Chapter One Hundred Thirty-One: ‘The Monster of the East...’
Emiliana coughed from behind her mask, making her own hot breath splash back onto her face as her eyes slid open. Slowly, she rolled over and sat up.
The giant black lizard man was still there, Emiliana saw. It hadn’t been a dream.
When he first arrived back at Dunehall, Emiliana had begun questioning her sanity again. It wasn’t until she was sure that everyone else could see him too that she started to think she might not have gone crazy.
But there was another reason why it was so surreal for her. Not only was this hallucination suddenly NOT a hallucination at all, but her brain had been disturbingly undisturbed by it. Every thought was so calm, so quiet, having no trouble assessing her circumstances despite the rest of her body being on the verge of panic.
By now, she’d attributed it to something being wrong with her fight-or-flight response. It was a natural biological process triggered by the brain’s perception of extreme danger. Her body had responded appropriately, but seemingly, her brain had not.
Or... perhaps it had responded, only differently. This calm did feel rather unnatural.
She could only imagine that it was Rasalased’s doing--though, whether or not the effects were temporary or permanent, she couldn’t say. If they were temporary, then they were taking a while to wear off, because she could still feel them even now, even with the Monster of the East looming over her as if he were the abyssal god of lakefire himself.
Emiliana stood and brushed herself off. She had plenty of questions she wanted to ask, but she decided to wait for Gohvis to say something first. It was obvious enough that he was the one in control here, and she would’ve only been repeating herself, anyway.
“How long ago did your power manifest?” the Monster asked.
Emiliana had to think about that. “A month or so.” She actually wasn’t sure. Too much had happened. Maybe it had only been a couple weeks. It felt more like a year, though. “Why do you want to know?”
Gohvis ignored the question. “Show me your face.”
Emiliana would have liked to protest, but she knew there was no point in it. Slowly, she removed her mask. The sunlight on her face was much more unsettling than she remembered. It felt almost irritating against her skin, but that was probably just psychological, she figured.
Gohvis’ crimson glare lingered on her.
She grew more uncomfortable by the second. “What do you want from me?” she said, sounding a bit angrier than even she’d anticipated. “Just tell me, already.”
The Monster spared a glance in Ibai’s direction before returning to Emiliana. “I am a collector of our kind.”
Emiliana didn’t buy that. “...So I am some sort of toy to you? You certainly went through a lot of trouble in order to collect me. Going against your own comrades.”
“Comrades is a strong word.”
She could feel the air growing heavier. The Monster’s doing? It didn’t matter. Right now, she only wanted answers. “I heard what Ivan said. Is it true? Are you and I related somehow?”
Gohvis just stared at her.
How annoying. “If you are, then just say so. Don’t play these games. I will find out one way or another. I promise you.” Her mind was far too calm, she was sure. Far too confident. This wasn’t how you were supposed to talk to someone like Gohvis.
But right now, she didn’t care. For some reason, she wasn’t afraid of him. Well, no, she was. She was very afraid of him. It was more like... the fear she felt couldn’t touch her thoughts, couldn’t hinder her concentration. If anything, it seemed to be helping her focus.
“Misinformation has all but destroyed your family,” said Gohvis. “You have the Vanguard to thank for that. I am not an Elroy. I am not a Rainlord. I never have been.”
“Then why are you bothering with all of this?” Emiliana asked. “Only because I have mutation? There must be thousands more like me.”
“I am not an Elroy,” Gohvis repeated, “but I did share a bond with House Elroy, once.”
Emiliana blinked. “What do you mean?”
“A man named Agam Elroy. He and I were linked. Our mutations tied us together in an anomalous way--a way which, to my knowledge, has never occurred again, either before or since.”
She wasn’t sure she understood.
“But it would seem that you have inherited his power,” said Gohvis.
Her head reared back. She was beginning to get the picture.
The Monster crouched down to look at her more closely, but he was still taller than her by a good meter or so. His red eyes seemed like they might burn holes into her. “I have been awaiting his successor for a very long time.”
“...Why?” was all Emiliana could think to ask.
Gohvis took his time with that one. “I must study our link. It possesses untold potential.”
That brought up other questions for her. “How much do you know about this link?”
