Sunday, August 31, 2014

Vol. 2 ebook is now available

Yep. Finally got it out. Volume Two is available for $2.99 at both Smashwords and Amazon. Grab it, if you like. Reviews are particularly welcome. Amazon is all about that kinda shit. It's how books get noticed.

Additionally, Volume One is also available on Amazon now, but I had to price it at $0.99 or it wouldn't publish. So, if you wanna do me small favor, you can go to its Amazon page (here), and click the "tell us about a lower price" link in the Product Details category. From there, you have to provide the url of the Smashwords page (which is here) and then type "0.00" into the pricing thing. Bit of a hassle, I know, but it's the only way to make the first volume free to download on Amazon. I hear the price change can take weeks to go through, but hopefully, if more folks do it, it'll happen faster. Maybe.

Also, I put up a new page a little while ago, in case you missed it. Thanks for reading, everybody.

Page 808

Shenado was the one to speak up next. ‘If you have proof of your claim, then present it now. Otherwise, fuck off back to your marshes.

Everyone looked at her.

Emiliana was more than a little surprised by the reaper’s aggressive language. She’d barely heard anyone use the f-word before, and Shenado had just dropped it in front of Marcos like it was no big deal.

Have we done something to offend you?’ asked Melchor’s reaper.

Yes,’ said Shenado. ‘If you wanted to look after the children, you should have discussed it with Octavia, Rayen, and Xuan beforehand. Instead, you decided to come here while they are busy defending the Rainlords’ honor--something your family elected not to participate in.

There was no time. We only received word of Parson’s assault twenty minutes ago. We would have called, but we feared it being intercepted.

Emiliana watched Shenado’s burning eyes narrow.

I understand that you may be suspicious of us,’ the other reaper went on, ‘but please, try to see reason. Don’t allow Mariana’s death to cloud your judgment. The children’s lives--

The flames of Shenado’s cerulean body flared up. ‘I have already asked you to provide proof. Seeing as you have not done so, when will you be fucking off? I hope it is soon.

“We are only trying to help,” said Melchor.

If that’s true, then you can wait outside the castle,’ said Shenado. ‘And when Parson arrives, you will be close enough to assist us.

You’re being unreasonable--

I do not believe I am.’ Shenado looked to one of the Redwaters behind Melchor. ‘Send word to Octavia of this supposed assault. Let’s see what she and the others think about it.

The servant nodded and made for the door.

Melchor’s reaper vanished into his body. The man’s eyes became silvery marbles, dark with a metallic luster, and in an instant, the floor and walls were all covered with metal. “We did not come here to fight,” said Melchor, apparently still quite conscious. His voice, however, was suddenly different, because it wasn’t just his. Emiliana could hear his reaper speaking in unison. Two voices, one aloud and one in her head. “Please reconsider.”

The metal beneath her feet was whiter than that of the man’s eyes, she noticed, and after a moment, she realized that it was frozen.

Mercury,’ Chergoa assessed privately, calm as ever. ‘Get to Ramira. It’ll be hazardous to her if it melts.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Page 807

“Lucky guess,” said Diego.

“Not really,” said Melchor. Like Dimas, Melchor also wore a suit, though his wasn’t quite so dark, and he’d left the jacket unbuttoned to let his tie dangle freely. “I’ve known your grandmother for many years, Diego. She considers this castle to be the safest place in Sair. And if it were fully occupied, herself included, I might agree. But since that is not the case, I am certain that Red Lake is too vulnerable a place for the Elroy children at the moment.”

Having taken up a position between the two bodyguards, Joana responded for the group. “I suppose it just depends on who is coming to attack us.”

Melchor paused to look over his audience, letting his emerald eyes do most of the work while his head hardly moved.

The man’s reaper spoke up for him in a flat, dry voice. ‘We’re sensing a bit of hostility.’

“It’s nothing personal,” said Diego. “The Elroys have had a touch of bad luck with unexpected visitors, lately. You’ll have to excuse us if we’re not entirely thrilled to see you right now.”

Of course,’ the reaper said. ‘However, Melchor and I did come here by ourselves. If we wanted a fight, we would have brought backup.

“We appreciate that,” said Diego. “And yet, here you now stand, in the middle of our castle with your eyes on the children. Perhaps you’re under the mistaken impression that you’re strong enough to kidnap them and fight your way out on your own.”

“Rather than that,” said Melchor, “we were hoping you would all return with us to Luzo. House Blackburn will protect the children while the siege is underway.”

“A generous offer,” said Joana, “but I think we will remain here at Red Lake.”

Please reconsider,’ said Melchor’s reaper. ‘We have reason to believe that Captain General Parson Miles will be here within the hour with a siege party of his own.

That left an unsettled quiet in its wake.

You do not have the strength here to repel him. But with the full might of the Blackburns behind you, he will be no threat.

“Why would Parson be coming here when Rheinhal is under attack?” asked Joana.

I cannot rightly say. Perhaps it is a testament to how badly the Vanguard wants to capture the Elroys, or perhaps they have reinforcements already en route. We have sent word to Octavia as well, so I’m sure she will be prepared for whatever happens.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Page 806

It was horrifying to think about. And confusing. She didn’t feel different. Not really. But then again, there was that emptiness, that pit in the back of her mind. But that was just... loss. Wasn’t it? Psychological. Not physical, surely.

She was beginning to dread finding out.

Perhaps it didn’t matter, though. She hadn’t seen the monster again. Perhaps she never would. Perhaps it was just a one time thing. A freak event of some kind.

Wishful thinking, she decided. She wasn’t sure optimism suited her, anyway.

Hey,’ Chergoa said privately, pulling Emiliana out of her daze. The reaper’s glowing eyes pointed her toward the others.

Everyone had stopped talking, Emiliana realized. At the heavy silence, she stepped closer.

Dimas and Diego both stood.

“Is something wrong?” Emiliana adjusted the edges of her hoodie to make sure she could hear them, but Shenado was the one who responded.

We have an unexpected guest at the front gate. He seems to be alone, apart from his reaper. I sense Joana moving toward them.

Chergoa drifted up behind her servant. ‘You recognize them?

It’s Melchor Blackburn,’ said Shenado.

Emiliana understood the sudden tension in the room now. The Blackburns had been the only one of the ten who hadn’t joined in the campaign against the Vanguard. And that name. Melchor. It hadn’t been very long since she first heard it.

Without warning, Iziol brushed up against Dimas and then bolted from the room, phasing straight through the glass wall.

Where’s he going?’ said Chergoa.

“...Only being cautious,” was all Dimas said.

Emiliana watched Iziol shrink into the horizon.

Joana is bringing Melchor here,’ informed Shenado.

They waited. The two men took up positions facing the Red Den’s northern door, Dimas in front of Marcos and Ramira while Diego covered Emiliana.

At length, the door opened, and Joana entered first, followed by a long-faced man whom Emiliana didn’t recognize and a host of Redwaters whom she did.

Joana started them off. “Lord Melchor says he has received word of an imminent assault on Red Lake. So he has come to help us guard the children.”

“How generous of you,” said Diego. “Who told you they were here?”

“No one,” said Melchor with his reaper right behind him. He had a hard voice, the kind that carried easily through the air and bit at one’s ears. “We merely guessed that you would be keeping them here.”

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Page 805

“Was it scary, fighting so many servants at once?” asked Marcos.

“...A little.”

“Why did you have to fight them?” asked Ramira.

Dimas turned to his reaper, the blue wisp floating over his shoulder.

Don’t look at me,’ said Iziol. ‘If I tell the story, Ramira won’t hear it.

Dimas’ face remained entirely unreadable as he turned back to his young audience. “...They were attacking a village. I stopped them.”

Wow,’ said Iziol. ‘I think they were hoping for a bit more detail.

“...It was snowing.”

They waited in vain for him to continue.

“What a conversationalist,” said Diego Redwater. He lay on the couch across from Dimas with his hands behind his head.

Dimas had no retort.

Diego was a man of his early thirties, if appearance was to be trusted, sporting a simple blue t-shirt and gray shorts. He was one of the very few Rainlords with red hair, which he kept in short curls. His reaper hovered over him. YangĂ©ra was her name, but Emiliana hadn’t heard her say a single word so far. Not that the reaper needed to. Diego was vocal enough for the both of them. “C’mon, Marcos. Why don’t you ask me about some of my great deeds? I’ve got all sorts of stories.”

Marcos smirked and looked back at Dimas. “Do you think you could beat up Diego?”

“...Certainly.”

Diego sat up. “Whoa, whoa, whoa...”

Their conversation gained a bit of vigor after that, but Emiliana had already lost interest and stopped listening. Instead, she just let her mind wander as she stared out across the waves in the dreary blue horizon.

Her thoughts drifted to the monster she saw before. Or hallucination. Or whatever that thing was. She’d asked both Chergoa and Shenado about it, but neither one could tell her anything. She was still trying to decide if she should ask someone else, trying to decide if she really wanted to know the answer.

The more troubling possibility had certainly crossed her mind. She might genuinely be going crazy. The mutation ability could do that, couldn’t it? She could have accidentally mutated a part of her brain when her power manifested. The horns on her face--two of them were right there on her forehead. It seemed entirely possible that they might have grown not just out from her skull but also into it. And if that was the case, then the horns could have done... something to her brain. Changed it. Broken it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Page 804

Emiliana wasn’t sure she believed Chergoa. The reaper didn’t seem like she was lying, but all the same, it was difficult to tell what went on in the mind of someone thousands of years old.

