Monday, September 29, 2014

Page 840

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He didn’t understand why his parents wouldn’t just let him fight. They were wonderful and loving people, but they could be so frustrating sometimes. A big battle was on its way to their doorstep, and yet all of a sudden, he wasn’t allowed to participate? The absurdity of it boggled the mind.

He jumped up from his couch and paced across the room. There weren’t even any windows to look through, and the walls were all soul-strengthened in order to make sure he stayed put, as well as to conceal his presence from any curious reapers. Sure, it was spacious, having its own den and kitchen and bathroom; and sure, it was filled with all sorts of toys and other things that were obviously meant to keep him distracted, but he just wasn’t in the mood for--

Hold on. Was that a freaking merry-go-round tucked away in the corner? It was a bit small, but he hadn’t been one of those since he was a kid. Oh, man, he’d have to give his mother a big hug later. That magnificent woman thought of everything.

After a while of unadulterated joy, a ringing noise arrived. Next to the sealed door, Ismael’s face appeared on the monitor embedded in the wall. <“Ibai?”>

He bounded off his mechanical wonder and rushed over. “Hello, Papa! Can I come out yet?”

<“I’m afraid not, mijoro. I just wanted to check in on you. You will need to stay in there for a while yet.”>

“Agh!”

<“I know. But it is for your own safety.”>

“Yes, yes, same old drill. But I want to fight!”

<“I know you do.”>

He groaned again and walked away from the monitor, only to immediately walk back to it. “Okay, fine, no fighting. But still, Papa, there truly is no need to keep me locked up in here. You could send me abroad! Away from all the danger! I would adore a vacation! And I would be perfectly safe!”

<“You know why I can’t do that.”>

“I won’t hurt anyone. I promise. And I won’t cause trouble or attract too much attention, either. I know how important it is to remain hidden.”

<“I wish I could believe you.”>

“But you can! Papa, please! I understand! Believe me! Don’t leave me in here!”

And he saw his father hesitate. A flicker of uncertainty achieved at last. But that was all it was.

<“I am sorry. I will let you out soon.”> And the monitor went dark.

He was alone again. He clicked his lips apart and gave a loud sigh. And then, faintly, he smiled to himself. “Almost convinced you that time, Papa,” he whispered.

His hand brushed his chin and felt the fresh stubble there. Bah. Facial hair was such a bother. He moved to the bathroom and looked into the mirror. He extended two fingers, and from them, a brown shadow appeared. It formed a small blade, and he began shaving.

Page 839

Nere was looking even more frantic than usual now. “What are you saying?”

Rholtam didn’t answer. No one really needed him to. It was a discussion they’d had before.

“I fear Rholtam is right,” said Ismael. “He must die.”

“No!” said Nere. “We can’t! And even if we could--!”

“I know what you would say,” said Ismael, “but we have been down that road this entire time. Going along with him. And here is where we find ourselves. Again, we teeter on the verge of both treason and ruin because of his vile game.”

Nere still did not seem to agree, but if she had further arguments, she was not able to put them into words.

Ismael looked to Melchor again. “You are the only one who can do it. Any resources you require, you need only ask.”

Melchor inhaled deeply and folded his arms. “To be honest, I’m not certain I could manage it. Even under ideal circumstances, it would be a struggle.”

“It does not matter how you accomplish it, only that you do.” Ismael sat upright and seemed to find more strength in his voice as he spoke. “You must do it. Whatever happens, I want you to promise me that you will. Even if you are the only one of us who survives the coming battle, I want you to hunt him down and end his life. Even if all it will achieve is vengeance. That will be enough. Swear to me, Melchor. I need your word.”

Melchor looked at his cousin evenly. He hadn’t seen the man look so sure of himself in ages. The bags under the man’s eyes were still there, but that old clarity seemed to shine through regardless. Melchor’s chest swelled with a sudden purchase of honor, of pride in the man he now saw before him. “As the Lord of Marshrock commands,” said Melchor. “I swear, here and now before you all, that I will kill Parson Miles even if I must use my dying breath to do so.”

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These confines were exasperating. And just plain unfair, really. He was a grown man, after all. More than grown. Hell, at this point, he and his parents looked the same age.

Ibai Blackburn groaned aloud. He was already so bored. There wasn’t even anything good on television. News, news, and more news. What few cartoons he could find, he’d already seen. His favorite shows didn’t air new episodes until the weekend, and for all he knew, the castle might be in ruins by then.

Page 838

The anterior door opened, and through it came Nere Blackburn. The manic and haggard look on her face was not so different from that of her husband. She scurried straight toward Melchor and wrapped her skinny arms around him. “I am so glad you are safe,” she said into his chest. “I told Rholtam that we should not have sent you alone.”

Melchor returned the embrace, though his wasn’t quite the vice grip that hers was. He gave an acknowledging look to her reaper, who was hovering up behind her.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t greet you as soon as you returned,” she said. “Ibai wouldn’t--he... he was...”

“Being difficult?” said Melchor. And when the woman only nodded in response, Melchor exhaled a tired laugh and kissed the top of her head. “It’s alright. I’m fine.” As much as Ismael was a brother to him, Nere was a sister. Between the two of them, Melchor wasn’t sure whom he worried more about these days.

