Thursday, July 31, 2014

Page 770

The second method of transport that Hector tried was a bit more haphazard. It consisted of launching himself into the air with iron platforms and then trying to break his fall instead of his body. He was often unsuccessful. On the plus side, super jumping over buildings was fun as hell, as was improvising ramps and slides and arching platforms to catch himself. It was just that the priorities, of course, were always to avoid endangering bystanders or destroying property, which ended up translating into an abundance of faceplants and pratfalls for Hector.

As he waited for his spine to realign and his arm to start bending the right way again, he let out a heavy groan and annihilated the twisty ramp he’d created for himself on the way down. Perhaps he’d made it a little too twisty. ‘Garovel... I’d really like a new motorcycle now...

The reaper snorted a laugh.

Do I really have to wait until I get a license?’ said Hector.

It’s for the best. Just bear with it for now. We’ll find you a new bike soon.

Hector grumbled and started walking. He’d made the ramp spit him out on the edge of a grassy park, and there were more than a few onlookers for his graceless landing. At least these people didn’t look too scared of him. One kid even gave a big wave and shouted, “Yo, Darksteel!”

Hector smiled inside his helm and returned a more hesitant wave of his own.

Garovel was still up high and didn’t notice, probably looking elsewhere in case of fresh trouble that might have needed their attention. ‘On the bright side, this is really good practice. Maybe you can’t tell, but I’ve seen you improving each day. In fact, I think you should keep traveling like this even after you get a new bike and just have the motorcycle in reserve for long trips.

Ugh...

Trust me. The less reliant you are on technology, the better.

He knew Garovel had a point. And training wasn’t supposed to be easy, anyway.

Eventually, they made it back home, and Hector was ready to help out the reconstruction crew again, but when he made his way through the dilapidated front gate and up the main path, he spotted a cluster of unfamiliar vehicles.

They were all news vans, he realized. ‘Oh... fuck!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Page 769

Alone at his table, Hector just tried to make himself comfortable. Despite all the people, the place remained fairly quiet, and no one seemed interested in approaching him. Garovel wandered around, eavesdropping on their hushed conversations.

Let’s see. These guys are talking about the food. Seems they’re enjoying it. Over here, they’re talking about the weather. Cold front coming in, apparently. Next, we’ve got a conversation about Madison Reach. This guy thinks she’s super hot.

I don’t even know who that is,’ said Hector.

Doesn’t matter. Boring topic. Ah, these people are talking about you. Vigilante in Gray Rock. They’re scared. That’s too bad. What else we got? Hmm... Oh, here we go. This guy’s talking about himself. His buddy just called him Frank. Sounds like Frank used to be a carpenter. Strange. You’d think that would be a pretty stable line of work. Maybe he got injured.

Hector continued listening for a while longer. After an hour, he wasn’t sure they’d made much progress. Most of these people were only here to eat breakfast after all, and that didn’t exactly require them to volunteer their life stories to one another. He and Garovel departed for Warrenhold soon afterward.

It was a ways back, and after armoring up, Hector took the opportunity to practice with a couple different methods of transport. The first was a kind of self-propelled, one-seater train. Essentially, he just materialized an iron track with a chair on it and then pushed the chair along by adding metal from the backend. From there, he could lay more track as he went while simultaneously annihilating the metal behind him.

He thoroughly enjoyed traveling with this method, if only because it allowed him to sit down and basically float toward his destination like a magician; but in practice, he found it rather unwieldy to navigate around pedestrians and cars. He tried doing it over the tops of buildings instead, but that meant constantly materializing bridges, which were not only more complicated but also required support structures, and he couldn’t very well create a metal column in the middle of a busy intersection. And apart from all of that, as a general means of travel, it was just slow. He hoped to improve on all of these things as his proficiency increased, but it seemed like that might take a while.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Page 768 -- LXXXVI.

Chapter Eighty-Six: ‘Turn toward the needful...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

The police presence here wasn’t as strong as the rest of Gray Rock, and Hector had ended up visiting this area frequently during his patrols. Just in the past three days, he’d thwarted two attempts at robbery, one at rape, and another at murder. At the moment, however, he wasn’t here on patrol. Garovel had a different task for him now that the sun had risen.

The unmarked building on the featureless street corner had taken a while to find. He barely noticed the small sign by the front door. ‘Free breakfast,’ it said in thin letters.

He proceeded inside and found it just as rundown as the exterior, though the smell was slightly more welcoming. The very first chamber was a large refectory with a crowd of disheveled persons afoot. Hector had tried to match attire in order to blend in, but now that he got a good look at what they were wearing, he was starting to think he’d gone a bit overboard. Sure, none of them seemed to be wearing fresh clothes, but they weren’t in rags like him. After silently consulting Garovel about it, he decided to pull off the most shredded pieces and trash them before he attracted too much attention. He kept his hat and ridiculous mustache, however.

There was a line for hot food at the counter, but Hector just took a seat at one of the empty tables. ‘So now what do I do?’ he asked.

Just observe and listen,’ said Garovel. ‘The first step is establishing a presence. It’d be a little off-putting if you just walk up to them and start asking about their lives.

Hector saw a few people eyeing him oddly. ‘You really think this is going to work?

No idea. Could be a total waste of time.

He shot the reaper a look. ‘Garovel, what the hell? Are you serious?

Garovel snickered and shrugged. ‘Relax. Just think of it as getting more acquainted with your local community.

This “local community” is on the other side of the city.

