Monday, March 31, 2014

Page 600

David squinted. “You hate them that much? Why?”

“Ask me that again after you have been married for seventeen years.”

David could almost understand the man’s hatred for his wife; that woman was a relentless ladder-climber, and to Luther, she probably embodied everything he despised about nobility. But still. “Your wife is one thing, but you even resent your own children?”

“I resent all insufferable nuisances.”

David felt his irritation flare up, becoming true anger for a moment, and he couldn’t keep himself from glowering.

“Oh, does that bother you?” said Luther. “Hmm. That is right, isn’t it? You were always the affectionate uncle.”

David breathed and wiped his expression clean again. “At least I can take solace in the fact that you are no longer part of their lives.”

“On that, we can agree.”

“There is hope for us yet.”

That made Luther laugh outright, longer and more loudly than David had perhaps ever heard from him. Admittedly, that wasn’t saying much, but it was surprising just the same. When Luther’s voice settled again, a small period of silence elapsed. And Luther looked suddenly hollow, as if that laugh had gouged a hole into him. “I genuinely wanted to trust you, you know. You were the only one I liked.”

David had nothing for him. Four dead brothers. Countless innocent lives lost at the hands of Abolish. For this man here, David could hold no pity.

“Why did you have to side with Helen?” said Luther. “When I think of what you and I could have built, I feel like weeping for this country.”

David couldn’t even bring himself to humor the man. “You are mad.”

And there it was again, that look in Luther’s eyes. The cold, flat stare. After a moment, however, it was gone once more. “Enough,” he said. “Let us continue our game. Am I hiding something, or am I not?”

“Of course you are,” said David.

“Correct. Would you like to know what it is?”

“Sure.”

“Wonderful. Then I will give you a hint. If you give me something first, of course.”

“Well, I have two candy bars on me. I am willing to part with half of one, but only if you promise to tell the truth.”

Page 599

“You came to observe my mood,” said Luther.

David smirked. “I am interested in your mood, am I? Dear brother, perhaps I should find you a larger cell. Your ego must be taking up so much room in this one.”

“Heh, I would not refuse the offer.” He stood and approached the clear wall, inspecting David’s face more closely. “But no, you are most certainly here to see how miserable I am. Because if I am not miserable, then you would begin to wonder why that is.”

“I would wonder that, yes. Are you miserable, then? Is there anything I can do to make you more so?”

“Knowing you, I am sure there is.” Luther pulled away and walked toward the other end of his cell. “What of our esteemed sister? She has not graced me with her presence.”

“I’m certain she will visit you eventually, but she has been rather busy of late. Cleaning up your mess, you understand.” There was a pause, and David almost expected Luther to crack some misogynistic joke about cleaning, but instead, the man merely asked a different question.

“And what about Meriwether?”

“What about him?” said David.

“He has yet to visit me, but if what you say is true about my stay of execution, then it would seem he has at least kept his promise to me.”

Briefly, David wasn’t sure what promise he was talking about, but then he remembered how Meri had managed to invoke Luther’s surrender. “Meri is a man of his word,” was all David said.

“I suppose I can no longer call him a fool.”

“Not without being the bigger fool, no.” As David expected, Luther was still unaware that their previous encounter had been a series of wild accidents. David was more than content with not correcting him.

Luther sat back down. “So what is your verdict, then? Am I hiding something?”

David was almost certain that he was. But instead of answering, he asked, “Are you not curious about your wife or your children?”

Luther paused. “Are they dead?”

“No, of course not.”

“Damn.”

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Page 598

“Oh, very well,” Mariana conceded. “If that is your decision, then I will stand by you.”

“Thank you,” said Zeff.

So when would you like to perform the ceremony, then?’ asked Chergoa.

“Tomorrow night,” said Zeff. “That should allow more than enough time to explain the change in plans to her.”

Okay. I’ll just haunt your neighborhood in the meantime.

-+-+-+-+-

David descended the long steps into the underbelly of the sterile white prison. As far as dungeons went, it didn’t quite have the same medieval menace to it that he’d had in mind, but he supposed the eerie calm and cleanliness offered a different kind of discomfort.

Two guardsmen escorted him in silence, and he soon arrived in front of the designated cell with a transparent wall and a speaker box in the center. David hit the button on the right side to let his voice carry through. “Hello, Luther.”

Luther sat up and tilted his head. “David. I was beginning to think you had forgotten about me down here.”

“Oh, you will be getting plenty of attention soon enough.”

“Ah. Am I to be executed, then? Given a farce trial, perhaps?”

“A trial, yes, but not for your execution. I’m told the prosecution will be seeking life imprisonment.”

“Life imprisonment. Ha. That is an execution, too. Instead of a needle or a chair or an axe, it is simply a box and patience. In a way, it is much crueler--killing someone with time. Boring a person to death, taken literally.”

“Shall I tell the prosecution you feel that way?”

Luther scowled and turned away.

“I thought not,” said David.

“Why are you here?” said Luther. “To gloat?”

“Well...” David grinned. “Yes. That is exactly why I am here.”

“Ugh.” Luther shook his head in disgust. “I suppose this is what I get for acting so impulsively. I thought I saw a golden opportunity to eliminate all rivals. I should have known better.”

“Indeed. It almost makes one wonder how you could be so foolhardy.”

Luther stared at him for a long moment. “Oh, you liar. You did come down here for another reason.”

“Did I?”

Page 597

“The General is not Emiliana’s father,” said Zeff. “And neither are you.”

Yes,’ said Axiolis, ‘but I think the argument here is that you would be taking a reaper away from the Vanguard for personal reasons.

“Chergoa has not joined the Vanguard yet,” said Zeff.

That may not matter.

Is it necessary for her to have a reaper at all?’ asked Chergoa. ‘If she is only going to live quietly, then why even bother with all this?

Because she is an Elroy,’ said Axiolis in Zeff’s stead. ‘Even if she changes her name and moves far away from here, trouble might still find her one day.

