Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Page 841 -- XCVI.

Chapter Ninety-Six: ‘Thy strong hearts, be welcomed...’
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Hector had never seen so many servants and reapers. By Garovel’s count, there were about fifty pairings accompanying them to Luzo. The majority of them belonged to House Sebolt, apparently. The Sebolts distinguished themselves with bright blue bandanas worn over the left shoulder. The fabric had a distinctive white lightning bolt woven into it. The Delagunas, meanwhile, boasted white bandanas with dark blue squiggles. Hector wasn’t too sure what those were supposed to look like.

Come to think of it, there must have been many more at the encampment in Rheinhal, but they’d been so spread out that he never got the chance to see them all together.

He was glad that they weren’t flying this time, even if it was slower. Airplanes were neat and all, but he’d gotten his fill of them in the last couple days. Instead, the departing Rainlords were taking a huge convoy of automobiles all the way to Luzo. He rode in a limousine with the Najirs. Jada took the opportunity to pop her head up through the sunroof for a view of it all, and Hector had to join her.

It was a remarkable sight, seeing so many vehicles traveling together down one long road across the countryside. A lot of the reapers were flying up high around them, scouting no doubt, and there were a handful of servants who could fly as well. Hector spotted Dimas Sebolt among them, soaring through the sky with his gray raincoat billowing around him like a cape. At first, that raincoat seemed a bit superfluous, but Hector could see the dark clouds that they were all driving toward on the horizon. It wasn’t long before the rain began to fall, and he and Jada had to tuck their heads back inside the limousine.

He knew there would be rain, of course, but as the convoy drew onward, he still couldn’t help marveling at it. It just didn’t end. In fact, it only continued to grow heavier. Rolling green hills gave way to huge rivers and lakes. Occasionally, there would be almost no visible land, and it would briefly feel like the bridge they were on was taking them across an ocean.

And those were the most spectacular things, he felt. The bridges. He’d never seen so many in so short a time. In some parts, they were more common than normal roads. And some of them were fantastically elaborate in design.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Page 840

--BELATED donation bonus (day 6/7, page 1/3)--
He didn’t understand why his parents wouldn’t just let him fight. They were wonderful and loving people, but they could be so frustrating sometimes. A big battle was on its way to their doorstep, and yet all of a sudden, he wasn’t allowed to participate? The absurdity of it boggled the mind.

He jumped up from his couch and paced across the room. There weren’t even any windows to look through, and the walls were all soul-strengthened in order to make sure he stayed put, as well as to conceal his presence from any curious reapers. Sure, it was spacious, having its own den and kitchen and bathroom; and sure, it was filled with all sorts of toys and other things that were obviously meant to keep him distracted, but he just wasn’t in the mood for--

Hold on. Was that a merry-go-round tucked away in the corner? It was a bit small, but he hadn’t been on one of those since he was a kid. Oh, man, he’d have to give his mother a big hug later. That magnificent woman thought of everything.

After a while of unadulterated joy, a ringing noise arrived. Next to the sealed door, Ismael’s face appeared on the monitor embedded in the wall. <“Ibai?”>

He bounded off his mechanical wonder and rushed over. “Hello, Papa! Can I come out yet?”

<“I’m afraid not, mijoro. I just wanted to check in on you. You will need to stay in there for a while yet.”>

“Agh!”

<“I know. But it is for your own safety.”>

“Yes, yes, same old drill. But I want to fight!”

<“I know you do.”>

He groaned again and walked away from the monitor, only to immediately walk back to it. “Okay, fine, no fighting. But still, Papa, there truly is no need to keep me locked up in here. You could send me abroad! Away from all the danger! I would adore a vacation! And I would be perfectly safe!”

<“You know why I can’t do that.”>

“I won’t hurt anyone. I promise. And I won’t cause trouble or attract too much attention, either. I know how important it is to remain hidden.”

<“I wish I could believe you.”>

“But you can! Papa, please! I understand! Believe me! Don’t leave me in here!”

And he saw his father hesitate. A flicker of uncertainty achieved at last. But that was all it was.

<“I am sorry. I will let you out soon.”> And the monitor went dark.

He was alone again. He clicked his lips apart and gave a loud sigh. And then, faintly, he smiled to himself. “Almost convinced you that time, Papa.”

His hand brushed his chin and felt the fresh stubble there. Bah. Facial hair was such a bother. He moved to the bathroom and looked into the mirror. He extended two fingers, and from them, a brown shadow appeared. It formed a small blade, and he began shaving.

Page 839

Nere was looking even more frantic than usual now. “What are you saying?”

Rholtam didn’t answer. No one really needed him to. It was a discussion they’d had before.

“I fear Rholtam is right,” said Ismael. “He must die.”

“No!” said Nere. “We can’t! And even if we could--!”

“I know what you would say,” said Ismael, “but we have been down that road this entire time. Going along with him. And here is where we find ourselves. Again, we teeter on the verge of both treason and ruin because of his vile game.”

Nere still did not seem to agree, but if she had further arguments, she was not able to put them into words.

Ismael looked to Melchor again. “You are the only one who can do it. Any resources you require, you need only ask.”

Melchor inhaled deeply and folded his arms. “To be honest, I’m not certain I could manage it. Even under ideal circumstances, it would be a struggle.”

“It does not matter how you accomplish it, only that you do.” Ismael sat upright and seemed to find more strength in his voice as he spoke. “You must do it. Whatever happens, I want you to promise me that you will. Even if you are the only one of us who survives the coming battle, I want you to hunt him down and end his life. Even if all it will achieve is vengeance. That will be enough. Swear to me, Melchor. I need your word.”

Melchor looked at his cousin evenly. He hadn’t seen the man look so sure of himself in ages. The bags under the man’s eyes were still there, but that old clarity seemed to shine through regardless. Melchor’s chest swelled with a sudden purchase of honor, of pride in the man he now saw before him. “As the Lord of Marshrock commands,” said Melchor. “I swear, here and now before you all, that I will kill Parson Miles even if I must use my dying breath to do so.”

-+-+-+-+-

These confines were exasperating. And just plain unfair, really. He was a grown man, after all. More than grown. Hell, at this point, he and his parents looked the same age.

Ibai Blackburn groaned aloud. He was already so bored. There wasn’t even anything good on television. News, news, and more news. What few cartoons he could find, he’d already seen. His favorite shows didn’t air new episodes until the weekend, and for all he knew, the castle might be in ruins by then.

Page 838

The anterior door opened, and through it came Nere Blackburn. The manic and haggard look on her face was not so different from that of her husband. She scurried straight toward Melchor and wrapped her skinny arms around him. “I am so glad you are safe,” she said into his chest. “I told Rholtam that we should not have sent you alone.”

Melchor returned the embrace, though his wasn’t quite the vice grip that hers was. He gave an acknowledging look to her reaper, who was hovering up behind her.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t greet you as soon as you returned,” she said. “Ibai wouldn’t--he... he was...”

“Being difficult?” said Melchor. And when the woman only nodded in response, Melchor exhaled a tired laugh and kissed the top of her head. “It’s alright. I’m fine.” As much as Ismael was a brother to him, Nere was a sister. Between the two of them, Melchor wasn’t sure whom he worried more about these days.

Nere released her hold on him and went to go sit next to her husband. Her strained eyes moved to Ismael’s face, and she shakily found his hand with her own.

Melchor saw Ismael squeeze her hand, but it was still not enough to stir the man back to sociability.

Rholtam picked up the slack for him. ‘Have you had a chance to assess the castle’s defenses?

“Not yet,” said Melchor. “It is next on my to-do list.”

Good. If possible, I would like Orric to look them over as well. I’m sure he can--

“I do not see an end to this,” said Ismael.

Everyone looked at him.

Ismael raised his head, gradually moving his gaze from each observer to the next. “I thought it could work. I thought we could keep our family together, but now... what hope is there? Truly? What hope? Tomorrow, they will come, and everything will unravel. Everything I’ve... everything... everything...” He rubbed his face with his free hand.

You’re wrong,’ said Rholtam. ‘There is hope still. But there can be no peace for us while that man still lives.’

No one needed him to specify which man he was talking about.