Semantics.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Page 767

The Vanguard will have a real problem on its hands if that happens,’ said Wendy, ‘because it won’t just be us. There will be dissenters to deal with as well. We’ve sent word to all of the Vanguardian leaders, explaining our circumstances, and we’ve received word back from Field Marshal Sanko stating that, if the situation continues to escalate, she will come to Sair personally and order General Lawrence to stand down.

Shenado perked up a little. ‘Sanko, huh? That’s excellent news, but I don’t think Lawrence will listen to her. She may outrank him, but his boss is Lamont. Is she the only one you’ve heard from?

Octavia nodded. “The others have all been irritatingly quiet. We’re not even sure if our message reached Sermung.”

I’m not surprised,’ said Shenado. ‘His whereabouts are often kept secret. Even if he did receive your message, he probably won’t answer you.

“So we’ve been told.”

Truthfully, I wouldn’t have expected any of them to answer,’ said Shenado. ‘Sanko is really willing to go against her own comrades for our sake? That is a very bold decision on her part, especially considering she doesn’t have any ties to the Elroys that I know of.

Believe it or not, some people in positions of power still give half-a-damn about the rules,’ said Wendy.

Octavia breathed a curt laugh. “When I was younger, I was quite keen to meet all of the strongest women in the world--or at least, all of the ones who wouldn’t kill me for looking at them the wrong way. So naturally, Wendy and I have met her before. A few times, in truth. Not very friendly, that woman. I don’t think she likes us much. But I’ve never gotten the impression that she cares about anything more than she cares about justice and the rule of law.”

I’ve heard others say as much about her as well,’ said Shenado. ‘But you’ll have to forgive me if I’m a bit more skeptical than usual.

Of course. We’re in no rush to trust anyone from the Vanguard, either.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Page 766

That is about the same as what Axiolis told me,’ said Shenado. ‘I’ve always thought that story was a little strange.

You are not the only one,’ said Wendy. ‘Octavia and I wondered if the Vanguard was somehow behind the attack on the Elroys, but we never found any evidence proving so. And of course, Zeff and Axiolis saw the attack happen and were convinced it was Abolish, so I don’t think they ever doubted the Vanguard like we did. Or perhaps that was their reason for rejoining: because they thought it would help them find answers.

If they ever had such suspicions, then they never told me about them,’ said Shenado. ‘I think they genuinely believe it was Abolish’s doing. And to be frank, I trust their judgment more than I trust yours.

Wendy ruffled his feathers again. ‘I do not blame you, I suppose. But you must admit, recent events have cast a new light on that old one.

Shenado made no response.

“If the Vanguard betrayed my family thirty years ago, then why would they wait so long to try and finish us off?” said Marcos.

Everyone blinked at him collectively.

“What?” he said.

Nothing,’ said Wendy. ‘That was a very level-headed question and well-posed. We have been wondering the same thing, but just because we don’t currently have an answer doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

Shenado came to land on Marcos’ shoulder. ‘It hardly makes much difference at this point. We’re in a fight now whether we like it or not. How goes the gathering of the allies, by the way?

“Fairly well so far,” said Octavia. “Our conflict has gained quite a lot of attention. The fearmongers are saying a war in Sair would destabilize the entire continent, so there are a number of parties interested in preventing it.”

And a few in exacerbating it,’ added Wendy.

“Of course.”

“Do you think it will really come to war?” asked Marcos.

“If Lawrence continues to ignore our demands, then yes. Soon enough, we’ll have ample strength to lay siege to Rhein’s Keep.”

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Page 765

Octavia seemed to have trouble continuing her story. She glanced at her reaper another time, and Wendy helped her out.

Axiolis and Zeff were both able to identify the attackers as members of Abolish,’ he said. ‘Zeff recognized them from photographs, while Axiolis had actually fought against them with his previous servant. We sent a team to the lake in order to look for any other survivors, but there weren’t any. Octavia and I visited as well in order to make sense of what had happened. It was very unsettling to us that Abolish could make it this far into our territory undetected while still having enough power to wipe out over two dozen servants--some of whom were quite powerful. We didn’t find any answers, but it has always bothered me.

After that, all of the Rainlords gathered to mount a counterattack, along with the Vanguard’s assistance. We knew who the enemy was, where they were located, and had solid intel on most of their members. On paper, at least, they DID have enough power at their disposal to have conducted such an attack, and we had several reports that they’d been in frequent conflict with the Vanguardian units to which the Elroys belonged. So, despite the strange circumstances, there was no doubt that they were the ones responsible, and at that point, we were all brimming with righteous fury. We fully intended to obliterate them from the face of Eleg.

However, when we reached their base of operations, there was almost nothing left. Instead of a large military complex, we found a smoldering crater. A chasm. So deep that we could barely see the bottom. And all around it, were the heads and mutilated corpses of everyone we knew to be responsible for the attack--as well as a few we DIDN’T. Some were very surprising, being well-known and high-ranking members of Abolish who might have given us real trouble in a direct conflict. As you might imagine, we weren’t sure what to make of it. And thirty years later, we still aren’t.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Page 764

It was Octavia’s turn to hesitate. “Did Zeff ever tell you what happened to the rest of his family?”

It was as Marcos thought. He gave a weak nod. “He didn’t mention it much, but... they were all killed, weren’t they?”

“Yes. He and Joana were the only ones to survive. Afterwards, they lived here at Red Lake until they turned eighteen. I didn’t want them to rejoin the Vanguard, but they wouldn’t listen to me.” Her expression weakened, eyes glazing over with distant memory. “I was very upset by that decision. I should have been more understanding. Instead, they pushed me away, and I just... let them.” She closed her eyes and rubbed her brow with one hand.