Ah. So I would be her backup plan, then.

“I would ask you to prepare her,” said Zeff. “If she is forced to fight, I want her capable of protecting herself.”

I can do that,’ said Chergoa.

And what does the Lady Elroy think of this?’ asked Axiolis. ‘Do you agree with your husband?

“I think the heart of a teenager is fickle and uncertain,” said Mariana. “She may desire a quiet life now, but what will she want in five years? Or ten?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t want us to decide for her.”

“We decided for Francisco,” she said.

His expression darkened. “We also decided for Gema.”

Mariana’s face tightened, eyes narrowing a moment before looking away. “Gema made her own choices.”

“Only after we took away the one she wanted.”

The woman shook her head and sat down on their bed. “When did you become so indulgent?” she said, still not looking at him. “I thought I married a Rainlord.”

Rain isn’t always cold,’ said Axiolis, and Zeff was a bit surprised to find the reaper defending him.

So was Mariana, apparently. “I thought you were on my side.”

As a Vanguardian, I am. But as this man’s reaper, and as someone who considers your family my own, I do find your husband’s words convincing.

Mariana sighed. “All this, because you can’t bear to see your daughter a bit frightened.”

Zeff merely folded his arms.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Page 596

No hurry,’ said the other reaper. ‘I’m plenty patient.’ This one’s name was Chergoa.

Zeff gave a grateful nod.

Marcos stepped up next to his sister. “Hey, if Emy doesn’t want her reaper, then I’ll take it.”

Zeff exhaled an amused breath. “No, Marcos. Emiliana will still be receiving her reaper. Just not tonight.”

The relief on Emiliana’s face seemed to lessen at that, but she nodded all the same. “Thank you, Papa...”

“Francisco, see that everyone gets ready for bed,” said Mariana.

“Yes, enma’am.”

After returning indoors, they parted ways with their children. The long corridor with ribbed arches in the ceiling gave them plenty of time to speak as they walked toward the Main House’s master bedroom, all four of the reapers following.

“You do know that it is not because she is merely scared, don’t you?” said Mariana.

“Yes,” said Zeff.

“She’s not like her sisters. Gema and Ramira are both tomboys, but Emiliana is about as girly as girls come.”

Zeff threw his wife an odd look--curious and amused by the way she put it.

“She wants to marry young and live quietly as a mother,” Mariana went on. “She wants a different kind of life for herself--one without all the commotion that the name Elroy brings with it.”

He took a deep breath. “I know.”

“Then why are you humoring her? It would be better to just get it over with and disillusion her now.”

“Because I am wondering if that is necessary.”

They arrived at their room, and Zeff entered first while Mariana stopped in the doorway. “What are you saying?”

Zeff looked to Chergoa. “I know this is not what you bargained for, but would you allow Emiliana to live quietly if she were your servant?”

Chergoa unfurled her black wings. ‘Uh. I suppose I could do that. But what do you think, Axiolis? You’re the one who recruited me into this Vanguard business.

All eyes turned to Axiolis, and for a while, the reaper just stared at Zeff. ‘Frankly, I’m not pleased by the idea. Nor will the General be.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Page 595

For Zeff, the reapers took on the appearance of overlarge bats--as big as hyenas and with similar faces but also bearing wings and glowing white eyes. They had a curious habit of hanging upside down just as normal bats might, only these ones didn’t need to hang from anything, so they simply floated there in midair.

Among the four reapers here, there was one each for Zeff, his wife Mariana, and Francisco. The last would be the one to resurrect Emiliana.

As Zeff reached out to her, pressing the transparent gas mask toward her face, Emiliana suddenly began to tremble. “Mama, Papa, please!” she said. “I can’t--! Please! Please don’t make me do this!” She was already on the verge of tears and trying to pull away, but her mother held her firm.

A part of him wanted to chastise the girl. She didn’t know how good she had it. Drowning was the original tradition, but having experienced it personally, Zeff decided to spare his own children that agony. He remembered his passing all too vividly. Panicked and terrible. In this very pool. Helium gas was nothing like that. Just as Francisco’s had been, Emiliana’s death would be peaceful and painless, like drifting off to sleep.

He wanted to tell her these things--things she already knew, had been told--but as he looked at her face, at the terrified expression of his baby girl, he found his heart slowly leaving him. He lowered the mask.

Everyone looked at him, the same silent question being asked. It was his own reaper who posed it.

Zeff, what are you doing?’ said Axiolis.

“We will wait a bit longer,” said Zeff. He patted Emiliana on the head.

His wife did not look pleased. “Zeff,” was all she said, and Zeff knew she would have said more if the children weren’t present. Fortunately for her, Axiolis was more than happy to fill in.

You shouldn’t delay without good reason,’ the reaper said. ‘You’re not doing the girl any favors by postponing things.

Zeff chose to ignore him and instead eyed the reaper meant for Emiliana. “I apologize for the inconvenience.”

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Page 594 -- LXIX.

There’d been a stint in the past where part of the estate had been destroyed, which resulted in him having to bunk with Cisco temporarily. Needless to say, Marcos now fully appreciated his good fortune in having a room all to himself.

He washed his hands, dried his hair with a towel, and then made his way back downstairs.

Dinner was tenser than usual. For as long as Marcos could remember, their lord father had made a point of ensuring that the family always sat down and ate together, going so far as to ground any child who was late for the meal without good reason. It was a sacred time, often reserved for parental inquiries, but today was different. Emy’s fourteenth birthday meant something special, something that everyone knew she was not looking forward to.

“You should just relax,” said Cisco. “It’s not even going to hurt.”

Emy kept her eyes down at her plate as she said, “I don’t expect you to understand.”

Annoyance flashed across Cisco’s face. “You’re the one who doesn’t understand. This is a good thing, you idiot.”

“Francisco,” said their mother, “do not speak to your sister that way. And Emiliana, do not scorn your brother’s attempt to comfort you.”

