Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Page 463

Hector caught him with a full bear hug. At this range, the magnetic field around Karkash was too strong for Hector’s metal to accumulate properly, and he didn’t want any metal that he could’ve made beforehand to be suddenly turned against him here; so he was weaponless, and rather than pin all of his hopes on landing an instant deathblow, the plan was just as Garovel had told him earlier. He felt for the metal under Karkash’s coat, and indeed, found it there.

Karkash thrashed, zigzagging in the air and trying to fling him off, but Hector had a solid grip on him. Hector ripped the metal undershirt out, and they were suddenly plummeting together. Karkash grabbed Hector’s arm and finally yanked him off, following up with a flash of lightning that cut through Hector’s stomach. Then they both hit the ground.

Hector struggled to stand but wasn’t yet able, as he was fairly certain that his spine and hip were both broken. Only a few meters away, he could see Karkash having similar difficulty. They were immobilized for the moment, but both men still had their arms.

The lightning came, and Hector was ready for it with a pair of iron spires. The force of the impact caused the base around each spire to explode, pelting Hector with globs of grass and mud, but the spires themselves remained standing. He didn’t bother trying to make them larger, because he knew Karkash could rip them to shreds at any moment, so instead, he went to work on something he’d cooked up over this week past--something Garovel had thought of for him.

Directly above Karkash, Hector materialized a gigantic, vertically-long chunk of iron--a mostly cylindrical tower. And at the top, where Karkash wouldn’t be able to see, Hector created a similarly giant, downward-facing spike. And what Karkash wouldn’t be able to tell while he was shredding the bottom half of the cylinder, was that the upper half of the cylinder was hollow and that an enormous spike was already falling toward him at a much higher velocity than the cylinder had been.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Page 462

The shadow flexed and spun around her, becoming a swirling drill, and as Andres’ crystal drew closer, Lynnette leapt up to meet it head-on. She pierced through, and even after losing her initial momentum, the ridges of her drill allowed her to keep climbing. And she arrived at the top, regaining her footing.

A small crystal pegged her in the shoulder, making her wince and stagger back a step. Then a second one, but when she staggered back this time, the crystal beneath her was suddenly destroyed, and she instead fell toward another bed of spikes. She grit her teeth, annoyed, and smashed them with a purple wrecking ball. Yellow shards flew everywhere as she landed.

She threw a glare at Andres, who was already shooting more crystals at her. The shadow deflected them as she ran straight for him.

Abruptly, a massive chunk of iron crashed between her and Andres, forcing her to stop and look toward Hector and Karkash.

Hector’s network of metal tubes was no longer grounded. It hovered in mid-air, fraught with blue flashes of electricity. The tubes continued to grow, however, bending and spiraling and reconnecting with one another just as quickly as Karkash was ripping them apart.

She would have liked to ignore them for the moment and focus on killing Andres, but a dozen more car-sized lumps of metal were already flying in her direction.

-+-+-+-+-

It was a giant mess, now. He’d completely lost track of what went where, but he just kept adding more iron to everything. At the very least, if even he didn’t know where he was anymore, then Karkash certainly didn’t.

Up and to your right,’ said Garovel, apparently still able to make sense of things.

Hector curved his current tube as the reaper directed, and there Karkash was, facing a different direction. The man seemed reluctant to move around too much, probably to ensure Hector didn’t get an easy shot at his reaper, who remained by his side at all times.

Hector launched himself out of the tube, and Karkash didn’t see him until the last moment.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Page 461

The pain was back, stronger now, and she had to clench her jaw. Perhaps another rib had just broken.

Her opponents attacked in unison. The flurry of yellow crystals came first, obscuring her view of Desmond, and she figured that was probably their real purpose. She had no intention of allowing herself to be pinned down again, so instead of blocking the crystals, she chose to avoid them. She thrust her gauntleted fist toward the ground, and the purple flooded forth, sending her up and over Andres’ attack. With her ragged cloak flourishing behind her on the way back down, she whipped the shadow around to lash at Desmond, who lost an arm in order to avoid losing his head.

A bed of crystal spikes rose up to meet her as she landed, and she narrowly retrieved the shadow in time to stop herself from falling upon them. The spikes tried to rise up higher, but the shadow slashed them down, allowing her to reach the ground safely again.

And by now, with this being her third fight against the man, she had a good idea of what Desmond would do. Her back was to him at the moment, and she fully expected him to have already thrown another explosive at her, so she spun around in order to swat it right back at him. And sure enough, her prediction proved correct. The purple shadow slapped the sizzling forearm away, and the subsequent explosion knocked Desmond off his feet.

She pursued him, somersaulting with violet over the crystals that tried to bar her path, and as Desmond was struggling back up again, her sword fell upon him, goring him through the chest.

He met her gaze, and Lynnette could see the flesh of his face begin to darken.

She yanked the blade upward and cut straight through the man’s neck and skull, splattering the grass with blood and brain. His remaining flesh ceased its darkening.

That was one down, but Andres didn’t give her a chance to breathe, and the sky above her dimmed as a gigantic crystal appeared over her head.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Page 460

~~Holiday Special (Day 7/7, Page 6/6)~~
Each of the four tunnels forked off in two more directions, and then those forked off again. They began to converge with another, creating a symmetrical maze, of sorts. And Hector just kept on adding to it. The metal tubes were all hollow, so he wasn’t concerned about reaching his volume limit anytime soon.

It wasn’t easy to keep all the branching paths coordinated in his head, and he was pretty sure he’d mucked it up in a few places, but it didn’t need to be perfect. Karkash was going to rip it to pieces, anyway. He just needed a means of getting Karkash’s eyes off of him.

And then Karkash did the obvious thing. He pummeled the tunnels with lightning, sending a strong enough current through them that Hector could see sparks flashing across the ceiling.

He’s on your left now,’ directed Garovel from underground, ‘and still above you. About five meters or so.

What’s Lynn doing?

Waiting, I think. Probably wondering what the hell you’re trying to do. The other two are closing in, though. And since their reapers can’t sense you at the moment, I expect they’ll come for me.

Let me know when they get too close.

Oh, Lynn is engaging them now. Ten troa says she kills them both without you.

And despite the circumstances, despite being worried about her, Hector couldn’t help smirking at that.

-+-+-+-+-

A cloud of purple hit the ground before her and softened her landing. She was glad that worked the way she thought it would. Jumping off a four-story building would have looked really stupid otherwise.

Her ribs throbbed, but she didn’t have time to worry about it. A gigantic crystal wall barreled toward her. She gripped her sword with both hands, coloring its blade violet. The shadow extended the sword’s reach by a good two meters, and she swung vertically. The wall cleaved in two, but it went deeper than she realized, and she had to bring her sword back down for a second slash to finish cutting through.

Desmond was already there to greet her with a thrown, sizzling hand.

She raised a purple shield just as it exploded. She toppled back but caught herself with a bed of shadow.

Page 459 -- LIII.

~~Holiday Special (Day 7/7, Page 5/6)~~
Karkash burst up into the sky, wreathed in electricity as the iron boulders swirled around him with increasing speed.

Hector made more lightning rods as he ran along the ground. He wanted to stay ahead, to create iron spires more quickly than Karkash could seize control of them. Getting in close without anything to shield himself from the lightning was obviously dangerous, and Karkash wasn’t likely to fall for another simple diversionary tactic.

For a time, their battle reached a kind of stalemate. Karkash refused to come in close where Hector could actually hit him, and Hector refused to leave the sanctuary of his many, fleeting lightning rods.

It did, however, give him and Garovel an opportunity to strategize.

Karkash is only a problem because of his mobility,’ said Garovel. ‘If you can take that away from him, we’ll be able to escape much more easily.’

Is that even possible?

We know his power is to control electromagnetic fields, so presumably, he can only fly because he’s wearing something metallic under his clothes. Destroy that.

How the hell do I do that?!

Good question.

Fuck!

I have an idea, though.’ And Garovel explained it to Hector, who listened as best he could while still trying to maintain the stalemate.

Hector understood. It sounded difficult but still doable. Before he could put the plan into action, however, he noticed Lynnette standing atop the castle’s roof. And then he noticed Andres and Desmond, too, appearing together through the hole in the wall that Hector had made upon being thrown outside.

If nothing else, the stalemate was about to be broken.


Chapter Fifty-Three: ‘Under mayhem’s gaze...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Hector enacted Garovel’s plan. He stopped running and made a soul-empowered dome around himself. Then, he extended the dome out in four directions at once, suddenly creating an above-ground tunnel--one with an intersection, no less. He ran in the tunnel to his right while still adding on to all four directions.

He could already hear Karkash ripping up chunks of metal, searching for him, but the odds were in Hector’s favor. And he meant to increase them even more.

Page 458

~~Holiday Special (Day 7/7, Page 4/6)~~
Karkash was briefly quiet. His reaper, Hoyohté, was right behind him, and the two of them were probably speaking, but Karkash never removed his eyes from Hector. “You must tell me where he is,” the man said.

Hector’s expression tilted. ‘Is he serious? I don’t understand why he’s not just attacking me...

...Ah!’ said Garovel. ‘Because he’s still not confident that he can beat you! He wants to buy time for the others to arrive and help him!

Err--you really think so?

Attack him now! We have to get away from here before they show up!