She tried to go about her day as normal, but it was impossible. Knowing that the siege of Rheinhal was beginning today left her in a constant state of worry. There would be no meditating, she realized, so she spent her time just trying to stay close to Marcos and Ramira. She wasn’t letting them out of her sight. Not today.

Collectively, the Elroy children ended up mostly hanging around Diego Redwater or Dimas Sebolt, as Marcos had taken a liking to them both due to their relative fame among the Rainlords.

In a very short time, Emiliana had come to know more about the distribution of power among her brethren than she ever had before. According to Shenado, the title of the strongest living Rainlord was a matter of dispute with four possible candidates: Octavia Redwater, Rayen Merlo, Melchor Blackburn, and Xuan Sebolt. Strangely--at least to Emiliana--Melchor and Xuan did not serve as the heads of their families, instead yielding the responsibility to their younger cousins.

Including those four, Shenado proceeded to rattle off the names of the strongest twenty servants, and while Emiliana didn’t remember most of them, she’d taken particular note of her father being ranked as eighth. Dimas Sebolt, Diego Redwater, and Joana Cortes had been ranked as tenth, eleventh, and fourteenth, respectively. Emiliana wondered where Shenado would have ranked her mother, but she didn’t have the heart to ask.

With everyone gathered in the Red Den, Emiliana chose to stand in the corner with Chergoa, looking through the panoramic windows that made up the chamber’s eastern wall. They offered a clear view of the endless rain and flood waters, while the windows on the other side of the room displayed the vast cityscape of Aguarey.

“Is it true that you once took on thirty Abolishers all by yourself?” Marcos was asking.

“...Yes,” was all Dimas said. He was a statue of a man, tall and solidly built and always wearing a dark suit with a black tie. Whenever Emiliana saw him, he never spoke unless spoken to, which translated to him only speaking when Marcos and Ramira pestered him with questions.

“And you beat them all?” said Ramira.

“...Yes.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Page 803

Emiliana was surprised to see that so many of the non-servants had accompanied Octavia and the others to the battlefield.

They’ll leave the fighting to the servants, of course,’ Chergoa explained. ‘Instead, they’ll provide operational support. Things like keeping civilians away from the battle, maintaining supplies, organizing teams and strategies--that sort of thing. Normal people can be particularly helpful when they observe the battle from a distance and feed information to the combatants via radio. Signal jammers are often deployed as a disruptive countermeasure, and then it usually becomes a contest of which side can neutralize the others’ jammers first. And that’s because in a fight between two forces of roughly equal size and strength, the more organized one almost always wins.

Emiliana couldn’t help wondering something as she listened. ‘How many battles have you been in?

Enough to make me stop counting.

That made her think of another question. ‘Why did you decide to be my reaper?

Chergoa paused. ‘Well, you and I were supposed to join the Vanguard. That was my reason for wanting a new servant. It was less about you specifically. I did observe you for a little while, though. You seemed nice enough.

That is it? We’re bound together for the rest of my life, and that is all the thought you put into it?

What can I say? I’m not very picky. So long as you’re not a violent psychopath, I’m not bothered about it.

Wow... then, why did you decide to join the Vanguard?

Ah. It was Axiolis who convinced me. He’d been trying to convert me for ages. Finally wore me down.

You must be regretting it now.

Pfft, no. Maybe it’s hard for you to believe, but I’m glad I’m here with you.

Beneath her dark mask, Emiliana’s expression distorted. ‘Why?

Well, if you didn’t have me, you could’ve ended up stuck with some dumbass who gives horrible advice. And then what would you do?

Are you... making a joke?

Yes, Emiliana. Yes, I am. Good catch.

I was hoping for an actual answer...

It WAS an actual answer,’ said Chergoa. ‘And it was also a joke. Multitasking, you see.

I don’t understand...

Chergoa gave a faint laugh. ‘Holy shit, girl. I’m saying that I’m glad I can be here with you while you weather this storm of bullshit. Don’t think for a moment that I regret taking you on as my servant.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Page 802 -- XCI.

Asad gave a slow nod. “You may be right, Lord Hamza. Perhaps it is nonsense. I will not claim to know whether or not such unity is truly possible. But that is a discussion for another time. Here and now, I am only trying to inform you of my intentions. My sincerest hopes.”

Hamza didn’t have anything to say to that.

But Abbas did. “Asad. That is all very nice. On the whole, I agree with your sentiments. A better relationship with the Rainlords would go a long way. But we cannot forget that we have problems of our own and that our first obligation is to our subjects. The current state of Calthos is particularly troubling to me.”

“I understand that,” said Asad. “But we could still provide the Rainlords with some support, if not our full strength. I will volunteer myself, of course.”

It is simply unwise,’ said Worwal. ‘We would be jeopardizing our relationship with the Vanguard while Abolish is practically knocking on our door.

A chorus of concurring grumbles arose from the men and reapers.

He was losing them, Asad knew. Worwal’s point was a good one. But as Asad was about to voice his counterargument, the golden phone on Abbas’ desk rang.

Everyone turned to watch him answer it. The man listened, thanked the person on the other end, and hung up again. He stood and placed both hands on his desk. “Word has just arrived from Rheinhal. The Rainlords have begun their assault.”


Chapter Ninety-One: ‘When the Lake is quiet...’
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Red Lake Castle retained less than a third of its occupants from the previous day. Emiliana had known that a lot of people would be leaving all at once, but even still, the sudden change was a little unsettling, especially when she considered that many might not return.

These last few days, she’d been trying to stop being so reclusive, trying to get to know more of the people who were laying down their lives to protect her family, but now, it seemed like too little too late. There were so many servants whom she’d barely even met, and only a handful of them had stayed behind. Aunt Joana was still here, thankfully, as were a few of the Redwater servants and the apparently well-known Dimas Sebolt, tasked by Lord Abel Sebolt with protecting the Elroy children while the strongest Rainlords were away.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Page 801

Asad frowned and prepared his rebuttal, but he must have been taking too long, because Qorvass stepped in to help as Axiolis floated up behind them both.

The Rainlords are our allies,’ said Qorvass. ‘It is as simple as that. We may have had our difficulties with them in the past, but that was generations ago. We have moved beyond it. And now, we are confronted with a test. We should do for the Rainlords what we would want the Rainlords to do for us.

“And if we assist them now,” Asad added, “it will solidify the bond between us more strongly than ever before. And it is a bond that all of us here--all of our fathers and grandfathers, even--have been nurturing for centuries. Consider what that would mean for our children! Consider what an unshakeable foundation of camaraderie it would establish!”

Abbas’ reaper drifted forward. Worwal was his name, and Asad was not looking forward to what he was about to say. The reaper had proved to be their most difficult obstacle in each of their previous meetings. ‘The vengeance seekers would have us believe they are instead aspiring to greatness.’ Worwal’s tone was not one of condescension or mockery. It was only flat and cold observance.

Asad couldn’t entirely refute the statement, either. So he didn’t try. “It is true that I want vengeance for the Elroy family. My friendship with Zeff is no secret.” He paused, considerate of his next words. He was abruptly reminded of what his fight with Zeff had been about. “What is a secret, however, is my proposal to join my family with his.”

That sent a ripple through his audience. Asad could already see the disapproving looks on their faces.

What are you doing?’ Qorvass said privately.

Asad ignored the question. “Yes, it is true. I made such an offer to him several months ago. My son Midhat with his daughter Emiliana. But perhaps you will be relieved to hear that he refused me.” He paused again to observe their expressions. “I am telling you this now because it has been my hope for many years that our two peoples be united as one.” He eyed Worwal. “So you see, while I do want vengeance, it is not instead of any aspiration. I want both.”

“‘United as one’?!” said Hamza. “Now you are just speaking nonsense!”

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Page 800

It was no coincidence that all seven of his esteemed peers were male. Kurosi law plainly forbid women from holding positions of political power. It was often conflated as a law of all Sandlords, but it really was a regional matter. Asad had lived in Kuros for nearly twenty years now, and at this point, his youth spent growing up in Moaban seemed almost like someone else’s life, but he still clearly remembered his mother being the unquestionable head of Hahl Najir when she was alive. It was difficult to imagine her bending to anyone else’s will, regardless of what the law might have told her.

Asad pulled down his red hood, revealing his bald head to the audience. His tattoos extended there as well, four black lines inked into the naturally dark tan of his bare pate. Such were all of his tattoos--nothing but ornate lines across his whole body, all bearing intermittent protrusions that looked vaguely like tiny thorns or knots. They’d become something of a cosmetic nuisance as he’d grown older, thinning and stretching over time, but he was entirely unashamed of showing them off.

“My fellow lords,” Asad began in Valgan, “you know what I am here to say. I am unsure of how else I can convince you. It is painfully obvious that our country, our comrades, and our people have all found themselves in the sudden grip of danger and war. I firmly believe that inaction during this time is a mistake, and I urge you to support our western brothers before it is too late.”

An audible snort rose from the far left side of the desk, pulling Asad’s eyes to Lord Hamza of Hahl Dagher. A thin man, his ivory robes nearly swallowed him whole, offering only a small view of the man’s sharp nose and gray eyes. “‘Western brothers’?” he said. “You overstate our relationship with the wet monkeys.”