Rholtam wasn’t done. ‘We all know this, yes? Even if we weather this siege and somehow reconcile with the others, it will not prevent future conflicts arising in this same manner. The problem will remain.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Page 837

The Black Hall was the largest room in the castle, and its walls were a testament to ancient Arman architecture with their elaborate stonework and inlaid columns. Its ceiling, however, consisted entirely of natural rock. Its slanted, craggy surface hadn’t changed since the Armans first brought the rock to this wet place and carved a home out of it.

When Ismael noticed Melchor, he ordered everyone else to leave. Once upon a time, such an order from Ismael would have been shouted with confidence and perhaps even laughter, but here and now, Ismael only whispered his desire to his attendants, who then quietly ushered the crowd of people from the chamber.

Once they were alone, Ismael let the silence linger a while before finally speaking. “I am sorry for what I had you do,” he said.

“The Lord of Marshrock should not apologize for his decisions,” said Melchor.

Ismael’s eyes went to the floor. “Forgive my weakness, then.”

A tinge of irritation crossed Melchor’s face, but he held his tongue this time.

“I know that my selfishness is to blame for our circumstances.”

Our selfishness,’ the man’s reaper said. This one was named Rholtam, and he had been with House Blackburn longer than anyone else. ‘The responsibility is ours to share, my friend.

Ismael did not respond. He and his wife Nere had both retained the youth of their mid-thirties, but it had grown difficult to tell. He didn’t look old so much as just tired.

It pained Melchor to see him like this, but it had been many years since he’d seen much else in him. They were distant cousins by blood, but Melchor had come to feel like his older brother.

Rholtam gave a soundless ruffling of his feathers and looked at Melchor. ‘Will Orric be ready for battle by tomorrow morning?

“Yes. Is that when we expect our visitors to arrive?”

Indeed. We have enough aerial defenses along the way. Our opponents will have to do some night marching up through the marshes if they wish to avoid needless losses. In the meantime, we have already started evacuating the town.

“Where are you sending the refugees?”

To Intar. We’ve organized shelters for those who need them. I’m sure they’ll feel much safer across the border.

Melchor nodded.

Ismael still hadn’t reestablished eye contact with him.

“What of Ibai?” asked Melchor.

He is under guard,’ said Rholtam. ‘He made quite a fuss.

“I don’t doubt it.”

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Page 836

The monster opened its mouth, which was a small revelation unto itself. The creature didn’t have protruding lips of any kind, and until now, the place where its mouth resided had looked unsettlingly empty. But this wasn’t an improvement. Emiliana spotted a tongue and at least two rows of sharp teeth. And by the way its mouth kept moving, the monster looked like it was trying to speak, but no words came out. No sounds, even. Just more uncomfortable silence.

Emiliana had to blink a few times. She hadn’t even thought to try talking to it. After a few moments, she mustered up the courage to ask, “What are you?”

No answer.

And before she could pose another question, the monster faded away again, leaving no remnant of its presence. Emiliana checked the mirror one more time just to be sure it hadn’t suddenly appeared there in the manner of some freaky horror movie.

Alone again, she wasn’t sure if she should tell Chergoa about what had just happened. The reaper hadn’t been able to tell her anything useful the first time, and it wasn’t like anything had changed since then. Emiliana wrestled with the decision for a while until eventually choosing to keep the repeated encounter to herself. On top of everything, she didn’t need to give Chergoa more evidence that her servant was going crazy.

-+-+-+-+-

Melchor needed his sleep. Even for him, it had been an exhausting night. Any time he and Orric had to use pan-rozum meant a bout of punishing fatigue was soon to follow. The recovery period had shortened immensely over the years, but it would still be many years more before they could use it without any recoil whatsoever.

When he awoke, he cleaned himself up and changed into a fresh suit. He let Orric continue sleeping. To his eyes, the reaper was a quaint jaybird, boasting deeply blue feathers with a few splotches of black and gray. The eyes glowed with black light, though at the moment, they were closed and so not luminous.

Melchor was still tired himself, but he knew that it was still a long ways yet before he could truly relax again. He left his empty bedroom behind and made for the Black Hall, where cousin Ismael was most likely to be at this hour. Relatives and attendants filled the barrel-vaulted corridors along the way, but they all made way for him whenever they saw him coming.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Page 835

Why would they want that?’ said Emiliana.

I don’t know. It’s particularly strange when you consider how Melchor tried to get us to go with him peacefully at first. Really not sure what to make of these people.

Hmm. Maybe they really are trying to protect us in some way.

I highly doubt that.

She laid back on her bed and sighed. ‘So what should I do now?

You’re a prisoner. Not much to do other than wait. Try meditating, if you can manage it.

Right...

And entertain me. I’m super bored.

I don’t understand how you can be so calm about everything...

I could pretend to be freaking out, if you want.

...Please don’t.

I could tell you a nice story to help you relax.

At that suggestion, Emiliana begrudged a half-smile. ‘What kind of story?

What kind do you want? I know lots of stories.

Surprise me, then.

Alright. So I knew this girl once who was a total kleptomaniac. Stole stuff all the time. It was crazy. Anyway, she really liked it when I told her jokes, but I’d often have trouble explaining puns to her, because she always took things literally.

A beat passed. ‘Oh my god...

Good story, right?

I think I’ll start meditating now.

So cruel.

It was a fairly difficult transition to make, but Emiliana managed it after a while. She focused on clearing her head, mostly. Chergoa had previously explained that meditation was typically used in order to imagine the progression of one’s power, what one desired to achieve with it in the short term, but since Emiliana still wasn’t at all certain what that was, she was content with keeping it very general in her mind. At this point, all she knew was what she didn’t want to become.

That monster kept creeping back into her mind. Trying not to think about it only made the task impossible, and at length, she decided that she should just stop meditating.

When she opened her eyes, however, the black-scaled monster was standing before her.

She froze up. Without her mask, she couldn’t help feeling even more vulnerable this time.

It looked around the room, still deathly silent, and Emiliana decided to move away from the bed.

The monster’s red eyes followed her.

Slowly, she positioned herself closer to the vanity mirror, wanting to see if the monster had a reflection.

It didn’t.

She wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or not. It was fairly compelling evidence that the beast wasn’t genuinely there, which made it less dangerous, but that still didn’t tell her what the damn thing was or why she was seeing it.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Page 834 -- XCV.

Chapter Ninety-Five: ‘Where the streams darken...’
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They’d been split up. Emiliana had a room all to herself. It was a comfortable prison, bearing a large bed and a television, but there weren’t even any windows. Melchor had taken her mask from her, apparently thinking it important to see her horned-face. He’d taken Chergoa, too, but Emiliana could still communicate with her.

Ugh,’ came Chergoa’s disembodied voice. ‘I hate being stuck in a box.

What’s the point of separating us?’ Emiliana asked. ‘I can still talk to you.

Because if you managed to escape, it’d save them the trouble of hunting you down. They could just kill me and not have to worry about you telling anyone anything.

Emiliana appreciated the reaper’s candidness, but sometimes it could be a bit much. She sat down on the edge of her bed and put her head in her hands, closing her eyes and trying to think. ‘What about Marcos and Ramira? Why separate me from them?

A solitary escape attempt is easier to stop than a coordinated one. But guarding multiple prisons also requires more guards. From that, we can infer the Blackburns are not short on people.

Emiliana didn’t think it made much difference how many guards they had as long as Melchor was around. She would not soon be forgetting what she saw the man do at Red Lake. And if that wasn’t disheartening enough, she’d gotten quite a good look at Marshrock from the outside. The name was not queerly chosen. The castle had literally been carved into a gigantic rock, and murky wetlands did indeed surround it and the entire town of Luzo. Marshrock was a dark monolith on an otherwise flat and muddy landscape, sticking up toward the gray sky like a mountainous child that had somehow strayed from its herd.

I’m still wondering why in the world they’re doing this,’ said Emiliana.

No kidding. Their behavior is strange. Considering our circumstances, the Blackburns seem to be pretty cautious, and yet they decided to bring us to Marshrock, which is undoubtedly the first place the other Rainlords will think to look for us.

Well, it is their stronghold.

But it wouldn’t have been that difficult to hide us. I’m sure Melchor could have smuggled us out of the country, if he wanted.

The reaper had a point.

It almost seems like they want the other Rainlords to come here,’ said Chergoa.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Page 833

In that case, I hope they will not mind Hector and I tagging along,’ said Garovel.

“I’m sure they won’t,” said Xuan. “I’ll take you to them after this. They won’t be leaving without me, so just stay close.”

Appreciated, thank you.

