Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Page 660

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Nope,’ said Voreese. ‘Stasya crafted the stone herself. And if you’ve been down there, then you know that it sure-as-fuck works. Not only does it repel bugs, it repels all wildlife. It even makes humans not want to be there.

That doesn’t sound like a very comfortable place to live,’ said Garovel.

Well, it doesn’t affect us, because the stones use a very faint “taste of death” to repel living creatures. Obviously, we’ve all had more than just a taste, so our souls are already acclimated to it and don’t notice anything strange.

Still,’ said Garovel. ‘We have normal people with us, as well. We can’t expect them to live in a place that makes them perpetually uncomfortable no matter what they do.

No, no, it’s okay,’ said Voreese. ‘The feeling isn’t all that strong, really. As long as you explain where it comes from--that there’s no actual danger and that it’s just a silly pest control mechanism--then normal residents will get over it. The human brain is sophisticated enough to overcome the feeling with sufficient exposure and understanding.

Hmm.

If you DON’T explain it to people, though, then it can really start to fuck with them, especially if they happen to have an anxiety disorder or just strange brain chemistry. It’s just the not knowing that really gets to people. So, anyone who’s going to be spending time here, particularly underground, should be made aware of this. It’s very important to their mental health.

“Ah--okay,” said Hector.

No one’s down there right now, right?

No,’ said Garovel. ‘Hector wouldn’t let anyone go in without him.

Good,’ she said. ‘Oh, and also: no pets. Explaining the problem is obviously not going to work with a fucking horse or what have you. They’ll just run away at the first opportunity, and if you try to keep them here, they’ll go batshit crazy.

“O-oh. Okay...”

If you’re disappointed, then just think of Garovel as your pet,’ said Voreese.

“That’s what I do,” said Roman. “To me, Voreese is that tiny dog that everyone knows. The one that never stops barking.”

Page 659

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What was her name?’ said Garovel.

Stasya Orlov,’ said Voreese. ‘I doubt you’ve heard of her. She never became famous.

Why not? If she was as strong as you say--

Because people are bastards. We’re talking about the early days of the Mohssian Empire here. Not a great time period to have lady parts, you may recall.

Ah...

She was a genius, that woman. Built incredible things. And history gave her zero credit. Even this place. Officially, Warrenhold is said to have been built by some fucking douchebag.

That’s depressing. And sadly, also a very common occurrence for historical women. But if what you’re saying is true, then the new Lord of Warrenhold would surely be in a position to give Stasya her due reverence.

Voreese’s skeletal grin broadened, and she looked at Hector. ‘Oh yeah?

Hector just kind of shrugged and nodded, deferring to Garovel.

We can build her a memorial, if you like,’ he told her. ‘Or just put her name up everywhere.

Either of those would earn my eternal affection.

A construction worker stepped up next to Hector and said, “Hey, wait. You never explained why the stone makes people freak out.”

Hector did a double-take. That wasn’t a construction worker. That was Roman dressed as one. “What the--?! When did you get here?!”

“A while ago. Told the other guys that I was a volunteer. They didn’t seem to mind the extra pair of hands.”

Hector had so many sudden questions that he wasn’t sure where to begin. “W-why are you dressed like that?”

Roman smiled. “A little anonymity among friends never hurts.”

That wasn’t much of an answer. Hector glared at Garovel. ‘Why didn’t you sense him?

Oh, I did. I wanted to see how long it would take you to notice.

Garovel!

Good to see you, Roman. Welcome to Warrenhold.

“Thanks. I was curious. Voreese? You gonna explain?”

The stone doesn’t make people freak out,’ she said. ‘It just causes anxiety.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Why, though?”

It’s really just a side effect. Stasya wanted the castle to repel pests. She had a real thing about bugs.

A beat passed.

“Are you kidding?” said Roman.

Page 658

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From quite high up, Voreese swooped down. She stopped a ways above everyone and looked over the restoration efforts. ‘Wow, I didn’t think you guys’d be so quick to get started.’

Garovel motioned toward Amelia. ‘You can blame the Lady Carthrace there for our productivity.

Voreese descended the rest of the way until she was about level with Garovel. ‘Have you encountered any problems? Any anxiety attacks? Oh, and hello, by the way. Good to see you both.

Likewise. And what do you mean? Anxiety attacks?

If I’d known there were gonna be so many people here, I would’ve told you earlier,’ she said. ‘Warrenhold has a very unique quality to it. The three of us can’t sense it, but normal people can. Apparently, it’s like a pressure in the back of their minds, and they have no idea what causes it, which makes people very anxious and uncomfortable.

We noticed something like that,’ said Garovel. ‘We were just underground with the surveyors, and they seemed pretty eager to get out of there.

There’s no actual danger,’ Voreese explained. ‘The real cause of the feeling is kind of silly.

Oh, you know what the cause is?

‘Course I do. It’s the stone. All eight towers down there were uniquely constructed. These ones up here weren’t, though. They were added later by other people.

Ah,’ said Garovel. ‘Warrenhold was built by a servant, you mean?

Yeah, an extremely powerful integration user. Some of the things she could do with her power--I don’t even know. I’ve never seen anyone else able to do what she could. I mean, I understand the mechanics of her work, but I don’t know how the fuck she pulled that shit off. Even in terms of servants, she was like a fucking wizard.

You knew her well?’ said Garovel.

Fuck yeah, I did. She was my servant for a very long time.

Hector blinked. He was tempted to join the conversation now, but since he was the only person present who could actually hear these two talking, he figured it would be best to just listen quietly so as not to spook any of the nice people around.

Page 657

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As they were heading back up, Miss Calloway looked at Hector. “I was hoping to get more done. I apologize for the inconvenience, Mr. Goffe.”

“Oh, d-don’t worry about it. I’m, uh... er... I mean, there’s no rush.”

“We’ve charted out most of the first tower,” she said. “You’ll be pleased to know that the overall condition isn’t quite as bad as it looks. Each area where we’ve encountered a fracture appears to have been the result of isolated incidents rather than that of a single, greater event.”

“Er, you mean... all these collapsed hallways aren’t even related?”

“Well, they could be linked in that the same person or group of people created them while moving through the castle, but it seems very unlikely that they were caused by something like an earthquake.”

“Oh...”

“And then of course, you have the area with the darker stone, which is in such good shape that I find it slightly baffling. Moreover, I’m not sure what type of stone that was, either. You have a very curious house here, Mr. Goffe.”

“Ah... yeah...”

By the time they reached the surface again, Jamal had already gone to fetch food for everyone at Amelia’s request. The surveyors mainly just seemed happy to be out in the daylight again.

Hector checked on the reconstruction team. Already, they were making progress. They’d picked the lone tower on the far side of the property to start work on, no doubt because it was the least destroyed out of all of them. When he’d first arrived late last night, this had been the tallest and most impressive tower he saw with its four, arguably five, floors; but now that he’d seen the giants that lay underground, this thing looked like a dwarf.

Hector saw his mother and Amelia sitting together and chatting on a large chunk of overturned stone. He considered venturing over to speak with them, but Garovel got his attention first.

Ah. I sense Voreese approaching. Brace yourself, Hector.

That made him smile as he looked up and around. The clear blue skies made it easy to see, and after a moment, he spotted her.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Page 656

--donation bonus week (day 2/5, post 3/5)--
Hector eyed them all again. They each seemed in perfectly good health, still. Just a bit uneasy, perhaps. “Uh... w-would you like to take a break for lunch?”

“Yeah,” voted someone.

“Seconded.”

“Sounds good to me.”

Miss Calloway frowned. “It’s early still. We should go on a bit longer--at least until we make it to the bottom of this first tower.”

The others didn’t argue with her, but Hector could see the reluctance in their faces.

Miss Calloway led the party deeper. They passed a familiar banquet hall, opting to keep going straight down, and then they came upon a peculiar thing. The walls, the floors, and the ceilings were all made of darker stone here, so Hector didn’t notice straight away, but the surveyors did.

“What’s with this area?” one of them said. “Are my eyes lying to me, or is this place in absolutely pristine condition?”

Miss Calloway ran her hand horizontally across a darkly gray wall. “No, you’re right. This stonework is impeccable. Look closely. See the decorative etchings?”

“Beautiful. It’s preserved remarkably well.”

“How can only this section of the tower be so perfect when the rest is scarcely better than a ruin?”

“Perhaps someone restored this part in secret,” said Miss Calloway. “Whatever the case, it’s very good news. Unlike everything else we’ve seen so far, this area is quite inhabitable.” She looked at Hector. “You may wish to set up a base of operations here and try to expand the restoration outward.”

Indeed, it seemed like a good idea. They walked through the rest of the tower in a state of awe. Hector counted seven perfect bedrooms, two ancient washrooms, a kind of large den with a hearth right in the center, a storage closet, and one long staircase that spiraled between the four adjoined floors. The bottom floor led outside into the immense cavern, allowing the surveyors a good look at the ring of eight great towers.

They marveled at the sight only briefly before deciding that it was time to take that break now. Hector was a little disappointed by their reactions, quite frankly.

Page 655 -- LXXVI.

