Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Page 161

“Please be careful,” she said.

“You as well.” And he was gone.

Helen turned away from the door, rubbing her flushed face and trying not to look at Mehlsanz.

Well, aren’t you just adorable.

She stiffened. ‘I was merely trying to ensure his cooperation.

No, you weren’t.

W-we are often apart, traveling internationally. Our relationship has--has been very--oh, why am I justifying myself to you, anyway?

Mehlsanz just laughed.

Excuse me,’ came another voice.

They both turned to see a second reaper hovering by the window.

I apologize for the interruption, but I’d like to inquire... Wait. Aren’t you Mehlsanz?

I am.’ She tilted her head. ‘Garovel?

You remember me. So it was you who revived the Queen, then?

Indeed.

I didn’t think the Vanguard was in the habit of reviving royalty. Wasn’t there a rule about that? Affecting the living world too greatly or some such?

I left the Vanguard,’ said Mehlsanz.

Garovel floated closer. ‘Why?

It’s a long story. Reviving the Queen was my attempt to stop the Vanguard from hunting me down.

They want to kill you?

They don’t just let you leave, anymore. It’s not like it was when you were there, Garovel. I attached myself to her because now killing me also means killing her.

Ah.’ Garovel eyed the Queen. ‘A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Your Majesty.

Helen nodded. “Likewise.”

What are you doing here?’ said Mehlsanz.

I was worried that whoever revived the Queen wanted to exploit her influence. I’m relieved to see that’s not the case. Or is it?

Of course not. Did you bring a servant?

I did.

How powerful?

Why do you ask?

Mehlsanz hesitated. She looked between Garovel and the Queen. ‘I was backed into a corner. They were going to kill me. You understand?

I don’t. What’re you getting at?

The Vanguard won’t come after me,’ she said. ‘But now... Abolish probably thinks that the Vanguard is trying to seize Atreya.

“Give the lady a prize,” said a voice beyond the bedchamber door. A man entered, dressed as a butler. He had a reaper with him. “That is indeed why we have come.”

Page 160

Helen’s smile weakened. “I also thought you might resent me for never wanting children.”

“Honestly, I never wanted children, either,” he said. “My family wanted an heir, of course, but I was quite content with upsetting them by then.”

What the fuck is happening right now?’ said Mehlsanz. ‘You do remember that there’s a murderer loose in the building, don’t you? More than one, if you count Nathaniel.

That brought Helen’s attention back to the present, and she looked at William again. “If you are not the one responsible, then the most probable suspect is Gabriel.”

The King blinked at her. “Gabriel?”

“Nathaniel poisoned my wine,” she said. “I have known all along that he was the assassin, but I do not yet know who convinced him to kill me.” She could see the gears turning in William’s head.

He pressed a hand to his temple. “Gabriel... yes... He has been trying to convince me to support the expansionist movement for months now. He wanted me to talk to you about it. He thinks you don’t listen to him.”

“That is because I don’t.”

“His nationalism must be even stronger than I imagined if he would go so far as to have you killed. His own sister...” He straightened. “This changes things. I need to meet with my aunt again. She probably knows more about Gabriel than I do.” He moved for the door.

Helen stepped closer. “Before you do, can you find a guardswoman named Lynnette Edith and tell her to come see me?”

“Lynnette Edith?”

“I do not wish to see her in public, but I need to amend my orders for her.”

He nodded. “Very well.”

They paused a moment, standing by the door together, both abruptly realizing that their conversation had ended. Then the King kissed her, and they let it linger.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Page 159

“I did no such thing! Helen! How can you even think that I--?!” He stopped himself, pensive. He took a breath and scratched his brow. “No. I understand. This is just like you, isn’t it? Suspecting everyone. And as well you should, I suppose. But I promise you, I had nothing to do with it. Any of it.”

“Convince me,” she said.

His expression hardened. “Fine. What are your reasons for suspecting me, then?”

It was her turn to be reluctant. “Well, firstly... you did not wish to marry me.”

“Helen, that was a lifetime ago...”

“What was the reason? Or reasons. Tell me the truth, William.”

He cast his eyes at the floor briefly, frowning as he looked back up at her again. “I had feelings for another woman when we met. She was a commoner. My parents did not approve and so organized my marriage to you.”

A familiar story. Her brother David experienced something similar, though he did not go through the marriage--or rather, he had gotten the woman to hate him so much that she refused to go through with it. As for William, Helen could believe him. She remembered how timid he was in those days, particularly around his family.

“I never resented you,” he said. He took a deep breath. “In fact, I... I’ve never loved anyone more in my life.”

Her eyes widened, and she turned red.

Wait, what?’ Mehlsanz floated around the two of them. ‘Why the hell are you blushing? You’ve been married to this guy for years, already.

Helen struggled for the right words. “I did not realize you felt that way...”

“I often find it difficult to tell you my feelings...”

Are you fucking kidding me?

“William, I also... love you.”

Hold on, this is a trick, isn’t it? You’re trying to trick him, somehow.

The King smiled.

The Queen smiled.

Holy shit, it’s not a trick.

Page 158

Hector felt the vigor course through him. He inhaled deeply and exhaled a laugh. “Okay, I will,” he said, drawing more discomforted glances. The sudden energy made every muscle in his body anxious. ‘How long does this boost last?

Should last about half an hour before I need to renew it. So, I won’t be long.

He looked through the fence another time and saw numerous guards patrolling the grounds. ‘Keep me updated.

Of course.

-+-+-+-+-

The guards found the body stuffed into a storage locker. They said it was a young man named Mark Stockton. She remembered him. He was a serving boy, no more than seventeen. He often brought her meals. She doubted that was coincidence.

Helen decided to cancel the rest of her silent meetings. Time was no longer her ally, she realized. And besides, Mehlsanz refused to leave her side now, apparently afraid to chance upon the murderer without Helen to protect her.

She found her husband just outside their bedchamber. She dismissed the attendant he was talking to and pushed him into the room, shutting the door behind her. “I need to know something, and I need to know it now,” she said.

The King straightened and met her gaze. “Yes?”

“Were you the one who tried to have me killed?”

His expression turned over on itself. He blinked and opened his mouth but hesitated. After a moment, his eyes narrowed. “Is that why you have been so distant these past few days? You suspect I had something to do with it?”

“Yes.”

He lowered his brow and breathed a short laugh. “I always did like your candor.”

“I do not see what is amusing,” she said. “Goddess, William, if you had that boy killed because of some quiet grudge against me, then I--”

Monday, July 29, 2013

Page 157

Just keep going until you see Belgrant Avenue and turn right. Should lead us straight there.

Hector had only been to Sescoria once before, years ago for a field trip in elementary school, and he didn’t remember much--just some museum, an old knights’ monument, and the palace itself, which was a massive, turreted affair with people always bustling through it. The city center, he discovered, was oddly similar in that regard. Pedestrians and vehicles filled the streets, and buildings were often rounded, if not perfectly cylindrical, with flat rooftops and arching windows.

Blue was a frequent color, he noticed. Sky blue brick here, pale blue wood there, even the sidewalk turned a faint blue as he rolled up toward the Belgrant Gatehouse.

To Hector’s eyes, Belgrant Castle was certainly no less impressive than a palace. Through the gaps between the fence’s thick, white bars, he could see a lush garden sprawling across an entire city block and a fountain splitting the center walkway up to the main entrance. The castle itself was a multi-towered structure, rising up four stories and flying Atreyan flags on both ends. He’d also heard that the rear of the castle extended out onto a small lake, but he couldn’t see it from this angle.

Passersby were starting to give him strange looks, so he removed his helm and held it under his arm. He saw two lines in front of the gatehouse: one for vehicles and one for foot traffic.

He looked at Garovel. ‘What’s the plan?

You wait here, while I scout the situation.

That plan sucks.

No arguing. I’ll tell you if I need you.

How would I get to you in time? Just climb the fence in broad daylight?

Yes.’ Garovel grabbed Hector’s shoulder. ‘I don’t care if you have to break into the castle live on television. You get your ass over there and protect me.

Page 156

Well. Color me impressed, Hector.

R-really?

Yeah. Unless you’ve just trapped your arms in your own metal, that is.

He smirked and annihilated the iron. He stretched his arms and popped his knuckles.

By the way, those people are staring at you.’ Garovel pointed to the pump station behind Hector, where a family of four was gawking with varying degrees of confusion.

Hector flushed red. “Uh... I was, uh... that... mgh...”

Time to go?

Y-yeah.’ He donned his helm and gave the family a stilted wave before roaring out of the gas station.

His helm didn’t have a visor like the riding helmet, so he had to get accustomed to squinting against the bit of wind that made it through.

He came upon an amusement park with a big green sign that read ‘Serpent World’ in swirling letters. He’d forgotten it even existed out here. The place was famous for its winding coasters and snake exhibits. He remembered wanting to visit as a kid.

Seeing the park meant they were close to the capital, he recalled, and sure enough, no more than ten minutes later, he could see Sescoria’s skyscrapers in the distance. A couple of suburban towns still lay in the way, but they soon fell behind him.