Asad had questions for Rayen and Octavia. “You are sending all of the Sebolts and Delagunas? That is nearly a third of your forces, no?”

“It is,” said Rayen. “They will need no less than that in order to breach Marshrock.”

“Even then, we may have trouble,” said Xuan. He eyed Asad another time. “Your assistance would be most welcome.”

Asad pursed his lips. “I came here in order to help free Zeff.”

Be that as it may, I think you should accompany Xuan,’ said Axiolis. ‘I know Zeff would tell you to prioritize his children over himself. And besides, this way, the Vanguard won’t become aware of Hahl Najir’s involvement. You’d be assisting us without doing anything that might cause reprisal against you and your family.

Axiolis is right,’ said Qorvass.

“What about the fight here in Rheinhal?” said Asad. “If you send so many of your fighters to Marshrock, will you still be able to take the Keep?”

“Breaching Rhein’s Keep may not even be necessary,” said Octavia. “Thus far, we have only been testing their defenses, and while they have proven quite solid, it won’t make much difference as long as we continue to hold the city.”

“Our opponent has a time limit,” said Rayen. “Sanko is coming. When she arrives, she will settle the matter for us. All we need do is prevent the enemy from escaping.”

You make it sound so easy,’ said Qorvass.

“Simple, perhaps,” said Rayen. “Not easy. Our forces are going to be spread thin. But if Asad wants to put his skills to the best use, he should go to Marshrock.”

After a beat, Asad gave a reluctant nod. “Very well.”

Garovel posed another question now. ‘What more can you tell us about the children’s captors?

“Xuan can fill you in on such details,” said Rayen. “However, do be aware that Melchor Blackburn is not a man to be trifled with. Do not attempt to fight him unless you have him absurdly outnumbered or Xuan is with you.”

Xuan laughed. “Stop, you’ll make me blush. I’m nothing special.” Then he wiped his mirth away and turned to Garovel. “She’s right, though. Don’t try to fight him without me unless you want your servant to be turned into a fleshy pudding.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Page 832

The Seadevil is a dwarf,’ said Qorvass privately. ‘Was not expecting that.

Asad had to agree. He supposed the size of a servant made no real difference in the measurement of their worth, but it was still quite strange to discover that one of the most feared Rainlords of Sair could seem so unintimidating. And it wasn’t just Xuan’s height that was responsible for that false impression, Asad realized. His easy smile and big, sea green eyes had contributed something to it as well. And then there was the way he bobbed from side to side as he walked, as if stepping in tune with a song only he could hear.

Xuan led them to the back with his unintroduced reaper following closely behind. They ventured through a series of doors and offices until they arrived at a boardroom.

Asad recognized most of the faces present. Octavia Redwater, Rayen Merlo, Santos Zabat, Evangalina Stroud, as well as a handful of their family members. A map of Rheinhal lay across the center table.

“Glad you could make it,” said Octavia, already standing there by the door. The tiny old woman wasn’t much taller than Xuan. “Ah, and who is this that you have brought with you?”

“My sister Imas and my daughter Jada,” he said, gesturing. “And their reapers, Orjand and Atalim.”

Axiolis assumed the responsibility of answering for the remaining two. ‘This is Garovel and his servant, the young Lord Hector Goffe of Warrenhold. They have come all the way from Atreya, and as it happens, Garovel here is Chergoa’s brother.’

That sent a ripple through the chamber. Asad saw Octavia exchange looks with Xuan before responding.

“I see,” she said. “Then I suppose you are hoping to meet with her.”

Garovel spoke for himself now. ‘Yes, I am. I was not made aware of Chergoa’s ties to the Rainlords until just yesterday. Axiolis explained that she is a fairly new addition to your ranks.

“Your timing is unfortunate,” said Octavia. “We’ll have to speak quickly. Chergoa and her servant are currently being held hostage.”

What?!’ said Axiolis. ‘Since when?!

“Dimas Sebolt arrived here last night and informed us of an attack on Red Lake in which the Elroys were abducted. By Melchor Blackburn, no less.”

Melchor? Why would he do such a thing?

“We don’t know yet,” said Octavia.

The Lady Rayen Merlo decided to chime in now. “We are sending the Sebolts and Delagunas to recover the children. Abel and Salvador are attending to the matter at this very moment and intend to leave Rheinhal before sundown.”

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Page 831

As they neared the airport, Asad moved to the front of the plane in order to radio the Rainlords on the ground and ensure a safe landing. A car was waiting for them on the tarmac, as was a group of reaperless workers who began unloading supplies as soon as Asad and the others were clear.

It was a quiet car ride, even between the reapers. Perhaps everyone was nervous, wondering what difference four more servants would make. After a spell, Asad’s daughter decided to break the silence.

“Where did you get that shield?” she asked. At twenty-two years, Jada was the oldest of Asad’s three children.

It seemed to take Hector a moment to realize that she was talking to him. “Oh, uh... from your... uncle, I think?”

Asad had thought he recognized it.

Less from Haqq and more from Sazandara,’ said Garovel.

That made more sense. Asad’s hand went to the ring in his pocket, rolling it absently between his fingers and wondering if he would need it. Haqq had given it to him just before leaving Kuros. Callous though he was, Haqq had always found other ways to demonstrate his concern for his big brother.

Soon, after passing a couple checkpoints, they arrived at a large hotel, around which stood a plethora of new reapers and servants. They all eyed Asad and his small entourage, but only one deigned to approach.

It was a very small person, Asad realized, fully grown certainly but no taller than a child. “Welcome to Rheinhal,” the little man said.

Asad couldn’t help hesitating, still unsure to whom he was speaking. “Thank you.”

“The Lion of the Desert, is it? I do not believe I have ever had the pleasure.” He certainly had a firm handshake, regardless of his stature. “I am Xuan Sebolt.”

“Ah! A pleasure, indeed! Though, at this rate, I fear they will start calling me the Black Sheep of the Desert, instead. I am sorry I could not procure any more aid from my kin.”

“You have nothing to apologize for,” said Xuan. “This is not their fight. Were we in their position, we probably would have done the same.”

Asad only frowned at that.

“Come inside, won’t you? I believe everyone has been expecting you.”

They followed.

The hotel lobby broadened into a casino floor, though all of the slot machines had been turned off. Lavish red-gold carpeting filled each walkway, lined with segmented lights.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Page 830

I just feel like... eight times is still too much. I mean, that one guy I fought... uh... the guy with the yellow crystals.

Sulfur.

Yeah. He was obviously older than me as a servant, but... he probably wasn’t THAT much older, right? I mean, considering how you said he was weaker than Karkash, who probably wasn’t that old, either.

Yeah. What’s your point?

Well, that guy could add velocity to his sulfur pretty well. And even now, I can barely do that with my iron. So, I mean... logic would dictate that I’m still not as strong as that guy was, right?

Mm. That’s a reasonable assumption to make, but alas still incorrect. Adding velocity to your element is a skill that also requires practice. It’s something you have to actually understand “how” to do. Even if you’d achieved emergence a dozen times already, you wouldn’t be able to add velocity to your element until you learned the particulars of it.

Oh...

In terms of raw power, though, I think you’ve already surpassed that sulfur guy. He only had the edge on you because his soul synch was higher. You’ll get the velocity thing down soon enough.

Hmm.’ Hector gave a sideways nod. It was true that he’d been thinking that he could still do more with the velocity than he’d so far managed. ‘Then... are there any other “skills” like that?

Temperature manipulation. That’s a pretty high-level skill for materialization users, though. Weirdly enough, it’s easier for transfiguration users to do, perhaps because they don’t have to also be mindful of spatial coordination like you do.

Spatial coordination?

Depth perception. Where you want to create your element. That sort of thing. Transfiguration users also just have tighter control over their elements, even being able to manipulate how intensely they react to other elements. So I suppose it’s not too surprising.

Hmm.

-+-+-+-+-

Rheinhal was not as Asad remembered it. Even from the air, he could see the difference. Barricades had gone up all over the city, forming concentric circles around Rhein’s Keep. Vehicles were a rare sight as well. No doubt, the Rainlords had evacuated most, if not all, civilians by now.

Encouragingly, Asad did not see much in terms of property damage. He spotted a couple small craters near the castle, but nothing else. Yet the siege was still young, of course.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Page 829

He tried to meditate for a while, but intermittent bouts of turbulence kept shaking him out of it until he decided to just give up.