--donation bonus week #1 (day 1/5, post 2/5)--
Chapter Seventy-Six: ‘Thy buried history...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Hector was glad for Amelia Carthrace’s presence. The woman could organize just about anything, seemingly, and she had a handle on his funds. She was almost like an elderly version of Gina, he thought, and he could see why the Queen had asked her to help him out. The only thing he didn’t understand was why Madame Carthrace had actually agreed to.

By mid-morning, Warrenhold already had two separate crews onsite. The first was the preliminary reconstruction team, which Amelia tasked with making immediate and primitive repairs to the aboveground buildings. Their primary goal was to have enough rooms with four walls for everyone by the day’s end.

The second crew was a team of surveyors, and Hector accompanied them underground. At first, they wanted to split up and go in all different directions to help speed their work along, but Hector wouldn’t allow it. He wasn’t going to let anyone wander around down here alone until he was more confident in the castle’s structural integrity. He knew that these people were professionals, but even so, he doubted that many of them had experience with places quite like this. If a hallway suddenly collapsed on someone, Hector wanted to be right there to shield them in an instant. The surveyors were a bit annoyed at his insistence, but the longer they spent underground, the less that seemed to bother them.

They didn’t experience any cave-ins or otherwise have any brushes with death, but that didn’t seem to matter. Gradually, the surveyors all took to clustering around Hector, and they became rather fidgety and irritable. They busied themselves with their work, taking measurements, charting the rooms out, inspecting walls and columns for signs of weakness; but not a single one of these people appeared very comfortable in this place now.

“...Are you guys alright?” Hector asked.

The lead surveyor had introduced herself as Sharon Calloway earlier. She took a deep breath and adjusted her hard hat, then her spectacles. “We’re fine. Don’t worry.”

“There’s something about this place,” said someone else. “I can’t put my finger on it, but...”

“It’s unsettling,” said another.

Page 654

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Marcos flinched. His father never really yelled, but the man could take a certain tone that made Marcos suitably frightened. He held up his glass of milk. “I’m sorry,” he tried. “I couldn’t sleep, so...”

“Well, hurry back to bed.”

Marcos looked up at his father and frowned. “Pa. Um... are we in danger?”

The man gave a sigh of irritation. “You were eavesdropping.”

Marcos looked at the floor.

“It’s nothing that you need to worry about,” his father said, a modicum more softly. “That’s a job for your mother and I.”

“But...”

He patted his son on the head. “Marcos. You know the world is dangerous. I can’t promise you that nothing bad will ever happen. Your mother would kill me if I lied to you like that.” He knelt down to look his son in the eye. “But you are an Elroy. A Rainlord. And what do the Rainlords say? What have we always said?”

“‘The rain fears not the torch.’”

“Yes. And what does that mean?”

Marcos remembered asking that same question. He remembered his father’s answer equally well and now chose to repeat it. “It means we don’t run from danger. We destroy it.”

“That’s right. All of us. Even while I’m away, your mother will be here, and you know she won’t let anything happen to you. Neither will your brother. You understand that, don’t you?”

“Yes, ensir.”

“Good. Now with that said, we are not in any danger that we know of. I would tell you if we were. Do you believe me?”

He wasn’t really sure he did, but he still said, “Yes, ensir.”

“There’s a good boy. Back to bed now. Off you go.”

He nodded and downed the rest of his milk before returning to his room. He didn’t feel all that comforted, really, but he still fell asleep after a fashion. When he awoke, he was able to see the Lord Elroy off before school. As he watched the man drive away, Marcos frowned and wondered who would be there to prevent anything from happening to his father.

Page 653

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This business about Ma telling Cisco to follow him around was certainly odd. And if that was really the case, then why hadn’t Cisco just told him so? To be a jerk? It seemed like a lot of needless trouble to go through. Cisco must’ve been tailing him for hours...

Hmm. Had Cisco really been following him that long? Because it would’ve been impossible unless Cisco had skipped the end of school, which wasn’t something Cisco was likely to do. Cisco made no secret of his view that school was an important obligation as an Elroy. Perhaps orders from Ma trumped that, though. But then, there still remained the question of why she would ask Cisco to do something like that when she knew he would be so against it.

At length, Marcos sat up. He rubbed his face. He got out of bed and made his way downstairs, looking for a glass of milk from the kitchen. As he poured, he could hear muffled voices from the next room over. His parents were still awake, it seemed, and curiosity got the better of him, so he wandered closer. Their voices sounded heavy and serious--even more so than usual for his parents.

“...I don’t like this, Zeff.”

“Neither do I, but what would you have me do? Ignore Lawrence’s orders? For what reason, exactly?”

“It just feels very sudden, and after everything Salazar said, I think we should be very cautious. I have little respect for the woman, but I have never considered her to be stupid.”

“Well, thankfully, I married a woman who excels at caution.”

“Zeff--”

There was a long pause.

“Rallying?” said Pa. “You’re starting to sound a bit paranoid. We’ve no reason to suspect General Lawrence of any wrongdoing.”

“No, she’s right,” said Ma. “It’s best to be overprepared.”

“Fine, but--”

Another pause, but this time, Marcos heard footsteps moving toward him. He panicked and tried to run, but the door was already opening, and then he heard his father’s voice.

“Marcos. What are you still doing up?”

Monday, April 28, 2014

Page 652

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“A spy. Right. I forgot. Sorry.” He knew that trying to tell her otherwise would only upset her. “Well, I want you to keep spying, then. If we’re going to do this thing, then we’ll be needing as much intelligence as we can gather.”

“Okay!”

He lowered his voice and said, “But keep it a secret. You never know if one of the reapers might be listening.”

“I’m a spy. Not an amateur.”

“I know. Just don’t get caught.”

“Duh.” She scampered off.

He watched her go. She was going to be a very scary person one day, he thought.

It wasn’t much longer to dinnertime, so Marcos just watched television for a bit. Regardless of what Cisco said, Marcos hoped the day would never come when he no longer enjoyed cartoons.

At dinner, there seemed to be a tension in the air that even he noticed. Marcos mostly just kept his head down and peeked around the table from below his bushy eyebrows while he worked on his stew. His father was eventually the one to break the ice.

“I have a small announcement,” said Pa, immediately drawing everyone’s attention. “My presence has been requested in Rheinhal, so I’ll be leaving in the morning.”

The children digested his words.

“Are you being given an assignment?” said Cisco.

“Possibly. I don’t know. I do know that it will only be for a day or two. I expect all of you to behave in my absence and listen to your mother.”

“Yes, ensir,” said all four children, nearly in unison.

There wasn’t much left to be said after that. A few inquiries into their schooldays, a request to meet this Alex Belos fellow, and nothing else. Marcos was far from an expert on what his mother was thinking, but she didn’t look particularly pleased, and her dour mood seemed to permeate the entire dining room. Gradually, the evening drew to a close.

Marcos lay in bed in his odd, brick-patterned pajamas, and he found himself unable to sleep. Something was nagging at him, and all he had now was time to think about it.

Page 651

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Marcos parted ways with Cisco at the first opportunity. He made his way upstairs, looking for the refuge of his room, but Ramira appeared in his path with a question.

“What did you do?” She was a tiny thing, this girl, skinny even for a nine-year-old. Her overalls and wild black hair made her look almost as boyish as he did.

“What are you talking about?” he said.

“You did something bad and got in trouble.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Liar. I heard Mama telling Cisco to keep an eye on you this morning. Why would she do that if she didn’t think you did something wrong, huh?”

“I don’t know. But I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Yeah, right. I bet you put a frog in Emy’s bed again.”

It was actually going to be slugs next for Emy, but Marcos hadn’t gotten around to it yet. He’d never been brave enough to try anything on Cisco, but he was thinking it was about time to rectify that. Maybe replace his shampoo with vinegar. Or write him a fake love letter from a secret admirer. And include instructions on where to meet. And then the admirer would turn out to be a bull terrier with a pink bow on its head.

He might’ve been putting a bit more thought into that second one.

“Tell me,” said Ramira. By the eager look in her eyes, she was about to pester him to let her help with his next prank.

“I really didn’t do anything.”

“Hmph. That’s boring.”

He tried to move past, and she stepped in front of him.

“Are you going to do anything?” she asked.

“No.”

“Really? Because Emy has a boyfriend now, so...”

That caught his attention. “She does?”

“Yeah!”

A beat passed as Marcos stared at his little sister. “Alright, what can you tell me about him?”

“It’s Alex Belos. Cisco’s friend. His favorite color is green. He has a pet turtle named Frank. He walks to school, because he doesn’t like the bus. He hates broccoli, and he’s scared of dogs. And Cisco.”

“How the heck do you know all this?”

She gave a confident grin. “Because I’m a spy. Duh.”

Page 650

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On his own now, Marcos attempted to stay near the crowds, which was rather easy, thankfully. Aguarey had ample foot traffic despite the constant rains. Temperatures were usually mild enough that walking wasn’t terribly unpleasant so long as one had a raincoat or umbrella.

The last leg of his journey proved problematic, however. The Elroy Estate didn’t sit on a main road, which meant he would have to abandon the comfort of the crowd in order to actually make it home. But it wasn’t that far. He just needed to make it past the madega tree at the end of the next street, round the corner, and then it would be a straight shot the rest of the way.

