Monday, June 30, 2014

Page 745

As she looked at him, she could hardly believe this was the same man. The face belonged to him, but the expression seemed nothing of the sort. He was pleased. And she had a pretty good idea why.

David, Meriwether, and even Mehlsanz had told her about this--Luther’s madness. But even so, she’d felt as though they must’ve been exaggerating the point somewhat. Even after everything that had happened, it was still a difficult thing to take someone’s word for.

“And what, may I ask, is the purpose of your visit?” said Luther. “At this time of night, it must be urgent.”

Helen pressed the button on the speaker box to allow her voice through. “It seems that the Minister of Finance and the Lord High Treasurer have both inexplicably left the country tonight.”

“Oh?” said Luther. “How curious.”

“What do you know of this matter?” Helen was not in the mood to mince words, but she doubted that would make much difference to Luther right now.

Luther took a seat on his milky white bed. His prisoner’s uniform was also white, but the thick vertical stripes of orange ensured plenty of visibility. “What makes you think I know anything?”

“I have multiple reports stating that you frequented the Royal Treasury over the past eighteen months,” the Queen said.

“It is an interesting place.”

“You also claimed that your contingency plan involved money.”

Luther looked at David with false shock. “You told her? Brother, how could you?”

David merely observed their conversation in silence.

“Luther, what have you done?” she tried. “Tell me.”

“Is it not more fun for you to guess?” he said. “You will find out sooner or later, regardless. In fact, sooner, from the sound of it.”

Helen eyed his cell. “You want something in exchange, then.”

“I understand why you would think that, but the truth is, you have nothing I desire. Apart from my freedom, I suppose, but I suspect that is not on offer.” His eyes briefly went to David again. “And after the stunt with my television, I have no wish to make any more deals.”

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Page 744

“Ah... well, unfortunately, neither do we. I’ve heard that these items have secondary powers, just like aberrations themselves do, but I’ve only met a handful of people who are actually using them like yourself. And what’s more, I think only two or three of the ones I’ve met had managed to draw the power out. I didn’t think to ask for an explanation as to how they did it. Sorry.”

“Mm.”

“Having said that, though, I could point you toward some folks who can tell you more. There’re a few in Callum, but I’m guessing you’d rather not speak to those.”

“Preferably not.”

“Then, I know a fellow named Haqq Najir who’s been studying aberrations since they first started appearing. Crazy smart, that guy. And not a member of the Vanguard, either, so he definitely won’t rat you out for stealing.”

“How do I contact him?”

“I could call him right now, if you like. Knowing him, he’s probably still awake at this hour. Thing is, I’m sure he’ll want to meet you. He’s very... enthusiastic about his research. He’ll probably drop whatever he’s doing and--”

The sight of Prince David caught their attention. He did not seem to be in possession of his usual humor, hardly even acknowledging their presence before proceeding into the Queen’s chambers.

Lynnette eyed Harper. “Perhaps now isn’t the best time.”

“Perhaps not.” Harper placed a hand on the door but didn’t follow David just yet. “I’ll call Haqq in the morning, then. Go get some sleep. You look tired.”

She rubbed below her one eye and squinted. “Will do. And tell me what they’re getting up to in there, yeah?”

“Sure thing.”

-+-+-+-+-

Until now, Helen hadn’t had the time for this meeting, nor had she been particularly looking forward to it. She hadn’t seen Luther in person since fleeing Sescoria, but after her conversation tonight with David, Luther had jumped to the top of her priorities.

Luther smiled upon seeing her, David, and Harper approaching. “Ah, there she is. Finally, the prodigal sister deigns to grace me with her presence.”

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Page 743

“On the plus side,” said Harper, “it means you don’t need to worry about using contraceptives. That’s neat, right?”

Lynnette just squinted at him. She was wondering if he was about to admit to joking, but apparently, he was being serious.

“Then again, if you really want to give birth, you could amputate your arm. Or try a surrogate. Personally, though, I’d just recommend adopting. Not enough people adopt, you know. The world already has plenty of kids in need of a good parent, but hardly anyone considers adopting unless they can’t have kids of their own. It’s a real shame.” Another beat passed as he watched Lynnette’s face. “Before you ask, yes, I’ve adopted many children.”

She wasn’t going to ask that.

“They’re all grown up now. It’s why I like to travel so much. They live all over the world. I’ve been thinking of doing it again, but now that I’m with the Vanguard, raising a child would be more complicated. Could also be more exciting, though.” He smiled and let his eyes wander upward a little. “Could take ‘em with me wherever I went and keep ‘em safe while I show ‘em the world. Fantastic, that’d be.”

Lynnette hadn’t realized Mr. Norez could speak at such length so easily. She was starting to think he’d just keep talking unless she stopped him.

“Anyhow, you’re still young. Probably haven’t given any real thought to such things, have you?”

She would have liked to say he was wrong, but he wasn’t. Lynnette had never been the type to fantasize about being a mother or a wife. If it happened, it happened. She didn’t see much reason to dwell on it any more than that. But now, apparently, her options had already dwindled without her knowledge.

An unsettling realization.

She resolved to think about it later. There was still an important question she needed to ask this person. “Can you tell me how to use Incineration?”

Harper briefly turned to the empty space next to him. “Are you talking about your glove’s hidden ability?”

She cocked an eyebrow. “Hidden? I only heard it mentioned in Callum. I don’t know anything else about it.”

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Page 742

Lynnette pursed her lips at the man. “Well, I’m glad you’re not upset.”

“Oh, you can blame that on Darsihm. I used to be a real stick in the mud--not very lenient or understanding of other folks’ plights. But as I get older, I find his laidback disposition to be a more agreeable means of continuing through this dimly lit passage we here call existence.”

Lynnette just kind of looked at him.

Harper returned a chuckle. “Pardon my sophistry.”

“I suppose what I want to know most is whether or not I should expect any kind of drawbacks to wearing this gauntlet. So far, it’s been surprisingly easy to control.”

“Aha. Wondering what the catch is, huh? As far as I know, there isn’t one.” A beat passed, and then Harper added, “Well, apart from not being able to take it off.”

“So there really is no way to remove it?”

“Not without taking your arm with it. Oh, and I guess that leads to another downside, doesn’t it? Certain folks will try to kill you for it. Because it’s so rare and powerful, you see.”

“Right... Do you know why it can’t be removed normally?”

“That’s an easy one: because it’s not just bound to your arm. It’s also bound to your soul. It gives your soul physical weight relative to your own body. Like superglue. Except not really. In fact, forget I made that analogy. I suck at analogies. Dunno why I even tried.”

“Uh...?”

“Oh, and another downside I forgot about. Er--sort of. You might consider it a good thing, I guess.”

She waited with a disjointed expression.

“You can’t have kids,” said Harper. “Your living shadow will prevent your eggs from being fertilized.”

Lynnette’s eye widened.