“We share the name of our land with them,” said Asad. “We share our people and the responsibility that accompanies them. And financially, they are our brethren as much as any lord here.”

“Sharing a war against the Vanguard is not the same thing as sharing food and money for our subjects,” said Lord Abbas of Hahl Saqqaf. He was the oldest person in the room, though it hardly showed. The few gray streaks in his dark beard were quite faint, and his sky blue gaze didn’t match his weathered features, making him look somehow younger.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Page 799

Asad appreciated Qorvass’s attempt at encouragement. He wasn’t sure what he would do if he couldn’t convince the other heads to help. The Rainlords would attack Rheinhal any day now. Hell, they could be launching their assault this very moment. Octavia Redwater hadn’t been keen to share that particular information with him, and Asad didn’t fault her for it, not when he couldn’t even guarantee that the Sandlords would help her.

It was reaching the point where he was beginning to consider doing something that he knew to be very stupid. If Abbas and the others refused to help, then perhaps he would just go in on his own. Of course, if he took the full strength of Hahl Najir with him, it would undoubtedly come back on the others and put his own family in danger, but if he acted independently, that wouldn’t be an issue. It also meant he would be much more likely to get killed. Hence, the stupid part.

He’d already talked to Qorvass about it, and while the reaper was certainly not thrilled by the idea, he hadn’t entirely dismissed it, either. They hadn’t seen Zeff in months, due to an argument that Asad couldn’t even rightly recall now, but the mere thought of the man’s family being betrayed by their own comrades, of Mariana dying for it, of Zeff being held captive, and of their children suddenly without parents--it was all more than enough to anger Asad past the point of conventional wisdom.

After the Egasi lord concluded, Abbas began assuring the man of what would be done to address his agricultural concerns. Asad noticed the new group of onlookers enter from the far end of the room. Three reapers, and two young foreigners. Sazandara was among them, but Haqq was not. He should not have been surprised, he realized. His brother was many things, but a concerned citizen of the world was not one of them.

When the time finally arrived for him to speak, Asad stood and circumnavigated the long desk in order to reach the room’s center platform.

All of the Hahls were represented here today, which was a rare thing, and Asad knew the reason for it was due to the perfect split between their allegiances. Hahls Najir, Shihab, Duxan, and Saqqaf were all independent, while Hahls Haayen, Kattan, Mateen, and Dagher all worked for the Vanguard.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Page 798

Then you are wiser than I, it would seem.’ Axiolis fell quiet a moment as they reached the elevator once more. ‘My servant’s wife is dead now because of what the Vanguard did to us. His wife. Practically my daughter. When I think about that... I become much less confused.

I’m sorry to hear that,’ said Garovel.

When Zeff and I were interrogated, their questions seemed to be most concerned with the oldest of Zeff’s daughters, Gema. It appears as though the Vanguard is quite desperate to find her.

Did they tell you why?

Supposedly, she killed an Intarian diplomat, but I do not think that would evoke the level of aggression they have shown toward the rest of the Elroys. I sense a greater plot behind all of this. At a guess, I would say that Gema has become involved in some kind of power struggle. I only wish we knew where she was.

Tell me more about these Elroys,’ said Garovel.

Very well.

-+-+-+-+-

The Golden Fort’s assembly hall was a domed chamber of formidable size, naturally lit during the daytime by two high-placed rows of elliptical windows. Gold-and-white banners hung from the ceiling as yet another reminder of Hahl Saqqaf’s presiding ownership.

Asad had been waiting all afternoon for another chance to speak. Abbas and the others had heard his arguments four times previously, and still no decision had been made. The routine had begun to wear thin.

As he sat listening to a lesser lord from Egas drone on about rural livestock, he just tried to resist the urge to rub his forehead and sigh. Thankfully, at least, his red cowl allowed him to hide his expression. He was the only one of the eight Sandlord heads garbed in crimson today, as he was the only one intending to speak before the assembly. It made him stick out in the line of seated white robes, but he was accustomed to such things by now. His golden yellow eyes and black full body tattoos had never made it very easy for him to conceal himself, even among his brethren here.

Not much longer now,’ said Qorvass in Valgan. ‘Just be patient.

To Asad’s eyes, each one of the eight reapers present was a large insect--a scorpionfly, more precisely. Their long wings, however, consisted of burning flames, and their bulbous eyes held a dark glow.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Page 797

Hector wasn’t sure he’d followed all of that, but the strained look on Garovel’s face told him more or less everything he needed to know.

In other words,’ said Garovel, ‘Chergoa is right in the middle of this war of yours.

I am afraid so.

Garovel kept his next word between him and Hector. ‘Fuck.

Hector had to unburden himself of his questions. ‘You have a fucking sister?! I mean--?! How is that even--?! Why didn’t you ever--?!

I’ll tell you later,’ was all Garovel offered him. And then publicly, he said, ‘I would very much like to know more about the Rainlords’ current circumstances.

Then I shall very much like to tell you,’ said Axiolis. However, he was distracted when he noticed Haqq quietly stepping for the door. ‘Haqq, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you. You need to join your brother upstairs.

“I would love to, but I am quite busy here,” said Haqq. “Your new friends here have tasked me with a critical analysis of great urgency.”

Leave him be,’ said Sazandara. ‘He will not be much use to Asad, anyway. I will go with you.

Very well,’ said Axiolis. He turned to Garovel. ‘I would like you and your servant to attend as well.

Of course,’ said Garovel. ‘I was hoping you’d invite us.

The reapers led the way, and Hector tried to explain where they were going and why to Lynn as she just followed with that resigned look on her face that he’d seen several times before. By now, she must have gotten accustomed to being left in the dark about half of the things going on around her.

During the trek back upstairs, Axiolis continued with his story.

We still do not know why they decided to attack us,’ he said. ‘Zeff and I have been with the Vanguard for over twenty-five years. I am still having a bit of difficulty realizing that I no longer work for them. Part of me is hoping that this is all just some kind of gigantic misunderstanding.

I would have expected you to sound angrier,’ said Garovel.

Oh, I am. But I am also... very confused. I cannot imagine what could have motivated them to betray us the way they did. Zeff and I are--were--believers. In the Vanguard. In everything it stood for and tried to accomplish. We devoted ourselves to it. We devoted our FAMILY to it. Can you understand that, I wonder? Have you ever believed in your cause so fiercely that you would devote not just your life to it but also the lives of your loved ones?

I’m afraid I haven’t,’ said Garovel.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Page 796 -- XC.

Hector gave Haqq another metal disc for examination, and the man just pocketed it and returned to asking Lynn questions, this time concerning her family’s medical history. Her very apparent Intarian heritage had not escaped Haqq’s notice, and she had to explain that she was indeed born in Atreya.

Hector’s attention was divided when yet another reaper appeared, this time descending from the ceiling.

Haqq, it’s almost time for the assembly meeting. Asad wants you to join him.

Haqq rolled his eyes. “He still thinks he can convince Abbas?”

He does. And so do I.

“Well, of course you do.”

The reaper’s skeletal face twisted impossibly with annoyance. After a moment, he eyed Haqq’s guests. ‘Hello. I do not believe I have seen any of you here before.

“Agh, don’t bother them, too,” said Haqq.

Garovel jumped at the chance for another introduction. ‘We’re from Atreya. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Garovel, and this is my servant, Hector Goffe, along with our comrade, Lynnette Edith.

Atreya? Interesting. I am not exactly from around here, either. My name is Axiolis.


Chapter Ninety: ‘The bridge between the Two...’
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Oh?’ said Garovel. ‘Where are you from, then?

Axiolis seemed about to answer when he stopped himself, hollow eyes narrowing. ‘You said... your name is Garovel?

I did, yes.

The reaper’s odd reaction had even gained Haqq’s attention. ‘Then,’ said Axiolis, ‘are you Chergoa’s brother?

Hector blinked and turned to stare at Garovel, who took his sweet time answering.

...Yes, I am. How do you know Chergoa?

She is an old friend,’ said Axiolis. ‘I happened to cross paths with her a few times before really getting to know her. The first was some three hundred years ago in Ardora. She was trying to have her servant dig a new well for a village that was struggling through a drought. It made a favorable impression on me.

Yeah, she has a good heart,’ said Garovel. ‘Usually.

When she first told me that she had a living sibling, I thought she was joking.

I don’t blame you,’ said Garovel. ‘Is Chergoa here in Kuros, then? I don’t sense her nearby.

Axiolis’ expression somehow darkened. ‘Oh... you do not know, then. I thought that perhaps she got word to you herself.

Please explain.

My servant is a Rainlord,’ said Axiolis, sterner now. ‘His name is Zeff Elroy. He was captured by the Vanguard, which is why I am here seeking aid from the Sandlords. Chergoa’s current servant is Zeff’s daughter, Emiliana Elroy.

Page 795

--belated donation bonus (day 5/7, page 2/3)--
“So you don’t really know,” said Lynn.

“If it is such a moral quandary for you, then you can simply avoid absorbing souls,” said Haqq. But at Lynn’s persistent look, he added, “Yes, we do not know, because there is currently no way to know. There exist no scientific instruments which can aid us in studying souls.”