“Yes, enma’am,” they both said.

Rare as it was, Marcos found himself in agreement with Cisco on this one. If he were in Emy’s position, he would’ve been excited to finally be receiving a reaper. Even if it did mean dying.


Chapter Sixty-Nine: ‘Thy bonds in blood...’
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With the helium tank in hand, Zeff entered the center courtyard where the rest of his family was waiting for him. They all stood together on the small bridge over the pool as rain continued to fall, filling in the silence with a kind of pattering static. His wife held Emiliana’s hand, who just looked pale as Zeff drew close. The other children stood nearby, but there was no one else around, as he had dismissed all of the family’s attendants for the remainder of the evening. Excepting, of course, the four reapers who were also present.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Page 593

“Did you have fun with your friends?” his father asked.

“Yes, ensir,” said Marcos.

“Good. Go get cleaned up before dinner.”

“Yes, ensir.”

“Wait. Have you wished your sister a happy birthday?”

Marcos averted his gaze. “Ah...”

“That comes first, then.”

He tried not to groan. “Do I have to?”

“Yes.”

“But she hates me.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Because she said so to my face.”

“And did you perhaps do something to provoke her before she said that?”

“No, ensir,” he lied.

Zeff knelt down to look his son in the eye. “Your sister does not hate you. She is merely different from you and the others. You should show your support for her, especially when she is having a difficult time. Understood?”

“Yes, ensir.”

“Remember this, Marcos: an effective means of measuring a man’s character is by observing how he treats his loved ones. See to it that you may not be measured as such and found lacking.”

Someone should’ve told that to Cisco, Marcos thought. He held his tongue, however, and simply nodded. He watched his father walk away and then proceeded up the stairs.

Emy’s room was on the third floor as well, across the hall from his own. Marcos knocked on the door.

“What is it?” came her voice.

“Uh, I was just wondering how you’re doing.”

There was a pause as footsteps stomped toward the door. She cracked the door open and looked through. “What?” As of today, she was still only two years older than him, but she looked like more than that. It was so unfair that girls got to mature more quickly than boys.

“Listen, I’m sorry about the frog. And the mouse.”

Mice,” she corrected.

“Mice.”

“And the roaches,” she went on. “And the snake.”

“Yeah, those too. Sorry.”

She just eyed him doubtfully.

“And, uh--happy birthday?” Not a question, but he offered it like one.

“Thanks,” she said flatly.

“But you know, the snake wasn’t dangerous. You didn’t have to freak out as much as--”

She slammed the door in his face.

He shrugged and moved on to his room.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Page 592

Marcos proceeded up to the Main House, stopping briefly under the overhang to wipe his feet and shake some of the water off his coat. He pushed through the tall doors, hung his coat up, and pulled his boots off. Dinner was soon to arrive, he knew, but until then, he had time to kill.

He found Cisco in the center hall--or rather, Cisco found him, slipping up behind him and pinning both his arms behind his back, holding him in place. “Hey, brat. Can you get out of this yet?”

“Stop!”

“Come on. Get out of it.”

Marcos thrashed fruitlessly. “I can’t!”

“Yes, you can. I showed you how.”

“I can’t! Just let me go!”

“No.”

“If you don’t let me go, I’ll yell!”

Cisco released him with a shove, and Marcos nearly fell over. “You’re pathetic.”

“And you’re an ass!”

“Whatever. Go cry to Ma if you want.” Cisco walked away.

Marcos scowled and rubbed his sore shoulders. He had four siblings, and he definitely hated Cisco the most. Cisco was the second-oldest, having four years on him, but Gema was never around anymore, so Cisco still got to play the role of eldest.

He decided to head up to his corner room on the third floor, but he encountered his father on the stairwell first. Marcos had never known a sterner face than that of his father. The man’s jawline and cheek bones were harsh enough to cut with. The stone gray irises and bushy black eyebrows were both traits that he had passed on to all of his children, even the girls.

This man, Zeff Elroy, was a Rainlord of Sair, and by extension, so too were all of his kin. Admittedly, Marcos didn’t know what all that entailed, but he knew that it meant his father was important to the government in some way and that it was an honor to bear his name.

When Zeff’s cool gaze fell upon his son, he offered the boy an acknowledging nod. “Marcos.”

“Pa.” He wished he could deliver such a simple greeting with as much gravitas. One day, maybe.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Page 591

Playing basketball in his bulky blue raincoat wasn’t the easiest thing, but he knew that his mother would get mad at him again if she found out he took it off, and he didn’t want her to forbid him from coming out here to play. After all, his school had an indoor court and so did the youth club near the estate. But he didn’t have any friends in those places.

The past few times, he’d felt stupid for being the only one wearing a raincoat, so this time, he’d brought enough for everyone. Now the court bustled with a group of flailing, child-shaped blueberries.

For some reason, they tried to return the coats to him after the game was over, and Marcos had to refuse them. He thought it was obvious that they were gifts, so he didn’t understand why his friends seemed so reluctant. He ended up just running away before they could put up any more of a fuss. Besides, he didn’t want to carry them all the way back home. Carrying them all the way here had been a big enough pain, already.

The journey back required a good bit of legwork, and Marcos had always been taught not to run when the ground was so wet, so he resorted to a brisk walk as soon as he was out of sight.

It was sometimes easy to forget that Aguarey stood on a platform. It had asphalt roads and concrete walkways and grassy parks. The only real reminders were the perforated drains that riddled the ground and the madega trees, which all had their own holes to stand in. They were already massive things to look at with their sprawling canopies of wispy teal leaves, but to then realize that below the platform, the madegas all had another five meters of trunk, made them seem all the more impressive. But of course, they were older than Aguarey itself, so perhaps that was only to be expected.

When Marcos arrived at the gatehouse, the pair of guards made him pull back his hood before smiling and welcoming him home. Nico and Jorem were their names, and they didn’t look very friendly, but that was probably the whole idea. They were always nice to him, at least.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Page 590

“I understand and thank you for all your help,” said the Queen. “If there is anything you need, please do not hesitate to ask.”