He gathered his courage and went for it, quick as he dared on the slick concrete. He glanced over his shoulder to see if anyone emerged from the crowd to pursue him. He stopped dead when he instead saw his jackass brother there.

Marcos was at once incensed and relieved. “Cisco! Were you following me?!”

“Maybe.”

“Why?!” Marcos had to stifle his next words, realizing they would only have been an admission of fear. He didn’t need Cisco making fun of him.

Cisco took his sweet time answering, letting his eyes drift elsewhere, probably talking to his reaper privately like Marcos wasn’t even there.

Marcos hated when he did that.

“No reason,” said Cisco. “I was just wondering why you’re always disappearing.”

“I disappear to get away from you!”

“Good to know.” Cisco closed the distance between them and put an arm around his brother. “Come on. Let’s go.”

Marcos squirmed out of his grasp. “What’re you doing? Don’t touch me.”

“Just move your ass, brat. No one likes a sluggard.”

“A what?”

“It means a slow and lazy person.”

“Then why didn’t you just say that?”

Cisco pushed him forward. “Walk.”

Marcos walked. He didn’t understand what was going through his brother’s head, and he didn’t much care to, either.

They finally reached the gate, and Nico and Jorem welcomed the brothers home. Marcos thanked them for the courtesy, while Cisco only nodded.

Page 649 -- LXXV.

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It took a second for that number to register. “Wait, what?”

You didn’t think she’d give us this monstrosity without any funds to get started, did you? This place is probably the biggest money pit I’ve ever seen.

“But... wha...” He squinted with one eye. “Fucking three million?! You’re telling me I’m a millionaire now?!”

Technically.

“Why didn’t you tell me that earlier?!”

I wanted to see the state of things first. And now that I have, I don’t think you should get too excited about your newfound riches. If the rest of Warrenhold is in as terrible a state as everything we’ve seen so far, then three million troas will hardly put a dent in our expenses.

“But... three million...”

Garovel chortled as they started back toward the ring of towers. ‘Our goal should be to restore Warrenhold in such a way that it will eventually begin to pay for itself.

“How the hell do we do that?”

There are all sorts of ways to make money, Hector, especially when you already have some at your disposal. But first, we still need a clearer picture of everything that Warrenhold has to offer. Hopefully, Voreese will give us some juicy details when she visits. The castle is certainly impressive to look at, but I’m not sure that explains why she seemed so set on it.

“Hmm. Maybe there’s a secret treasure room.”

That’d be nice.

“So secret that we’ll never find it.”

Sounds about right.


Chapter Seventy-Five: ‘Son of Water, observe carefully...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Ever since school let out for the day, Marcos couldn’t quite shake the feeling that he was being watched. It was discomforting, to say the least, like his eyes could see someone recognizable there in the pedestrian crowds, but his brain simply refused to tell him who it was.

He tried to be smart about it and just stuck with his friends. When their basketball game concluded, he asked them if they wanted to come over to his house and play some other games. They agreed but still ended up finding excuses to abandon him along the way. He knew they were just uncomfortable in these fancier neighborhoods, but still. He really wished they would’ve stuck with him a bit longer.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Page 648

Garovel went over the cliff for a closer look.

“Hey!” said Hector. “Don’t go off on your own!”

Relax. I’d be able to sense if there was anything alive down here. Just stay up there and give me light.

Hector wanted to protest more, but he figured he should probably just trust that Garovel knew what he was doing. He wasn’t particularly happy about it, though.

It’s strange,’ the reaper said. ‘Usually, if I concentrate, I can sense even small animals within a hundred meters or so, but I haven’t been able to sense any life at all. No insects or mice in the castle, no fish or anything in this water here, no worms in the dirt, even.

That can’t be right,’ thought Hector. ‘There’s gotta be bugs down here somewhere, right? Maybe your soul radar or whatever is getting screwed up for some reason. You should get back over here.

My sense is fine. I can still sense you perfectly well. You are literally the only living thing in Warrenhold, right now.

He looked around again. ‘That’s... a little creepy.

These buildings in the water are houses,’ said Garovel. ‘Very old and empty. This used to be a tiny village.

I wonder how it flooded...

Bah. It’s too dark. I can’t see where the lake ends or begins, but it does seem to be flowing east. Wherever that waterfall is, I don’t think it’ll be easy to reach.

What now?

Eh, we’ll explore the water later. You should get back above ground soon and check your messages. I’m sure your cell reception in here is terrible, and the others will be wanting to hear from you.

Alright.

Garovel was returning now, flying backwards as he looked over the dotted lake. ‘It seems our new home has seen some rough times.

“No kidding.”

It won’t be easy to repair.

“That’s, um... yeah. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to afford it. I didn’t even see furniture in any of the rooms, either, so we’ll need money for that, too.”

Yeah, and the Queen only gave you three million troas to work with.

Page 647

Hector wondered if the banquet hall from earlier was in that largest tower somewhere, but the more he looked over everything, the more he became convinced that each tower probably had enough space for it.

All in all, Warrenhold still looks like it’s in pretty decent condition from the outside,’ said Garovel. ‘Apart from that one tower over there, that is.

“We’ve been down here for hours already, but there’s still so much left to explore...”

Well, you did spend most of that time clearing hallways.’ The reaper paused. ‘Hey, do you hear something?

He listened. Indeed, there was a faint rushing sound, constant like distant static. “Yeah. What is that?”

I could be mistaken, but it sounds like a waterfall.’

Hector cocked an eyebrow. “What? Underground?”

It would’ve been very practical to build Warrenhold near a source of water, and an underground river could very well mean an underground waterfall.

“That’d be... pretty sweet, actually. Where do you think it is, then?”

Not sure. Could be on the other side of one of these towers, maybe, behind a wall somewhere. Or it could just be farther down in the cave. Seems like we’ve found the heart of the castle, but we’re still not at the bottom of the cave yet.

“Geez...”

Regardless, we should look for that waterfall first. It could lead us to a generator.

“Oh, you think it’s hydroelectric?”

It’s possible. Obviously, the castle is older than hydroelectric power--hell, it’s older than the discovery of electricity itself--but if the last resident lived here only forty years ago, then yeah, it could have a generator like that. There’s no guarantee it still works, though.

“Of course...”

At the reaper’s request, Hector backtracked a little, just a short ways from the ring of turrets, and found another steep drop off. This one, however, had a decrepit stone wall--an ancient guardrail, seemingly. Hector shined his light over the edge and illuminated a distant bed of dark turquoise.

Oh,’ said Garovel. ‘There’s a friggin’ lake right here.

Hector could see gray objects in the water, poking out above the surface. “Are those... buildings?”

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Page 646

Hector fell with the platform, and when he neared the bottom, he leapt off again, creating a sudden slide to catch himself. He eased down through the smooth iron tube and landed comfortably on both feet.

Garovel floated over. ‘Showing off for me?

He laughed as he annihilated his work. “Never hurts to practice. Though, to be honest, I was kind of expecting to faceplant on that one...”

I’m glad you’re not one to let a little thing like the threat of grievous bodily harm stop you.

He held up his floodlight to be sure he hadn’t broken it and was glad to find it in working order. “By the way, uh... I’m pretty sure I achieved emergence when I was fighting Harper.”

Oh? That’s excellent.

“Not sure what all I can do now.”

Looks like we’ll have plenty of space and opportunity to figure that out.’ The reaper floated slowly forward, rounding the base of the tower as Hector followed.

Abruptly, they were confronted with a broad view of what seemed like the entire castle, though the floodlight could only illuminate so much at once. Wide-eyed and open-mouthed, Hector gradually counted eight towers in total, all hanging down from the ceiling in a ring formation directly above him. Cavern rocks rose up from the floor to cradle each structure, save one, which looked to be half-destroyed with a good chunk of its remnants now hanging freely in mid-air. At the top, Hector could see a series of bridging walkways connecting everything, angled support beams extending out from each tower.

“Holy shit...”

Yeah... I’m starting to see why Voreese wanted this place.

“People think this is an eyesore? It looks incredible...”

Hmm.

The towers varied in size somewhat, but even the ruined one must’ve still had about ten stories. The largest, though, stood directly in front of him. It didn’t grow thinner like the others as it reached the base of the cave, and its stone looked a bit different as well, darker and more intricately carved. By itself, it must have had over a hundred windows just on this side alone, as well as a couple of protrusions into the rock halfway up its massive body.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Page 645

Enormous stalactites hung down from above, fervently living up to the name of Gray Rock. He couldn’t tell how large the cave was from this angle, but it certainly wasn’t small, and it seemed to extend around the castle.

There,’ said Garovel. ‘See that rock ledge?

He did. It wasn’t very far, just slightly below him. He made a bridging staircase for himself and descended. His light illuminated an extremely steep drop off as he walked, and when he reached the ledge, he looked back toward the castle, finally seeing it from the outside. Or part of it, anyway.

