Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Six: ‘Thy renewed vigor...’
‘Make something else,’ said Garovel.
‘Oh, uh...’ Hector blinked, trying to think. He waved his right hand, aiming to make the first thing that popped into his head. A metal bench, shaped like the rockier one he was currently sitting on.
And indeed, a bench appeared. But it was not the same as his shield. Granted, the lighting was a bit low in this place, but Hector was sure that he was looking at iron this time. Slightly lighter and grayer and plainer. And familiar, too, in that strange way. It was almost like he didn’t even need to look at it in order to know that it was iron.
‘Hmm,’ mused Garovel.
Hector was confused, to say the least. He annihilated the bench and tried again with something else. This time, he made a big cube, as tall as a person. It, too, was iron, Hector knew. He destroyed it and tried again, but the result was the same.
‘Wait,’ said Garovel before Hector could give it another go. ‘Try destroying the shield first this time.’
Hector did so, but it didn’t change anything. He kept getting iron.
‘Keep trying,’ said Garovel.
Iron, iron, and more iron. And then the heater shield again. And then more iron. And then the shield.
Hector was at a loss. What the hell had happened to his power? It was like he could only control it some of the time.
‘It’s your hands,’ Garovel observed.
‘Well. Technically, it’s probably NOT your hands, really. It’s probably an unconscious thing, utilizing the different sides of your brain. But the point is, when you use your right hand, you make iron, and when you use your left hand, you make the metal of Haqq’s shield.’
Hector blinked and stared at his hands. ‘I don’t understand...’
‘I do. We thought Haqq’s shield was destroyed, but it wasn’t. Rasalased absorbed it and returned it to you. Now you can materialize it from scratch. This must be what he was referring to when he said that you’d brought him a “gift.” Hmm. He did say that he sensed its “residue” in your soul. Must’ve been an effect of you using it. So then, I suppose, he figured that it belonged to you.’
‘But... that shield was... I mean, what was it even made of?’
‘The dark vertical stripes were tungsten carbide,’ Garovel recalled. ‘The rest of the shield was a combination of steel and titanium alloys. Or at least, that’s what Sazandara told us.’
‘So...’ That just made Hector even more confused. ‘So I’m able to materialize all of that stuff now?’
‘Seems like it.’
‘But, uh... what?’
‘Hmm. Try and make something with your left hand. Something that ISN’T the shield.’
A bit hesitant, Hector did so. His left hand tensed into a kind of claw-formation as he concentrated, and the result of his work materialized all at once.
It was the exact same shield again.
Hector frowned. He annihilated it and tried one more time, but the result was the same.
‘What were you trying to make?’ said Garovel.
‘Just a box,’ said Hector.
‘Hmm. So you can only make the shield, then.’
‘I guess so.’ He gave it another shot, just to be sure, but indeed, there was no change. The only object that he could materialize with his left hand--or with the left half of his brain, rather--appeared to be this shield. Haqq’s shield.
It was a bit disappointing, to say the least. And upon further investigation, he discovered that he could not materialize a second shield, either. The volume limit of his new materialization power must have been exactly that of the original shield, Hector figured. He couldn’t even generate any extra dust afterward.
‘Well, this is certainly strange,’ said Garovel. ‘I’ve never heard of anyone being able to add on to the materialization ability this way.’
‘I wouldn’t have thought it was possible if I weren’t seeing you doing it right now.’ He was almost laughing. ‘Rasalased... after all these years, what kind of monster has he become?’
Hector was beginning to have doubts, however. He flipped the shield over in his hands, inspecting it up and down. True, it certainly looked like Haqq’s shield. But could it really be identical, he wondered? In every way?
Garovel seemed to be having the same thought. ‘I wonder how strong it is,’ the reaper said. ‘Does it still carry the soul-strengthening effect from Abbas?’
If he could touch it with bare skin, that question might be answered, but unfortunately, this suit was in the way. And it was probably too late to take it off, he figured.
‘Let Asad hold the shield,’ said Garovel.
“Ah, good idea,” Hector said aloud, though it might’ve been lost over the noise of the suit. He stood and made his way over to the Sandlord, who noticed him approaching and decided to come meet him halfway.
“Something the matter?!” Asad said over the racket.
Hector offered the shield to him and let Garovel do the explaining.
It didn’t take long for Asad to understand what they were asking. He grabbed the shield, held it pensively for a few moments, then looked blankly at Hector and Garovel.
‘You don’t feel any different?’ Garovel asked.
Asad glanced at Qorvass.
