Friday, January 31, 2014

Page 541

The first attack came in the form of an enormous yellow crystal, crashing through the trees like they were nothing. When Harper pierced it with a white beam, however, the boulder exploded into chunks, clearing out a small section of the forest.

Andres and Desmond were immediately visible, which meant the other three were probably about to flank them.

On your left,’ warned Garovel.

Right, too!’ said Mehlsanz.

Hector raised metal walls on both sides, but as he was too far away to strengthen them with his soul, the three opponents broke through almost instantly. On Hector’s side, there were two women. They could only be Tessa Shelrick and Nola Pauls, though he didn’t know their faces. On Helen’s side, there was Conall.

Desmond had already lobbed an arm at the party, but a white beam detonated it before it reached them. Harper had one more beam, and he spent it on Tessa, cleaving her in two before she even reached Hector.

Nola, however, still made it to him. He raised another wall and rolled out of her path, but she smashed through it anyway and caught him by the ankle. Metal spikes shot out of his entire leg, piercing her. She didn’t seem to care very much and just pressed his foot against the ground.

His foot sunk into the rock. Melted into it. It was suddenly stuck there, and confusion was about to get the better of him until Garovel’s voice reached him.

Don’t panic. Protect yourself.

Nola reached for his head next, but a full suit of spikes leapt out of his body, skewering her more completely than before, even raising her off her feet.

“You little fuck!” she yelled, spitting blood.

He struggled for leverage on his sunken foot and retracted his spikes. She fell toward him, and he punched her square in the face at full strength.

-+-+-+-+-

Roman arched his path toward the aircraft with bursting shock waves, each one affecting his body, breaking dozens of bones and putting pressure on every one of his muscles.

Page 540

“Be back as soon as I can,” said Roman, letting Voreese latch onto his back. And as he crouched down, everyone took a step back. It wasn’t quite far enough, however. He shot up into the sky, leaving a shock wave in his wake that cracked the ground and nearly knocked Hector on his ass.

Holy shit!’ thought Hector, looking up with wide eyes to see Roman and Voreese dwindling from sight.

Then Garovel pointed suddenly. ‘Karkash.

And Hector saw the Vaelish man as well, diverting up and after Roman, obviously wanting to intercept him.

Harper raised an outstretched arm with a closed fist. He didn’t need more than a moment in order to take aim, and then a beam of solid, white light flashed into existence all at once, cutting the sky in two.

Karkash instantly lost an arm, a leg, and half of his torso. He ceased flying up and spiraled off into the forest below.

Nice shot,’ said Darsihm, bobbing his head at his servant.

It was an alteration type, Hector knew. The ability to manipulate light waves. Garovel had learned of the man’s power after his long strategy meeting with the other reapers and had then been kind enough to impart that knowledge to Hector, as well. But even though he’d known about it beforehand, seeing it firsthand was something else. And just like that, the Lt. General had already crippled Karkash, at least temporarily.

Hector could hear the enemy drawing close now. They didn’t seem especially concerned with keeping quiet, whooping and hollering over the already raucous sound of their vehicles pushing down the narrow path.

Then the noise died down, the cars’ engines shut off, and Hector could hear people exiting the vehicles.

I sense a lot of souls over there,’ said Darsihm, ‘but only ten are making their way closer. Half of them are floating, so it would appear we have five opponents.

Until Karkash gets back,’ added Garovel.

Keep the formation,’ Mehlsanz reminded them. ‘Don’t let them separate you.’

From there, a heavy period of silence seized the area. The Abolishers did not show themselves in order to exchange words.

Page 539

Garovel led the way. Hector’s motorcycle wasn’t suited to the dirt road, nor was he accustomed to riding on such terrain, but he managed well enough. The path diverged, and Garovel chose the narrower one. The branches grew uncomfortably close, even brushing Hector’s helmet as he passed, and in his rearview mirror, he could see Roman’s black BMW scraping its way through.

The forest abruptly gave way, replaced by a wide area with enormous pillars of natural stone. It was a kind of rocky hill, accented in green by swathes of moss, and the pillars themselves were an odd sight. Only two, there were, rising out of the uneven ground like a misshapen tuning fork. The northern pillar was almost twice the height of the southern one, but they were both still larger than an average building. Each one cast a long shadow in the amber dawnlight.

Hector parked his bike and dismounted as Roman pulled up next to him. He took off his helmet, feeling the dewy air against his face again. “Can you still sense them?” he asked.

Yeah,’ said Garovel. ‘But I can sense our friends now, too. Shouldn’t be much longer.

And indeed, it was not. After a couple minutes, the other three reapers arrived from the opposite path, along with the Queen and Harper. Everyone gathered around.

I sense Karkash at the head of the group,’ said Garovel. ‘They’ll be here in under a minute.

Then came the sound of a distant airplane, and everyone’s attention was drawn to the sky. From where they all stood, they had a clear view of the small aircraft.

Shit,’ said Garovel.

It’s too far away,’ said Mehlsanz. ‘We can’t sense who’s on board or even how many there are, but I highly doubt it’s a bunch of civilians who just happen to be flying by.

Voreese swirled over to Roman and grabbed his shoulder. ‘Leave it to us,’ she said.

You can’t just shoot it down,’ said Garovel. ‘There might be innocent soldiers inside.

We can’t let it cross the border and attack a town, either,’ said Voreese. ‘Don’t worry. We’ll use a delicate touch.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Page 538 -- LXII.

--donation bonus (day #28, post 5/5)--
“You don’t think so?” said Roman with a sheepish grin. “Maybe we could be partners, you and I. Build an empire together.”

Hector’s brow depressed. “Uh...”

Roman laughed. “Not up to you. I know.”

“Ah... w-why does Voreese want to make an empire?”

“Delusions of grandeur.”

“...What?”

Roman’s expression softened. “She wants to make the world a better place. And not just in a good-deed-for-the-day kind of way. She wants me to obtain so much strength and influence that I can at least try to fix some of the really fucked up things in the world. Like slavery and widespread famine and institutionalized poverty--y’know, the things that no one’s been able to fix in centuries.”

“Y-you, uh... um... wow.”

“And that’s not even counting Abolish.” Roman laughed again. “She fucking hates Abolish.”

“Garovel’s not a fan, either.”

“Ha. Anyway, yeah, she’s got all sorts of lofty ambitions. But I suppose that’s what I like about her.” He paused to look at Hector. “Don’t tell her I said that, by the way.”

After a bit more chatter, they both returned to their meditations. Not long into it, however, Roman’s hand gripped Hector’s shoulder, taking the young man away from the metal house that he had been imagining.

All amusement had gone from Roman’s face. “They’ve chosen our road,” he said. “Voreese is on her way to inform the others. Tell Garovel.”


Chapter Sixty-Two: ‘The Battle at Rathmore...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Hector nodded. ‘Garovel, get back here. Abolish is close.

Voreese can sense them?

Yeah.

Aw, fuck. I sense them now, too.

Roman was stretching his arms. “How you feeling, Hector? You ready?”

“Hell yes.”

When Garovel arrived, the first thing he said was directed at Roman. ‘What’s the enemy’s ETA?

There was a silent pause as Roman asked his reaper. “Voreese says fifteen minutes, at most.”

It’ll take Harper and the Queen at least twenty to reach us. Let’s fall back. There’s a large rock formation west of here called Rathmore’s Gate. Does Voreese know it?

Another pause. “Yeah.”

Then let’s go.

They ran down the cliff’s rear slope to reach their vehicles.

Page 537

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Hector returned a shrug. “Six years seems kinda old.”

“I suppose it is. I’ve mostly stayed out of conflicts, so I’m sure my power hasn’t grown very quickly compared to yours. Voreese and I were more concerned with financial matters.”

“Why would she care about money?” Hector asked. “Why would any reaper?”

Roman gave a laugh. “You probably wouldn’t think it, but she’s actually quite ambitious. Wants to build a servant empire of her own.”

Hector blinked at that.

“Not getting involved in big fights for the first few years was part of her plan, see? According to her, that’s how the servant emperors in the past have pulled it off. Keep a low profile for many years, let your physical power build slowly, and in the meantime, focus on acquiring funds and a reliable network of contacts. Then you make your debut and try to draw in some bigger fish, hopefully get them to join your team. And from there, it’s all about momentum.”

“I see...” Hector looked across the endless canopy of trees another time.

“That’s what she says, anyway. The simplified version.”

“Hmm. In that case... six years seems really young, too.”

“Yeah. That’s the trouble with long-term plans. The world keeps turning while you’re busy getting ready. You remember Gerald, right? That old prick whose garage I took you to? That’s why he abandoned us, you know. He’s more concerned about the future than the present.”

“Mm.”

“Networking is a real bitch. My advice? If you find genuinely trustworthy people, hold onto them as best you can. If you don’t have enough space for them in your life, then get a bigger house. Don’t let them go.”

Hector was quiet a moment as he let those words sink in. They seemed wise, though maybe a bit simplistic. He was reminded of a certain family of three. Perhaps that was Roman’s intention. “You... you really want to become an emperor? Like Sermung and all them?”

“Maybe.”

“It hardly even seems possible--uh, no offense. I mean, like, personally, uh... I couldn’t imagine myself doing something like that.”