Traffic picked up as he entered the city, and he stiffened his posture, trying to watch the road even more carefully. He eased to a stop at the first intersection. ‘So, um, how do I get to the royal palace?’ he asked as he waited for the light to turn green.

The Queen doesn’t live in the palace,’ said Garovel. ‘She lives in Belgrant Castle.

Oh... then what’s the palace for?

Ceremonies, international receptions, that sort of thing. Though, I’m sure she could’ve lived in the palace if she wanted. Some of her relatives probably do.

Huh...

You really should know more about your own country, Hector.

I, ah... yeah, okay...

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Page 155

Hector snorted a laugh. He considered coating the inside of the helmet as well, but he figured it fit his head snugly enough already. He did add smoother corners to the jaw, however.

Hmm. What else can you do with your iron?

Uh... I’m not sure, actually...

Try creating something from scratch. Like a replica of your helm.

His brow receded at the idea, but he nodded and returned the helm to its satchel. He rubbed his hands together a moment, then slowly pulled them apart until it was as if he were holding an invisible ball between them.

Gradually, he could see the dust appear on his skin, gathering into powdery chunks, then into one larger mass, like grains of sand forming a tiny hill and climbing it.

But it didn’t take shape properly. Hector squinted as the iron amassed into an amorphous lump, far too small and nothing like the image in his head. He frowned at his work.

Wow,’ said Garovel. ‘You really did start shitting out metal turds.

It doesn’t look like...’ His frown deepened. ‘Actually, it kinda does...’ He let the lump drop from his hand and made it disintegrate before it touched the pavement. ‘Specific shapes are too difficult,’ he said. ‘Just giving things a thin coating is way easier.

I suppose that’s to be expected,’ said Garovel. ‘It’s like the difference between tracing a picture and drawing something completely new. But your skill is definitely growing. And iron coating could prove immensely useful. How much coating can you create?

Let’s see.’ Hector stuck his arms out as if hugging the air in front of him. He concentrated, and the metal began to swirl around his fingertips. Iron powder collected together, covering his hands completely in lustrous metal, running up his wrists, reaching for his elbows. It stopped before touching his shoulders, however, and he shut his eyes, shaking his head. ‘I think that’s all I can get...

Page 154 -- XVII.

Chapter Seventeen: ‘Hold thee dear...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Hector proceeded on, though the cruiser now sported a bent kickstand, a grass-smudged dent in the gas tank, and a missing left side mirror. His helmet had cracked open like an egg, and now he could feel the wind brushing the top of his head.

He soon stopped to refuel. He looked for a new helmet in the shop, but it didn’t have any.

Maybe you should just use your helm,’ the reaper suggested.

Hector reached into the satchel over the rear tire and pulled out the helm. The large gouge across the top right temple abruptly reminded him of his fight with Geoffrey.

Then again, maybe not.

Hector pursed his lips to one side. ‘I think I... hmm...’ He pressed his palm to the metal and slowly moved it across the cut. In his hand’s wake, the sundered metal was filled in. Once finished, he held it up to look at his work. His iron was clearly darker than the rest of the helm’s sheet metal, so it looked like a kind of jagged scar with specks of iron splaying outward.

Garovel tilted his head. ‘Hey. Since when have you been able to do that?

Uh... just now, I guess. I didn’t really think it’d work, honestly...’ He tapped a finger against it, and the iron rattled. ‘Ah, it’s loose, though. I couldn’t make it fit perfectly...

Oh, why don’t you just cover the whole thing?

Huh?

Instead of just filling it in, add an entire layer of iron.

He blinked. ‘That’s a great idea...’ He breathed deep and moved his hand all across the helm until it was completely darkened. The dents from the original molding were no longer visible. The new coating stuck fast, one solid chunk. ‘Wow... it’s a lot heavier now, but it’s a lot stronger, too...

And it doesn’t look so shit anymore.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Page 153

Things have reached a kind of stalemate, I suppose. Big shifts in power generally require these rising stars--that is, servants whose power is skyrocketing because they’re constantly involved in huge conflicts. Which happens quite a lot, actually, but I think the trouble nowadays is that the emperors are all paying close attention to this. When they see some young gun making waves in the world, they don’t just ignore that person.

What, so they just kill them?

Or recruit them, yeah. That’s the deadliest time period in a servant’s growth. You suddenly have four giants breathing down your neck, and you’re left with a choice: pick a side, or try to survive long enough to become an emperor yourself. Which isn’t exactly a fun dilemma to be in. I know a lot of reapers intentionally release their servants before they reach that threshold just so they won’t be targeted.

Hector’s eyes widened, and he shifted his hands. ‘A-are you gonna do that with me?

Don’t be stupid. Of course not.

But then... are you saying you want me to join the Vanguard? Or... become an emperor? Because I wasn’t really planning on, uh... I mean, I...

Garovel laughed. ‘I just want you to stay alive, Hector.

I... I mean, you’re talking about all this crazy stuff, but... I just wanna protect people... y’know, if I can...

That’s good enough for me. We’ll worry about it later.

Abruptly, Hector noticed a highway police truck coming the opposite direction. His posture went rigid, and he held his breath as he waited for it to pass. It did, and he watched in his side mirror, making sure it didn’t suddenly turn around.

After a few minutes, he relaxed again. Then he took the next turn too wide, ran off the road, and flipped the bike into a ditch.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Page 152

There are four names you need to be particularly aware of. They are Dozer, Morgunov, Sai-hee, and Sermung.

Hector squinted. ‘Dozer...?

You know how there’s also a country called Dozer, right?

Yeah...?

That’s not a coincidence.

Oh...

Morgunov and Dozer both lead Abolish, even though they’re said to hate each other. Sermung leads the Vanguard by himself, and Sai-hee is neutral.

This Sermung person fights two at once?

It’s not just them, remember. They have armies of reapers and servants supporting them, and even though they might be the most famous, their highest ranking subordinates are also extremely powerful. But yes, Sermung is an absolute monster.

I see...

Age is generally the determining factor. These four people have been emperors of the community for, I dunno, two or three hundred years now; and that’s because they’ve survived the longest. I think Sermung is about six hundred years old, and I think the others are all similar.

Eesh...

I know a little more about Sermung, because I actually met him before--him and his reaper, Tenebrach.

Whoa, what were they like?

They were a fiercely impressive pair. Honorable, intelligent, and... they had this odd presence that was just... overwhelming to be around.

You said... he’s six hundred years old, but... isn’t that actually kind of young? I mean, if the oldest servants are the most powerful, then I would’ve thought he’d be like... as old as you, basically. Y’know, thousands of years.

Ah. Yeah. Well. There’s a long and complicated history, but suffice to say, the most powerful people in the world tend to get killed, eventually. The longer an empire exists, the more prone to corruption and so forth it becomes. Sooner or later, new generations rise up; a massive power shift takes place; and then it’s utter chaos until a new balance of power is achieved.

But not in the past couple hundred years, you said?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Page 151

And honestly,’ Garovel went on, ‘I don’t think all the members of Abolish actually believe it, either. I think some of them just relish the opportunity for destruction. Which, y’know, I can almost understand. Destroying things is fun. But not when it causes wanton misery and death.

That kinda sounds like... someone we already know...

You noticed that, too, huh? I’ve been wondering if Geoffrey is somehow tied to Abolish, as well. But if he was, you’d think that he would’ve already known what reapers are before he met us.

Maybe he was lying.

Eh, that’s a strange thing to lie about. And I’m not sure Geoffrey even knows how to lie. He was more than happy to talk about his murders.

Ah... so then, what about this, uh... Vanguard group? They’re trying to protect the world?

Yeah. You have to understand, though, that both groups can be broken down into tons of smaller factions, each with slightly different goals or variations on the beliefs of the whole. While we might be able to find allies in the Vanguard, we can’t count on them to always be friendly. I remember a few reapers there that we really don’t wanna be around.

Wait. Are you a member of the Vanguard?

I used to be. My last servant and I worked with them for a long time, so I know a lot of reapers there.

Hector’s brow perked up. ‘Your last servant... what happened to him? Or... her?

We’d been together for a while, and he’d grown tired of it all. He decided that he was ready to die, so he asked me to release him. And I did.

What was he like?

Some other time. Right now, you need to know the big names--the most powerful servants in the world, that is. The names that everyone knows not to fuck with, including us.

Ah, uh--okay...

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Page 150

Well,’ said Garovel, ‘you remember how I said that some reapers are trying to make things worse?

Yeah?

I was talking about Abolish. That’s what they do.

Why?

The main reason is that they all want to “move on” into the afterlife. See, they believe that the reason reapers exist is to ferry human souls into the afterlife; and moreover, they believe that once there are no more souls left to ferry, our “purpose” will have been fulfilled, and we will then be able to proceed into the afterlife ourselves.

But... is that, I mean... is that true?

No. It’s bullshit. There’s absolutely no reason to believe we’d be magically transported to another plane of existence just because everyone on Eleg dies.

Y-you’re sure?

Even if we suppose that it is true, I still think it’s fucking crazy to use it as justification to destroy humanity.