None that WE know of at least,’ corrected Sazandara. ‘Haqq is very intelligent, and you should listen to him, but he is also more of a hardware man than anything. We haven’t devoted much time to studying souls other than to observe the enhanced physical properties they may provide for our technology.

Lynn, of course, heard nothing of what the reaper said, and Haqq didn’t seem too keen to reiterate it to her, so Hector had to struggle through it. Sazandara helped him out by repeating a few of the things she said.

In the meantime, Garovel took the opportunity to address Haqq again. ‘I was wondering if you might do me a small favor.

“What sort of favor?”

My servant is a materialization user. Would it be possible for you to confirm his element for us? We believe it to be iron, but we’re not one hundred percent certain.

Haqq eyed Hector with an overwhelming degree of disinterest. Then he held out his hand. “Make a flat disc for me, just small enough to fit in my palm here.”

With hesitance, Hector did so. The metal accumulated in the man’s hand and formed a perfectly smooth and round disc.

Haqq cocked an eyebrow at the metal. Perhaps he’d been expecting something shoddier-looking. Or perhaps he thought Hector wouldn’t even be able to do it in the first place. Haqq lifted the disc to his ear and rapped a knuckle against it, listening to the ring. After a moment, he tossed the disc back to Hector. “You were right. It is iron.”

Hector annihilated the disc instead of catching it.

I was hoping for something a bit more rigorous and definitive,’ said Garovel, eyeing Sazandara. ‘Not that I don’t trust your servant’s ear.

Haqq gave an irritated sigh.

Haqq would be delighted to assist you,’ said Sazandara. ‘He will perform an emission spectrometric analysis for you. Isn’t that right, Haqq?

The man had nothing to say.

Sazandara’s skeletal grin widened. ‘It shouldn’t take him very long. He’s very skilled. Come back tomorrow.

Much appreciated,’ said Garovel.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Page 794

“I’m not sure I can do that,” said Lynn. “I’ve always been trained to keep a cool head during a fight. Be as close to emotionless as possible.”

“That is understandable,” said Haqq, “but you see, it is also your problem, not mine.”

Lynn’s mouth flattened.

“Regardless,” Haqq continued, “after your power grows again, I would appreciate it if you paid me another visit so I can take new measurements.”

“I don’t think I’ll be doing that,” said Lynn. “It sounds like your problem, not mine.”

They exchanged irate looks.

And for some reason, no one else seemed to be asking the obvious question, so Hector had to force himself to interject. “Uh... Mr. Haqq, uh... you said, Lynn’s power can actually grow? H-how?”

“By absorbing human souls, of course. The same as with aberrations themselves.”

Hector saw Lynn’s expression sour.

“I suppose that I should also mention that your secondary ability is your only means of absorbing souls,” said Haqq. “Incineration, you said it was?”

Lynn nodded. “What does Incineration actually do?”

“It ignites anything your shadow touches. And the ensuing flames cannot be extinguished by any physical means. Only yourself or some overwhelming soul pressure will be able to put them out. And to absorb a soul, you would only need to set a person on fire.”

Would it work on servants?’ asked Garovel.

“No, it cannot absorb a servant’s soul. But the flames will certainly cause them difficulty. And of course, it can still absorb a reaper’s soul. When you set about testing it, I suggest you be extremely careful. If you hurt any innocent people in our territory, accident or not, we will hunt you down and take that gauntlet from you by whatever means necessary.”

Lynn looked rather displeased by all of this information, and Hector didn’t feel much differently. He did not envy her position. If the only way to grow his power was to consume human souls, he wasn’t sure what he would do. Even if someone was a bad person, did they deserve to have their soul eaten?

“What happens to the souls I absorb?” Lynn asked.

Haqq tilted his head slowly. He looked like he wanted to ask what she meant, but after a moment, his expression settled, and he seemed to get her meaning. “There is no scientific evidence to support the idea that the souls you absorb retain any kind of consciousness.”

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Page 793

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“To be frank,” said Haqq, “we do not want you inheriting any of the psychological tendencies that belonged to the previous owner of those bones. There is no evidence to support the idea that this is even a possibility, but I believe the worry is still quite reasonable, don’t you?”

“I guess...”

“So, no strange or unexplained mood swings since you began wearing it?”

“No.”

“Good. That is very good.” He scribbled something into his notes.

Behind him, the man with the gun from earlier fired off a rocket that soared across the chamber and obliterated a target dummy with an explosion so large that it shook the whole room. Flames and gnarled metal spikes leapt across the firing range, taking down several additional targets and even bounding back and cracking the safety glass directly behind Haqq.

Everyone turned to the stranger, who seemed quite pleased with himself until he noticed their stares.

“It works,” the man said in his thick accent.

Haqq just glared at him.

“I will go make adjustments.”

“You do that,” said Haqq. He returned to his notes once the other man was gone.

Our apologies,’ Sazandara said to Hector and Garovel. ‘The young ones are always so enthusiastic about their work.

Lynn took the opening to interject with her own question. “So how do I use Incineration?”

Haqq looked up. “Ah, yes. I did promise to tell you. You may not like the explanation, however.”

She merely folded her arms as she waited.

“In order to invoke the secondary ability, you must be in the correct emotional state. Which, simply put, is happiness. You must be enjoying yourself.”

It took Lynn a moment of blinking to respond. “What? I have to be happy?”

“Correct. There are two things required to invoke it. The first is enjoyment, and the second is intent to use it. Rather simple, really. The problem, of course, is that whenever you want to use the power, you will naturally be in the middle of a fight, which is a difficult environment in which to find enjoyment.”

Lynn still didn’t seem like she understood, and Hector couldn’t blame her. “Wait a minute,” she said. “I have to be... so... what?”

“It is the same as how aberrations themselves harness it,” Haqq explained. “They all have a very strong bloodlust. It is part of their nature, which as it turns out, plays a key role in their power.”

Friday, August 15, 2014

Page 792

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Hector had a certain appreciation for armor, and he would have liked to stop and examine it, but now didn’t seem to be the appropriate time. However, he was not the only one who noticed it.

What is that thing?’ asked Garovel. ‘Some kind of battle armor?

“Ah,” said Haqq. “Abbas may not look like it, but when it comes to inventing, he is nearly my equal. That over there is a joint project of ours. You should count yourselves lucky if you never learn what it is capable of.”

Hector and Garovel exchanged looks.

Haqq led them into a rear room, much larger and longer than the previous one thanks to the firing range at the back. Ringed targets stood on the far end, and another man in a lab coat was busy fiddling with a bulky firearm.

A new reaper floated up behind Haqq and said something to him in Valgan.

“Yes,” said Haqq. “This is Lynnette Edith and...”

Hector and Garovel. A pleasure to meet you both.’

Likewise,’ said the other reaper. ‘I am Sazandara. I hope Haqq has not been frightening you too much.

On the contrary, I am quite interested in his work,’ said Garovel.

That earned a smile from Haqq before he returned his attention to Lynn. “Now, I shall perform some preliminary tests to gauge how strong your gauntlet is currently.” He tossed a glance at Hector and Garovel. “This may take a while, so you’ll probably want to go do something else.”

It was Hector and Lynn’s turn to exchange looks now.

“I, uh... I think I’ll stick around, if it’s all the same to you...”

Haqq had already moved on. “Please stand by the door and extend your shadow as far as you are able.”

The man had not been exaggerating, however. It did take a while. He measured the maximum length of Lynn’s violet shade, tested how much pressure it could withstand before she felt even the slightest discomfort, gave her instructions on complex shapes to mold it into, timed her speed around the room when using only the shadow to transport herself, and then began asking her questions pertaining to her mental state.

“Have you noticed any increased aggression since you started wearing it?” Haqq asked.

“No... why? Should I have?”

“Oh, no, these are just precautionary questions,” said Haqq. “You understand, yes?”

Lynnette only gave an uncertain nod.

Page 791 -- LXXXIX.

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Either way, it’s not really our concern,’ said Garovel. ‘We’re here to protect the Prince and gather information, not get involved in someone else’s war.

Hector threw another glance around the hallway. ‘But I thought it was our job to stick our noses where they don’t belong.

Ha. Well, in this case, we don’t even know which side to help. Just because we happened to meet the Sandlords or the Rainlords first doesn’t mean they’re more deserving of assistance than the Vanguard is.

...I guess things were a lot simpler when everyone was fighting Abolish.

Indeed.

Beneath the fortress, the halls became narrower, perhaps because they didn’t need to hold so many people. Hector saw guards in front of every door. Only a few of them had reapers by their side, but he noticed cameras around every corner instead.

Lynnette stopped in front of the door marked Research & Development 4. “I think this is the place,” she said.

One of the men standing guard held up a hand to bar their path. He said something in Valgan, and even though Hector didn’t know the words, he was pretty sure the man was telling them that they weren’t allowed in.

“We’ve come to meet with Lord Haqq Najir,” said Lynn. “Could you please inform him that Lynnette Edith is here to see him? He should be expecting me.”

The guards waited so long to respond that Hector wasn’t sure they’d understood her, but at length, the one on the right nodded and entered on his own. After a minute, he returned with a man in a lab coat.

“Are you Lord Haqq?” Lynn queried.

“I am.”


Chapter Eighty-Nine: ‘Answers ye seek...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

The Lord Haqq Najir had perhaps the strangest eyes Hector had ever seen. They were yellow. And the man’s round glasses only served to magnify them. “Show me this gauntlet of yours,” he said.