Page 536

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For most servants, it was probably a benign enough thing to answer--simple and chat-worthy, even morbidly amusing, like Roman’s had been. The man likely had little reason to suspect that it was so personal a question.

He considered lying. It would be easy enough. A car accident, maybe. But the thought of lying about it was somehow even more humiliating to him. So he decided to take a cue from Roman. “I... don’t want to tell you.”

Hector knew that it might appear rude for a seemingly harmless question or that it might just spark even greater curiosity from Roman, but he was prepared. He’d had plenty of practice remaining silent.

However, Roman did not pry any further. “Fair enough,” was all he said.

Hector took a long, quiet breath as there came another lull in the conversation, this one more enduring. He could already see the first hints of daylight on the horizon. Clouds gathering in the distance suggested rain to come, no doubt very common weather for this forest.

He squinted, looking up diagonally. He could just barely make out the floating white skull in the sky. It was moving, scouting, and Hector couldn’t tell if it was Garovel or Voreese. ‘How much longer, do you think?

Not sure,’ said Garovel from wherever he was. ‘The waiting is pretty terrible, though, isn’t it?

Y-yeah...

Something not too many folks realize. Big fights usually involve a fuckload of waiting. You’d think that’d change in these modern times, but nope.

Ugh...

How’s Roman? Does he seem nervous?

Er, not really...

Hmm. Ask him how long he’s been a servant.

Hector regathered himself and asked, “How, um... how long have you been a servant?”

“Six years or so.”

He says six years,’ said Hector.

Odd.

“What about you?” said Roman.

“Oh, uh.” He recalled what Garovel had told him previously about keeping his faster growth a secret, but he wasn’t sure what an appropriate lie would be. “About seven months, I think...” It hadn’t even been four yet, but he remembered telling Gina five a couple months ago.

Roman cocked an eyebrow at him. “So young.”

Page 535

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“No,” said Roman. “I didn’t meet Gina until about a year later.”

“H-how long have you two been... um...?”

“How long have we been, what?”

“Been, um...? Er, what is your relationship, exactly? I-if that’s not too personal, I mean.”

“She’s my second-in-command. My right-hand woman. My babysitter.”

“One of those things doesn’t--”

“She’s the glue that keeps my boat in the air.”

“That’s definitely not a thing people say...”

“She’s the golden goose that makes sure I don’t count my chickens before they hatch.”

“...I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean.”

“She’s the giraffe to my peanut butter--”

“If you don’t want to tell me, you can just say so.”

“I don’t want to tell you.”

“Ah...”

Roman gave a sideways nod. “Honestly, though, I’m not entirely sure, myself. Gina is a curious one. I’ve met a lot of people who make their living off of keeping secrets, but Gina is more difficult to read than most of them.”

“You think so? She seemed pretty, um... straightforward... uh, to me.”

“Yes, well. She would. And I did tell her to help you, as well.”

“Hmm...”

“When I first met her, she was borderline agoraphobic.”

“Agora...?”

“She was extremely reluctant to go outside. I don’t think she’d left her apartment in months.”

“Oh... and you helped her get over that?”

“You could say that.”

Hector just looked at him, waiting for elaboration.

“I kind of burnt down her apartment,” said Roman.

“Aha...”

“Accidentally.”

“Right.”

“The details aren’t important.”

“Uh-huh...”

“Long story short, I helped her get back on her feet. Was only meant to be a temporary situation, but she ended up sticking around.”

“And you don’t know anything else about her?”

“I never said that.”

“But you said... all that stuff about her being difficult to read.”

“Yep.”

“Then...?”

“If you want to know more about her, then ask her yourself. Not my place to tell.”

Hector gave a small nod.

“You never answered my question,” said Roman. “How did you originally die? Told you mine.”

Hector nearly cringed. He was better prepared to answer now, but he certainly would’ve preferred Roman to have forgotten.

Page 534

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“Ouch,” said Hector.

“Yeah. Was feeling that one for a couple weeks.”

The conversation hit an abrupt pothole as Hector realized that it was up to him to respond but that he didn’t have anything to say. He quietly agonized for a fresh topic, but Roman soon filled the void for him.

“So how did you originally die?”

Hector’s mouth was left open at that question. Mid-breath, it just made him stop.

Thankfully, Roman didn’t seem to notice yet. “Me, it’s kind of a funny story. Guess you could say I was a bit of a punk, back then. Always trying to get my hands on something valuable, something I could sell. Always trying to work people, get them to think that I was someone I wasn’t so that I could, y’know, take their stuff.” Roman paused for a nostalgic smirk. “Maybe I’m still a bit of a punk, honestly. It’s so much fun when you trick the right person.”

Hector just offered a nervous smile, still dreading the moment when he would have to answer. It felt like he was somehow back in school, back before meeting Garovel, during one of those awful times when he was just waiting for the teacher to call on him and tell him that he had to give his presentation to the class.

“Basically, though,” Roman was saying, “I ripped off the wrong guy, and he had me killed. All because of some stupid diamonds that he didn’t even need anyway. Guy was absolutely loaded. I mean, don’t get me wrong--I am a greedy son of a bitch, too, but come on. I outwitted him, was all. Murder was taking things a bit far. So I didn’t see it coming until it was too late, and that’s when Voreese found me. Then she helped me dismantle the bastard’s entire life and leave him rotting in prison with nothing.”

“Ah... w-wow...”

“Was pretty satisfying, I have to say.”

Hector was just hoping Roman would forget the previous topic as he said, “Uh, w-was that also when you met Gina, or...?”

Monday, January 27, 2014

Page 533

The two men were perched atop a cliff, sitting on a metal bench with a domed cover against the wind. The night air was brisk on Hector’s face, but his riding jacket was fairly warm. Roman didn’t look bothered by the temperature, but of course, the man could also generate heat with his alteration power, so perhaps he was cheating.

Voreese and Garovel were both off scouting, so Hector and Roman took turns meditating while one kept watch over the road below, but after a few hours, Roman seemed to grow bored of it and struck up a conversation instead.

“So I guess your power has grown quite a bit since I last saw you.”

“Ah... y-yeah, I suppose,” said Hector. “What about you? Lynn said you achieved emergence.”

“Lynn? Oh, you mean Lynnette? You call her Lynn, huh?”

“I, uh... well, that’s what she said her name was, so...”

“Mm. Yeah, I’m a lot stronger now, too. I can do all sorts of fun stuff. Like flying.”

Hector turned his head curiously. “Really?”

“Little difficult, though. Haven’t quite mastered it. I can fly even faster than reapers can, but I haven’t worked out how to prevent my body from getting pummeled by g-forces.” Roman rolled his neck. “Broke my spine a few times.”

“I know the feeling.”

“Heh. What’s the worst injury you’ve had so far?”

“Oh, um. Hmm.” He scratched his head and took a deep breath. “I think that time I got blown up in Sescoria is still the worst. Y’know, when... uh... back when you saved me and Garovel?”

“Oh yeah. Okay, then what’s the worst you’ve had that didn’t kill you?”

“Hmm... I’m not sure, uh... There was one time in Klein where the cops pumped about a hundred bullets into me. There was the time my whole mouth got shot off--oh, but the time I had my, uh... my chest cavity ripped open... with like, surgical clamps... that was pretty bad. Though, I guess I was technically dead when it happened...”

“Impressive. Worst for me was probably the plane crash. Had to shield Lynnette or she would’ve been toast, so I didn’t have time to protect myself from this huge metal beam--came straight for me, basically cut me in two.”

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Page 532

--donation bonus (day #27, post 5/5)--
Under cover of darkness, they set out. Of the six cars, one was left unoccupied by a servant, as Karkash chose to simply fly under his own power and observe the convoy from above.

Desmond relaxed in the backseat, a soldier on either side of him. His body still felt a bit stiff, muscles sore, bones heavy. He rubbed his eyes and gave a loud yawn. “I’m going to take a nap now,” he announced to his fellow passengers. “You may be tempted to try to kill me or run away while my guard seems to be down. Go ahead and give it a try, if you want, but I will become rather cranky. At which point, I won’t care if only one of you tried something. I’ll kill all four of you, anyway.” At their uncomfortable silence, he added, “Can I get a ‘yes, sir’?”

“...Yes, sir.”

“Delightful. Wake me up when we get there. Or if something catches fire. Or if that plane crashes. I will need to go laugh in Hanjir’s face in the event of that last one.”

“...Yes, sir.”

Desmond grinned and shut his eyes. “I could get used to this. Have you given any thought to becoming professional yes men? Because I might like to hire you.”

-+-+-+-+-

The Carthrace Nature Reserve was an enormous stretch of forested mountains and valleys, occasionally broken by small lakes or hidden caverns. There were only two roads that ran through this area, both having been built long before the land had come under protection, and as such, they were no more than dirt trails, used only by hikers and forest rangers these days.

Hector supposed the place would have been more beautiful during the daytime, when it wasn’t all just pitch blackness against the lone headlight of his motorcycle.

The servants took up positions at the far western edge of the reserve, while the reapers all flew up high in the sky to enhance their view of the horizon. They’d all expected a long wait, and they certainly got one.

Hector partnered with Roman to watch the southern path, the Atreya-Rendon border at their backs, no more than three kilometers away.

Page 531

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Desmond reached into the bag at his feet and pulled out a special treat for everyone. “As you can see, I have in my hand here, your commanding officer’s head.”