Marcos frowned. The old woman had been so cheerful from the first moment he’d met her. He’d wondered if nothing ever fazed her or if she simply didn’t care. Seeing her like this evoked a strange mixture of worry and gratitude. He was slow to ask his next question. “He never really went into much detail about how they died, so... can you tell me what happened?”

Octavia looked at him heavily, then at Shenado.

Axiolis told me about it, but I’d like to hear your version of events, if you don’t mind.’

Octavia gave a slow nod. “Very well.” She took so long to gather her thoughts that it seemed like she might have changed her mind. “...Zeff and Joana had no other siblings. Their parents and grandparents were all members of the Vanguard, as were many of their cousins. Zeff was on his way to joining the Vanguard as well. He’d been with Axiolis for over a year, already.”

She paused again, biting her lip as she chose her next words. “The attack happened very suddenly. The Elroys were having a large family gathering out on a lake up north. About thirty miles from here. Almost all of them were present, including Zeff and Joana. The few who didn’t attend were later found dead elsewhere. I didn’t know anything had happened until Zeff showed up on my doorstep with Joana in his arms. She was unconscious but still alive. She didn’t have a reaper yet, so Zeff had carried her all the way here on foot.”

Monday, July 21, 2014

Page 763

Even this painting is a bit misleading, if you ask me,’ said Wendy. ‘The Twins could have avoided this. They had ample warning that the enemy was coming to their doorstep, but their pride wouldn’t let them retreat like they should have. They could have lived to fight another day, but this painting implies otherwise by glorifying their deaths.

“It doesn’t glorify anything,” said Octavia, furrowing her brow. “You know that’s not why I had it painted.”

Wendy just ruffled his feathers at her.

“It’s a reminder that theirs was a cautionary tale,” said Octavia. “It’s so we don’t forget the consequences of our actions. My family has always been too reckless for my liking.”

I don’t know how much good it’s done,’ said Wendy.

For a moment, Octavia just glared at him. Then she wiped her face clean and looked at Marcos again. “Anyway. What do you think? Are you disappointed to hear that they weren’t quite the heroes that everyone claims they were?”

Marcos blinked. “Disappointed? Not really. Even if it’s not as nice or... as comforting, I’d still rather know the real story. Otherwise, it just feels like I’m being lied to.”

She broke into a wide grin and laughed faintly. “I don’t know if your father ever told you this, but when he was younger, he and his sister lived here at Red Lake for a few years.”

He thought back. “Oh... yeah, I think he mentioned that.”

“Did he? I’m surprised. Regardless, the point I was trying to make was that when he first came here, he and I had much the same conversation as this one. And he said almost exactly the same thing as you did just now.”

Wendy intervened with a nod. ‘I remember it perfectly. His exact words were, ‘I would rather find more pain in the truth than any solace in a lie.’

Octavia chortled. “That’s right. He was pretty intense for a fifteen-year-old.”

Of course he was,’ said Wendy. ‘He’d just been through an ordeal of his own, remember?

“I do,” she said, and her smile waned.

Marcos had an inkling of what they were talking about. “What ordeal?”

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Page 762

Marcos hesitated. “Were the Twins not heroes?”

Wendy paused to mull the question over. ‘They were good in a fight, I suppose. And their hearts were generally in the right place. And they were natural leaders. In those regards, at least, I’d say they weren’t entirely dissimilar to Zeff. But I certainly don’t think they were deserving of the fame and affection that history has afforded them.

Few people are,’ said Shenado. ‘And many deserving people end up all but forgotten.

True. But I will always reserve the right to complain about it.

Ha. Fair point.

Octavia made her way toward the next painting over. She nudged Marcos with her elbow as she passed. “Wendy can be a real downer sometimes, but he’s not wrong. See this one here? I commissioned it a few years ago.”

An enormous canvas depicted a castle engulfed in flames. As he looked closer, he realized that the silhouette within was the same as that of Red Lake. And above it, a rift in the deeply gray clouds allowed sunlight to shine through. The title at the bottom read, ‘The Day of Clear Sky.’

Marcos tilted his head. “What is this?”

Madame Redwater placed both hands on the top of her cane as she looked up at the sprawling work. “Everyone remembers the Uprising. Of course they do. It ultimately brought down the empire. But people often forget that the Uprising itself was a grisly failure. All of the Rainlords suffered terribly, but my family had the worst of it. Only a handful survived this attack you see before you.”

Wide-eyed, Marcos only listened.

“The Redwaters were the first to truly stand against the empire,” Octavia went on. “The Twins’ early victories inspired people across the continent and sparked dozens of other rebellions, which tend to get lumped in as all being part of the Uprising, too, but they weren’t. Not really. You see, because we went first, we received the full weight of the empire’s military strength. So this painting--it’s a bit of an eyesore once you know what you’re looking at, but this gallery would be incomplete without it, I feel.”

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Page 761

In this painting, Lluc is the one on the left,’ said Shenado. ‘He always wore his hair longer than Marcelo so that people could tell them apart.

“Did you know them?” Marcos asked.

Personally? No. I’ve heard Axiolis talk about them at length, but I didn’t get involved with you Rainlords until after your parents met.

“Oh, right...” That subject hollowed out his expression as it brought him back to the present. However, he was resolved not to dwell on it, and instead attempted to spin it around to the past again. “It’s weird to think that Papa has their power now.”

Legendary people are still people.

Indeed, they certainly had their flaws,’ came another reaper’s voice. It belonged to Wendy, entering the room behind Octavia Redwater. ‘Lluc and Marcelo were identical in more ways than one. They were like wild horses, those two. You never knew what they were going to do next. And neither did they, I am convinced.