Lynn pulled her glove off to reveal the bone wrist guard. She held it out for him to examine.

“Excellent. Come with me.” He ushered them past the guard and into the laboratory. The walls were filled with machinery while the center of the room hosted six full tables with more men in white coats laboring over them.

A particular sight caught Hector’s attention as they passed it. A full suit of armor, it was, embedded into the eastern wall and looking like the most complicated piece of technology in the room.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Page 790

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Lynn’s eyes widened. “I can’t take this, Your Highness! It’s worth more than everything I own!”

“Well, be sure to return it to me later, then.”

Lynn was incredulous.

Meriwether pressed onward. “Lord Haqq said he would meet you in this castle, yes?”

She managed a nod.

“Knowing him, he will probably be in the basement studying one thing or another.”

“He told me where he would be.”

“Ah. Good, then.” The Prince turned to Hector next, making the young man tense up. “If you can, please have your reaper speak to the others around here and find out as much about the current circumstances in Sair as you can. Then report back to me. I may have need of such information.”

“Ah--” Hector glanced at Garovel, and when the reaper nodded, he said, “Y-yes, Your Highness.”

“Thank you,” said Meriwether. “I will remain here while I wait for Lord Abbas to see me. I suspect it will be a while. I will call Ms. Edith here if anything urgent should arise.”

The Prince all but pushed them out of the room after that. Hector and Lynn exchanged looks before rejoining the crowd of people in the curved hallway. They made for the basement first, which wasn’t the easiest thing to find, but Garovel was able to petition a couple of passing reapers for directions.

Hector wanted to ask Lynn more about this Haqq person, but with all the people around, he couldn’t bring himself to. Instead, he settled for another private conversation with Garovel while they walked.

Who owns this fortress?’ Hector asked. ‘Do you know?

It belongs to the Saqqaf family. My understanding is that they are the most influential of the Sandlords.

But Haqq Najir isn’t one of them.

No, he would of course belong to the Najir family.

Okay...

It would be nice if we could make allies with these people.

Even though they’re fighting the Vanguard?

That’s not what Emerix said. He said the Rainlords are fighting the Vanguard. He didn’t say the Sandlords had joined them.

Oh...

But yes, it does give me pause. I don’t think the Vanguard would attack anyone without good reason. At least, I hope they wouldn’t.

What’ll happen if the Sandlords do join in?

Hard to say. I don’t think the Rainlords can stand up to the Vanguard on their own.

Hmm.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Page 789

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Maybe a little comforting, yeah,’ said Garovel. ‘But please don’t pick a fight with anyone here. There are most definitely servants here who really ARE way more powerful than you.

R-right.

I’m almost certain that Nasira’s father is one of them. And if he is, then he’s probably near Harper’s level of strength. At least.

Aw, fuck... why did we come here, again?

Meriwether’s entourage was shown to a large guest chamber, where Nasira asked the three of them to wait. She, Badat, and Emerix disappeared afterward. The Prince took a seat by the empty fireplace and turned on the adjacent television. He started flipping through the channels, only about half of which seemed to be in Mohssian.

Hector and Lynn both remained standing, which drew Meriwether’s curious look. “I appreciate your diligence, but you are both a little too on edge, I think. I understand that you might find Sandlords somewhat intimidating, but they are not going to harm us. I assure you.”

“You seem certain, Your Highness.”

“I lived in this very castle for several years when I was younger,” said Meriwether. “I consider the people here as true and dear to me as my own family.”

That sounded like a loaded statement, considering everything Hector knew about Atreyan royalty.

Hmm. Ask him if he’s always known that they had reapers.

“Uh, Prince Meriwether, sir, ah...”

“Yes?”

“Have you always known that, um... that the Sandlords have reapers on their side?”

“Not as such, no. I have always known that the people here possess special powers, of course, but I never imagined that... deathly phantoms might be the source of said powers.”

Lynn looked at Hector. “Have you already seen them around?”

He nodded. “G-Garovel has already counted nine. Er--not including himself. And, uh--we’re pretty sure there are more than that.”

Lynn did not seem pleased by that news.

Meriwether, on the other hand, didn’t seem particularly fazed by it. “Relax yourselves,” he said. “You do not need to follow me everywhere around the castle. This place is quite safe. As long as you do not leave the grounds without me, we will be fine. You have your own business to attend to, do you not?”

“I do, but--”

Meriwether stood up again and pulled a bulky ring off of his left index finger. It featured a silvery bell with a sapphire at its heart. He offered it to Lynn. “If anyone questions why you are here, show them this.”

Page 788

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What difference does it make to you?’ said Emerix. ‘You are only here to guard your prince, are you not?

That, we are. I’m mainly just curious. No need to answer if you don’t want to.

Emerix mulled it over a bit, then said, ‘The Vanguard attacked a Rainlord family.

It was Garovel’s turn to hesitate. ‘What? Are you serious?

I am, indeed.

And to Hector’s surprise, Garovel had nothing else to say. He expected him to inquire further, but the reaper merely remained silent instead.

As they finally drew close to their destination, Hector couldn’t help gawking a little through the window.

The Golden Fort. Even Hector had heard of this place. It wasn’t difficult to see why it was one of the most famous fortresses in the entire world. He’d heard that it was constructed from pure gold, but seeing it now, that couldn’t possibly be true. It seemed obvious that the building’s yellow hue came from its gigantic sandstone walls. Swirls of golden paint ran all along them, becoming particularly ornate around the main gateway, and tall white turrets rounded off every corner, hanging golden banners from their topmost windows like fluttering tongues against the constant wind.

In the main courtyard, however, there truly did stand an immense statue of solid gold. It depicted a kind of strange plant--an octet of arching leaves, each one large enough to shield a grown man from the punishing sun.

Hector exited the vehicle last and then followed everyone else inside. From what Prince Meriwether had told him before leaving, their primary goal was to meet with Nasira’s father. He now wondered how plausible that would be. The castle was brimming with people, and Hector kept seeing even more reapers among the crowd as they proceeded on.

How many servants do they have here?’ asked Hector.

Don’t know,’ Garovel said privately, ‘but we’ve only been here a few minutes, and I’ve already counted nine.

Geez... And they’re all crazy strong, I bet...

Not necessarily. Most reapers and servants don’t go looking for trouble like you and I do, so they don’t grow as quickly as you have over these past seven months.

Hmm...

And even the ones who DO look for it like we do probably still don’t find as fucking MUCH of it as we always seem to.

Y-you think so?

Yeah. Because if they did, they’d probably get fucking killed.

...Was that supposed to be comforting?

Page 787

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“How have you been?” Meriwether asked his wife.

“Very well, thank you,” she said. Her Valgan accent was faint enough that Hector hadn’t noticed it at first. He only recognized it from its prevalence in television and movies. “How is your sister?”

“She has been quite busy proving herself more capable than my brothers and I ever dared imagine.”

“I am sorry I could not stay longer in Atreya. My father was very insistent that I return home.”

“You told me before. There is no need to explain again. How are the children?”

“They have missed you. Rashad, especially.”

“I see.”

It hadn’t even occurred to Hector that Meriwether’s wife had brought their children to Sair as well.

After that, the ride in the limousine became distinctly uncomfortable. The married couple exchanged no further words, leaving a heavy silence in their wake. Hector’s eyes drifted to the sight of increasingly taller buildings through the window. Many of the streets were covered with huge tarps, offering plenty of shade to the legions of palely-dressed pedestrians afoot.

Since no one else in the car was speaking, Garovel apparently took that as his cue to speak with the other reaper present. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Garovel, and this is Hector. Might you tell us your names?

The other reaper seemed hesitant but said, ‘Emerix. And this is Badat of Hahl Saqqaf.’ He motioned to the person on Nasira’s left.

Ah, I see.

With only the dark eyes to go on, Hector still couldn’t tell if Badat was a boy or a girl. Badat sounded like a masculine name to him, but given how unfamiliar he was with this culture, he decided not to assume anything. ‘Hall Sock-off?’ he asked Garovel.

“Hahl” is a Valgan word referring to a noble family,’ Garovel explained privately. ‘Like the word “House” in Mohssian. He’s saying that Badat here is a Sandlord from the Saqqaf family.

Hector had to consciously avoid nodding. Another heavy intermission passed, and Hector thought Garovel might revise his previous introduction to add that Hector was also the new Lord of Warrenhold, but apparently, the reaper didn’t find it necessary. And Hector was glad for it, frankly. He didn’t want to try to seem more important than he really was.

After a while, Garovel tried again. ‘I don’t suppose you feel like giving me a brief rundown of what’s causing the recent instability in Sair, do you?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Page 786

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Hector looked up at her for a change. “Why would they be afraid of you?”

She motioned with her left hand. “Apparently, this thing makes people uneasy.”

“Oh... but, uh... I’m pretty sure people consider you a hero. Er, h-heroine...? I mean, the White Sword doesn’t really sound like a name that they’d give to a villain...”

“Ha. That’s a good point, I guess. It’s just that I’ve started noticing a lot of people acting uncomfortably around me lately. Though, you’re the only one who’s actually run away from me.”

“But, er--that wasn’t because I was scared of you.”

Not in that sense, at least,’ said Garovel.