A ripple of murmurs passed over his audience.

Desmond held up his other hand. “Please hold all questions until after the presentation is over.” He cleared his throat. “I didn’t catch his name, so we’ll just call him Teddy. Teddy was very brave. Teddy didn’t want to do as my friends and I asked.” Desmond dropped the head on the floor. “Don’t be like Teddy. Don’t be brave. We’re looking for cowards here today. Cowards listen to us. And more importantly, cowards get to live. But if, for whatever reason, you are still feeling that courageous impulse, then absolutely feel free to tell any of my esteemed comrades, and they will happily solve that little problem for you. I’m sure you all recognize our faces already and are therefore aware that we can snap your frail bodies like the tiny, insignificant twigs that they are.”

Nice speech,’ said Ezmortig privately. ‘Move it along before our friends start getting restless.

“Right. Everyone, please make your way to one of the designated vehicles on your left.”

Six armored cars sat near the wall in a disjointed line, and the soldiers all began to filter toward them. It wouldn’t be enough for all the troops, but that was what the small jet in the adjacent hangar was for. Desmond very nearly felt a tinge of pity for the soldiers who ended up on that plane, because Hanjir was the one piloting it. The reason they hadn’t stolen a giant plane for everyone to board together was because Hanjir was the only pilot of the seven, and nobody else wanted to fly with that maniac at the controls. There’d been talk of stealing a new pilot to go along with it, but Hanjir made a fuss, ranting about how they shouldn’t trust some random person with such an important part of the mission. It seemed obvious enough to Desmond that Hanjir just didn’t want to share the sky with anyone, but the man’s words had convinced the reapers.

Page 530 -- LXI.

--donation bonus (day #27, post 3/5)--
“I must agree,” said Meriwether. “This whole situation could have gone terribly awry. I should have liked to be let in on the plan as well.”

“You darling boys,” she said, smiling sympathetically. “This was no plan of mine.”

“What?” said David.

She returned a frown of her own now. “Gabriel, Charles, and Martin are dead. And so too would Meriwether be if he had not come here when he did. Honestly, I thought this was somehow your mad plan.”

The brothers exchanged looks.

“I was only having David watched as a precautionary measure,” she said. “Ostensibly, I did it for your protection, but frankly, I wanted to be sure you were not pulling one over on me.”

David narrowed his eyes. “You also planted bugs in here, didn’t you?”

“My apologies,” she said with a nod.

“No need for that,” said David. “Your distrust has apparently saved my brother’s life, if not also my own.”

She tilted her head a little. “It would seem that we have all deceived each other so thoroughly that not one of us has any idea what we are accomplishing anymore.”

David rubbed his forehead. “This. This is why politics terrifies me...”


Chapter Sixty-One: ‘To yield no ground...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

“Everyone! Hello! My name is Desmond, and my friends and I will be kidnapping you today!”

A crowd of about fifty soldiers looked at him as he stood on the dais on one end of the base’s conference hall. Their faces were a wild mixture of anger and fear and horror. Clearly, they still required a bit of homogenizing.

“Now I know what you’re thinking. ‘Kidnapping?! That doesn’t sound very fun!’ But you are mistaken. We’re going to have a grand, old time. Trust me! I have experience with this sort of thing!”

The reapers floated among the soldiers, watching and listening, sizing them all up, while the other six servants hovered around the perimeter of the crowd--the shepherds who had gathered the flock.

“You may notice that we’ve taken all your knives and ammunition and given you unloaded guns. This is because we don’t need you fine fellows to do anything other than march around and look pretty.”

Page 529

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David still required answers. “Meri, please explain--”

“Not in front of him.”

“What now, then?” said Luther.

“We wait.”

Not more than thirty seconds later, a group of soldiers in tactical gear kicked down the front door and stormed into the room. The one at the head of the troupe called through a black helmet, “Lord David, sir! Are you alright?!”

“And who are THEY?!” said David. “Someone explain what is happening!”

Meriwether lowered his weapon. “Everything is fine,” he told the armed men. “Please take Luther into custody now on suspicion of treason and murder.”

The lead soldier hesitated. “I’m sorry, Lord Meriwether, but we do not take orders from you.”

“Right.” Meriwether looked over at David. “If you would be so kind.”

David was incredulous. “Uh--please do as Meri says?”

“Yes, sir!”

David watched a pair of soldiers emerge from the crowd and haul Luther away. He was still waiting for his explanation as Meriwether addressed the apparent guard captain.

“Is she on her way?”

“Yes, sir.”

And from that small exchange, David began to understand, though the details still eluded him. “These are Duchess Jezebel’s men?”

“Yes,” said Meriwether. “I knew she had someone observing your residence. Luther could not have had more than a handful of men waiting outside, so I knew it would only be a matter of time until the duchess’ watchers called in enough reinforcements to completely overwhelm them.”

David stared at him. “Tell me honestly. Are you really Meriwether? Are you now going to pull your face off and reveal that you are actually someone else?”

The man snorted a laugh. “I have only been working with the duchess for a few days. She told me to keep my involvement a secret from you. I have been thinking about telling you anyway. That was one of the reasons I came here tonight, in fact.”

David sighed. “I thought I had earned her trust.” He supposed it was good that he hadn’t, though.

Jezebel soon arrived, also in a robe over her pajamas. Her face spoke of weary relief when she saw them. “I am glad to see you are both unhurt.”

David frowned at her. “Could you not have at least warned me about this plan to trap Luther?”

Page 528

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David tried not to grimace. He hadn’t seen this coming. And he should have. He had left himself exposed to this assault, despite already knowing that Abolish would not be here to protect him. Which was the strangest bit of irony here--as volatile and dangerous as the Abolishers were, they had also been serving as guards for the princes up to now. Nola had made sport of terrorizing anyone else David hired to protect him, and he knew that she was not the only one to act as such.

If only he’d realized that Luther also had access to Abolish’s plans. It was sloppy to presume otherwise. He’d been so preoccupied with worrying about the attack on Rendon that he’d forgotten about the more immediate threats.

There was no time to be upset with himself, however. The situation required his full attention.

“How about this?” said Luther. “If Meriwether can convince me that he is not a threat, then I will not kill him.”

David clenched his jaw, struggling to think and failing. The pressure was getting to him. He didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t prepared for this at all, and he hated himself for it.

“I have a better idea,” said Meriwether. “Put down the gun now, and I will attempt to prevent you from being executed.”

Luther seemed amused. At first. But as he stared at his younger brother’s unflinching expression, Luther’s smile began to wane. “Bluffing will not help you,” he said.

“Last chance,” was all Meriwether said.

And Luther blinked at him, visibly uncertain.

David was perhaps even more confused, looking to Meriwether for an explanation, but the man was too busy staring Luther down. To David’s utter astonishment, Luther did decide to put the gun down on the table in front of him.

Meriwether picked it up and trained it on Luther now, who raised his arms.

David’s mouth hung open slightly. “...What just happened here? Meri, what--?”

“I am not entirely sure myself,” said Meriwether.

“So you were bluffing,” growled Luther.

“No, I was not. You already know that I am a terrible liar. You made the correct choice.”

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Page 527

It took everything David had to keep the disgust from his face. “Why are you telling us, then?”

“Well, you see,” said Luther, reaching into his coat, “my men were supposed to kill Meriwether earlier tonight.” He pulled out a small handgun.

David and Meriwether both stiffened in their seats.

“Imagine my surprise when I received word that Meriwether was not at home and had come here, instead. Now I am left to wonder if killing him is truly necessary.”

“It surely isn’t,” David said hastily, ignoring his increased heartbeat. “Meri is on our side. Why would you even think it necessary to kill him in the first place?”

“One must be meticulous,” said Luther. For a long moment, his gaze held on Meriwether, whose return expression was not one of fright or worry but of anger and defiance. “I did not think Meriwether would understand, especially when he learned that Gabriel, Charles, and Martin are all dead as well.”

Meriwether stood. “WHAT?!”

Luther pointed the gun at him now. “You see? So easy to read, this one.”

It was all going wrong. David knew he had to think of something, but nothing came to mind. “Luther, please don’t do anything rash. Let us speak reasonably on this matter. Meri, sit down. Meri.”

Slowly, Meriwether sat.

“David will soon receive word of their deaths,” said Luther, “and as he is now the oldest, emergency power will fall to him.” He glanced at David. “I would appreciate it if you did not accept your new responsibility and instead passed it on to me.”

“Of course,” said David. His mind was racing again. If Luther’s only objective was to obtain emergency power, then killing Meriwether would not be strictly needed, as Meriwether was younger. Perhaps one brother’s life could yet be saved here. “But please don’t harm Meri. If you have any affection for me at all, Luther, then allow me this one favor.”

“You are fond of him?” said Luther. “I do not see why. He only seems like a needless complication to me.”

Page 526

Moreover, Luther should have no reason to suspect that David knew he had lied about Nathaniel’s demise, so perhaps this late night encounter truly was a coincidence. But still, David mistrusted coincidences, as any rational person would, so before he committed himself to anything else, he fished for more information. He opened the door a crack and peeked through.

“Luther?” he said. “What are you doing here so late?”

“Please invite me in.”

“Why?”

“I need to speak with you.”

“Then speak here and do it quickly. I am tired.”