Harper laughed. “Oh, do I get a castle, too?”

“If you desire one, yes.”

“Ha, that’s okay. My whole reason for being here is to protect you, so I’d rather stay wherever you do, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course. You are more than welcome here.”

King William took the opportunity to break into the conversation. “Where are you from, Mr. Norez?”

“Oh, nowhere,” said Harper. “Or everywhere, depending on how you look at it. I don’t really identify with any particular place anymore. I travel too much for that. This is my first time in Atreya, though. I’m liking it so far.”

“Now that the genocidal maniacs are gone, you mean,” said Roman.

“That is definitely a step up, yes,” said Harper. He looked at the King again. “Ah, but my apologies, Your Highness. I suppose that’s not a very satisfying answer to your question, is it? I can at least say that I was born in Jesbol, though I don’t have many memories from there. My parents escaped when the Jungle Wars began spreading.”

“The Jungle Wars?” said William. “That was some sixty years ago, and yet you do not look a day over thirty.”

“I moisturize.”

The Queen laughed faintly and turned to her husband. “Reapers may choose to prevent their servants from aging, dear.”

“There’s that, too,” said Harper. “But I’m pretty sure it’s the moisturizing. I mean, just look at my skin.”

-+-+-+-+-

It was raining, but that was no rare thing, nor was it even that heavy. Already at the age of twelve, Marcos Elroy was accustomed to much more than this meager drizzle. There wasn’t even any flooding; he could still see the grass beneath the playground, or more accurately, beneath the platform on which the playground stood, on which the entire city stood.

Sometimes, the rain was so strong, it was like living on the sea. Or at least, he thought it was. He’d never been to the sea.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Page 589

Pfft, are you kidding?’ said Garovel. ‘You want Hector to appear on television? I thought you wanted to reward him, not torture him.

“He has done it before, has he not?” said Helen. “He threatened the town of Harold to facilitate its evacuation, no?”

That was a recording, and it still required about fifty takes.

“Ah--Garovel’s right,” said Hector. “I really don’t--please don’t ask me to--I just--agh...”

“Very well,” said the Queen. “I understand. Regardless, it will require time. I can order the police and the military to stop hunting you easily enough, but I would ask that you take a well-deserved respite while we attempt to win the public over.”

Mm, dunno about that,’ said Garovel. ‘Hector’s pretty gung-ho when it comes to protecting innocent people.

Hector gave the reaper a look. ‘You say that like you’re any different.

He can be so stubborn,’ Garovel went on. ‘I don’t think an inconvenience of reputation would be enough to stop him from going out and looking for trouble.

Her Highness smiled warmly and nodded. “Yes, well, protecting people would not be a problem, but it would be helpful if you could avoid taking the blame for crimes you did not commit.”

There go my plans for the weekend,’ said Garovel.

How do you intend to tell the public, exactly?’ asked Voreese.

Carefully,’ said Mehlsanz. ‘Most of the blame will fall upon Luther as the orchestrator of everything. Unfortunately, we can’t really name Abolish as the instigator unless we want to give them more reason to return and silence us.’

“They may try to do that, anyway,” said Harper, who’d thus far only listened quietly as he ate.

We’re aware,’ said Mehlsanz. ‘We were hoping you would stay here in Atreya for a while longer.

“That’s fine with me,” said Harper. “I don’t have any pressing business elsewhere at the moment, but you should know, I could be called away at any time. Out there in the world, if something big enough happens, my superiors might well contact me. And that’s not going to be the kind of thing that I can just ignore.”

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Page 588

Perhaps you could explain what is so special about this Warrenhold place before we decide,’ said Garovel.

Voreese looked over her audience. ‘Well, it’s old as shit! In a good way! Lots of history, very defensible, and tons of space underground.’ She leveled a stare at Garovel. ‘Trust me on this one. You’ll thank me.

A silent pause followed, and Hector was left to wonder what the non-servants at the table must be thinking of this conversation, watching the Queen and Roman talk to their imaginary friends. However, Hector noticed that most of them weren’t even watching, really, instead taken to enjoying the feast laid before them. He realized he hadn’t even started eating yet, despite being utterly famished, so he decided to dig in as well.

Okay,’ said Garovel. ‘We’ll take Warrenhold. If Her Majesty is actually offering it to us, that is.

The Queen tilted her head. “Are you certain? Perhaps you should visit it before deciding. Unless my memory is mistaken, the Gray Warren was forced to endure an earthquake some years ago. You may not come to find it in the most desirable state.”

Eh, we’ll make do,’ said Garovel. ‘No need to draw things out. We’ll take up less of your time this way.

Helen eyed the two reapers a moment, perhaps skeptical, but then said, “Very well. You will have the papers by the week’s end.” She turned to Hector. “Do you find that agreeable?”

“Oh, um, sure... but, uh...” He faltered again under everyone’s gaze.

“Yes?” said the Queen, as they all waited for him.

“S-sorry, it’s just... maybe I’m missing something, but, uh...” His fists clenched under the table as he forced the rest of the words out. “Wouldn’t it be a problem for, uh, Your Highness, if you give such an incredible gift to... well, me? I mean, I’m pretty hated by... ah, everyone...”

“Once the public knows the truth, that will not be a problem,” said Helen. “I intend to address the matter of your innocence in front of the press very soon. In fact, I was hoping you might accompany me when I do.”

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Page 587 -- LXVIII.

Chapter Sixty-Eight: ‘Of measured worth...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Hector’s mouth hung open as he looked at the Queen. He wasn’t sure he heard her right. He couldn’t have.

Whoa, whoa,’ said Voreese. ‘You’re giving away castles? Can we have one, too?

“Voreese, no,” said Roman. “Hector’s one thing, but we definitely don’t need or want anything from the Queen.”

