Saturday, May 31, 2014

Page 714

“I am aware,” said Mariana. “I was hoping you would have someone already nearby.”

<“I’m sorry. Several candidates come to mind, but I don’t know where to find them. You know how reapers are, especially without a servant tying them down.”>

“I thought as much. It was worth asking.” Searching for any single reaper could take months or even years, she knew. It was not uncommon for them to disappear, particularly after releasing a long-held servant. For many, replacing their servant meant replacing their very best friend. It wasn’t a thing they liked to rush into. Or, depending on their circumstances, some reapers might go into hiding while they built up a new servant’s power.

<“I’ll make some calls to the other families and see if any of them have someone lined up for your son. With any luck--”>

“You would only be wasting your time,” said Mariana. “Unless you give me your word that you have met the reaper personally and would entrust them with your own child’s life, then I will certainly not be entrusting them with mine.”

There came a long pause. <“I see. And you are planning to...?”>

“Yes.”

More quietly, Octavia asked, <“What can I do for you?”>

“I would like to see Emiliana. Did you take her to Red Lake Castle?”

<“I did. Can you make it here safely?”>

“Yes, that shouldn’t be a problem. I will be there shortly.”

<“Very well.”>

“Thank you for all your help, Octavia.”

<“Ah, before you go--do you know why your family has been targeted? Your daughter mentioned that the assailants were Vanguard.”>

“No, I don’t know. I will see you soon.” She hung up.

Shenado floated in front of her.

And Mariana could see her son’s soul in the reaper’s grasp. It was a faint, bluish thing to her eyes, a somehow pyramidic liquid, impossibly holding its shape with slow, trembling effort. She remembered the first time she’d started seeing souls, after years of being a servant already. It was unequivocally strange, suddenly being able to see what Shenado saw. The only apparent difference seemed to be that Shenado could see them even before a person had died, while Mariana could not--with the exception of aberrations, which were suddenly quite easy to pick out of a crowd.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Page 713

Mariana’s expression softened. “Don’t apologize, mijara. You didn’t do anything wrong. Is Octavia there right now?”

<“Y-yes...”>

“Let me speak with her.”

<“Mama... I...”>

“What?”

<“Ah...”> Her voice was shaking. <“My power manifested. I’m a mutation user...”>

Mariana stopped to digest that information as she looked around the cabin. The sloped windows all around her offered a full view of rolling hills among the flooded lowlands. Aguarey stood high to the south, appearing to almost float above the waves.

“You will have great need of that power, Emiliana,” said Mariana. “I know you may not want it now, but one day, it will save you and those you care about. Remember that, mijara.”

Emiliana didn’t respond.

Mariana had to press her onward. “We’ll talk more when I see you again. Put Octavia on the phone, please.”

<“...Yes, enma’am.”>

There came a brief rustling, and then, <“Lady Elroy, hello.”> The old woman’s airy voice was familiar and welcome. <“I am glad to know you are alive.”>

“Not as glad as I am to know you have my daughter,” said Mariana. House Redwater was one of the few she was inclined to trust. Of all the Rainlord families in both Sair and Intar, the Redwaters were probably the proudest and definitely the most famous. They were troublemakers, historically, not given to taking orders from anyone other than themselves.

<“Is your husband with you?”>

“No. I don’t know where he is. I fear the worst.”

<“I see. I have already sent word out to look for him. I will let you know as soon as I hear anything.”>

“Unfortunately, I have a problem which takes precedence even over finding Zeff.”

<“Not having a very good day, are you?”>

Mariana nodded tiredly to herself. “My son Marcos is dead.”

<“Ah... I am so sorry.”>

“I require a suitable reaper for him. I was wondering if you might know of one.”

Octavia was slow to answer. <“That will be difficult. I have a network of contacts, as I’m sure you do as well, but any reaper without a servant is also without a means of getting in contact with them.”>

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Page 712

In this area, the waters often receded enough to reveal the bare ground, and the boathouse was designed with that in mind, bearing a foundation that could stand or float equally well in exchange for sacrificing most of its aquatic mobility. It also wasn’t terribly large. Even the few people she’d brought with her wouldn’t be able to stay here comfortably, but it would have to do for now. She pulled up beside it and had everyone else board it first, then carried Marcos’ body over with her.

The remote location was ideal for the current circumstances. Due to all the souls in Aguarey, Shenado hadn’t been able to identify any of the reapers who’d been pursuing them; but now that they were far enough away from the city, any reaper stupid enough to have kept following would be immediately sensed and memorized by Shenado. Unfortunately, none of the enemy reapers had been that stupid.

Whoever they were, they’ve given up chasing us,’ the reaper said. ‘Seems their reapers value their anonymity. I’d say that confirms that it’s a watcher’s unit, then. And that Charlie Day fellow--strange for an alteration type to be used as a watchman, but it might make sense if he had power over radio waves. Would also explain the heat he could produce and perhaps even the jamming of your cellphone.

Right now, the only thing Mariana needed from this place was the encrypted satellite phone. It required a bit of setup, but she had it working within a few minutes.

Who are you calling first?’ Shenado asked.

Emiliana.’ She didn’t need Shenado to tell her the girl’s number. She tapped it in from memory. It took a little while to connect and start ringing.

Emiliana picked up immediately. <“Mama?”>

Mariana exhaled a long breath. “Yes, it’s me.”

<“Oh, thank god!”>

“Are you alright? Are you safe?”

<“I am. I’m with Octavia Redwater. I called her granddaughter for help, and then she came to get me herself.”>

“Good! Smart girl. I’m proud of you. Is Francisco with you?”

She paused. <“No... He stayed behind to fight, I think. I don’t know what happened to him. I’m sorry...”>

Page 711

By the time they saw the gray sky again, Marcos had died. And the clock was ticking. Mariana had about eighteen hours to find the boy a reaper before his soul decayed too greatly and became unusable.

Think this through calmly,’ said Shenado.

Mariana didn’t want to be told that. She was perfectly calm. She’d already cleared her head and saw the situation exactly for what it was.

But Shenado was insistent with her attempts at comfort. ‘We can find a reaper for him. If we explain that it is an emergency, the other Rainlords will be able to recommend someone for him.’

There were multiple problems with that, Mariana knew, chief among them being the fact that she wasn’t at all sure who among the Rainlords should be trusted. What little faith she had in her allies had already been shaken today. ‘We rule out any family that has ties to the Vanguard,’ she said.

Shenado frowned. ‘I understand your caution, but that eliminates almost everyone in Intar. And half of us in Sair.

I’m not willing to risk contact with anyone in Intar, anyway. The Vanguard monitors all long-distance communications there.

True. They could be monitoring Sair, too. They don’t have permission, but given what we’ve seen today, that probably wouldn’t stop them. And they wouldn’t need to monitor the whole country, either. Just the Rainlords.’

Mariana pulled out her phone. Now that they were out from under the platform, she finally had a signal again, but that wasn’t why she’d held onto it all this time. She only wanted to see if she had any missed calls. And she did, all of which were from Emiliana. The temptation to call her back immediately was strong, even knowing that someone else could be listening.

Thankfully, it wouldn’t be necessary. Mariana tossed the phone overboard and kept going, leaving Aguarey behind. She knew the exact coordinates of her destination even without Shenado reminding her, and after a while, she saw it there, bobbing up and down in the water. It was a boathouse and safe house all in one, tied to a tall pillar in the water.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Page 710

Emiliana stood to her feet. She went straight for the first question she could think of. “Are you Alicia’s grandmother?”

“I am indeed,” the woman said. “I apologize for not telling you right away. I was hoping to catch your pursuers when they revealed themselves, but it seems they intend to remain hidden.”

Ah, I sense them fleeing now,’ said Chergoa.

That would explain it,’ said a new reaper, phasing up through the floor behind Madame Redwater. ‘I suppose Octavia and I have become a bit too famous to employ such discretion.

“How dull.” Octavia offered Emiliana a pert smile. “They never tell you that once you grow powerful enough, people tend to stop trying to fight you. I have not had a real fight in four years."

Six, actually,’ her reaper said.

“Really? Huh.” The old gal shrugged. “Glad it only seemed like four.”

It’s a pleasure to meet you both,’ said Chergoa. ‘I’ve heard of Octavia Redwater, of course, but not her reaper. What is your name? Mine is Chergoa, and this is Emiliana Elroy.

I am Wendissofigelroc,’ he said.

“Just call him Wendy,” said Octavia.

Please don’t. I hate that name.

Octavia shook her head. “He never learns. No one is ever going to call him Wednesdaywafflerocks.”

Wendissofigelroc.

“Whatever, Wendy.”

Ugh. Wendy is a girl’s name. At least tell them to call me Wen.

“When what?” And the smirk grew slowly into Octavia’s face.

Wendy only returned a flat stare.

“Get it? When what? That was a joke.”

Wendy just sighed and floated away.

“Anywho...” Madame Redwater turned to Emiliana again. “You are safe now. Let us go find the rest of your family, shall we?”

Emiliana wanted to hug her, but she only managed a weak nod.

-+-+-+-+-

Mariana had to keep to an exact path. If the rain hadn’t been strong enough that day, certain areas below the platform wouldn’t be flooded enough for the boat to pass over.

It was a long while before they reached the edge. Beneath Aguarey, the persistent darkness was only occasionally offset by pillars of light and their accompanying waterfalls, both of which were provided by the few drains that weren’t connected to the city’s greater sewage system.