“It’s weirdly sexist, too, because when it’s bound to a man, the shadow doesn’t prevent the guy’s sperm from fertilizing an egg. I guess it’s a matter of protection versus penetration? Or maybe it just has to do with bodily proximity. Very odd either way, if you ask me.”

She still didn’t have a response for him.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Page 741

As ever, Lynnette observed Her Highness’s meetings in silence. Deliberations with the Minister of Defense took up most of the evening, as the man was--perhaps understandably--concerned about the troubling developments and conflicting reports in Sair. Lynnette imagined that the sudden talk of a possible civil war was unsettling to just about everyone on Eloa, so the fact that two entire countries, Lorent and Callum, both stood between Atreya and Sair was probably of little comfort to the minister.

The Queen, however, seemed as calm and collected as ever, and even though it took a while, she convinced the man that she would not overlook the matter, despite the Agency of Foreign Affairs still being in a questionable state after she had all but dismantled it.

Soon enough, Harper arrived to take her place.

Lynnette stood for a quick handshake. “Sleep well?” she asked him.

“Sure di--” The man broke himself off, glancing to his side and then back to Lynnette. “Darsihm says there’s something strange about you, Miss Edith.”

Lynnette eyed the Queen, who spared them a look before returning to her mountain of reading and paperwork. Lynnette stepped into the quiet hall so as not to disturb her, then addressed Harper again. “...Darsihm? Ah, is that your reaper friend?”

“Yeah. He’s been unconscious ‘til now, so he’s never seen you before.”

“Oh, I see.” She pulled off her glove to reveal her bone half-gauntlet. “Then, I’m sure he is sensing this. It apparently spooked Garovel and the others as well, but none of them could tell me anything about it that I don’t already know. I was meaning to ask you about it when your reaper woke up.”

“Oh! Shoulda shown it to me earlier. I know just as much about it as Darsihm does. Where’d you get it from, by the way?”

“A division of the Vanguard in Callum,” said Lynnette. “They were doing experiments on it. I didn’t intend to steal it from them, but... it just sort of... worked out that way.”

A grin split Harper’s flat face. “Might not wanna be so forthcoming with that information the next time someone asks. Lotta my colleagues are a touch stingy, you know, and they generally frown upon thievery--particularly of a thing like that.”

Monday, June 23, 2014

Page 740 -- LXXXIII.

“But, uh... Roman said if we ever find someone we can really trust, we should take good care of them. He said something like... if I don’t have room for them in my life, then I should get a bigger house.”

Heh, is that so?

“And... I think he was talking about Colt. Like he was implying that I shouldn’t have let Colt leave.”

Ah. Hmm.’

“Er... maybe I was just reading too much into it, though...”

Well, once we finish sprucing this place up, perhaps we should give Colt a call. Check up on him, at least. But I won’t force you to offer him a room. I know you two have your differences. And he IS a murderer.’

“Yeah...” Hector stopped digging again to look at Garovel. “I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive him for that...”

...But?

He sighed. “But I don’t know. And besides, he probably wouldn’t even want to live here.”

Ah, it just occurred to me that we don’t know how Warrenhold affects children. Voreese said the unsettling feeling could be explained away, but obviously, that’s not going to work with babies.’

“You think this place has an age restriction? Seems like Voreese would have mentioned that.”

Maybe. No harm in asking her next time.’

Hector was up to his shoulders in rock now. He took a hard breath and rested his pickaxe on his shoulder. “Geez... how much farther down is it?”

Only a few more meters.’

“Meters?! How many?!”

Garovel shrugged. ‘Nine or ten? Or... fifteen? Could be twenty, I suppose.

“Fuck, man...”

Hey, you try measuring while you float through complete darkness without any sense of motion around you.’

He rolled his shoulders. “This sucks. I thought hot springs were supposed to be relaxing...”


Chapter Eighty-Three: ‘Relations from afar...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

It was nearing the end of Lynnette’s shift. For the first couple weeks, it had been just her on round-the-clock guard duty, sleeping only rarely. After Harper was back on his feet, however, the man was gracious enough to begin trading off with her, since there was no one else in Sescoria who could really protect Queen Helen.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Page 739

“So, uh... you’re saying this field density thing protects the body, but it can also double as a kind of weapon? I mean, suppressing the opponent’s power seems pretty potent...”

Yep. That’s generally how the terminology is handled. “Field density” is defensive; “soul pressure” is offensive. But they both refer to the same thing.’

“I’m... not gonna remember that.”

You will, eventually. In the meantime, I’ll remember for you.’

“Right, thanks.” He was nearly waist-deep in the hole now, and the heat only seemed to be growing stronger. “But, um... was there a reason why you brought this stuff up now? I’m still too weak to use it, aren’t I?”

For passive defense, yes, you’re still too young. But you could try actively applying the resilience to your body. Might help you cope with the heat a little better.

“Really? How much better?”

Oh, not much at all. You might be able to get a few centimeters closer to the magma before the heat convection melts your face off.’

“Well, that’s nice...”

It’s to be expected. Our souls have only had six months to synchronize.’

That made him stand upright. “Six months...” He pressed a hand to his forehead, partly to wipe the sweat away, partly just thinking back. “It’s only been six months?“

Six and a half, to be precise.’

“That’s still ridiculous...”

Hopefully, the next six won’t be quite so hectic. You’ve got a pretty good handle on your power now, and you’re a much better fighter. We’ve even made a few good allies. Oh, and let’s not forget our new base of operations. Seems like it’s already time to start thinking about the next step.’

“The next step? What do you mean? You have something in mind?”

As a matter of fact, I do. We should begin fostering a network of reliable contacts.’

“Oh... y’know, Roman mentioned something like that, too.”

Did he? When?

“It was just before that big fight. The one at, uh...”

Rathmore’s Gate?

“Yeah. He said, ah... networking is really difficult.”

He’s not wrong.’

“His previous allies kinda fucked him over, didn’t they?”

Seemed like it.’

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Page 738

It tends to cause a huge disparity in power,’ said Garovel. ‘It makes it so that certain servants can’t even be wounded by anyone who isn’t close enough to their level in strength. They can just mow down hordes of lesser servants without a care in the world, pretty much.

“Fuck...”

Yeah. Few things are as terrifying to see bearing down upon you on a battlefield.

Hector returned to his crude tunneling. Its downward slope was perhaps a bit too steep, he thought, and he started trying to curve it more.

Anyway, soul resilience is only the first means of passive defense. The second is “field density,” which is similar but a little less intuitive.

“Field density...? I can’t even imagine what that would refer to.”

Mm. It’s also called soul pressure, which might be easier to conceptualize. It’s a defense against abilities being used within your own personal space. For instance, a materialization user might try to use the orifices of the human head to create the base of a spike that then shoots straight into the brain and kills their opponent instantly. But with strong field dens--

“Oh!” Hector stopped picking again and blinked. “I didn’t even think of trying something like that...”

It’s a very advanced technique, not easy at all, especially on a moving target--but that’s neither here nor there. I’m saying that one’s field density offers a kind of constant defense against that sort of thing. It’s a lot like how you couldn’t coat Karkash in metal due to his magnetism. Same concept, only applied more broadly.