“Are you certain?” said Helen. “I have no qualms about granting you lordship over lands of your own.”

Roman bowed his head forward a little. “That’s very generous, but it’d be problematic for me if people found out that I was working with the government. In the circles I frequent, that kind of information is liable to ruin a man’s reputation.”

“I see,” she said. “Am I to expect lobbying requests for favors from you, then?”

Roman leaned back in his chair and shook his head. “It’s not like I have leverage over you or anything. I’d just appreciate if you and I could maintain a certain amicability moving forward. Having a friend in your position would be nice for me, and likewise, having a friend in my position would be nice for you.”

The Queen gave a nod.

Fuck that, I want a castle!’ said Voreese.

Roman rolled his eyes. “Voreese, shut up.”

No, you idiot! If she’s just giving shit away, then I want Warrenhold!

Now Roman just seemed confused. “Why? And what is that, even?”

Ugh! Because--!’ She cut herself off and looked at Mehlsanz and Garovel. ‘Wait, am I the only one who knows?

The other two reapers exchanged shrugs.

“Warrenhold?” said the Queen. “Are you referring to the Gray Warren?”

Yeah! The fortress in Gray Rock! No one’s lived there in ages, right? So it currently belongs to the Crown, right?

“Yes, that is correct.”

Great! Then we’ll take it!

“No, we won’t, Voreese! I can’t accept land from the Queen! It’ll ruin everything! Why do you even care so much?!”

Voreese grumbled and looked around the table. Her hollow eyes fell upon Hector. ‘Hector. Sweetie. And Garovel. You handsome devil. Choose Warrenhold. So we can visit you. It’ll be delightful.

Page 586

David laughed. “I should think we’re more than past that by now. Is everything okay? You seem nervous.”

“Ah, s-sorry, uh...”

Thankfully, the Queen’s arrival saved him further embarrassment. Compared to his previous encounters with her, however, she looked decidedly different, thanks in no small part to her midnight blue gown with elaborate swirls of white, silver, and gold. He almost didn’t recognize her, the change was so stark, but after a moment, he vaguely remembered seeing her in dresses on television. Before all this, he’d never paid much attention to what the royals were up to. If he’d ever expected to meet any of them, that might have been different. The King and Lynn both followed her into the room, and all three of their faces lit up when they saw him.

“Hector!” said the Queen. “I was not expecting to see you here! What a pleasant surprise. I have been wanting to speak with you.”

As all eyes turned to him, he had to resist the urge to run out of the room. Instead, he merely flushed crimson.

Garovel floated up next to Hector and addressed Helen as he said, ‘Really? If you wanted to ask him something, you could have just asked me.

Nah,’ said a smirking Mehlsanz, who had of course accompanied her servant into the room as well. ‘This is the kind of thing that should be discussed in person.

As soon as the Queen sat down at the table, the food began to arrive. Hector pulled down on the brim of his hat and turned away from the door, not wanting to risk scaring any of the staff members. Perhaps the Queen understood this, because as soon as the last dish was set, she ushered the attendants out of the room and told them not to disturb her meal. She returned to a very quiet table, however, and had to throw a curious look across it.

Clad in a guardsman’s attire, Roman broke the silence for everyone. “I think we’re all wondering what you wanted to talk to Hector about.”

“Ah,” said Helen. “If you must know, I wanted to discuss the matter of Hector’s heroism in the preservation of Atreya and its citizens. Specifically, I wanted to ask what manner of reward he would like.”

Everyone looked at Hector again, then back at the Queen.

Helen smiled warmly. “What do you think, Hector? I was thinking something along the lines of, perhaps, a castle.”

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Page 585

His mother chose not to answer the question and instead asked one of her own. “What the hell are you wearing?”

“Ah...” He pulled off the mustache. “Just a prank someone played on me.”

“You shouldn’t let people make a fool of you.”

“It’s not like that,” said Hector.

“Hmph.”

He sat down and glanced across the table at the others. He still found it difficult to make eye contact with his mother, but he tried his best. “I’m sorry I haven’t been around the past few days. I’ve been unconscious, so... yeah.”

She didn’t have anything to say to that.

She knows what happened to you,’ said Garovel, and Hector flinched a little, only now realizing the reaper had followed. ‘Believe it or not, she visited you several times. Not sure if it was because she was concerned about you or what. She didn’t say much.

Vanessa took a long breath, perhaps irritated, perhaps just bored. “So what are you going to do now, anyway?”

“Uh... I’m not sure yet.”

“We can’t stay here in the palace forever. And I assume we’re not returning to Brighton, either.”

His brow receded. It struck him as odd that she was already accepting of the idea that she would continue living with him. He thought it would surely be an ordeal, convincing her to stay where he could protect her. “I’ll figure something out soon,” he said. “Seems like things’ve finally calmed down a bit, so... ah...”

She just nodded and fell silent again.

He gave up trying to get a read on her. After a few moments, Prince David and Prince Meriwether took the opening and approached. Hector stood to greet them.

“It is a pleasure to finally meet you in person,” said David. He and his brother both looked rather tired as they took turns shaking hands with Hector.

“Uh, I’m, ah...”

David tilted his head. “I’m Prince David. We spoke on the phone? And corresponded via text? You do remember, yes?”

“Y-yeah, of course. I’m just, um--I... it’s very nice to meet you. Oh, and I’m sorry about, uh... about threatening you before...”

Page 584

Garovel gave them something of a tour as they walked, explaining where each new corridor led to and even pointing out various people among the crowds as being international representatives.

Oh, and I should probably mention,’ the reaper said, slowing a little but not stopping, ‘the night before we returned, three of the Queen’s brothers were murdered.

Hector’s eyes widened, and he looked at Harper, who seemed equally surprised. He looked at Garovel again. “Um, Prince David, ah...?”