Hector obliged. And for his opening move, he chose a sneaky thing. He put his hands together, disguising the motion by pretending to crack his knuckles, and behind Karkash, a line of four large catapults took shape. In truth, they were nothing more than seesaws with iron boulders lain at their far ends. Larger boulders took form over the seesaws’ raised ends, and when they dropped, the original four boulders were launched.

Hector’s trajectory wasn’t perfect. The first two boulders missed Karkash, but the last two were on target. They still didn’t hit him, though. Rather, they became caught in the man’s swirling magnetic field, but that was enough. Their sudden appearance from outside of Karkash’s view forced him to take his eyes off Hector for a moment, and in that time, Hector used a sudden platform to propel himself into the air.

When Karkash saw him again, Hector was already barreling toward him. Hastily aimed lightning cut through Hector’s chest as a two-handed punch connected with Karkash’s collarbone. Karkash torpedoed into the ground while Hector’s body fell back down at normal velocity, spasming a bit from the electricity coursing through him.

When he tumbled into the grass again, Hector started running toward Karkash’s body, knowing the deed to be yet unfinished. Fleeing on a motorcycle would be impossible so long as this person remained undefeated, so he annihilated his catapults and made fresh boulders over Karkash’s head.

They stopped in mid-air and lightning shot up and bounced between them, crackling with furious energy.

Page 457

~~Holiday Special (Day 7/7, Page 3/6)~~
She found her car again and tossed the keys to William. “It has GPS,” she said. “Follow it to the last address it recorded. Should be outside Walton. When you get there, look for a door in the ground, and you’ll find an underground bunker.”

He gave her a confused look. “You are not going to come with me?”

“I’ll meet you at the bunker as soon as I can.”

“But why--?”

“I’m not leaving here without my friend.”

-+-+-+-+-

The regeneration was almost finished. He had enough muscle tissue to stand again, though his walking remained slow and stilted. He could see Garovel overlooking the castle grounds from the sky. ‘You see her yet?’ Hector asked.

Ah... Oh, there she is. She’s already at the front gate.

Good.

And that’s the King’s aura driving away. Looks like she got him to safety.

Seriously?

Yep.’ The reaper laughed. ‘This was supposed to be our plan, but she’s doing all the important stuff, isn’t she?

Hector shrugged. ‘Hey, I don’t mind...

Uh-oh.’

He stopped. He was starting to hate hearing that from Garovel. ‘What’s wrong?

I sense Karkash approaching.

Aw, fuck.’ His legs were fully returned now, and he started running. ‘You’re sure it’s him?

Afraid so. From the northwest. He must’ve received word we were here.’ Garovel descended back to the ground where Hector could protect him. ‘Harold’s not that far away, and we’ve already seen how fast he can fly.

I really didn’t want to fight him again...

His reaper will be able to sense us. He’ll chase after us until you force him not to.

He circled around the castle, trying to reach the front, but Karkash found him first. When Hector saw the man hovering there, he created a lightning rod in the grass for himself, but much to his surprise, Karkash did not immediately attack him.

Instead, Karkash slowly descended toward Hector, and offered a few words in a thick Vaelish accent. “Where is the King?”

Hector wasn’t entirely sure how to answer, but Garovel did so for him.

He’s gone,’ the reaper said.

Page 456

~~Holiday Special (Day 7/7, Page 2/6)~~
The doorway was blocked by debris, no doubt from the giant hole in the ceiling, which also served as the only source of light for the otherwise dim chamber. At the moment, though, Lynnette wasn’t feeling quite up to climbing, so she set the shadow to work trying to clear a path to the door.

“Oh, thank the goddess!” came a man’s voice. “You are still alive!”

She looked up to see the King’s blond-bearded face through the hole. “Your Highness!” said Lynnette. “Are you alright?!”

“Yes, I am fine. Do you require help getting back up here?”

And she realized that she must have fallen down to the basement level. She gathered herself, standing erect. “No,” she said. “Please wait there a moment.” She’d never used the shadow like a rope before and was thus unsure if it could even function as such, but now seemed like a good time to try. She sent a purple hook up and had it latch onto the first floor, and sure enough, she was able to pull herself up without much difficulty.

And as she met the King face-to-face again, she was reminded of her task. “Your Highness, we have to get you out of here.” She took his hand, and they started navigating the ruined hallway.

“More of them are coming,” said William.

Her brow lowered. “What do you mean?”

“Before your fight, Andres called their other comrades. I am certain they are on their way here.”

Her mouth wrenched into a frown. “All the more reason to leave, then.”

She had no idea where Hector was. Certainly, she wanted to go search for him, but from her understanding, it would only be a matter of minutes before Desmond and Andres regenerated fully. That left precious little time to get the King out. And even if she was strong enough to defeat them on her own, she knew that she still wouldn’t be able to kill them so long as she couldn’t see their reapers.

Lynnette escorted the King all the way to the front gate, where the castle’s guardsmen were busy ushering civilians to safety.

Page 455

~~Holiday Special (Day 7/7, Page 1/6)~~
Hector and Lynn both screeched to a halt and tried to box Desmond in with metal and shadow together.

It wasn’t enough.

The explosion shook the whole building and ripped their hasty container to pieces, even breaking Lynnette’s shadow. The shock wave hit Hector like a train. He flew through a wall, then another, and was outside, toppling through grass and dirt until finally skidding to a stop.

His armor was in tatters, and his body was in shreds. Most of the flesh on his face was gone. His torso was no better, exposed ribs jutting out of his chest, jagged and broken. Blood seemed to be everywhere.

His extremities, however, were still attached, apart from a missing foot and half an arm. And he was still conscious. His eardrums were blown out. His eyes were gone. All the nerve endings on the front side of his body were destroyed. But Hector was awake, still aware that everything was regenerating.

And he couldn’t speak yet, but he could think. ‘Garovel?!

I’m safe, Hector. You suppressed it enough for me to get out of the blast radius in time.

He would have breathed a sigh of relief if his lungs hadn’t been crushed into a meaty paste. ‘A-and... what happened to Lynn?

I’m searching for her now.

-+-+-+-+-

A purple streak shoved the massive, wooden desk off of her. Lynnette coughed, half-expecting to see blood, but saw none. She wasn’t sure if that was because the blood genuinely wasn’t there or because she could barely see straight at the moment.

Before trying to move, she shut her eye and did a roll call. All of her limbs still worked, but she was reasonably sure that at least two of her ribs were broken. A pounding headache was there as well, and she raised a hand to her forehead and found a bit of blood there.

“Hoh,” she breathed. She shifted off of her back and onto all fours. “I definitely felt that one...” She tried to stand and stumbled.

Looking around, she realized that she wasn’t sure where she’d ended up. Whatever room this used to be, it was rubble now.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Page 454

~~Holiday Special (Day 6/7, Page 6/6)~~
And due to the odd angle at which he’d caught her, Hector landed with a swirling flourish. He was about to lay her down, expecting her to at least be disoriented, but that didn’t seem to be the case. She looked just as clear-eyed as ever and got back on her feet straight away.

And it was a good thing, too, because Andres wasn’t letting up. He didn’t bother attending to Desmond at all, and instead launched a wave of fist-sized crystals at them. Hector raised a metal wall, and Lynnette added a purple coating to it. The crystals shattered on impact.

Hector already knew that Lynn’s shadow was more resilient than Geoffrey’s had been, but he was continually surprised by how much. Over the course of their training, he’d made multiple attempts to break through her shadow with a soul-empowered punch, but he had never once succeeded. Even after he’d started using enhanced strength and sent her flying, Lynn had described his punches as feeling like nothing more than a friendly pat on the arm.

Lynnette retracted her shadow while Hector destroyed his wall and prepared another javelin. She went first, diving headlong through Andres’ storm of crystals and forcing him back again.

Which was another thing Hector didn’t understand: how Andres could launch his crystals the way he did. The man hadn’t thrown them. He’d merely put one hand forward, and the crystals shot forth as soon as they appeared. Hector very much wanted to know how that was possible, but now wasn’t the best time to ask Garovel for an explanation.

Lynnette kept pressing and finally caught one of Andres’ arms with her blade. The man tried to use it as an opportunity to hit her with a crystal fist, but a javelin flew into the man’s chest, completely knocking him off balance. And Lynn sliced his head off.

Desmond had removed the metal from his face by now and was still waiting for his legs to regrow as Andres’ head rolled toward him. When he looked up to see Lynnette and Hector bearing down upon them, he grinned and said, “Well, then! Try this one!”

And Desmond’s entire body began to darken and sizzle.

Page 453

~~Holiday Special (Day 6/7, Page 5/6)~~
Lynnette was forcing Andres back into the hall by the time Hector rejoined. However, Andres was apparently baiting her toward him in order to hide the fact that Desmond was approaching her from behind, which was why Hector decided to place himself there first.

For a moment, he and Lynnette stood back-to-back, and he quickly whispered to her what Garovel had just told him about Andres’ ability.

“Got it.”

A giant crystal came flying toward them, and Lynnette cleaved it cleanly in two with her violet-coated sword. The subsequent halves of the crystal crashed into the walls and kept tumbling down the length of the corridor.

Desmond threw a blinking look at the suddenly missing walls around him. In a matter of seconds, his section of the hallway had been converted into one big room, a kind of adjoining chamber. The ceiling began to groan, and Hector thought it might cave in, but at least for the moment, it did not.

Desmond’s reaper, Ezmortig, appeared behind him, probably wanting to provide observational advice like Garovel had been doing.