It almost seemed like the tower was upside down. Wide at the top, it became incrementally thinner in rivets toward the bottom, where it found support from a mound of natural rock. But even now, Hector still couldn’t quite see the bottom because of the rocks in the way. Additionally, the hole that he’d exited from was even larger than he’d thought, and it now granted him a view into several different rooms and hallways. A whole chunk of the tower was missing, he realized.

That’s a little suspicious-looking,’ said Garovel.

“Is it?”

The center of that hole is about even with the ledge you’re standing on now.

“Hmm.”

I’m wondering if it was really caused by an earthquake. It’s fairly symmetrical, too. Makes me think it could’ve been made by an explosive.

“You think someone attacked this place?”

That’s often why castles are built, so maybe this is just an old wound that was never repaired. But y’know, I just think the whole earthquake story is strange. I imagine that someone skilled enough to build a place like this would know better than to choose a location that has an earthquake problem.

“It’s really old, though. Maybe the builders just didn’t have that kind of... uh... surveying technology? Or something?”

Maybe. Let’s go see what’s on the other side of this tower.

Hector considered his options. The rocks below looked rather perilous, so he figured that materializing a staircase on top of them would be annoying. Instead, he made a single giant platform and jumped to it. The force of his landing caused it to fall forward, but that was as planned.

Page 644

By now, Hector was getting the distinct impression that he still wasn’t even close to the end of this self-guided tour. He supposed that could be a good thing, but on the other hand, even if he only counted everything he’d seen so far, Warrenhold already seemed way too big for four people. And hell, he wasn’t sure if Jamal and Amelia were going to live here. The thought of having all this space for only him and his mother was even more daunting. Were all castles this gigantic?

At least there doesn’t seem to be a vermin problem,’ said Garovel.

“So far.”

I don’t think I’ve even seen any cobwebs anywhere. Curious.

“Watch the next room we find be a fucking den of spiders.”

Are you arachnophobic?

“No. Er... at least, I don’t think I am...”

Oh, that’s right. You’re not afraid of anything, are you?

“Uh--I don’t know about that. When I saw Harper use pan-rozum, I almost shat myself...”

Garovel laughed. ‘Oh yeah? I didn’t realize. I suppose I can see why, though.

He looked around again. “Agh. I wish I at least knew how many floors there are in this place.” He’d asked Madame Carthrace for a map or floor plan of the building, but she explained that she’d been unable to procure such a thing despite searching for the past several days.

Just think of it as an adventure.

“I feel like I’m gonna get lost down here forever...”

Don’t worry. I can probably guide you back.

“...Probably?”

If not, you can become the Darksteel Mole Man.

“Fantastic.”

Eyeing all eight doors another time, Hector eventually just shrugged and chose the closest one. It led to another hallway. A very long hallway. There had to be at least another ten rooms to investigate, but he decided to keep going instead. At length, the corridor ended very abruptly, as if the rest of it were missing, replaced by a hole leading to pitch blackness. Hector stepped closer to the edge and shined his light through the hole.

This time, it really was a cave.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Page 643

Hector’s flashlight didn’t last very long, and he was forced to carry a floodlight around in one hand like a kind of supercharged lantern. He made an iron harness for the large battery pack that Jamal had left him and strapped it to his back as if it were an oxygen tank.

In the beginning of his expedition, he was predominantly concerned with clearing rubble out of the hallways, which usually meant refilling the holes in the ceiling or the walls and then patching the whole section of corridor over with a layer of iron. It also helped him keep track of where he’d already been, because the place was a damn maze, and Garovel couldn’t do much to help him explore it when there was no light anywhere. He found himself sorely missing Harper Norez’s company.

The castle itself was not of uniform construction. The first few areas he found were all made of a mixture of wood and concrete, but then he started seeing whole rooms and hallways of tawny sandstone or dark red brick or deeply blue marble. He found one chamber with lavish rainbow tile, though it probably would’ve looked nicer without the fissures running through its walls. A few other times, rooms were simply small caves with natural rock walls and nothing more.

He tried to explore each floor completely before descending again, but some rooms were so thoroughly destroyed that he couldn’t tell if there were any other doors hidden behind all the debris. More things he’d have to worry about later, he figured.

Five floors below the surface, he came out onto a sudden balcony, and for a moment, he thought he’d found a larger cave, but after shining his light around, he realized it was actually just one giant chamber.

A banquet hall?’ suggested Garovel.

Hector took a deep breath of stale air and raised a metal platform up from below the balcony. He climbed on and lowered himself down. He ran his light across the room again, counting eight more doors to choose from--two on each wall. He just sighed.

Page 642 -- LXXIV.

Salazar may have been strong. She may have been clever. She may have even saved Mariana’s life along with those of all her comrades. But when it came down to it, she and Armengél were cowards, and this meeting here today only confirmed that for Mariana all the more.

A part of Mariana wanted to dredge up the past right now and confront the woman about it directly, but she resisted, knowing no good would come of it. She’d already heard Salazar’s excuses, anyway.

“How’s that daughter of yours?” the General asked, which pulled Mariana back to the conversation at hand. “Gema, wasn’t it?”

“She is fine,” she said.

“That’s good. How old is she now?”

“Eighteen.”

Perhaps the woman had been expecting a more elaborate response, because the conversation died there and didn’t recover. She looked at the Elroys as the uncomfortable silence returned, perhaps letting it draw out to be sure that they didn’t have anything else to say to her. “Ah... it seems we’re no longer welcome here, Armengél.”

He nodded. ‘Well, at least they’re not trying to kill us.’


Chapter Seventy-Four: ‘O, forsaken sanctuary...!’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Seven hours after his arrival in Warrenhold, Hector had still not fully explored the castle, and it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.

It was just him and Garovel now. It had taken a while just to find a staircase that led underground, and even then, he’d had to clear away the rubble first. The tall stone doors would hardly even budge, and Hector ended up accidentally busting them down, only to see still more debris in the way. He decided that it was too dangerous for anyone else to venture down with him, so he asked Jamal to escort his mother and Madame Carthrace to a hotel. It was already well into the night anyway, and they all seemed pretty tired. Jamal left him with a variety of supplies, for which Hector was quite thankful.

The castle had its own generator. Somewhere. Until he found it and figured out how to get it working, there would be no electricity. Which meant no light, of course, save only what he brought with him.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Page 641

Mariana’s brow lowered. “And what is it that you want to do?”

“Only to survive and continue protecting people,” said Salazar.

By working with Ex-Abolish,’ said Shenado.

“Well, I didn’t say it was ideal.”

Mariana glowered. The more she thought about it, the less she was surprised by Salazar’s decision. There was a reason this person was Mariana’s previous commanding officer. When she married Zeff, the couple had been confronted with a choice, because a Vanguardian family was not allowed to have split allegiances. It was either Zeff’s commanding officer or Mariana’s. And it was not a difficult decision for her. Rather, it was one of the things that had motivated her to finally tie the knot with Zeff.

The memory of that old mission was abruptly vivid in Mariana’s mind, a mission that had shaped over a decade of conflict to follow.

The president of Vaeland had only just won his election by a small margin, and his first act was to outlaw the practice of slavery. Noble, perhaps, but foolish, because he did not have the strength to support it.

And so the Vanguard came to his aid. Salazar was the first to arrive in the capital with thirty servants under her command, Mariana among them. The goal was only to hold out until their reinforcements could break through the Abolish-controlled southern isles and link up with them.

From all reports, progress was good. Jackson’s men were estimated to arrive in less than ten hours. Salazar’s troops had not even seen any fighting yet.

Then a name reached them.

Gohvis. Bearing down on them from the north.

And that was enough to make Salazar retreat without putting up any resistance. She allowed him to take the capital with ease, allowed Abolish to take root in the heart of the country. To the ruin of all its people.

Mariana wasn’t a fool. She knew they wouldn’t have been able to stop that monster. But they only needed to delay him until Jackson arrived. Yes, it would have been difficult. Yes, many of them would have died. But that was the Vanguard’s purpose. Sacrifice was what it meant to serve.

Page 640

You really think the situation is that bad?’ said Axiolis.

“When was the last time either of you went on a mission?” the General asked. “Three months? Longer? You’re isolated out here, because you have children. But once they’re grown, the Vanguard will return you both to active duty, and you’ll be lucky to see them once or twice a year.”

Mariana was unfazed by her words. “That is what it means to serve.”

You were right when you said that we were uncompromising,’ said Shenado. ‘That has not changed. In fact, after everything you’ve just said, we should take you captive and turn you over to our own general.

That remark left a stinging silence in its wake. For a time, no one moved.

Salazar smiled through the ill atmosphere. “Well, before you do anything you’ll regret, allow me to remind you that we are guests in your home. And as you mentioned earlier, we came here alone--which we didn’t have to do. We could have brought several followers with us, but we chose not to out of courtesy, respect, and peaceable intentions for you and your family. I would expect the honorable Elroys to not trample on our goodwill.” She held up her rice cake. “Not quite a ‘shared meal,’ but I believe it still captures the spirit of hospitality.”

Mariana saw her husband nod.

“That’s what I like about you Rainlords,” said Salazar. “Observers of the old customs. You take your promises seriously.”

“Yes, we do,” said Zeff. “Which should tell you that we will not be breaking the ones we have made to the Vanguard, either.”