Eesh... They really wanna destroy the human race? I mean... that’s just so...

Stupid?

It’s just... you guys can still die, right? I mean, if these Abolish guys wanna get to the afterlife so badly, then why don’t they... y’know... have one of their servants kill them or something?

Garovel sighed. ‘Because they believe in that fucking thing called “destiny.” They think a higher power has ordained us to be reapers, and if we kill ourselves to avoid that divine responsibility, then we get punished in the afterlife. Or some shit like that--I dunno. It’s all very disturbing. And also, because they’re cowardly, deluded bastards.

But... wouldn’t a higher power or whatever... have a problem with them killing everyone?

One would think. Hey, I told you they were fucking crazy.

Gah...

Though, I imagine that some reapers have actually done that before--just trained up a servant in order to end their own lives. But obviously, those reapers would be dead now, and not causing problems for us.

Mm, good point...

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Page 149

Save the dwindling towers of Brighton, rolling green hills filled all horizons as he sped across the road. White and dark clouds spotted an otherwise blue sky, and Hector could see a faint drizzle gathering on the visor of his helmet. Garovel had pointed out that it was unsafe to continue using a helmet that had already been involved in a collision, and Hector had promised to find a new one at the earliest convenience, since they were obviously so safety conscious.

He couldn’t remember a time when he saw the Atreyan countryside so clearly. The most mundane things drew his gaze. A massive, lone tree, branches sprawling higher and wider than anything he’d seen in Brighton. A quaint flock of sheep grazing on a hill, shepherd and dog not far away. The faint shadow of eastern mountains on his right, thankfully not between him and Sescoria.

Then he felt the bike shake beneath him and realized he was straddling the yellow ridges in the middle of the road. He corrected his course and decided to save his gawking for later.

There are some things I should tell you before we get there,’ said Garovel.

Things?

In particular, names. I don’t know what we’ll encounter in the capital, but I figure this’ll become relevant eventually, anyway, so I might as well tell you now.

Okay.’ Hector was just trying to keep his eyes on the road.

With reapers, there are two big entities: Abolish and the Vanguard. The balance of power shifts between them. Though, for all I know, there could be a third major power these days. I’m a bit out of the loop, if that wasn’t already obvious.

Hmm. These two sides are at war?

Constantly. All over the world. Been that way for ages.

Geez... what are they fighting about?

Monday, July 22, 2013

Page 148

Helen took her seat again. ‘You were a slave?

Only until I was old enough to give birth,’ said the reaper. ‘My master sold me off straight away. Little did they know that I was infertile.

With the young guardsman still present in the room, the Queen just glanced at Mehlsanz.

Anyhow, you should really get some meditating done.

I still do not understand how you could need me to protect you from anything.

Yeah, well. The world is a bigger and scarier place than you yet realize, Your Majesty.

Please do not call me that.

Helen of the House Belgrant?

Simply Helen will suffice.

Okay, Simply Helen.

You...

Sounds like the title of a movie. “Simply Helen. Come along as one woman discovers what it means to be herself.” I bet you’d go see it, too, you generic old biddy.

You are insufferable...

Yeah, you definitely would.

Please return to observing the castle.

Fine. Do your meditation while I’m gone.

Very well.

The reaper left, and Helen attempted to do as she was asked, but she found it incredibly difficult to meditate with a stranger watching her. Surely, the guardsman must have thought she was sleeping, and the idea that he would then return to his comrades and tell them of how he saw the Queen sleeping on the job was more than enough to disturb her focus.

At length, however, Mehlsanz interrupted her vain efforts. ‘Oh no...

What is it?

I found a wandering soul in the basement. Someone died down here. And recently, too.

How recently?

Hours, at most.

-+-+-+-+-

Hector didn’t mind the highway so much. The turns were long and gradual, and there wasn’t much traffic this early in the morning. The only bad part was having to avoid road debris. He couldn’t just run over a blown-out tire or a plastic jug and expect to keep control of the bike.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Page 147

“I am not certain as to what you are referring,” said Helen.

Jezebel frowned, and the many wrinkles on her plump face turned down as well. “You know there is considerable support for the expansionist movement, yes?”

“We believe your opposition to the movement is what prompted the attack,” said William.

“Ah,” said Helen. They weren’t telling her anything she didn’t already know. There wasn’t much else that would spur one of her brothers to kill her. But these two probably didn’t know that her brothers were responsible. All the same, she guarded her tongue. Until she knew their true loyalties, she saw little reason to give them information needlessly.

“I’m surprised you needed us to tell you,” said Jezebel. “A queen should know her court better.” The woman had never been short of criticism.

Helen gave a squinting smile. “I will take that under advisement. Can you tell me who leads the expansionist movement?”

“I’m afraid not,” said the duchess. “There are at least a dozen council members supporting it, all of equal standing.”

From the corner of her eye, Helen saw Mehlsanz phase through the wall. She decided to thank the duchess and the King for their information and return to the drawing room, reaper in tow.

You really think your husband did it?’ said Mehlsanz. ‘He seems like a decent man.

I must be certain. I never gave it much thought before--and perhaps I should have--but I recall William being initially reluctant to marry me.

Oh? And you weren’t?

I... quite fancied him.

Aha.

He has never been terribly affectionate. But then, neither have I.

Y’know, I had an arranged marriage, too. Though, I was a slave, so my parents didn’t really have a say in it, either.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Page 146

The drawing room’s side door opened, and a blond-bearded man popped his head through. He looked directly at Helen. “I know you wished not to be disturbed, but I need to speak with you.”

Helen excused herself and stepped into the adjacent room with him.

This man was William Belgrant. He was her husband. And in the event of her death, all the power of the Crown would pass to him.

According to Mehlsanz, he had been working harder than anyone else to find the assassin, but that somehow made him more suspicious in Helen’s mind. If she was honest, he was the very last person she wanted to be responsible for the assassination attempt, but that was emotion talking, not reason, and she refused to let that blindside her.

Still, it made little sense for him to desire her death. Yes, he was the King consort and not the King regent, but there was no terrific discrepancy between the two, unless his political views were wildly different from what he claimed they were. And surely, fourteen years of marriage had taught her something of this man’s heart. He may have had the biggest motivation to kill her, but she couldn’t imagine him doing such a thing. At the moment, anyway.

Taking long, slow blinks with bags under his eyes, William led her to the other end of the L-shaped chamber, and motioned to the rather broad, elderly woman standing there--his aunt, Duchess Jezebel Belgrant. “She told me something that I thought you should hear,” said William.

“I believe I know the assassin’s motivation,” said the duchess.

Helen merely waited for her to elaborate.

“It has to do with your tendency to... ignore certain members of your council. Most members, in fact.”

Friday, July 19, 2013

Page 145 -- XVI.

He had not forgotten what he heard the night before. Those five people with reapers had wanted the Queen to live, of course; but then, neither had they expressly forbidden him from killing her. So as far he was concerned, he was not technically disobeying Mr. Boulder.

Geoffrey’s grin only widened the more he thought about it. “This is going to upset some people I know,” he told the advisor as they exited together. “But that only makes me want to do it even more. I wonder what they will do.”


Chapter Sixteen: ‘Trust thy suspicious heart...’
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The last day of meetings with the Queen’s Guard had begun. Helen sat across from yet another discomforted young man in abject silence.

Having Mehlsanz observe the castle for the past few days had been a rather convenient means of gathering information. Only two of Helen’s brothers, Nathaniel and David, lived with her in Belgrant Castle, but all seven brothers were currently visiting. They had, of course, rushed to be by her side as soon as they heard the news of the assassination attempt. In fact, one of the reasons she had decided to employ this strategy was for the peace it afforded her from their incessant “advisement.”

To her mind, the most likely culprit was her oldest brother, Prince Gabriel, as he had been the presumed heir to the throne before her ascension. And yet, according to Mehlsanz, Gabriel was not behaving strangely. If he was guilty, then he was hiding it well enough to fool someone he couldn’t even see. However, Mehlsanz could not keep eyes on him at all times while still observing the others as well.

The young Lynnette Edith had thus far proven loyal. Mehlsanz had not seen her tell anyone of Helen’s orders, even when asked by her comrades, but again, Mehlsanz could only give an incomplete account of events.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Page 144

“Oh. Well, no deal then.”

“Y-y-you can do it yourself, if you like! It’s fine! Do whatever you want! I’m sure Prince Nathaniel would appreciate that kind of can-do attitude!”

Geoffrey thought a moment. “By chance, did you ask anyone else to do this before me?”

“Uh, y-yeah, I did. But they refused. So I came all the way out here to Brighton, because I heard of the Rofal family’s reputation--and might I just say, you have lived up to it most admirably. You certainly have. Why, I’m sure you’re a much better person for the job, anyway. I don’t know why I didn’t come to you first, in fact. How silly--”

“Please stop talking.”

The man just nodded.

Geoffrey frowned. “I suppose I should not kill you, then. My dear uncle said it was bad business to kill your employer, unless you wanted their job, and I certainly do not want yours.” He released the red shadow and used it to prop the advisor up on his feet. “When do you want me to do it?”