Hector launched another javelin. Desmond dodged it easily enough while Hector began closing the distance with a freshly constructed blade in hand. And then abruptly, he clapped iron around Desmond’s face. Hector swung for the man’s neck, but even without the use of his eyes, Desmond still ducked right under the blow and caught Hector’s arm with both of his own. The arm snapped, and the man’s burly hands found Hector’s throat. Hector could hear the sizzling noise, and he knew the explosion was imminent.

The iron spikes came out. They skewered Desmond in five places, loosening his grip and allowing Hector to kick him off before the hand exploded. Desmond went bouncing toward Lynn, who was more than happy to make time for the man. She brought her sword to bear and chopped both of Desmond’s legs off.

Yellow crystals crashed into her, and she went flying away from Desmond. Hector leapt up and caught her, mostly with his right arm, as the other was still broken.

Page 452 -- LII.

~~Holiday Special (Day 6/7, Page 4/6)~~
Hector barged into the King’s chambers, eyes searching frantically around. And luckily enough, there the man was, sitting up on his bed, looking haggard in his regal suit and clutching the shoulder of his missing arm.

When he saw Hector, he merely stood. Maybe it was just because the man looked too exhausted already, but he didn’t seem particularly surprised by the young, armored black man. When Lynnette arrived, however, the King’s expression changed. “You!” he said, eyes widening.

“Your Highness, we’ve come to get you out of here!” she said.

“Did Helen send you?!”

“Not quite,” said Lynn, “but we’re acting with her interests in mind. Please, there’s no time!”

“Yes, of course!”

Then came the voice of Andres Geth. “I’m afraid I can’t allow that,” he said from the hallway, and after a beat, he appeared in the open doorway, along with a new reaper.

Hector wasted no time and launched a javelin straight at the man.

A wall of yellow crystal shot up from the floor and stopped the spear dead. Somehow, the force of the impact left the metal shattered, but the crystal had scarcely more than a crack. “Oh, please,” said Andres. “I’d heard that you could make metal, but this is just embarrassing to witness. You call yourself a materialization user?”

Hector scowled inside his helm.

“Allow me to demonstrate how one truly uses materialization.”


Chapter Fifty-Two: ‘O, colliding fires...!’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

A shower of yellow crystals flew toward them, and Hector raised a wall of iron, but it barely stopped anything. Chunks of crystal tore through his metal as if it were cardboard. Hector took a softball-sized crystal through the chest, knocking him off his feet.

He’s using soul-strengthening techniques on those crystals,’ Garovel informed him privately. ‘His element is probably sulfur.

Hector struggled back up again, watching Lynnette buy him the time to do so. The purple shade could withstand the crystals much more effectively, and when Andres tried to coat her in them, the shadow ripped her free immediately.

Be careful,’ said Garovel. ‘He can probably create it in states other than its solid crystal form.

Page 451

~~Holiday Special (Day 6/7, Page 3/6)~~
Rather than replying, Hector armored himself up. The helm formed around his head just as he’d memorized it. Then came the gauntlets, breastplate, and leggings. It wasn’t a full suit of armor, as he was worried that his mobility would be hindered if he added much more to it.

Desmond didn’t seem especially concerned by the sudden armor, choosing to wait patiently. “Ah! The girl with the sword! You’ve changed a lot, haven’t you?! Did you go aberration hunting?! I like your new look!”

Lynn ignored him and whispered to Hector, “Do you think he’s trying to bait us to attack him? Where is the other servant?”

“I don’t know...”

“Pretty clever!” said Desmond. “This little plan of yours! I’m quite curious as to how you knew to enact it today, though! If you tell me, I’ll do something nice for you! Do you like brownies?! I make amazing brownies!”

“What an idiot,” said Lynnette.

“C’mon! If you’re not going to talk to me, then things are going to get boring real quickly unless you attack!”

...No,’ said Garovel. ‘It’s a diversion. He wants to buy time so that his comrade can do something. Ignore him. Force him to chase us.

Hector nodded. “We can’t engage him yet,” he told Lynn, and then he ran off into the intersecting hall with her and Desmond both following.

He knew the royal bedchamber was close. It was perhaps the most obvious place for the King to be, but then, Desmond probably wouldn’t have realized so quickly what their objective was in coming here.

A sizzling hand came flying from behind, but Lynnette was prepared. Her shadow knocked it right back toward Desmond, who had to dive out of its path. The subsequent explosion made the hall jolt, and Hector stumbled but kept going.

The guardsmen must have been doing good work, because there weren’t many civilians around. The few that remained, Hector tried to scare into fleeing as he ran past, making metal spikes suddenly jut out of the ground in front of them. That strategy, at least, proved quite successful.

Page 450

~~Holiday Special (Day 6/7, Page 2/6)~~
“This is the person who tried to kill Her Highness,” said Lynnette too calmly. The purple shadow wrapped around Nathaniel’s face, suppressing his scream. “He’s the one who set all of this madness in motion.”

Hector blinked at the unexpected answer. “H-how do you know that?”

“The Queen told me herself.” Lynnette pulled the man closer and raised her blade. “I’m struggling to find a reason why I should not simply kill him here and now.”

“B-because he’s just a normal person,” said Hector. “I don’t... I mean... are you sure there’s no other way to handle this?”

Lynnette glared at the prince as she considered what to do.

Hector looked at Garovel. ‘Should I do something? Should I stop her?

I don’t see much reason to,’ said Garovel. ‘That is definitely Prince Nathaniel, and we already know that the princes are working with Abolish.

But he’s... I... I mean, I know he’s our enemy, but...

She knows more about the matter than we do. I’d say it’s her decision.

Hector just frowned.

Lynnette growled and sheathed her sword. She dragged Nathaniel into the nearest room and shoved him into a closet. Then she turned to Hector. “Would you mind leaving him encased in metal?”

He took a breath and nodded. A moment later, the prince was a statue from the nose down.

Lynnette shut the closet door on him. “We’ll come back for you later, if we can,” she said through the white oak. “Then we’ll find you more suitable accommodations. In prison.”

As they were leaving, Hector had to say, “Uh. Th-thank you... for not killing him.”

“I couldn’t be a hundred percent sure Her Highness would have wanted me to. He is still her brother, after all.”

Desmond is very close,’ Garovel informed him. ‘Maybe two hallways over.’

“Desmond’s close by,” relayed Hector. “Get ready.”

“I’ve been ready.”

They returned to the hall, and soon enough, Desmond appeared at the far end. And he just stood there, not ready to come closer yet.

“Great to see you again!” he shouted across the marbled corridor.

Page 449

~~Holiday Special (Day 6/7, Page 1/6)~~
“Yes,” said the rightmost guardsman.

“Hell no!” said a different one. And he tried to flee, but the purple streak wrapped around him before he could reach the door and dragged him back to Lynnette.

She turned him around to face her. “Allow me to rephrase,” she said. “You will help us.”

The man kicked her in the stomach, and with her violet shield, she didn’t so much as flinch. Instead, her lone eye narrowed, and the guardsman turned pale.

“Lynn...” The word from Hector was quiet, enough so that it took Lynnette a moment to register that Hector had said anything at all. And when she turned to look at him, he said, “Let him go... We can’t force him to risk his life...”

By the expression on her face, she did not agree, but nonetheless, she allowed the man to flee unharmed.

The remaining guards left as well to begin evacuating and recruiting their other comrades to the cause.

By now,’ said Garovel, ‘we’ve probably lost the element of surprise, at least partially. Whoever’s monitoring the security cameras will have noticed all the black screens and reported it.

Hector offered a small shrug. “That’s fine... I mean, we wouldn’t provide much of a distraction if we stayed hidden the whole time.”

Garovel gave an admissive nod.

Hector followed Lynn back into the hallway. “Where’s Desmond now?” he asked the reaper.

Garovel pointed. ‘About twenty meters or so that way. If they’ve received the report, then his reaper will probably be recognizing our auras right about now.

Hector led the way, but before they even reached the end of the hall, Prince Nathaniel turned into it, stopping dead in his tracks as soon as he saw Hector’s face.

Lynnette was on the man in a heartbeat, binding him in violet with one hand and drawing her sword with the other.

“Lynn!” said Hector, running after her. “What’re you doing?!”

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Page 448

~~Holiday Special (Day 5/7, Page 6/6)~~
Of course, these people would be able to recognize Lynnette, and at first, she merely tried to keep her face obscured by her hood, but after Hector hauled his fifth guard into the room, she chose to reveal herself.

“You all remember me, yes?”

One of them tried to speak, but he was too muffled by the iron, so Hector uncovered his mouth, along with all the others’. “Lynnette, what the fuck are you doing with him?!”

“He is on our side,” she said, her posture abruptly more rigid. At their sounds of disbelief, she added, “I know what you’ve heard about him, but it is untrue. I am vouching for him.”

“Then what is all this? Why are you holding us captive?”

“We couldn’t risk you trying to inform Abolish of our presence right away.” She looked the guardsmen over another time. “You’ve all been trapped in this castle with them. You must already know that they are not to be trusted.”

“Of course we know. They’re fucking lunatics.”

“Shut up! You wanna die?! They can hear through walls, you idiot!”

“We are going to fight them,” said Lynnette. “Which means they’ll be distracted. We want you to use that opportunity to get as many people out of the building as you can.”

“You’re crazy if you think you can win against them!”

She lifted her gauntlet and loosed a chunk of the violet shade.

“What the hell is that?!”