Fun fact for you,’ said Garovel, still privately. ‘Under normal atmospheric conditions, turbulence is usually exclusive to higher altitudes, but since we’re near a mountain range, the air currents are all wonky even at this height.

How interesting...

It IS interesting, you sarcastic fuck.

Hector breathed a small laugh and looked down to avoid drawing attention to himself. The shield was right there in his lap. It seemed too valuable to not keep a solid grip on at all times, especially with that hole in the plane sitting right there. He really didn’t want his luck with shields to be the same as his luck with motorcycles.

After a while, Hector remembered a question he’d been meaning to ask. ‘By the way, uh... why did you lie to Sazandara about my age? Wouldn’t it be better if people think I’m weaker than I actually am?

She DOES think you’re weaker than you actually are.

W-what?

I told her three years. Truthfully, factoring in all the times you’ve achieved emergence and your constant practice and meditation, your iron ability is more like six or seven years old.

Hector squinted with one eye. ‘Wha? No way. That can’t be right...

In terms of sheer volume and power, yes. It is. Trust me.

But... that means I’m, like, uh... er... e-eight times stronger than normal...?

Thereabouts, yeah.

He thought back, trying to count. ‘But I’ve, um... I mean, I’ve only achieved emergence, like... four times, I think.

Garovel snorted. ‘“Only four,” he says. That’s kind of a fuckload, y’know.

Is it?

Yes!

Hmm... but still, I mean... EIGHT times as strong?

I know it sounds ridiculous. That’s exactly why I had to lie about it to Sazandara. If I tell people you’re less than eight months old, and then they later see what you’re capable of, that could bite us in the ass. If you’re a bit stronger than average, no big deal. If you’re eight times stronger, BIG DEAL. Big smelly, hairy deal. That kind of information is not to be shared lightly, Hector. Understand? That’s how we end up with people like Gohvis knocking on our door, people who’ll see us as a problem that should be nipped in the bud.

I understood that much. I just, uh... hmm.

You just, what?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Page 828 -- XCIV.

Chapter Ninety-Four: ‘Kindred souls, be swift...’
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It wasn’t long until Hector found himself aboard another airplane. He’d only arrived in Kuros a day ago--on his first ever plane ride no less--and yet now he was already leaving.

This second plane ride had a very different atmosphere, however. It did not provide quite the same level of comfort that the Prince’s private jet did. Rather, this one felt more like he’d somehow become involved in a smuggling operation. Lord Asad had chosen to use a cargo plane for their trip, and one of the doors was kept open at all times, making the whole affair rather windy and loud.

He supposed it only made sense, though. Asad hadn’t gained the approval of the other Sandlords for this venture, so a certain amount of discretion was to be expected. Moreover, the storage space allowed them to conceal military supplies among the normal cargo. The sight felt a bit surreal to Hector--piles of boxes belonging to the United Mail Service of Sair next to huge crates full of food rations and rocket-propelled grenades.

Apart from the pilots, only two other people had accompanied Hector and Asad. Both were female, though Hector hadn’t been able to tell until they pulled back the hoods of their black-and-gold robes. And they both had those distinct yellow eyes, too. The older woman was Imas Najir, Asad and Haqq’s sister. The younger woman was Jada Najir, Asad’s daughter. With all of the air rushing around the cabin, it was too noisy for anyone to speak without shouting, and the ladies seemed content with letting their reapers do the talking for them. Hector had no problem doing the same.

Garovel spoke at length, explaining his and Hector’s presence. Axiolis assisted. The other reapers welcomed the help but didn’t seem too concerned otherwise.

Hector could see the landscape changing dramatically through the windows. Barren desert and wastelands gave way to harsh, craggy rock formations, and soon enough, enormous mountains came into view, standing between them and Rheinhal. Some of the peaks were so tall that the plane had to navigate around them due to its low altitude flight.

Hector also noticed that meditating was more difficult. Garovel explained that it was a mild effect of hypoxia and could therefore be neutralized if needed, but the reaper told him that the extra burden could prove beneficial as practice.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Page 827

Hector turned the shield over in his hands again, wanting a good look at the front. It was lustrously gray, apart from the four bars of tungsten carbide that Sazandara mentioned before. Those were a bit darker, but Hector wouldn’t have been able to tell that they weren’t simply paint if the reaper hadn’t told him. They fit so seamlessly into the shield that he couldn’t see even the slightest physical crease between them and the rest of the lighter-colored metal.

Before you use it, a couple of warnings,’ said Sazandara. ‘As soon as your skin touches it, the enhanced soul defenses will take effect. When you’re wearing gloves like you are now, no enhancements are granted to your body.

“O-okay.”

Additionally, you will notice that touching the shield directly causes immense physical pain. That is a side effect of your body being made stronger than it is prepared to be. Garovel will therefore need to numb the pain for you whenever you intend to wield it barehanded.

“Ah... and then I’ll feel the pain later.”

Naturally.

Hector nodded. ‘Figures,’ he remarked to Garovel.

The shield will also take a toll on you, Garovel.

Me? Why?

The defensive increases are made possible by interfering with the soul-synchronization between the two of you. The shield functions as a catalyst, and through it, your souls are stretched beyond their limits in an effort to equalize themselves with the shield. And because the reaper is very much the “battery” of the relationship, this experience will gradually drain you.

I see.

How long has Hector been your servant?

About three years.

Hector’s expression flickered. He had to consciously keep himself from staring at Garovel. It hadn’t even been eight months.

Quite young,’ said Sazandara. ‘In that case, I would advise Hector not to wield it barehanded for more than thirty minutes per day.

Understood,’ said Garovel. And then privately, he amended her number to, ‘Six minutes per day. Remember that, if you can.’

Hector wasn’t sure he understood the point of lying to their allies like this. Even if Sazandara somehow ended up betraying them, wouldn’t it be better if she thought they were weaker? Something to ask Garovel about later, he decided.

Is there anything else we should know?’ Garovel asked.

No, that is everything.

Alright. Thank you for explaining. We appreciate your hospitality. Once things settle down, I’d like to invite you back to Warrenhold with us. I’m sure even Haqq would be able to enjoy himself there.

Ah. I will keep that in mind.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Page 826

As long as your servant’s bare skin is making contact with this shield, his passive soul defenses will be dramatically increased,’ said Sazandara. ‘Unless, of course, his soul defenses are already superior to that of the shield. In which case, no increase is granted.

Garovel hovered nearer. ‘Hmm. I didn’t realize that was even possible.

I would have been surprised if you did. Haqq made the breakthrough himself. It is still not a widely known development.

I see. Are you sure you’re willing to part with it? This seems like an incredibly valuable object.

This is merely a test piece, hence the antiquated simplicity of its design. Haqq wanted to see if he could integrate the materials properly. It took him several months to craft enough for just this shield alone. And admittedly, as irritating as Haqq can sometimes be, I was rather impressed. I don’t know how familiar you are with integration abilities, but being able to craft THIS much of any self-repairing material is quite a feat.

Hector and Garovel exchanged glances.

In other words, yes, it is immensely valuable,’ she went on, ‘but I do still wish for you to have it--partly as an apology and partly to teach Haqq a lesson.

Garovel shrugged. ‘Well, I won’t refuse such a useful gift. Thank you for your generosity.

You are quite welcome,’ she said. Then she turned to Hector and added, ‘Lord Darksteel.

Hector’s brow rose at that.

Sazandara’s bony smile widened. ‘After we met yesterday, I asked Haqq’s nephew to look into you. I didn’t realize it would be such an easy assignment for him.

And here I was just getting accustomed to no one recognizing Hector’s face,’ said Garovel.

I must say, your actions in your home country have been quite bold. Are you not concerned that the Vanguard will come to recruit you?

Recruit us?

Indeed. Certain factions have recently been quite... aggressive in their attempts to gain more members. I imagine your servant’s fame will make him rather appealing to such people.

Hmm. That’s odd. Not long ago, our Queen went on a veritable quest to find Vanguardian allies, and yet she was barely able to procure the aid of a single servant.

Yes, but that was when your country contained the stench of Abolish. Now that this is no longer the case...

I see your point.

Perhaps there is more riding on your alliance with Asad than you realized.

Perhaps you’re right.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Page 825

Sazandara approached the room’s apparent attendant, a youthful man at a desk full of notebooks and binders. The reaper said something to him in Valgan.