Page 709

Her parents.

Emiliana remembered.

Where were they? She wanted to yell at them. And cry at them. Most of all, she wanted to stop worrying about them. About herself. About everything. She pressed her hands against the window and dropped to her knees. Her claws left scratches in the glass, and she could not have cared less.

She settled wearily into a heap on the floor, letting her roiling thoughts slowly diminish. And perhaps it was the agonized wonder for her parents only a moment prior that was responsible for the sudden and inexplicably clear reminder of her mother’s words.

Sacrifice is what it means to serve.

The woman had said it enough times that Emiliana nearly came to hate the phrase, but dammit if she hadn’t also come to understand its meaning. Her mother wasn’t just talking about being in the Vanguard. She was talking about being a servant. The power and responsibility it granted, the unwanted attention. Sacrifice was inevitable, and oftentimes, unknowable. The only thing to be done was to attempt to prepare for the worst.

And annoyingly, Emiliana abruptly remembered her mother doing exactly that. The Lady Elroy had indeed explained about the mutation type, along with the other five categories of abilities. She’d warned her of the possibility, told her to keep a clear head if the time ever came, even told her that might not be possible due to the way abilities tended to manifest via stress--and that, nonetheless, it was still necessary.

“Because you are an Elroy,” her mother had said. “One day, someone will attempt to hurt you for no other reason than that.”

It wasn’t fair, Emiliana felt. The only thing she wanted to do right now was blame her parents. And she couldn’t bring herself to.

Chergoa was still trying to soothe her, Emiliana realized. ‘I know this seems horrible right now, but you’re okay. Trust me.

Emiliana didn’t even have the energy to glare at her.

“Are you unwell, child?”

Emiliana turned and saw the elderly woman from earlier standing there.

She was a tiny thing, even shorter than Emiliana and certainly more shriveled. When she saw Emiliana’s mutated face, however, she didn’t flee or yell. Instead, she merely raised an eyebrow at the girl.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Page 708 -- LXXXI.

Hesitant, Emiliana opened her eyes. The first thing she noticed was that the vision in her left eye was dimmer. Cloudier and darker, and the eye itself just felt stiffer, like it took more effort to move.

And then she saw her hands. Specifically, the tips of her fingers. They’d all become dark as coal and hard like rocks. And more than that, some of them had grown outward, gnarled and pointed like misshapen claws. Two on her right hand, three on her left.

She remembered her face next, how it had burned as well. Wide-eyed, she searched around for a mirror but didn’t see one. But she could see the changes just barely in the corners of her vision. Small protrusions from her flesh. Stubby horns, they felt like. Dark and hideous.

She was about ready to lose her mind. ‘What the hell happened to me?!

Your ability has manifested,’ said Chergoa. ‘You’re a mutation type.


Chapter Eighty-One: ‘What it means to serve...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Emiliana moved toward the glass wall, just wanting to get away from the other people before they noticed they were standing next to some kind of freak. She stared at her hands in horror. ‘I’m going to be like this for the rest of my life?

Yes and no,’ said Chergoa, still trying to sound gentle. ‘You can’t exactly undo what’s happened, but you can make further changes to yourself and potentially counteract any negative effects they’ve caused.

Emiliana touched her face another time. Her rocky fingertips had lost all sensation, but with her palm, she could feel four little horns on her head--one on each cheek and then two on her forehead. Her reflection in the window was faint, but she could see enough to know that she already hated what she’d become.

Mutation is the least understood type,’ said Chergoa. ‘I know that might not inspire much confidence, but luckily for you, I’ve studied it quite a bit, so I know more about it than most reapers probably do.

Emiliana wanted to scream at her. It was disgusting. How could her parents let her become a servant if they knew something like this could happen?

Page 707

Only two students were so far unaccounted for, apparently. After a minute, Emiliana saw her own name there alongside her brother’s. And not long after, she was staring at helicopter footage of her own house and listening to the reporter talk about how the rest of her immediate family was also missing. The news line soon changed to, ‘Assault on Rainlord family?’

It did nothing to ease her mind. She didn’t want to hang up on Alicia, but she had to try calling her parents again.

A vain attempt. Her father still wasn’t answering, and the call still wasn’t reaching her mother. Her hands trembled as she made to try Cisco next.

Her vision began to blur, in and out of focus. She squinted at her phone as her fingers started to burn--and then, so did her face. She couldn’t hold back her pained groans, and she dropped her phone as she watched her fingers contorting strangely against her will.

Ch-Chergoa!’ she thought, hardly able to think straight. ‘What--?! What’s--?!

Emiliana! Oh sh--! It’s okay! No, this is fine. Just try to calm down.

It felt like thick needles were digging into her face. Or out of it, rather. Her forehead, both cheeks, and her left eye all burned like fire. ‘What is this?! What’s happening?!

It’s okay. I’ll tell you exactly what’s happening, but first I need you to try and relax. Just close your eyes and listen to my voice. You’re okay. Do you understand? You’re fine.

She did as the reaper said, or tried to. She could still feel her own racing heart and stunted breaths. And her whole body shook, small tremors running through her, up and down and back and forth all at once.

But after a spell, the feeling slowly melted away, leaving only a few lingering shivers.

Alright,’ said Chergoa. ‘Now when you open your eyes, you’re going to see some changes. You’re a little different now. But I don’t want you to panic, okay? I need you to trust me. I’ll explain everything. I promise.

Page 706

The crowds thickened as Emiliana neared the tree, creating a kind of moving ceiling of umbrellas for her as she pushed her way through. And because she didn’t really know how strong she’d become, she was extra careful not to accidentally shove anyone and instead chose to just press forward with her body only. It made the going a bit slower, but the last thing she wanted to do was hurt some poor bystander.

“I’m at the tree,” she said into the phone.

<“Go up,”> said Alicia. <“It’ll make it easier for Grandma to find you.”>

Chergoa nodded, and Emiliana proceeded up the metal walkway. It seemed solidly constructed, but there was only enough space for two people across--a line going up and a line going down.

When she reached the observatory, she found herself waiting a while, nervous and uncertain. Whoever was following her was sure taking their sweet time. Alicia was trying to keep her calm with small talk, but Emiliana was only half-listening. By now, she probably could have called the police and had them come get her. Though, if those men were really Vanguard, then obviously, the police wouldn’t have been able to do much.

In some spots, the observatory offered a wide view of Aguarey, but in others, tall hotels and office buildings stood in the way. She wasn’t looking at the city, however. She was paying much closer attention to everyone else who entered the observatory after her.

She spotted an elderly woman with a cane among the entrants, but the woman spared her a glance and nothing more. Having never met Alicia’s grandmother before, Emiliana had no idea what to look for, but she kept her eye on the elderly woman, anyway, not seeing any other likely candidates. The old gal seemed more interested in the television monitors mounted in the center of the broad chamber, and after a second look, Emiliana saw why.

‘Reported chemical incident at local high school,’ the news line read. The reporter was talking about how the authorities were still unclear whether it was an accident or not.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Page 705

<“Alright, Grandma is headed your way,”> Alicia reported. <“You should be okay now.”>

“Thank you!

<“How many bad guys are there? Do you know?”>

“Three, I think. But my brother delayed them. It might just be the reapers following me now.”

<“Alright, just keep heading to the tree. Grandma will find you in no time. I’ll stay on the phone with you until--AGH, FINE! TAKE YOUR FUCKING PHONE BACK! BITCH!”>

Chergoa raised a wispy eyebrow. ‘What is Alicia’s last name, by the way?

Redwater.

Wow, you called one of the Redwaters?

Yeah, why?

Oh, right. You’re not much of a history buff, are you?

Uh--’ Emiliana didn’t get a chance to ask what she was talking about, because Alicia interrupted.

<“Sorry about that. I’m still here.”>

“Ah, g-good. Thank you.”

<“So do you have any idea who these men are?”>

“Well, they said they were Vanguard, but... uh--”

<“What? Vanguard?”>

“I don’t really understand it, either.” She explained what she and Chergoa heard Dennex rambling about through the wall. Chergoa had considered it entirely intentional on Dennex’s part as a means of telling them to flee without alerting their enemies. Emiliana hadn’t been quite so convinced of this at first, but she’d since warmed up to the idea after being chased by reapers for the past ten minutes straight.

She could see the Great Madega Tree now. Taller than most of the buildings around it by a third, it was one of the most famous places in Aguarey--or in all of Sair, even. The Great Madega was one of the largest trees in the world, rivaled only by the monstrous Jaskadan Forest across the sea. And the people of Aguarey did not squander this natural wonder. Rather, they turned it into a leisure center, of sorts. A narrow walkway spiraled around its huge gray-brown trunk, and a climate-controlled observatory sat within the grip of its sprawling crown of foot-sized blue-green leaves. Additionally, a plethora of high-end shops sat around its base for the many tourists it attracted.

Page 704

Emiliana snapped back, and the words just poured out her. “Alicia! I’m here! I’m in a lot of trouble! These men came to my school to abduct me, and I don’t know what’s happening, and Cisco stayed behind to fight them! And I--I don’t--”

<“Whoa, whoa, slow down,”> Alicia said. <“Men came to your school?”>

“Yes! I tried to call my parents, but neither of them are answering, so I called you! Please help me! I’m really scared!”