‘He feels perfectly normal,’ the reaper said. ‘As do I. And shouldn’t I be affected by it as well?’
‘Yes, you should,’ said Garovel. ‘Hmm...’
‘Let’s test it on Jada.’ Qorvass hovered quickly away, then soon returned with her.
She seemed a bit confused about what was going on but took the shield nonetheless.
Everyone waited, but nothing happened.
‘Curious,’ said Garovel. ‘Would you mind helping us test its strength now, as well?’
‘Not at all,’ said Qorvass.
The small troupe ventured off together, wanting to put themselves a safe distance away from the crowd. They found an isolated, yet well-lit spot near the bench where Hector had been sitting. A broad corridor lay far to the right, but no one was using it.
And Hector paused, abruptly realizing that he had yet to see anyone other than the Rainlords and Asad’s family. He wondered when he would see his first inhabitant of the Undercrust. He wondered if they would look any different from normal people. Or “surface” people, at least. He wasn’t sure he knew what qualified as “normal” anymore.
He pushed the thought out of his mind and set the shield down, propping it up against the wall. He backed away and decided to use the same hallway he’d seen before. He wasn’t terribly concerned about getting hurt, of course, but he figured it would be bad if he let the suit get damaged. Using the corner as cover, Hector poked his head out to watch Asad work.
The Lord Najir started off easy. He clapped his hands together, and then, as he brought them apart again, a large spear of solid quartz materialized, which he grabbed with both hands, as it continued to grow beyond his own wingspan.
With one deep breath and a bit of vigor from Qorvass, Asad gripped the spear tightly in his right hand and threw it with full strength.
It hit the shield dead on and shattered in all directions, some of which were toward Hector, who made full use of his cover.
‘Was that soul-strengthened?’ Garovel asked.
Hector peeked out again and saw Asad returning an affirmative nod. Hector’s eyes returned to shield, which didn’t have so much as a scratch on it.
He couldn’t help smiling a little.
Asad tried again, this time with molten quartz, also strengthened with his soul. It splashed against the shield with a steaming hiss. Asad let it sit there for a bit before annihilating it, and they discovered some of the rock around the shield had been melted away, but the shield itself remained perfectly pristine.
Asad gave a frustrated look.
‘In his defense,’ said Qorvass, ‘he is still quite tired.’
Garovel probably wanted to make some retort, Hector figured, but the reaper restrained himself.
Hector saw some Rainlords coming over to join Asad, no doubt wondering what was going on. After a brief conversation, a few of them decided to give it a go, as well.
Try after try, servant after servant, the result remained the same. It quickly developed into a contest, of sorts, with more and more Rainlords lining up to give it a go--until, at length, the challengers ceased their attempts and instead began searching for representatives.
They found the Lord Dimas Sebolt.
And apparently, the man didn’t wish to waste anyone’s time. He merged with Iziol straight away and invoked pan-moc. Hector could see light distort and bend around the man’s whole body, and so could everyone else, it seemed, as they collectively backed away from him.
Hector could barely see Dimas’ attack, but he could certainly hear it--like a hail of bullets without the gunfire, all pinging off the shield.
After a moment, Dimas let up, and Hector craned his neck to get a good look. The shield bore only two small holes in it, though a plethora of dents littered its body. And then, even those disappeared, melted back together as if nothing had happened.
All in all, Hector had expected more damage. And so had Dimas, it seemed.
‘Don’t look so disappointed,’ said Qorvass. ‘Considering you are younger than Asad, that was very impressive.’
Hector wondered if anyone else would step up. He noticed the Lord Salvador Delaguna observing, along with a few people urging him on, but the man just waved them off.
A lull came over the crowd of Rainlords as they searched for another contender.
The Lord Zeff Elroy stepped forward.
He still looked mostly terrible, as if he hadn’t been sleeping, and even Asad put a hand on his shoulder, as if to say that this wasn’t necessary.
They exchanged a few words, which Hector couldn’t hear, and then Asad’s concern appeared to be placated.
Zeff merged with Axiolis and invoked pan-forma. He placed his hands close together, as if holding an invisible ball, and then steam began erupting from within. It spewed out in all directions, loudly enough and violently enough that many of the Rainlords decided to back away even farther.
And slowly, an orb of rushing water coalesced. The water spun with such force that it made the wind howl around it.
Hector watched intently. He’d seen Zeff do this before in the fight against Caster Egmond. It seemed more stable now--and perhaps smaller, too, though that might’ve also been because Zeff was holding back.