Luther tilted his head with a knowing smile. “I would also like to speak with Meriwether.”

So much for coincidence. There was little point in refusing the man entry now. He allowed Luther in and rejoined Meriwether in the den.

Meriwether only looked confused by the new arrival.

“Allow me to forego pleasantries,” said Luther, taking a seat. “The Abolishers have left the city. Mr. Conall Learen was kind enough to share their plans with me earlier this evening. They will be gone for most of the day today. I have therefore decided to take advantage of the opportunity that their absence presents.”

“Take advantage how?” said Meriwether.

“Their names and faces are already known to the police and the military, and come morning, word of their many misdeeds will finally make the national news--at which time, they will also receive credit for a few extra murders.”

David’s expression flickered.

Meriwether blinked. “What are you talking about?”

“A handful of select individuals,” said Luther. “Ones who might have otherwise become obstacles to our objective.”

“What objective?” said Meriwether.

Luther ignored him, instead looking at David. “Abolish will not be upset by this move. They are already enemies of the state and intend to leave Atreya as soon as war with Rendon is triggered.”

Meriwether scowled. “Has there not been enough bloodshed already? You intend to have even more people killed?”

“Oh, Meriwether. You simple fool. I do not intend to have them killed. I already have. You honestly think I would be telling you such sensitive information if it was not already decided?”

Friday, January 24, 2014

Page 525

He cut a big slice of chocolate cake for himself, poured a tall glass of milk, and then made his way into the den. He flicked the fireplace on with a remote control and sat down to enjoy his treat in silence, but scarcely more than two bites in, his doorbell echoed throughout the house.

David eyed the clock on the mantelpiece. It was barely past three in the morning. And as he’d dismissed his butler over a week ago, suspecting Nola would take the poor man’s head, David had to answer the door himself. He looked through the peephole first and was surprised to see Meriwether’s face there. He opened the door.

“I apologize for the hour of my visit,” said Meriwether.

“It’s fine. I was unable to sleep, anyway.” He invited his brother in and offered him some wine. Meriwether requested something stronger. David poured the man a glass of brandy. “So what brings you here so late?” he asked, returning to his own glass of milk for a sip.

“Um... David, please just tell me... do you know who really killed Nathaniel?”

David gave the man a sidelong stare. His brother did not seem in the finest state at the moment. Bags under his eyes, hair in a mess, clothes unpressed. Granted, it was extremely late at night, but even still.

“I have been looking into his death,” Meriwether went on. “I cannot help but feel something is wrong with Luther’s story, but I have been unable to find any kind of evidence which contradicts it.”

“I see.” As David suspected, Luther had been thorough.

“But you always seem to know more than you let on,” said Meriwether. “So please--”

The doorbell rang again.

David looked at Meriwether heavily and then stood to go answer it again.

It was Luther this time.

David’s hand lingered on the door handle as he raced through the scenarios in his head. It seemed highly coincidental that Luther would visit now, just as Meriwether was making inquiries into him. But even if David assumed that Luther somehow knew about this discussion, what purpose would Luther have in interrupting it? Surely, if Luther wanted Meriwether dead, then there were more timely ways in which to do it.

Page 524

There are equivalent rankings in the air and naval forces which would also be considered “higher up” than Lt. General, but you get the idea,’ said Garovel.

Yeah,’ said Hector.

As the salutations concluded, a certain tension began to fill the air. Everyone knew there was still dangerous work ahead of them. And just like that, it was already time for goodbyes again.

Gina gave a last hug to Roman. She had one for Hector, too, which caught him by surprise. “Look out for each other, yeah?”

“Of course,” said Roman, to which Hector added a nod.

Another round of handshakes and reluctant words for the King, and then he and Gina took their leave. Only the servants and reapers now remained, making their way toward the next set of vehicles.

Voreese started them off. ‘So we only know that the enemy will be passing through the Carthrace Nature Reserve. That’s a lot of ground to scout with just the eight of us, but we know that they have to cross the border into Rendon, so I say we keep a line formation.

They won’t be difficult to spot,’ said Mehlsanz. ‘They’re taking a whole platoon of soldiers with them, so scouting shouldn’t be too much of a problem, especially considering we also have the element of surprise.

It’s still four against seven,’ said Garovel. ‘Much of the burden will fall upon Harper. The rest of us should form up around him as soon as possible and support his position.

“Let’s get underway,” said Harper. “The four of you can discuss details while we’re en route.”

-+-+-+-+-

David couldn’t sleep. He knew too much about what would transpire tomorrow for that to be possible. It was the sense of powerlessness that really got to him. Hector hadn’t messaged him back. Admittedly, that was the smartest decision. Strictly speaking, David didn’t need to know how or even if Hector planned to respond to Abolish’s actions. It would’ve been a needless operational risk. David still would’ve appreciated it, though.

Draped in a soft bathrobe, he shuffled into his kitchen, looking for something to calm his nerves.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Page 523

“It’s a shame I couldn’t meet this other friend of yours,” said Roman. “Colt, right?”

Hector bobbed his head to the side. “Heh, uh... You probably wouldn’t have liked him very much, anyway.”

“Oh? Why do you say that?”

“Because I don’t like him very much,” said Hector, still with a smile.

“Ha. That just makes me even more curious.”

Roman and Gina both went to have a word with the pilot, who looked rather shaken up and out of place. Hector guessed that the poor man had probably gotten more than he bargained for with this trip, but Roman was reassuring him that there would be handsome compensation for his trouble.

Harper was next, and he looked rather less formal than Hector had been imagining. “I heard the others mention your name,” said Harper. “Hector, right?”

“Ah--yes, sir.”

“You look younger than I was expecting.”

After having wandered off a little with Voreese and Mehlsanz, Garovel floated closer to Hector again. ‘Harper Norez, correct?

Indeed. And I’m Darsihm.

Four glowing skeletons in one place, all with scythes and black shrouds. Hector supposed the number didn’t seem like much to anyone else here, but this was the first time he’d seen so many without there being at least one who wanted him dead. It was a nice change of pace.

I’m Garovel, by the way. Roman said you two were with the Vanguard?

“That’s right,” said Harper.

If you don’t mind my asking, what’s your rank?’ said Garovel.

Harper is a Lt. General,’ said Darsihm.

What the--?’ Garovel looked over at Roman, who was just joining them again. ‘Why didn’t you tell us earlier that he was a freaking Lt. General?

“Oh, I assumed you already knew,” said Roman. “Voreese and Mehlsanz already did.”

Hector eyed Garovel, not wanting to ask his question aloud. ‘Uh, is that, er... how high up is that, exactly?

The Vanguard is split into three divisions,’ said Garovel privately. ‘Army, navy, and air. Lieutenant General is an army ranking, and there are only four ranks above it: General, Captain General, Field Marshal, and then the High Commander, which is Sermung’s official title.

Uh... whoa...

Page 522 -- LX.

Chapter Sixty: ‘O, looming tempest...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Hector hadn’t realized just how good it would be to see everyone again. He and Garovel had only met Roman and the Queen briefly on that chaotic day in Sescoria, barely even two months ago now, but after everything that happened to him and everything that he knew had happened to them, it was like seeing his oldest friends again. And in a way, he supposed they actually were. They’d been in his thoughts so frequently, and of course, it helped that he’d been able to correspond with them over the phone as well.

Burning with embarrassment, he was still thrilled to shake hands with everyone.

“You look well,” said the Queen, her smile much warmer than Hector would have imagined.

“Ah--you--um... ah--”

You too, Your Majesty,’ laughed Garovel. ‘Hector is so glad to see you that he can’t even put it into words.

She looked different than he remembered. But then again, the last time he saw her, she’d been having a rather rough day. Here and now, she was nearly restored to that regal form that he’d seen in papers and television, the only difference being her commoner’s attire and general lack of cosmetics.

Voreese seemed the most pleased of anyone to be back. ‘So I hear you two have really been giving Abolish the middle finger lately. I require juicy details.

Seconded,’ added Mehlsanz.

Garovel only laughed harder.

Hector found himself confronted with Roman next. “Ah--uh, Mr. Roman, I can’t... I can’t thank you enough for all your help. I mean, your motorcycles and facilities and, uh...”

“Oh yeah,” said Roman, as if he’d forgotten. “No problem. Thanks for looking out for Gina while I was gone.”

“Oh, no, she was the one looking out for me,” said Hector. “I mean, I would’ve... I would’ve been screwed without her help.”

Gina smacked him on the shoulder. “Continue.”

Hector had to laugh.

Roman seemed different, too, though Hector hadn’t really gotten all that good of a look at him during their previous encounter. Roman was wearing his glasses now, and combined with his silky black tie and blood red waistcoat, the man had an air of prominence about him that Hector hadn’t noticed before.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Page 521

--donation bonus (day #26, post 5/5)--
Soon, they arrived at the airfield. Hector followed Gina into her chosen garage and parked behind her black SUV. He kept his helmet on, and the King wore a hooded, black cloak--the very same one that Lynn had bought for Hector.

Gina led them through the facility. Only a handful of people were around, but they all made way for Gina and her guests. She took them into the observation room, but surprisingly, no further waiting was necessary, as they could already see an airplane easing to a stop on the landing strip.

“Is my timing good or what?” She took them around to the outside and finally met up with the others.

Voreese was the first one Hector saw, and her giant, skeletal grin made him take off his helmet so he could return a smile of his own.