“I figured as much,” said Salazar. “But I want you to know that there is no time limit on this invitation. If you change your mind one day, seek me out.”

Shenado shook her head. ‘I can’t believe you’re deserting. And why join the Vahgrakaanas, anyway?

For the freedom,’ said Armengél. ‘Even if we managed to get accepted into Sai-hee’s exclusive little club, we still wouldn’t be able to do what we want.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Page 639

“What are you saying?” said Zeff. “You intend to abandon the Vanguard?”

Yes,’ affirmed Armengél.

“Come with us,” said Salazar.

Mariana could hardly believe what she was hearing. “What? You must be joking.”

Salazar looked over everyone again, settling on Mariana. She had a rare gaze, this woman, thanks to her heterochromatic irises. Deeply brown on the left and brightly hazel on the right. “We’ve been thinking, lately, about who we trust the most,” she said. “Shenado and Mariana here came to mind. Maybe things’ve changed after all this time, but I remember you two being some of the most uncompromising individuals I have ever known. And yes, that made you a pain in my ass on more than one occasion, but it also helped me trust you when things went bad--as they often did.”

Armengél nodded. ‘We don’t know your husband quite so well, but the Elroys are renowned for their sense of duty, and if you were willing to marry him, then it’s a fair bet that he is trustworthy.

How can you spout such traitorous nonsense?’ said Axiolis. ‘You’re genuinely asking us to leave with you? Just like that?

“We know it is sudden,” said Salazar. “And we know you have a family to think about. Bring them with you. We will keep them safe. We won’t force them to fight for us, either.”

Shenado seemed more shaken than anyone. ‘Why are you leaving? Only because you fear a bit of corruption in our ranks? You’re a general! You say the problem facing us is organizational, but aren’t you in a position to change that?!

“We’ve tried,” said Salazar. “It’s too late.”

That’s not good enough!’ said Shenado. ‘What about Sermung?! Have you even lost faith in him?!

“Sermung is the most powerful person in the world,” the General said. “I still have faith in him. And in three of the top eight. Sanko, Lamont, Jackson. But everyone else? I don’t know. And that’s not enough anymore, because I no longer have faith in what they’ve built. I can’t tell if the Vanguard is crumbling, but I know that it is at least changing. And not for the better.”

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Page 638

“Many of the reapers joining us have been in isolation for ages,” said Salazar. “They’ve never chosen a side, because they’ve never needed to. Most of them originally died long before it was common practice for governments to record any meaningful details about the lives that their citizens lived. And as floating, imaginary beings, it’s easy to live beneath everyone’s radar, so a lot of the time, the only thing we have to go on is word-of-mouth: what reapers tell us about each other. And that’s not much.”

It’s a simple matter for Abolish to sneak agents in as one of these “unknown” reapers,’ said Armengél.

“The Vanguard may be larger than ever, but it is definitely not stronger,” said Salazar. “It’s disorganized, and corruption has taken full advantage of that.”

Zeff’s gaze hardened. “Corruption? That is a bold accusation, General Salazar.”

“No, it isn’t,” Salazar said flatly. “The Vanguard has always had its share of eccentrics and troublemakers. I’m sure you’ve met plenty of them. They’re valuable assets, but they thrive in chaos. And they make it worse.”

Mariana found herself in agreement there, at least.

Armengél hovered behind his partner, nodding deeply. ‘Ideally, we would slow down the recruiting process in order to give ourselves time to adjust, but saying that now is like telling a dog to chew its food more.

At the ensuing discomforted silence, Salazar’s expression lightened again. She grabbed a rice cake from the tray beside her and took a bite. “Have any of you heard of the Vahgrakaanas?” she asked.

The word was familiar, but Mariana couldn’t place it. She didn’t need to, though.

It’s a group of five rogue servants, all of moderate fame,’ said Shenado. ‘And the name. Vahgrakaanas. It means ‘vagrant lords’ in Old Mohssian.

“That’s right,” said Salazar. “They’re still small and comparatively weak, but they’re capitalizing on the times and gathering clout right now. A lot of people suspect that they’re trying to become a fourth major player, equal to the Vanguard, Abolish, and Sai-hee.”

Five deserters, is what I’ve heard,’ said Axiolis. ‘From both the Vanguard and Abolish, supposedly. Not sure I believe that, though.’

“It’s true,” said Salazar. “But they won’t be five for much longer. Because I will be the sixth.”

Page 637

It’s always nice to see a friendly face and have a pleasant chat,’ said Axiolis, ‘but I get the impression that’s not really why you’re here now.

“It does seem odd that the two of you are traveling alone,” said Zeff.

“Why?” said Salazar. “Is it dangerous here?”

“Even with your level of strength, someone as important as you should have some kind of security detail,” said Zeff.

That left the General quiet, but after a moment, Armengél responded for her. ‘There aren’t that many people we trust right now.

“Why?” said Mariana.

“Let’s table that question for a bit,” said Salazar. “There are some other things we should discuss first.”

Do go on, then,’ said Shenado.

The butler chose that moment to arrive with the aforementioned snacks, which further delayed the discussion between the three servants as Salazar politely complained that there wasn’t anything alcoholic. The reapers, however, continued talking while Mariana and Zeff just listened.

In terms of raw manpower, the Vanguard is stronger now than it has ever been,’ said Armengél. ‘Twenty years ago, we hardly had five thousand active servants, but now we have ten times that. In the past year alone, we’ve gained over three thousand new recruits--many of them, reapers who have never taken on a servant before and therefore require considerable direction.

Startling numbers,’ said Axiolis. ‘Abolish must not be pleased. This business with aberrations has only ended up reinforcing our cause.

Poetic justice for not upholding the Old Law,’ said Shenado. ‘If they keep allowing their pets to break neutrality agreements, Sai-hee might even start helping us out.

“You’re being too optimistic,” said Salazar now that the butler had ventured off again. “It’s nice to imagine that the enemy’s plan has blown up in their face, but that’s not exactly the case here, unfortunately.”

Explain,’ said Shenado.

“As Armengél said, the Vanguard is larger than ever,” said Salazar. “Too large, in other words. Bloated. And still growing. All these new recruits--who’s to say some of them aren’t Abolish spies?’

That is why they are vetted,’ said Axiolis.

Which, at best, is a difficult process,’ argued Armengél.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Page 636

Juliana Salazar had always been unpredictable for as long as Mariana had known her, so it made a certain amount of sense that the woman would just show up unannounced like this. She was loud, obnoxious, and way too easy-going.

She was also a general of the Vanguard’s ground forces, as well as Mariana’s previous commanding officer.

As Mariana recalled, the first thing that anyone noticed when they looked at Salazar was her hair, and fifteen years later, she saw that had not changed as Salazar strode into the welcoming chamber with a rainbow falling around her face. On anyone else, Mariana imagined it would have looked ridiculous, but on Salazar, somehow, it seemed all too fitting.

Salazar’s reaper followed in behind her. Armengél was this one’s name, and even through the filter of perception that was every reaper’s appearance, he still managed to look dour. His flaming eyes rounded down, as if sullen about something, but Mariana knew that was just the way he usually was.

The rainbow woman smiled that giant smile of hers as she saw Mariana. “There you are! Oh, and Zeff! How are you?!” She didn’t wait for any responses and just moved in for a big hug.

Mariana still had her gun but was able to endure the hug without using it. “We are very well. What brings you here?”

“Why, you, of course,” said Salazar. “No offense, but Aguarey isn’t exactly my ideal vacation spot. We wanted to talk to you.”

About what?’ said Shenado.

“Oh, lots of things. Got any snacks? I could go for some snacks.”

Mariana exchanged glances with her husband before waving to the butler by the door. The man scurried off, and they moved their conversation into the next room where they could all sit down on the cushioned furniture with silver embroidery.

Nice house,’ said Armengél. ‘You steal it?

“No,” said Mariana. “It’s been in Zeff’s family for generations.”

Salazar clicked her tongue. “Oh, that’s right. We never did visit you after the wedding. Always meant to.”

“I imagine you were very busy,” said Mariana.

“Aren’t we all?” said Salazar.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Page 635

“You--” tried Luther, but David wasn’t done.

“And here, channel eight--oh. Non-stop infomercials. Always something interesting there. Then you have your channel for music videos, your channel for food, your channel for wildlife. And of course, I made sure to include several religious networks as well--I know how pious you are, so I’m sure you will enjoy those. Ah, and my favorite: the crackling fireplace. I am not even sure what you would call this channel, but I find it very soothing.”

Luther just shut his eyes and rubbed his forehead. What a bastard, David was.

-+-+-+-+-

Mariana wasn’t very fond of unexpected visitors. Perhaps she’d just spent too many years in places where such visits only ever meant that someone had come to kill her. Marriage and children had not softened her in that regard. If anything, they had made it worse. Or better, depending on one’s viewpoint. All of her children knew how to hold, fire, and clean a few different types of firearms--even Ramira, who was nine years old.