Then the orb vanished completely. Annihilated harmlessly by Zeff. And Hector was briefly confused--until the splashing boom came in the next moment, this time located right on top of the shield.
The impact was so strong that it shook the huge chamber and nearly knocked Hector on his ass. Streams of water vaulted in all directions before dissipating into a light drizzle, and for a few lingering seconds, it was actually raining underground. The water quickly turned to steam, however.
Hector’s eyes searched for the shield but didn’t see it anymore. He ventured out from behind his corner in order to get a closer look, and at length, he found a sliver of it remaining. A chunk of its pointed bottom, he was fairly sure.
It was steadily regenerating, he noticed, but it was still a bit slow, comparatively. He waved his left hand, and the shield retook its full shape almost instantly, just as pristine as before.
Garovel hovered over to him. ‘Well, that was informative.’
‘Yeah,’ said Hector. ‘It’s definitely just as strong as before. But the self-regeneration seems a little redundant now.’
‘And not being able to materialize anything else with the right side of your brain could be problematic.’
‘Don’t you mean the left side of my brain?’ said Hector.
‘Ah. No, I don’t, actually. The right side of your brain controls the left side of your body. And vice versa.’
Hector tilted his head. ‘Really? But that’s so counter-intuitive.’
‘I know, right? Evolution should really get its shit together.’
Hector stooped down and picked up his shield. He held it up in front of himself and turned it over, inspecting it another time.
‘We still don’t know for certain if it can boost your passive soul defense,’ said Garovel. ‘I’m guessing not, since Asad didn’t feel anything when he held it, but I suppose it’s possible that the boost only works for you now.’
‘Probably not, though. And this isn’t a good place to test it out.’
Hector continued staring at the shield, but his gaze began to hollow out as his thoughts drifted. An inkling of an idea nagged at him from the back of his mind. It wasn’t quite fully formed as of yet, but there was definitely something there, he felt. Something he’d almost forgotten about materialization but that could be relevant now. He squinted as he racked his brain, trying to grab the thought before it slipped away.
And then he got it.
He blinked, eyes shifting as his brain worked, evaluating the idea even further. Was it really possible now? Maybe not. Maybe there was some new limitation that he simply didn’t know about yet. Hmm.
But still. If it was possible...
He had to test one more thing, Hector decided.
He finally looked up to discuss his idea with Garovel, but the sight of the Elroys approaching made Hector put it on hold.
Zeff was carrying Ramira in his arms now. Her little suit looked much sleeker and less cumbersome than Hector’s, though it did bulge around the cast on her foot. Zeff also had her tiny crutches strapped to the bag on his back.
She gave Hector a wave, which he gladly returned. It was nice to see her in relatively high spirits again. The last few times he’d visited her, she’d seemed to be in considerable pain.
‘That was quite a performance,’ said Garovel.
‘Thank you,’ said Axiolis.
‘What was that technique, by the way?’ asked Garovel. ‘Do you have a name for it?’
‘It is still quite new,’ said Axiolis. ‘We haven’t been able to come up with one yet. For now, hand signals will have to suffice.’
Hector grew impatient. He didn’t want to interrupt their conversation, but this was probably more important. Or better yet, maybe the Elroys could help him.
Zeff’s hands were full, so Hector looked at Marcos, suited up and standing next to his father. Hector held the shield out to the boy. ‘Ask him to hold this for me, please,’ he told Garovel.
‘Uh. Hey, Marcos, would you mind holding this for Hector?’
Marcos hesitated but took it. Its weight seemed to surprise him.
Hector threw another look around the area. There was plenty of space here, but which direction would be best? That hallway from before. It was very long, he remembered. Hector pointed in the direction opposite of the hallway. ‘Ask them to go that way for me,’ said Hector.
‘Oh.’ He probably should’ve explained, he realized. ‘I wanna try to make a second shield.’
‘I’ve gotta get this first shield outside of my ability’s max range,’ said Hector. ‘Because then my volume limit should reset, right?’
‘Hmm.’ Garovel was quiet a moment, perhaps thinking.
Hector wondered if the reaper was about to inform him that he was being stupid. But that didn’t happen.
‘Alright,’ said Garovel. The reaper proceeded to explain Hector’s reasoning and instructions to the Elroys.
As Zeff listened, his gaze fell upon Hector, and the young Atreyan lord began to feel increasingly self-conscious.
Hector wasn’t sure he’d ever seen such a stern face staring at him like that before, but he tried not to worry about it too much. From what he knew of the Lord Elroy, that was just the man’s normal face.
Why’d he have to stare like that, though? Hector didn’t need another reason to be second guessing himself.