The man hesitated. “You don’t want to know why he wants her dead?”

“Not really, no. When do I kill her?”

“Ah--as soon as possible. Preferably before her press conference two days from now.”

Geoffrey just grinned.

“W-we tried to kill her before, you see, but we failed, and now Prince Nathaniel is worried, um, that-that she is going to expose him, so--”

“Yeah, whatever. Do I only get to kill the Queen, or can I kill some of the other royals, too?”

The man’s eyes bulged. “J-just the Queen, please...”

“Oh, very well.”

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Page 143

Geoffrey was not in the most amiable mood. Mr. Vincent Boulder had told him to go home and talk to his family, which in itself was no terrible thing, but even so. Geoffrey was being told what to do again. And perhaps worse, he couldn’t actually refuse.

So when he set his sharp eyes upon this strange man, the first thought through Geoffrey’s head was that he would very much like to torture this person. So he did.

There was no need for a chair. Geoffrey pinned him to the floor with a blanket of red and stood over him, smiling and trying to decide which body parts he wanted next. Swank, of course, had left the room shortly after the agonized screaming began.

“Why are you doing this?!” the man kept saying. His face looked much better now, Geoffrey thought. Replacing the eyebrows with bloody gashes made him seem much less condescending. “What possible reason could you have for doing this to me?!”

“Hmm.” Geoffrey stroked his own chin a moment. “How much do you like your nose, exactly?”

The man shrieked. “Please! Stop this! I’ll do anything you want! Just--! Please! I only wanted to talk!”

Geoffrey’s brow perked up. “Oh, right. What did you want to talk about, anyway? If it is something boring, you will not be leaving this room alive.”

The man whimpered. “I-I’m an advisor to Prince Nathaniel... and I was asked to find someone who w-would... u-um...”

Geoffrey placed a red blade under the man’s nose.

“Kill the Queen!” he said. “He asked me to find someone who would kill the Queen!”

“Aha.” Geoffrey smiled curiously. “And you want me to do it?”

“I-I think we thought you’d just, ah, s-send someone else to do it...”

Page 142

Hector hit the dirt head first. He tumbled over himself and landed just perfectly enough to see the bike sailing toward him. In the split second he had to react, he decided to embrace the madness and put his arms out wide to catch the bike. The rear tire crushed his ribcage, but his hands grasped the metal frame and held on.

Eyes wide, he set the bike down. He looked down at his caved-in chest and tasted a mouthful of blood. ‘It doesn’t hurt...

I got to you just in time,’ said Garovel. ‘You’re welcome by the way. And nice catch.

Practice resumed. By the time daylight began to wane, Hector had crashed several more times, though none so bad as before. When Hector finally felt as if he had acquired a passable degree of competence, the bike was hardly recognizable anymore with all its new dents and scratches.

As the engine began to make a fresh clanging noise, Hector slowed to a stop. ‘That can’t be a good sound...

Yeah. But it’s fine. We don’t need the bike to last that long. It’ll probably get destroyed one way or another, anyhow.

Really? It’s starting to grow on me, though...

Don’t get too attached. I’ll be shocked if it’s not a smoldering pile of scrap in a couple weeks.

Aww...

-+-+-+-+-

“I h-have someone here who wants to meet you...” Swank squirmed under Geoffrey’s gaze.

“Oh? Show them in, then.”

Swank exited the room briefly and returned with the person in question.

“You are the man in charge?” said the stranger, smiling in a groomed, confident way. “You’re much younger than I anticipated.”

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Page 141

Hector looked at him unhappily. ‘Geez... don’t do that again...

Sorry.

He looked at his fist, opening and closing it. ‘You were right, though. That was kind of easy...

Yep. All it really takes is an acknowledgement of your imaginary mind as something real. Which, y’know, isn’t very difficult, given everything you’ve already experienced. But that’s just for the basics.

Hmm. Why can’t normal people do this, again?

Because the soul has to be carved out of the body first, which is something only accomplished by death.

Does that mean Geoffrey died before, too?

Egh, I don’t know. Maybe. But I got the impression he had been that way his whole life.

Hector wanted to try materializing iron next, but Garovel said that could wait, so he returned to riding practice instead. He donned the riding helmet and mounted the bike. It was time to start picking up real speed.

He had not been looking forward to this part.

After going around in a circle and achieving his previous pace, Hector throttled up and shifted gears when Garovel told him to. The bike responded, and soon, he was going much faster than was comfortable. But that was the point of the exercise.

He sped across the massive parking lot, coming up to the edge and knowing he would have to make a gradual left turn. He moved the handlebars to the left, but the bike resisted and leaned the other direction.

Countersteer!’ said Garovel.

Oh, shit! But--!’ He struggled, and the bike just went straight.

Too late. Try to protect the bike, if you can.

Fuck!

The front tire hit the curb. The bike flipped, and he went flying.

Page 140

Yeah. Anywhere but my center, and you won’t hurt me.

You’re sure about this...?

Duh.

A-alright...

Don’t hold back. This is important, Hector. If you don’t learn this properly, we are both going to die. You understand? The only way to really stop a servant is to kill the reaper, and reapers can’t even touch each other, so it has to be you. Sooner or later, we will find ourselves in that situation, and if you can’t kill them, they will kill us. There is no doubt here.

Hector nodded slowly. ‘Okay. I, ah... I won’t...

Garovel’s brow lowered. ‘Excuse me? You won’t? Hector, what the--

N-no, I meant, ah... I won’t let anyone kill you. I’ll protect you. Definitely.

For a moment, the reaper just looked at him. ‘Well, prove it, then.’ He held out his skeletal hand.

Hector gathered his focus again. He envisioned the presence in his hand again. Determination colored everything in his mind. This had to work. Garovel’s life depended on it. He felt the massless weight, stronger than before. He threw the punch.

Garovel’s hand obliterated on impact. The reaper reeled back. ‘Agh, fuck! You asshole!

Oh, shit! I’m sorry!

Only joking.

Agh, wha...?

That was better, though. Good job. You’ve pretty much got it down, already, but you should keep practicing until it becomes second nature.

You dick...! I really thought I hurt you!

Oh, c’mon, that was funny.

But your hand is gone! How does that not hurt?!

Yeah, about that, um. It’ll grow back. And I don’t really feel pain. At least, not in the same way you do. It’s more like an extreme unease. It’s painful in the same way that a sudden surge of anxiety or fear is painful.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Page 139

Alright, try hitting me,’ said Garovel.

What?

That’s how we’ll gauge your progress. If you can hit me, then you can hit Geoffrey. Or another reaper.

Are you serious...?

Hey, I’m not thrilled about it, either. Why do you think I didn’t have you practicing this as soon as I revived you? Once you get it down, you’ll be able to kill me.

Then I definitely don’t want to practice on you...

Oh, please. You’re not going to kill me on accident, Hector. Give me some credit.

He pursed his lips. ‘Alright... here goes, then...’ Hector inhaled deeply and closed his eyes a moment. He made a fist and focused on it. Like anyone, he didn’t need to see his own fist in order to know where it was, but there was more to it now. He could place a presence into his fist, and it felt as if his entire arm had doubled in size. It hadn’t, of course, but there was a weight in his mind there, and he knew it was ready.

He smacked Garovel in the torso.

Garovel eyed him a moment, not looking particularly fazed. ‘Hmm. Well, I felt something at least. That was kind of pathetic, though.

Gah...

You sure you’re not holding back on me?

I... I don’t know, I mean... I really don’t want to hurt you, Garovel...

Okay, okay. Fine. How about just aiming for my perimeter, then?

Huh? Perimeter?

Yeah. You said you see me as a skeleton, right? So I have hands and feet and everything?

Uh... actually, I’m not sure whether you have feet or not. I see hands, though, yeah. You want me to punch your hand?

Page 138

Try the throttle,’ said Garovel. ‘Under your right hand. The brake is there, too.

The bike surged forward, faster than Hector expected. He pulled on the brake, and the back tire came up. He fell out of the seat. The bike skidded slowly into him on its side.

Garovel floated over to him. ‘Well. I guess the paint job wasn’t important.

The plan was to spend the entire day learning, of course. Garovel had allowed him to skip school, even, which gave Hector some idea of how important the reaper considered this trip to be. And as expected, the going was quite slow. He first practiced low-speed turns. Garovel advised him that for this type of motorcycle, turning at higher speeds would require countersteering, but to even reach those higher speeds, he had to be able to shift gears in a passable manner, which was perhaps the hardest part.

Shifting gears was an actual skill that he had to develop. It meant closing the throttle, holding the clutch, moving the lever with his left foot into the correct position, then easing off the clutch and throttling to pick up speed. Hector often released the clutch too quickly and ended up stalling the engine, but after a while, he started to get the hang of it.

Before attempting higher speeds, however, they decided to take a break. Hector had to fetch more fuel, anyway, and not being confident enough to actually ride to a gas station meant walking all the way there, purchasing a pair of canisters, filling them up, and overpaying the bearded clerk so that he didn’t think too hard about what Hector wanted it for. He also grabbed a bite to eat and took the opportunity to meditate for a little while.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Page 137

Try not to wreck it before we even get it on the road,’ Garovel said.