Nere released her hold on him and went to go sit next to her husband. Her strained eyes moved to Ismael’s face, and she shakily found his hand with her own.

Melchor saw Ismael squeeze her hand, but it was still not enough to stir the man back to sociability.

Rholtam picked up the slack for him. ‘Have you had a chance to assess the castle’s defenses?

“Not yet,” said Melchor. “It is next on my to-do list.”

Good. If possible, I would like Orric to look them over as well. I’m sure he can--

“I do not see an end to this,” said Ismael.

Everyone looked at him.

Ismael raised his head, gradually moving his gaze from each observer to the next. “I thought it could work. I thought we could keep our family together, but now... what hope is there? Truly? What hope? Tomorrow, they will come, and everything will unravel. Everything I’ve... everything... everything...” He rubbed his face with his free hand.

You’re wrong,’ said Rholtam. ‘There is hope still. But there can be no peace for us while that man still lives.’

No one needed him to specify which man he was talking about.

Rholtam wasn’t done. ‘We all know this, yes? Even if we weather this siege and somehow reconcile with the others, it will not prevent future conflicts arising in this same manner. The problem will remain.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Page 837

The Black Hall was the largest room in the castle, and its walls were a testament to ancient Arman architecture with their elaborate stonework and inlaid columns. Its ceiling, however, consisted entirely of natural rock. Its slanted, craggy surface hadn’t changed since the Armans first brought the rock to this wet place and carved a home out of it.

When Ismael noticed Melchor, he ordered everyone else to leave. Once upon a time, such an order from Ismael would have been shouted with confidence and perhaps even laughter, but here and now, Ismael only whispered his desire to his attendants, who then quietly ushered the crowd of people from the chamber.

Once they were alone, Ismael let the silence linger a while before finally speaking. “I am sorry for what I had you do,” he said.

“The Lord of Marshrock should not apologize for his decisions,” said Melchor.

Ismael’s eyes went to the floor. “Forgive my weakness, then.”

A tinge of irritation crossed Melchor’s face, but he held his tongue this time.

“I know that my selfishness is to blame for our circumstances.”

Our selfishness,’ the man’s reaper said. This one was named Rholtam, and he had been with House Blackburn longer than anyone else. ‘The responsibility is ours to share, my friend.

Ismael did not respond. He and his wife Nere had both retained the youth of their mid-thirties, but it had grown difficult to tell. He didn’t look old so much as just tired.

It pained Melchor to see him like this, but it had been many years since he’d seen much else in him. They were distant cousins by blood, but Melchor had come to feel like his older brother.

Rholtam gave a soundless ruffling of his feathers and looked at Melchor. ‘Will Orric be ready for battle by tomorrow morning?

“Yes. Is that when we expect our visitors to arrive?”

Indeed. We have enough aerial defenses along the way. Our opponents will have to do some night marching up through the marshes if they wish to avoid needless losses. In the meantime, we have already started evacuating the town.

“Where are you sending the refugees?”

To Intar. We’ve organized shelters for those who need them. I’m sure they’ll feel much safer across the border.

Melchor nodded.

Ismael still hadn’t reestablished eye contact with him.

“What of Ibai?” asked Melchor.

He is under guard,’ said Rholtam. ‘He made quite a fuss.

“I don’t doubt it.”

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Page 836

The monster opened its mouth, which was a small revelation unto itself. The creature didn’t have protruding lips of any kind, and until now, the place where its mouth resided had looked unsettlingly empty. But this wasn’t an improvement. Emiliana spotted a tongue and at least two rows of sharp teeth. And by the way its mouth kept moving, the monster looked like it was trying to speak, but no words came out. No sounds, even. Just more uncomfortable silence.

Emiliana had to blink a few times. She hadn’t even thought to try talking to it. After a few moments, she mustered up the courage to ask, “What are you?”

No answer.

And before she could pose another question, the monster faded away again, leaving no remnant of its presence. Emiliana checked the mirror one more time just to be sure it hadn’t suddenly appeared there in the manner of some freaky horror movie.

Alone again, she wasn’t sure if she should tell Chergoa about what had just happened. The reaper hadn’t been able to tell her anything useful the first time, and it wasn’t like anything had changed since then. Emiliana wrestled with the decision for a while until eventually choosing to keep the repeated encounter to herself. On top of everything, she didn’t need to give Chergoa more evidence that her servant was going crazy.

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Melchor needed his sleep. Even for him, it had been an exhausting night. Any time he and Orric had to use pan-rozum meant a bout of punishing fatigue was soon to follow. The recovery period had shortened immensely over the years, but it would still be many years more before they could use it without any recoil whatsoever.

When he awoke, he cleaned himself up and changed into a fresh suit. He let Orric continue sleeping. To his eyes, the reaper was a quaint jaybird, boasting deeply blue feathers with a few splotches of black and gray. The eyes glowed with black light, though at the moment, they were closed and so not luminous.

Melchor was still tired himself, but he knew that it was still a long ways yet before he could truly relax again. He left his empty bedroom behind and made for the Black Hall, where cousin Ismael was most likely to be at this hour. Relatives and attendants filled the barrel-vaulted corridors along the way, but they all made way for him whenever they saw him coming.