Nodding, the attendant pulled on a pair of gloves and fished a key out of a drawer. He moved to the rear wall, opened one of the larger boxes, and with visible effort, pulled out an impressive slab of metal with a gentle curve to it. Sazandara said something else to him, but this time, the attendant hesitated, looking from her to Hector and back again.

Before Hector even thought to ask, Garovel began translating for him.

She’s telling him to give it to you. He’s asking if she’s sure. Says Haqq will be upset.’ Garovel broke for a chuckle. ‘“That’s the point,” she says.

The attendant soon conceded and moved to hand the object over.

Careful not to let it touch your skin just yet,’ said Sazandara.

Hector did as she instructed, abruptly glad that he hadn’t taken his own gloves off.

At first, even while holding it, he still wasn’t sure what the thing was, but as soon as he turned it up vertically in his hands, he realized.

It was a shield. A heater shield, to be precise--a flat top with a rounded, pointed bottom. Smaller than a kite shield but larger than a buckler. Hector recognized it from his research into old world armor.

He was suddenly reminded of his afterschool armor-building project with Lance Alexander. It was only a few months ago, but it seemed like a different life. What was Lance doing now, he wondered? He recalled finding a small measure of relief when he saw the list of victims of the Calman High Massacre and realized that Lance’s name was not on it.

Blinking, Hector pulled himself back to the present as Sazandara started talking again.

This is a self-repairing shield,’ she explained. ‘It is extremely durable for a number of different reasons. These four vertical lines you see here--these are bars of tungsten carbide. Haqq synthesized them personally. The rest of the metal is a mixture of steel and titanium alloys. Also, the metal has been permanently soul-strengthened by Abbas Saqqaf, so I think you’ll find that it can take quite a bit of punishment before ever needing to repair itself.

Permanently soul-strengthened?’ said Garovel. ‘Lord Abbas can do that?

Of course. But never mind that. I still haven’t told you the best part.

Oh?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Page 824

--BELATED donation bonus (day 5/7, page 3/3)--
Hector shrunk away from Haqq’s gaze and flushed with a touch of humiliation. He knew that there were probably servants out there with abilities that were naturally more powerful, but he didn’t think iron was that bad. Perhaps he’d been mistaken, though. Haqq was the expert, after all. He looked to Garovel, who was visibly irritated.

We weren’t trying to impress you. We just wanted confirmation. That being said, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t insult my friend for no apparent reason. And by the way, iron is far from useless.

Haqq gave a throaty laugh. “I suppose in relative terms, yes, you might be able to find some semblance of value in it. But when you find yourselves faced with real monsters, iron will not be enough to save your unremarkable lives.”

Wow,’ said Garovel, louder now. ‘I fucking hate ability-snobs like you. Power doesn’t make the person, you moron. You’d do well to remember that, lest you have someone teach it to you the hard way.

Haqq seemed to dismiss the notion.

Garovel is correct,’ interjected Sazandara. ‘Haqq, you should apologize for insulting them.

Haqq’s expression soured, and he pulled his shoulders in. “No. They wasted my time. And so did you, for that matter. You know I have more important things to be doing.”

Apologize. Now.

“Or what?” said Haqq. “You will release me? Because I insulted a couple of strangers? Be serious.”

They are no longer strangers. They are allies now.

Haqq exhaled another laugh. “Allies? Why? Because they’ve decided to help Asad on his fool’s errand? Please. I could not care less about their circumstances if you paid me to ignore them.”

Garovel had heard enough, it seemed. ‘Let’s go, Hector. We got what we came for.

Please wait,’ said Sazandara. She tapped Haqq on the head, and the man immediately dropped to the floor, unconscious. She floated closer to Hector and Garovel. ‘I am deeply sorry that Haqq is such an insufferable twat. Frankly, I wanted Asad as my servant, but I got stuck with this social cataclysm of a person, instead.

After a moment, Garovel relinquished a nod. ‘It’s fine. I understand. The apology is appreciated, though. Thank you.

Allow me to make it up to you.’

Garovel paused. ‘What do you mean?

Follow me.’ She floated away from Haqq’s body and guided them into a deeper room where the walls were completely filled with lockboxes, as if they’d suddenly walked into a bank vault.

Page 823

Agh... I fucking suck.

Aw, don’t feel too bad,’ said Garovel. ‘You’ll do better next time.

The worst part is... now, she probably thinks that I’m grossed out by her or something...

Eh, you don’t know that. Maybe she just thinks you’re a spastic weirdo.

...Great. Thanks for that.

No problem.

Hector just wallowed in his self-loathing as he joined the group of people waiting for the elevators.

Why do you have a crush on her, anyway? Do you even know the reason?

Uh...

I’ll take that as a no.

No, well, I mean... I know why.

Then tell me.

Ergh... because... I mean, because she’s fucking awesome.

She is?

Yes! She’s like--she’s like everything I’m not. Really smart and strong and focused.

You’re all of those things, too, Hector.

No, I’m not--

I think you literally just named your three best characteristics. When you don’t know the answer, you generally ask intelligent questions; you’ve proven yourself in battle multiple times, as far as I’m concerned; and you meditate like a fucking Jesbolese monk. Smart, strong, focused.

I... that’s not--

So essentially, you’re telling me that you like her because she reminds you of yourself.

What the--?! No! I just--! I just don’t know how to--!

Whatever, narcissist.

Fucking--! You... agh...

Maybe you just have an eye patch fetish.

...Is that a real thing?

Oh, I’m sure it is. I have immeasurable faith in humanity’s capacity for perversion.

At length, they finally arrived at the R&D lab again. The guards let them through without a fuss this time.

Haqq and Sazandara were both right there near the doorway. The reaper noticed them first. ‘Hello again,’ she said.

Good morning,’ said Garovel. ‘Did you get a chance to perform the analysis?

“Yes, I did!” said Haqq. “The results were absolutely fascinating! It seems your servant is able to materialize an ultra-rare quad-element compound of titanium, iridium, carbon, and plutonium! I’m not sure why I couldn’t tell right away yesterday!”

Confused, Hector just kind of blinked dully. He didn’t know what to say, but judging by the reaper’s flat expression, Garovel apparently did.

You’re lying.’

“Of course I am lying. Just as I told you before, it is only iron. The embodiment of mediocrity and tedium. Why did you make me waste my time analyzing it? I was hoping that you had brought me something that was at least vaguely interesting, but no. Your servant is about as special as a sunny day in Kuros.” He eyed Hector. “And probably just as useful.”

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Page 822

“W-why?” asked Hector. “You enjoy fighting that much?”

“I wouldn’t say I enjoy it. But I could use the experience.” She stopped braiding briefly in order to wave her gauntlet in front of her face. “Even with this, I’m not nearly as strong as I need to be.”

“Ah... I know the feeling.”

Lynn smirked. “You do, huh? Is that why you’re always inserting yourself into other people’s problems?”

“Uh... hah, yeah, I guess so.”

Silence seized hold of the chamber after that. Hector couldn’t help becoming increasingly uncomfortable as they waited. Lynn was just sitting there. Right there. Being herself.

This was clearly a problem.

Hector stood and went for his single bag of luggage. “So, ah... I should probably go meet Haqq now...”

At that, Lynn also stood. “Okay.”

“I don’t know if, uh... if I’ll have time to see you both again before I leave, so...”

“I understand.” She moved closer now, making Hector tense up. “Be careful out there, alright?”

“I-I will. Thanks.”

Lynn frowned at him and went in for a hug.

Hector’s eyes bulged, and he recoiled away from her.

Lynn froze up, then put her arms down and stood there woodenly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to--I just thought--uh. I’m sorry.”

“Ah, oh, n-no, it was--um, eh... I’m the one who--mm... ergh--”

Ugh, this is painful to watch,’ said Garovel.

“S-sorry,” Hector said again. He took an awkward step toward her, insanely thinking he would be able to reinitiate the hug, only to immediately realize his folly and step back again.

Lynn offered him a handshake instead.

Hector reached for it, but the journey proved too perilous, and he retracted his hand. “I’m... ah... s-sorry... er, again. I don’t know what’s... egh...”

Holy shit, Hector.

The young woman looked at her hand, perhaps wondering if there was something wrong with it.

Just relax,’ said Garovel. ‘You’ve shaken hands with her before, remember?

But it was too late. The moment had passed.

“Well, um,” Lynn retried, “be careful out there... I mean, I already said that, but...”