“Are you enjoying the gallery?” Octavia asked. She never seemed to need her cane at all, making Marcos wonder if she just carried the thing around for show. “I have not been down here in ages.”

It’s lovely,’ said Shenado, ‘even if some of the images are a bit unsettling. I was surprised to find no one else here.

“Ah, well, family members generally aren’t interested in this place. The youngins hear about it all their lives, I suppose. Nereida wanted this room to be an intimate shrine to our family’s legacy, but I’m afraid it has become more of a tourist attraction than anything. And of course, we’re closed to the public at the moment. So you see. Empty.”

Marcos was more interested in what Wendy had been saying. “You knew the Twins?”

I did,’ he said. ‘In terms of personality, they could not have been more UNLIKE your father, I should think.

“Really?”

Yes. They were impulsive, loud, obnoxious, and foolish.

“Don’t listen to him,” said Octavia. “I didn’t know them, obviously, but I know Wendy, and he has always been a party pooper.”

Lluc was your great great grandfather, wasn’t he?’ asked Shenado.

“That, he was.”

Friday, July 18, 2014

Page 760 -- LXXXV.

Chapter Eighty-Five: ‘Thy ancestral blood...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Marcos moved through the gallery with slow wonder. Elaborate artwork filled the chamber, huge paintings framed in brass and steel. Each one depicted some historical event, only a couple of which he recognized, but Shenado was more than happy to answer his questions. To his eyes, the reaper was an eagle with a white tail and splotched brown-gray body. She would have looked like a normal animal, if not for the smoldering black eyes.

He stopped in front of a particularly violent image. In it, two men in shimmering red armor clashed against a roomful of opponents. Spears of ice filled the scene, skewering ten men in golden armor and coloring the walls with their blood.

“Whoa,” said Marcos. “What’s this one?”

Read the title at the bottom,’ said Shenado.

“Umm... ‘The Redwater Twins Declare Independence.’ Oh!”

Do you see the man in the back? The one wearing a crown?

He searched among the carnage. “Yeah.”

He was the first and last ‘Rain King,’ sent by the Mohssian Emperor of the time to rule over all the Rainlords. He was seen as nothing more than a pawn, but nonetheless, he made many unreasonable demands, which led to what we see here.

“What kind of unreasonable demands?”

Taxes, for one. Poverty was already a difficult issue when he arrived, and he only made it worse. And there was also the not-so-small matter of trying to take multiple wives, which wasn’t a tradition that the Rainlords appreciated, especially because many of the women he pursued were Rainlords themselves. The final straw was an eight-year-old by the name of Nereida Redwater. Girls often married extremely young in those days, but even then, eight was outrageous. Nor did it help matters that the so-called Rain King was already in his forties.

“Eww.”

Nereida’s father was Lluc Redwater.

“Oh, I definitely know who he is.”

I should hope so. He and his brother were probably the most famous Rainlords who have ever lived.

Marcos looked at the painting another time. Lluc and Marcelo Redwater were the two men at the heart of it, the conductors of this immortalized bloodbath.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Page 759

Nice work,’ said Chergoa. ‘That’s a good start. You should see if you can do something new now. Try manipulating a part of your skin--the knuckles, maybe. An application of keratin could make it more resilient.

Emiliana made to respond, but when she looked up from her work, her eyes widened behind her mask as something else demanded her attention.

A pitch dark figure was suddenly there before her, taller than any person she had ever seen. But this wasn’t a person, seemingly. Rather, it looked more like a monster, covered in black scales and even bearing a tail in spite of its bipedalism. Its lithe torso seemed vaguely human, as did its folded arms and huge hands with long, gangly fingers, but its head was still a matter of debate. It appeared to have no mouth, somehow--or at the very least, no lips. A small protrusion in the scales suggested that the nasal passage was where it should be, but the eyes--those were piercingly reptilian, glowing faintly crimson, and most unsettling of all, staring right at her.

Emiliana was without a voice.

The creature was certainly alive and breathing, but it said nothing. If it even could. For a long moment, it only watched her, until it slowly turned its head and looked around in silence.

You okay?’ Chergoa asked privately. She’d been hovering next to Emiliana the whole time but didn’t seem especially perturbed by the monster’s presence.

Finally, Emiliana found the proper question.‘What the HELL is that thing?!

Chergoa hesitated. ‘What thing?

That giant monster! Right in front of us!

Uh...?

How can you not see it?! It’s right there!

I don’t see anything,’ said Chergoa. ‘I don’t sense anything, either.

What? Then...?

The monster didn’t move. It only lingered there mutely, until at length, it faded away into empty space, dispersed like a whiff of smoke, leaving Emiliana to wonder if it had even been there to begin with.

It’s gone now... You really didn’t see anything?

I really didn’t. You really saw a monster?

She put a hand to her head. ‘I... I thought I did... What’s happening to me? Am I hallucinating?

Hmm.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Page 758

Emiliana took another look around the room. “Where is Marcos?”

“He said he was tired of meditating and went to explore the castle,” said Ramira.

Chergoa’s wispy eyes closed, and it took her a while before she could say, ‘He’s three floors below us. Shenado’s with him.

Emiliana nodded. She took a seat on the end of her bed and removed her mask in order to eat. Ramira and Alicia sat with her and continued chatting, mostly about Ramira’s espionage. Alicia seemed rather keen to hear about what certain cousins of hers were up to. Emiliana could see a shady partnership being born. She shared her silent amusement with Chergoa.

As the day drew on, however, Emiliana found herself growing more and more restless. And she began to understand why. Her mother’s words were there in the back of her mind, urging her quietly onward. Grow up quickly. Be prepared. Protect what is important. Who is important.