“We will be fine,” she said, “but regardless, whether or not we win is not your concern. Just worry about taking advantage of the distraction we provide for as long as we’re able to provide it.”

They fell quiet at that, and after a moment, Hector released them all. They still looked at him like he was some kind of demon, but if they had anything else to say about it, then they decided to keep it to themselves.

Lynnette pressed them for an answer. “Can we count on your help?”

Page 447

~~Holiday Special (Day 5/7, Page 5/6)~~
The barricade stood a good four meters tall, preventing entry. There was supposed to be a large stone archway above, but it hadn’t been rebuilt yet. Lynnette seemed ready to climb over, but Hector motioned for her to hold off, and instead, he raised platforms for the both of them. They reached the top of the gate, and then he raised more platforms on the other side as well, allowing them to simply step over and be lowered back down.

“Aren’t you handy,” said Lynnette. She’d pulled up the hood of her white cloak again, which she recently had cleaned. She’d made several trips into the city over the week, one of which was for fresh clothes--not just for herself but for Hector, too, as he couldn’t shop for himself without causing a panic. She seemed to have grown especially fond of her cloak, though, to the point where she’d even gotten him a black one to wear. She could pull the look off, he thought, but he felt ridiculous in his and chose not to wear it. And besides, it wasn’t really motorcycle-friendly attire.

Over there.’ Garovel pointed toward the west side of the castle.

They cut across the huge garden with Hector leading the way. He’d been able to learn the layout thanks to the building plans that Gina found for him. Lynnette already knew the castle and grounds, of course, but he wanted to be prepared.

Inside now, he kept an eye out for more security cameras, as did Garovel, and made sure to obstruct each one. Every guardsmen they encountered was similarly subdued, but he couldn’t let these ones go just yet. Instead, he found a spare office and began collecting them like life-size figurines. He had to cover their mouths so they couldn’t yell out for help, but he was careful not to block any of their nostrils. Garovel promised to remind him that they would need to be released later, but Hector hoped he wouldn’t forget such an important thing in the first place.

Page 446

~~Holiday Special (Day 5/7, Page 4/6)~~
At a glance, Sescoria seemed just as he remembered it. Tall, cylindrical buildings were common, as were the accompanying whites and blues. If he didn’t know better, he might’ve thought everything here was normal.

Soon, they came upon the gatehouse. It had been destroyed during Hector’s last visit and looked to have just begun reconstruction. It was closed, as they knew it would be, but still had a pair of uniformed officers standing guard.

Lynnette pulled over and exited her vehicle. Hector parked his bike behind her, keeping his motorcycle helmet on as he joined her.

“So?” she asked. “Can Garovel tell where Desmond is?”

That was their first objective. They knew from Gina’s intel that Desmond rarely left the King’s side. And as Garovel had seen Desmond’s aura before, it was possible for the reaper to recognize and locate the man’s presence.

Yep,’ said Garovel. ‘I can lead you straight to him.

Hector nodded at her. “Follow me.”

Entering through the front gate had seemed like a bad idea when Gina first pitched it to them, but she explained that the reconstruction meant barely anyone was using it.

As he and Lynnette approached the wooden barricade, Hector covered the security cameras with iron. The guards on either side came out of their little watch houses, and he immobilized them both with metal. Each guard had a radio on his hip. Lynnette confiscated them both.

Hector removed his riding helmet, revealing his face to the two guards.

“Oh fuck!” said the one on the right.

“Don’t worry,” said Lynnette. “We’d like to let you go. It would be in your own best interests if you fled from this place now. Do you understand?”

Barely able to move their heads, the guards exchanged looks with one another. And after a moment, they said, “Yes!” and, “We understand!”

Hector released them, and they immediately ran away. Lynnette handed him a radio. He hooked it onto his belt.

Page 445

~~Holiday Special (Day 5/7, Page 3/6)~~
Lynnette had expressed concern that the vehicle was too flashy, that it would stand out too much, but Garovel insisted that they worry more about speed than looks. A car that could blend in was of little value when enemy reapers could track them through walls.

The plan had changed multiple times over the week due to a confluence of factors, the first of which being his training with Lynnette. In the beginning, he’d been a bit worried about hurting her, but that concern was now long dead. Lynnette completely kicked the shit out of him. So he started using his iron against her. And it made no difference whatsoever.

It was her apparent strength that allowed them to rethink their strategy for today. Suddenly, Hector wasn’t going to be faced with a two-on-one fight. If anything, he felt like he was going to be the one providing support. The only advantage he had over her was that he could see reapers and she couldn’t.

In addition to accounting for Lynnette’s presence, Gina’s information revealed that it wasn’t just the King who was trapped in the castle. So now, the plan was not just to kidnap him but to get as many people out of there as possible.

And then there was the video. That had been a trying endeavor. The sheer number of takes he had to do in order to get it right was monstrous. It was mostly him agonizing through it for hours on end, with Garovel watching and being in turns amused, bored, and irritated by the lack of progress. In fact, Hector had been prepared to keep going, but Garovel informed him that one of the takes he’d done would work very well. He was doubtful but deferred to the reaper’s opinion. And then today arrived, and he heard from Gina that Garovel had been right on the money.

Now it was just a matter of getting to the castle.

Page 444

~~Holiday Special (Day 5/7, Page 2/6)~~
There was no denying that much, David conceded. But even so, their tune had changed much too quickly. He was more than a little reluctant to believe whatever they told him, and yet, perhaps listening to what they wanted him to believe would grant him a better notion of what the truth was. “Why do you suspect this young man has a spy in our castle?”

They hesitated again.

David was on touchy ground with that question, and he knew it. They didn’t realize that he knew they had some type of agenda involving Harold. He wondered how much they would tell him.

“Well,” said Andres, “I’m sure you’ve noticed that all of our comrades are not here at the moment. We don’t believe it’s a coincidence that this video was leaked today, of all days.”

“I was wondering about that,” said David. “Where have your friends all gone, exactly?”

“They received a request to return to HQ,” said Desmond. “But don’t worry. They will be back soon.”

“Ah.” Passable lies, he supposed. Time to press further, then. “Why did you say he was obviously trying to evacuate Harold?”

Andres’ expression twitched. A sudden flash of irritation.

“We have a delicate operation there,” said Desmond, still as cool as ever. “He probably wants to sabotage it.”

“Oh? What type of operation?”

Desmond was ready with a smile. “Military supplies and so forth. The details would probably bore you, but if you’re so interested, then I’ll take you there tomorrow and give you a tour of the facility.”

David was impressed as he returned a grin of his own. Doubtless, something would prevent that promise from being fulfilled. Perhaps it was time to petition Jezebel for an investigation. The only point where Abolish seemed to consistently encounter any difficulty was where the Darksteel Soldier stood.

-+-+-+-+-

Hector and Lynnette entered Sescoria from the east, him on his motorcycle, her in a sleek car of dark green.

Page 443

~~Holiday Special (Day 5/7, Page 1/6)~~
<“Within the next twenty-four hours,”> Hector was saying on the television, < “I... the Darksteel Soldier, as you call me... will annihilate... the town of Harold... in its entirety... If you do not wish to die... then I suggest... you leave now...”>

It wasn’t the kind of voice David would have imagined, but somehow, this struck him as much worse. And the media seemed to share his opinion. They were playing the video on a loop with horrified commentary. Vain attempts were made to keep people calm, but it spread across channels with public alerts interrupting almost every program.

And yet, horrid as it was, the coincidence did not escape David’s notice. The town of Harold. And there was also the matter of Hector’s previous media firestorm. David remembered listening to Desmond chew Karkash out for making the news. So what was this young man’s investment in Harold? David couldn’t understand the boy’s motive.

He did not have very long to think on the matter, as he was not watching the footage alone.

Desmond burst out laughing. “YES! He’s up to something! What do you think he’s gonna do next?!”

Andres stroked his chin, unable to conceal his smirk. “I wonder. He’s obviously trying to evacuate the town, which begs the question: how did he find out?”

“Oh! You think he has a spy in the castle?” Desmond’s gaze went to the empty space adjacent him. “Aw, don’t be like that. It would’ve been so boring if everything went without a hitch.” He paused. “Yeah, yeah, alright. I’ll start questioning people.”

David glanced at the King before looking back at the Abolishers. He decided to take the risk and ask an intervening question. “Could someone please explain what is happening here?”

Andres and Desmond exchanged looks, and then Andres said, “We’ve received intelligence that this Darksteel Soldier is an enemy of the Crown. He wants to destroy Atreya, you see.”

David put on a worried frown. “Is that so? Why would he want that?”

Desmond shrugged. “Who could say for sure? I’m sure your family has made many enemies over the years.”

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Page 442 -- LI.

~~Holiday Special (Day 4/7, Page 6/6)~~
Lynnette stopped chewing to raise an eyebrow at him. “You’re going back there?” she said. “Isn’t that incredibly dangerous?”

“...Yeah.”

“Oh,” she said, stiffening in her seat. “You’re going there to pick a fight.” She paused for a rogue’s grin. “Tell me more.”


Chapter Fifty-One: ‘Of shifting tides...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

David spent the next week juggling a dozen different things. Between his meetings with King William, Duchess Jezebel, all of his brothers, and not to mention the unannounced visits from Nola, it was a struggle to find time for genuine scheming.