<“O-oh! Okay, hold on a second! I’m at school, right now, but just--stay on the line.”> There came a brief rustling noise. <“Hey! Let me borrow your phone! Yes, I need two phones! This is important! Shut up, and just--! No, just give it here!”> A feminine screech broke out, followed by a beat of silence. Then, a bit haggard, Alicia said, <“You still there?”>

Emiliana had slowed down a little. “Er--”

Don’t stop running,’ said Chergoa. ‘I still sense the three reapers from the school following us.

She picked up her pace again, continually marveled by how she hadn’t grown winded or tired at all. “Yes, I’m here!” she said to Alicia.

<“Good! I’m calling my grandma now! She’ll help you for sure!”>

“Uh--your grandma?”

<“Yeah! Don’t even worry about it! Oh, and can you tell me where you are?”>

Chergoa was floating near enough to overhear the question. ‘Tell her you’re heading north toward the Great Madega.

Emiliana relayed the information.

<“Okay, got it. Ah, hold on a second.”> Then, slightly muffled again, <“Fuck off! I’ll give your phone back in a minute! Go ahead! I don’t care who you tell! Stay back! I swear, I will bite y--Oh! Grandma! Yeah, it’s Alicia! Listen, I just got a call from Emy Elroy, and--”>

As she listened to the girl’s secondhand explanation, Emiliana threw repeated glances at Chergoa.

How well do you know this Alicia girl, exactly?’ the reaper asked.

Uh. Not that well. She’s a little younger than me, and I thought she was a nice girl, but she sounds kind of--er, “louder” than I remember...

Ah.

Not that I’m complaining...’

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Page 703

--donation bonus week (day 4/5, post 2/5)--
It didn’t end. She just kept running. Her schoolbag slapped against her back, and her folded umbrella pattered uselessly against her so that it wouldn’t catch the air and slow her down. Through alleys, over fences, under madega trees, across streets and yards and parks and empty lots. She didn’t know where she was going. She only knew that she had to get away. Strange men had come to abduct her, and Cisco had protected her from them.

She tried to reach her mother, but the call wasn’t going through. Her father wasn’t answering. She was panicking. Everything was wrong. She didn’t understand how Chergoa was able to keep so calm, but she certainly appreciated it.

Can you call any of the other Rainlords?’ the reaper was asking.

Uhh--’ Emiliana tried to sift through the numbers in her phone while she splashed through a series of ponds. She would’ve really liked to have even one of her parents’ Vanguardian friends listed, but she’d never gotten to know any of them well enough to exchange personal information. The other Rainlords, she barely knew--but no, wait. She’d met lots of their children. A couple of them were even her cousins. If she called them, maybe they could tell their parents? Did she have any of their numbers?

She had three, she realized. Selena Cortes, Ester Zabat, and Alicia Redwater. She went for Alicia’s number first, as it was the only one Emiliana remembered calling at all in the last three months. And as she waited for it to ring, she tried to think about where she was in relation to the Redwater family. The main branch lived on the other side of Aguarey, as she recalled. House Cortes was the same, and the Zabats lived all the way in Luzo, so Alicia was probably her best bet after all.

Mercifully, Alicia picked up. <“Hi, Emy. What’s up?”>

A beat passed, and she just blanked. How was she supposed to explain this without sounding utterly ridiculous?

<“...Hello?”>

Talk!’ Chergoa yelled at her. ‘Say things!

Page 702 -- LXXX.

You weren’t trying to kill us,’ said Dennex. ‘And you seem like an honorable gentleman.

“Even so. In your position, I’m sure a lot of reapers would have abandoned their servant.”

A lot of reapers are stupid.

“Does the young Mr. Elroy mean that much to you?”

He does, but that’s not the only reason. I don’t intend to end up trapped indefinitely without a servant, and I’m curious to find out who sent you and why.

“You’re a strange reaper.”

Honesty makes me strange?

Dunstan looked around the corridor again. Their battle had been fairly short, but the aftermath might have suggested otherwise. And with toxic chemicals in the air, he would have to see to it that the area was quarantined before any of the normal people were allowed back into the building. Furthermore, the school’s staff might not feel like listening to him, given that he was covered in blood.

On second thought, the Elroy girl might just get away. Orders or no orders, Dunstan wasn’t about to let innocent bystanders get hurt because of him. Randall probably wouldn’t agree, but then again, Randall was an idiot who’d gotten himself killed.

Is it argon?’ said Dennex. ‘Come on, tell me what your element is. It is argon, isn’t it?

Dunstan stretched his neck. He probably shouldn’t tell the reaper, he figured, in case he ended up having to fight Cisco again, but he decided to, anyway. Something about the reaper’s candor made him feel like returning the favor. “It’s krypton, if you must know.”

Ah. I was close.’

Dunstan started looking around for a bag to place Cisco’s head in. Diplomacy would only be made more difficult if people saw him carrying it around like some lunatic.


Chapter Eighty: ‘O, monstrous child...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Emiliana had never run so fast in her life. She wasn’t at all accustomed to her new physical prowess. Chergoa told her not to slow down for anything, but it was difficult with so many people around--and in the rain, too? She tried to stick to grassy areas as much as possible because the pavement seemed too slick.

Page 701

With Dunstan neutralizing Cisco’s fluorine, the fight descended into a contest of grapples, slickened and more dangerous from all the blood they were both losing.

Cisco swung Dunstan’s severed arm like a sword. Dunstan slipped under it, and then wrapped himself around Cisco’s arm, trying to position Cisco for a piercing blow to the temple. Instead, Cisco took the opportunity to force them both into a spin with himself at the center. He swirled Dunstan around, and when the man’s grip loosened, Cisco flung him straight at the wall.

Incredibly, Dunstan flipped in mid-air and caught himself on the wall. And for a moment, he actually stayed there, both feet planted vertically against the cracked plaster while his hands gripped the burning holes they’d made for themselves.

Still half-dizzy from spinning, Cisco could do little more than gawk at what he’d just witnessed.

Dunstan launched himself from the wall like a missile, destroying it and barreling into Cisco. They tumbled together, Dunstan shoving Cisco’s face into the blood-streaked floor, and Cisco could feel the freezing temperature encroaching upon the back of his head.

“Well fought, Mr. Elroy,” were the last words he heard before losing consciousness.

-+-+-+-+-

Dunstan tried to wipe the blood from his face as his flesh finished regrowing. Transfiguration was certainly not the cleanest of abilities. He’d already taken Dennex hostage, merely holding the reaper with his soul-empowered right hand. In his left, he held Cisco’s frozen head.

Randall Pierce and Louis Ferrage had still not yet regenerated, and their accompanying reapers, as well as Dunstan’s, had already flown off after Emiliana Elroy. Cisco had delayed them, but with any luck, they would have the girl in custody within a few hours.

What is your element?’ asked Dennex, not sounding particularly upset with his newfound captivity.

Dunstan eyed him. Normally, reapers were pitch dark wraiths with tattered, flowing bodies and glowing red eyes, but at the moment, all he saw was a kind of amorphous shroud staring up at him from around his hand. “I’m a little surprised you didn’t try to flee,” said Dunstan.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Page 700

Dunstan charged him head on. Cisco sacrificed his right forearm to bathe the man in acid. Dunstan reached right through it and grabbed Cisco by the neck. Dunstan’s flesh was missing, but it wasn’t boiling. The acid had just splashed right off, as if by some invisible barrier.

Knowing that he could lose his head in an instant, Cisco had to respond quickly. He yanked himself back with a somersault, up and around Dunstan’s arm in order to leverage his whole body weight against his opponent and drag them both to the ground together. They tumbled, and Cisco ended up atop Dunstan’s arm. He tore it off and rolled away, giving himself some space to reevaluate the situation.

Dunstan was just as quick to return to his feet as Cisco, and the bloody gash on his shoulder closed itself before fresh bone and tissue began to grow out again. Curiously, the match had become one arm versus two and a half--soon to be three once Cisco’s wrist and hand regenerated.

He’s transfiguration, too,’ Dennex observed privately. ‘He’s using one of the noble gases, I’d wager. There are few elements that wouldn’t react with hydrofluoric acid or the air at room temperature.

Dunstan took the opportunity to attack again, but Dennex didn’t stop explaining. Cisco struggled to dodge and keep listening.

It seems acid won’t work on him so long as he’s paying attention. You’ll have to overpower him or catch him off guard.

Dunstan caught Cisco’s chest with two fingers’ worth of superheated gas, twin jets of searing pressure. Cisco swung for the man’s face, but Dunstan ducked under and then thrust his hand upward, burning through Cisco’s neck and head as if he were cutting through cardboard. Cisco barely pulled away in time to avoid having his skull split in two. Instead, he’d only earned a giant gash from sternum to ear, flesh and bone hanging loosely from his face as blood gushed forth.

Cisco tried to back off, but his opponent didn’t seem interested in letting up. ‘You might want to flee now,’ he told Dennex.

I’m not going anywhere without my servant. Chergoa and Emiliana can warn everyone else.’ The reaper sounded much too relaxed for Cisco’s liking.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Page 699

With full strength, Cisco landed a punch that crushed Louis’ skull and sent him bouncing down the hallway. But Cisco was not done. Louis’ unnamed reaper had been right beside him, trying to empower him for the fight, so Cisco leapt up and snatched the skeletal beast out of the air with his other hand. The other two reapers scattered, their servants now strengthened.