Mask on, she looked across the room at her little sister one more time before heading off to the solitude of the lavatory. She asked Chergoa to come with her.

She locked the door behind her. There was plenty of room to work with in here. Three pristine silver sinks. A pair of toilets, each one with its own offshoot room for extra privacy. A large ceramic tub with a separate shower. Ample floor space with a shaggy rug.

She took a seat on the broad edge of the tub and stared at her left hand, flexing her fingers in anticipation. She breathed deeply, clutched her wrist with the other hand, and concentrated on what she wanted. Flat subtraction was impossible, of course, otherwise that would have been her goal.

Her fingertips burned as she watched the claws grow longer, thicker, sharper. Just as she’d imagined them in her mind. She hadn’t thought it would be so easy. She had to stop before they became blades unto themselves.

She inspected her work. They weren’t so gnarled anymore. Rather, they had hooking curves to them, and their lengths were almost uniform, boasting a good five centimeters or so. Compared to her right hand, the difference was unmistakable.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Page 757

Ramira didn’t let go of Emiliana, instead just looking up at her and squinting. “Quit leaving me alone! I don’t know any of these stupid people!” She tossed a glance at Alicia. “No offense.”

Alicia just shrugged.

“I thought you liked being alone,” said Emiliana.

“Yeah, well, I don’t!”

“Then why are you always wandering off and eavesdropping on people?”

“Because that’s what spies do! It’s my job! That doesn’t mean I want you to disappear for nine hours!”

“Hey, I wasn’t gone that long.”

“Whatever!”

Alicia interjected. “You’ve been eavesdropping on people?”

Ramira looked at her blankly. “...No.”

“Right,” said Emiliana. “Did you learn anything juicy during this eavesdropping that you didn’t do?”

The little girl frowned. “Not really. With all these people around, you’d think there would be more going on, but no. It seems like everyone gets along really well. It kind of creeps me out... No offense.”

Alicia just shrugged again.

“I think it’s because everyone knows that there are invisible reapers all over the place who could be watching their every move and listening to all of their suspicious conversations,” said Ramira. “I think I might have to start going through their mail next.”

“That would be a federal crime,” Emiliana told her.

Ramira’s face scrunched up. “Federal? What does that mean?”

“It means both the Rainlords AND the Sandlords would be upset with you. And you’d go to prison for a really long time.”

Ramira squinted. “Nuh-uh. They wouldn’t put me in prison. I’m only nine.”

“Hey, I don’t make the rules.”

“You’re lying! You shouldn’t lie to me! I’m young and impressionable!”

Chergoa burst into a laugh. ‘She makes a good point. Don’t confuse your sister like that. Could cause her problems later. And when she finds out the truth, she’ll probably make you regret it. If I were her, you’d be waking up with glue in your hair the next day.

The reaper made a compelling argument. “Okay, you wouldn’t go to prison. But you would get in a lot of trouble, so don’t open other people’s mail. Understood?”

“Fiiine...”

Friday, July 11, 2014

Page 756

C’mon,’ Chergoa urged. ‘Alicia’s trying to look out for you. The least you can do is try to carry a conversation with her.

The reaper was right, Emiliana knew. She attempted a question of her own. “Are all of these people really your family?”

“Ah--well, some of them just work for us, but basically, yeah. Grandma only had one child--my papa--but her sister had nine. So I have a lot of cousins. Or rather, ‘second cousins once removed,’ technically.” She paused. “I looked it up after the last time they visited.”

“Wow...”

“Yeah. And then, as if that weren’t enough, Grandma and her brother had cousins with the name Redwater who also had children and grandchildren, so there are even more branches of my family out there. It’s super confusing. I honestly couldn’t tell you exactly how I’m related to ninety percent of the people here.”

“How many members of your family have reapers?”

Alicia bit her lip. “Oh, I should know this, um...I know it’s only a small fraction of our total number. I wanna say... twenty? I don’t think it’s more than thirty people.”

“That’s still a lot.”

“Yeah. I think only the Sebolts have more than we do.”

“Right.” Emiliana considered bringing up the more pressing subject of negotiations with the Vanguard, but she doubted that would do much to lighten the mood. And besides, she was sure that she already knew more about it than Alicia did. Chergoa had been keeping her apprised of developments--not that there had been very many. General Lawrence had not returned Zeff to Aguarey, and the Rainlords had yet to take aggressive action. Lawrence had, however, made it known that Cisco and Dennex were in his custody at Rheinhal. Apparently, he’d offered them as trade for either one of Axiolis or Shenado.

The allied Rainlords responded by sending him an umbrella.

When they reached the large guest room, Ramira immediately ran up to Emiliana and hugged her.

“What’s the matter?”

“Stupid!” Ramira said. “You were gone way too long!” It didn’t seem like much of a reason, but she sounded genuinely upset about it.

Emiliana couldn’t recall the girl ever hugging her before.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Page 755

Alright.’ The reaper appeared after a few moments and grabbed Emiliana’s shoulder.

With the vigor burning through her, she swung down and around the beam and then flung herself toward the ridged pillar she’d used to climb up. Her claws scratched against the old red-and-gray stone as she alternately slid and dropped her way to the floor. The maneuver earned her a few gawkers among the many passersby, but most acted like it was nothing special. No doubt, they’d seen much crazier things in their time.

“Wow,” said Alicia. “That was impressive.” She was the one looking down at Emiliana now, though not for lack of sincerity. At thirteen, she was a year younger, but her height suggested otherwise. It seemed strange that she could be related to such a tiny woman as Octavia.

Emiliana adjusted her dark mask and buried her claws in her pockets.

“I think you scuffed up the pillar, though,” Alicia added with a smirk.