There’s the little fucker!’ she said, laughing and swirling around him. ‘How ya doin’, Hector? And Garovel! Happy to see us?

More than you can possibly know,’ said Garovel, sounding equal parts delighted and relieved.

“Definitely,” agreed Hector.

Then everyone else began to appear. Mehlsanz and Darsihm floated up behind Voreese, and then Roman, the Queen, and presumably Harper each descended from the plane in turns.

The King rushed over to his wife first and swept her into his arm. He kissed her then and there.

Helen looked a bit taken by surprise, but she didn’t exactly seem upset, either.

The onlookers all shared a chuckle.

Afterwards, Helen touched her husband’s face, then moved to his missing shoulder. “Oh, William... what have they done to you?”

“Nothing that seeing you again hasn’t made utterly inconsequential.”

And they kissed again.

Damn,’ said Voreese. ‘Who knew the King was such a smooth operator?

The married couple didn’t seem to hear her. Of course, the King genuinely couldn’t.

Roman made his way over to Gina. He looked at her, briefly stone-faced before he couldn’t hold his smile back any longer. He gave her a big hug and kissed her forehead.

She giggled. “So I get hazard pay this month, right?”

Page 520

--donation bonus (day #26, post 4/5)--
Yep,’ said Garovel. ‘It was a pretty long break, I suppose. Twenty years.

And you weren’t, uh... afraid of not having a servant to protect you?

Ah, well, reapers who don’t take on servants are generally left alone. There’s something called “the Old Law,” which is a kind of unwritten agreement that non-combatant reapers be allowed to reap souls in peace, and even Abolish tends to respect that.’ Garovel paused. ‘Or at least, they DID. Now that aberrations are running around and doing whatever the fuck they want, I feel like things have probably changed.

Hmm...

The Old Law is also what Sai-hee bases most of her neutrality on. As I understand it, she considers it her duty to keep the others in check, and she devotes the majority of her resources to trying to “keep the peace,” as it were. And for her part, she seems to do rather well. She keeps several territories under her protection, and they make up some of the most peaceful areas in the world.

Wow. Why didn’t you join her side?

Because her side is very “reactionary.” They only get involved after the fact, trying to make sure things don’t get worse. Which is certainly valuable, of course. I don’t mean to denigrate her efforts. That’s just not what I wanted to do. I wanted to get directly involved in things and save the people who were in imminent danger--y’know, try to prevent the terrible shit from happening in the first place. Which is what the Vanguard does. That’s why it’s called “the Vanguard.” It’s the first to jump in and try to stomp out the threat.

Oh.

Or at least, that’s what the Vanguard is SUPPOSED to do. Looking at the state Atreya is in, you’d be forgiven for doubting the validity of that claim.

Did you... have a falling out with your comrades?

Nah. I mostly kept my opinions to myself. The Vanguard attracts its share of crazies, so I preferred to just leave quietly. But from what Mehlsanz said to me before, it seems like the Vanguard is having problems these days.

Great...

Page 519

--donation bonus (day #26, post 3/5)--
Try not to sound so disappointed,’ said Hector.

I am, though. I was preparing to cheer you up with a light-hearted story. Or maybe I could’ve gone for a moment of emotional support, and then we would’ve grown closer than ever before.

What a shame.

Tch. It could’ve been great.

Anyway, uh. I’ve been meaning to ask, uh. Do you know anything about this Harper person that Roman mentioned?

The name does ring a bell,’ said Garovel. ‘I remember hearing it in passing when I was with the Vanguard. It belonged to a rookie back then, but if it’s really the same guy, then I imagine he must be pretty strong by now.

How long ago was that? Er, I mean, when did you leave the Vanguard?

Twenty-ish years ago, I think.

You think? I thought you had a really good memory.

Memorization requires that one be paying attention. The passage of time is kind of a blur to me, these days. I stopped keeping track a long time ago.

Hmm. So, uh... why’d you leave the Vanguard, anyway?

Well, my servant had just decided that he was ready to die, so after I released him, I was on my own again. And before him, I’d had many other servants as well, and we were always fighting. And y’know, after a while, that takes a toll on you. I suppose you could say I was tired. Not physically, of course. I just wanted to take a break from it all.

Really? Even though, um... I mean, I assume Abolish was a problem back then, too, right?

Yes, they were,’ said Garovel. ‘But that’s the thing. The fighting doesn’t end, Hector. Abolish and the Vanguard have been going at it for fucking ages. There’s essentially no hope that the war will end anytime soon.

Geez...

And even being immortal, you can’t just keep fighting forever and ever. It wears you down. You have to take time for yourself sooner or later.

Hector had no trouble understanding that. He could only imagine what kinds of terrible things Garovel had seen. He didn’t want to ask about that right now, though, so he asked something else. ‘So, um... am I the first servant you’ve had since leaving?

Page 518

--donation bonus (day #26, post 2/5)--
Hector shook his head. At this point, he was honestly just curious. “If that’s the case... then why didn’t you just put me up for adoption?”

She seemed amused by the question. “I thought about it more than once. But your father was stubborn. He insisted we keep you. Though, if you’re thinking it was because he loved you, then--”

“I already know he didn’t,” he said, suddenly wanting to get there before her. He felt a change taking place in himself, a kind of quiet epiphany, though he wasn’t quite sure where it was coming from just yet.

The look she gave him then seemed more disappointed than surprised.

“Dad never wanted to show any weakness. If he didn’t want to put me up for adoption... then it was only because he was worried how it would look.”

“At least you’re not stupid.”

Oh, fuck her!’ said Garovel. ‘Hector, let’s get out of here.

“One last thing before I go,” he said, sterner now. “Mom. Thank you for being honest with me.”

“Hmph.”

“And... I still love you. I don’t know why. You’re a terrible mother. But I’m realizing... that I don’t give a shit, anymore. I’m going to protect you, whether you want me to or not.”

She snorted. “Is that so?”

“It is.”

She didn’t have a response for that.

So he left her there. He donned his riding helmet, pulled on his gloves, and mounted his bike. He gave one last wave to Lynn and her family before following Gina and the King out of the bunker.

It had been a while since he rode at night. The stars were out, shimmering in a clear sky, and he greatly appreciated the brisk air. It was almost cathartic.

Garovel was quiet for a while, perhaps still uncertain what to make of that last exchange. Then he finally said, ‘You sure you’re okay?

Yeah.

Really?

Really.

Huh.

A few beats passed.

You’re really, really sure?

He laughed weakly inside his helmet. ‘Garovel, I’m fine. I won’t let what she says get to me anymore.

Huh,’ repeated Garovel.

Page 517

--donation bonus (day #26, post 1/5)--
Garovel placed himself between Hector and his mother. ‘You don’t have to say goodbye to her, you know.

Maybe the reaper was right. Hector certainly didn’t expect any warm words from the woman. If anything, he expected her to tell him that she was glad he was leaving, that she hoped she’d never see him again. But he felt ready for it this time, like he needed to hear it now in order to understand his mother’s feelings fully. She already knew he could die out there. She’d heard them discussing their plans earlier. Hector wanted to know what she would say to him now, when she understood that this could be the last chance she had to say anything to him at all.

So he ignored Garovel’s advice.

His mother just watched him approach from inside the open cabin over her car.

He supposed he would have to be the one to initiate the conversation. “Mom, I’m, ah... I’m...”

“You’re going,” she said.

“Yeah...”

“Risking your life for the good of the nation. I guess I should be proud.”

And again, Hector found himself not knowing what to say.

“What do you want from me then?” she asked. “You want me to wish you good luck?”

“I don’t want anything... I just wanted to say goodbye.”

“Well, you’ve said it.”

And that was all. That was the extent of what she had for him. He was almost disappointed. But he didn’t move away from her yet. He still had a question for her, something he didn’t think he would’ve been able to ask if he didn’t feel like it might be his last opportunity to.

“Mom...”

“What?”

“You... you don’t love me, do you?”

She stared at him a moment, blinking vacantly. “No. I don’t.”

He nodded. She’d basically said as much during their last conversation, but even so, after all this time, he was a bit grateful that she just came right out and said it. No more dancing around the issue. Finally, a definitive answer. “Was there ever a time when you did?”

That made her pause again, longer this time as she thought about it. “Not really, no.”

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Page 516

“What’d you do to it?” asked Lynn.

“Oh, I, uh... um. G-Garovel was just, ah... he--”

Lynnette waited patiently.

“Garovel calls it a soul-strengthening, ah, technique.”

“You used your soul to make it stronger?” she said.

“Y-yeah.”

“Hey!” yelled Melanie. “Do something else!”

Lynn threw her little sister a look. Then the shadow swirled and formed into the shape of a mouth. And it stuck a purple tongue out and blew a raspberry at the girl.

Mr. Edith soon called them back down for dinner. Hector did not stay to eat with everyone, however. He took his plate back outside and continued training while he worked on the meal. The cooks were kind enough to stack the food extra high for him.

Afterwards, Gina came to fetch him again. The sun had set, and it was time to go meet up with Roman at the airfield. Gina was the only one who knew where it was, and the King was quite eager to see his wife again, so they would accompany Hector there before returning here without him. For everyone else, this was goodbye.

He shook hands with all of Lynn’s family, beginning with the father, then Melanie, then the mother.