He’s alive. Him, Meriwether, and Luther are fine, but apparently Luther was the one responsible for the killings, so he’s been imprisoned. The Queen’s already held a joint funeral service, despite the fact that those same brothers were also traitors who tried to assassinate her. I’m sure it’s a rather confusing and difficult situation for her, so maybe don’t ask about her family over dinner, yeah? If she wants to talk about it, just let her bring it up on her own.

“Understood,” said Harper. “Thanks for the warning.”

Sure.

They arrived at an enormous banquet hall, but they didn’t stop there. Garovel led them toward the far corner and into an offshoot chamber which was much smaller and mostly filled with one large table. Roman and Gina were already here, as were David and Meriwether, and also Vanessa Goffe, who sat at the other end of the table. Voreese was present as well, and she was the first to greet them.

Finally, someone else who can actually see me,’ she said. ‘Was getting tired of talking to that clod.

Roman threw them a look from across the room but was apparently too invested in his conversation with Gina to do anything more.

Hector just gave her a smile and left Harper and Garovel to keep her company. He made his way over to his mother.

When she saw him coming, she stiffened. She looked in slightly better health than before, but that may’ve only been due to the makeup she was wearing now.

He pulled out the chair next to her but didn’t sit down just yet. “Mom... uh... how are you? Have they been treating you well here?”

Monday, March 10, 2014

Page 583

Hector was about to leave with Harper, but Garovel stopped him.

Hold up,’ the reaper said. ‘There’s a hat for you by the bed. Put it on.

It was an officer’s cap, he saw. “Uh... why?”

Not many people know you’re here, but if you’ll recall, a LOT of people know your face. We don’t want to incite a panic while you’re strolling around the palace. There’s a fake mustache in the drawer, too.

Hector opened the drawer and sure enough, it was there, bushy and gray and ridiculous-looking. “You... you’re joking.”

Of course I’m joking. But seriously, wear it. When people see it, they’ll think, “Aha, that’s silly!” and not, “Oh fuck, it’s the Darksteel Soldier!” Which is what we’re going for.

“Can’t I just make a mask for myself?”

That would probably scare people, too.

“Agh... what about my motorcycle helmet?”

I had Roman hide it from you.

“You asshole...”

Oh, c’mon. You know you’ve always wanted a sweet stache like that one.

He looked to Harper for help, but the man only offered a sympathetic shrug. Hector finally caved. He donned the hat and then the mustache, peeling away the layer of plastic on the back to stick it on his upper lip. It was too big for his face, nearly covering his entire mouth and even poking him in the cheeks.

Garovel busted out laughing and didn’t stop, which made Harper crack up as well.

“I hate everything,” said Hector. And he shook his head, but the reaper’s laughter was getting to him, too.

They made their way out into the hall. Apparently, Harper didn’t know where to go, so Garovel led the way. The palace was certainly busy, people bustling to and fro everywhere Hector looked. And of course, the building itself was enough to make him gawk. Every corridor was at least five times taller than him, and the walls were all a pristine white, frequently adorned with enormous paintings. Columns of blue marble rounded off every corner, and it seemed like there were never any sharp edges anywhere, apart from perhaps the massive chandeliers that hung down over every intersection.

Page 582

Wow,’ said Hector. ‘Pretty bold move... But I guess the Queen wouldn’t need to be too worried about getting captured by a bunch of normal Rendon soldiers.

Yeah.

So... I guess... everything worked out?

You say that like you had nothing to do with it.’

I mean, I’m just... kind of... shocked.’ And on top of everything, his shower soap smelled amazing.

I know what you mean. We’ve scored a pretty huge win on this one. It’s almost worrying, how well things have turned out.

You mean like something really bad is about to happen?

Aw, Hector, don’t say that. You’ll jinx it.

Wouldn’t it be more of a jinx not to mention it at all? And besides, you’re not even superstitious.

Mm. Both good points.

He finished up his shower and got changed. The white shirt had a flaring black collar and silver buttons, and its long sleeves fit his arms perfectly. The pants suited him similarly well, and he wondered if someone had taken his measurements while he slept. As he slipped into a fresh pair of thickly-soled shoes, there came a knock at the door. He opened it to find Harper Norez there.

“Evening, Hector.” The man looked rather haggard, slumped over with heavy eyes. Darsihm clung to his back, a kind of ethereal lump that didn’t look anything like a skeleton at the moment.

“Hello, Mr. Harper. Ah... you don’t look so well.”

The man smirked. “I can’t be feeling much worse than you, I imagine. I heard about what we did to you. I’m sorry.”

“Oh, no, no,” said Hector. “Don’t worry about it. I mean--uh. You saved everyone. If you hadn’t done that, then, uh... Abolish would’ve killed us all.”

“Well, yeah. I’m still sorry you ended up in that position, though. If we’d had more control, things wouldn’t have gotten so bad.”

“Really, Mr. Harper, it’s fine.”

Yeah,’ added Garovel. ‘Hector’s accustomed to getting the shit kicked out of him.

That made Harper laugh. “I see.”

“Is, um... is Darsihm okay?”

“Oh yeah. He’s going to be out of it for a couple weeks still, but he’ll be fine.”

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Page 581

Hector sifted through the drawers beneath the sink, hoping for a razor to shave his head with, but he only found an assortment of soaps, shampoos, and extra towels. He considered trying to shave his head with materialized metal but soon decided against it.

“So, um... what’s gonna happen now? I mean, uh, is Atreya safe from Abolish?”

For the time being, it is,’ said Garovel. ‘The Queen’s been busy trying to make sure things stay that way. Well, she’s just been busy in general, really.

Hector turned on the shower and pulled his shirt off. “What about the war with Rendon?”

The reaper phased through the wall and gave him his privacy. ‘It’s been averted.

Just like that?’ said Hector, stretching while he waited for the water to warm up. It didn’t take nearly as long as he thought it would.

I suppose it sounds simpler than it was. Less than a day after finally returning here to Sescoria, the Queen went to Rendon--against pretty much everyone’s advice, mind you. But she knew what she was doing. Peace negotiations are now underway. And the Atreyan soldiers whom Rendon had taken into custody, she brought them home safely, too.