She saw the faint claw marks. “Ah... I’m sorry. I used your madega last time and accidentally tore out a few chunks of the bark. Your gardener was upset.”

Alicia laughed. “It doesn’t matter. If anyone gets mad at you, just send them to me.”

They started walking together, with Chergoa following quietly.

“Anyway, it’s not just your brother, you know,” Alicia said. “Your sister is worried about you, too. And so am I.”

“...I appreciate your concern, but I am fine.”

“Have you eaten anything today?”

“...What day is today?”

“Friday.”

“Then, no.”

“Agh, aren’t you in training? How do you expect to keep up your strength if you skip meals?”

Emiliana didn’t answer that and just followed Alicia to the refectory. The lunch crowd had diminished somewhat, but there were still way too many people around for Emiliana’s liking. Alicia offered to sit and eat with her, but Emiliana grabbed a sandwich wrap and an iced tea to go. She wasn’t interested in removing her mask in order to eat in front of all these people.

Alicia kept following her, anyway.

Page 754

Emiliana didn’t love the idea of having to sacrifice a hand just to practice, but she supposed the reaper had a point. Her hands couldn’t be made much worse than they already were, anyway. She’d tried to hide them with gloves, but when her claws didn’t get stuck on the cloth, they just ripped right through it. Instead, she’d gotten into the habit of hiding them in her pockets.

Aside from training, there wasn’t much else to do. Emiliana wasn’t allowed to leave the castle, nor did she wish to. Her thoughts often went to Alex. She’d only gone on one date with him before everything happened. Now, she could hardly imagine what he must be thinking. She hadn’t even spoken to him since then, but he’d surely heard the news about her family. Perhaps he thought she was dead. No, it was probably too soon for him to believe that.

“Hey, Emy,” came a distant voice from below. “What are you doing up there?” It belonged to Alicia Redwater, Octavia’s granddaughter.

Emiliana looked down from her high perch among the West Hall’s shadowy rafters. Lately, it had been difficult to find places where she could be alone. Red Lake Castle had felt huge and empty at first, but now, people were everywhere, most of them members of the gigantic Redwater family. Even Octavia and Wendy seemed to have trouble keeping track of them all. The vast majority of them, however, were non-servants like Alicia here.

“...How did you find me?” Emiliana asked.

“Your little brother,” said Alicia. “He’s worried about you.”

That stung. He was worried about her? She’d heard Marcos thrashing around in his bed at night, heard him whimpering and crying in his sleep. The brat had his own problems. He wasn’t supposed to be worrying about hers.

“I just wanted a quiet place to meditate,” said Emiliana.

Alicia squinted and turned her ear up toward her. “I can barely hear you. Would you mind coming down? How did you even get up there?”

Emiliana shifted her leg over the beam. ‘Chergoa,’ she called. ‘I’m done.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Page 753

These past two weeks, she’d really just wanted to be left alone, and for the most part, she’d been granted that. It was just too much. Everything. She wasn’t ready to think of herself as the responsible one, as the one who had to try to fill the unfillable chasms left by Mama and Papa and Cisco and even Gema. It was all wrong. All of it.

And then there was this training. It was the only thing she knew how to do, the only thing that seemed even remotely worth thinking about. And yet, her ability still terrified her. She hadn’t dared try to invoke it again, even though she knew that was the end goal here.

Training meant more than just meditating, however. It also required laborious study of anatomy and physiology. She’d always enjoyed biology, but she’d never studied it with this much rigor or sense of obligation.

Mutation was so strange. Unlike transfiguration and materialization, it didn’t rely on any particular elements. Rather, it stemmed from the formation and manipulation of biological molecules--proteins, in particular. Hers had manifested with keratin, according to Chergoa, which was apparently a common starting point for mutation users.

Some people call mutation “the anything power,” because in theory, you can use it to modify your body in any way you can imagine,’ the reaper had told her. ‘Now, that’s not QUITE true, but the sentiment is fairly accurate. For instance, with proper control, you could grow entirely new limbs--even wings, if you wanted. You could breathe fire. You could sharpen your senses, your reflexes, even make yourself more intelligent, potentially. Though, don’t try that last one, unless you’re extremely confident in your capabilities. Messing with your own brain is probably the most dangerous thing you can possibly do.

Emiliana was in no rush to mess with anything.

Oh, and when you think you’re ready, you should start practicing on your non-dominant hand. I know it sounds kinda terrible, but at least that way, if you make a mistake, the damage won’t be too bad.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Page 752 -- LXXXIV.

Perhaps we should find someone who can materialize gold or silver,’ said Mehlsanz.

Helen stopped climbing the steps to look at her reaper. ‘Do you know of such a person?

No, but I’m sure they exist.

She started up the steps again. ‘Yes, well, when you find someone like that, let me know.

Knowing our luck, they probably work for Abolish.


Chapter Eighty-Four: ‘With thy shroud, endure...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

As she stared into the mirror, Emiliana tried not to hate what she saw. She hadn’t been confident in her looks even before growing horns in the middle of her face and losing some of the vision in her left eye.

Chergoa and Shenado kept telling her that this mutation ability wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Emiliana did not believe them, frankly. And she wanted to say as much to their faces, too. She wanted to argue and complain and even throw a tantrum like a child. But she never could quite bring herself to. Each time the anger welled up, heating her face and chest with irritation, something in the back of her mind always got in the way. It felt like a pit, dark and endless, and it swallowed her every feeling, good or bad.

She knew what the pit was. There was only one thing it could be. A wound, without a doubt. Still so fresh that hardly anything else even seemed to matter by comparison.

