Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Four: ‘O, unknown messenger...’
Five times now, Hector had asked Garovel to explain this to him, but the reaper was intent on being mysterious with him again. They couldn’t call, email, meet up with, or even know the whereabouts of Roman Fullister; but apparently, that didn’t matter, because... of something, Garovel assured him. Something that Hahl Duxan had at its disposal.
That was as much as Hector had been able to get out of Garovel. He tried Jada Najir’s reaper, Atalim, but Garovel intervened then, too, asking Atalim to help him “preserve the surprise.”
Atalim agreed, naturally.
All these reapers were far too pleased with themselves, Hector felt.
The trip to Egas happened very quickly after his last meeting with the Sandlords. Hector was able to sleep the whole way there, but Garovel stirred him awake as they neared the seat of Hahl Duxan’s power.
‘They call it Sununeash,’ said Garovel. ‘In Mohssian, it’s known as the Swallow’s Nest.’
Still a little bleary-eyed, Hector hadn’t even gotten a good look at Egas itself yet, but he was already seeing the buildings all around them fall away as a hulking structure came into view.
Another castle, Hector abruptly realized.
Instead of having one large outer wall, the Swallow’s Nest had three--each one rising up and then sloping smoothly back down at different points, creating a waving, layered formation. Because of the design, the foremost wall had obvious gaps, but they were all covered by lookout installations built into the second and third walls.
Hector found himself gawking again, and he was reminded of all the other castles he’d visited in the past few weeks. Mostly, though, it made him think of Warrenhold, of its reconstruction. Maybe there was something to be learned from all these visits. He only wished he’d had more opportunity to examine each castle in greater detail.
As he passed through the front gates of Sununeash, he tried his damnedest to take it all in. Four towers, by his count, all constructed from the same brown stone as the walls. Not as tall as the ones in Warrenhold but definitely broader. There was also no garden to speak of, but sparse foliage did exist in the form of gangly tall trees with big, bulky leaves. Covered walkways were abundant as well, and Hector was thankful for them as everyone exited their vehicles and stepped out into the punishing heat again.
The more he looked around, the more Hector noticed the defensive design choices present in the Swallow’s Nest. Each walkway was flanked on both sides by enormous pits and burrows, all of which were manned by dozens of patrolmen. And since these walkways appeared to be the only means of approaching the towers, any invading forces from this entry point would doubtless have to expose themselves to an onslaught of attacks.
Then there were the towers themselves, on which he could see embrasures, where more defenders would be able to fire from. And inside, of course, the very first room they encountered was partially walled off, bearing even more embrasures. Even the staircase seemed to be--
Garovel’s laugh pulled Hector out of his imaginings. ‘Yeah, I thought you’d want to be awake for this.’
Hector couldn’t help smirking a little. ‘How’d you know?’
‘I saw the look in your eyes at the Golden Fort and Dunehall. Even a little bit in Marshrock, once the fighting was done. And then what you said about needing money for Warrenhold? You’ve been developing a real thing for castles, haven’t you?’
Hector just bobbed his head, unable to deny it.
‘I guess you’ve always been a bit of a nerd about construction, haven’t you?’
‘Carpentry club is hardly the same thing as building a freaking castle,’ said Hector.
‘I mean, it’s important, though, isn’t it? A good castle can protect a lot of people, and seeing all these incredible places now... it makes me realize how amazing Warrenhold could be.’
‘Yes,’ said Garovel. ‘With just a little love and five easy payments of ten million troas, it could be our dream home.’
‘Agh. You really think it’ll take THAT much money?’
‘Maybe not, but it certainly won’t be cheap. And our new friends aren’t going to pay for all of it, no matter how much they like us.’
‘You’re probably right,’ said Hector. ‘And Asad’s got his own wrecked castle to worry about now, too.’
‘He sure does.’
A suddenly long pause intervened.
‘I’d like to help him rebuild it, if I can.’
Garovel groaned. ‘Of course you do.’
Hector laughed a little now, too. ‘I’m just saying, like, someday.’
‘He’s an important ally now, right?’
‘Yeah, he is.’
‘And, I mean, Dunehall was just so... cool.’
‘Uh-huh,’ said Garovel.
‘What, am I wrong?’
‘Maybe you can trick Roman into footing the bill on that one.’
‘Somehow, I doubt that,’ said Hector. ‘Isn’t tricking rich people kind of his thing?’
‘I bet he wouldn’t see it coming from the likes of you, though.’
‘Yeah, let’s just... build everything on a foundation of tricks and lies. I’m sure that would go great.’
Hector could see that they were about to head underground, so he made sure to check his phone beforehand. Thankfully, Gina had come through with the pictures of Roman, though Hector still wasn’t quite sure how they would help.
