ‘Garovel...


You’re able to materialize Haqq’s shield,’ the reaper said, sounding about as shocked as Hector felt.


Hector couldn’t help the smile that crossed his lips. He made the shield disappear and then reappear again. It really was true.


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