Still obviously disoriented, Randall rounded on Cisco and swung wildly at the air, sending a wave of destruction after him.

Cisco slid right on by, wrapped his arm around Randall’s head, and twisted it off like a giant bottle cap. He landed on both feet again, his battered arms in the midst of regenerating. In each, he had a different prize--a reaper hostage and Randall’s head. He leveled a stare at the final servant, waiting to see if the man intended to flee now.

Alas, that did not seem to be the case. “Is this the ‘honor’ you were talking about?” the man asked, fully regenerated. “Taking advantage of your opponent’s demonstration of courtesy to catch them off guard. We told you we meant you no harm.”

Cisco nodded slightly. “Yes, well, I did warn you. And I’m being kind, too. This reaper in my left hand? I haven’t killed him yet. Your friend Louis will be fine. Randall, too.”

“A sucker punch. Not that it matters, I suppose. I’m still stronger than you are.”

“Confident,” said Cisco. “Then tell me your name before we proceed.”

“I am Dunstan Rofal, Lance Corporal of the Seventh Watcher’s Unit under General Lawrence.”

A watchman,’ said Dennex. He clung to the back of Cisco’s neck. ‘You lot are better at scouting than at fighting.

“We are multitalented,” said Dunstan. His black eyebrows had sharp arches to them, and his harsh cheekbones could have been weapons unto themselves. He didn’t look all that much older than Cisco. Early twenties, at most. “I may not have your esteemed heritage, but you do not have my training.”

“You’ve obviously never met my mother.” Cisco set Randall’s head aside.

Page 698

Instead of answering Randall, Dennex chose to speak only to Cisco. ‘Kill Louis first, or he’ll use his metal to protect the others. These men were chosen to fight you, so you probably won’t have a natural advantage over any of their powers.

Their intentions were clear enough now, and as he was already outnumbered, Cisco decided it wouldn’t be wise to keep waiting for them to attack him all at once. He would make the first move.

The primary reason why Cisco needed the area clear of all bystanders was because of his own ability. Dennex had instilled in him very early on that it was never to be used around normal people. Even low levels of exposure could prove fatally toxic. When it came to servants, however, Cisco would of course require a bit more potency.

Held behind his back, Cisco’s arms melted as his flesh converted to fluorine, finding hydrogen atoms in his skin to bond with. Hydrogen fluoride was a colorless gas--invisible--which made it seem like his arms were quietly dissolving into nothing. The hydrogen-fluorine reaction was not normally so silent, but he had enough control to keep it muted.

Dennex was gracious enough to blabber on a bit more while Cisco worked. ‘You’re right, of course,’ he said publicly. ‘We probably stand no chance against you. You will have to forgive my friend, Cisco. He is rather hot-tempered. Brash. You understand. But he will listen, assuming you guarantee--

On contact with tissue, the hydrogen fluoride decomposed into hydrofluoric acid. Cisco hadn’t infused it with his soul so as not to alert the other reapers to its presence, but it had an extremely pure acidic concentration, which was plenty strong enough for Cisco’s purposes. The three servants doubled over in agony. The gas destroyed their corneas, and the acid boiled their skin, filling the corridor with pungent fumes.

Cisco dove headfirst into the gas without concern. It was his own fluorine, after all. He could control how--or even if--it reacted with his body. The only worry was that someone else could instigate a violent chemical reaction with it, but that would be a rare thing, and the Vanguard wouldn’t likely send someone who would needlessly increase the risk of collateral damage. And besides, the three men were rather preoccupied at the moment.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Page 697

Surprisingly, the trio of servants didn’t look terribly upset by the alarm. People began filing out of the classroom, and the Vanguardians just let them go, standing still and silent as they waited for the uninvolved to pass. Cisco looked for Emiliana among the other students, but even after the classroom had emptied, he still hadn’t seen her. He saw Dennex smirk.

The girl jumped out the window!’ said one of the other reapers.

Louis ran for the door.

Cisco felt Dennex empower him with vigor, and he grabbed Louis’ head with one hand. Cisco shoved the man back, and Louis fell on his ass, a smoldering handprint burned into his face.

“You’ve yet to do us any harm, so I will grant you this one warning,” said Cisco, his hand trembling as the smoking flesh of his palm regenerated. “Try to touch my sister again, and I will kill each and every one of you.”

Chergoa heard enough to know that they should flee,’ said Dennex privately. ‘It seems Axiolis chose a wise partner for your sister.

“You don’t want to do this,” Randall said darkly. “We know who you are, Mr. Elroy. You’ve only been a servant for two years. I’ve been one for four. My friends here, three and five. Do the smart thing and surrender.”

Cisco pulled off his coat and started rolling up the sleeves of his gray undershirt. “You know who I am, do you? If that were true, then you would be running away like the cowards you are. I am Francisco Elroy, fools. I am a Rainlord of Sair. The blood of the Armans runs through my veins.”

“You are a schoolboy with a famous name,” said Randall. “Is that name of yours worth dying for, I wonder?”

“Of course it is. But I wouldn’t expect someone who tries to abduct young women to understand the first thing about honor or integrity.”

“We understand duty, Mr. Elroy. It seems you’re still too young to know the difference.” Randall looked to Dennex. “Talk some sense into your servant.”

Friday, May 16, 2014

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The teacher’s eyes narrowed, and Cisco thought she might actually yell at him, but after a moment, she relented. “Very well. Two weeks’ detention it is, then.”

“Fine.” Cisco already knew his parents wouldn’t be upset with him.

Mrs. Rio turned to leave, and when the strange man held up a hand in protest, she just shrugged and kept walking. After she was gone, the man looked at Cisco again.

“Who are you?” said Cisco, no longer leaning against the wall.

The man hesitated, then glanced at Dennex, which was enough to confirm Cisco’s suspicion that this person was indeed a servant. “My name is Louis Ferrage. I’ve been ordered by General Lawrence to escort you and your sister to Deynos for your own safety.”

Why?’ said Dennex. ‘What is the danger?

“I’m sorry, but that is all I was told.”

“Well, I can’t just leave with you,” said Cisco, raising his phone. “I’ll call my mother, and if she says it’s okay, then--” His phone was suddenly coated in a silvery-white metal.

“I’m sorry,” Louis said with a raised hand, “but I can’t allow you to do that.” And two more men arrived around the same corner, along with their three accompanying reapers. “Please come quietly.”

Cisco eyed the three pairs. ‘Are there any more of them?

I don’t sense anyone else in the hallways around us,’ Dennex said privately. ‘Seems Louis here was sent to retrieve Emiliana, while those two in the back probably went to your class, thinking you’d be there.

One of the other men stepped forward now. “My name is Randall Pierce. I know this is sudden, but I assure you, we mean you no harm.”

And if we refuse?’ asked Dennex. ‘Are you going to attack us in the middle of a public school? Innocent people might get hurt. Children.

“That is why you should not refuse,” said Randall.

This is ridiculous,’ said Dennex. ‘You call yourselves Vanguard? I want to talk to your superiors. Get them on the phone right now, and then we can sort all this out properly. This is probably just some misunderstanding, actually. I bet if we--

As the reaper blabbered on, Cisco realized that was his cue. He pocketed his useless phone, took a deep breath, and then hit the fire alarm. Blaring noise filled the hall.

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The difficult thing about being labeled a bully in one’s first year was that it became extra difficult to shake. The person he’d “beat up” had, in truth, been trying to bully him. He was never really sure why. Maybe the kid had a problem with Rainlords; maybe he thought Cisco would be easy prey, because he was so scrawny back then; or maybe he just didn’t like Cisco’s face--he’d heard as much before. It seemed to intuitively annoy certain types of people, like they thought he was silently judging them. Though, in all fairness, sometimes he was.

Moreover, since the real bully had also been a first-year, none of the teachers knew he was a bully, which made it all the easier to lay the blame on Cisco. And after that, Cisco often attracted the kinds of people who thought being a bully was cool. Just as often, rather than making friends, he would tell them to go screw themselves.

That hadn’t done him many favors, either. Alex Belos was one of only three friends he’d ever made at this school.

But it was fine. Cisco didn’t care that much. He had more important things on his mind, anyway. Maybe if Gema had stayed and finished school here, things would have been different for him, but Cisco doubted it. She never gave him the time of day, really. Always too self-absorbed to worry about anyone else. He never understood why Marcos seemed to idolize her--maybe just because the brat didn’t actually know her.

“Return to your class,” said Mrs. Rio. She held out her hand. “And hand over your phone while you’re at it.”

That wasn’t going to happen. “No.”

“Excuse me?” She reached for his phone to take it herself.

Cisco didn’t let her. “If you’re going to give me detention, then just do it and leave me alone. I’m only here today in order to look after my sister. Not to attend classes.”

“Perhaps you would rather I fetch the principal and see what he thinks?”

“Mrs. Rio, you can fetch the Mayor of Aguarey for all I care. I’m not moving.”

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Cisco had the hallway all to himself while he waited, so whenever someone exited one of the nearby classrooms, he could easily see who it was. Fellow students, mostly. Bathroom breaks and so forth.

At length, he grew bored of the news and began browsing other things on his phone, but when he noticed someone else walking down the hall, he had to look up from his articles and image galleries about various breeds of puppies.

It was a grown man that he saw turning the corner and then stopping when he noticed Cisco standing there. Cisco didn’t recognize him, but the man held his gaze longer than seemed normal for a total stranger. Then the man left back the way he came.