So when the guards out front radioed in with the message that some woman was requesting to see her and Zeff, it was no coincidence that the first thing Mariana did was slide the speaker box over and reveal a hidden recess in the wall. A handgun lay there, and she grabbed it. It wasn’t loaded, of course, but that was why she always carried a spare magazine around with her.

Would you relax?’ said Shenado.

There was a very simple answer to that question, but Mariana decided not to be rude. To her eyes, Shenado and Axiolis were both darkly orange foxes. Each had multiple tails that flickered with ethereal fire, just like their burning eyes.

The speaker box still worked fine in its new position, and Zeff asked the guards, “Does this woman have a name?”

A pause, and then, <“She says it’s Salazar. Says you know her.”>

Zeff blinked at his wife.

It’s been fifteen years,’ said Axiolis. ‘What’s she doing here?

Mariana pressed the button and told the guards, “Let her in.”

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Page 634

With all his spare time lately, Luther had been thinking carefully about what type of hint he should give his brother. He could simply lie, of course, but that would no doubt kill any further attempts to barter. Worse, it might even make David refuse to speak with him again, and given that Luther would probably be stuck down here for quite some time, David’s traitorous company was one of the few things he actually looked forward to. Not that he could ever let David know this. It would only give the man an advantage.

So he had to tell David something, at least. And he knew what. “The hint, then. The extra precautions I took before the night of my undoing, as it were. I will only tell you that it has to do with money.”

“Ah.” David rubbed his beard. “I suppose that is a satisfactory clue.”

“Unless you give me something else, you will get nothing more from me,” said Luther.

“Okay,” said David. He stood and reached into his vest pocket. He pulled out a small remote. He hit one of the buttons.

The screen on Luther’s television turned to gray static.

Luther folded his arms. “Have you forgotten? You signed a written agreement, and one of the stipulations--”

“--Was to ensure that you be given certain numbered channels, yes. I read it quite thoroughly; I assure you. But if you look closely, you will see that I did give you those channels. For instance, channel six--” David flipped over to the specified channel, wherein the picture returned. “See? You requested this one in particular, and here it is.”

Luther stared at images of an animated sheep walking on two legs through a very boxy-looking city.

“Normally, channel six is merely a boring network with daily soap operas and nightly news programs,” said David. “Fortunately, I knew you would not be interested in any of that, so instead, I had a special receiver installed in your television, and now your channel six is twenty-four hours of cartoons.”

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Page 633

“I am surprised our sister lent you her pet just for this,” said Luther.

“I’m sure she was merely concerned for your safety,” said David. “If you escaped out there into the world, who knows what might happen to you?”

“Ah, so if I were to escape, you are saying that this young lady here would not immediately hunt me down and cut me in two?”

David glanced at her a moment, then smiled at Luther. “I doubt she would need to kill you in order to subdue you. But then again, I have been wrong before. Feel free to give it a try.”

“Hmph. Can she not speak for herself, this one?”

“I am sure she is a lovely conversationalist, but I did not request her company for her verbal skills.”

“Perhaps she simply knows better than to talk to us snakes,” said Luther. “Smart girl.”

The look she gave him was distant, as if she were hardly even paying attention, like Luther wasn’t even worth her time. In a way, it was more frightening than if she’d been glaring at him. And more irritating.

The maintenance man finished up and exited the cell. Luther stood to inspect his work. Rather a small screen, he felt, and placed a bit too high up for his liking, but it had all the channels he wanted, which was the most important thing. He looked around. “No remote?”

“You can change it by hand,” said David.

“Agh. This must qualify as cruel and unusual punishment, surely.”

“You have your television. I have held up my end of the bargain. Hold up yours.”

Luther put on a frown. In truth, he was a bit relieved. He’d expected David to come up with some kind of clever catch, but this was just petty nonsense. And he was perfectly fine with that. “Very well. A hint is all I promised--and for this meager display, that is certainly all I will give.”

“Out with it, then. If your hint bears fruit, then perhaps this meager display will change.”

Page 632 -- LXXIII.

Admittedly, that did dampen her enthusiasm a bit, but she was determined now. “Well, I don’t need him to be brave,” she said to her brother. “I only need him to be kind and sweet and thoughtful--which he is.”

“Yeah!” said Alex. “I’m super nice!”

“Listen,” said Cisco. “Alex, you’re my friend, and I like you, but you are not a good match for my sister, and I’d rather you stay away from her.”

Alex immediately nodded. “Well, okay, if that’s how you feel--”

“Shut up, Alex,” said Emiliana. “You don’t need my brother’s permission to date me.”

“That’s true,” said Cisco, making them both blink at him. “But he asked for my blessing. I’m only telling him that I’m not going to give it.”

“So, wait,” said Alex. “If we start dating anyway, then... you’re not going to murder me in my sleep?”

Cisco took his time answering. “Of course not. Don’t be silly.” His words didn’t match the threat on his face and in his voice. “I would never hurt you. You’re my friend.”

“I’m glad that’s settled.” Emiliana took the locket from Alex and enveloped one of his arms with both of hers.

“Eh... y-yeah...”

“Where should we go for our first date, then?” she asked.

“Uh... I was thinking a movie, maybe...?”

“Great! When should we go? How about tonight?”

“Er--if you want, I guess we could--”

“By the way,” interrupted Cisco, “now that she’s fourteen, Emy has a reaper, who will probably be spying on you whenever you think no one is looking. Have fun with that.”

“Cisco!”

Hey!’ said Chergoa. ‘It’s no fun if he knows I’m watching! You’re only supposed to ruin your sister’s good time, not mine!

Alex just gave a nervous laugh.


Chapter Seventy-Three: ‘O, guarded promise...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Luther was relegated to one corner of his cell while the maintenance man worked. Soon, he would have his television, just as David had promised.

David was also present, seated on the other side of the glass and observing the installation. The person seated next to him--Luther recognized her immediately. He’d never actually learned her real name, but the white cloak and sword on her hip told Luther all he needed to know.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Page 631

Emiliana’s breath caught, and she turned to Chergoa.

Hey, don’t look at me,’ the reaper said privately. ‘I didn’t tell him. Your boyfriend here obviously did.

“So what’s all this about?” said Cisco. His reaper still wasn’t with him. Dennex was always rather dutiful about going out and reaping souls while Cisco was occupied with school.

Everyone’s attention was on Alex now, and he shrunk a little, seemingly under Cisco’s gaze the most. “I wanted to ask you... well, I wanted to ask her if she would go on a date with me--”

“Excuse me?” said Cisco, while Emiliana’s eyes lit up.

“--but I want her brother’s blessing as well,” said Alex. He rummaged through his pocket and pulled out a silver locket, holding it up for them both to see. “A token of my sincerity. So you know that I’m not--”

Cisco grabbed the boy’s wrist. Alex flinched.

“Cisco, don’t!” said Emiliana.

Cisco eyed the locket. He opened it with his other hand but didn’t take it from Alex. There was no picture inside. Not yet, at least. He cocked an eyebrow at his sister. “You like this guy?”

She nodded furiously and with gritted teeth, said, “Don’t hurt him!”

Cisco released him and then stared at the both of them with those steely eyes of his. That face owed so much to their father, more so than any of the other Elroy children. His hair, on the other hand, had been taken from both parents. It had their mother’s waves and their father’s jet blackness. If Cisco ever bothered to run a brush through it, his hair might have been quite appealing, but apparently, he preferred looking like an unkempt beast.

“No,” said Cisco.

“What?” said Emiliana.

He stared at her. “No. He’s not even brave enough to date you without seeking my permission first. I bet the only reason he asked us both to come is because he was worried I would beat his ass and wanted you here to stop me.”

“That’s not true!” she said. “Right?”

Alex’s face scrunched up, and he just kind of shrugged.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Page 630

That’s what everyone says,’ said Chergoa.

Emiliana stiffened her brow. ‘What do you want me to say?

Something convincing. The Rainlords and Sandlords of Sair are the oldest living bloodlines on Eloa. Your father is granted a seat on the Council of Lords in addition to being a Captain of the Vanguard. If that doesn’t mean much to you, then I would wager that you do not, in fact, understand how privileged you are.

Emiliana rolled her eyes and returned to observing the teacher’s presentation. The man was busy talking about the Gulf of Emerson, theorized to be the result of a megathrust earthquake that cut through the continent some ten thousand years ago.

It was one of the rare moments in this class that wasn’t just about memorizing the names of cities and countries. She didn’t see much point in a geography course when she could look places up on her phone whenever she wanted--or even pull up a map of the entire planet in a matter of seconds. Maybe that was just the “annoying teenager” part of her brain, but this class really did seem like something that only an old person would consider important.

Probably not a thought she should share with Chergoa, she figured.

Finally, her last class let out, and she grabbed her lemon umbrella and made her way around to the far end of the gym. She walked fast. Cisco was supposed to drive her home, so if this took too long, he would start wondering where she was.

She spotted Alex waiting for her beneath an overhang. With a knot in her chest, she approached him.

He smiled at her. “Hi.”

She returned one of her own. “Hi.”

“Thank you for coming.”

“Of course.”

At the sudden awkward silence, she couldn’t help growing a bit impatient. “Is everything alright?” she asked.

“Sorry,” he said, “I’m waiting for one more person.”