Mrs. Edith’s handshake lingered. “Thank you for protecting my daughter,” she said, warm enough to make Hector blush in front of everyone. Then she pulled him closer and kissed his forehead.

Oooh,’ said Garovel, snickering. ‘I knew she didn’t hate you.

“Uh, it’s, um--not at all. I didn’t even--ah--”

Melanie chimed in to help him. “Just be cool and say: no problem, ma’am.”

He looked over everyone again, still burning up. “...No problem, ma’am.”

“I was wrong!” laughed Melanie. “That wasn’t cool at all!”

He shook hands with Lynn next, who was probably the last person in the world that he wanted seeing him right now.

“Come back safe,” she told him.

His eyes were on the floor, so he couldn’t see the softness in her expression, but he managed a nod.

That only left Mrs. Goffe.

He made his way over to her, as she had not come to him with the others.

Page 515

Hector led everyone outside. He would have preferred they not watch, but he supposed there was no helping it. He raised a hand, telling the small crowd of onlookers to wait there at the top of the ramp. He was a bit surprised to see his mother had also come to see. She was probably just bored, he figured. There wasn’t a whole lot to do here after all.

Lynn moved expectedly slow. She didn’t seem to be in much pain, but neither was she her normal, sharp-eyed self.

“H-how are you feeling?” he asked her.

She returned a lazy smirk. “Just don’t ask me to do a backflip yet.”

Whether or not she would participate in tomorrow’s battle had been a point of contention. Lynn said she could still fight if necessary, and when they called the Queen to ask about it, Helen deferred to her husband’s medical opinion. The King felt she was not yet in fighting shape and told her to remain here with everyone.

Hector had mixed feelings about the decision, himself. On the one hand, he certainly would’ve felt better if she was backing him up when the shit went down, and on the other hand, he was glad she would be here to protect everyone else in case something unexpected happened.

He raised a fat iron cylinder out of the ground, as tall as a bus. He left it unstrengthened by his soul and motioned toward it. “Uh--could you cut that in two for me?”

Lynn shrugged. Purple swirled around her, but she didn’t draw her sword. Instead, a violet blade formed on its own and slashed the metal cleanly. The two halves of the cylinder toppled apart, and Hector annihilated them.

He created a second one, then touched it with his hand and applied the strengthening technique. He bid her do the same thing again, and she did so, but this time, the shadow stopped about three-quarters of the way through. Lynn blinked at him, then reapplied the blade horizontally, stronger this time, and it cut cleanly through again.

Page 514

Hector spent the rest of the evening trying to strengthen his metal. He imagined it becoming more durable like Garovel said, but it was difficult to tell if he was succeeding at all. Garovel seemed to think he was, if only a little.

Why don’t you ask Lynn to help you out?

Ah--how?

Have her break through your metal when it’s strengthened and when it’s not. See if she can tell the difference.

O-okay.’ He descended the ramp.

Gina and Mr. Edith were busy making dinner while everyone else was gathered around the television in the corner of the garage. Even his mother was with them, though she sat off to the side.

Conditions were far from ideal. The garage was in turns too warm and too cold, and the bunker only had one-and-a-half bathrooms for eight people. They’d considered moving to Roman’s mansion in Walton, but Gina didn’t think the risk of exposure was worth it. She had a more discreet location lined up, and she planned to have everyone make the transition tomorrow, when Abolish’s attention was sure to be occupied.

“Dinner in ten!” called Mr. Edith from the kitchen, apparently having spotted Hector’s approach. And as usual, the food smelled amazing. Gina had been fetching fresh ingredients from Walton by herself, and she and Lynn’s father seemed to work exceptionally well together.

Hector returned an acknowledging nod and made his way over to the others.

Mrs. Edith saw him first. “Ah, are you ready for more sword training?”

“Actually, um--I need, uh... Lynn’s purple shadow-thing.”

Lynn perked up at her name. “How can I help?” she said, still quite slow to stand.

“I will observe,” said Mrs. Edith.

“Me too,” added Melanie. “I wanna see what that purple stuff can really do.”

The King also seemed interested, and even Mrs. Goffe spared them a look. Everyone had already observed Hector training with his metal, so that much was old news to them, but they had yet to see Lynn do anything with her shadow, aside from wave it around a little to prove that it was actually real.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Page 513

...I think I’ll pass,’ said Hector.

Spoil sport.

Hector continued working on his soul-empowered metal. His objective was to make as large a dome as possible while still having his soul permeate it thoroughly enough that there were no holes for reapers to escape through. He’d been devoting chunks of training time to this effort all week long, and he’d finally begun to see the fruits of his labor.

In order to implant his soul into the metal, he needed a point of contact with it, so he couldn’t just make a normal dome over his head. Rather, he’d taken to creating a pillar down the center, like the handle of a gigantic umbrella. Moreover, he discovered that after annihilating only the pillar, the soul power that he had already fed into the dome would linger for a while longer before eventually dissipating. Garovel likened it to blood leaving the body after the heart had been removed, which was perhaps not the happiest metaphor, but Hector understood what he meant.

Not bad,’ said Garovel. ‘I think I should tell you more about soul-strengthening techniques now.

Hector’s brow rose.

At the moment, there’s only one technique you need to concern yourself with, because the others are way out of our league. And that technique is “resilience”--increasing the durability of a designated object. That was what Andres was using and why his crystals could plow through everything the way they did.

Okay...

The technique is simple enough to pull off. All you have to do is concentrate on your soul within whatever object you’ve pushed it into, and then just “think about” making it physically more durable.

His head tilted. ‘Wow, uh... I know you said it was simple, but... that’s still simpler than I was expecting.

Yep. Conceptually, it’s very straightforward, just like when you learned to empower attacks in the first place. In execution, though, it’s much more difficult than that was. It’s completely dependent on the synchronization that you and I have, but I think we’re synced enough now that you can at least start attempting to do it.

Er. Alright.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Page 512

--donation bonus (day #25, post 5/5)--
Harper apologizes for his impertinence,’ said Darsihm. ‘You know how these young folks are. Once they reach a certain age, they think they know better than everyone.

Oh, I do know!’ said Voreese. ‘Roman is always trying to tell me what to do. Thinks he’s the boss of everybody, this one.

“Voreese, please--”

See that? All the fucking time.

Wow. Roman, you should really relax.

Roman and Harper just exchanged pitying head shakes.

For Harper, it’s less being bossy and more just general smugness. He’s even started doing it to me lately. It’s out of control.

Harper wondered if they would ever get back to the point about what his ability was. He decided to take that nap he’d been wanting. Darsihm seemed eager enough to speak for him, anyway.

-+-+-+-+-

Hector could hardly focus on meditating. The anxiety was ridiculous. After a week of no news, it seemed like everyone was suddenly moving. Tomorrow, he would get into a fight that would involve more servants than he’d ever seen.

Are you frightened?’ said Garovel.

Sitting under his iron dome as the sun grew heavy in the sky, Hector looked over the golden brown horizon. ‘I’m... uh... I’m actually not sure.

Really? It’s only natural to feel fear. There’s no shame in admitting it.

Yeah... I mean, I guess I’m scared, but... I dunno... I think I’m more afraid of what might happen to everyone else than of what’ll happen to me.

Ah.

I’m not trying to sound brave or anything...

I know. You just genuinely don’t care about yourself very much.

Well... I do care about myself. K-kinda. I mean, because... if something happens to me, then something might happen to YOU. So...

Garovel laughed. ‘So you care about yourself via proxy? That doesn’t seem very healthy, you know.

Yeah, well... if something happens to you, then I’m fucked anyway, right?

True, but still.

I know. I just. I know.

Hmm. Not too scared, huh? But how nervous are you?

Aw, fuck, I don’t... I--agh...

Give me a number. On a scale of one to ten. One is how you feel when you’re deep in meditation. Ten is how you feel when you have to talk to a girl.

Page 511

--donation bonus (day #25, post 4/5)--
Harper doubted that would be an issue today, though. Even in the unlikely event that Darsihm did slip away from him during flight, this plane looked small enough to slow down while still remaining aloft, which would allow the reaper to catch up. Sure, Roman and the Queen would be displeased with the delay, but they didn’t strike Harper as the kind of people who would so readily leave an ally behind. And besides, they weren’t flying over dangerous territory. Not yet, anyway.

He thought about trying to explain all of this to Darsihm, but the reaper probably knew it already and was just being a worrywart for no reason. That, and it seemed like a hassle.

Harper yawned and scratched his chin, preparing for a nap.

So what’s your power, anyway?’ said Voreese.

Harper turned to look at her, wrapped around Roman’s arm. To Harper’s eyes, reapers were simply black clouds, albeit with half-faces on them--glowing yellow outlines of lips and eyes embedded in dark fluff. He no longer gave their appearance much thought, but when he’d seen Darsihm for the first time, it had nearly scared him back to death.

Roman is an alteration user,’ Voreese went on. ‘He can control particle vibrations. It’s pretty fucking sweet.

Harper smirked. “I know we’re allies ‘n all, but you shouldn’t be so quick to volunteer that information. Generally-speaking, the less folks know about your servant’s power, the better.”

Voreese gave a hoarse laugh. ‘You think I don’t know that, you fucking chump? I was extending a modicum of trust your way, dumbass.