He glanced at Dennex. ‘Did you see that?

I did.

Who was he?

No idea,’ said Dennex. ‘Why don’t you come stand over here?’ He nodded toward the other side of the classroom door, where a fire alarm was embedded in the wall.

Cisco understood and did as the reaper asked.

A few minutes later, the stranger returned, this time with a teacher.

Mrs. Rio walked straight up to him. “Why are you not in class, Mr. Elroy?”

Cisco ignored the question and squinted at the person behind her. He could see a guest’s badge hanging around the man’s neck, so he probably wasn’t a member of the school’s faculty. “Mrs. Rio, who is that?”

“Don’t try to change the subject. Why are you not in class?”

He eyed her flatly and shrugged. “Because I’m a bad student.”

Really?’ said Dennex. ‘That’s how you’re going to play this?

But the reaper didn’t know very much about Cisco’s school life, or about Mrs. Rio here. Normally, young teachers were pretty nice to their students, but this woman was a rather well-known hardass in spite of that. Cisco had been stuck with her during his first year, which he hadn’t minded so much, until after he’d started gaining a reputation as a bully. Her dislike for him became quite apparent, then.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

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I would rather be reaping souls right now,’ said Dennex.

I know you would, but it’s just for today.’

Is it?

Cisco looked up from his phone. ‘Probably. I guess it just depends on how Ma and Shenado feel tomorrow.

The reaper sighed.

You really enjoy reaping souls, don’t you?

It is very important work. And sadly, it is increasingly overlooked as time goes on. Reapers get too caught up in their dealings with their servants and neglect the suffering of the deceased.

If that’s how you feel, then why did you agree to join the Vanguard with me? Sai-hee’s group is the one that deals the most with reaping, right?

That is exactly why. Sai-hee’s group doesn’t need anyone to remind them of its importance. The Vanguard does. And this way, I also get to fight Abolish a lot more.

Ah. Does Abolish bother to reap souls at all, you think?

I know some of them do. It’s part of their shared belief system. Giving souls to their “Void” consciousness.

Right.

But I also know that some only gather souls in order to feed them to their aberrations. Those are the ones I would most like to kill.

Preying on the helpless.

I can think of nothing more disgusting.

Cisco could only nod in agreement. He knew the Vanguard had an entire division devoted to hunting down aberrations, and Dennex had told him on their first day together that he intended to join it when Cisco grew strong enough. Once he’d been a servant for four years, he would be able to request a transfer out of the division of his parents, but he would probably need more time than that, he figured. The aberration hunters were renowned for their strength.

He returned to his phone, just waiting for the bell to ring so that he could follow his sister to her next class. She hadn’t been too pleased with his decision to shadow her all day, but he didn’t really care about her opinion. Ma wanted him to look after her, and that was exactly what he was going to do.

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Mariana punched the numbers in and then waved at everyone to back up toward the walls, completely unable to tell them with words.

The floor pulled away below them, revealing an even deeper hole. This one led beneath the platform--the massive structure holding up the entirety of Aguarey. Lights flicked on around the hole, illuminating the dark waters below. As well as a large motorboat.

Mariana wiped her face another time and then returned to Marcos. She was afraid to ask Shenado the obvious question, but before she decided to move him, she needed to know for certain. ‘Is he going to die?

...Yes. I’m sorry.

It was dizzying, almost. She’d seen people die before. Of course she had. Seen friends fall in battle. Been forced to kill them after they’d lost their reapers. She was no stranger to death. But this was something else entirely. This was her son. Her baby boy. He was only twelve, for god’s sake.

Shenado had to nudge her along. ‘Mariana....’

She bent down and took Marcos into her arms. At his pained groans, she whispered, “Shh... It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.”

And she was not lying. She was not going to let him die. The look she gave Shenado seemed enough for the reaper to understand the truth of this promise as well.


Chapter Seventy-Nine: ‘He who burns fiercest...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

As he leaned against the wall, Cisco browsed the news on his phone. It was early in the day still, not even past lunch yet, and he hadn’t attended either of his morning classes so far. Nor did he plan to attend any of the others.

Dennex floated next to him, restless as ever. ‘Why do these school days last so long?’ he said privately.

Good question.

To Cisco’s eyes, reapers were hulking, skeletal wolves wreathed in black fire in place of flesh or fur. Their flames flickered and waved constantly but made no sound whatsoever, and their big eyes burned yellow with white at the center. Needless to say, Dennex looked woefully out of place in the middle of a school hallway.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

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She’d only managed to decapitate two of the seven, the first of which had already regenerated down to his shoulders. She fixed that real quick, then proceeded to the speaker box by the southern doorway.

“Can you hear me?” she said. “Is everyone alright?”

<“Lady Elroy...”> It was Claudio’s voice, slow and grave. <“Marcos is very badly wounded...”>

Her breath caught. Marcos? She didn’t understand. “Open the door,” was all she could think to say.

The floor groaned and split beneath the decimated banquet table. It separated straight down the center, gradually revealing the thick silver door.

She saw the gaping hole in its nearest corner.

The door pushed open from below, and Claudio’s head appeared. His expression was grim. She followed him down the ladder.

And there her son lay, bunched up in the corner next to a chunk of debris and one of the maids. His neck was twisted grotesquely. Blood gushed from his head wound. His eyes were still open, but only just, and they moved to her, holding on her, recognizing his mother.

The boy could only let out a whimper.

Mariana went to him. She could still hardly breathe, and her hands trembled as she touched his shoulder. Her horrified eyes looked at the maid by his side. The young lady had first-aid training, Mariana knew, but this was certainly beyond her.

Mariana,’ Shenado said. ‘I know it’s terrible, but we have to go. If we stay here, they’ll just keep coming.

Mariana gnashed her teeth. She wanted to argue, wanted to scream, wanted to go back up there and hunt down all their reapers and kill them for good. But Shenado was right, damn her.

She stood. She went to the panel by the ladder. The number pad blurred together as she looked at it. She hadn’t cried since she was a girl. She remembered wondering if she even could cry anymore, but that was certainly not in question now. She couldn’t stop the tears or the snot or the ragged breaths and just tried to wipe her face so that she could see what she was doing.

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The metal man flew back, leaving his arm behind--which she discovered was not merely coated in metal but actually made of it, extending partway into the muscle tissue.

Her three opponents rallied together on the other side of the room, stepping carefully so as not to be too close to one another and thereby render her job easier. For a hesitant moment, they merely looked at her, and she stared them all down from beneath her harsh eyebrows.

“This doesn’t have to get any uglier,” Charlie tried. “We are not going to hurt your children. If you would just come with us--”

The wave made them scatter as it annihilated the table down the center and punched an isosceles hole into the wall. The ceiling shifted from the impact, and Mariana tossed a grenade after Charlie while pressuring the thin man. She threw a distant punch at thin air, feigning another wave attack. The thin man took the bait and dove right, and Mariana used her other hand to throw a follow-up punch, this time using her power. Her rifle was ripped to pieces as that was the hand she’d held it in, but it was a worthwhile sacrifice, because the path blasted forth and obliterated the thin man completely.

The short man barreled into her, trying to knock her off balance, but Mariana managed to grab him and bring him along for her tumble across the floor. She rolled over him and pinned him down. A burning hole pierced her back and set her on fire again. She ignored it and took the opportunity to remove the metal man’s head from his neck. He still had plenty of blood on the inside.

She yanked her flaming overshirt off and threw it aside. Her long hair had caught fire as well, but that didn’t matter so much. When she stood back up, Charlie was no longer in the room. She queried Shenado with a look.

He is retreating,’ the reaper said.

Surprising, but wise. She didn’t have time to question it, though.

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The panic room was embedded in the floor beneath the dining hall. Shenado warned her that the two unknown servants were also about to enter the same chamber through the southern door, so when Mariana arrived, she flung their comrade’s severed head at them. And they probably weren’t expecting that, because it stole their attention long enough for her to launch a large wave of destruction.

They dove in opposite directions, the two men. A thin one and a short one. That was about the extent of her distinction between them as she whipped out her semi-automatic rifle and showered the short man with gunfire.

She’d apparently chosen poorly, however, as the man covered himself in a shiny gray metal, making her bullets bounce off and ricochet around the room. The thin man threw his own path of destruction--but not at her. It went for the floor, beneath the long banquet table in the middle of the room, and Mariana’s eyes widened, instantly launching her own wave to intercept.

The distorted spaces collided. Hers won out, but a chunk of the floor was gone. She couldn’t tell how deeply the man’s path had cut through. The panic room’s walls were strong, but they couldn’t have withstood that attack.

She didn’t have time to worry, however. The short man was charging her now, which was a strangely foolish thing to do--unless he was only trying to distract her.

Charlie on your right,’ Shenado warned.

Mariana ran left for the thin man, as he was the priority now and needed to at least be kept busy so that he didn’t attack the panic room again. She didn’t see Charlie miss with his attack. His almost invisible power collided with a rosewood cabinet, instead, and gouged a smoking hole into it, hardly a centimeter wide.

She launched another wave at the thin man, who fled around the banquet table while the short man tried to get in her way. His metal arm swung at her. She slid past it, gathered her power into her fist, and punched the man’s shoulder clean off.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

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Mariana decided that burning alive wasn’t enough to stop her from popping out of cover and ripping the air apart with her ability again.