“Yeah, thanks...” He whipped his leg over the side and steadied himself. He was abruptly thankful it wasn’t taller, because his feet barely reached the ground. He attempted to mimic what he saw the guy do before, but Garovel stopped him as he went to turn the spindle below the handlebars.

Don’t do that,’ the reaper said. ‘That’s the choke. It enriches the fuel-air mixture in order to make the engine start more easily, but you only want to do that when the fuel is cold--or in other words, when the engine hasn’t been started recently. Otherwise, you’re just wasting fuel.

“Oh... how the hell do you know anything about motorcycles, anyway?”

I had a passing interest in them a few years back. I remember when I first saw one. Looked like a lot of fun. Then the guy riding it crashed into a hedge.

“How comforting...” He started the engine.

My knowledge is pretty spotty, though. You’ll be shocked, I’m sure, but I’ve never actually ridden one personally, so you’ll kinda be on your own with some things.

With the engine roaring, Hector reverted to thought. ‘Great... can you, um... can you at least tell me how to start moving?

Shift into first gear, and it should start going on its own, I think.

Uh... how do I shift into first gear?

There’s a lever by your left foot. Push it down.

He did as Garovel said, and indeed, the bike began to drift forward, slow enough that he could walk with it. ‘Now what?

Garovel hesitated. ‘Um...

Really? That’s the extent of your help?

Page 136

He squinted at Hector a moment, perhaps debating whether or not he wanted to answer that question. “Revenant is the name of the manufacturer,” he explained. “Softail is a type of rear suspension--basically means it’s not as bumpy as other bikes might be. RS1800 is the model number. Cruiser is just a general type of motorcycle, as opposed to say, a sport bike or a touring bike or something.”

“Ah... okay...” Hector eyed the bike’s silver frame and black leather seating.

“It’s about eight years old, now, and it has a hundred and eighty thousand kilometers. It’s been good to me, but keeping it maintained has become more of a hobby than a need, these past few years.”

Garovel started laughing. ‘I hope you like skulls, because this thing has them all over the gas tank.

“It, uh... it does actually run, right?”

The bike seller retrieved the key from a rack by the door, as well as a helmet and a jacket.

Hector tried to watch as carefully as possible while the man started the bike. He saw the guy turn the key in the ignition first, then turn a tiny spindle at the neck of the handlebars, then hold a metal clutch with his left hand, and then finally slam his foot down on the ratcheting lever beneath the seat. The engine roared to life, and the man took the bike out of the garage.

Hector watched him ride it up and down the street, and that was good enough for him. The money changed hands, as did the key and helmet, and Hector was soon wheeling the bike down the sidewalk. The man told him that all the paperwork was in a compartment beneath the saddle, but Hector wasn’t terribly concerned about it, and after seeing the money again, neither was the man.

He pushed the bike all the way to the empty parking lot of a long-abandoned department store. He took a deep breath as he stared at the machine.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Page 135 -- XV.

Roman let up. “I’m not so sure these fucking things can be tamed, Vincent. Just look at him.”

Each breath felt like swallowing fire, but the pain only delighted Geoffrey further. “Do you people know what I am?” he asked, voice raspy and torn. “Tell me!”

“Ah.” Vincent pulled the boy to his feet. “Learn to obey, and I will tell you all I know.”

Geoffrey’s expression soured.


Chapter Fifteen: ‘Behold! Thy deathly steed...!’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

This is the address that was in the ad,’ said Garovel.

I still think this is a terrible idea...

Just ring the doorbell.

Hector pushed the button and heard the chime go off inside the house.

A brawny, middle-aged bloke opened the door. He scratched his head as he looked at Hector. “Yeah?”

“Ah, I, uh... I’m the one who called earlier, uh... about your ad...”

“Ugh, you?” The man frowned. “Why ya gotta waste my time like this, kid? I thought you sounded young on the phone, but hell.”

“No, I, uh... I want to buy it for my dad.”

“Yeah, sure you do.” He started closing the door.

Hector stopped it with his hand. “Please, just...” He dropped a duffel bag full of cash on the doorstep.

The man eyed the money, and then Hector. “A gift for your dad, huh? Let me show you to the garage.”

Hector picked the bag back up and followed him around to the rear driveway. They entered a standalone shed where the man pulled a tarp off of a motorcycle.

“Here we are,” the man said. “You know much about bikes, kiddo?”

“N-not really, no...”

“Well, like the ad said, this is a Revenant Softail RS1800 Cruiser.”

“Right. Um... w-what do all those words mean, exactly?”

Page 134

“A good reputation is easiest to maintain when part of the business is both legal and public,” said Gerald.

“Whatever, old man,” said Roman. “Vincent’s the only one of us who really needs a legitimate business.”

“A certain degree of independence is also important. But I don’t expect a thief to understand a businessman’s thinking.”

Geoffrey despised listening to this drivel. None of it was of any concern to him. Eyeing the reapers again, he wondered why none of them ever said anything. Perhaps they were hiding their voices from each other for some reason. Or from him. Unlike their human associates, the reapers seemed particularly wary of his presence, which pleased him to no end.

The people kept talking, but Geoffrey had ceased paying attention. Instead, he made a game of staring at the reapers, trying to see just how unsettled he could make them. His game came to an abrupt end, however, as Roman grabbed him by the neck and pinned him to the floor.

“My friend doesn’t like you,” said Roman. “And I’m inclined to agree with her.”

“Stop,” said Vincent. “The Rofal boy is my guest.”

“This thing isn’t even human,” said Roman. “I don’t see a reason to let it live.” Roman’s fingers dug through the red shadow and reached Geoffrey’s skin.

His neck started to burn. The man’s hand felt like acid against his flesh. Geoffrey cringed in real agony. But after a moment, he began to laugh. “You can actually hurt me!” he said, eyes widening eagerly. “Aha! More!”

Roman obliged, and Geoffrey’s laughter turned to coughing.

Vincent stepped closer but did not intervene. “It’s true that he requires discipline, but he could be a useful pet. And we can use him to leverage the Rofals for support. Killing him would certainly burn that bridge.”

Friday, July 12, 2013

Page 133

“I’m not saying we should stick our necks out for her,” said Vincent. “But I do think one of us should go to the capital and observe the situation. If things go badly enough, it may be best to pull up our roots and move to a new country.”

“Fuck that!” said the man in glasses. “Atreya is my home. I’m not leaving for anyone.”

The others all eyed him.

“That is your choice,” said Vincent.

“We already have plenty of eyes in the capital,” said the plump woman.

“Yes, but only a servant’s eyes will do. It has to be one of us.”

A brief silence fell over the group. “Are you volunteering?” asked the oldest man.

“If that is the group’s wish,” said Vincent. “But truth be told, I was hoping Roman would do it.”

The man in glasses cocked an eyebrow. “Why me? Gerald lives in the capital.”

“He can support you, but your ability is ideal for the task. If you need to kill anyone, you’ll have the easiest time making the body disappear.”

Roman frowned. “I do have my own affairs to run, you know.”

“I’m sure your second-in-command can handle things while you’re gone,” said Vincent.

“Ugh. Fine.” Roman looked at the old man in overalls. “Mind if I temp at your garage, then?”

Gerald looked similarly displeased. “Just as a cover, right? You won’t be doing actual work, will you?”

“I don’t even work at my real job. You think I want to touch your shitty cars?”

“As long as that’s clear. I have an actual clientele depending on my mechanics.”

Roman laughed. “Right. You just spend time with us because you like our personalities so much.”

Page 132

“You think so?” said a younger man. This one looked like a common office worker in a plain gray suit and black-rimmed spectacles. “Isn’t that why we refused that idiot prince’s request in the first place?”

“Yes,” said Vincent, “but if the investigators don’t realize it was his doing, then the result is the same. And I’m betting the prince will make sure they don’t realize.”

“Fair point,” said one of the two women at the table. She was younger as well, with a plump, rosy face. “If the public believes some random criminal tried to kill the Queen, then there’ll be a wave of support for stricter legislation and law enforcement across the board. Things’ll only get harder for us.”

“But the Queen must have her own plans as well,” said the other woman. “She has clearly been taking her sweet time with this whole ordeal. She might just expose the true culprit on her own.”

“Perhaps,” said Vincent, “but if we can assist in that, we should. Or at least ensure a suitable scapegoat takes the fall.”

“You want us to help the Queen?” said the oldest man. “Us?”

“She is young,” said Vincent, “and likely now a servant as well. If she were to become indebted to us, our position would be much improved, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Are you serious?” said the man in glasses. “That woman is going to have a target on her back, and not just from her brothers. If she really has a reaper now, then the Vanguard and Abolish must be watching her. One or both of them could send someone to kill her. Are you suggesting we get in the middle of that shitstorm?”

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Page 131

“Have a seat, boy,” said an older gentleman on the right.