Before leaving the bathroom, she put her mask back on. Essentially, it was just a simple, jet black plate, convexly curved so that it didn’t require an indentation for her nose and bearing two long, flat slits for her eyes. Along with her dark gray hoodie, she’d taken to wearing it wherever she went, sometimes even when sleeping--not that she’d slept much, of late.

The mask certainly attracted its fair share of attention from the attendants around Red Lake Castle, but it was still better than the kind of attention that her horns attracted. It made being seen by strangers bearable again. Already, she’d begun to wonder if she would end up wearing it for the rest of her life.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Page 751

“Have you not realized by now?” said Luther. “Someone did notice. In fact, not only did they notice, they helped me. But not because they wanted to, of course.”

Helen put it together. This was why the Minister of Finance and the Lord High Treasurer had fled. Luther bribed or coerced them. Either way, it didn’t make much difference now. She moved on to a more important question. “What did you do with the money you removed?”

“That was the real challenge. I had no great need of the money, myself. If anything, it was a burden and a risk to keep around. I considered throwing it all into a volcano, but that would have required quite a bit of manpower, and frankly, I doubted that any reasonable person would perform such a task for me without succumbing to temptation. In the end, I gave some of it away to the less fortunate. I would have liked to give more, but too much would have surely drawn attention from the media, so the rest went to Abolish for their services. It would seem I did not get my money’s worth on that front, but then again, I knew I was overpaying from the beginning.”

Abolish. She would have liked to go a while longer without hearing that name again. If they had the money, there was no telling where it was now. She didn’t even know if any of them had survived the Battle at Rathmore. Harper hadn’t been able to tell her how many he killed.

She intended to press Luther for details, but she didn’t expect to learn anything else of use, and indeed, that proved to be the case. She decided to leave before Luther wasted any more of her time.

Mehlsanz followed her up the prison stairs. ‘What are you going to do now?

...I am open to suggestions.’

Wow. It’s that bad, huh?

If you have any ancient wisdom for me, now would be the time.’

I’m not sure I have any ancient wisdom that’s worth two hundred billion troas.

I thought as much.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Page 750

“Fine,” said Luther, “you win. I will tell you what I have done.”

Helen’s gaze flickered. She hadn’t expected him to give in so quickly. He didn’t look especially unsettled by Helen’s threats, either.

“There is nothing you can do,” he said. “That is why I am telling you. Because it is already too late.”

Helen merely waited.

“You see, I have discreetly removed all of the money from the Royal Treasury and replaced it with borrowed funds. Atreya now holds nothing but debt.” He didn’t smile. If anything, he only looked even more callous than before. “You think you have won your kingdom back, sister? Far from it. Atreya belongs to over a dozen other countries.”

She said nothing, still, only letting her eyes drift vacantly to the side a little. If he was lying, then she would confirm it easily enough; but Luther would know that, of course, which meant that, for now, it was a safe assumption that he was telling the truth.

“They will come to you soon in search of their money,” he said. “Some may be understanding of your circumstances, but I do not think Intar, Horsht, Korgum, or Dozer will be very agreeable. You owe them quite a sum, and any one of them might become upset when they learn that you have done business with the others.”

Intar, Horsht, Korgum, and Dozer. Intar was difficult to deal with on a good day, but the other three were easily the most volatile nations on the continent. As soon as he uttered their names, there was no hope of Helen concealing her exasperation. She shut her eyes and turned away from Luther to press a hand to her forehead.

She needed to think. She’d expected the problem to be bad, but this? Could anything even be done? If the Royal Treasury really only contained borrowed money now, then everything would be made more difficult.

Whatever the case, she had to start asking questions. She required information, and Luther was perhaps the only person who could give it. “You are talking about nearly two hundred billion troas. How could you have possibly removed that much money from the Royal Treasury without anyone noticing?”

Friday, July 4, 2014

The first e-book is now available for free

Hey, all. So I finally finished organizing the first three story arcs into the Volume One e-book. You can download it over at Smashwords (EDIT: and now also Amazon). And it's free, so. Yeah. Go grab it, if you like.

I wanted to put it on Amazon, too, but I was surprised to find that Amazon doesn't actually allow you to make your e-book free. I would've had to price it at $0.99, which caused me a bit of debate for a while, but I ultimately decided to just go with Smashwords for now. When Volume Two rolls around (which will be fairly soon), I'll be putting that up on both sites for $2.99.

Also, I posted a new page earlier, just in case you missed it. Thanks for reading, everyone.

Page 749

Luther spun around to confront his sister again. “Enough of this. What is your point? Are you trying to make me believe that you will hurt Lila if I do not cooperate? Do not make me laugh, Helen.”

“She has a husband and two daughters now,” the Queen continued, “but I am sure you knew that already.”

Luther looked at her coolly. “I know you are bluffing, sister. You would never do such a thing.”

Helen expected this. Now she had a choice to make about how best to convince him that she was not bluffing. The temptation, of course, was to stare him down and tell him he was wrong to doubt her with as much severity as she could muster, but she did not believe that would work on this person. This was a man who held no respect for her whatsoever. No, the best tactic here was surely just the opposite. She had to be nonchalant, as if taking the life of an innocent person was of no consequence to her, as if Luther’s suspicion made no difference at all. And that meant she could show no hesitation.

“My only dilemma now is that I have four candidates to choose from,” said Helen. “I assume you care for the husband the least, so I shall begin with him and work my way toward Lila. I am sure you will understand my conviction by the time I reach her. Or would you prefer that she die second as a small measure of mercy for her children?”

“You would never harm a child.”