In the end, though, neither Zeff nor Axiolis voiced any sort of disapproval. They ventured off with Marcos and the shield, just as Hector had wanted.
Hector and Garovel made for the hallway together.
‘If this works,’ said Garovel, ‘what do you intend to do with it?’
Hector thought that should be obvious. ‘I’ll make shields for everyone here--or, y’know, as many as I can in the time we have left.’
‘...Something wrong with that?’
Garovel paused. ‘Not necessarily. But what about after we make it out of here?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well. I can see this power making our lives very complicated.’
Hector cocked an eyebrow. ‘Our lives aren’t exactly simple, right now.’
‘Ha. Even so, I think it’s best that we try to keep this ability secret as best we can. And if you’re gonna be handing these shields out to the Rainlords like it’s no big deal, then they need to understand how important this secret is, too. And YOU need to understand just how much trust you’re placing in them to keep that secret for us.’
‘Uh... would it really be so bad if people found out?’
‘Hector. I know you just want to protect people, but these shields are incredibly powerful. And, I mean, it took Haqq Najir months to craft just one of these shields. And now, potentially, you’d be able to make them in, what? An hour or two? Maybe even less? Hector, if you can start mass producing these things... Do you see what I’m getting? Essentially, you’d be able to single-handedly turn the tide of... practically any war in the world.’
Hector stopped. He stared down the length of the empty hallway as he let Garovel’s words sink in.
‘That, my friend, is something that only a VERY small number of people on this planet can do,’ the reaper went on. ‘And don’t you think there are people out there who will want to take advantage of you? Especially if they find out how young you really are?’
‘...I see your point,’ said Hector as he started walking again.
Hector tested his ability with his left hand, but as expected, he couldn’t make anything yet. Doubtless, he still wasn’t far enough away. He kept trying as they moved down the length of the corridor.
‘You might be tempted to sell these shields,’ said Garovel, ‘but I’d advise against that. While we could certainly use the money for Warrenhold, it would be a big problem if word got around about an Atreyan merchant selling something that so many people might want.’
‘Selling them?’ The thought hadn’t even crossed Hector’s mind. ‘Wouldn’t that basically make me, like... a war profiteer or something?’
‘Pretty much, yeah.’
‘...I don’t exactly consider the Salesman of Death a role model, Garovel.’
The reaper laughed at that. ‘Good to know. But I’m just saying, it wouldn’t be too difficult to rationalize. The idea, of course, would be that you’d only sell to people you trusted. Like the Rainlords, perhaps. But the problem would be that some customers simply aren’t going to take no for an answer, unless you have the power to force them to.’
‘...Or allies to force them for me?’
‘Or that, yes. But you’re more interested in doing the protecting than being protected, aren’t you?’
‘Well, yeah. But, uh... all this talk does make me think. I mean, even disregarding this, uh, war profiteering bullshit--how likely is it that Warrenhold will develop into that kind of... “point of interest” or whatever? It’s bound to happen sooner or later, right?’
‘Hmm. At the rate we’re collecting people, perhaps sooner.’
‘Stasya Orlov wanted Warrenhold to be a center of trade between the Undercrust and the surface,’ said Hector. ‘And... I want that, too, I think. But... if we manage to make that happen, somehow, then...’
‘It’d be stupid of me to think I can protect everyone by myself,’ said Hector. ‘If our time in Sair taught me anything, it’d definitely be that.’
‘Heh. And here I thought your self-confidence was growing.’
‘I... I don’t--I mean, uh... eh... that’s a different... thing.’
Hector kept walking for quite a ways, and Garovel kept giving him sass all the while, as expected, until at long length, finally, one of his attempts to create the shield succeeded. Partially. Half of it was missing. He annihilated it, took another step forward, and tried again.
The shield materialized in full this time.
‘Welp. That confirms it.’ Garovel hovered around him, looking the shield over. ‘I’m not sure if I like this “blessing” from Rasalased.’
‘I wonder if he can hear you.’
‘I hope he can. Hey, Rasalased! Why’d you give this to Hector, huh?! Why couldn’t you just upgrade his soul power with your own or something?!’
‘Would that have been possible?’
‘No, but I didn’t think this shit was possible, either, so who the fuck knows?!’
Hector couldn’t help laughing as he started back toward the Rainlords with his second shield in hand. ‘You sound very upset.’
‘Yeah, well, I am. If we’re not super careful, this shield bullshit is gonna bite us on the ass. And I bet Rasalased knew that, too. What a fuckin’ prick.’