“Y-yeah... Er. Y-you, too...”

And he probably should have waited around so that he could say goodbye to Prince Meriwether as well, but Hector couldn’t bear the atmosphere in the room now and chose to simply flee instead.

He was grateful for the bustling corridor’s sea of people. It allowed him to feel like he was disappearing into the shuffling mass of bodies as he made for the basement level once more.

Garovel followed silently for a while, until he apparently realized that Hector wasn’t going to start the conversation. ‘That was more gruesome than watching Harper cut someone in half.

Hector sighed to himself. ‘I panicked...

No shit.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Page 821

But regardless of how he felt about it, Hector was certain that they couldn’t just leave after hearing about Chergoa. ‘It’s your sister, Garovel. We have to help her.

You sure? I definitely won’t hold it against you if you’d rather stay out of it. Our involvement might not make much difference, anyway.

Well... uh... I don’t know. Shit. Making the real decisions is your job. As long as we’re working to protect people, I mean--I’m not... I... agh, y-you know what I mean, right?

Ha. Yeah, I do.’ Garovel looked toward the guest room’s other two occupants. ‘What about them? They said they’d understand if you chose to leave with Asad, but still.

Lynn and Meriwether had their own beds, of course. The Prince’s snoring sounded like it belonged to a man twice his size.

Uh... well, it doesn’t seem like they need me. This castle seems pretty safe...

Garovel paused. ‘You’re really just doing this to get away from Lynn, aren’t you?

Hector decided not to grace that with a response.

It wasn’t long until morning arrived. Lynn awoke first, popping up from her pillow as if someone had ordered her to attention. She sat there a moment, scanning the room. She nearly looked like a different person without her braided ponytail or her white hood. She’d slept in her eye patch, though.

“Anything happen?” she asked.

Hector just shook his head.

She nodded and carried her luggage to the bathroom in order to shower and change. She took her time, but she was still done before the Prince was up. She started working on her ponytail while they waited for Meriwether to get ready.

“Thanks for taking the night shift,” said Lynn. She was looking at Hector via the reflection in the large mirror that she was using for her hair. “You should get some rest now.”

Hector stood. “Actually, uh... Asad leaves this afternoon, so, uh, I should probably go see Haqq first.”

Her hands stopped, and she stared at him. “You said you would sleep in the morning. That’s why I let you take the night shift.”

He knew that and couldn’t help smiling just a bit. “Yeah...”

She turned to look at him directly. “If you’re really leaving to go fight, then you should’ve slept.”

“Well... I told you I don’t need sleep in order to fight.”

“Hmph.” She went back to her ponytail.

“S-sorry...”

“It’s fine. I guess I just wish that I could go, too.”

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Page 820

That’s just what I’ve heard,’ said Garovel. ‘Gohvis is famous for lots of things, but I don’t know how much is true, if any. Still, I think it’s pretty safe to say that he’s someone we never want to meet.

But... punching a hole into a--I mean, like, with his FIST?

I guess so. Dunno.

That’s ridiculous. I feel like I would’ve heard about someone doing something like that.

Yeah, well, I’m pretty sure it happened before television was invented. Might be newspapers about it, though. That’d be an interesting headline. But I’m not surprised you haven’t heard about it. I don’t think it’s the type of thing they’d teach in school.

If they had, I probably would’ve paid more attention. That’s awesome.

Garovel’s skeletal brow twisted somewhat. ‘...You did hear the part about genocide and him being a member of Abolish, right?

Oh, yeah... Fuck, man, why couldn’t he be a good guy?

Garovel laughed.

Are there any cool stories about good guys doing insane shit like that?

Still chuckling, the reaper said, ‘I think we’re getting a little off topic.’

Are we? I forgot what we were talking about.

Wow, Hector.

Hey, it’s late. I’m tired.

We were talking about my sister.

Right... uh...

Chergoa.

I knew that.

Garovel shook his head. ‘Anyway, like I was saying before, I treated Chergoa and her servant poorly. My most recent servant had betrayed me, so I was... upset. And unreasonable. We parted ways without making plans to meet up again, and now, apparently, I’ve found her in Sair all these years later. And I would quite like to see her again.

So you think we should go to Rheinhal with Lord Asad.

Yeah. If I don’t see Chergoa now, it could be fucking ages before I get another opportunity to. But with that said, I won’t force you to go. Because it DOES sound incredibly dangerous.

Hector scratched his forehead. ‘When does it not?

I’m serious, Hector. These warriors aren’t like the ones we fought in Atreya. The Sandlords and the Rainlords are the real deal, and the Vanguard won’t be taking them lightly. We’ll almost assuredly encounter people both AT and ABOVE Harper’s level. So don’t just go with the flow on this one, alright? Understand what you’d be getting yourself into.

The prospect gave him pause. More people like Harper? And stronger? Hector’s face scrunched up a little as he thought about that. He was starting to miss Warrenhold right about now.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Page 819

Are you... uh... I mean, did your servant do that to you?

Yeah,’ said Garovel. ‘He kept me prisoner for two years.

Geez...

Looking back on it now, two years wasn’t very long at all. Only two out of thousands already lived. But it was one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced. Being trapped makes all the difference in the world, especially when you don’t know if you’ll ever make it out again.

Agh, man... But, uh.... how DID you get out? Did the guy screw up?

Partially. I tricked him. Another problem with imprisoning your reaper is that, guess what? They can still talk to you. In fact, unless you’re keeping other people around their prison, you are the ONLY person they can talk to. So naturally, I began by just constantly talking shit to him. Trying to drive him to the breaking point so he’d do something stupid, right? That didn’t work so well. Whenever I annoyed him enough, he’d just wound me to the point where I’d fall unconscious for a few days. Should’ve known that was a bad plan. He was a thug. Any problem he could solve with violence, he would. So instead, I very slowly convinced him to do one of the dumbest things I could think of. Reverse psychology. Being purposely vague. That sort of thing.

What’d you have him do?

I waltzed him into the territory of a famous member of Abolish. He thought there’d be treasure. There wasn’t.

Hector had to stifle a laugh. ‘Wow, Garovel. I guess he deserved it, but holy shit...

That Abolisher went on to become even more famous afterwards. His name was Suresh, and he was considered Dozer’s equal for a while.

Whoa...

Suresh is dead now, but his successor is still alive. Gohvis. Ever heard the name?

No...

The Monster of the East? The Black Scourge? Those are both him, too.

Hector thought back. ‘Actually... yeah, I’ve heard of the Black Scourge. When I was little. I thought it was like... a plague or something.

Nope. It’s a guy.

Fuck...

Yeah. He’s arguably even more famous than Dozer, his boss. Or so I hear. I’ve never met either of them personally, in case that wasn’t obvious. Maybe everyone is wrong about them, and they’re secretly super nice dudes.

Right... Hmm. Dozer has a country named after him, but why is Gohvis so famous?

Regicide. Genocide. And punching a hole into a volcano that then erupted and wiped out an entire Vanguardian stronghold.

...What.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Page 818

Garovel floated away from him and stopped in the middle of the room. ‘It’s still a bit early for this conversation, but oh well.’ He turned around to face his servant again. ‘Hector, I want you to listen carefully to what I’m about to tell you. You may not like what you hear, but I hope you will never forget it, because it is one of the most important things I am ever going to say. And I will try to explain why that is.

Hector shifted in his chair. ‘Uh--okay. I-I’m listening...

There’s something that happens to people when they acquire power,’ the reaper said. ‘It’s not that it corrupts them, necessarily, but it can definitely change them. Whether it’s political power or physical power, the result is essentially the same. Power of any kind grants you influence and control over others. And as you gain more power, more influence in the world, you become increasingly susceptible to that change. So for servants, that change is almost inevitable, because your power is constantly growing.

Are you saying... your servant abused their power?

In a word, yes. He started extorting innocent people. Said he could put their money to better use than they could. I think he saw it as a kind of “greater good” tax, like he viewed himself as some sort of governing figure when he’d really just become a thug.

Wow... and you couldn’t just tell him to stop? Didn’t he understand that he had to listen to you? I mean... we’re called “servants” for a reason, right?

Yeah, about that... Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but you’d probably realize it on your own eventually. And I trust you, I guess. See, when servants grow powerful enough, they can prevent their reapers from releasing their souls.

Hector tilted his head. ‘What? How?