But he’d managed one thing, at least. For Jezebel, he’d assisted in setting up a rather large network of informants consisting of the kind of people who would normally be overlooked by David’s peers. And he certainly needed their help. He wanted eyes on everyone at all times, which wasn’t entirely possible for the Abolishers, as they scared the living shit out of everyone who might otherwise be willing to help keep tabs on them.

Still, word gradually trickled down to him of a plan that Abolish had for the little town of Harold. No one seemed able to give him details, but he knew that it would be enacted very soon. Too soon, in fact. There was no time to learn enough about it, let alone develop a counter-plan.

All throughout the week, he grew increasingly concerned over the matter, which made the time pass ever slower.

And then the day arrived, and everything started moving at once. First, the Abolishers began to leave the castle one by one, and soon, only Desmond Grantier and Andres Geth remained. Next, came the news report.

It was a video of none other than the Darksteel Soldier. David could scarcely believe what he was watching.

This young black man with the most infamous face in the nation was speaking directly into the camera. Very slowly, the words came, each one eerily quiet in its delivery, nearly making David strain to listen.

Page 441

~~Holiday Special (Day 4/7, Page 5/6)~~
Lynnette took a hearty swig of water. “The real problems started when it was made clear that we were not allowed to leave the facility. It became delay after delay and excuse after excuse. The Queen’s mood only worsened, and eventually, she told me to try the gauntlet on. I didn’t argue. I was just as curious as she was, really. And from there, the situation descended very quickly into chaos. I wasn’t even sure that she and Roman made it out safely until I spoke with Gina.”

“Seems... kinda reckless on the Queen’s part...”

“Perhaps. But then again, I think Her Highness was planning to have me steal it anyway, but when they started talking about taking off my arm to retrieve it, she accelerated her plans for my sake.”

“And then... you were able to beat a servant? Without any trouble, even?”

She nodded. “I’ll demonstrate how, if you want.”

That’s a very good idea,’ said Garovel. ‘You should start sparring with her as soon as possible. With Colt gone, a new training partner is invaluable right now.

“Uh... Garovel wants me to spar with you...”

“Oh yes?”

You should help her gauge how strong the gauntlet really is. And ask her for some pointers on how to use a sword. Oh, and demonstrate your powers to her, too. It’s important that she understands what you’re capable of. Also, maybe you should--

“Garovel, I get it. We’ve got a lot to do...”

I’m just offering suggestions.

He looked at Lynnette again and immediately regretted it, meeting her gaze for a moment and having to blush and look away. “Ah--uh... you really don’t mind? Training with me, I mean.”

“Sure, but before that, could you tell me about what’s been happening in Atreya? What has Abolish been doing in the capital?”

“Ah, yeah... I needed to tell you that, anyway. Because, um. I’m hoping you’ll accompany me when I go to Sescoria next week.”

Page 440

~~Holiday Special (Day 4/7, Page 4/6)~~
Hector didn’t join her at the table, choosing instead to stand in the doorway with his arms folded.

“The Vanguard in Korgum wouldn’t even have a proper meeting with us, but we honestly couldn’t blame them. We were only there for a few days, but in that time, our plane was shot down, and we were attacked by Abolish patrols four separate times. I’m sure the Queen and I would have both died there if not for Roman.” She shook her head. “And afterwards, he was suddenly much stronger. Almost like a different person.”

Hector and Garovel exchanged glances. “Roman achieved emergence?”

“Yes. He ended up explaining that at length, too. Do you need me to relay what he said?”

“No, that’s okay... I, uh... I’ve had my own experiences with it.”

Her brow rose at that, but rather than inquiring further, she chose to continue her story. “The Vanguard there wouldn’t help us, because they were clearly dealing with a lot already, but they did point us in the direction of another division, which was in Callum. So we went there next. And without a plane, that trip took a while.

“The group we found was more accommodating than the ones in Korgum, but Her Highness was rather quick to become displeased. Something about her negotiations with them left her quite unhappy. They were kind enough to give us a tour of their facility, which was when I encountered the gauntlet. They were conducting experiments on it, and when the Queen mentioned having fought an aberration before, the person in charge of the study was rather eager to tell us more. Apparently, they were trying to discover the exact mechanism by which its power is made to grow. They thought that artifacts like this might provide insight into emergence in servants.”

Ah,’ said Garovel. ‘Even more dangerous than I expected.

“Did they make any progress on that?” Hector asked.

“No, I don’t believe so. They were very frustrated.”

Ha. Good.

Page 439

~~Holiday Special (Day 4/7, Page 3/6)~~
Hector’s eyes fell upon her gauntlet. “What can that thing do, exactly?”

“Well, it’s malleable,” she said. The shadow took the shape of a small bird perched on her arm. “It seems like it can conform to any shape I want it to. I’m still learning.”

“Does it have like a... maximum range or something?”

“Yes, it does.” The shade shot out toward the garage’s far wall and reached it, then looped back around but stopped halfway. It strained to reach her but could extend no farther. “What would you say that is? Twenty meters or so?”

“Maybe. But, uh...” He turned to look at Garovel, who’d retreated behind him. “Would you mind not doing that so suddenly, though? I think you scared Garovel.”

“Oh! I’m so sorry!” She reeled the shadow back in. “Where is he? I didn’t hurt him, did I?”

“N-no, he’s fine.”

She put her arm back down, keeping it inside her dirty cloak. “The shadow also protects me from harm, but I’m sure you knew that already.”

“Y-yeah.”

“It has another power that I haven’t been able to use yet. Something called Incineration.”

He tilted his head. “Incineration?”

“Don’t ask me what it means. That’s just what I heard the Vanguard servants calling it.”

“Hmm...”

She rolled her shoulders and neck. “Maybe I should just tell you the whole story. Ah--but it might be pretty long. Do you have anything to eat around here first? I’m starving.”

“Oh, sure. Uh--follow me.” He led her to the kitchen. The choices weren’t exactly gourmet. Everything here was meant to last for months without requiring refrigeration.

Lynnette grabbed a bunch of different things and sat down at the small table by the door. Atop the pile, she added the contents of her rucksack: a slab of charred meat and some wild berries. “So we flew to Korgum first,” she said, unwrapping a packet of beef jerky, “and that was a dead end.”

Page 438

~~Holiday Special (Day 4/7, Page 2/6)~~
“Are all aberrations as, um... as violent and crazy as Geoffrey was?”

“Geoffrey? Oh, is that the name of the one we fought?”

“Yeah...”

Lynnette rubbed above her eye patch. “Do you happen to know where he is?”

“Uh...”

“I’ve been wanting to get revenge for my eye.”

He wasn’t sure how else to say it, so he just said, “I killed him.”

Lynnette blinked. “Oh. What happened?”

But Hector couldn’t bring himself to explain. He knew she was one of the few people who would understand. Hell, she probably understood well enough already. But he just didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t even want to think about it.

At his strained silence, she seemed to get the idea. “Oh, I didn’t answer your question. From what Roman said, yeah, I think all aberrations are extremely violent. I think his exact words were that aberrations are always looking for amusement. They’re just always amused by killing people, apparently.”

“I see...”

“He said they can’t really be controlled, either, because they tend to just do whatever they want. The only reason Abolish is able to manage them at all is because it lets them run wild.”

“Sounds... accurate.”

“Oh, and they grow stronger by consuming souls. That’s why they all enjoy killing so much.”

Hector just nodded.

She held her gauntlet up again. “I’m not sure if this can grow stronger in the same way. I’m not sure it matters, either. Even if I knew how to consume someone’s soul, it sounds pretty disgusting.”

His mouth twisted. “Egh, yeah... and you wouldn’t be able to consume a servant’s soul, anyway.”

“No?”

“Our souls are bound to our reapers, so...”

“Hmm. Would I be able to consume a reaper’s soul, then?”

Hector looked at Garovel.

I don’t know! Probably! I don’t think I wanna find out!

Hector offered Lynnette a shrug.

“What else do you want to know?”

“Uh...”

Ask her for details about what that wrist guard is capable of.

Page 437

~~Holiday Special (Day 4/7, Page 1/6)~~
Hector listened to the wind howl past his riding helmet. He’d offered it to Lynnette, but she said she didn’t need it. For anyone else, he would have insisted. ‘I guess you, uh... you don’t agree with those reapers who think death is fated, huh?

Correct,’ said Garovel, ‘though that’s beside the point. Even if I did believe in fate, why should I think that reapers exist outside its influence? If I had you save someone, then why should I not consider you to have been fated to save them?

Uh... I dunno...

Me neither. I don’t understand reapers who think that way. I suppose that’s why I think fate is a useless concept. You can make it conform to anything you want, which is just generally counterproductive to the learning process.

Huh...

You disagree?

No, I... have no opinion, really.

Garovel let the matter lie.

It was a ways to the bunker yet. Grassy plains gradually transformed into barren, dirty badlands. Eventually, though, they arrived. Hector opened the door in the ground. Lynnette went in on foot, and he wheeled the bike in after her. There wasn’t much gas left in the tank, he realized. Hopefully, the bunker would have a supply. For the moment, however, he had a fresh question for Lynnette.

“So, ah... how much can, uh... ah...” He faltered, but Lynnette was patient with him. He had to avoid looking her in the face. “H-how much can you tell me about, um... about aberrations?”

“How much do you know about them?” she asked.

“Not much, I guess... Judging from your, uh... your gauntlet, I’m assuming they all have those... death-taffy things...”

She gave him a bemused grin. “Death-taffy?”

“Y-yeah, they’re stretchy like taffy, but... deadlier?”