Helen kept her expression utterly flat. “There are over forty million people in Atreya. Roughly one quarter of them are children. How many of those would die if I were unwilling to take the lives of two foreign girls? I wonder.”

Luther clenched his jaw and squinted at her.

“Perhaps I should start with the daughters, then, and spare the husband. That way might prove more expedient.”

“You wouldn’t--”

Helen returned the notepad to its place inside her coat. “I will bring them here to visit you so that you can see with your own eyes that I am not playing a trick with corpses. You will exchange words with them, confirm their identities for yourself, and then watch them die.”

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Page 748

“What are you talking about?” said Luther.

“David told me that your categorical hatred of royalty is due to our father, but that is not the whole story, is it?”

Luther lowered his face a little but didn’t remove his gaze from the Queen.

“This was not the first time you have attempted to destroy a government,” said Helen. “Nineteen years ago in a tiny country called Snider--that was your doing, was it not?”

Her brother chose not to answer.

“The King of Snider had a reputation for brutality, but nonetheless, Father was on good terms with him. You spent only a single summer there, supposedly enjoying a leisurely time as any prince would. And yet, no more than six months after your visit, the King of Snider was overthrown in a bloody conflict. One might call that a coincidence and be satisfied, but for two entire years after that rebellion, there were several other families attempting to seize power--and all of their efforts were in vain. In fact, each claimant to the throne died rather gruesomely or mysteriously. Or both. Until, finally, democracy took hold.”

Luther was expressionless. “You believe me responsible for all of that? Perhaps I should be flattered.”

“Mm. It was quite difficult to find out the details of that summer visit of yours. You were careful, even then, but you were young. I have spoken with several of your attendants from that time, and they all mentioned your habit of disappearing. For me, however, the truly convincing piece of evidence was the girl.”

Luther turned away and paced toward the wall.

“I have her name written down.” She reached inside her flowing coat and pulled out a notepad. She flipped through the pages. “Lila Vance. She was only six when the King of Snider had her parents executed for blasphemy. She was only seven when you met her, no? Despite lacking the means, she was able to move out of Snider after your visit but before the rebellion. She has lived quite comfortably in Kahm ever since, under the name Lila Demitri. She is but a simple flower vendor, and attributes her wealth to her rich uncle.”

Page 747

“In this instance, ‘best’ is a term of gross oversimplification,” said Helen. “Monarchy is a high-risk, high-reward system. Under the right leadership, it can be more efficient, moral, and just than any other; under the wrong, it can destroy its people. That is why the most important decision a monarch will ever make is choosing his or her successor.”

“I suppose the person with all of the power would believe that,” said Luther.

“I did not come here to have an adolescent debate with you,” said Helen.

“No, you came here, because you had no choice.”

“Tell me what you have done to the nation’s finances, Luther.”

“Or what? You will have me tortured? How mundane.”

The Queen rolled her eyes and sighed. “I outlawed torture three years ago.”

“Is that supposed to mean something to me?”

“You might hold my word in low regard, but it does not matter. You will have plenty of time to see the truth for yourself.”

“Torture or not, I see no reason to tell you anything.”

“Hmm. You have a point.”

Luther cocked an eyebrow at her.

Helen turned to the others. “Please leave us,” she said.

David and Harper both hesitated at that request. Darsihm and Mehlsanz were also present, but their ghostly expressions remained unfazed.

“I am in no danger,” Helen assured them. “You can wait for me upstairs, if you prefer.”

Harper glanced at Darsihm, who shrugged and floated off, after which Harper soon followed. David frowned but did as she asked. Only Mehlsanz remained behind, floating silently by the Queen’s side.

And perhaps he sensed an unfavorable change in the atmosphere, because Luther backed away from the glass of his prison cell.

Helen iced her expression. She’d hoped she wouldn’t need to resort to this tactic, but it seemed there was no helping it. “One of the reasons I have taken so long to come visit you is because I wanted to do my homework first. It may not make up for years of inattentiveness, but on the other hand, I feel it grants me a bit of perspective.”

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Page 746

Helen squinted. “I do not understand your purpose in doing any of this.”

“Then perhaps that is the question you should be asking me,” said Luther. “The crown has made you very demanding, sister. It is unbecoming. A lady should try to be more understanding of others’ feelings.”

“Explain, then. Why did you betray me?”

“Because this country needed me to,” said Luther. “There are over 150 sovereign nations in the world, and yet only ten of them have monarchs. And of those ten--”

“--only four possess virtually unchecked power as I do,” finished Helen. “I am aware.”

“Do you see no problem with that, sister?”

It was an argument she’d been hearing since childhood, an argument she’d once believed in herself. “So, rather than speak to me of your concerns, you decided that it was better to force a regime change by having me assassinated and plunging Atreya into a war with its neighbors. I fail to see how you could believe these actions would benefit the country.”

“Necessary change is often the most painful.”

“I suppose you would have Atreya be coddled by the illusion of a republic or democracy, instead?”

Luther only tilted his head at her.

“Do you honestly believe such governments can last in earnest? They can be founded on such idealism, perhaps, but it is inevitable that they will give rise to new royalty and be ruled by it. The only difference is that the kings of democracy can hide themselves behind a veil of elected figureheads.”

The man was quiet a moment as he blinked slowly at her. He looked at David another time. “Did you know she was this cynical?”

“Yes, I did. You would have known as well, if you had ever bothered to get to know her the way a brother should.”

“It seems we are guilty of that on both counts,” said Helen. “If I had known Luther’s heart even just one year ago, we would not have these problems now. And our family might still be together.”

Luther exhaled a short laugh and shook his head at her. “You genuinely believe that a monarchy is the best method of governance?”