He lowered his brow and chuckled. ‘How’d she pull that off?

I didn’t go with her to Rendon, obviously, but I’m sure it was the spectacle of it all that made it possible. First thing she did when she got back? Appeared before the press, right out there on the front steps of the royal palace. She hadn’t even made it inside the building yet. She ensured they’d be here waiting for her as soon as she arrived. And of course, this was gigantic news, so the whole country knew about it in a matter of hours. Then she and the King jumped on a plane and went straight to Rendon. They took Lynn and Roman along in case things went south, but it seems to have gone smoothly. I suppose Rendon didn’t really want to go to war, and with all of the insanely good press that the Queen’s gotten, she was able to offer their parliament an easy way out of a terrible situation.

Page 580

C’mon, Hector. Just walk it off.

Hector grit his teeth. “Fucking...! Agh...!”

Pain is just an illusion, Hector. Like friendship or personal happiness.

That wrenched a laugh out of him. “Garovel, you suck...”

Yeah, yeah.

He looked around, and it took him a moment to understand what he saw. It was a bedchamber, but it certainly wasn’t any place he’d stayed before. A large, clean desk and lamp sat adjacent a cedar shelf filled with scores of books, and a tall window with silvery curtains offered natural light into the room. His bare feet touched a silken rug, and he noticed that the room had two different doors as well, each on a different wall. “Where the hell...?”

We’re in the royal palace. In Sescoria, that is. We’ve been here for three days already.

He held a hand to his forehead. “Oh, man... what’d I miss?”

I’ll tell you while you get ready. The bathroom is the door on your right, by the way.

“Get ready for what?” he said, sluggishly making his way to the bathroom.

Dinner with the Queen.

He stopped, and his eyes widened. “Oh shit...”

Garovel snickered. ‘Hector. Something actually NICE is happening. And we’re not dead! We survived. Try to appreciate that much, at least.

“Ah... yeah. Is everyone...? I mean, uh, how is everyone?”

They’re safe. You stopped Harper from hurting anyone else. I decided to wake you up, because Harper and Darsihm are awake now, too. I thought you’d like to have dinner with everyone, especially since Roman and Gina are leaving in the morning.

“Oh. Uh... th-thanks.” He went through the door and found a change of clothes next to the spotless sink. He saw himself in the mirror and blinked, abruptly remembering that first day after Garovel originally revived him. It felt so different this time, yet so familiar. His face still had that same gloomy look as before, but he didn’t mind it so terribly now. His hair had grown out a little, though, and that, he did mind. It’d always looked like the rough side of a blackened sponge to him.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Page 579 -- LXVII.

Our circumstances are not your problem,’ said Ezmortig. ‘Rather, they’re to your benefit. So what do you say? Will you come to Calthos with us?

Karkash wasn’t certain what to make of this offer. He didn’t like Desmond very much, but Ezmortig at least seemed competent. He looked at Hoyohté as she deliberated. She didn’t ask his opinion, and he knew she would probably just ignore him if he gave it.

Very well,’ she eventually said. ‘We will go with you.

Wonderful. Like-minded friends are a rare sort, you know. I’m sure our partnership will become the stuff of legends.

Do not get ahead of yourself.

Of course.

Desmond scratched his bare ass as he turned around, facing the eastern horizon. “It’ll take a while to reach Calthos. Unless Sunshine over there can fly and carry me at the same time.”

Karkash glanced at Hoyohté. ‘Should I?’ he asked.

She gave him a small nod.

He pointed at the back of Desmond’s head. Lightning exploded through it.

Desmond’s body fell over, headless now as well as naked.

Ezmortig eyed the corpse and sighed. ‘You could have warned him, at least.’

“More fun this way,” said Karkash.

Hoyohté chuckled. ‘And they say we have no sense of humor.’


Chapter Sixty-Seven: ‘Blessings be upon thee...’

Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Once Roman found him, Hector wasn’t conscious for very much longer. He was completely gone even before they’d made it back to the others.

So he slept. Deep and familiar, warm and embracing. And he awoke, as he had many times before, to the sound of Garovel’s voice.

Get up, Hector.

His eyes took their time focusing. He saw blue sheets in front of him, and he slowly realized that he was lying on his side. He turned over and rubbed his face.

I know you still need more time to rest,’ said Garovel. ‘I’ll let you sleep all you want later.

He sat up and found a well of pain waiting for him. “Guh!”

Yeah. Sorry about that. You can handle it, though, right?

“Fffghhh--!” Every part of him burned. He buried his face in his pillow and growled out a few muffled curses. It helped. He hadn’t felt this much pain in a while.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Page 578

Look,’ said Ezmortig, ‘I understand. You’re upset. You think this has all been for naught. And maybe it has been. But how about we make it up to you?

There was a long pause, and then Hoyohté said, ‘I’m listening.’

Before you return to Vaeland, come with us to Calthos.

“Whoa, hey,” said Desmond. “Ez, please. We don’t need to--”

Shut up, Desmond. I’m negotiating.

Hoyohté looked between them. ‘Why Calthos? Your headquarters is in Kavia, no?

It is. We’d only stop in Calthos briefly. You see, a while back, Desmond came into some money. Which is in Calthos.

Money?’ said Hoyohté.

Desmond frowned.

Compensation for your time,’ said Ezmortig. ‘I’m sure a smart woman like yourself could think of all kinds of uses for it.

And you would simply give us this money freely,’ she said, more than a little doubtful.

Well, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for anything in return, but it’s completely up to you. Think of it as an extension of trust, an offer of good faith in hopes of fostering future partnership.

Ah... I see. You’re one of the ambitious ones.’

Aren’t we all?

Ha. Rather a bold investment, don’t you think? You hardly know us.

Simple risk-reward scheme,’ he said again. ‘And it’s not that bold, really. We have a LOT of money.