She laughed faintly, as did Garovel. “Yeah, all aberrations have one of these things. Roman talked about them while we were traveling together. Her Highness had all sorts of questions for him. I mostly just listened.”

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Page 436

~~Holiday Special (Day 3/7, Page 6/6)~~
The bike jostled as its tires hit the road again, which thankfully stirred Lynnette back awake. And just like that, they were in Atreyan territory. He annihilated the metal bridge as they sped away.

Hmm,’ said Garovel, hovering a bit closer to Lynnette now. ‘I’m a little worried what the Vanguard was doing with something like this in the first place.

You think... they have aberrations working with them?

I don’t know enough about aberrations to say for sure, but if all of them are like Geoffrey, then there’s no way the Vanguard would work with them.

How come you don’t know more about aberrations? They seem like, uh... kind of a big deal.

I’m guessing they’re a recent development in the world. When I was a member of the Vanguard, aberrations weren’t a problem we faced. I don’t think they even existed. If they did, then they were hidden extremely well.

Hmm.

I wonder how common they are. Their presence could change everything in the war between the two big powers. Hell, maybe it already has.

You think so?

Well, yeah. Neutrality has always been a big thing. A lot of reapers believe that death is fated and shouldn’t be interfered with or just don’t want to get involved for whatever reason, so they don’t take on servants. That’s never been a problem, because as long as we stay away from big conflicts, we can’t be killed. But if there are these random monsters in the world who can hurt us, then that’s a big deal, like you said. Reapers who’ve never taken on a servant before suddenly have a very compelling reason to.

Ah... like Bohwanox, huh? He only revived Colt after getting wounded by Geoffrey, didn’t he?

Yeah. If that sort of thing happens on a larger scale, it’ll have a huge impact. All those new servants and reapers. Even if most of them try to stay out of the war, some of them are bound to get involved.

Page 435

~~Holiday Special (Day 3/7, Page 5/6)~~
The reaper had been keeping his distance from Lynnette, and even now, he stayed a ways ahead of the motorcycle as it sped down the road. ‘I suppose if she’s telling the truth, then she’ll be a valuable ally to have.

What can you tell me about her aura or whatever it’s called?

It’s an odd presence. Geoffrey’s the only aberration we’ve ever seen, so our point of reference is pretty limited, but compared to him, her aura is quite different. I can still sense that she’s human. That part of her seems no different from what I saw of her before. I guess that means she really is herself, still.

But...?

The wrist guard she’s wearing has a presence of its own. A very potent one, no less. If Geoffrey’s aura was a sword, then that thing’s aura is a stick of dynamite. And because I don’t know how it works, it just makes me very uneasy.

Abruptly, Hector felt something against his upper back. His grip on the handlebars tightened as he tried not to freak out and run off the road. ‘G-Garovel! What’s she doing?!

The reaper slowed down to see. And he started laughing. ‘She’s asleep. Looks like she really was tired.

That--! But--! I--! She’s--! Garovel, make her stop!

Just try to relax,’ said Garovel, still chuckling. ‘I bet it’d be easier for you if she did turn out to be a psychotic monster, huh?

Agh! I should’ve left her behind!

Garovel just laughed harder.

After a while, they approached the border. Crossing it on the way here hadn’t been the easiest thing. The roads all had checkpoints, and he couldn’t just waltz right through them. So like he’d done the first time, he made a ramp and bridge for himself, allowing the bike to go right over the checkpoint on a wave of metal. There were more border guards this time, but they all just kind of stood there and stared at him as he flew over their heads.

Page 434 -- L.

~~Holiday Special (Day 3/7, Page 4/6)~~
“Are you going to give me a ride back to Atreya?” said Lynnette. “Or should I start walking?”

And again, Hector was quiet a moment. He looked at her intently. “Um. C-could you tell me more about that thing on your wrist, first?”

“What do you want to know?”

“How... are you controlling it, exactly?”

She gave a shrug. “It just does what I want it to do. Like an extra limb, I suppose. Except...”

“Except?”

She made the shadow disappear again. “It does also feel... alive. Somehow.”

“Hmm. W-what do you mean?”

“I’m not sure yet,” she said, frowning. “I’m still getting accustomed to it. But maybe that isn’t the answer you were looking for.”

He nodded uncertainly, but after a time, he motioned toward the bike. “Let’s go back to Atreya. You can, ah... tell me more later... you look pretty tired.”

She took a relieved breath.


Chapter Fifty: ‘O, strange guardian...!’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

He’d never seen the Lorentian countryside. Sunny skies and flat greenery as far as the eye could see. Not even mountains in the distance.

The motorcycle’s roaring engine made it impossible to have a conversation with Lynnette, but Hector didn’t mind so much. It gave him and Garovel a chance to discuss her unique situation. Hector did mind, however, having someone on the motorcycle with him for the first time. When it was just him riding alone, he didn’t have to worry so much about screwing up and crashing. He would survive. Having Lynnette here made him all sorts of uncomfortable, especially with how she had to wrap her arms around his stomach to keep herself steady. He’d never done very well with physical contact.

Still, he did his best to ignore it. If he just focused on the road ahead of him, it wasn’t so bad.

I don’t like this,’ said Garovel.

I know,’ said Hector. ‘But it’s Lynn. I’m not gonna just leave her out here...

Page 433

~~Holiday Special (Day 3/7, Page 3/6)~~
“Lynn?” said Hector, abruptly very concerned. “What’s happened to you?”

She tilted her head at him. “What do you mean?”

“Garovel says... that you... your presence is really different?” He paused, no doubt listening to the invisible reaper again. “He says you’re not an aberration, but still... um... Garovel, what the hell are you trying to say?”

“Oh. I guess he’s sensing this thing.” She held up her half-gauntlet. “It was crafted from an aberration’s bones. It’s okay. It won’t hurt you, and neither will I.”

“Garovel’s really confused...”

“Well, it is dangerous,” said Lynnette. She clenched her fist, and the violet shadow enveloped it. “I basically stole it from the Vanguard. Or rather, I was forced to.”

“Y-you... uh... why?”

“The Queen told me to try it on. Test it out while they weren’t looking.” She yanked at the gauntlet with her other arm, and it didn’t budge. “But apparently, once you put it on, it doesn’t want to be removed. Those Vanguard people were going to cut my arm off in order to get it back.”

“Oh...”

“Yeah. Her Highness ordered me to run. So I did.” The purple shadow leapt up from her arm, twisting into the shape of a hammer, then into a shield, then into a sword. “I can see why they wanted it back so badly. This thing is really strong. It’s not like the one that you and I fought in Sescoria.”

“How... so?”

“Well, for one thing, when I fled on my own, I didn’t make a clean get away. I had to fight a servant. And I won. Easily.”

“Ah...”

She gauged his expression, the way his eyes moved from her to an empty space where Garovel presumably resided. “I still can’t see or hear reapers, by the way.”

“O-okay...”

Lynnette tried to give him a smile. “I haven’t suddenly lost my mind and become a murderous psychopath, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“No, well... I mean... m-maybe a little worried...”

Page 432

~~Holiday Special (Day 3/7, Page 2/6)~~
Gina laughed. <“Don’t worry, I remember you. In fact, I’ve been expecting your call for a while. Where are you?”>

“I’m in Lorent. On foot. Please tell me you can help me fix that.”

<“What’s the nearest town?”>

She turned to the old man. He was resting on the sofa now. “Hey, what town is the ambulance coming from?”

He groaned at her but said, “Linkerton.”

“Which hospital?”

“There’s only one clinic.”

“Thanks. You get that, Gina?”

<“Yeah. Let me call Hector real quick and put him en route to the Linkerton clinic. I’ll call you right back.”>

She waited, rocking the chair back and forth. The motion of it made her contemplate a nap then and there, but Gina called back before she drifted off too far.

<“Okay. He’s on his way. So tell me. How’ve you been? I’m guessing terrible.”>

“That’s pretty accurate. What about you?”

<“Oh, I’m doing just fine. Spying on Abolish. Learning all their secrets.”>

Lynnette blinked. “What?”

<“I planted listening devices all over Belgrant Castle.”>

“Are you serious?”

<“Yep. Don’t worry. It’s super fun and in no way terrifying.”>

“You don’t have anyone there to protect you? Or is that what Hector’s been up to?”

<“Oh, that’s right. You don’t know.”> And as Gina explained Hector’s circumstances, her tone became considerably less jovial.

Lynnette could hardly believe it. That timid guy had become the most wanted criminal in the country? She wondered if he’d even be the same person when she saw him again.

Soon, the ambulance arrived, and Lynnette had to hang up the satellite phone in order to hitch a ride on it. The clinic in Linkerton wasn’t particularly far, and she ended up waiting around for another half hour before Hector rode into the parking lot on his silver motorcycle.

Apart from his black riding jacket, he didn’t seem so different. As he pulled off his helmet, he offered her a meek smile, but after a moment, it spoiled into a look of confusion.

Page 431

~~Holiday Special (Day 3/7, Page 1/6)~~
The rebounding blast clipped the old man’s shoulder. He dropped the gun and fell to the ground, groaning in agony.

“I feel a little bad, but I did try to warn you.”

The man clutched his shoulder and growled, “What are you?!”

“I’m not too sure myself anymore,” she said. “But look, you’re wounded. I’d be happy to call you an ambulance. Or would you rather I went to find help on foot?”

“Argh...!” His groaning protests soon became breathy whimpers. “In the den. The satellite phone.”