At length, after an elevator ride down and a staircase going even deeper, Hector finally began seeing some familiar faces. He was almost surprised by all the space down here, but then he remembered that this place had its own path to the Undercrust. He wondered if it would look any different from the one in Warrenhold.
That was not their first destination, however. Instead, the Lord Duxan broke away from the rest of their party and guided Hector and Garovel through a pair of corridors and down another flight of steps. They arrived in a large bedchamber--so large, in fact, that Hector could imagine it belonging to the Lord Duxan himself.
Lord Hasan Duxan had not spoken to Hector directly at all thus far, and Hector was beginning to get the impression that the man simply did not speak Mohssian--or at the very least, not fluently.
Not that it mattered, of course. Between Garovel and Hasan’s own reaper, Emiross, there was no lack of translators.
Lord Hasan beckoned them deeper into the room until finally stopping in front of a tall cabinet. He opened it, revealing a mirror and nothing else.
Hector was still confused and waiting for answers from Garovel.
‘Have a closer look,’ was all Garovel said.
Hector did so. And indeed, he soon noticed something. The mirror. He could see himself in it, but there was a kind of fog behind the reflection. And maybe his eyes were playing tricks on him, but it looked like the fog was moving.
His reflection was strange, too. It mirrored his movements, but it did it too slowly, as if the image were on a delay.
‘The fuck?’ thought Hector.
‘Creeped out yet?’ asked Garovel.
‘A little. What is this thing?’ Yeah, that fog was definitely moving, Hector decided. He backed away from the mirror again and saw that Lord Hasan had pulled up a chair in order to sit in front of the thing. The man was also holding a candle in one hand and a book in the other.
Lord Hasan said something in Valgan.
‘He said you can sit wherever you like while we wait,’ said Emiross.
‘Wait for what?’ asked Hector.
‘Patience, dear boy,’ said Garovel with the echo of privacy. Then he turned to Emiross and said publicly, ‘Pen and paper?’
‘On the table by the window,’ Emiross said.
Garovel nodded and floated over to it. Hector followed suit and sat down there, still awaiting instruction. The window next to him didn’t lead outside, instead offering a pleasant view of an underground courtyard. Hector spotted a few Rainlords conversing by the central fountain. Blackburns, he was pretty sure.
‘Okay, Hector,’ said Garovel privately, ‘now you need to write a letter to Roman.’
Hector blinked. ‘A letter? Like a snail-mail letter?’
‘Heh. I mean, obviously, I could tell you, but what would be the fun in that?’
Hector set to work on the letter. Garovel was kind enough to help with that much, at least. Hector didn’t think he could’ve explained their current circumstances with the Rainlords without Garovel’s input. Additionally, the letter included two locations in the Undercrust where Roman would be able to meet up with them.
Hector had even more questions now, but he figured he should just save them until Garovel stopped being a secretive asshole.
He finished writing with ample time to spare, apparently. He tried to just relax and enjoy the peace and quiet while he could. He considered meditating, but now probably wasn’t the time for that, he figured.
Then he saw it.
A man appeared. Or the figure of one, at least. From thin air, it simply faded into existence, standing directly in front of Lord Hasan.
Hector just stared.
No flesh of any kind was visible. A dark gray cloak covered most of the figure’s body, save only the head and hands, which were instead concealed by sandy brown bandages--including even the eyes, nose, and mouth.
‘...Is that a fucking mummy?’ said Hector.
‘Yep,’ said Garovel.
‘But--? Why is it--? I mean, what does it--?’ An appropriate question evaded him.
Lord Hasan stood and looked at Hector.
Hector took that as his cue and walked over with the letter in hand. Then he realized he wasn’t sure who to give it to, but when Lord Hasan held out his hand to receive it, that was good enough for Hector.
The Sandlord took the letter, then promptly handed it off to the mummy.
‘Roman Fullister,’ said Garovel publicly.
“Roman Fullister,” Hasan repeated, though more slowly and in his thick accent. And then again, “Roman... Fullister.”
‘Now the pictures,’ said Garovel.
‘Oh.’ Hector whipped out his phone and found the photos that Gina had sent him. He tried to show one of them to the mummy’s bandaged face, but it didn’t provoke any kind of response.
Lord Hasan took the phone from Hector and showed it to the mummy himself.
The mummy grabbed the phone.
Lord Hasan seemed surprised but didn’t say anything.
Then the mummy pulled up the hood of its cloak, shuffled back a step, and bowed before the Lord Duxan. And without uttering a single word, it disappeared again, vanishing into thin air as quietly as it had arrived.
Hector looked to Hasan, who just kind of scratched his beard, avoided eye contact, and then walked away with his reaper.