“Hmm. How does that work?”

By preventing the USE of the abilities in the first place. Materialization won’t accumulate properly. Destruction won’t tunnel properly. Integration won’t fuse. And alteration users, they’re fucked, too. Only transfiguration and mutation are immune, because those powers are strictly limited to the user’s body, where one’s own field density is strongest, so it doesn’t matter how oppressive their opponent’s soul pressure is.

Hector scratched his head. “You weren’t kidding about it being less intuitive than the other thing...”

Soul resilience.

“Yeah, the other thing.”

Garovel exhaled a nonexistent breath.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Page 737

Hector rubbed his hands together, making fresh iron gloves for himself and then connecting them both to the handle of an oversized pickaxe. Wielding it like a sword, he pressed his soul into it for extra oomph, and then slammed it against the wall with all his might.

A huge chunk of stone broke away from the wall and shattered into a hundred pieces. And so did the tool. And so did both of his arms.

Hmm. I’m not an expert, but I don’t think you’re doing it right.’

Hector watched his elbows snap back into place and his torn flesh close itself up again. “Might’ve used a little too much force there...”

Might’ve. Or maybe next time, you can try to swing it so hard that you break your LEGS. Wouldn’t that be cool?

He rotated his arms, stretching and flexing. He annihilated the remains of the pickaxe and created it again from scratch. He set to work again, this time with a finer touch.

Now might be a good time to bring up the topic of passive soul defenses.

Hector didn’t stop swinging. “Passive what now?”

As your soul power grows, you’ll be able to naturally increase the resilience of your own body. So things like just now, they won’t happen anymore--or at least, they won’t happen quite so easily.

“Oh. So a stronger soul makes my body tougher?”

Yeah. In two separate respects. First, there’s “resilience,” which is basically the same as how you strengthen your metal. You just apply it to your body instead, and as you get stronger, it begins to happen on its own, constantly applying that extra strength to your body--albeit not as powerfully as when you apply it yourself.

“Huh...”

Passive resilience becomes a really big deal, eventually. Powerful enough servants can even deflect bullets with their bare skin.

He stopped picking to throw a look at Garovel. “A-are you serious?”

Oh yes. Not that bullets would even give them a hard time in the first place, but you get the idea, right?

“Eh, y-yeah...”

Page 736

Hector experimented with a few different methods of imagining the moving metal into existence. First, he just tried to envision it as ‘already in motion’ before creation, like Garovel had mentioned. That idea seemed to be the key, making the added velocity possible in the first place. Then, to see if he could increase the speed, he tried imagining the metal as if it were the tip of a spike, growing out of a base that just wasn’t there. He knew that he could create spikes very quickly, so he’d hoped that would have an impact, but if it did, it was negligible.

Now, he was just trying to imagine everything with more precision in his mind. Clarity had always been a big factor in the past, so he figured this was probably no different. He’d been trying to research movement as a whole. He’d never gotten around to taking a physics course in high school, but he wasn’t sure it would have mattered anyway, not without this desire which now possessed him.

It was also of enormous benefit to carefully observe objects in motion. A thrown ball, a dropped ball, a launched ball, their differences mattered, just as the ball itself mattered. Momentum, inertia, weight, surface area--for a subject that seemed so basic and intuitive in nature, he found the mechanics actually quite complicated and engrossing.

Strangely, it didn’t feel like homework, even though he knew that it basically was. Instead, it just felt valuable and necessary--like growth. Plus, it was exciting to think about all the different ways he might be able to apply movement to his metal.

I think I found a good spot,’ said Garovel, bringing Hector back to the task at hand. ‘There’s a small room below the Tower of Day. Seems to be the closest.

Hector soon found the room he was talking about. It was a storage closet, he guessed, assuming they had things like that in ancient times. He couldn’t imagine why they wouldn’t.

Garovel empowered him with strength and pointed at the room’s bottom right corner.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Page 735

But it’s not like the quake created the magma,’ said Hector. ‘It just bridged two pools together, right? Or streams... or whatever.

Yep. Which means there’s almost certainly even more magma down here somewhere. And depending on how much there actually is, the shift in heat pressure from that earthquake might one day lead to brand new volcanic activity. Which wouldn’t be very good for us.

No kidding.

So you’re thinking that just adding layers to the tubs wouldn’t fix the real problem.

Pretty much, yeah...

How do you intend to dig down here, then? Brute force? Even with enhanced strength, that’ll take you a while.

Well... I don’t see any other options...

Alright, then let me have a look around for the best point of entry.

Okay.

Hector exited the bathhouse, having to go all the way through the Tower of Day’s ground floor and out into the greater cavern area before finally finding a lungful of genuinely cooler air.

He decided to practice with his metal while he waited. He hadn’t been training with his metal as much as he would’ve liked. Or at least, he hadn’t been experimenting with it as much. He’d of course been getting plenty of practical experience in his almost daily patrols around Gray Rock, and while that was certainly helpful for honing his existing skills, it didn’t help much with developing new ones. He knew that he needed to set aside some time soon and really see what else he was capable of now. For the moment, however, these brief periods of downtime would have to suffice.

He extended his arm out fully and concentrated. There was only one thing he wanted, and he envisioned it in his head.

The metal ball materialized in an instant, just in front of his open palm. But rather than falling straight to the ground, it popped outward first, as if it had been gently tossed. He annihilated it before it touched the ground.

It wasn’t much velocity, of course, but it was a start. And he was sure he could do more, still, if he could only get a better feel for it in his mind. It was just such a newly applied concept that he was having difficulty wrapping his head around it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Page 734

Hector looked around the bathhouse another time. Aside from his pair of flashlights, he’d brought some candles with him this time. Given how damp the place was, he didn’t think a bunch of light bulbs would’ve been a good idea. And unfortunately, as Garovel had explained to him, the floodlights he’d been using before were not named such because they were supposed to be used in flooded areas but rather just because of how they flooded an area with light.

Of course, electrocuting himself wasn’t a big concern--especially considering all the times he’d been struck by lightning--but he figured it best to exercise caution in case anyone else happened to wander in while he was working.

This particular bathhouse was almost all one giant chamber. Half of it had been carved out of natural rock, and a tall divider cut right down the middle, perhaps meant to separate the male side from the female side. The big tub in the center could have probably held fifty people comfortably, and its hard perimeters of rectangular rocks gave way on the side nearest the entrance for long, flat steps that eased gradually into the water.

Welp, I finally found the problem,’ said Garovel. He’d been wandering blindly through the pitch darkness of solid rock in search of the source of the hot spring’s heat.

What is it?

A shitload of magma.

Hector’s eyes widened. ‘How much is a shitload?

More than a crapload, less than a fuckton.

...So helpful.

It’s pretty far down here. Won’t be easy for you to reach.

Hmm...

I see two options. You can dig down here and divert some of the magma. And probably burn yourself to death at least once or twice. Or, you can try to add more layers to the hot springs in order to absorb more of the heat before it reaches the water--possibly employing some type of heat-resistant material.