It’s pretty simple, actually. The reaper has to make contact with the servant’s body in order to release the soul. So the servant can just keep the reaper in a soul-empowered prison and never allow themself to be touched.

Oh...

It’s an extreme solution. If you can’t make contact with your reaper, then you lose access to your regenerative power, enhanced strength, and hyper states. And obviously, if you get killed, then your reaper probably won’t feel like resurrecting you again.

No kidding...

Also, you’d have to worry about maintaining the prison. The soul power will drain from it over time, unless you have absurdly high synchronization with your reaper.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Page 817

Hector could hardly imagine it, seeing someone again after seventy years and feeling as if that was normal.

There’s also the fact that it’s very difficult to stay in touch with other reapers, just in general,’ Garovel went on. ‘We tend to wander, especially when we don’t have servants keeping us in one place. When you don’t make plans to meet up again, it becomes very difficult to do so. And since Chergoa and I parted on less than amiable terms, we never made those plans. And from there, we just lost track of each other.

So... it’s not that you’ve been avoiding each other for four hundred years. You just haven’t crossed paths.

Yeah. I’m sure she’s forgiven me by now. Or at least stopped caring.

...You still haven’t told me what you did wrong.

Garovel paused a moment. ‘She and her servant at the time had just opened an orphanage in this really isolated place. I felt that she should move everyone to a city where the kids could be better taken care of--or in other words, where someone else could look after them. She did not agree. She believed--quite correctly, as I would later find out--that the nearby towns were too dangerous; and moreover, she wanted to raise the children personally. I thought that was a job best left to normal people.

Hmm. That doesn’t sound too bad, though. I mean... er, I can kinda see your point.

Yeah, but the problem was, I had an overabundance of moral certainty about it. I specifically remember saying to her, “You’re wasting your time. Rather than taking care of these kids, you should be trying to make sure that this war doesn’t make orphans of any others.”

Hector’s brow receded a little. ‘Geez...

I know, right?

That doesn’t seem like something you’d ever say. Usually, you’re more... uh... kind of, er... I’m not sure “cynical” is the right word...

Practical?

Yeah. You’re practical. And that seemed like a pretty naive thing to say.

Wow. Getting called naive by a teenager. That stings.

Am I wrong?

No, you’re right. It was stupid to think that Chergoa’s servant could impact the war in such a way as to prevent any more children from being affected by it. But at the time, I really wanted to believe that.

Why?

Garovel hesitated again. ‘Well, that’s another story. But I suppose it’s one I should tell you.

Hector waited.

I had just recently released my servant of the previous sixty years. And not because my servant wanted me to.

He blinked. ‘What do you mean?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Page 816

That was the part that had stuck with Hector. These people were ready to trust him despite knowing nothing about him other than that he was Garovel’s servant. Apparently, that was the only thing that mattered. It was easy to forget, sometimes, that Garovel wasn’t just his friend but also his greatest connection to the world. And it was more than just how Garovel was keeping him alive physically; Hector hadn’t forgotten that it had also been Garovel’s connection with Mehlsanz that had allowed him to work with Lynn and the Queen so easily. And now, again.

He supposed it was only natural that Garovel would have ties to a shitload of people, but even still, he certainly hadn’t been expecting a sister.

I would’ve told you about Chergoa eventually,’ Garovel said privately. ‘We just hadn’t gotten around to that conversation yet.

Uh-huh...

Look, I haven’t seen her in... uh... I’m actually not sure how long it’s been. Four hundred years, maybe.

Four hundred?!

Possibly five. Time is such a blur.

What the hell? Why so long? Did you have a falling out or something?

If by “falling out” you mean I was being kind of a dick to her, then yes. That is exactly what happened.

Ah... w-what’d you do wrong?

Well. Um. When you spend as much time with someone as I’ve spent with Chergoa, it becomes pretty easy to get on each other’s nerves. And we’re siblings, so that just made it worse. Even when we agreed on something, we’d still find a way to argue about it.

...This sounds an awful lot like an excuse, Garovel.

Oh, no, I fucked up. I’m getting to that part. Don’t worry. I’m just giving you a bit of context.

Hector smiled faintly in the darkness. ‘Okay...

You have to understand, Chergoa and I have known each other for thousands of years. Just think about that for a moment. We have one of the oldest relationships in the world. Even among reapers, few have known each other THAT long. So to try to sum up our relationship in a concise way is just... it’s basically impossible.

The two of you have seen some shit.

...Yes, Hector. Eloquently put, thank you.

Sure thing.

The point is, Chergoa and I have often taken long breaks from one another. We’ve spent entire lifetimes apart and thought little of it when we saw each other again.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Page 815 -- XCIII.

Dimas expected to see Melchor kill Yangéra as well, but the man did no such thing, instead choosing to hold her out in front of him as a shield. Dimas and Joana both had to stop attacking.

“It is over,” said Melchor. “Diego was your only hope of escaping this room, and now that I have Yangéra, you cannot even attack me freely. Please cease this pointless struggling and surrender.”

Dimas couldn’t see Joana’s face in the darkness, so he looked to her reaper and then to Shenado. Indeed, this battle was undoubtedly lost now. Close-quarters combat didn’t suit him, and without Iziol present, Dimas had an observational disadvantage. There was nothing for it.

We’ve lost,’ thought Dimas. ‘Self-destructing now.

Understood,’ came Iziol’s voice. By now, he must have been a quarter of the way to Rheinhal.

And as Dimas prepared both hands with gravitic orbs, he took a deep breath so that he could raise his voice for all to hear. “...I will return for you all very soon.”

By now, Melchor had no doubt realized what he was doing, and Dimas could see the soul-empowered mercury rushing to stop him.

Dimas placed his head in his hands and let the force smash his skull to pieces.


Chapter Ninety-Three: ‘The code of the shield...’
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Hector sat quietly in the unlit guest chamber. Lynn and Prince Meriwether were both asleep. Hector had volunteered to stay up and keep watch since he didn’t require sleep as much as Lynn did. She agreed, as long as he woke her up early so that he could get some rest in the morning.

It had been an eventful evening. He’d watched the entirety of Lord Asad’s discussion with the other Sandlords. Garovel had been kind enough to translate what they were saying into Mohssian for him. By the end, it was quite clear that Lord Asad had been unable to convince them of anything.

After that, Axiolis introduced them to Asad and Qorvass, who were both much more courteous than Asad’s brother, but once the pleasantries concluded, the conversation still proved itself considerably more troubling than the one with Haqq.

“We are going to Rheinhal,” Asad had said quite fluently in Mohssian. “Abbas and the others have chosen not to help, but I cannot remain idle.”

You are welcome to come with us,’ said Qorvass. ‘Any friend of the Elroys is a friend of ours.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Page 814

Melchor’s liquid mass had split, and now both parts were moving independently of one another. The chaos and low visibility of the fight had been concealing it from Dimas.

Perhaps the split had only just occurred, because Shenado chose that moment to warn them. ‘There are three of him now! Be very careful!

Three?

A surge of mercury blindsided him, throwing him off his feet while still clinging on to him, quickly consuming his whole body, no doubt wanting to crush him and prevent regeneration.

Every single one of his muscles flexed at once, and the gravity stopped him in mid-air. An invisible bubble exploded outward and tore the mercury off of him as he floated there.

Indeed, he could see all three hulking blobs looming in the darkness now. The one that had attacked him was already moving toward Joana and the children.

Dimas fired off a round of gravity bullets as he propelled himself closer. Joana pierced the liquid beast with a giant chromium spear, adding spiked branches to it and shredding mercury with each new growth. The clone writhed and squirmed away from her, only to immediately circle back around and try for her again. Dimas gathered enough force into his fist and barreled through the clone, expelling increased gravity upon the moment of impact.

Globs of mercury splattered everywhere but didn’t settle. Instead, they scuttled away like ants, retreating back into a pool nearer the other two clones. Dimas reversed gravity beneath them, wanting to keep every droplet suspended in the air and isolated from one another, but it didn’t matter. They didn’t need the floor. They could move under their own power, no doubt due to Melchor’s additional mastery of materialization’s velocity states.