Her smile waned. She was about to ask who he meant when someone rounded the corner and she saw that it was Cisco.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Page 629

--1st Anniversary Special (day 5/7, page 3/4)--
For the remainder of the school day, Emiliana could hardly focus. She’d been anxious all weekend, wondering what exactly Alex was going to say to her or what his present would be; and now that it was so close to time, it was almost too much for her. Combined with all this talk of dreaming about marriage and her parents letting her live how she wanted, Emiliana’s imagination started leaping away from her, wondering what she would do if Alex asked her to marry him. Of course he wouldn’t. Not today, surely. But eventually? Was that possible? What would their lives be like? She could be a mother and--

So how much do you know about your heritage?’ asked Chergoa.

The question came out of nowhere and yanked Emiliana back down to Eleg. It took her a moment to realize that the reaper was probably just bored with her geography teacher’s lecture and trying to make conversation. ‘Why do you ask?

Of all the houses and bloodlines in this country, only ten of them are “Rainlords.”

There are more in Intar.’

That’s true, but the Rainlords of Sair are considered the purest descendants of the old Arman people. I’m just wondering what that means to you.

Emiliana hesitated. ‘Honestly? It doesn’t mean much to me at all.

Oh?

I know I’m probably the only one in my family to think so, but... Elroy is just a name. My ancestry doesn’t matter to me.

Hmm.

What do you think?’ Emiliana asked. ‘You’re ancient and wise, aren’t you?

Well, I don’t think a bloodline makes someone “destined for greatness” or what have you, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that your ancestry is irrelevant, either.

Why? I genuinely don’t understand what the fuss is about.

It has less to do with you individually and more to do with how people see you.

Well, that’s their business, not mine.

And of course, there’s also the fact that your family name has given you an overwhelming advantage in life. I hope you’re not so spoiled that you don’t even understand how privileged you are.

I know that.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Page 628

--1st Anniversary Special (day 5/7, page 2/4)--
I guess he’s alright,’ said Chergoa, ‘if you’re into horsefaces and big foreheads. Handsome in the non-traditional sense, maybe.

Shut up! You’re an idiot, oh my god!

So defensive. You really do like him, huh?

Emiliana growled under her breath until she realized that wasn’t very ladylike. The odd looks from her friends may have had something to do with it as well. She made the excuse that she’d just been trying to clear her throat, which they seemed to buy, more or less.

What’s so great about him, anyway?’ asked Chergoa.

She’d been expecting this question for a while. ‘He’s sweet, thoughtful, gentle, kind, handsome, and smart.

Chergoa laughed. ‘You sure came prepared, didn’t you? How do you know that he really is all of those things, though?

Because he has been friends with my brother for five years, and I have known him just as long.

That doesn’t really answer the question.

Ugh. You want specific examples?

I suppose not. His true nature should be apparent enough if I observe him when he thinks no one is watching.

That’s... that’s horrible. You shouldn’t invade his privacy.

Shouldn’t. But I’m still going to.

I’m telling you not to!

Good thing I’m the boss in this relationship, then.

Agh!

He’s not even your boyfriend yet, is he?

N-no... but...

But what?

I’m supposed to meet him after school today.

Ooh. Why?

He said he wants to give me a birthday present.

Your birthday was two days ago.

Yes, well, we didn’t have school two days ago.

Sounds fishy. Maybe I should tell Cisco and have him meet you there.

Her eyes widened. ‘Don’t!

Only teasing.

Agh...

It’s not like Alex could do anything to you, anyway. For his own sake, I hope he doesn’t try anything.

He wouldn’t do something like that.

You sound convinced.

Emiliana returned to listening to her friends. Or tried to. They were talking about the upcoming biology exam, which she wasn’t especially interested in. Not because it was boring, but rather because she wasn’t worried about it. Biology was one of her best subjects. As usual, they asked her to help them study for it, and she just kind of nonchalantly agreed.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Page 627

--1st Anniversary Special (day 5/7, page 1/4)--
Emiliana attended the same secondary school as Cisco, who had recently gotten his license and was now able to drive them. Back on her first day here, she’d quickly discovered that her brother had a reputation as a bully, which made her a bit reluctant to be seen with him. On the other hand, she found that it also made people she didn’t like leave her alone. And after a while, she realized that she didn’t really think Cisco could be a bully, either. It was probably just some misunderstanding. That would be more like the brother she knew. He wasn’t really mean--just a bit brusque and harsh, most of all towards Marcos, but of course, the little brat deserved it as far as she was concerned.

Chergoa followed her to school as well. Maybe this was just for their first day together, though, because Cisco’s reaper wasn’t following him around.

Emiliana got through the beginning of the day normally enough, thankful for the routine of it all. Chergoa often wandered off to have a look around and perhaps see what Cisco was up to. It wasn’t until they broke for lunch that the next moment that Emiliana had been dreading arrived. Being two years younger, she didn’t share any classes with the boy of her affections, but she did share the same lunch period.

His name was Alex Belos, and he was sitting on the other side of the refectory. Emiliana remained with her two friends, but she stopped listening to what they were saying as Chergoa wandered closer to look at him. Thankfully, at least, Cisco had a different lunch period and wasn’t sitting right next to him.

Hmm,’ said Chergoa privately. ‘I thought he’d just be some pretty boy, but he definitely isn’t.

Emiliana squinted. ‘What are you saying?

Nothing. Just that I figured a girl your age would go for someone more... handsome.

What?! He is very handsome!

Eh.

She wanted to yell, but that would have made a scene, so she settled for a curt breath as her expression of disgust. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.

Page 626

--1st Anniversary Special (day 4/7, page 4/4)--
Chergoa set her to meditating not long after that. It wasn’t Emiliana’s first time doing so; her mother occasionally made her do it in the past as practice. The woman seemed to think it good exercise for young people. Emiliana wasn’t the only one of the Elroy children to have considered it a waste of time, but it was different now. This was the real thing.

After a while, the meditation put her in the mood to sleep, which was good because there wasn’t much left of the evening, anyway. She went to bed, a little nervous about what the next day would bring, but she drifted off soon enough.

In the morning, she readied herself for school and was displeased to find her bras had become uncomfortably snug again. This was the third time in as many months, and dammit if it wasn’t unsettling. The rest of her body wasn’t growing nearly so quickly. For once, she was grateful for living in a place where it rained all the time, because at least it gave her an excuse to wear bulky clothing.

Then again, she’d heard that boys liked large breasts, so maybe this was good? She hoped that was true, because right now, these damn things just made her feel like a freak. And worse, a lot of the other girls at school seemed to resent her, too, as if she had any control over it. Or maybe they disliked her for other reasons. She couldn’t tell anymore. After all, she wasn’t the only one going through changes. When did everything get so confusing?

Honestly, if it weren’t for her two best friends, she didn’t know what she would have done. They were so much more adult than she was--maybe not so much physically, but definitely mentally. They’d always been able to take things in stride and make light of stuff that would have bothered her. Unfortunately, though, she didn’t think she should talk to them about her latest problem. Becoming undead probably wasn’t something they were equipped to advise her about, and if they became scared of her... No, it definitely wasn’t worth the risk.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Page 625

--1st Anniversary Special (day 4/7, page 3/4)--
I hear you are already dreaming about marriage,’ said Chergoa. ‘Is that true?

Emiliana just averted her gaze, unsure how to answer that.

Fourteen is a bit young to be focusing on that, don’t you think?

She would have liked to tell the reaper that it wasn’t any of her business, but unfortunately, it very much was. Emiliana understood that their lives were bound together now, and throwing a fit about it wouldn’t do any good. Her mother had certainly made sure to hammer that much into her.

Still, she found it difficult to say anything. Of course fourteen was young. She was under no illusions that she was older than she really was. But that didn’t change the way she felt.

Hmm,’ the reaper hummed, suddenly with the echo that indicated privacy. ‘Could it be that you already have someone in mind?

Her eyes widened, and for a moment, she forgot to breathe.

Ah. Is that really how it is? You can tell me. I promise not to tell anyone else without your permission.

Emiliana blushed and looked at the ivory carpet. “Yes...”

Who is it?

She exhaled a heavy breath. “Don’t make me say...”

Do you know if they have feelings for you, too?

“I... I believe he does...”

Hmm. Is there a significant age difference?

“Ah... well... he is two years older than me.”

The reaper paused. ‘It’s not Cisco, is it?

“What?! No! Cisco is my brother!”

Just checking.

“That’s disgusting!”

Is it one of Cisco’s friends?

Emiliana abruptly lost her fervor.

Oh boy. And Cisco doesn’t know, I take it?

“If Cisco found out, I’m afraid he would kill him...”

His reaper wouldn’t let him do that. Might let him break a few of the boy’s bones, though.

Emiliana just frowned.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell them. If this boy really is such a big part of your life, though, then I would like to see him.

“Okay...”

Does he have a reaper as well?

“No. But he does know about them... I think Cisco showed off to him once, maybe.”

Page 624

--1st Anniversary Special (day 4/7, page 2/4)--
To Emiliana’s eyes, the reaper was a glowing blue wisp, a kind of floating ball of cerulean flame. With eyes. And a mouth.