Lynnette just smirked and nodded.

Through the window, Hector could see barren lands stretching below him. Far into the western horizon was a sprawling mountain range, much larger than any he’d seen in Atreya.

From the air, the city of Kuros seemed to sparkle and burn under the strength of the sun. Almost every building was pure white, and the only place Hector saw any greenery was directly adjacent a shimmering oasis at the heart of town. The buildings grew taller there as well, often needle-like in design, making the area look like an enormous bed of spikes.

Soon enough, the plane touched down, and Lynn took point, exiting the aircraft first while Hector followed after Meriwether.

The heat was overwhelming, at first. Perhaps he was just accustomed to Atreya’s temperate climate, but this place felt like an oven to him. It was a strange sensation, breathing air that was already warmer than his lungs.

A group of four were there to greet them on the tarmac, all garbed so heavily in white and gold that Hector couldn’t even guess their genders. Three of them carried large parasols, seemingly for the benefit of the one in the middle.

Hector immediately noticed a reaper floating behind one of the parasol-wielders. And they certainly noticed him and Garovel, too--as well as Lynn after another moment.

Meriwether approached them and spoke first. “Hello, Nasira.”

“Welcome, my dear husband,” said the apparent woman in the center. She kept her face bowed and her hands hidden in her robe’s huge sleeves, but with how much taller she was than Meriwether, she was nearly meeting his gaze anyway.

Hector didn’t think they looked terrifically pleased to see one another.

Their two parties became one as Nasira brought everyone to a silver limousine.

Page 785

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Hector had been trying not to look at her since takeoff. He glanced at Lynn from across the cabin, and sure enough, her one eye was indeed locked on him.

Maybe you should go talk to her.

Maybe I shouldn’t.

Oh, look, she’s coming over to talk to you instead.

Fuck!

She sat down across the table from him, resting her sheathed blade by her side. “So how have things been going in Gray Rock? I never asked.”

“Er... uh...”

Relax. Tell her things are going fine.

“Th-they’re going fine.”

“What’s your new castle like? I didn’t really get to see much of it.”

“Oh, uh... m-most of it is underground.”

She cocked an eyebrow at that. “Underground? Oh, I guess that’s why they call it Warrenhold, huh?”

“Yeah. It’s a lot bigger than I, um... er, there’s a lot more space than I was expecting.”

“Sounds cool. Hope I get to see it later.”

“Uh... hah...” He scratched his chin as his eyes searched for something to latch onto. ‘Garovel, what do I say?

Tell her you think she has a rockin’ body.

Garovel!

Sorry. Ask her how things are in the capital.

“H-how are things in Sescoria?”

“Non-violent, at least. The Queen’s been busy navigating a political minefield, instead.”

“It must have been hard on her. Losing, uh... I mean, the way she lost so many of her brothers at once.” Hector eyed the unconscious prince again.

“They’ve all been working hard,” said Lynn. “While we’re going to Sair, Prince David is headed to Intar.”

“By himself?”

“Intar isn’t as dangerous as Sair is right now, but he does have some normal bodyguards with him.” She paused. “All of this is a state secret, by the way, even the nature of our visit to Sair now. I’m not sure if I made that clear earlier. So don’t go telling people about it when we get back.”

Hector managed a weak laugh. “The last thing you need to worry about is me talking to people...”

That seemed to amuse her. “I noticed you had some reporters nosing around.”

“Er, yeah... Did I mention how good your timing was?”

“Heh, maybe not that good. They bothered us on the way in. Why were they there, anyway?”

“I... I think they wanted an interview.”

“Ah. You’ve sure gotten popular.”

“Egh...”

“Better than them being afraid of you, I guess. Progress.”

“That’s what Garovel said.”

She leaned back in her seat. “Maybe their fear is starting to shift over to me.”

Monday, August 11, 2014

Page 784

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Hector had a corner booth all to himself. He could see Prince Meriwether sleeping in the center of the plane. The man must have been tired, because it was barely past midday. They’d set out almost as soon as Hector agreed to go with them.

Hey, when’s your birthday?

Hector blinked at the sudden inquiry. ‘Uh... why?

Just curious,’ said Garovel. ‘It’s gotta be soon, right? Or did I already miss it?

No, ah... it’s next month, actually.

Aha. What day?

The twenty-fifth.

You’ll turn seventeen, right?

Y-yeah...?

I guess it’s a good time to bring up the topic of aging.

What do you mean?

I mean, do you want me to stop your body from aging physically?

His eyes widened. ‘Uh...

I can keep you eternally youthful, is what I’m saying.

I... uh... hell, I don’t know.

Personally, I think you should at least wait until your late twenties before having me press the pause button, but I figured I should ask in case you really like being a teenager.

A beat passed, and Hector eyed Garovel. ‘Why the FUCK would I like being a teenager?

The reaper snorted a laugh. ‘Well. I don’t know. You’d get to feel young. And. Spritely?

Ugh. Screw that. Now that I think about it, uh... I think I’d rather age normally until I’m, like, fifty or something.

Really? Well, we’ll see how you feel in a few years.

Hmm.

That’s actually a pretty common sentiment, though. You’d think more servants would want to be eternally young, but as it turns out, most sixty-year-olds don’t want strangers treating them like they’re twenty-year-olds.

Choosing to be eternally young seems kind of... douchey.

Garovel laughed again. ‘Maybe it is.

How the hell do you prevent aging, anyway?

Magical reaper juice.

...Ew.

Nah, it’s just a kind of smaller-scale extension of the ability to regenerate your body. I actually don’t know the exact reason why it works, because no one knows what causes aging in the first place. There are lots of interesting theories about it, though!

Please, no--

There’s one theory that aging is caused by reproductive hormones that promote growth early in life but end up driving the body into decline later on, because they’re still trying to maintain reproduction despite it no longer being possible. There’s another theory that it’s selected genetically, like a literal “biological clock” embedded into your DNA. Then there’s the one regarding the progressive shortening of telomeres--

Alright, alright, I get it. Shit is complicated.

It is. By the way, Lynn is staring at you.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Page 783 -- LXXXVIII.

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Without a doubt, Parson’s connection to this place and to Zeff was the biggest reason why Dergoz was displeased by his presence. Lawrence couldn’t decide if he was pleased that Zeff couldn’t be revived and interrogated.

“We’re keeping his head in cold storage,” said Lawrence. “We’ve been hoping to ship him out of the country, but the Rainlords are watching us too closely. They’ve been searching every vehicle that leaves this building.”

“Ah. And if you tried to take it yourself, they’d seize the castle, instead.”

“Assuming they don’t gang up on me.”

“Right. I suppose I could take it while you hold down the fort.”

We probably shouldn’t remove our one real bargaining chip from the table,’ said Overra. ‘If worse comes to worst, we may need it.

“True. What about the Elroy kid? You have both him and his reaper, right?”

“Yes. They have already been interrogated, but if you would like to do it yourself, I will arrange a room for you.”

“Maybe. Haven’t decided yet.”

What of Gema Elroy?’ said Dergoz. ‘Any developments?

No. Apparently, she just disappeared. Even the watchers haven’t been able to track her down. The only thing that seems clear is that she must have someone helping her.

They could be hiding her in Aguarey,’ said Dergoz.

Doubtful. We’re fairly certain that she’s still in Intar somewhere. But it’s always possible that she slipped past our net.

“Invading Aguarey without rock solid intel would be a gigantic mistake,” said Parson.

Yes, of course.’

Tell me,’ said Overra, ‘have any of the Rainlords sided with us?

Lawrence shook his head. “None in Sair, no. The Blackburns are the only one who haven’t declared for either side.”

The Blackburns, huh? Now, that is interesting. I think Parson and I will go talk to them.

Are you kidding?’ said Dergoz. ‘They might take you prisoner!

Parson shrugged. “Eh, I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

Dergoz kept his sigh private. ‘How in the world did this man become a captain general?


Chapter Eighty-Eight: ‘The land that breeds austerity...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Hector had never been on a plane before, much less an international one--or royal one. He didn’t think that the Lumenbel family’s private jet was providing him with a very typical first experience. Something about the giant seats and minibar tipped him off.

Their entourage was extremely small. It really was just him, Garovel, Meriwether, Lynn, and a pair of pilots on board. He supposed any extra bodyguards for the Prince would have just meant more people for Hector and Lynn to protect, but he had at least been expecting a couple more ambassadors to come along.

Page 782

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Parson was busy licking his ice cream. It had chocolate sprinkles. “Yeah, so?”

So?! So we’re about to go to war with them, you jackass!

“I thought it was the Rainlords we were having problems with,” said Parson.

Dergoz had to take a moment to calm himself. ‘There is a very real possibility that they could forge an alliance with each other. Which means you’ve just revealed your location to the enemy. For an ice cream.

“Oh.” He still hadn’t stopped eating. “Well, I’m sure it’ll be fine. And besides, the Sandlords make really good ice cream. Surprisingly good, in fact. You’d think they’d stink at it, right? Being all about heat and sand and everything.”

Agh! Why did you even come here?!

“Just following orders.”

“From Sermung?” asked Lawrence, figuring it was time to intervene.

Lamont, actually, but same difference,’ said Overra.