‘...He stole my phone,’ said Hector.
Garovel hesitated. ‘Gonna be honest with you. I didn’t see that coming. I hope you weren’t attached to it.’
‘What?’ said Hector. ‘What do you mean you didn’t see it coming? Haven’t you done this before?’
‘Sure, but that was before phones could store pictures in them.’
Hector didn’t quite know how to put his disbelief into words.
‘I guess this makes sense, though,’ said Garovel. ‘Normally, you give them pictures, and then they just take those pictures with them. I guess we should’ve printed them out first.’ A beat passed. ‘Whoops.’
‘Garovel, are you fucking kidding me, right now?’
‘Look, I’m sorry, alright? It’s just a phone. You can always get a new one. You were wanting a new service provider anyway, weren’t you?’
Hector sighed as they started heading for the door. ‘Okay, whatever, I need a new phone now. No big deal. But what happens if my old phone’s battery dies, and then the mummy guy can’t see the pictures we gave him?’
The reaper hesitated again.
‘Garovel, are you shitting me?!’
‘Eh, don’t worry too much,’ said Garovel. ‘It’ll be fine.’
‘Are you sure?!’
‘Yeahhh,’ said Garovel unconvincingly.
Hector just gave him a look.
‘Alright, just relax,’ said Garovel. ‘These “mummy guys,” as you call them, were doing this sort of thing for a VERY long time before pictures were ever a factor. They are insanely reliable. Trust me.’
Hector didn’t see how he had much choice otherwise. ‘Okay, so what if Roman gets the message but is too busy to meet up with us? Or just decides not to? I mean, the Rainlords ARE fugitives from the Vanguard.’
‘Ugh, I hope that doesn’t happen. Because then it would be up to me to guide us back to Warrenhold.’
‘But you don’t know the route.’
‘I know it’s near a place called Capaporo. Given time, I’m sure I could suss out the right path.’
‘Given time, huh?’
‘Don’t look at me like that. I’m trying my best here. If you’ve got a better plan, I’d love to hear it.’
‘Not saying I do. But I might be able to help you more if you didn’t keep shit from me for no reason.’
‘Oh, come on, that was a great surprise.’
‘Are you even gonna tell me who or what that mummy guy was, exactly?’
‘Well, the truth is, even with my incredible powers of exposition, that is not an easy task.’
‘They’re a rather mysterious bunch, those couriers. There’s not a whole lot that’s actually known about them. For instance, no one even knows WHY they do what they do. We just know that they’ve BEEN doing it for thousands of years now. And that they’re really good at it. Though, maybe a bit slow by today’s standards.’
‘Huh. Well, what DO you know about them, then?’
‘We know, more or less, HOW they operate,’ said Garovel, ‘but the specifics are still pretty unclear. Their movements are especially confusing. You saw how that one just “appeared” out of nowhere, right?’
‘They can all do that. They can just show up wherever they want, seemingly.’
‘Sounds like Ibai’s power.’
Garovel paused at that. ‘You’re right. I hadn’t put that together. Aberrations are still a relatively recent development in the world. I wonder if that’s just a coincidence, or if there’s some underlying reason behind it.’
‘You think aberrations and the mummy guys are related somehow?’
‘Alright, well, before anything else, I should probably mention that they’re not actually called “mummy guys.”’
‘I find that hard to believe,’ said Hector.
‘In Valgan, they’re generally called “zalabaram.” In Mohssian, they’re called dark walkers. Or dark messengers.’
‘Or mummy guys.’
‘Yes, Hector. Or mummy guys. Might be easiest to just call them Couriers, though. But capitalized. Because capitalizing things means they’re special.’
‘So I should capitalize Mummy Guys, in other words.’
‘You’re not gonna stop calling them that, are you?’
‘Why would I?’
‘Because you’re supposed to be an Atreyan lord now, and calling a group of ancient and mysterious beings “Mummy Guys” makes you sound about as dignified as an eight-year-old playing in the mud?’
‘...That’s a really good point.’
Hector wanted to say “Mummy Guys” again, and could see Garovel waiting for it, too, but he resisted, choosing to go for another question instead. ‘Do they ever talk?’
‘No,’ said Garovel. ‘As far as I’m aware, none of them have ever spoken.’
‘Maybe. But they’ve never been hostile. Not to anyone.’
‘Or maybe everyone who ever noticed their hostilities is dead.’
‘Or that highly unlikely thing you said, yes.’
Hector had another question already queued up in his head. ‘What’s the deal with the foggy mirror?’
‘Ah, that’s how they choose who they work for,’ said Garovel. ‘I’m sure you noticed how the Courier only responded to Lord Duxan. When a Courier chooses to work for you, they just show up out of nowhere and give you one of those mirrors.’