“Voreese, don’t be rude to our new friends.”

Psh. If a few choice words are all it takes for them to give up on us, then I’ll go ahead and take a stab in the dark here and guess that they weren’t really that invested in helping us in the first place.

Voreese.”

Fine.’ Her luminous gaze returned to Harper. ‘But please. Don’t act like you know better than I do. I’m older than your whole family put together.

She’s right,’ said Darsihm publicly. ‘That was very rude of you, Harper.

“Wha--? Tch.”

Page 510 -- LIX.

--donation bonus (day #25, post 3/5)--
Chapter Fifty-Nine: ‘Thy promised return...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

The airplane was rather compact, with only a few seats left empty despite having a mere three passengers. Harper looked out the window and across the tarmac. The gray skies were a common fixture of this province, as were the drizzling rain and thick forest in the distance.

They hadn’t wasted any more time trying to convince Kohzek to help them, as apparently it was a rather long flight back to Atreya. Harper had never been there before. He’d barely even heard of it.

Are you sure about this?’ said Darsihm privately.

Harper had to conceal his chortle. ‘Would you stop asking me that already? It was your idea to go with them.

I know, but are you REALLY sure? It’s been a while since you’ve seen combat.

Is that your subtle way of tellin’ me I’m fat?

Of course not,’ said Darsihm. ‘We both know I’m not that subtle.

Then quit your worrying.

Now that you mention it, though, you have gotten a little fat.

Thanks.

Harper wasn’t truly surprised by Darsihm’s sudden hesitance. There weren’t very many reapers who enjoyed flying by plane. As fast as reapers were, they were still outclassed by a typical aircraft, and since they couldn’t actually “sit” within the cabin like a living person could, they had to latch onto their servants in order to not be left behind.

It was a common fear that they would accidentally let go at some point during the journey and thus end up separated from their servants by hundreds or even thousands of kilometers. Of course, they would still be able to communicate with their servants, so meeting up again was an eventuality, but it remained a tremendous inconvenience nonetheless. If it happened over enemy territory, however, then it would be much more than that. Harper recalled various harrowing tales about servants being forced to jump out of a plane in order to go protect their reapers. It was because of such tales that most servant-owned aircraft were not of the leisurely variety, instead opting for an open door through which to jump in the event of such an emergency.

Page 509

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<“Ah--we’ve received word that Abolish will be taking a group of Atreyan soldiers to attack Rendon tomorrow. If we’re going to prevent war, then we’re out of time. We need you back in Atreya tonight. Or at the very latest, tomorrow morning.”>

Helen shut her eyes and rubbed her forehead. “Why have they accelerated their plans?”

<“They’re afraid the Vanguard will show up and ruin everything for them. Our source says they just want to get the war started and then book it.”>

She didn’t need to ask who the source was. She knew it was David, and she knew she shouldn’t doubt the validity of his information.

Well, that sure as hell changes things,’ said Voreese, and she eyed Kohzek again. ‘We’re out of options here. If you don’t help us right now, then it’s war. You understand that?

Kohzek shook his head. ‘I am sorry, but if I must make an immediate decision, then I cannot assign anyone to help you.

Fucking bullshit!

Helen had to contain herself. “Then you doom my people to misery and death,” she said, calmer than she wanted to. “It was my understanding that the Vanguard considered protecting innocents from Abolish a moral imperative. If you cannot help--”

Darsihm intervened. ‘Now just hold on a minute there. How many enemy servants are we talking about here?

Seven,’ said Mehlsanz.

I see,’ said Darsihm. ‘Do you know all of their names?

Voreese had them covered. ‘Desmond Grantier, Andres Geth, Nola Pauls, Tessa Shelrick, Conall Learen, and then Hanjir and Karkash, whose last names remain unknown.

Hmm.’ Darsihm exchanged looks with his servant. ‘There are no big name threats, at least. What do you think?

Harper scratched the top of his head. “Eh, I don’t think I can fight seven at once. Assuming there’s nobody problematic involved, I could probably take three or four, but--”

Holy shit,’ said Voreese, ‘are you seriously offering? Because you wouldn’t need to fight by yourself. Roman’s pretty strong, and Queenie’s not too bad, and we’ve got two more combatants waiting for us back home.

“Oh.” Harper smiled. “Well, okay then.”

Page 508

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Sorry, go ahead,’ said Darsihm. ‘Harper and I were just curious to meet these people. It’s taken a while to track them down.

Bartholomew had already grown bored and gone to the far end of the room to play one of his games. Kohzek didn’t seem to care, either, which compounded Helen’s confusion. If the boy was truly near her own age, then she would have expected him to display a bit more maturity and interest in their conversation.

Roman’s phone chose that moment to go off, which earned a look from Kohzek. “I should take this,” said Roman, and he exited the room.

Now then,’ said Kohzek, addressing Helen, ‘the matter of your request. Since our last meeting, I have received confirmation that Abolish is indeed present in your country. I do not require proof that they are attempting to instigate conflict. That much can be assumed. However, I remain unconvinced that sending my troops to rout them is the wisest course of action.

“Why would you think it unwise?” said Helen.

Because I feel you are asking more of me than you realize. Yes, with our help, you would likely retake your country without much difficulty. The problem lies in holding onto it once it is retaken. I cannot allow my people to remain with you indefinitely, so what is to stop Abolish from merely waiting until we leave and then attacking you again?

“I have been thinking on that as well,” said the Queen. “I was hoping we could establish a more long-term partnership. My country can provide you with financial backing, if you need it, or perhaps some kind of natural resource would interest you more.”

I do not think so,’ said Kohzek. ‘The most valuable resource to me at the moment is manpower. Intar is a much larger country than Atreya and so requires many more people to protect it. Our enemies might well seize the opportunity to attack while our attention is divided.

Helen frowned. “Be that as it may, I am sure we could find--”

Roman burst into the room again, phone in hand, drawing everyone’s attention. “Gina, tell them what you told me.”

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Page 507

That’s awfully considerate of you,’ said Voreese with more than a hint of doubt in her voice.

Yeah, we’re nice like that.’ Darsihm leaned back in the air, as if lying on an invisible bed, and crossed his ghostly arms. ‘But it’d also be problematic if one of Mehlsanz’s old comrades came to kill you. We’d rather the Vanguard not be collectively blamed for the assassination of the Atreyan Queen. But then, that is precisely why Mehlsanz here resurrected her, isn’t it? To hide behind her status?

I didn’t think anyone would actually come to protect me,’ said Mehlsanz. ‘Especially not a Lt. General.

“We weren’t planning to, either,” said Harper. “But then word got out that the Queen was traveling around, visiting different divisions all haphazard-like. If you stumbled onto the wrong people, they might’ve done something very stupid.”

“So you’re only here for damage control,” said Roman.

We’re only here because Mehlsanz and I share an old friend,’ said Darsihm. ‘Valess.

Mehlsanz shifted. ‘Ah... that wonderful fool. It’s been ages. How is he?

Finally took on a new servant. When he heard about the trouble you were in, he wanted to come for you himself, but he doesn’t have that kind of freedom or authority. So he begged me to have Harper come help you, instead.

“Wait,” said Roman, “so you weren’t even ordered to come here?”

Harper is a Lt. General in title only,’ said Darsihm. ‘In truth, he’s more of a freelance officer.

Helen tilted her head. “I do not understand. How does that work?”

“Basically,” said Harper, “I don’t have the authority to order anyone around, but in exchange, I don’t have to take orders from anyone below the rank of general, either. So Darsihm and I are usually able to go where we like and do as we please.”

“Sounds like my kind of deal,” said Roman. “How’d you swing that?”

Rather than answering, Harper just returned a confident smile.

Would you mind saving the chat for later?’ said Kohzek, whom Helen had nearly forgotten about. ‘I have other matters to attend to.

Page 506

Kohzek was a difficult negotiator. This was going to be their second meeting with him, and Helen still wasn’t sure if the reaper was trying to bargain for a better deal or if he genuinely did not yet believe that Atreya’s need was as great as she and Roman claimed it to be.

As Helen took her seat next to Roman, she eyed the two servants across from her--one more than she had been expecting. Bartholomew fidgeted in a chair that was too big for him, but the podgy man next to him was not someone Helen recognized. He had not attended their previous meeting.

As usual, Voreese was the first to ask the obvious question. ‘Who’s he?

Kohzek motioned with a ghostly hand. ‘This is Harper Norez. And his reaper, Darsihm.

A sudden silence took the room, making Helen glance around. Both Mehlsanz and Voreese were staring at the newly introduced pair.

Are you fucking serious?’ said Voreese. ‘This fucking guy is Harper?

The fucking guy gave a laugh. “I see my reputation precedes me.”

Mehlsanz hovered behind Helen. ‘What is someone like you doing here?

Helen had to interrupt before she got too far behind. “I apologize for my ignorance, but who is this man?”

Harper Norez,’ explained Voreese, ‘is a Lieutenant General. He’s considered one of the strongest thirty-four people in all of the Vanguard.

“Thirty-eight, now,” Harper corrected. “We’ve expanded a little. All these young guns rising in the ranks, gotta make room for ‘em somewhere.”

Helen took another look at this Harper person.

He was of a darker complexion than most Intarians she’d seen, which perhaps implied that he was also a foreigner. With a round face and a broad nose, messy black hair and a mud brown jacket, he looked rather more like an itinerant worker than some kind of great warrior.