Lawrence eyed them both up and down. At a glance, Parson was an unassuming young man with golden brown hair and terrible posture. He was one of the oldest servants in the world, but Overra had never let him physically age. Or perhaps he’d asked her not to age him. Either way, it was the kind of thing that tended to make a bad first impression with the other old servants. Lawrence, however, was long past such trivialities with this man. “Why are you alone? I expected you to be in company.”

“Oh, yeah. My awesome tiltwing was shot down in Calthos. Thing was brand new, you believe that? Nearly lost one of my airmen, too, so I decided to make the rest of the trip on my own. Also, I wanted ice cream.”

Apologies,’ added Overra. To Lawrence’s eyes, she was quite a strange thing. She was a tornado, compacted in scale but constantly and silently whirling, while also bearing a mouth and eyes that consisted of nothing more than dark splotches. ‘We would have been on time, otherwise.

“Yeah. You know she hates that sort of thing.”

“It’s no trouble,” said Lawrence, tasting his own ice cream now. Parson hadn’t been wrong about its quality.

They started down the stairs together.

“So where’s Zeff’s head?” said Parson.

Lawrence was expecting that question. Parson had always had a tendency of somersaulting over the pleasantries and bringing up the most sensitive topic as if he were merely asking about the weather.

And it was sensitive, Lawrence knew. Especially for Parson, because Zeff had worked directly under him before Lawrence took over his position here in Sair.

Page 781

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Dergoz sat on Lawrence’s shoulder, fidgeting impatiently. ‘Why did it have to be Parson?’ he said privately.

Could be worse,’ said Lawrence. ‘Could have been Jackson. Or Sanko.

We might end up seeing the latter anyway, if this conflict doesn’t get resolved soon.

Something to look forward to.’

You do realize that she will kill us both if she learns of our involvement, right?

Of course. I was being facetious.’

Hilarious.

Perhaps Parson will protect us.

Now I know you’re joking.

There came the sound of a distant tearing, that of a jet through the sky, and Lawrence searched the eastern horizon. Sure enough, he saw the speck there on its rapid approach. Rather than a jet, however, it was just one lone man.

Parson didn’t need to slow down at all. He just stopped in an instant and was standing right there on the helipad. And after a beat, a surging gale caught up to him, so strong that it might have knocked Lawrence off his feet if he hadn’t braced himself.

Part of the man was missing. His white-and-gray airman’s uniform flapped against the wind where his legs and arms should have been. After a couple blinks, however, the limbs returned to him--but not by way of regrowth. Rather, the flesh swirled back into existence, as if springing from the wind itself.

As the air settled down again, Lawrence approached to greet him.

Captain General Parson Miles grinned as soon as he saw Lawrence, but before they could exchange words, he held up a hand. His ragged overcoat was still flapping wildly, and Parson reached into it to retrieve something. He pulled out a localized vortex, at the center of which were two undisturbed, double-scoop ice cream cones. His reaper melted out from his back. Overra was her name.

“Pretty good, right?” said Parson. “Now, I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is yes, the second one IS for you. You’re welcome.” He offered an ice cream to Lawrence.

Dergoz sighed publicly, but Lawrence just shrugged and accepted Parson’s generosity.

C’mon,’ said Overra, ‘you gotta admit, it’s pretty impressive. He picked ‘em up in Kuros, and they’re not even melting.

What?!’ shouted Dergoz. ‘You stopped in Kuros along the way?! Why?!

“Uh, to get ice cream. Duh. We were already running late, so I figured a quick pit stop wouldn’t matter.”

Tell me you are joking!’ said Dergoz. ‘If you stopped in Kuros, then the Sandlords almost certainly know that you are in Sair now!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Page 780

She had never loved him, not truly. And yet now, he was the only family she had left. Worse, he was the only person to whom she had any meaningful connection. Friends? She’d never excelled at making those in the first place, but the few she’d possessed had abandoned her the second they learned her son was a fugitive.

It was all his fault. He’d ripped her out of the world and placed her here. She’d already decided that she would never forgive him for that. She knew she would carry that grudge all the way to her grave.

However.

There was still... something. A conflict. She’d realized it after Hector returned from his fight with Abolish.

If he died, she would be entirely alone.

Even if he was to blame for everything, even if she didn’t want to be around him, Hector really was all she had now. Vanessa genuinely didn’t know what she would do if Hector died, too. Pitiful as it was, she didn’t think she had it in her to go back out into the world again and build a new life for herself from scratch.

A small part of her wanted to admit this to him right now. The notion flared up in her mind, and for a terrible moment, as Hector again stood there waiting for her response, Vanessa wasn’t sure what was going to come out of her mouth.

But she struggled in silence for long enough that Hector apparently took it to mean that she wanted him to leave. “Alright,” was all he said as he turned for the door.

“Hector,” she blurted.

He stopped and looked back at her.

She hesitated, unsure of what she was about to say. “...Is your trip going to be dangerous?”

The question seemed to confuse him. “Um... probably, yeah.”

“Then... be careful.”

Hector stared at her like she’d just confessed to murder.

She immediately regretted what she said and looked away, filling her vision with the empty wall next to her.

“...I will. Th--uh... th-thanks, Mom...”

She shut her eyes and rubbed her forehead as she listened to him leave.

-+-+-+-+-

The helipad atop Rhein’s Keep hadn’t been used in a while. It was mostly reserved to non-servant VIPs, which they hadn’t had many of, as of late. Today was different, however.

Lawrence’s blue tie lashed against the wind as he waited by the staircase. He checked his watch. It wasn’t like Parson Miles to be late.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Page 779

Vanessa eyed her son for a long moment, debating whether or not she wanted to respond. She decided against it.

Hector didn’t seem to appreciate her silence. His annoyed stare was something she had become well-acquainted with during their few recent encounters. “I came to see if there was anything you needed before I leave,” he said.

The lack of hesitation in his voice did not escape Vanessa’s notice. He was telling her that he was going to leave the country. Telling her. Not asking for permission. Not even hoping for approval, by the sound of it.

He was changing. She could see it with each new visit he paid her. The young Lord Goffe. It seemed like he was genuinely starting to believe himself worthy of the title.

How ridiculous everything had become.

“I don’t need anything from you,” she said blankly.

That wasn’t enough to get him to leave, however. “...How have you been doing? Mr. Easton said you haven’t left this room in almost a week.”

Her eyes glazed over. “It’s comfortable.”

“Mom, I... I worry about you.”

Her eyes narrowed at him. Her impulse was to ask why, but she already knew what he would say. The same thing as before--because she was his mother and because he loved her.

And she did not wish to hear that again.

It made no sense whatsoever. How could he love her? After everything that had happened, everything she’d said to him, how the hell could that be possible?

She’d always found it strange. Mothers were supposed to feel something different for their children, weren’t they? Maternal instinct? Where was hers? She’d never felt it. From the moment she first realized she was pregnant, she’d kept expecting something to change, some switch to be flipped inside of her. She thought, surely, she would be able to feel it when she held him in her arms for the first time. It was the only thing that let her endure those nine horrific months. But no. All she’d felt was relief that it was finally over. And afterward, she thought it might come when he took his first steps. Or when he could feed himself. Or dress himself. Or go to school on his own.

But nothing. Not really. He was just some child. No different from anyone else’s. The only distinction was that she had a societal obligation to this one. So she pretended. She played the role as best as she was able.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Page 778

Forty years, those conflicts had lasted, each one progressively bloodier and more expansive than the last, and all stemming from the same dispute over the Corvana Jungle. Apparently, the land had been thought worthless by all seven of the countries through which it extended, until someone discovered a network of diamond mines therein. Of those seven countries, only Jesbol, Melmoore, and Corrico still existed today. The successive wars ruined all of the others.

Vanessa rested the book on the nightstand by her bed and rubbed her eyes.

She didn’t often leave this dark room. Some days, she didn’t even get out of bed. Sleep was perhaps the only thing she actually looked forward to anymore. It was the easiest way to avoid thinking about Samuel.

More than once, she’d considered ending her own life. Maybe burn herself along with all of those boxes. Poetic, but probably a terrible way to go. In the end, she realized that, regardless of the method, she simply didn’t have the conviction. And she didn’t know why, either. She didn’t feel afraid of dying, necessarily, and if there was any point left in living, she couldn’t tell what it was; but even still, she didn’t want to go through with it. Maybe it was just the natural human impulse. Or maybe it was the knowledge that Samuel wouldn’t have approved.

Suicide would have been difficult, anyway. For whatever reason, Amelia Carthrace seemed to think it necessary to keep Vanessa apprised of the reconstruction’s progress on a daily basis, and Jamal Easton checked in even more frequently. The man never said so, but Vanessa was fairly certain that Hector had ordered him to make sure that she was eating. She had lost quite a bit of weight recently--not that it was any of that stupid boy’s business.

Hector rarely came to her himself. She couldn’t tell if he was just that busy or if it’d finally sunk in that she didn’t want to see him. Regardless of the cause, today proved to be an exception.

The knock at her door stirred her out of her flat-eyed daze.

“...Mom? Can I come in?”

There wasn’t much point in refusing, she felt. “Yes.”

Hector entered. He looked around her room, taking in the mess and probably judging her for it. “I’m going to Sair for a little while,” he told her. “I’ll be back soon.”

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Page 777 -- LXXXVII.

“Full potential?” said Hector. “Oh, so... you’re going there to get stronger?”