Will your captain not be upset that you are spending funds without her approval?

Let me worry about that.

Ah. She doesn’t know you have it, does she?

Ezmortig chose not to answer.

If it is as much money as you say, then your captain would have taken it from you and used it elsewhere. You certainly would not be given such access to it as you claim to have.

Maybe she just trusts me.

If that were true, you would not be here. As you said, Atreya is not important right now. Is that what this is as all about, then? You feel you are being undervalued in your sect? Looking for a way to move up in the world, perhaps?

“Now who talks too much?” said Desmond.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Page 577

We should return to headquarters,’ said Ezmortig.

Are you sure?’ said Hoyohté. ‘We can still fall back to our allies in Kahm, no?

Ezmortig shook his huge head. ‘This operation is lost. We’d need to bring someone in who could kill that light bastard, but this mission just doesn’t have that kind of priority. Atreya isn’t important enough right now.

I was told that this operation was critical for establishing Abolish’s dominance over the continent.

Ah. Well. Our captain tends to exaggerate when she gets excited.

Hoyohté swam up behind Karkash, and her voice bristled with irritation as she said, ‘We would not have come here if we had known that this was just some trivial fancy for your sect.

Yeah,’ was all Ezmortig said.

Desmond snickered, drawing Karkash’s glare.

You waste our time,’ said Hoyohté. ‘I do not find that amusing.’

Oh, please. Your people knew this assignment was probably horseshit when they only sent two servants to assist. Simple risk-reward scheme. They wanted to send someone so that if things went well, they could claim to have helped, but they obviously didn’t want to devote any real resources to it. And all the while, both sides could dress it up as the spirit of cooperation, which is always good for morale.

Hmph.

But you knew that already,’ said Ezmortig. ‘C’mon. There’s no need to play dumb with me. I know you’re smarter than you would have me believe. The way you ferreted out those traitors of yours, led them right into a trap--and by pretending to be overeager and stupid, no less. You’re really quite calculating, aren’t you? No doubt, you were hoping this assignment would help you gain traction with your superiors, too.

“You talk too much,” said Karkash.

Desmond laughed. “He does talk too much. There’s no stopping him once he gets going. But still, I’ve learned that he’s worth listening to. I’m sure you’ll understand that we’re pretty good friends to have, if you give us a chance.”

Karkash eyed them flatly. “You both talk too much.”

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Page 576

When Ezmortig was close enough, he started to recreate Desmond. The brain was the first thing to appear, growing out from a speck on the ground and from there, it only took a few minutes for the man’s body to regenerate fully.

Desmond took a deep breath, stretching his jaw muscles with one hand as he looked around at Karkash and the two reapers. He was nude, of course, but he didn’t seem to mind very much. He gave a loud sniff and cracked his neck. “So I guess things didn’t go very well for us, did they?”

I’m fairly certain that everyone else is dead,’ said Ezmortig. ‘Hanjir and Jupard might’ve gotten away, but I suspect Roman killed them.

“Who’s Roman?” said Desmond.

The flying man that Karkash was fighting. We fought him, too, back when we tried to kill the Queen the first time. He told us his name at Belgrant Castle, though you probably don’t remember. His reaper’s name is Voreese.

Desmond squinted. “That was the same guy? I don’t remember him flying around before.”

Seems his power has grown since then,’ said Ezmortig.

You should have killed him the first time, then,’ said Hoyohté. ‘If that man had not been present today, the fight might have gone very differently.

“Pfft, whatever. I seem to recall you not killing the metal kid on two separate occasions. Three, now. Oh, and let’s not forget about your little stunt with Stoker and Nize. If you’d just let them go--or better yet, let me handle it--then maybe you wouldn’t have ended up on television and put the entire fucking plan in jeopardy for no reason.”

In our sect, we make an example of treasonous cowards,’ said Hoyohté. ‘I do not expect you to understand.

Ezmortig interjected. ‘Calm down. It’s no use complaining at this point. Anyway, the real problem was the man with the light powers. Even if Karkash had been free to attack more, I highly doubt it would have made a difference. No offense.

Karkash merely gave a small shrug and folded his arms.

“Eh, fuck it,” said Desmond, shaking his head. “So what’s the plan now?”

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Page 575

Hoyohté floated behind him, her hulking orca’s body casting no shadow. ‘I knew this assignment would be terrible,’ she said in Vaelish. ‘What other result could there be when working with such fools?

“I don’t understand how the Morgunovs ever accomplish anything at all,” said Karkash, also in Vaelish. “It could only be the Void’s will that has allowed them to last this long.”

I know what you mean, but I think it’s something of a testament to Morgunov’s abilities that he can organize and lead people like that.

“Is he not as mad as people say?”

Mad, certainly. A fool? No. I’ve only met him once, but I’ve seen his work. He’s just as much a genius as he is insane.

“Would you say he is smarter than Dozer?”

Of course not. Dozer is the true vessel of the Void’s will and power. There is no competing with him.

“Unless your name happens to be Sermung, apparently.”

Let’s not turn this into an argument.

Karkash rubbed his neck as he stretched it. “You know my faith in Dozer is strong. I wasn’t trying to argue anything. But regimes do change. Sooner or later. And there’s only so much we can do about it.”

Not this again. You don’t have the power to be speaking words such as those. As servants go, you’re still a child. I’d hope today has taught you that much, at least.

“I understand the limits of my strength. It’s the limits of others that I question.”

Enough.

They waited for a long while. Honestly, Karkash didn’t expect anyone else to have survived the fight. Waiting in this place seemed like a waste of time, but unsurprisingly, Hoyohté was adamant that they follow protocol. He occupied himself with meditation, and eventually, the reaper stirred him out of it.

I sense Ezmortig,’ she said.

He opened his eyes and looked out over the lowlands. A vast reach of grass stretched toward the horizon, and in the distance, he could just make out the shape of another reaper headed toward them. “Surprising.”