“Darsihm and I are actually here because of you,” he said, pointing at Mehlsanz. “You rustled some jimmies when you deserted your division.”

Roman tensed in his seat. “You’ve come to capture Mehlsanz?”

“Oh, no, no,” said Harper. “Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m here to ensure that doesn’t happen. So relax.”

Page 505

<“...I guess you are unavailable. Pity. I was hoping you could assist my friends with a very valuable and time-sensitive opportunity. I will send you a text with the details, instead. I hope you receive it soon.”>

Everyone waited.

“Time-sensitive?” said Melanie. She did not look very much like her older sister. She seemed to take more after their father than Lynn did.

Gina pulled out her own phone. “I guess that means I should get ready to call Master Roman.”

When the text arrived, Hector let Gina be the one to read it aloud.

-+-+-+-+-

The chamber didn’t look like it belonged to a captain of the Vanguard in the slightest. An entertainment system filled one wall entirely, and Helen could see a shelf full of video games and movies, which seemed to have seen frequent use if their current state of disarray was any indication.

It had taken days to find the Vanguard in Intar. The country was massive, and apparently the group stationed here quite enjoyed its secrecy. Voreese had suggested they just start making a mess of things and wait for the Vanguard to show up, but she was outvoted. Despite how poorly their previous encounter with the Vanguard had gone, Helen still felt that they needed to make a good first impression to have any chance of acquiring assistance.

Indeed, these Intarian servants were a far cry from the ones in Callum. They didn’t put on a welcoming fa├žade here. They openly distrusted Helen and Roman as soon as initial contact was made. And even though it made things more difficult, Helen was more appreciative for it, and she felt slightly more inclined to trust these people.

That being said, she had still been unable to make any progress with negotiations.

The Vanguard’s regional captain was a very young boy by the name of Bartholomew Erickson. He didn’t look any older than ten years, so she was rather hesitant to speak to him at first, but the boy’s reaper, Kohzek, was the one who did most of the talking, anyway. It soon became apparent, however, that Bartholomew was almost as old as Helen.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Page 504

“I am not saying you should abandon your mother,” said the King. “But her well-being is not entirely your responsibility, either. She must also want to be well.”

“With respect, um... sir... y-you don’t know very much about us.”

“That is true. I apologize if what I said seemed callous.”

“It’s, ah--it’s fine.”

A heavy silence fell, and Hector realized that the sun was probably beginning to take a toll on the King, so he raised an iron half-dome to shield them both. The man seemed to appreciate it.

“There is something I still do not understand,” said William. “Well, I suppose there are many things, truthfully. But I am curious as to why you are helping us. Is it only because this reaper companion of yours compels you to?”

Hector glanced at Garovel. “No, it’s not just that. I, um... ah... I... want to... agh...”

“Yes?”

He flushed with embarrassment. “I just... we just want to help people.”

The King cocked a blond eyebrow at him. “Begging your pardon, but I find it difficult to believe that your motive could be so simple.”

“Yeah, well...”

“I understand that this Roman Fullister gentleman is helping us because he is an Atreyan loyalist and has business interests here. But unless I am mistaken, you were merely a student in high school a few months ago.”

Hector took a breath and scratched his forehead. “W-well... things kinda, y’know... spiraled out of control.”

“Even so, you have put yourself through quite a lot, and you are telling me that was only because you wanted to--”

Hector’s phone interrupted. He fished it out of his pocket and eyed the caller ID. He hurried back down the ramp while it continued ringing.

The King followed.

“Gina!” shouted Hector, and she turned away from her conversation with Lynn’s family.

Everyone gathered around as the phone stopped ringing. Even Mrs. Goffe wandered a bit closer.

The voice mail triggered, and then came David’s confirmation. <“Jonathan. Please pick up if you are there.”>

Hector did no such thing.

Page 503

Hector fled the garage, up the ramp and outside into the harsh sunlight.

Garovel said something to him, and the words even passed through his head clearly, but he simply wasn’t paying attention. His mind was cluttered with confusion and fury, wondering if she’d really meant those things, angry that she could even say them, furious that he couldn’t respond. And just. Sadness. It hurt, a pain right in his chest. He’d always thought heartache was just a figure of speech.

“Hector?” It was the King’s voice.

Hector hurriedly wiped his eyes. “Y-yes?” He couldn’t bring himself to turn around and face the man.

“I apologize,” said William. “I happened to overhear what your mother said.”

He winced. “O-oh...”

“I did not mean to eavesdrop.”

“Did... did everyone hear?”

“Only Gina and myself, I believe. She seemed rather concerned as well. Are you alright?”

“I’m--I, uh... I’m, ah--”

It’s okay to say no,’ said Garovel. ‘Hector, you don’t have to pretend like everything is fine.

Hector just looked at the ground, opting to say nothing.

The King stepped closer. “Perhaps it is not my place to say this, but would you like my opinion?”

“Um... okay?”

“A child does not require a parent’s love or approval in order to live happily or honorably.”

Hector’s brow receded, and he looked up at the King. “Your Majesty, what are you saying?”

“Were you thinking I would try to convince you how valuable family is? How important it is to reconcile with your mother? Because words such as those would not suit me, I fear. I have considerable experience with family discord.”

Hector only frowned.

“Of course, if it is within reason to reconcile, then certainly do so. But please, do not believe that there is something wrong with you merely because of what she said. That would be a mistake. One that I have made, myself.”

“But... it’s not... I mean, what do I do?”

“Whatever you can. But you cannot force someone to love you. Nor do you need to.”

“But I’m... I’m all she has. Whether she acknowledges it or not... I can’t just...”

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Page 502

“Ah--are you sure?” said Gina. “It wouldn’t be any trouble.”

Hector decided to intervene. “Mom, you should accept her offer.”

“I said no.” She walked away.

Hector gave Gina an apologetic look and then pursued his mother to the other end of the garage.

She’d climbed into her car to lie down.

“Mom...”

She didn’t bother to sit up again. “What?”

“I’m... I’m worried about you.”

“You’re wasting your time on me.”

Hector had no idea what to say to that.

“You should have just left me to die,” she said.

“Mom... don’t say that...”

“Why not?”

“B-because... how could you think I would ever just...? Agh...”

“It has nothing to do with you. I just don’t care.”

“Mom...”

“The only person I’ve ever loved is gone,” she said. “What difference would it make if you’d let me die? I’m already dead, anyway.”

“Agh, Mom. Stop. You’re not--”

“Tell me. Do you even care that your father is dead? That you got him killed?”

Her words might as well have been knives. “How can you--? You don’t even know that I--how much I--?” He choked on his own breath, feeling his throat swelling up. He squinted, suddenly having to fight the gathering tears.

She sat up to look at him now. “Wow,” she said dully, “so you really do have emotions. I was starting to think you were some kind of monster.”

Hector couldn’t stop the tears at all now and just tried to hide his eyes with a hand.

Fuck, I hate this woman,’ said Garovel. ‘Hector, please stop talking to her.

But Mrs. Goffe wasn’t done. “All this time, you’ve been off doing whatever you want, getting into more trouble, trying to be a hero. And you’re worried about your family now? It’s a bit late for that, don’t you think? You don’t honestly expect me to forgive you, do you?”

He couldn’t even respond.

“If you’re going to do something, then you might as well do it all the way, Hector. Just leave me be. Worry about your fight with Abolish or whatever it’s called. If you get me killed, too, then at least you’ll know that it didn’t matter.”

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Page 501

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The King looked at Mrs. Edith. “Have you met Helen before?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “I only meant according to her reputation. She’s always struck me as a very serious woman.”

“Mom loves the Queen,” added Melanie. “She’s a super royalist.”

Mrs. Edith glared at the girl, which only made her giggle.

“Is that so?” said William, smiling.

“Oh yeah,” agreed Mr. Edith. “You should’ve seen her after she found out that Lynnette had been accepted into the Queen’s Guard.”

“Jacob, please--”

“She was so happy that it was actually kind of scary. Abnormal-like, y’know? Just freaky.”

Mrs. Edith could only sigh.

“That is very sweet,” said William. “I am sure Helen would be pleased.”

Lynn and the King had both begun to look a little healthier. They were oddly similar--one who’d lost an eye, and one who’d lost an arm. Both had been through the wringer, and both ended up recounting their tales to everyone. It was difficult for Hector then. Their stories reminded him of all the things he’d lost as well, reminded him that his own pain hadn’t really gone away, only been buried.

Perhaps everyone could sense that he didn’t want to talk about himself, because they never asked. Maybe they already knew enough from the news. Or maybe they were talking about him behind his back. Strange, to realize he would’ve preferred that. Garovel probably knew for certain, but Hector avoided asking about it. He didn’t really want to know.

Hector’s mother, however, looked no better than when she’d arrived. She still had the same gaunt, hollow-eyed stare as before.

Occasionally, Gina would try to engage her. “So what do you do for a living, Mrs. Goffe?”

“I was a stage director,” she said.

“Stage director? You mean like for plays and musicals?”

“Yes.”

“Wow, that’s cool!”

“It was. Before... everything.”

Gina frowned. “Of course. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine.”

“You know, I bet I could help you find new work after this is all over. I’m pretty good at finding things.”

“No, thank you.”