Ugh...

What?

It’s just... I mean, obviously, there’s not supposed to be that much magma down there, or else the temperature up here wouldn’t be so fucking high...

Indeed. It’s probably the result of that earthquake the Queen mentioned, just like all the other flooding we’ve seen.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Page 733

Their conversation went on for a little while longer as they discussed the next stage of their plans for Warrenhold’s restoration. The matter of the hydroelectric generator was nearly resolved, thankfully. Hector had finally found its location a few days ago, buried beneath one of the unnamed towers. The survey team hadn’t been able to find it, because it sat on the far end of a flooded hallway in a room as big as a house.

Simply enough, Hector had been able to fill the room with iron and thereby push out all the water. It had proved slightly annoying, since Hector didn’t know how to swim--a thing for which Garovel surprisingly did not make fun of him--but he managed. A replacement generator was already scheduled to arrive as early as next week. It was easily their most expensive purchase yet, but they decided trying to fix the one already here would likely prove problematic in the long-term, given how many years it had gone without any maintenance whatsoever.

As for the flooding issue, it turned out to be the fault of a large crack in the generator room’s wall. Hector patched it up with metal easily enough, and afterwards, he was able to follow the hydroelectric generator’s actual water intake stream and discover the location of something else that had been eluding the surveyors: the waterfall.

When standing in the middle of all eight of Warrenhold’s great towers, anyone could hear the waterfall’s faint white noise, but the cavernous echoes made it impossible to use the sound as any kind of guide. Until then, they hadn’t been able to find the path that lead to it, and Hector discovered that was because the path went through the bathhouses, which were even more problematic than the generator room. The bathhouses weren’t merely flooded; they were flooded with searing hot water. Apparently, Warrenhold had its own natural hot spring.

That was Hector’s current project. He and Garovel had been trying to render the bathhouses usable once more--or at the very least enterable. So after getting some much needed sleep, Hector went back to it. So far, he’d managed to remove much of the excess water, but the heat was still unbearable.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Page 732

Hector’s brow receded. “Wow... uh... w-what did Prince David do to upset your niece so much?“

Amelia gestured with an open hand in front of her. “That, I don’t know. She has never provided details. Popular theory was that he blackmailed her in some way.”

Hector wondered if Prince David was capable of such a thing. It seemed rather extreme, but then again, blackmail wasn’t nearly as bad as what he already knew certain other royals to be capable of.

“Regardless, it was a shame,” said Amelia. “That marriage was an attempt to settle our past differences and bring the two families together. Instead, it made matters worse. A few years later, they tried again with a new couple. Sarah and Luther.” She frowned. “Their union appeared to be more successful... but recent events would suggest otherwise.”

It was a strange thing to think about, Hector felt--that all of the horrible things Atreya endured over these past few months might have never happened if Prince Luther had married differently. He wasn’t sure he believed that. It seemed too simple. But then, he certainly didn’t believe it was fate, either. And he didn’t see much room for a middle ground on that point. Events were either fated to occur, or they weren’t--and trying to game the system and say that events were fated but still part of multiple “possible fates” was definitely bullshit, he thought. Something to consult Garovel about later, he decided. Though, he already had a pretty good idea of what the reaper would say.

Jamal had more questions for the Lady Carthrace. “So is that your only reason for accepting this position? To get away from your family?”

“Is that not reason enough?” she said.

“It seems to me that someone of your status would be able to find opportunities to flee almost anywhere,” said Jamal. “Why choose Lord Goffe?”

Hector doubted he would ever get used to that.

“I had Helen’s word that Hector was a trustworthy young man,” said Amelia. “And if she trusts him, well... If earning my trust were like learning how to swim, then earning her trust would be like learning how to breathe underwater.”

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Page 731

“None of it?” said Jamal. “You upset your parents that much?”

“Oh yes,” Amelia laughed. “You know that rebellious phase that young people go through? It was not a phase for me. My parents and I saw the world in vastly different ways. And they passed that on to my brother and sister, who then passed it on to all of their children. In their eyes, I was always the corrupting aunt. They thought me a nuisance, at best. An opponent, at worst.”

“Er... an opponent?” said Hector.

“In their power games. The Carthraces and the Lumenbels have a long-enduring rivalry with one another. And now, with so many of those Lumenbel boys dead, I am sure my nephews are seeing it as a great opportunity to further our family name. Unfortunately for them, the Queen has no obvious successor with whom they may attempt to arrange another marriage. In theory, if both Helen and William were to die tomorrow, rule would pass to the already-married firstborn son of her oldest brother. There is also the very likely possibility that the Queen has preemptively appointed someone else in secret--someone who will only be revealed should such a crisis ever arise. As you might imagine, the political seas in Sescoria are rather stormy, right now. I am most glad to be here with you fine gentlemen, instead.”

Garovel floated over Amelia. ‘Hmm. Ask her what the origin of this dispute between the two families is.

With effort, Hector managed to.

“Oh, I could not tell you. That was before even my time. But it has sustained itself over all these years due to continually renewed feelings of ill will. In recent memory, there was the matter of Prince David upsetting my niece Delilah so much that she plainly refused to marry him no matter how my brother attempted to coerce her. Which was no small feat, mind you. My brother could have given lessons to mules on stubbornness. Even on his deathbed. The doctors said he had three days left, at most. He didn’t let go of this mortal coil for another month.”

Page 730

“Anyway, the point is, Jessica is the reason I believed you would be a trustworthy person, despite your... turbulent relationship with the law. However, in the interest of full disclosure, sir, that was not what prompted me to give up my old job and come work for you. The truth of the matter is that I simply did not like being a member of the Queen’s Guard.”

Amelia pitched in now. “Why not? It was a fairly prestigious position, no?”

“It was. But most of the other guards were pompous, insufferable bastards. Excuse my language.”

“Really? Did you, ah... er, what about Lynn? Did you think she was like that, too?”

“Oh, that’s right. You fought alongside her, didn’t you?”

“Er, yeah.”

“She never bothered me. She seemed a bit full of herself for someone so young, but at least she took her job seriously. Most of the Queen’s Guard would slack off and then lord their status over anyone who wasn’t famous or rich. It wasn’t until after the assassination attempt that they finally started getting their act together and behaving like real soldiers should.”

“Were you in the castle during the Abolish occupation?” Amelia asked. She threw a look at Hector. “That was the name, yes? Abolish?”

Hector nodded.

Jamal’s expression hardened. “Yes, I was there.”

“Weren’t you frightened?” said Amelia.

“I was.”

They waited, but the man seemed to have nothing else to say on the matter.

Perhaps sensing the growing awkwardness in the air, Amelia decided to move on. “Well, my reasons for joining our young lord are somewhat similar, though not quite so harrowing, I admit. I suppose it is only to be expected that all three of us here be veritable black sheep, in our own ways. I also came here to escape a number of intolerable individuals.”

“Who do you mean?” said Jamal.