“That’s the hope.”

What do you think, Hector?’ said Garovel. ‘Want to go with them?

Hector turned away from Lynn and rubbed his neck as he eyed the opposite doorway. ‘I really DON’T, actually.

Why not?

Because it means I’d... I’d have to be around... her.

But I thought you really liked her.

Yeah! That’s why I don’t wanna be near her!

I’m not sure you understand what “like” means, Hector.

Ergh, I need an excuse to stay here...

Sure, Hector. It’s no big deal. The woman you care about is venturing into a volatile country where she’ll probably face all kinds of danger. There are bound to be many innocent people there in need of help, as well. And this Haqq Najir fellow probably has all sorts of useful information. Not to mention that you’d be helping your country and that the Queen requested it. But y’know, just forget all that. It’s obviously more important that we stay here so that you can... help some construction workers do their jobs slightly faster.

I... I stopped a murder the other day...

And that was very good, Hector. Gold star for you.

He looked at Garovel, then back at Lynn. ‘...Dammit.


Chapter Eighty-Seven: ‘Thy bitter heart, bear down...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Despite how spacious it was, Vanessa Goffe’s private chamber was almost full. Boxes from the old home in Brighton had arrived a few days ago. Most of them, she didn’t know what to do with. Part of her just wanted to burn everything and forget about it, but her less impulsive side fought against that notion.

There was still no electricity. According to Madame Carthrace, the new generator would arrive in a few days, but Vanessa wasn’t terribly bothered about it. She’d always liked candlelight well enough. It reminded her of her childhood. The quieter moments of it, at least.

Without a working television to occupy her attention, Vanessa had taken to reading. It didn’t really matter what the book was, nor did it matter if she retained any of it. Just the distraction of fresh words in her mind was enough. This current one about war during the last century was a morbid bore through the majority of its pages, but the part about the Jungle Wars managed to hold her interest. She recalled Mr. Norez mentioning them at their dinner with the Queen.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Page 776

“Are you lying to me?” said Lynn with a narrowing eye.

He was all in now. “N-no...”

“Because at the time, it seemed like you were trying to avoid my question.”

“Er... I was just... embarrassed. I still am, actually, so... p-please stop asking me about it...”

Ooh, that’s good. Nice touch.

“Fine,” she said. “Then what was the answer to my question before? You were about to say something before suddenly telling me it was nothing and then leaving.”

“Uh...”

You don’t remember,’ said Garovel.

“I don’t remember,” said Hector.

Lynn looked annoyed with him. But after a moment, she relented. “Well, whatever. I guess it doesn’t matter.”

Hector would have breathed a huge sigh of relief if she hadn’t still been watching.

“So do you want to come to Sair with us?” she asked. “It’s not a royal order, if that’s what you were thinking. I’m sure I can protect the prince on my own just fine.”

Hector hesitated again and glanced at Garovel for another assist.

Ask for more information first. I’d like to know what the Prince’s urgent business is before we commit to an impromptu trip out of the country.

That seemed incredibly obvious now, and Hector wasn’t sure why he’d needed Garovel to explain it to him. “Can you tell me about, um... more about why you’re going to Sair? It’s kind of sudden, isn’t it?”

“We’re going to meet the Sandlords. Prince Meriwether’s wife happens to be one of them. She recently returned to Sair on her own at her family’s request, and now Her Highness is sending the Prince as an ambassador to assess the situation there. And to negotiate something, I think. I didn’t follow everything she told him. She talked to him for a long time.”

“Huh. I, uh--I see. And you said... you have your own business in Sair, too?”

“Yeah, I’m going to meet a man named Haqq Najir. He’s a Sandlord, too, and a friend of Harper’s.” Lynn held up her left hand, the one wearing the bone gauntlet beneath her dark gray gloves. “I talked to him over the phone the other day, and he said he would tell me how to unlock the full potential of this thing if I pay him a visit.”

Monday, August 4, 2014

Page 775

Lynn just leaned against the doorframe and folded her arms. She had a new eye patch, Hector realized. This one was white like her cloak, and it made the bronzy flesh tones of her face stand out all the more. And with her deeply black hair, her Intarian heritage had never been more apparent.

Hector was losing his humor now as he very successfully tried not to stare at her.

Ask her what brings her here,’ Garovel told him.

“Uh... w-what brings you to Warrenhold?”

“Her Highness gave me a mission and told me to ask you for your assistance.”

“Oh.” He cleared his throat. “What kind of mission?”

“I’m escorting Prince Meriwether to Sair. He and I both have business there. His is more urgent than mine, though.”

Sair?’ said Garovel. ‘Hmm.

“What do you... er, why do you need my help?”

“You’d be my backup,” she said. “Sair is a little unstable right now, so Her Highness said I should take someone else along if possible. But Roman is out of the country, and if I took Harper, then there wouldn’t be anyone in Sescoria capable of guarding the Queen. That leaves you. So here I am.”

“Ah... you could have just called.”

“And give you the chance to run away from me again? I don’t think so.”

Hector winced. He’d hoped she’d forgotten about that.

“Why did you run away? It’s been bothering me.”

Garovel, help...

Tell her you had a poop-related emergency.

Hector’s eyes widened, and he rubbed his forehead in order to hide his expression. ‘Are you fucking kidding?! That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!

Is it stupid? Or is it genius?

It’s stupid!

Well, phrase it more diplomatically, then. Don’t say you almost shat yourself. Say you had an upset stomach.

You--!

Quickly now. She’s waiting for an answer.

He grit his teeth. “I... uh... I had... ah...”

She stepped a little closer. “You...?”

“I... I had an upset stomach, so... I kinda... uh... needed to leave.” He chanced a look, but he couldn’t tell if she was buying it or not.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Page 774

...I didn’t realize you were such an expert on romance,’ said Hector. ‘Do you even... I mean... do reapers even... er...?

No. We lose all sexual desires when we lose our bodies. And personally, I’m glad, because that shit sucked. Thank you, biology.

So in other words... you don’t really know what you’re talking about.

Hey, I had my share of relationships while I was alive.

Yeah, back when clubbing someone over the head and dragging them into a cave was considered a first date.

First of all, that’s historically inaccurate. The Lyzakks were not cavemen. And secondly, what you’re describing is basically rape, which I have never approved of, thank you very much.

Well, that’s good to know.

Would you just listen to my advice? I’m old and wise, dammit.

I don’t think an old and wise person would need to say that.

Hmm. Maybe I can convince you with an impression, then. HEY, EVERYONE, I’M THE DARKSTEEL SOLDIER. I’M SUPER SHY AND MODEST, BUT LOOK AT ALL THE SHIT I’M STILL MANAGING TO GIVE MY REAPER. AREN’T I AWESOME? How was that? Pretty accurate, right?

And maybe it was the way Garovel had phrased it, or maybe it was just the big dumb voice the reaper had used, but Hector broke down into a fit of laughter. It hit him so suddenly and so strongly that he had to lean against the wall again in order to stop himself from doubling over onto the floor. He tried to keep his voice down, but that only seemed to make it even funnier.

Garovel couldn’t help absorbing a few chuckles via proxy. ‘Wow, that really got you, didn’t it? I’ve never seen you laugh this hard before.

Slowly, Hector composed himself. He thought he was okay, but as he looked at Garovel again, he found the laughter creeping back into his lungs.

“What’s so funny?” came Lynn’s voice.

Hector turned and saw her standing there in the eastern doorway. His body tried to freeze up on him again, but a lingering cluster of amused rumbles prevented it. “It’s--ah-ha... i-it’s nothing. G-Garovel was just... aha--being Garovel...”

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Page 773

Rather than answering, Hector merely leaned on the nearest wall for support.

Huh,’ said Garovel. ‘Um. Okay. I’m guessing you don’t intend to tell her how you feel.

Of course not. Are you kidding me?

That’s fine, then. If you don’t plan on confessing, then there’s really nothing to be freaking out about, is there?

Hector squinted and scratched his forehead.

Just remain calm and collected. She’s not going to figure it out unless you tell her, and it’s not like I’m going to tell her, either. Your secret is perfectly safe. Just remember, you’ve dealt with many high-pressure situations before. You can handle a normal conversation with Lynn.

Uh... you’re not gonna try to convince me to confess? That’s what everyone says to do, isn’t it? Don’t drag things out, ‘cuz it just gets... er... more painful over time or some shit like that?

Well. Ideally, you would do that as soon as possible and see what happens, but--and you can correct me if I’m wrong about this--but I suspect that a physical relationship with someone would be a very big deal for you. It’s a big deal for most people, obviously; I’m just saying it’d be even more so for you.

Er...

Because you’re just such a special snowflake, Hector.

Fuck you...

The reaper laughed again. ‘You understand what I’m saying, though, right? You’re very young, and so is she. And given your social difficulties, I wouldn’t want you to rush into anything. You can if you want to, though. Just let me know, and I’ll advise you as best I can in that regard.

Y-you’re talking like I don’t even have to worry about being rejected...

Oh, rejection would make things so much simpler. Hector, if she rejected you, yes, it would suck, but then you could move on and stop worrying about your feelings for her, because you’d know that nothing could ever come of them.

Eh... I don’t think it’d be that easy for me, Garovel...

I think you’d be surprised. Rejection is very straightforward. No one likes it, but it’s way less complicated than acceptance.