“What’s the number for the emergency services around here?”

“7-5-1.”

“Hang in there, sir.” She wasn’t terribly concerned over his condition since the wound didn’t look very bad, but all the same, she decided she should make the emergency call first.

She found the phone exactly where he said it would be and raised her left hand up to dial, and upon that left hand was a rather special thing.

A kind of half-gauntlet, it was. It did not cover her fingers, nor was it made of metal. Instead, it was crafted from bone.

She spoke to a woman and warned that the driver should take special care to look for the house hidden in the woods, and the operator said it would be about twenty minutes before they arrived.

Lynnette decided to rummage around the house for some bandages and dress the man’s wound just in case. He hadn’t bled that much, but there was no harm in the extra caution, she figured.

And at length, she was able to dial the number that Roman had given her. The long-distance call took a little while to connect, but it eventually went through. And for her trouble, she received a busy signal. “Oh, come on! This can’t be happening!” She tried again. “Gina! I swear, if you don’t take my call--!”

<“Hello?”>

“FINALLY! Goddess above!” She collapsed into a rocking chair.

<“Who is this?”>

“It’s Lynnette Edith. Gina, if you say you don’t remember me, I’m going to lose my shit right now.”

Monday, December 23, 2013

Page 430

~~Holiday Special (Day 2/7, Page 6/6)~~
“Then it looks like you’ll be traveling for several days more!” the old man yelled. “And I don’t give a damn who you are!”

Lynnette’s eye throbbed. It tended to do that at the most inconvenient times. “Sir,” she tried, quieter this time in hopes of luring him closer to the door, “I very much need to use a phone. I’d be quite appreciative of any help you could--”

There came a hastened rustle from inside the house, and a moment later, the door swung open. The balding old man was pointing a shotgun at her. “Young lady, in what capacity have I failed to make myself clear?”

She eyed the double-barrel, not concerned in the slightest. “Sir, you don’t want to do that.”

He barked a laugh. “Oh, don’t I?”

“Please put the gun down, sir.”

“Can’t you tell when a man wants to be left in peace?! You think I live out here because I like visitors?! How’d you find me, anyway?! Are you from the government?! After all these years, now you decide to take me away?! Is that it?!”

“Sir--”

“You dogs’ll never take me alive! I ain’t goin’ back to prison, so just get on out of here before I do something dramatic! I’m unstable, ya hear?! I’m crazy!”

“Yes, I can see that. But I really do need to use your phone.”

“Woman! Are you fuckin’ deaf?! I will rip you in half with this here buckshot!”

“Sir, you can try, but that’s not gonna work out well for you. Trust me.”

“That a threat?! You threatenin’ me now?!”

Lynnette sighed. “Well, if you’re gonna shoot me, then allow me to move over here so you don’t accidentally kill yourself.” And as she took a step to the right, the man pulled the trigger.

From no more than a meter away, she took the shot square in the chest. And instead of tearing into her, it met a sudden purple shadow and bounced right off, leaving Lynnette entirely unharmed.

Page 429

~~Holiday Special (Day 2/7, Page 5/6)~~
She supposed hitching a ride with someone was too much to ask. Cars were rare out here, and none of the drivers seemed especially interested in picking up a cloaked stranger. She tried pulling down her hood the next few times but still found no luck. Maybe the eye patch was off-putting. Or maybe it was the sword.

Thus far, she’d still not encountered even so much as a village. She knew Lorent was a big country, but this was getting ridiculous. All she wanted was a working phone, but she would have settled for just a bit of food that she didn’t have to kill first. Her sword wasn’t meant for hunting.

Gradually, the landscape on the left side of the road changed into wooded greenery. It would likely prove a better hunting ground, she decided, so she ventured into it. Before she found anything to eat, however, she spotted a house. It was hidden among a group of trees and would have been entirely concealed if she’d stayed closer to the road.

She approached eagerly, getting a better look at the building. One modest story, it had, along with perhaps a small attic, if the oval window beneath the roof’s apex was any indication. A cobblestone chimney sat toward the back, and much of the house’s white wood was overgrown with verdant moss.

She knocked on the front door, as it had no bell to ring. “Hello?!” she called, removing her hood again.

The door did not open, but someone shouted back, “Whaddya want?!” A man’s voice. Elderly, too.

“Sorry to bother you,” she said loudly, “but I was hoping I’d be able to use your phone!”

“Phone don’t work!”

She frowned. “Then could I trouble you for a ride to the nearest town?!”

“Car don’t work!”

“A place to rest, then?!”

“Bed don’t work!”

She pursed her lips.

“Ain’t got no food, neither, so don’t ask!”

“Sir, please! My name is Lynnette, and I’ve been traveling for several days on foot!”

Page 428

~~Holiday Special (Day 2/7, Page 4/6)~~
Garovel laughed. ‘Not sure I’ve ever seen you this excited before.

He looked for Gina’s number in his phone. “We just got done talking, and I gotta call her back already...”

It started ringing, and she answered as quickly as ever. Hector struggled through explaining the general idea.

<“That’s a nice thought, but there’s a major problem with it.”>

“W-what?”

<“When Karkash made the news a few days ago, Abolish really tightened their grip on the media. Nothing makes it to air without their approval now.”>

“Shit.”

<“I could put your threat up on the internet, but it wouldn’t get nearly enough exposure.”>

“Agh...”

Ask her if she knows which servant is controlling the media.

Hector did so.

<“There are two, actually. Conall and Tessa seem to be the ones responsible for public affairs, but from the sound of it, the others sometimes pitch in as well.”>

And does she know if they’ll be among the five going to Harold?

He asked her.

Gina paused. <“Actually, yeah, they will be. Are you thinking when they leave, we’ll be able to sneak it through as breaking news?”>

“Uh. Yeah, sure.”

<“Hmm. That could work. It’ll be a tight timeframe, though. The citizens of Harold won’t have much time to evacuate, but I guess the only alternative would be to give them no warning at all.”>

That’s unfortunate for Harold, but it works out better for us,’ said Garovel. ‘Waiting until they leave ensures that our window for kidnapping the King also remains open. You should probably mention that plan to her, as well.

“Oh, and, uh... I’m gonna try to, uh... to kidnap the King, too.”

<“Wait, WHAT?”>

-+-+-+-+-

The cloak was no longer the pristine white it had been when she procured it, but she’d wanted it more for protection against the elements than for style points.

She’d been walking for days, sleeping under the stars, hunting and gathering food but never straying too far from the road that cut through Lorent’s wide open grasslands.

Page 427 -- XLIX.

~~Holiday Special (Day 2/7, Page 3/6)~~
Chapter Forty-Nine: ‘Thy converging ways...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

“Kidnap the King, huh?” Hector scratched his head. It didn’t sound as crazy as he expected, honestly. But after a moment, he found himself wondering how he’d managed to reach a point in his life where kidnapping anyone--let alone a king--no longer sounded completely mad. He shook his head and tried to return to the conversation at hand. “Uh... how would I even pull that off?”

We already know that five of them are going to be in Harold at once,’ said Garovel. ‘That only leaves two guarding the King.

“So I’ll have to take on two servants...”

I did say it would be dangerous. But two is more manageable than five. Ideally, we could find a way to sneak through and get the King out quietly, but yes, we should obviously be prepared for a difficult fight.

“Hmm.” He rubbed his neck. “It’s kinda fucked up, though... Sorta feels like we’ll just be using the deaths of all the people in Harold.”

Yeah, well. We kind of will be.

He felt an inkling in the back of his head, a faint idea, still unformed but nagging at him. And then it hit him fully. His eyes widened, and a broad grin split his face. “Garovel!”

What?

“Everyone hates me!”

Uh.’ Garovel looked at him confusedly. ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself?

“No! Garovel! Everyone’s scared of me!”

Er. Wait... Oh!

“Abolish wants to destroy Harold and blame it on--uh--some other country, right? But what if the Darksteel Soldier makes a public threat to destroy Harold beforehand?!”

It was the reaper’s turn to smile. ‘That might work! If Abolish destroys the town anyway, then it gets blamed on you and not a foreign country, thereby averting their trigger for war! And if they don’t destroy the town, then obviously, that’s even better!

“And if they destroy a different town, then it’ll probably still get blamed on me!”

Page 426

~~Holiday Special (Day 2/7, Page 2/6)~~
I won’t allow it,’ said Garovel. ‘Gina’s right. We can’t go to Harold.

“But, Garovel... we can’t just let Abolish destroy an entire town full of people.”

Hector, we’re not “letting” them do anything. They’ll do it whether we’re there or not. Either we don’t go, and they destroy the town, or we do go, get killed, and then they destroy the town, anyway. That’s the reason we’re not going--because our presence won’t make a difference.

“But... maybe we could... help some people escape, at least?”

At the cost of our own lives?

His expression weakened. “You want me to just... sit this one out?”

I’m sorry, but yes. We could try to come up with something that’ll make the town evacuate, but even if we succeed and get away before Abolish shows up, they’d just pick some other town to destroy.

He sighed and ran a hand over his head. His hair had grown out a little, as he hadn’t cut it since fleeing Brighton.

Listen. I know you don’t place much value on your own life. And to be honest, we’re oddly similar in that way. I don’t place much value on mine, either. I’ve lived for a very long time already, and while I don’t want to die, I won’t mind terribly when I do, especially if it’s for a good cause. And at times, it’s helpful that we feel this way. Makes us a bit fearless. But now is not one of those times, because our lives can still help save many others. We don’t have the best options in the world right now, but we have to choose the one that has the potential to do the most good.