Charlie lost an arm fleeing back the way he came. Mariana tossed a grenade after him and then dropped to the floor, trying to pat the flames out as she rolled.

You didn’t get him,’ Shenado told her in private. ‘He’s by the northern stairwell. I’m not sure what his power is yet, but it seems like an alteration type.

Pushing him back would have to do. If he really did have alteration, then he would probably try to keep his distance from her, and she simply didn’t have the time to deal with that right now. The western hall needed its turrets first. Half-scorched, she picked herself up and ran as hard as she could.

Too late. Go to your right.

That led to the kitchen. Mariana immediately saw the enemy servant entering from the western hall, and she destroyed half the room with her attack. The bulky man tried to cancel it out with his own path of destruction, but it certainly didn’t go in his favor. Her path plowed through his and claimed an arm and a chunk of his ribcage. While he staggered from the impact, she launched another wave. He tried to dodge this one, but having anticipated as much, Mariana’s closed fist opened into a hook-shape. Her path curved mid-flight and obliterated the rest of the man’s body, save only his head. She didn’t hesitate to grab him by his long black bangs and carry him off with her.

Rather than returning to the courtyard again, she elected to go straight to the panic room.

There are only three left,’ said Shenado. ‘Two coming in from the courtyard, plus Charlie from the front.

Three was a much more manageable number, of course, but Mariana knew better than to relax too soon. If these three had survived her booby-traps, then they were probably the strongest of the seven. And there was still the matter of the others coming back to life if she let this fight drag out too long.

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Mariana left the courtyard behind and headed for the eastern wing. ‘Is everyone in the panic room?

Yes. I can sense Ramira, Marcos, and all the staff there.

Good news, at least. Her one and only objective right now was to protect that room at all costs. It sat in the center of the Main House, and though it was designed to take a beating, defending it from four different directions at once was going to be difficult by herself. Her first priority was to get all the turrets set up. As an extra safety measure, she needed to be within five meters to activate them. She hadn’t wanted them to trigger unless she could see everyone currently standing in their line of fire. A bit inconvenient, perhaps, but she did want her children to live here after all.

As she neared the eastern garden hall, she heard a muffled crash from the front of the house.

Jonathan and Charlie have broken in.

A booming thud followed, making the floor and walls tremble around her.

...Well, Jonathan is dead.

She’d hoped the landmine would claim them both, but she supposed that was expecting too much. She reached the unwalled garden hall and activated the turrets there. They descended from the light fixtures in the ceiling. She could hear the turrets back in the courtyard opening fire as she ran for the western hall next, intending to intercept Charlie along the way. Her turret remote was exchanged for a handgun.

He’s about to be straight ahead of you. Attack now.

Mariana clenched her fist and summoned the path of destruction. It tore a triangular hole into the door, large enough for her to jump through, and ripped its way across the chamber, blowing a hefty table to pieces. Charlie was indeed there, but he managed to roll out of the way at the last moment.

She was already firing at him, catching him in the shoulder and in the neck. He pointed with one finger. Mariana jerked left behind the sofa, but the flesh in her gun arm began to boil, and the sleeve of her overshirt burst into flames.

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They’d only sent three servants to retrieve her? If it came to a fight on her own land, three random Vanguardian lackeys did not concern her very much. As she cut through the Main House toward the courtyard, she couldn’t help feeling a little underwhelmed.

Oh, I sense two more,’ Shenado added. ‘One each for the east and west wings. I don’t recognize them, either.

Mariana was now sufficiently whelmed. She slowed her pace to look at her cellphone. There was certainly no chance of help arriving before the fighting broke out, but she wasn’t above asking. The first Rainlord in her contact list was Joana Cortes--formerly Joana Elroy. A bit obnoxious, perhaps, but still a good woman, in addition to being Zeff’s sister.

Charlie and Jonathan are returning now, too. Front entrance like before.

Okay. Seven opponents was quite enough for her. Thankfully, Joana picked up after the second ring.

<“Mary! Hey!”>

“Joana, shut up and listen. My house is under attack. There are seven servants here. Charlie Day and Jonathan Flint are two of them. I am not joking. I need assistance right now. Do you understand?”

There was no reply.

“Hello? Joana?” The call had dropped, she realized. She growled and tried the number again, but it wasn’t even ringing this time. There was no telling how much Joana had heard. Mariana was kicking herself for not making the call sooner. If she’d known that she really was under assault and not just being extra paranoid, she definitely would have.

No good?’ said Shenado.

“It’s being jammed.”

They’ve probably already cut the landline, then. Ah--no time to check. They are getting very close now. Dead ahead.

Mariana pocketed her phone, exchanging it for one of the small remotes she’d taken from her weapons cache. Its two red buttons were unlit. She pressed the left one, then right one, then both together, then right, then left, then left again. The arming sequence. Both buttons lit up now.

She stopped at the door to the rainy courtyard and looked through. She pressed the right button and was pleased to see four automated turrets pop out of the stony half-pillars around the center pool. As she’d hoped, whatever was jamming her phone didn’t have the right frequency for this.

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With respect, we don’t know anything about you, so why should we trust you?’ said Shenado.

“Please, we’re here to help,” said Charlie. “Call General Lawrence, if you must. He will confirm.”

“I have been trying to call my husband,” said Mariana. “Why is he not answering?”

“Captain Zeff was captured,” said Charlie.

Mariana’s expression flickered. “By whom?”

“A rogue faction within the Vanguard. They want your family, because you have information regarding the whereabouts of your daughter, Gema.”

Why do they want Gema?

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know any more than that,” said Charlie.

Shenado paused. ‘Where are your reapers?

“Scouting the area for threats,” said Jonathan.

Mariana eyed the two men again, still not opening the door any farther. Her instincts told her not to trust them, but she knew her instincts to be a bit jaded. Everything they said sounded plausible, at least. And if there really was another threat out there, then ignoring these men might mean putting her children in even more danger. She clenched her jaw at the tense silence, uncertain what to do, and glanced at Shenado for help.

Shut the door,’ the reaper told her privately. ‘Tell them you don’t want their help, and then let’s see how they react.

Mariana closed it and backed away from the door’s treated gray wood. “Thank you for the warning! But I will be protecting my family without your help!”

“No, please, listen to us!” came Jonathan’s muffled voice. “We’re only concerned for your safety!”

“I appreciate that! You can tell General Lawrence I refused your assistance!”

They pleaded a few more times, but Mariana said nothing further. She kept backing up, consciously stepping closer to her covered landmine, and tried Cisco again while she waited. Still no answer.

When the pleas stopped, Mariana hunkered down and listened intently.

They’re moving away from the door,’ Shenado informed her. ‘They appear to be leaving... Hmm. We’ll wait a bit more before going after them.’ Abruptly, however, the reaper’s head twitched to the side. ‘I sense three more souls entering the property from the rear. I don’t recognize them.

Monday, May 12, 2014

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They’re just waiting,’ said Shenado. ‘It seems they aren’t itching for a fight, at least. Perhaps you should answer the door. Cautiously, of course.

Mariana glared at her phone as it continued ringing. Zeff wasn’t answering, either. She made her way to the entrance slowly. She stopped to arm and plant her landmine in a very particular place--in a narrow doorway beneath a Jesbolese rug of just the right weight. It was beautifully woven with blue-gold swirls and dark frills, but she’d bought it for this exact purpose. On its own, the rug wouldn’t trigger the mine, but if someone stepped on any part of it, it would go off.

Don’t step on it by accident,’ her reaper said privately.

A gun in one hand, Mariana proceeded to the door and cracked it open. The gun was really just a quicker supplement, of course. Her free hand was the much more dangerous weapon, in many ways.

“Lady Elroy, please pardon our intrusion, but we needed to speak with you as soon as possible. I’m Charlie. This is my colleague, Jonathan. May we come in?”

“You may not.” From what she could see, both men appeared to be in their mid-to-late twenties. Charlie was the blond one, Jonathan the bespectacled one. They wore very casual clothing, nothing that would make them stand out in a crowd, surely.

We’ve met before,’ said Shenado. ‘Nine years ago. You were both new recruits.

“Yes,” said Jonathan. “We’ve been assigned to protect you. We didn’t mean to startle you, but we really don’t have time to dawdle here. We need you to come with us to Lagemoor immediately.”

“I am not leaving my children here.”

“Oh, of course,” said Jonathan. “We’re to bring them, as well.”

“We’ve received a credible threat against your family,” said Charlie. “We are only here to escort you and your children to a more secure location.”

Mariana was far from convinced. “Why did you not simply tell me this over the phone?”

“Time is short,” said Jonathan. “Allow us to explain on the way. Please just trust us for now.”

“No.”

Both men frowned.

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“What is their business here?” said Mariana.

After a spell, Nico said, <“They say your presence is requested in Lagemoor. They’ve come to escort you there.”>

She exchanged glances with Shenado again. “Inform them that I do not intend to go to Lagemoor so long as my husband is not here to look after our children. As I told the man on the phone, I will depart for Lagemoor as soon as Zeff returns.”

There came another long pause. <“...I’m afraid they are insisting, enma’am. Ah! Wait! You can’t enter through there--oh! Whoa. Uh... I’m sorry, Mrs. Elroy, but I don’t think I can stop them...”>

“It’s fine, Nico. You and Jorem, take the rest of the day off.”