‘Hmm. Weird. How do they choose people, then?’
‘Dunno. That’s what I meant by not knowing why they do what they do. They can apparently choose anyone, and their reasons for doing so are never made clear. It’s all very odd, but they do seem to gravitate toward people with power and influence.’
‘Hell, one of ‘em could show up at Warrenhold and give you a mirror, someday. You’ve been getting pretty famous, lately.’
‘Does, uh... does that mean they work for Abolish, too?’
‘Yep. They don’t have any set allegiances that I know of. Oh, and they can decide to take their mirror back at any time and stop helping you.’
‘...This sounds like some conspiracy-type shit. Controlling the flow of information or whatever.’
‘You’re not the first to have that thought.’
‘You trust them?’
‘For the most part. They have a very solid track record when it comes to keeping sensitive information secret.’
Hector supposed he’d have to take Garovel’s word on that.
They’d been walking for a while now, with Garovel leading the way, but only now was Hector finally starting to see some Rainlords again. This place was a bit of a maze, but with the way Garovel navigated it, Hector wondered if the reaper had been here before. It wouldn’t be too surprising, he figured.
But before any of that, he still had more questions about the Couriers. ‘Where do they come from? They’re mummies, right? So they used to be human?’
‘Yeah, that’s the theory,’ said Garovel. ‘Mummification used to be pretty common. These days, people seem to think it was only royalty and the super rich who were mummified, but that’s not quite true. Anyone who worked under those people could also be mummified--sometimes, even while they were still alive.’
Hector’s brow lowered. ‘What? Why?’
‘Because tradition, that’s why. For example, if your job was washing the king’s feet, and then your king went and died before you did, some cultures believed that you should be entombed with him.’
‘That’s... so fucked up.’
‘Such were the ancient customs and religions of the world.’
Hector still had more questions about Couriers, but they got shoved out of his mind when he saw Asad and Qorvass approaching.
“You’re awake!” said Hector.
‘Good to see you both,’ added Garovel.
Asad looked pretty sore, judging from how stiff his movements were, but he offered Hector a handshake as soon as he was close. “When I heard about what you did for everyone, I had to come thank you.”
A bit confused, Hector took the handshake. “What I did?”
Asad tilted his head at him. “Zeff told me all about it. You lured the Salesman away from Dunehall and saved all our lives.”
Hector blinked. Zeff had been conscious through all that?
Really, though, that whole affair felt so surreal now, like a dream he’d had, rather than anything he’d actually lived through. A dream. Or nightmare, maybe.
Hector wasn’t sure what to say. You’re welcome? No, that was stupid. Shit, this was getting embarrassing very quickly.
Garovel helped him out. ‘You’re welcome.’
Hector gave the reaper a look, but Asad and Qorvass both laughed.
‘Zeff also brought us up to speed on the current plan,’ said Qorvass. ‘We were wondering if there was some way we could help.’
‘You’re asking me?’ said Garovel.
‘It is your plan, is it not?’ said Qorvass.
Garovel relinquished a nod. ‘I suppose it is. And now that you mention it, I was hoping to ask you for a favor. Would you mind going to Warrenhold ahead of us? Aboveground, I mean.’
‘We could do that,’ said Qorvass, ‘but would it not be more prudent to stick together?’
‘Perhaps, but it would also be very helpful to have someone who can open the entrance for us when we get there. The door is rather strong, and trying to break it down might prove problematic.’
‘Curious,’ said Qorvass.
“I understand,” said Asad. “I will send my children to do this task for you. I fear I may be needed in the Undercrust. One never knows what one will encounter down there.”
‘True enough,’ said Garovel. ‘How many children do you have, by the way?’
“Only two,” said Asad. Then he turned around to talk to his daughter, who’d been standing behind him the whole time. “Were you listening?”
“Yes, abbi,” said Jada.
He placed a hand on her shoulder. “Go to Kuros and fetch your brother. Then take him to Warrenhold and wait for me.” He turned to Garovel and Hector again. “Can you give her directions?”
‘Of course,’ said Garovel.
Jada interrupted, saying something in Valgan, to which Asad responded, also in Valgan.
Hector glanced at Garovel.
‘She’s asking about her mother,’ said Garovel privately. ‘Wants to know if she should bring her to Warrenhold, too. Asad says no. Jada says taking her brother will upset her mother. Asad says they’ll discuss it later.’
‘Apologies,’ said Qorvass to Hector and Garovel. ‘Please have no doubt that we will see this task completed.’
‘Your diligence is appreciated,’ said Garovel. ‘But before you send anyone to Warrenhold, there’s something I should mention. It concerns mental health.’