Geoffrey approached them, and the reapers all edged away from him. To his eyes, each reaper looked very human, except a bit blurry and flickering like an old video recording. “Why did you invite me here?” he asked.

“Because I liked your uncle,” the same man said. “Now be quiet. You haven’t earned the right to speak at our table.”

Geoffrey’s smile tightened. “I do not like being told what to do.”

The man held up an open hand and clenched it into a fist. “I said be quiet.”

The air escaped from Geoffrey’s lungs. His eyes bulged as he struggled for breath and found none available. He glared at the man and ran forward, but an invisible pressure held him back, sturdy as if a wall had been there.

Geoffrey lashed out with red, snaking around the room and across the table at the man’s reaper.

The man stood and speared the shadow through the center with only an index finger. The shadow crackled and died. “I didn’t know you were a monster when I invited you here,” said the man, “but it changes nothing. You will learn respect, boy.”

Geoffrey fell to his knees, able to breathe again. He scowled at all of them, but they paid him little mind.

“What were we talking about?” said someone with a low, scraping voice. This one was an even older gentleman, oily smudges all over his face and faded overalls. “Vincent?”

The man from before acknowledged his own name. “This business with the Queen,” he said. “Each of our enterprises will likely suffer if blame for the attack is shifted to a criminal body.”

Page 130

“Oh, I’m no one important,” the man said. “But I’ve been waiting here because I’ve heard you’re the guy to ask about getting certain jobs done.”

Swank could not imagine a more annoying answer. Still, he restrained himself with another mouthful of vodka and said, “That so?”

“I hear your boss is a man with discreet interests.”

Swank rolled his eyes. “I guess you haven’t heard that he’s also dead now.”

For some reason, the man took that as an invitation to sit down. “I’m sorry to hear that. Does that mean you’re in charge now?”

“No.”

“So you have a new boss, then. Perhaps I can meet him, instead.”

He held back a laugh. “Trust me, guy. You don’t wanna meet my new boss.”

“Oh, but I do. The sooner the better, in fact.”

Swank eyed the man. Something about the guy’s face annoyed him, really clean-shaven with a chiseled jawline and a condescending look in his eyes. Swank took a longer swig. “On second thought, I’d like to see that, too.”

-+-+-+-+-

Geoffrey tilted his head as he laid eyes on the lone pancake house. He hadn’t been sure what to expect. Having to leave Brighton for some little town called Chesterville was strange enough to pique his interest on its own, but when he had also seen that the invitation was from the CEO of Boulder Inc., Geoffrey had been positively brimming with curiosity. Alone under a luminous moon, he entered.

Five people sat around a pair of joined tables. They all turned to look at him--as did the five accompanying reapers.

Geoffrey gave an open-mouthed smile as he looked over everyone.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Page 129

Geoffrey was decidedly not his uncle. Joseph Rofal understood that killing his employees for failure served no purpose. Geoffrey did not. Or perhaps he did and just didn’t care, because simply fleeing was also out of the question. Two men tried to leave the city the other day. Geoffrey had their heads in his office now.

The search for Colt had not been much better. Of the three men that Swank sent to retrieve Colt’s personnel file from the police station, only one returned, delivering a message to stop looking for the man. Geoffrey killed the poor bastard anyway.

He had no idea what to do at this point. The Rofal empire was a sinking ship, and its new captain didn’t give a shit, because he was a fucking shark.

Swank left the girl’s body where it was. He pulled his coat’s collar up around his neck and stuffed his hands in his pockets as he walked. He had been on his way to a bar, and now, the idea of getting hammered out of his mind seemed even more appealing. It wouldn’t do much to settle his stomach, but that wasn’t really the point, anyway. He turned into his usual place, the neon green sign reading Bart’s Bar. It was an armpit of an establishment, but he had yet to find a place with cheaper booze. He took the first seat he saw and petitioned the bartender for a bottle of vodka.

Not long into his drink, however, a man on the other side of the room got up and ventured over. “Are you Swank?”

Swank nearly told him to fuck off, but after reflecting for a moment on his recent string of luck, he decided he’d try not to piss off a total stranger. “Yeah. Who are you?”

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Page 128 -- XIV.

Chapter Fourteen: ‘Foul souls, gather ye wits...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Timothy Swank ducked into an alley and held his breath. In a cold sweat, he listened for the footsteps to pass. They did not.

“Are you trying to hide from me?”

He saw the figure there and screamed. “Please...! D-don’t...!”

“Oh, stop your shrieking,” said Geoffrey. Only, it wasn’t Geoffrey. It was one of his expressionless puppets. This one was a girl, and she might have been cute before, but now her sickly pale skin and listless eyes just made Swank want to run away. “I am not going to kill you, Mr. Swank. You are much more useful to me alive.” The rest of her face didn’t match the words coming out of her mouth at all.

He swallowed the lump in his throat and tried to shrink into the brick behind him. “You can make them talk,” he said, trying not to tremble too visibly. “You weren’t doing that yesterday...”

“Yes, I know.” The puppet girl’s smile made Swank cringe.

“I s-still don’t know where Colt is... so, u-um... I mean, I’m looking. Of course I’m looking. But he’s just--no one’s seen him, so, ah, I d-don’t... please...”

“I see. How unfortunate. I just wanted to check in. I am about to go into a meeting, but please keep searching in the meantime.” A red vapor released from the girl’s skin like a kettle just gone off, and she collapsed to the ground, twitching.

Swank thought he might vomit.

The past few days had been hell. He’d barely managed to escape the Rofal mansion with his life. Between Geoffrey, Colt, and that freaky kid in the mask, that place had been an absolute minefield, but somehow, shitting his pants in the corner of the room had been enough to render him beneath notice.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Page 127

Don’t give me that look. Meeting her won’t be dangerous. If she’s just been revived, then she won’t be able to hurt me yet. But I definitely want you to escort me everywhere else. We might not be the only reaper and servant to pay her a visit.

“You think so? Do you, uh... do you think I’m ready to fight another servant?”

Garovel fell quiet a moment. ‘We won’t engage anyone like that unless we absolutely have to. But all the same, you’d better start meditating.

“Right...”

Oh, but before you do, lay out the classified ads for me.

“What for?”

I’ll see about finding you transport. Sescoria is a good four hundred kilometers away. You can’t just run there.

“So I’ll take a train.”

Yeah... Problem with that is, we might have to leave Sescoria in a hurry. If we’re getting chased, you won’t exactly have time to stand around waiting for a train to arrive.

“O-okay, but... I don’t even have a driver’s license...”

I’ll give you a day to practice.

“Oh, gee, a whole day?”

Twenty-four hours of nonstop practice should be more than enough to get the basics down.

“Uh, but it’s still illegal...”

The reaper shrugged. ‘Eh.

He sighed. “This is gonna end with me impaled on a fencepost or something, isn’t it...?”

Probably.

“Ugh...” Hector rubbed his face. “This whole thing feels like a terrible idea...”

I know it does. But a hell of a lot of lives could be in danger. And if they aren’t, then so much the better. It could still be an opportunity to make a valuable ally.

“Yeah... I guess you’re right...”

We only have a few days before her public appearance. Let’s not waste them.

He nodded.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Page 126

Mainly, the fact that it took her an hour to report the attack, but also the fact that no one else seems to know anything about it. Perhaps the reason she waited so long was because the assassin actually succeeded in killing her.

“Damn... a reaper revived the freaking Queen?”

There could be some other explanation I’m not thinking of. But it’s not unheard of for reapers to take on people in positions of power and try to use that person for some purpose.

“Holy shit... are you saying what I think you’re saying...?”

Garovel looked at him heavily. ‘If a reaper is controlling the Queen, then we’d better find out what their intentions are.

“They could... they could start a fucking war, couldn’t they?”

It’s a possibility.

“...What do we do?”

Hmm.’ Garovel moved away from the paper. ‘It’ll be dangerous, but I think we should go to the capital and try to see the Queen.

“Really? But, um... should we, uh... should we really just leave Brighton? I mean... what about Geoffrey? He could be hurting people. I feel like we should... uh, stay and... kill him...”

That’s another reason why I want to go, actually. I’m wondering if the Queen’s reaper can tell us anything about what Geoffrey is. If they chose to revive a queen, then they’re probably more informed about circumstances around the world than I currently am.

“Hmm. But even still... there’s no way we’d be able to get an audience with the Queen. I mean... even if someone hadn’t just tried to kill her...”

I can go in alone.

Hector just lowered his brow.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Page 125

“Ugh... Y’know, I thought you’d be a faster reader than this.”

Oh, I’m sorry. How many non-native languages can YOU read? Because I’m only fluent in about three hundred or so.

Hector blinked. “Three hundred?!”

Well. A good number of them are dead, but still.

“Hmm... You’re thousands of years old, though. So that’s only like one new language every hundred years. Not all that impressive, really.”

Oh, shut up.

After quietly agonizing through a few problems with trigonometric functions, he was relieved to hear Garovel begin musing again.

Hmm...

“What’s the matter?”

It’s just, this article...

“Are you gonna start spinning wild theories, now?”