“My many nephews and nieces. It is a rather long story and one I am sure would bore you, but the short of it is that--though you were correct in your assessment of my family’s wealth--for a variety of very old reasons, I inherited the Carthrace name but none of its fortune.”

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Page 729

“But sometimes,” Jamal continued, “I’d worry about her. She’s a very... self-conscious person. And... lonely. She has an unfortunate tendency to attract certain types of men. Ones who try to take advantage of her. I knew all of this, but even still, I never imagined she would encounter that type of man...”

Hector scratched his cheek. “Uh... I’m sorry. I’m not sure I follow--”

Jamal held up a hand. “When she told me she’d nearly been the victim of a serial killer, I thought she was joking. But she wasn’t. And then she told me about the person who’d saved her.” The man’s smile was a faint thing, and it almost seemed like it didn’t belong on his face. “She actually said that, at first, she thought it was me. And in fairness, she hadn’t seen me in years, and she doesn’t know very many black people. And being mistaken for a hero--certainly not the worst kind of racial profiling I’ve ever experienced. But when she got a good look at you, she realized that you were too young to be me. And apparently, you also had a knife in your chest which didn’t seem to be bothering you very much.”

Holy shit,’ said Garovel. ‘He’s talking about the woman you saved on your very first night as a servant, isn’t he?

Hector blinked at Jamal, unsure of what to say.

“And not long after that, the media started talking about a vigilante with remarkable power. The coincidence did not escape my friend’s notice. It was a traumatizing experience for her, but I think knowing that someone like you was out there helped her cope. She isn’t the same person that she used to be.”

“W-what... um. Oh... well, I’m glad she’s doing okay...”

“You remember her?”

“Y-yeah. But... uh, I never learned her name.”

“Jessica Paulson,” said Jamal.

“Ah...”

“She’s a big fan of yours, by the way. She was really upset when they started calling you a murderer and a criminal.”

“Oh...”

Garovel was laughing his ass off. ‘A fan! Oh, I would pay good money to watch you have a conversation with a fan. You should invite her to Warrenhold. Oh! Maybe Jamal is about to ask you that! Say yes, Hector. As your reaper, I command it.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Page 728

Between the repairs to Warrenhold and the patrols around the city, Hector had plenty to do. It was a rare moment when Garovel allowed him to just relax and eat a quiet meal like this. And even more than the food, Hector was looking forward to sleeping. The bed in his temporary room was waiting for him, he knew.

But as he sat across from his guardsman, Hector recalled a question that he’d been meaning to ask ever since they left Sescoria two weeks ago. He wasn’t sure when he might get another opportunity to pose it. “Mr. Easton... why did you volunteer to work for me?”

“There were many reasons, sir.”

“...Well, I’m listening.”

A woman’s voice interrupted. “Oh, are we sharing our stories now?” The Lady Carthrace entered through the door behind Hector. Her silken pajamas bore wild streaks of bright red, and for a second, Hector thought she was covered in blood and was duly relieved to realize it was only the woman’s vivid taste in clothes. She made her way to the counter for a glass of water. “Do go on, Mr. Easton. I would like to hear this as well.”

Jamal leaned back in his chair. “Only if you promise to go next, milady.”

She smiled. “Little old me? How could I be of any interest?”

“I’m curious why a member of the richest family in Atreya would accept a job babysitting a teenager.” He glanced at Hector. “No offense, sir.”

Hector laughed faintly with a raised eyebrow. “None taken... I guess.”

Amelia joined them at the table and sipped from her glass. She nodded and then motioned for Jamal to proceed.

Jamal looked at Hector again. “Milord is from Brighton, yes?”

It still took Hector a moment to realize who milord referred to. “Er, I... yes?”

“That is where I am from as well,” said Jamal.

“Oh...”

“As it happens, I have a very good friend who still lives there. We haven’t seen each other since we were about your age, but she and I have stayed in touch all these years. And grown quite close, I suppose. I still consider her to be my best friend.”

Hector exchanged uncertain looks with Garovel.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Page 727

The underground reconstruction, however, had barely started. The surveyors had only just completed their work, but at least now, Hector had a rough map of the grounds and quick sketches of all the floor plans. He’d learned that the eight underground towers all boasted twenty-four floors, with the exception of two--those being the Star Tower, which only had its top nine and a half floors, and the Entry Tower, which required thirty-two in order to reach the surface.

Expectedly, the Tower of Night was shown to be the largest with an average of twelve rooms per floor compared to the others’ averages between seven and ten. In total, the castle had seventy-one lavatories, twenty-five hearths, six gathering halls, four kitchens, four adjacent bathhouses, one multilevel library, eight rainbow shrines, and then about six hundred empty rooms of undesignated function. This was not counting any of the buildings above ground or in the lake below Warrenhold.

The numbers left Hector a bit overwhelmed, to say the least. This wasn’t a house. It was a town. He couldn’t imagine ever needing this much space for anything. When he asked Voreese why Stasya had made it so gigantic, the reaper said that it was because she’d hoped Warrenhold would one day become a center of commerce between the surface world and the Undercrust.

And she specifically wanted it to be a fortress so that it could protect itself from all manner of exploitation by external forces,’ Voreese had said. ‘When she was building it, Stasya considered Warrenhold to be an investment in humanity itself. She wanted this place to change the world.

Hector could see why Voreese seemed to remember the woman so fondly.

And yet, he only had to look at Warrenhold now in order to understand what had become of Stasya’s dream. It was a sobering realization, that. Hector would have liked to know the full story of how Stasya had died, but he couldn’t bring himself to ask. He didn’t see how it could be anything other than sad. Voreese never brought it up, either, but that might have only been because she hadn’t stuck around very long. She and Roman had their own matters to attend to, of course.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Page 726

“It’s for the people around us, sir,” Jamal said. “It demonstrates to them that I think you are someone deserving of my respect. And that affects how they see you. For the better, I should hope.”

“Uh... o-okay... but no one else is even awake, right now.”

Jamal paused. “Well, it may also be force of habit, sir.”

Hector smiled meekly and proceeded into the kitchen to grab something to eat. As usual, he was both exhausted and hungry. He still hadn’t replaced his motorcycle yet, so he’d been doing his crime fighting on foot. He’d been trying to develop a more efficient means of getting around using only his materialization. Garovel had a few suggestions for him, but they required considerable practical experience. Hector had taken more than a few bone-breaking tumbles over the last few days.

Gray Rock was a nice city, he thought. The crime here didn’t seem quite as bad as other places, perhaps because the police force was so vigilant. He’d encountered them several times, and while they hadn’t been especially pleased by his presence, he was just happy they weren’t shooting at him. Now that the nationwide manhunt for him had been called off by order of the Queen, Hector hoped to eventually form a working relationship with the Gray Rock Police Department. After two weeks here, he still wasn’t quite sure if that was feasible or not.