And perhaps that was too far, because Gohvis stopped answering her.
Emiliana waited, but a long period of silence was all that followed.
Before it could get too long, however, Ibai chimed in.
“So where are you taking us?” the aberration asked. “Is it somewhere fun? Perhaps I’m being presumptuous, but I thought it might be somewhere very far east. Given your name and all. Will we get to see the Luthic Ocean? I have always wanted to go there. I heard there was a big resurgence in piracy there a few years ago. I would love to meet some real life pirates. Do you think we could do that? Oh! Or maybe you’ll take us all the way to Ardora! Maybe we could--!”
“Please be quiet,” Emiliana said, having grown increasingly worried that the Monster would snap the man’s neck if for no other reason than annoyance.
Ibai did as she asked, but he didn’t look disappointed, as she might have expected. Perhaps he’d just been trying to revive the conversation.
Emiliana decided to try a different approach. “Why are you with Abolish?”
The Monster tilted his head at her.
She understood his reaction. The question probably wasn’t contextually appropriate. But this calmness was playing on her, it seemed. She wanted to get a better idea of what she was dealing with here, of who she was dealing with. If rumors were to be believed, this thing standing before her was without humanity or mercy, more like a force of nature than a human being.
Though, to be fair, as she looked at him, she could certainly see where those rumors had come from.
“You do not seem so terrible,” Emiliana went on, wondering if she was pushing her luck here. She felt like she had a bit of leverage to work with, though she couldn’t tell how much.
“What do you know of Abolish?” Gohvis asked her.
Emiliana wasn’t sure how to answer that. It sounded like a loaded question.
The Monster answered for her. “You know only what the Vanguard wants you to know. You know half-truths and propaganda.”
“Enlighten me, then.”
“I will,” said Gohvis. “In time.”
The way he said that made Emiliana feel almost as if it were impossible to question him. If not for this stillness in her mind, she might have succumbed. “Why not now?” she asked.
Again, Gohvis took his time. “This is not the place for it.”
That made Emiliana look around. Rocky wilderness was all she saw--excepting, perhaps, the narrow valley in front of them. It did seem like a strange place for Gohvis to have stopped, and she was about to ask why when an interruption arrived.
It was another man, Emiliana saw. He dropped out of the sky in a flurry of wind, stopping in mid-air, just above the ground. A gusty wave passed over Emiliana, rustling her hair and clothes and stealing the breath from her mouth for a few moments.
“Kind of you to wait up for me,” the man said in two voices.
Gohvis hadn’t bothered to turn around and look at him. He remained crouched in front of Emiliana as he said, “Why are you following me, Vanderberk?”
“You don’t already know? I figured that was why you stopped. To clear the air.”
“Clear it of what?”
Vanderberk paused to look at Gohvis’ guests, and Emiliana observed him in return. He seemed normal enough. Perhaps too normal. His flip-flops, tie-dyed shirt, and knee-length shorts didn’t exactly make him look like a typical member of Abolish. Assuming he was one, of course--but Emiliana was reasonably certain about that, considering the way he and Gohvis were talking to each other.
“You must know how this looks,” said Vanderberk. “Ivan having just been captured, you coming from the direction of Sair--where, apparently, you attacked some of Ivan’s men. Until you stopped to talk to me, I was worried that you might be fleeing the scene of some foul treason you’d committed.”
Gohvis still didn’t turn around. “And?”
“Hmph. And... I’m just wondering what you’re doing out here. Where you’re headed. And why.”
“It doesn’t concern you.”
“No? I’m not sure about that. See, the report is that Ivan was captured by one Abbas Saqqaf. One of the Sandlords. Curious thing about that, though, is that according to our intelligence--the Salesman’s own teams--Abbas Saqqaf should not be capable of such a thing. Supposedly, he was using some type of suit of armor, but even still. It’s quite the unexpected development, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Get to the point,” said Gohvis.
“Oof. Did you betray Ivan?”
“Do your reports say that I did?”
“Then you have your answer.”
“Mm. I see. Good. Then you won’t mind coming with me to free him.”
“That is a shame, but I do think this takes precedence. And I’m sure the others would agree with me. You and I are the closest to Kuros right now, therefore it falls to us to take care of this as quickly as possible. Come.”