No.’ A beat passed. ‘Maybe.

“Ha.”

It says the Queen informed her own guards of the attack an hour after it occurred.

“Huh... Is that odd?”

Well. Kind of. You’d think the Queen’s Guard would be a bit more on the ball, wouldn’t you? Even if they’d been unable to stop the assailant, shouldn’t they have at least known there was one? If not right away, then surely within an hour?

“Well... uh... maybe there wasn’t an assailant. Maybe someone just poisoned her drink or something, and no one saw who.”

Hmm. It says here that the Queen was “in a state of confusion” and has yet to remember any details of the attack. What the hell does that mean?

“Yeah, I dunno about that one...”

Apparently, she’s scheduled a public press conference a few days from now, and they’re expecting more details then.

“Weird... It’s already been three whole days, right?”

This sounds like... a reaper may have been involved.

Hector reared back. “W-what? What makes you think that...?”

Friday, July 5, 2013

Page 124

Turn the page, please,’ said Garovel.

He did so. “How much do you know about the Queen, anyway?”

Not much. I know she’s quite young for a functional monarch. Still in her early thirties, I believe. And I know it was a big deal when she was appointed by her father.

“Oh yeah, I remember that. It was only like four years ago, wasn’t it?”

Yeah. She’s the youngest of eight direct descendants, and all seven of her siblings are male. The King broke Atreyan royal tradition in a big way by choosing her.

“That’s right... I remember ‘cause everyone thought she’d rule in name only or just... have her power taken away as soon as her father died... but he died like a year later, and nothing’s changed. Well... until now, I guess...”

I wonder if one of those siblings is responsible for the attempt on her life.

Hector’s brow receded. “One of her own brothers...? That’d be so fucked up...”

Well, when you have that kind of power within your reach, and you’re raised to believe it’s your destiny or some stupid shit like that, only to see it given to someone else... I mean, who knows if that’s really the case? But it’s not hard to imagine, given what a huge fuss was made over her appointment initially.

“Geez...”

Shouldn’t you be focusing on your math, by the way?

Hector sighed. “I should be meditating...”

You meditate way too deeply, you freak. I need you to turn the pages for me right now.

“Maybe I can just... hang the pages from the ceiling, and you can float around them or something...”

Just do your damn homework. You can meditate later.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Page 123

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Perhaps,’ said Helen. ‘But the tradition of primogeniture is not so easily ignored.

Well, yeah. I doubt your father intended for the succession to get you murdered.

Given my circumstances, it now seems more likely that my father appointed me not because he believed I would do well, but because he believed others would do evil.

Hmm.

The most irritating part of it all is that I saw the assassination coming in time, and yet I could not save myself. Suddenly, my most trusted subordinates were nowhere to be found. I died, because I misjudged the true characters of my friends.

Ah. Hence, your determination not to make that mistake twice.

Yes...

-+-+-+-+-

Sitting in his room, Hector scratched his head as he struggled over his algebra homework. Garovel floated next to him, reading the newspaper sprawled across his desk.

The rest of the school day had gone rather strangely. His new group of lunch friends had been extremely apologetic, even though he couldn’t imagine what they had to feel sorry for. They ended up discussing television and pudding, afterwards, though Hector mostly just listened.

Carpentry club had been the real surprise, however. Word had gotten around of Hector’s tumble down a flight of stairs, and when he had hobbled into the clubroom, thinking he would get a bit more work done on his helm, he had been assailed with a slew of inquiries and concerns about his health from everyone in the club. People who had ignored him for the past year were suddenly talking to him again. He handled the situation the best way he knew how. By running away. Or waddling briskly away, at least.

Page 122

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“Please recite your task back to me.”

“In two days, I will begin observing Prince Nathaniel’s bedchamber. When someone arrives to plant evidence, I will remove it and follow the perpetrator, where I will attempt to learn the identity of the person responsible.”

“It will likely be one or more of my brothers. I merely need to know which.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Now be on your way. If anyone asks what happened during our meeting, tell them that you sat with me in silence, just like everyone else.”

“As you command.” Lynnette stood and returned her sword to its place on her belt.

“And please send in the next person on your way out.”

Lynnette nodded and exited the drawing room.

Helen eyed the reaper. ‘I would like you to accompany her when the time arrives.

You don’t trust her to follow your orders?

This is not just about finding my enemies,’ the Queen said. ‘I need new allies. I hope you will be able to tell me if she is as trustworthy as I think she is.

Alright. I suppose I don’t have anything better to do.

The next member of the Queen’s Guard entered, and Helen bade him sit, allowing the quiet to return in force.

Mehlsanz floated around the new guest, eyeing him and soon growing bored. ‘Do you really have no idea who convinced Nathaniel to kill you?’ she asked.

I fear I do not know my family as well as I should. I have often wondered what my father was thinking when he chose me as his successor. Surely, he must have known the ire it would earn me.

He must’ve really believed you were the best person for the job.

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“You must tell no one of your work. Not your family. Not your friends. Not your superiors. No one can support you in these endeavors, except me.”

“What endeavors, ma’am?”

“Two days from now, you will begin to observe my brother Nathaniel’s chambers in secret.”

“Prince Nathaniel? May I ask why?”

“At that time, I am almost certain that someone will attempt to plant evidence that implicates him as the assassin. I want you to remove said evidence and then follow the person who planted it.”

Lynnette blinked. “Why would someone want to frame him?”

“Because he is guilty.”

Lynnette blinked again. “W-what? I don’t understand...”

“I have seven brothers,” the Queen said. “Nathaniel is by far the most foolish. And while that does not allow me to forgive what he has done, there is no doubt in my mind that someone is using him. I want you to help me discover who my true opponent is.”

The young woman’s expression wavered for only a moment. “I understand, Your Highness. I will do as you command.”

“Thank you, Lynnette. However, I must tell you, your circumstances will temporarily worsen, and I will not be able to improve them without revealing my intentions to my enemies. I am going to have you demoted to nightly patrols, where your absence among the Guard will be least problematic, but it will still not go unnoticed. Your superiors may have you removed from the Queen’s Guard entirely.”

“I understand...”

“Endure this hardship for me, and I shall show my gratitude as only I can. You and your entire family will want for nothing. That is my promise.”

“Thank you, Your Highness.”

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“My family, Your Highness?” said Lynnette. “Because I am lowborn...?”

“Indeed,” she said plainly. “Lowborn families are rare, and while I am under no delusions that this alone renders you without ambitions or unequivocally loyal to me, I believe the fact that you are also ostracized by your comrades splits the difference.”

The young woman’s ice blue gaze hardened. “They don’t ostracize me, Your Highness. I ostracize them.”

“Oh? And why is that?”

“Because... ah... I must apologize, Your Highness. I spoke carelessly.”

“No,” said Helen, returning to her chair of velvet and rosewood. “Please speak candidly.”

Lynnette took a moment to become certain again. “They are undisciplined, elitist fools, Your Highness. They think every minor effort they put forth deserves praise and rewards.”

The Queen’s hands came together at their fingertips. “I knew I would like you.” She could hear Mehlsanz chortling.

The girl’s expression betrayed nothing of her thoughts.

Helen decided to move on. “So. What have people been saying about my sudden interest in my guardsmen? What rumors have you heard?”

Lynnette seemed reluctant but answered nonetheless. “Most people seem to think you’re looking for someone to investigate the assassination attempt in secret, because you don’t trust the official investigators.”

“Ah. I thought as much. Is that what you believe, as well?”

“In all honesty, ma’am, I don’t really listen to rumors. I find them tedious.”

“That is unfortunate, because you are going to start,” said Helen. “You are my secret ally. You will tell me what others are afraid to. Listening to rumors is now very much worth your time.”

“But, Your Highness...”

“I believe I have made myself clear.”

She straightened, and then nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

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I would have thought a reaper of death to be well-suited to the task of waiting.

Suited. Not pleased.

When the large doors opened once more and a young woman entered, Helen stood to greet her. “Please have a seat,” she said.

The girl sat. She removed the sheathed sword from her belt and rested it by her side--a respectful gesture, if a bit antiquated due to the decline of swords among the Queen’s Guard.

Lynnette Edith was her name. Only nineteen, according to her file, but her sharp eyes and harsh cheek bones made her look older. Her caramel brown skin clashed against the white-and-blue uniform. She kept her wavy, raven hair in a braided ponytail that came over her shoulder, and she was clearly not afraid to look the Queen in the eye.

“Do you carry that weapon wherever you go?” Helen asked.

“Yes, I do, Your Highness.”

Helen did not let the silence last. “You are curious as to your presence here, no?”

“Yes, ma’am. Everyone is.”

“It is all a ruse,” the Queen said.

“Ma’am...?”

“To organize this very meeting with you,” she explained. “If I met with you out of the blue, everyone would wonder why. You would be given far too much attention, which would ruin everything. If I meet with all one hundred and twelve of my Guard, however, then this meeting here becomes a matter of course.”

Lynnette’s posture stiffened. “Why would Your Highness wish to have a secret meeting with me? What could I possibly--?”