As for Warrenhold itself, Madame Carthrace’s troupe of construction workers had already managed to rebuild three of the six aboveground towers. Hector had also offered some assistance on that front, able to save them some time with the heavy lifting. The workers had quickly grown to appreciate Hector’s metal power, as he could use it to create a kind of short-range transport line for huge stacks of materials. He would lay down a long, solid strip of metal, have the materials placed at one end, and then push them along with a continuously materializing wall. And not coincidentally, this was similar to the method by which he’d been attempting to transport himself around the city.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Page 725 -- LXXXII.

At length, Mariana finally had to urge the reapers along. “Shenado...”

I know,’ the reaper said, turning heavily toward her. ‘We are out of time.

Mariana breathed deeply and took a seat next to the hearth. She gazed into the fire therein. She’d lit it herself. She hadn’t sat next to an open flame like this in years. The crackling warmth summoned images of her childhood, of her humble parents, of their quaint home, of a plump mass of fur called Polly with those floppy ears and big, soft eyes. ‘Thank you for everything you’ve done for me,’ Mariana thought. ‘I never did say that enough.

You never needed to,’ said Shenado, wrapped in the echo of privacy. ‘Do you have any last words?

Mariana considered turning to her girls right then and telling them that she loved them. But she didn’t want to. She’d never liked saying it, which was perhaps a shame, because saying it now would only make things harder for herself. And for the girls, too, probably. And it didn’t really matter, anyway. Because they already knew. They had to. So she decided to hold her tongue. Instead, she thought, ‘For Zeff, if you ever see him again, tell him... I’ve decided that it wasn’t a mistake.

What wasn’t a mistake?

He will understand.

Shenado nodded solemnly. She moved closer.

Mariana watched the fox’s claws reach toward her face. And as she felt her life leave her, she heard Shenado’s tremulous parting words.

Goodbye, my sweet girl...

And the echo faded.


Chapter Eighty-Two: ‘Precious might, accrue now...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

It was a nice change, being able to return from a night’s patrol without having earned himself dozens of blood stains and bullet holes. He’d been starting to run out of wearable clothes again.

“Welcome back, sir.”

“Oh, ah... th-thank you...” Hector stopped in the doorway to pull his dark coat off. He was surprised to find Jamal still awake at this hour. “You, um... you really don’t have to call me sir, Mr. Easton.”

The tall guardsman looked at him evenly. “Begging your pardon, sir, but I disagree.”

Hector frowned and tilted his head at him. “Why?”

Page 724

“And don’t you dare blame Marcos for my death,” Mariana went on. “And don’t let him blame himself. None of this is his fault.”

Emiliana frowned. “It’s not yours, either, Mama...”

Mariana blinked at her. She exhaled a curt breath and took Emiliana’s face in both hands in order to kiss her on the forehead, just above the horns. Then she knelt down and hugged Ramira more tightly than she’d ever hugged her before.

“Mama--that hurts...”

Mariana released her. “I’m sorry, mijara.”

“It’s okay.”

Time was running short, she knew. Mariana composed herself and considered what else she needed to say. She eyed the two reapers present. “Listen to Shenado and Chergoa,” she told her girls. “They are both wiser than I could ever be. They will guide you well.”

“What if they don’t agree with each other?” said Emiliana.

“Then listen to Shenado.”

Hey,’ Chergoa pouted.

Shenado smirked. ‘Seniority rules.’

Ugh, you sound like my brother.

Everyone but Ramira looked at her.

Chergoa cocked an eyebrow. ‘What?

“You said that as though your brother was still alive,” said Mariana.

He is. At least, the last time I checked, he was.’ She squinted. ‘It’s been a while, though. I suppose he could’ve gotten himself killed. Sounds like something he’d do.

That is very rare,’ said Shenado. ‘You truly have a living sibling? Why did you never mention him before?

Chergoa shrugged. ‘Didn’t think to. I have no clue where he is. Haven’t seen him in... a while, like I said. I did tell Axiolis about him, though.

“Your brother is a reaper, too?” Emiliana asked.

Yeah, of course.

What is his name?’ said Shenado.

Garovel. You know him?

No.’

I figured.

The reapers’ chatter lasted a bit longer, only continuing to lose poignancy and relevance as it dragged on. It seemed apparent to Mariana that they were just trying to delay the inevitable now. Oddly childish of them, she thought--but not altogether unexpected. In her experience, most reapers tended to hold onto that quality in some small way. She always figured it was just something they did to help keep themselves sane.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Page 723

The Rainlords dispersed, but no one left the castle just yet. Everyone promised to call around for any available reapers. Mariana almost told them not to bother, but the desperation of her circumstances had begun to weigh on her, finally. And in the past couple hours, her trust for everyone in that room had grown immeasurably.

In truth, even after all these years, even after giving birth to five new Rainlords, she’d never quite felt like a Rainlord herself. She’d only married into the title, not been born with it.

But today, she felt it. That companionship. Ancient and bloody and fierce and warm. And so very welcome.

The rest of the day drew out slowly. Mariana waited as long as she could, spent as much time with her daughters as she could, and hoped silently that someone would walk through that door with a reaper for Marcos. But no one did.

The girls had been quiet, perhaps afraid to ask their questions, perhaps just knowing that their mother would talk to them in her own time. Mariana thought at length about what she should say to them, what her last words should be.

It wasn’t easy.

“You will be safe here. I wouldn’t leave you if I thought otherwise. Red Lake is one of the most secure castles in all of Sair.” Mariana paused, her expression spoiling slightly. “But I don’t know what the future holds. Something could happen. Even if I remained here with you, something could happen. Do you remember what I taught you? The most important lesson?”

“Always be prepared,” Ramira piped up.

Mariana smiled tiredly. “Yes.”

“Think, plan, and act ahead of time,” added Emiliana.

“That’s right. You are smart girls. I have confidence in you both. Look out for one another. Listen to one another. And protect each other. Do you understand? The time for childishness is past. It is unfair, but both of you must grow up quickly now. That means you will have to give up on many of the things you desire. Possibly forever. You will come to accept this, or you will get someone killed. Perhaps someone you love very dearly. Perhaps yourself. Perhaps both.”

The looks on their faces were stern, and Mariana knew they understood. Or hoped they did, at least.

Page 722

Alright, then, who here has a reaper for her son?’ Mevox looked across the room at everyone present. Cortes, Garza, Delaguna, Merlo, Redwater, Sebolt, Zabat, and Elroy.

None answered him.

Oh, come on. There are eight families here--nine, including Asad’s. You tellin’ me none of us can help her?

We all know reapers who could fill the role,’ said Shenado. ‘The problem is contacting them in time. Do you have a solution to that, Mevox?

Mevox looked over everyone again and frowned. His head dropped a little. ‘Well, then... is there a servant here willing to give up their life for the boy?

“Stop,” said Mariana. “I appreciate the sentiment, but you all have families of your own to protect. If anyone is to give their life for my son, it will be me.” She heard the intake of breath from Emiliana. “Instead, after I am gone, I ask that you watch over my children until my husband is free.”