“Fuck...”

However,’ Garovel said slowly, ‘we do have an opportunity here to do something else. It’ll be dangerous, and it won’t save Harold, but if we succeed, it’ll definitely throw a motherfucking wrench into Abolish’s plans.

Hector’s gaze hardened. “Sounds good so far. What do you want me to do?”

It’s gonna sound crazy.

“Tell me.”

I want you to kidnap the goddamn King.

Page 425

~~Holiday Special (Day 2/7, Page 1/6)~~
<“I’ve also learned all of the servants’ names now,”> Gina was saying. <“There’s Desmond and Karkash, of course. The others are named Conall, Tessa, Nola, Andres, and Hanjir.”>

“Th-thanks. That’s helpful.”

<“Eh. I know it’s not much. There were really long periods of silence where I guess reapers were talking.”>

“Don’t worry about it. You’ve been, uh... you’re, ah... very, um... I mean--”

Gina chuckled. <“Stop. I get the idea.”>

“S-sorry...”

<“Oh, and I learned earlier that the one who was killed was named Stoker. Thought you might like to know.”>

“Ah... I see.” If nothing else, it was nice to be able to put a name to the man’s face. Even if he’d been a member of Abolish, Hector couldn’t help pitying him. It was clear enough, at least, that Stoker had been trying to escape from them, and while Hector didn’t know the reason, it was easy to think of a few good ones.

<“But, um, anyway.”> There came a long pause. <“I hope you’re not planning on going to Harold, still. You understand that there’s nothing you can do there, right?”>

He exchanged looks with Garovel.

<“Even if Master Roman and the Queen were here, the three of you still wouldn’t really stand a chance. And there’s barely a week before the attack, so... I know it sucks, but you just. Um. You can’t. Please don’t go there.”>

“Uh. Y-yeah. I know. Don’t worry.”

Gina sighed. <“Good. We really need you to stay alive right now.”> She’d already been disappointed to learn that Colt wasn’t going to help them fight. She didn’t need more bad news, Hector felt.

“Well, um. C-call me if you learn anything else.”

<“Of course. Talk to you later, then.”>

“Bye.” After he hung up, Hector eyed Garovel again. “So?”

Garovel folded his arms, holding his scythe over his shoulder as he floated. ‘You still want to go, don’t you?

Hector bobbed his head to the side. “I don’t know about want to, but... I mean...”

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Page 424

~~Holiday Special (Day 1/7, Page 6/6)~~
Karkash was not wholly pleased by the woman’s manic smile. “How many must go?”

“Five,” she said. “You, me, Conall, Tessa, and Hanjir. Andres is staying behind with Desmond, who is stuck babysitting the King as usual. Poor guy. I offered to fill in for him, but nobody seems to trust me. I don’t know why.”

Why do you need Karkash?’ said Hoyohté. To Karkash’s eyes, the reaper was an orca. Her huge, black-and-white body loomed to the right above his head, casting no shadow whatsoever, and her giant mouth did not move at all when she spoke.

Nola’s reaper floated down to answer, but her dorsal fin still stuck through the ceiling. As Karkash recalled, this one’s name was Vennek. ‘It’s not just about destroying the town,’ she said. ‘If it was, just one servant could do the job. We have to stage things carefully and make sure Rendon is blamed for the attack, which means controlling the flow of information afterwards. Karkash can make that a lot easier for us by knocking out electronics around the town. It’d be annoying if some random bystander captured footage of our activities on a camera phone or something. All the footage that gets leaked has to be of our making.

Hoyohté gave a nod. ‘I see. Very well. We will accompany you.

“Great,” said Nola, grinning again. She wrapped an arm around Karkash’s shoulder. “How about we grab something to eat, huh? Get to know each other a little better, yeah?”

Karkash silently removed her arm and walked away.

-+-+-+-+-

Hector awoke to Garovel’s insistence that he answer the phone. Gina’s call didn’t have a whole lot of information for him, but there was only one thing that he needed to know.

Five of them were going to be in Harold.

His heart sank as he heard that number. There was no way he could fight five servants by himself. He knew this, and by the look on the reaper’s skeletal face, so did Garovel.

Page 423

~~Holiday Special (Day 1/7, Page 5/6)~~
Fortunately, Gina had a variety of underlings to help her sift through everything. Less fortunately, everyone involved had gotten a lot more from this job than they bargained for. After a while, a few of them outright refused to help her, and she couldn’t really blame them, either.

The problem was what some of those normal people in the recordings were talking about. Oftentimes, there would be long conversations of trembling voices trying to console one another, if not merely bemoaning their wretched fortune. All of these people were trapped in that place with at least a half dozen psychotic murderers. Horrifically, one audio log had even captured the agonized screams of someone who was probably being killed.

Listening to all of these things, interspersed between gigantic bouts of nothing important whatsoever, was more than some of her employees could bear.

As for herself, Gina had mainly been listening to the King’s chamber, but there hadn’t been anything noteworthy since mention of Karkash being able to control magnetic fields. Abolish clearly didn’t care to tell the King anything of importance.

Apparently, they weren’t really after Hector, either. They didn’t seem to count him as a credible threat, since he was so greatly outnumbered. A few of the servants had expressed interest in hunting him down, but none of them had any idea where to look and causing trouble just to bait him out of hiding would hinder their greater warmongering efforts.

None of this information was worth a phone call to Hector, she felt. She was waiting on more valuable details regarding their abilities or their movements.

Having more or less given up on the King’s chamber, she spent most of her time browsing through all the different available audio feeds.

Abruptly, Karkash’s voice came over the wire. <“What is it?”>

Gina perked up in her chair.

-+-+-+-+-

“Turn that frown upside down,” said Nola. “You get to go with us to Harold! Aren’t you excited? I know I’m excited.”

Page 422

~~Holiday Special (Day 1/7, Page 4/6)~~
“Are you sure you understand?” said Colt. “This is important. If you call me Jeremiah, OR if you text me, then I’ll know you’re contacting me under duress. And moreover, I’ll know to expect some type of trap.”

“Alright, um.”

We understand,’ said Garovel.

“But, uh... what if, uh... if you’re the one under duress?”

“That wouldn’t happen, since you’d be the one calling and not me. But I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to have a plan for that, too. If I’m in trouble but can’t say so, then I’ll do the opposite. I’ll call you Mr. Goffe.”

“Er. Okay.”

From there, the meal and conversation both drew toward their conclusions. There was no more putting it off.

Everyone said their farewells, and Hector and Colt shared a firm handshake. On foot, Hector followed the Pontiac up the ramp and out into the early afternoon sun. He offered a last, sweeping wave goodbye as he watched Colt drive west toward Walton. A cloud of yellow-brown dust followed in the car’s wake, lingering for a while after it was gone.

Welp,’ said Garovel after a spell. ‘Looks like it’s just you and me again.

“Yeah...”

It’s okay. They were cramping our style, anyway.

Hector smirked and started back down into the bunker. “So what do we do now?”

Still waiting on a call from Gina. Hopefully, she’ll have some information for us soon. In the meantime, you should sleep. We’ll get back to training in a few hours.

“Alright.”

-+-+-+-+-

These past couple days had been hellishly dull. Listening to the audio recordings out of the castle was more than a full-time job, yet somehow still mind-numbingly tedious. Whenever Gina slept, that meant she would be several hours behind upon waking up, and even with fast forward, trying to listen to every recording from every room she’d tagged was an organizational nightmare. A solid ninety percent of the recordings were either complete silence or just normal people talking to each other.

Page 421

~~Holiday Special (Day 1/7, Page 3/6)~~
Hector helped load the bags into Colt’s chosen vehicle, a midnight blue Pontiac. Afterwards, they shared one last meal together. It was a rather quiet repast, like all the others, but after a while, Colt broke the silence.

“Don’t die,” he said.

Hector looked up. “What?”

“When you’re out there,” said Colt. “Don’t die.”

Hector just tilted his brow at him.

Colt nodded toward the twins. “I want them to meet Uncle Hector when they’re actually old enough to remember him.”

His eyes widened at that. His mouth opened, but he didn’t know what to say. He glanced at the reapers, who both started laughing, which only made Hector flush red.

We’ll do our best,’ Garovel said in Hector’s stead.

Colt reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. “I’ll get myself a new one to use for other things, and I’ll keep this one in reserve just for you guys. If you ever want to come find us, just give me a call.”

Alright.

“Don’t lose the number. I’m guessing your phone will get destroyed one way or another, so keep my number some other way.”

I’ll remember it.’

Colt cocked an eyebrow at the reaper. “You’ll remember? Even if it’s five years from now?”

Oh yeah. Don’t worry.

We have very good memories,’ said Bohwanox.

Colt gave a nod.

“W-we should, ah... we should have a code.”

Everyone looked at Hector.

“I mean, uh, y’know... just in case... because... I don’t want a repeat of... before.”

There was a brief silence, and then Colt said, “That’s a good idea. We’ll keep it simple. I won’t contact you at all from now on. You’ll call me if you want to talk. No texting. Speak directly to me or leave a voice mail. If there’s something wrong, but you can’t tell me what it is, for whatever reason, then use my first name. Jeremiah. That’ll be our code.”

“Uh. O-okay...”

Jeremiah,’ confirmed Garovel. ‘Got it.