Emiliana felt the atmosphere shift. The ensuing period of silence was abruptly heavier.
“I’m sure it won’t take long,” said Vanderberk. “Between the two of us--”
Vanderberk smacked his lips and scratched his forehead. “See, when you say things like that, it makes you look suspicious. Either that, or it makes me think that you don’t respect me as your equal.”
Vanderberk’s face scrunched up. “Bold words, considering it’s just you and the old man now. The two of you are running low on reliable friends. Doesn’t make much sense for you to be treating me this way.”
Gohvis finally deigned to stand all the way up and look at the man. Even in this relatively high sunlight, the Monster’s giant shadow reached almost all the way to Vanderberk. “Have I hurt your feelings? Perhaps obliterating another orphanage will dry your tears.”
“Hoh! Maybe it would! But hey, don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it, my friend. Solving future problems today--that’s my motto. And every soul counts, isn’t that right?”
“If you are so interested in avoiding future problems, then I suggest you leave me alone. Now.”
“Threats, now?” said Vanderberk. “You’re being very stupid. Think about our circumstances for a moment. It’s you, me, Jercash, Morgunov, and Dozer. That’s all we’ve got right now. What if the Vannies decide to take advantage? Hmm? What if they launch a full-scale assault tomorrow? Or next week? The five of us would have to repel the eight of them. Do you honestly not see the importance of freeing Ivan as soon as possible?”
Gohvis did not answer him.
Emiliana felt the air grow heavier still.
Vanderberk smacked his lips again. “Fine. You don’t consider me your equal yet. Comes with being the new guy, I suppose. But tell me. What about the Star? Is he your equal, you think? Because I imagine he’d like to put that to the test. And sometime soon, am I right? I mean, after Horsht and Jesbol, he must be feeling very good about himself. And oh, I have heard such tales! About how he tore your boys to pieces! Gunny and Dunny both! Always thought they were two peas in a pod, so I suppose it’s only fitting that they went out together like that--but by the Star? Of all people? Oof, it must be eating you up inside.”
The air grew heavy enough that Emiliana felt like a thick blanket had been thrown over her. She heard rocks shifting and settling all around them.
“Hey, don’t get mad at me,” said Vanderberk. “I didn’t kill your friends.”
“They weren’t my friends. And neither are you.”
“Oh, is that right? Is that why you’ve been sitting on your ass this whole time instead of avenging them? Why you’re not en route to Jesbol right now in order to make things right? Because they weren’t your friends? Because Dozer doesn’t care that two of his top three were killed in one night? Doesn’t mind how weak that makes him look--especially to us? No, sure, I get it. Obviously. Makes total sense. It’s certainly not because you’re scared or anything like that, right?”
“I’m not your errand boy,” said Gohvis. “If you want Jackson dead so badly, go kill him yourself.”
Vanderberk’s face flashed with annoyance. “It must be humiliating, having to follow a man who can’t even protect his most valuable assets.”
“The only thing that would humiliate me is working with a man who thinks himself my equal and yet still wants someone else to protect him.”
This time, anger arrived on Vanderberk’s face and stayed there. “This is not productive.”
“Then go and fetch your Salesman. I am not stopping you.”
Vanderberk only stood there.
“You fear the Sandlords,” Gohvis observed. “Admit that to yourself and then go find Jercash. I’m sure he will hold your hand for you.”
Rather than responding, Vanderberk’s eyes just glossed over, and he looked from Gohvis to Emiliana to Ibai.
The Monster didn’t seem to have anything more to say, either.
Unsurprisingly, though, Ibai did. “Hey, does anyone know where we are?”
No one answered him.
“I only ask because that valley over there sort of looks like the Valley of Peace, so it would be kind of ironic if you guys decided to fight here.”
“Who are these two?” asked Vanderberk.
“Not your concern,” said Gohvis.
“Well, apparently, you consider your business with them to be more important than rescuing one of your most valuable allies. So perhaps they are my concern.”
“I am not going to tell you again,” was all the Monster said.
Vanderberk nodded and took a deep breath. “I understand. This relationship of ours won’t be able to move forward until I adjust that attitude of yours.”
And Emiliana watched the sky darken.