<“Oh, ah. Yes, en--”>

Mariana ended the call and waved the butler over.

I don’t like this,’ said Shenado.

Mariana was ahead of her. “Claudio, gather everyone into the panic room immediately and arm yourselves. Inform them that this is not a drill and do not come out until I say so.”

Claudio was a middle-aged gentleman of enduring loyalty, having served the Elroys since Zeff was in his twenties. “Right away, my lady.” He walked briskly off.

Jonathan and Charlie should have reapers, but I don’t sense them. They must be keeping their distance.

Mariana moved to the large sofa and removed the soft cushions. A long metal box lay beneath them. It had no lid or point of entry. She ran her hand along the top, breaking it open with her power and revealing one of several such stashes she had hidden around the house. In this one, there were six grenades, ten knives, two handguns, one semi-automatic rifle, three boxes of ammunition, two small black remotes each with twin red buttons, and a single landmine.

She pulled out her cellphone next and called Cisco, arming herself to the teeth while she waited for him to pick up.

They’re at the front door.’

She expected to hear an explosion or someone breaking in. Instead, she heard the doorbell.

Shenado cocked a furry eyebrow at her. ‘Little odd.

Her son wasn’t answering his phone, Mariana realized. She tried Zeff.

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It is a little exciting,’ said Shenado, making Mariana open one eye to look at her. ‘I don’t think we have ever ignored orders like this before. I wonder if we are going to get in trouble.

Probably.’ She shut her eye again and took a deep breath. ‘Whatever the punishment, I will take it.

Maybe they didn’t realize that Zeff was out of town.

They certainly know now that I have told them.

Oddly sloppy on their part.

Perhaps they don’t know you and I very well. Even after all these years in Lawrence’s division, I still feel like the oddball out, sometimes.

There aren’t very many women in his division. I wonder if that has anything to do with it. Fifteen years, and they’ve assigned you a whole ten missions. Compare that to Zeff, who has had twenty-eight.

She gave a slight nod. ‘It is a bit annoying.

Maybe they think you are the “homemaker” type.

I doubt I give anyone that impression. It is probably more to do with my ability. On paper, my simple destruction type isn’t as impressive as Zeff’s power.

If they only knew.

She smirked faintly.

I expect they’ll have Cisco go on his first mission soon,’ said Shenado.

They should. He has been ready for months.

You aren’t worried?

Of course I am.

You don’t act like it. You didn’t act like it with Gema, either.

You would rather I made a fuss?

It would be interesting to see.

I knew what I was signing up for when I joined the Vanguard. And I knew what having children with Zeff would mean. Our role is only to protect them until they can protect themselves.

Shenado let Mariana return to meditating. After a little while, however, a call came in on the speaker box. The butler moved to answer it for her, but Mariana waved him off.

<“There are two men here to see you,”> said Nico’s voice. <“Say their names are Jonathan Flint and Charlie Day.”>

Mariana squinted, vaguely recognizing the names. She looked to Shenado.

I remember them,’ the reaper said. ‘Ask why they are here.

Page 681 -- LXXVIII.

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Dergoz growled. ‘Axiolis will contact the other Rainlords and rally them against us. We must acquire the Elroys as soon as possible and interrogate them. If they give up Gema’s location, then we can simply surrender Zeff’s brain to the Rainlords and avoid unnecessary conflict.

Lawrence didn’t think it would be so easy but decided to keep his opinion to himself.

I know you are displeased with me and with what I am forcing you to do,’ said Dergoz. ‘But if we don’t find her in time, they will kill us all. Do you understand that? Not just you and me. Our whole division will be destroyed. Everyone who works under us. Extinguished.

Then perhaps you are being loyal to the wrong person. If we tried to help the girl--

It’s much too late for that. When Sermung falls, there will be no one to protect those loyal to him.

And if he doesn’t fall?

Then the Vanguard is doomed, anyway.

And therein lay the source of their disagreement. Lawrence wasn’t in the mood for another futile debate, however, and started back for his office. He didn’t want to give the order to take the Elroys into custody, but unfortunately, it wasn’t up to him. And knowing that it would take Axiolis at least two hours to reach Aguarey--if that was indeed where the reaper was headed--then Mariana and her children would have no warning when the ten servants shadowing them took action.

Lawrence’s mood only worsened as he walked.


Chapter Seventy-Eight: ‘The undefeated woman...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Mariana sat in the front den, meditating. She’d decided to keep Marcos and Ramira home for the day without explanation. They’d not been terribly upset about it. Emiliana, on the other hand, had been rather insistent about attending school, and since Mariana didn’t have an exact reason why her daughter should stay home, she ended up relenting and letting the girl go. And when the Lady Elroy went to tell Francisco to accompany his sister, she found the boy already prepared to leave.

Mariana wasn’t given to smiling very often, but that had earned one from her.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Page 680

It was time for another tidal wave, he decided. Water raged across the courtyard, dousing scattered fires, tossing rubble and battered servants around.

It bought him the extra bit of time he needed. After one more water jet pressed into the dome, he was at last able to punch through with an icy gauntlet. The castle wall lay on the other side, and he immediately launched himself over. As soon as he landed on the outer steps, he started running. ‘Go!’ he told Axiolis

Thankfully, at least, Lawrence’s enhanced radiation didn’t affect reapers as strongly as living things, so when Axiolis broke away from Zeff, the reaper was only suffering from a bit of ghostly smoldering. He vanished into the ground.

Zeff saw the radium dome disintegrate and knew that Lawrence would be on him any moment. He lowered his own soul defenses in order to be able to kill himself. The ice formed in his mouth, about to pierce his brain.

Instead, a bladed disc sliced through his mouth, severing the top half of his head from the rest of his body. And he saw Lawrence standing there on the wall with a clenched fist.

Still conscious, Zeff could only watch as the radium clapped around his head. Axiolis had escaped. He had not.

-+-+-+-+-

Lawrence carried Zeff’s radium-coated head under one arm as he reentered Rhein’s Keep. Upturned earth, shattered stone, and regenerating bodies abounded. He immediately had Lieutenant Adam Leroy freeze Zeff’s head for him--or rather, for Dergoz.

You let Axiolis get away,’ Dergoz said privately.

Zeff was stronger than I anticipated,’ said Lawrence.

You are lying. You held back.

Of course I did. You wanted them alive.

That is not what I mean, and you know it.

General Xavier Lawrence refrained from further argument. He knew there was nothing to be gained from it. And besides, the reaper wasn’t exactly wrong. He couldn’t disobey Dergoz overtly, but occasionally, small victories were still possible. For all of Dergoz’s threats, Lawrence knew that the reaper didn’t want to release a servant with his level of power. It would mean starting over from scratch, letting nearly eighty years go to waste.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Page 679

The force of the blast pushed him back against the dome, but he was far enough away that it didn’t even break his concentration. Not everyone was so fortunate. When the air cleared, the castle’s barracks were half-gone.

God, I hope there aren’t any normal people here,’ said Axiolis.

Zeff took the opportunity to plant more drills. He got out four more within close proximity to one another before a trio of servants attacked him in unison.

Don’t kill Axiolis!’ ordered Dergoz. ‘We need them alive!

Zeff knew each attacker. Oscar Murray, Adam Leroy, Davin Echer. All decent, loyal men in his mind, and unfortunately, they were all too strong for Zeff to kill instantly.

But that didn’t mean they were strong enough to stop him.

Oscar sent a path of destruction at him while Adam and Davin tried to flank him with an arm of freezing gas and a flashy silver sword, respectively.

An ice platform flung Zeff up and over their attacks, and he formed another hand sign--middle and index fingers fully extended, this time with both hands. Literal hand guns, they were, both in shape and in function. Bullets of empowered ice shot out in rapid clusters. His three opponents scattered, but Zeff still mowed down Oscar and Adam. Davin only survived because of sudden silver armor, which had still taken a beating.

Look out!’ said Axiolis.

A long stretch of radium reached all the way from across the courtyard, and Zeff used a block of ice to knock himself out of the way. But it wasn’t enough. The radium branched out after him and gored him through the stomach. It continued branching downward, trying to find its leverage against the ground in order to keep Zeff suspended in mid-air.

Again, Zeff had to multitask. A water jet to cut himself free. A shower of frozen bullets to keep Lawrence busy. Zeff hit the ground with a thud and yanked the rest of the radium out of his chest, thankful he couldn’t feel the awful burns it had left in his flesh.

Page 678

Just beyond the knuckles of his two fingers, a self-sustaining jet of water materialized--thin and precise and inheriting an overwhelming amount of forward velocity. It was a pressurized water drill, strong enough to cut through solid metal under its own power, and when he strengthened it with his soul, even Lawrence’s radium would give way. So when Zeff collided with the dome, he pressed the jet into it like a needle into a pincushion.

With nothing to hold onto, Zeff let himself drop back to the ground, but he kept the water jet exactly where it was, and on the way down, made two more and pressed them into the wall as well. He’d created three points of structural weakness, which wasn’t much, but it was a start. He knew that if he used only one jet to cut a large enough hole for himself, Lawrence could just fill the thing back in before Zeff even finished cutting. Multiple jets were more efficient and would prove difficult for Lawrence to get rid of, since they would cut through anything they touched. The only difficulty was keeping it all straight in his head. They were tiny burning dots in space, held in place by his mind alone, and he needed more of them, but he first needed to buy more time for himself.