“You are one of the few people in this castle whom I believe I can trust. Most of your peers carry obligations toward their families, which exist within a sphere of complications and nuisances, to put it mildly. Your family, however, affords me no such trouble.”

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Page 118 -- XIII.

Chapter Thirteen: ‘O, blood of noble birth...!’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

The drawing room was quiet. Helen merely continued reading in silence as the young man on the other side of the broad writing table shifted uncomfortably for the twentieth time.

Helen had forgotten his name. “V”-something, perhaps. Highborn. Ties to her cousins in the House of Carthrace. Both attributes which disqualified him.

After a while of fidgeting, the young man finally grew bold enough to pose a familiar question. “F-forgive me if I sound impertinent, Your Majesty, but is there a purpose to this visit?”

She smiled. Your Majesty was how commoners addressed her. He should have said Your Highness. It made no difference to her, of course, other than providing amusement. “What purpose need there be?” she said.

The boy’s face spoke of difficulty. “Begging your pardon, Your Majesty, but it seems very strange that you would invite so many of us to sit with you individually... without purpose.”

“Why should it be strange?” she said.

He had no answer, and the silence returned.

She looked at her clock filigreed in silver. “You may go now,” she said. As the boy stood, she added, “Please send in the next person as you leave.” She watched him go.

It’s finally the girl’s turn, isn’t it?’ said Mehlsanz. ‘Please tell me it is. I’m so sick of this waiting.

Helen glanced at the reaper by the furnace. To her eyes, Mehlsanz was a ghostly gray thing, vaguely feminine in form, and perhaps even beautiful, in a haunting way. ‘Indeed,’ Helen said. ‘I honestly do not care much for the waiting, either.

You couldn’t come up with a plan that required less patience?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Page 117

Hector struggled through the day. He wished there wasn’t so much damn walking. A few times, he considered skipping class to go take a nap somewhere, but he knew Garovel wouldn’t permit it. He tried to pay attention to each lecture, but he felt like he had missed more than a few things.

History class was the worst yet. Mr. Cormac was talking about the rise of workers’ unions, and people kept raising their hands to ask questions about the royal family. Hector stopped trying to follow what was going on and just shut his eyes.

Garovel, however, did not. ‘Something’s strange here...

Hmm?

Raise your hand and ask why everyone is suddenly so interested in the Crown.

What? Why?

Because I want to know.

But... I don’t like to... participate...

I don’t care. You can be a shy bastard on your own time.

He sighed and raised his hand.

Mr. Cormac stared at the hand a moment, about ready to lose his patience. “Yes, Hector?”

“Uh... sorry, I was just wondering... why... everyone else was asking about the royal family...”

A few laughs rang out, and the entire classroom turned to look at him.

His knuckles went white around the edges of his desk. ‘Oh, fuck. What did you make me do...?

“You’re joking, right?” someone said.

“He really doesn’t know?” said someone else.

He tried to melt into his seat. “D-did... did something happen...?”

“I know you’ve been absent,” said Mr. Cormac, “but you didn’t hear about it on the news or from your parents or anything?”

“H-hear what...?”

“Three days ago, someone tried to assassinate the Queen.”

Hector and Garovel exchanged confused expressions.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Page 116

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“I fell down the stairs!” he blurted.

“Holy crap, seriously?!” Micah came closer, sizing him up and down. “Is that why you’ve been missing school? Did you break anything? Did you go to the hospital?”

“N-no... I’m okay. Just some... really bad bruising...”

“Wow, dude. Need me to carry your bag for you?”

He tightened his grip on the straps. “Th-that’s alright... I’d rather hold onto it.”

“Alright, well... come sit with us again at lunch, okay? We were worried when you didn’t show up to school the past couple days. Sheryl thought she might’ve scared you off or something.”

“Ah... yeah, okay...”

They walked to class together, and Hector was glad when he could sink into his chair in the corner of the room and just listen to the teacher talk. It was difficult to understand, having fallen so far behind on his homework, but he welcomed the comfortable normality of it. And the chair. Not having to walk anymore was amazing. He rubbed his chest and closed his eyes, trying not to groan.

By the way,’ said Garovel, ‘are you feeling alright? In your head, that is. Not your body.

Hector threw him a look. ‘Excuse me...?

You’re not feeling light-headed or disoriented at all? No inexplicable confusion or anything?

No... why?

No reason.

Garovel...

The reaper hesitated. ‘When I’m close to death, it will begin to affect you. Your consciousness will begin to... well... tear itself from your body. Perhaps even destroying itself in the process.

Ah... and disorientation is a warning sign?

Yeah. I suppose I wasn’t as wounded as I thought. You’d be feeling some lingering effects, if I was.

Page 115

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Those powers are the result of a marriage between something real and something imaginary. It’s the same for Geoffrey’s shield.

I think I get it... maybe...

So, in order to fight it, you have to add a mental--or imaginary--side to your attacks.

And how do I do that?

Oh, it’s not that difficult. Because your body has already had its soul “hollowed” out, so to speak, you’ll be able to gain a stronger sense of your own presence and even begin to manipulate your soul in different ways. You’ll be able to get the basics down fairly quickly. It’s only when you want to become genuinely proficient that things go less smoothly, but we wont be worrying about that too much yet. For now, we’ll mainly focus on trying to grow your materialization ability. I expect that’ll be more immediately useful.

Hmm.

By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, there are actually two ways that your metal power can grow.

Oh?

The first is meditative training, just like you’ve already been doing. It takes a while, but it's the more reliable of the two.

The other way is faster?

Very much so, yeah. The second method is to throw yourself into an incredibly dangerous situation, almost get us both killed, and hope that the desperation and rush of adrenaline are enough to force a breakthrough.

What the fuck? That sounds...

Reckless and stupid? Yeah. We won’t be attempting that one. The almost-getting-killed part is a dealbreaker for me.

Huh. Okay... But, um... about this soul power or whatever. When should I, uh... start working on that?

We’ll get to--

“Hector? You okay?”

Finally reaching his locker, he turned and saw Micah standing there. “Uh... hi. I’m--I’m fine. Why?”

“Well, it’s just, you’re walking like you’re half-dead or something.”

“Ha... that’s, um... yeah...”

“Did something happen to you?”

Shit, what do I say?

Uh... You fell down the stairs!

That’s stupid!

Just say it!

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You do realize that you are the servant in this relationship, right? I don’t have to listen to you. I could put you to sleep and fly to the other side of the planet, if I wanted.

Hector just glared at him.

Ugh. Fine. I won’t wander off, for the time being. But I will need to venture out on my own again sooner or later. You’re going to have to trust that I know what I’m doing, eventually.

The bus squealed to a stop in front of the school, and Hector exited.

Tell me how to kill Geoffrey,’ he said as he walked. ‘You said we weren’t prepared for that fight before. So... prepare me.

The reaper floated ahead of him. ‘You’re already resolved to kill him?

It’s him or you, isn’t it? That’s not a hard choice. I... I would’ve done it before, if I could’ve...

Him or US, Hector.

R-right...

Well. In order to hurt Geoffrey, you have to be able to break the red shadow that protects him.

Okay...

The reason it seemed like an impervious shield was because your attacks were only physical, whereas the shadow was both physical and mental. That shadow is something real and imaginary at the same time, which is why it seemed to constantly disappear and reappear.

Imaginary? But if it’s imaginary... then...

How can it exist? Because reality is relative. Take me, for instance. I’m imaginary. All reapers are. Relative to our servants, and apparently Geoffrey, we exist. But relative to the rest of the world, we don’t.

But... the powers you grant me are definitely real...

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Pure evil doesn’t exist,’ said Garovel. ‘People can only be evil insofar as making evil decisions--possessing an intent to harm or cause suffering. Evil actions. Even people who do evil things purely for the sake of amusement are still human. They’re twisted, sure. They have evil tendencies, but they still aren’t MADE of evil. But... Geoffrey’s aura... I can’t think of any other way to describe it. It was like an evil consciousness.

Hector raised an eyebrow. ‘So... you’re saying Geoffrey is pure evil?

No! I’m saying he’s NOT! Because there’s no such thing!

So why’d you bring it up then?! You’re making it confusing!

Because it IS confusing! I don’t know what he is yet! And seeing the way he acted, it’s easy to feel like he’s evil incarnate or some shit!

Hector sighed. ‘Whatever... You’re not making any sense...

Tch. I need to find out more.

Hector looked at the reaper heavily. ‘You’re not going anywhere without me. It’s way too dangerous with him out there.

Oh, please. The odds of me randomly encountering Geoffrey are ridiculously low. And even if I did, I’d just outrun him.

You don’t know that,’ said Hector. ‘If you don’t even know what Geoffrey is, then you definitely don’t know what he’s capable of... I mean, he could still have abilities we didn’t see before...

Hector, I’ve been doing this a long time. I can handle myself.

You’re not going anywhere without me,’ he repeated.

Garovel lowered his brow. ‘You’re being very unreasonable today.

I don’t care... You’re not gonna go out and get killed while I’m sitting through a fucking biology lesson...