“We are not out of time yet,” said Salvador, though not with his usual vigor. “A reaper might still be found...”

Mariana leveled a stare at the huge man, which was enough to make him shift uncomfortably in his chair. “Yes, well... if such a miracle does not occur, then please consider that to have been my final request.”

The table fell briefly silent.

Joana placed a hand on her shoulder. “Oh, Mary... of course we will take care of them.”

“As if they were our own,” said the Lord Sebolt.

The others all nodded in agreement. Lady Rayen of House Merlo, Lady Socorro of House Garza, Lord Santos of House Zabat, and Salvador and Octavia as well. Their reapers acknowledged the promise, too.

There wasn’t much left to be said after that, but the conversation lasted a while, anyway. They came to a rough consensus that an immediate assault on Rheinhal was not the right course of action and that a non-violent resolution to this conflict was still possible, though unlikely. First, they would send formal word to General Lawrence demanding Zeff’s release, and while they waited for the man’s response, they would muster all available forces and begin calling in favors from allies abroad.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Page 721

“Let us see,” said Octavia. She reached toward the middle of the broad table and lifted the receiver on the conference phone there. She put it on speaker for all to hear. “Lord Najir, are you there?”

<“I am,”> came the Sandlord’s voice.

“Is this line encrypted?” Mariana asked.

<“It is. And before you ask, no, Zeff is not here with me. Only Axiolis escaped.”>

Mariana’s heart sank a little. But at least now she knew he wasn’t dead.

Salvador puffed up with visible irritation. “Why would Axiolis go to you and not us?”

<“Ah, is that you I hear, oaf?”>

“It is! Answer my question, desert rat!”

<“Axiolis feared that going to you would be too predictable. So he came to me, knowing the enemy would not think to intercept him on the way here.”>

“Hmph.”

<“Don’t feel bad, oaf. I’m sure Axiolis would have gone to you right away if he needed any big rocks turned into small rocks.”>

“Ha! Will you be delivering Axiolis to us in person, then? Please tell me you will be.”

<“Axiolis says he will stay here and attempt to recruit more of the Sandlords with me.”>

Mariana’s brow rose. “You have already decided to help us?”

<“Of course.”> The man said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Mariana knew Zeff and Asad were close, but considering they hadn’t spoken to each other in months, she would have expected some hesitation, at least. Certainly, the other Sandlords would not be so easily convinced. “I must thank you, Asad.”

<“You are welcome. How is the situation in Aguarey? I have seen the news.”>

Mariana brought him up to speed in detail. The attack on her house, her subsequent escape, Cisco being unaccounted for, and Marcos. The boy’s lifeless body was already becoming stiff. Mercifully, the stench of death was not as bad as she knew it could be.

<“Terrible. I am so sorry. Do you have a reaper for him?”>

“...I do not,” she said. “Do you happen to have one there with you now? If you send them to Aguarey right away, they could make it here in time.” Axiolis, of course, was not an option, as he could not release Zeff without making contact again.

<“...I am sorry, Mariana. There are no such reapers here.”>

Friday, June 6, 2014

Page 720

If it’s only a single general and his underlings we have to worry about, then I’m not too concerned,’ said Mevox. ‘Problem is, you Vanguardians like to send reinforcements.

Indeed,’ said Jostomere.

Soon, more Rainlords began to arrive, and Octavia decided to move the conversation upstairs. Mariana still hadn’t set Marcos down or left her daughters alone, wanting the girls to hear everything that was discussed.

Mariana knew that Zeff was well-loved among the other Rainlords, but even so, she was still a bit surprised by everyone’s readiness to support her. Only House Blackburn and House Stroud did not have representatives here today, but among the other eight family heads, none even humored the notion of handing Mariana and her children over to the Vanguard. At first, Mariana thought they were just holding back while in her presence, but more and more, she became convinced that was not the case.

“I can’t believe they had the gall to attack you in your own home,” a lumbering man was saying. He was the largest person in the room by a head and had the bulk of two men put together. Salvador Delaguna was his name, and just like his reaper, he was prone to ‘listening to his passions’ as Octavia had once put it. “We should go to Rheinhal this very moment and demand they return Zeff to us.”

Sounds good to me,’ said Mevox.

Abel Sebolt shook his head. “We all care for Zeff, but let’s not be rash,” he said. The Lord of House Sebolt reminded Mariana of Zeff in many ways. They had the same kind of naturally cold expression, though Abel was slimmer. “We are still immensely outnumbered, you realize.”

“So were our ancestors,” said Joana Cortes.

“Hear hear!” said Salvador.

As they talked, Mariana noticed a maid enter the room and rush to Octavia’s side, whispering in her ear. After a moment, Octavia nodded and whispered something back. The maid exited, and Octavia stood to address everyone.

“I’ve just received word from Asad Najir. Apparently, Axiolis is with him.”

That caught everyone’s attention.

“Zeff?” said Mariana.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Page 719

The Vanguard sent seven servants to our house,’ said Shenado. ‘They claimed they only wanted to “escort” us safely to Lagemoor, but when we refused to go with them, they attacked us. One of Mariana’s sons was fatally wounded in the battle. Another is missing. As is Zeff.

Mevox drifted closer to Mariana and her children, poking his head forward curiously. ‘Why were they tryin’ to escort you to Lagemoor?

We’re not sure,’ said Shenado. ‘They mentioned something about wanting to find Gema, Mariana’s oldest daughter, but that might have been just another lie. Not that it matters much, because we don’t know where Gema is. Even if we were of a mind to turn her over to them, we wouldn’t be able to.

Are you of a mind to do that?” said Octavia.

“No,” said Mariana.

Damn right,’ said Mevox. He turned to Jostomere, who’d thus far remained silent. ‘What’re you thinkin’? Your family works for the Vanguard, too. I suspect you’ve got a more difficult decision to make than the rest of us here do.

That is true.’ Jostomere’s burning eyes fell upon Marcos’ body. ‘But this is plainly unacceptable. And if it can happen to the Elroys, it can happen to the Zabats. You can expect our full support.

Ours as well,’ said Lonogren. ‘Which already puts us at five of ten.

Six, actually,’ said Shenado. ‘House Cortes is guaranteed to help. Joana is Zeff’s sister.

Ah, that’s right,’ said Lonogren, nodding.

We can ask the Intarians for help, too,’ said Wendy. ‘They might turn us down, but there are thirty more families there. At least a few will agree to help, I’m sure.

Worth asking,’ said Mevox. ‘Where was Zeff’s last known location?

“Rheinhal,” said Mariana. “He was ordered there by General Lawrence.”

Octavia’s brow twitched. “Xavier Lawrence, you mean?”

Mariana nodded.

Octavia pursed her lips. “The Blue Bear, huh? I didn’t realize he was the one they had stationed in Sair.”

Do you know him personally?’ asked Shenado.

“Not well,” said Octavia. “We crossed paths ages ago. Very polite, as I recall. A real gentleman. His reaper, less so. I haven’t heard his name in years. Thought he might have been killed.”