She didn’t like it at all.

But apparently, they were supposed to become friends now.

Chergoa hovered around the room. ‘You really like the color yellow, don’t you?

It was true. Emiliana’s room was distinctly brighter than anywhere else in the house for that reason. She especially liked sunflowers. The one standing in a vase at the foot of her bed was easily the most precious ornament in her room. She used to have a second one, as her lord father had given her two for her seventh birthday, but Marcos ruined that like he did everything else.

She wasn’t interested in telling any of that to Chergoa, however. “Why did Mama and Papa choose you?” she asked instead.

A good first question. They chose me because I am an old friend of your father’s reaper, Axiolis.

“Is that all?”

Understand that they did not pick me lightly. They are entrusting their beloved daughter to me, and that is no small thing. Despite my friendship with Axiolis, your parents still corresponded with me for over a year before they became convinced that I would be a suitable partner for you. Us reapers are already rather difficult to come by, but when family is concerned, it is best to be extra picky. Wouldn’t you agree?

“I guess so...”

From there, Chergoa explained at length about how the regeneration would work, how the enhanced strength would work, and how their souls were now bound together. Emiliana, more or less, knew all of this already, but she just listened quietly until the reaper was done talking.

“Mama said you wouldn’t make me join the Vanguard.”

That’s right. Your father asked me to let you live whatever life you wanted for yourself.

“And you agreed to that?”

I did.

Emiliana breathed. “Thank you...”

I will still be making you train, however. That is not up for debate.

Emiliana wasn’t exactly thrilled, but she supposed she couldn’t complain.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Page 623 -- LXXII.

--1st Anniversary Special (day 4/7, page 1/4)--
Dammit, I really liked that one,’ said Hector.

Well, maybe it still runs.

The tree fell on top of the boulder, hammering the motorcycle in the ground. A busted wheel bounded over to Hector and fell at his feet.

As a unicycle,’ said Garovel.

Hector was a bit more careful after that. The blockage went rather deep. He had to raise up ten separate platforms, annihilating holes through them and turning each one into the next section of a large iron tunnel, but eventually, he reached the other side. He wasn’t wholly satisfied with this as a permanent solution, though. It would do for now, but he was resolved to come back later and see about removing all the rocks so that he could annihilate the tunnel. That, and he’d have to clean up the pieces of his bike, anyway.

He rode with everyone else the rest of the way, but it only took a few minutes. They passed under a tall gatehouse that had lost its pointed apex, which now lay stuck in the ground by the side of the road.

And finally, they arrived at a clearing and were granted a view of the castle. The central structure seemed largely intact, but it only rose two floors above ground. There were six pallid towers around it, but they had all crumbled to a single story, save one lone champion at the back which still boasted a good four or five floors.

They reached what seemed to be the main courtyard. Everyone exited the vehicle together, and Hector found wild grass and weeds grown to knee-height. Jamal began pulling gear out the back of the SUV--floodlights, most notably.

“Where shall we begin?” said Amelia.

Hector took a deep breath and exchanged looks with Garovel.


Chapter Seventy-Two: ‘Gentle rain, learn well...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Her father had not put the ceremony off a second time. Emiliana was a servant now, and the whole world seemed different somehow. She’d retreated back to her room, happy to finally be away from everyone. Except for this reaper, unfortunately. From the end of her banana-colored bed, she looked at Chergoa with uncertainty.

Page 622

--1st Anniversary Special (day 3/7, page 4/4)--
Flashlight in hand, Hector eyed the blockage and scratched his head. The rocks at the top were bigger than he was, bigger than his motorcycle, even. “Why wasn’t this ever cleared away?” he asked.

Madame Carthrace was the one to answer. “From what I have read, there simply was not enough interest in doing so. Warrenhold isn’t famous enough to be very attractive to tourists, and no one has lived there for nearly forty years. Only historians have ever broached the subject of reopening it, but they have never been able to secure funding.”

“I hear it’s an eyesore,” his mother added.

“Yes, I have heard that as well,” said Amelia. “The surface is supposedly a ruin, but the vast majority of the castle is underground. No one has visited since the earthquake, however, so we may come to find that in ruins, also.”

“Great,” said Mrs. Goffe. “Is it haunted, too? Because that would just be icing on the cake.”

Amelia bobbed her head. “There are certain rumors about it.”

“Wonderful.”

“I would not worry about it very much,” said Madame Carthrace. “Any old house that has fallen into disrepair will be seen as an ill omen by some people. Superstitious nonsense, it is.”

I like this lady,’ said Garovel.

Hector sensed irony in there somewhere but decided to ignore it. He stretched his arms as he eyed the boulders again, considering how he should approach the problem. Garovel grabbed his shoulder and sent the rush of vigor through his body. Hector wasn’t sure he would need it, though, and simply pressed his hands against the cracked pavement.

Iron grew at the base of the rock wall, weaving through the tiny cracks in its haphazard foundation. He added onto it from the bottom, creating a platform that lifted the whole wall. The weight of the rocks resisted him, demanding much more concentration than any simple platform he’d ever created. He forced it up, and suddenly, one of the giant rocks at the top jostled free and fell toward him.

Hector caught it with both hands, further cracking the pavement beneath his feet. He threw the boulder to the other side of the road, away from everyone. But his aim wasn’t so great. The rock hit a large tree, bounced off, and crushed his motorcycle.

He stared at his work. ‘...Did that really just happen?

It sure did. Good job.

Page 621

--1st Anniversary Special (day 3/7, page 3/4)--
She made me curious,’ said Garovel. ‘I think you’re right, though. I’m guessing there’s something in Warrenhold that she doesn’t want to talk about in front of Mehlsanz and the Queen--or possibly Harper, because he’s Vanguard.

What would she want to hide from them?

Don’t know. I have a few guesses, but I’m hoping for a nice surprise.

You couldn’t just ask her while no one else was around?

I was busy helping the Queen out. And besides, I like surprises, remember?

Ugh.

Eh, I trust Voreese’s judgment. She wouldn’t try to surprise us with some pile of horseshit. Probably.

If you say so.

After that, Garovel went back to talking about history, but Hector found it hard to continue listening. As soon as he realized that he was beginning to drift off to sleep, he politely asked Garovel to stop so he could concentrate on the road. The reaper begrudgingly obliged.

When they finally started drawing close to Gray Rock, Hector followed the SUV ahead of him down a side road for a while until they eventually pulled over. Jamal got out and showed Hector the forking path in front of them, the problem being that one of the roads was closed off. Jamal pulled the orange barricades aside as he explained.

“We’re nearly there,” he said. “A rock slide left the road ahead blocked, but that shouldn’t be a problem for you, right?”

“Uh... I-I guess so.”

Amelia laughed as she came up behind them. “It seems we are already going to get a demonstration of our young lord’s strength.”

Hector gaped at her. “L-lord?”

“Of course,” she said, blinking. “Were you not told of your accompanying title?”

“Eh... I don’t think so...”

“You are the acting Lord of Warrenhold. Or the acting Lord of the Gray Warren, I suppose. Whichever name you prefer. Personally, I like the prior.”

“Oh... uh. I guess that... would make sense.”

It didn’t take much longer to reach the obstacle that Jamal was talking about. There’d been several more roads connecting along the way, and it seemed that this one was the only path forward. It cut through a small hill, wherein a wall of gray boulders now stood in evening darkness.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Page 620

--1st Anniversary Special (day 3/7, page 2/4)--
Why only Sair?’ said Hector.

Oh, I don’t know. I doubt there’s a simple answer to that question. It was where the Armans and Lyzakks first clashed, so maybe that has something to do with it.

Hmm.

After the two big empires fell, though--that’s when things got complicated.

Oh, right. Because up until then, everything had been so simple.

The reaper laughed again. ‘Comparatively, yes. The Mohssians gave rise to all these small countries like Atreya and Rendon. It’s why, even to this day, you can travel all over western Eloa and never need a translator.

We all speak Mohssian, yeah. They don’t all speak Valgan in the east, though, do they?

Nope. A lot of them do, but they’ve got a handful of younger languages, too. I believe our friend Karkash spoke one of them.

Ah... him.

He didn’t talk much, but I’m fairly sure that was a Vaelish accent I heard. That, and he looked the part. I think Stoker may’ve as well, but his clothes were pretty ragged when we found him, and his accent wasn’t nearly as strong.

I guess that means Abolish is operating in Vaeland?

Could be. Easy to believe, too. Vaeland was one of the most dangerous places in the world a few years ago.

Gah...’ There came a lull in the conversation, and knowing that they still had a good hour or two before they reached Gray Rock, Hector was a bit afraid that Garovel was about to bombard him with still more history lessons, so he tried to steer the conversation elsewhere. ‘Uh... do you know anything else about this Warrenhold place? I forgot to ask before.

Not really. I only talked to Voreese about it a little. She mentioned it being even older than Atreya itself, but that’s it. She said she would come visit us there a day or two after we arrive.

Hmm. Was it just me, or did she seem kind of suspicious when she was telling us to choose the place?

Heh. Maybe.

You were suspicious, too, actually... You accepted her request pretty easily.