A muffled explosion shook the chamber, pulling everyone’s attention back to Diego. While they’d been busy with a single clone, Diego had been dealing with two. And it was not going well, Dimas saw. He rushed to assist the man, but the mercury was already smothering him, and after another moment, Dimas heard the crunch. That wouldn’t be enough to truly stop Diego, of course, but Melchor also ripped Yangéra free of the man’s body, using the mercury as a physical filter through which to separate the two. And even while Melchor endured a storm of gravity bullets and chromium spikes, the liquid coffin tightened another time, ensuring that Diego remained dead.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Page 813

The mercury crumbled against the gravitic impact, but before Dimas could tell the children to flee, it filled right back in.

Melchor’s dual-voice rose through the chamber. “No one leaves,” he said. “Not without our guidance.”

Dimas and Diego both inched closer, not wanting to give the man enough time to recover but also not wanting to walk into a trap. Dimas could see a few thick puddles of mercury that had been severed from the rest of Melchor’s body.

“The three of you will become great pillars of the Rainlords one day,” said Melchor. “We do not wish to kill you here and now.”

“You don’t say?” said Diego, also bearing a second voice with Yangéra. “Then let’s all just relax and talk this out over a nice game of hopscotch.”

Melchor did not seem amused by the suggestion. He was the first to begin moving again.

Dimas and Joana tried to slow him down as Diego moved to freeze the severed puddles of mercury. It would be a long process of whittling away at Melchor’s body, but Dimas didn’t see another way of defeating the man when they didn’t have the power to simply overwhelm him. Dimas could try smothering him with hypergravity, but that would be dangerous for everyone else, and the idea was to protect the reapers and children, not turn them all into meaty spaghetti.

More spikes came for him, this time too many to simply dodge. So he didn’t. Dimas inhaled deeply as he focused for the increase that he wanted. The gravitational bubble appeared around him and stopped the spikes dead, cracking and shattering them before they could reach him. Their broken pieces flew away from him and dug into the walls, letting a bit more light peer through fresh holes before Melchor covered them back up again.

It had grown dark, the only physical light source being that of Diego’s ignited fingers, but Dimas didn’t strictly require it. He could see the vague outline of souls. While they were still attached to people, souls were a kind of faint fog spread thinly through the body and only really noticeable in the darkness. A dim glow, essentially.

And then, in a fleeting moment when he wasn’t being attacked, he noticed something horrific.

There were too many souls. There was a second Melchor in the room.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Page 812

It was probably the most difficult compound that Diego could construct within a reasonable timeframe. All in all, it only required hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, but the structure of the hydrogen and oxygen molecules was no simple thing to achieve, needing to be organized into three hydroxyl groups and then merged with white fuming nitric acid. Certainly, it wasn’t Dimas’ area of expertise, but he at least had to give Diego credit for being able to pull something like that off in the middle of combat.

And of course, even after construction, nitroglycerin was wildly unstable. Mishandling was liable to get himself killed, so it was a testament to his confidence that he would do it now, when a mistake would mean harming Yangéra as well.

Dimas just tried to focus on pinning Melchor down while Diego worked. It was nearly impossible. The two remaining Redwaters tried to assist again, but a ceiling of spikes finally claimed them. And it would have claimed Dimas and Joana, too, if he hadn’t slowed its descent with a gravitational wall.

As Melchor reared back for another attack, Diego lobbed his three severed fingers at him. One missed, but the other two were on target, making contact with the tattered suit that still clung to Melchor’s vague form.

All three explosions went off at once. They were even stronger than Dimas anticipated. The chamber didn’t just tremble; it spasmed, violent enough that Dimas nearly lost track of everyone despite the gravitational shield he’d placed over himself and the children. A wall of chromium stood before them as well, thanks to a crouched and cringing Joana, and Dimas could see Emiliana covering Marcos and Ramira with her own body.

The shock wave had smashed Diego against the rear wall, but the man was already picking himself up and healing so rapidly that, in a moment, he’d only have earned himself a bit of mussed hair and a few blood stains on his t-shirt.

An impressive hole now lay in the upper corner of the room, ushering smoke to the outside. The lamp that had been providing light was in pieces as well, leaving only the rainy gray sky for illumination. Diego ignited his fingertips in order to supplement that.

Dimas could see Melchor’s form through the smoke and dust, still alive and churning. He made a fist and punched through the south wall again, knowing that the best possible use of this downtime was to ensure that the Elroys escape.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Page 811

Mercurial spikes erupted from Melchor’s body, skewering Diego through the eye socket and finally throwing him off. Bloody and full of holes, Diego managed to catch himself on the bookshelf in the middle of the room, sliding across the top and freezing it with the residual liquid nitrogen still present in his arms. By the time his feet touched the floor again, his wounds had already healed, even the one that had undoubtedly pierced his brain.

Diego didn’t have to dive back into the fight. Melchor came for him first, which Dimas found quite telling as to which opponent the Lord Blackburn was most concerned about. Surely, if Diego managed to freeze enough of Melchor’s body at once, it would be problematic for the man, but even with Diego’s soul-empowered liquid nitrogen, the freezing process would require more than just a few seconds. Melchor’s passive soul defense was not something to be overlooked. Diego wasn’t going to get that much time unless Dimas and Joana provided it for him.

Dimas pointed a single index finger at Melchor. Much as he would have liked to, he couldn’t simply crush the man with overwhelming gravitational pressure. Melchor’s passive soul resilience and field density were both too powerful for such a tactic. However, Dimas could still reverse the gravity around Melchor in order to disorient him. So he did.

In an instant, Melchor was flung toward the ceiling, splattering against it briefly before recovering and crawling around like some kind of hideous liquid spider.

Joana took the opportunity to launch a flurry of thick chromium spears, all barbed and razor sharp. They pelted Melchor, some bouncing off, some sticking in, and his body shuddered and morphed before it could expel the chromium back out again.

Dimas didn’t let up either. With one hand, he kept intensifying the gravity around Melchor in order to slow him down, and with the other, he fired off a series of gravity bullets--invisible pockets of supercondensed pressure that carried enough speed to pierce steel at fifty meters.

Mercury splashed violently with each impact, but Melchor weathered that assault, too, though not quite so effortlessly as before. His liquid body contorted and swirled as he moved out of the way.

Diego, in the meantime, had been prepping three of his fingers. No doubt, he feared using any more than that in the presence of his allies. Dimas knew what he was crafting. He’d seen him do it before. Soul-strengthened nitroglycerin, it would be.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Page 810 -- XCII.

Melchor was not long delayed. The Redwaters all pounced on him at once, their mixture of powers accumulating into a confused frenzy of attacks. Their varied crystals and metals and gases all combined and ignited, engulfing the man’s liquid body in flames while simultaneously bombarding him from every conceivable direction.

And Melchor ignored them. He pressed through their combination attack as if it were nothing more than smoke. He went for Diego again.

Diego was ready for him, though. Emiliana knew his power as well: nitrogen transfiguration. A surge of mercury came for his head, but Diego ducked right under it and gripped Melchor’s amorphous body with both arms, going for a ride as Melchor kept leaping across the room like a wild bull. Emiliana could see him attempting to slow Melchor down with a bath of liquid nitrogen as he flailed, struggling to hang on.

Dimas took the opportunity to rear back from across the room and punch a hole into the south wall. Emiliana saw the air visibly distort as the impact shattered Melchor’s frozen mercury. “Go!” the man yelled.

Emiliana turned to run, only to find Joana already pulling her and Marcos along. But it made no difference. Before they could reach the hole in the wall, the mercury filled back in, leaving them still trapped in the room with everyone else.

The group of Redwaters moved to attack again, but two broad pillars of mercury converged on them, one down from the ceiling and the other up from the floor, meeting each other like the teeth of giant’s jaw. Emiliana could hear their bones crunch and see their blood go flying as the frozen mercury claimed five servants at once.


Chapter Ninety-Two: ‘The weight of the rain...’
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Dimas Sebolt glanced at the dead. He’d never seen Melchor’s power firsthand like this, but he’d heard Xuan speak about it at length. It was only supposed to be mercury transfiguration, but the man’s mastery of pan-rozum completely changed the equation. In Dimas’ mind, Diego’s earlier confidence had been entirely unfounded. Being outnumbered meant virtually nothing to someone like Melchor Blackburn.

Fool that he was, however, Diego could still prove invaluable in this fight, Dimas knew. Diego himself had control of pan-forma, a kind of simpler hyper-state exclusive to transfiguration and materialization users only. It was much less versatile than pan-rozum, not breaking down the barriers between ability classes and instead affording three blanket enhancements to durability, regeneration, and connectivity.