Radium tried to clap around his body, but the ice armor that was already there resisted, and Zeff broke free with a storm of crystalline spikes. He ran alongside the blue wall, throwing another tidal wave with his left hand while readying a fourth jet with his right.

A cliff of radium rose to Lawrence’s defense, and the water broke upon it, protecting not just the General but also the other servants rallying behind him. The chemical reaction sent huge, sizzling streams of hydrogen gas into the air. And then, without warning, the gas detonated.

An enormous fireball lit up the whole castle. There was no way to tell what ignited it; many different servant abilities could have been the trigger.

Zeff shielded himself with water.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Page 677

Scores of servants were afoot, and he had each one’s attention now. Only moments ago, they’d been in the midst of training or en route to another part of the castle or simply standing guard atop the walls. The latter were the first ones to mobilize, but by then, Zeff had already summoned a tidal wave to a clear a path to the gate.

And clear a path, it did. Broad enough to envelope the whole courtyard and taller than the highest tower, only a handful of servants managed to get out of the way. The raging waters consumed everyone else and smashed them against the castle’s unflinching walls. And before that was even done, Zeff loosed another wave behind him, just to give Lawrence something to do.

Can you escape underground?’ said Zeff.

I sense a soul net below us,’ said Ax, ‘but it only goes as far as the castle walls.

And the reaper didn’t have to explain any further. The most efficient means of escape was to have Axiolis phase through the ground. At full speed, the reaper would be protected by a hundred meters of rock within seconds; and within a minute, he’d be completely out of Lawrence’s range, at which point, Zeff would be able to spear himself through the skull and be revived at Axiolis’ leisure.

This was the plan. He just had to get Axiolis to the other side of the wall first.

Zeff launched himself into the air with a sudden ice platform. He would have been able to clear the wall then and there if not for the gigantic radium dome that materialized to stop him. There would be no shoving this one out of his way. It covered the entirety of Rhein’s Keep, supplanting midday sunlight with a dim blue gleam.

But Zeff had expected as much. Anything less would have been downright lazy on the General’s part.

Still mid-flight, Zeff made a fist and half-extended his middle and index fingers. On its own, the hand gesture had no great meaning, but to Zeff, it was a code of muscle memory, a thing that had helped him develop, memorize, and train a particularly difficult usage of his power.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Page 676

It would take more than that to stop Zeff. He launched a tide of water with enough force to shove the radium wall straight through the door, the subsequent radium-water reaction hissing violently and producing streams of hydrogen gas. A single spark could set the gas off at any moment, but that was the last thing Zeff was worried about as he pressed through.

Do not let Zeff Elroy leave the premises!’ shouted Dergoz for all to hear.

The two sentries from earlier were there in the cloud. Even without a clear view, Zeff was able to materialize ice inside their mouths, and in the next instant, frozen spears burst out of their skulls and killed them both. He mumbled an apology to their on-looking reapers. Any servant without a certain level of passive soul-defense might as well have been dead already for all the threat they posed Zeff. He estimated that there were fifteen servants currently within Rhein’s Keep whom he could not kill with this strategy, the most problematic of course being Lawrence.

Zeff made it all the way out to the courtyard before encountering his next resistance.

All guards!’ Dergoz was shouting. ‘Take Captain Zeff into custody immediately!

It seemed to be creating more confusion than anything, and Zeff intended to capitalize. He ran for the main gate.

A radium dome fell over him, which would have encased him in darkness if not for the element’s faint blue glow. But after a moment, it wasn’t so faint. The thing that made the General’s power so dangerous was unquestionably the way the man could strengthen the element’s radioactivity by empowering it with his soul. It made the radium decay more quickly, but that was a meager price to pay for the waves of debilitating pressure that it sent through the opponent’s body. Already, Zeff could feel the weakening effects, bathing him and Axiolis in so much radiation that his regeneration was having a hard time keeping pace.

Zeff armored himself in ice, empowering it with his own soul as well. It only offered partial protection from the radiation, but he didn’t intend to stick around. A string of geysers shot up around him and flipped his radioactive prison into the air. Blood oozing from the eyes and nose, Zeff kept running.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Page 675

Zeff wished he had a better idea, but they were already short on time. And by the strained look on Lawrence’s face, the man had probably hoped Zeff would volunteer Gema’s whereabouts and thereby avoid a confrontation. Zeff certainly didn’t want to fight, either, but he wasn’t seeing much choice.

If nothing else, he was sure that Mariana would keep their children safe. That woman was prepared for everything. How he wished that he had stayed in Aguarey with her. At least then, they could have faced this together. “Perhaps I should call my wife,” said Zeff. “We can hear what she thinks of the situation.” He reached for the cellphone in his inner coat pocket.

I would not advise that,’ said Dergoz. ‘Lawrence will be forced to stop you.

“Why? Is she not in Lagemoor like you said?”

Again, Dergoz did not respond.

“Fine. We will tell you what you wish to know. But not here. There are too many people around who could overhear.”

Dergoz wasn’t buying it. ‘I think we will risk it. Tell us where Gema is now.

Zeff sighed and nodded. He relaxed his grip on his chair and shifted his feet.

The ability to materialize more than a single element was a tremendously rare thing, to be sure. There was no learning it. A person could either do it, or they couldn’t. It was hardly a coincidence, however, that Zeff ended up with the ability to materialize hydrogen and oxygen together. His was a historic power, one that cropped up every few generations among Rainlords. The Redwater Twins famously both had it at once.

Zeff flexed both arms where they lay, making minimal movement, and immediately, a white cloud materialized all around him, filling the room in a blink. He leapt from his chair and bolted for the exit, all the while pressing his soul into the cloud. Axiolis latched onto him as he ran.

In front of the door, a sudden wall appeared, brilliantly white and massive. Solid radium, it was. Lawrence’s deadly ability. Its pearly surface began to blacken with air exposure, creating an outer layer of radium nitride.

Page 674

Zeff gripped both arms of his chair with white-knuckled hands. “You brought me here to isolate me from them.”

Provided you simply cooperate, then--

“If you think my wife is going to let you take our children into custody for any reason, then you are sorely mistaken.”

She is no longer in Aguarey, either,’ said Dergoz. ‘As soon as we confirmed that you had left the city, your wife received orders to report to Lagemoor. And we all know how dutiful Mariana is.

At least tell us why it is so important that you find Gema,’ said Axiolis.

Why? I am sure you already know.

But we don’t!

More lies.

Zeff was at a loss, growing equal parts desperate and furious, but he kept his voice steady and quiet. “General Lawrence, ensir, how can you condone this action?”

The older man couldn’t meet the Rainlord’s gaze.

I don’t believe them,’ Ax said privately. ‘If Mariana left for Lagemoor while you were away, she would have called and told you.

Zeff squinted. ‘You think she ignored the order?

Yes. She and Shenado were already suspicious, so it would make sense.

Dergoz was becoming annoyed. ‘Are you trying to buy time? To what end? I hope you are not thinking of fighting Lawrence. You must know that you stand no chance against him. Especially not here.

The reaper was probably right, but given that none of Zeff’s comrades had acted suspiciously when he talked to them earlier, it was a fair bet that they didn’t know about the actions being taken against his family. Once upon a time, Rheinhal had been a stronghold of his ancestors, before House Rhein met its end. That this place was now being used against him only made the circumstances sting all the more. But it also reminded him of something.

“If you seize my family, the other Rainlords will not sit idly by,” said Zeff.

They will if they know what is good for them,’ said Dergoz.

Are you mad?’ said Axiolis. ‘You would risk war with the Rainlords just to find Gema?

Dergoz chose not to answer.

We have to run,’ Ax said privately.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Page 673

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Then I don’t know how else we can help you,’ said Axiolis.

Neither do I,’ said Dergoz. ‘Not so long as you refuse to cooperate.

We are cooperating as much as we can. We can’t tell you what we don’t know. Why are you so quick to assume we are lying? When have we ever given you cause to think we would?

A thick silence consumed the office as the reapers stared at one another.

Allow me to simplify your understanding of the situation,’ said Dergoz. ‘If you do not tell us where we can find your daughter, then we are going to ask your wife. And then we are going to ask your children.

Zeff’s irritated expression slowly melted away, turning first into blank realization, then gradually into a hard glower.

Dergoz was not finished talking, however. ‘You are a good man, Zeff. We do not wish to hurt you or your family. But that is the severity of the matter at hand. Gema Elroy must be found at all costs.

Why?’ said Axiolis. ‘What could possibly be so important about Gema that you would threaten to harm our family? Innocent children!

Your children are not innocent. They are Elroys, and all Elroys are Vanguard.

Pah! You think having Lawrence as your servant gives you the right to change our laws?! Zeff’s children are not Vanguard until they come of age! You are threatening the very people we are supposed to protect, you utter fool!

“Ax, stop,” Zeff said lowly, and the reaper seemed to understand.

Dergoz allowed Axiolis to settle down before resuming. ‘Your disapproval is noted. Are you going to tell us where Gema is now? Or do you wish to let the situation run its course?

Zeff tried to think. He didn’t have the information they wanted, so obviously, giving it to them wasn’t an option. If he lied, perhaps that would buy time, but how much? And what would he even use that time for?

Ah, but before you answer,’ Dergoz went on, ‘I should also mention that we have been shadowing your family in Aguarey for the past twenty-three hours.