Page 718

Octavia showed them into a vast, windowless chamber with a high ceiling. Beds sat on either side of the room, each one neatly made. Octavia had her housekeepers show Mariana’s own staff to different rooms on the same floor. Ramira and Emiliana didn’t leave their mother’s side, but Emiliana was eyeing one of the beds as if it might be holding all the secrets of the universe. Mariana certainly understood the impulse. The fatigue was weighing on her, and her clothes were still smote and ragged from earlier.

She’d been struggling to think of what to tell her girls. Before she could even get started, however, Wendy phased through the ceiling and floated down toward everyone.

Our other guests have begun to arrive,’ the reaper said.

“What other guests?” said Mariana.

“I called an emergency meeting,” said Octavia. “We will be needing a plan of action, of course.”

Three more reapers descended from the ceiling after Wendy. Mariana recognized all of them. Lonogren, Jostomere, and Mevox. Each one belonged to a different Rainlord family--House Merlo, House Zabat, and House Delaguna, respectively. Their servants were all the heads of their houses.

So what’s all this then?’ said Mevox. He stood out a little from the other reapers in that his fox fur had a faint luster to it.

“If you would please wait upstairs with your partners,” said Octavia, “Mariana and I will be with you in a mome--”

Nah,’ said Mevox. ‘I wanna know what’s goin’ on right now.

We know the Elroys were attacked,’ said Lonogren. ‘We would like to hear the full details from Mariana and Shenado. I am sure we can all agree that this is a matter of great urgency.

“We should at least wait until everyone has gathered,” said Octavia.

Hell with that,’ said Mevox. ‘No need to wait for their slow asses. Talk to us, Mariana. We’re here to help.

Octavia looked at the Lady Elroy with sympathy. “We’ve an impatient lot here, it seems.”

Mariana took a haggard breath. She only wanted to talk to her daughters, but she supposed there was still plenty of time for that. Regardless, Shenado was gracious enough to speak up for her.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Page 717

Mariana had to turn away as she listened. There was truth in Shenado’s words. She knew there was. And it gave her pause. The choice in her head wasn’t quite so clear anymore.

I know it is difficult,’ Shenado went on, ‘but think about this carefully. Yes, Marcos is only twelve. But Ramira is only nine. Emiliana is confused and distraught and looking to you for guidance. We don’t even know where Francisco is. Hopefully, only captured. And then there’s Gema. Obviously, she’s gotten herself involved in something big and terrible. Wherever she is, I’m sure she could use your help, too.

That argument almost convinced her. Almost. She steeled her expression. ‘I am not going to let Marcos die. And I am not abandoning them. I am leaving them in your care.

It was Shenado’s turn to hesitate.

They won’t need me to guide them when they have you,’ said Mariana. ‘They’re practically your children as much as mine. It won’t just be Marcos. Not really. You’ll take care of them all. I know you will.

I can’t protect them from physical threats.

Yes, you can. Not with your body, but with your mind. By being smart. And by teaching them to be just as much so. We’ve already started. They know how the world is. Now, they will see it firsthand. And you will be there for them.

Mariana...

Please, Shenado. I’ve made up my mind.

...And what if I refuse?

Then I will never forgive you for as long as I live. And you might as well find a new servant, anyway, because I will never listen to any requests you make of me ever again.

...I thought you would threaten to kill me.

I would have been bluffing, and you would have known it. But make no mistake, if there ever came a day when the rest of my children were finally out of danger, I would certainly kill you for letting Marcos die today.

Shenado sighed publicly, drawing looks from Emiliana and Octavia as they proceeded down a long hallway together. ‘Fine,’ the reaper said privately. ‘I’ll release you. You were always mean to me, anyway.

Thank you.

I bet Marcos will be nicer.

Page 716

Red Lake Castle was a hulking, crimson structure with a tower on its northwestern corner that rose much higher than any of its others. The castle also had a port all its own, hidden away beneath the platform, allowing Mariana to take her boat right into its welcoming underbelly. She found Emiliana waiting for her inside, along with Chergoa and Octavia.

Emiliana looked relieved to see her mother. Until she saw Marcos’ body.

“He is going to be fine,” said Mariana. The four small horns on her daughter’s face did not escape her notice, but reacting to them now would serve no purpose, she felt. Instead, she turned to Octavia. “I would like to speak with my daughters in private. Do you have a room we can use?”

“Of course. Follow me.” The old woman led Mariana’s group to a nearby elevator.

Ramira hadn’t said a word this whole time. Mariana shifted Marcos over to her right arm and held her left hand out for the girl. Ramira took it and walked with her.

The journey was painfully quiet.

Shenado took the opportunity to ask a private question. ‘So when are you going to ask me to release your soul?

Mariana only glanced at her.

I know you’re considering it,’ the reaper said.

I am more than considering it.

Oh, so you didn’t think you needed to ask, then. You’re just assuming I have no problem with letting you go and taking on your son as my servant, is that it?

I do not see many options, Shenado.

Yes, but are you sure this is the best one?

Mariana gave the reaper a hard look. ‘You are telling me to let my son die.

I am telling you not to abandon the rest of your children. The whole reason you chose to stay in Aguarey today was because you refused to leave them alone while Zeff was away. And now? We still don’t know what has become of him. They may have already lost their father. Are you going to deprive them of their mother, as well? They need you now more than ever.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Page 715

Shenado looked like she had something to say, but she remained quiet.

Mariana made a few more calls. She tried Zeff and Francisco without success, and then she rang Joana Cortes again to inform the woman of what had happened. House Cortes was a burgeoning Rainlord line, an offshoot of House Elroy started by Joana herself. She’d chosen to take her commoner husband’s name--a decision which had upset Zeff to no end--but Joana had at least made it clear that she still intended to carry on their bloodline with children of her own.

It was a particularly delicate issue for Zeff, because for many years, aside from him and his sister, there had been no other Elroys left. Zeff had inherited his family’s fortune when he was only fifteen. And not due to peaceable circumstances.

At the moment, though, Mariana didn’t have the time or patience to listen to Joana’s questions or ramblings. As soon as Joana confirmed that she did not have a reaper for Marcos, Mariana hung up and called three other Rainlord families. House Garza, House Merlo, and House Delaguna. They were the only other ones without ties to the Vanguard, but as Mariana had expected, none of them had any reapers available, either. The tradition of turning one’s own children into servants was a custom exclusive to the Vanguardian Rainlords, so it was unsurprising that they were not keeping any spare reapers around. Supposedly, House Blackburn had cut ties with the Vanguard a few years ago, but Mariana didn’t know that family well enough. This matter was too important to entrust to strangers.

With no other calls to make, it was time to leave. Mariana knew that Zeff and Axiolis might turn up here looking for her, so she scribbled a quick note and left it at the helm. Then she gathered everyone back into the boat again, topped off its gas tank, and set out for Red Lake Castle. It was an easy place to reach, as the castle sat on the farthest northwestern edge of Aguarey’s platform and doubled as a gigantic support column.