Friday, October 31, 2014

Page 870

How strange it was, looking at this man and seeing someone only slightly his elder. By appearance alone, Parson Miles could have quite easily passed for Dunstan’s brother. Dunstan could almost forget that he was staring at one of the most powerful Vanguardians alive today. But perhaps that was the whole point.

“Only one person, sir,” he said, swinging his chair around to point Miles in the proper direction. “Third street over on your right, behind the bushes, sir.”

He’s right,’ said Overra. ‘From here, I can sense someone there.

Miles fished a pair of compact binoculars out of his coat and gave a look. “Hmm. Can’t see ‘em. Let’s wait ‘till they come a little closer, shall we?”

“Yes, sir.” And he realized that Reza was still blabbering on about one thing or another, so he interrupted and said, ‘Can’t talk right now, Reza.’

Tch.

He fixated upon the location of the figure he’d seen with his binoculars. A thick silence fell as they waited, but Dunstan had recently come to learn that the Cpt. General didn’t much care for peace and quiet, and indeed, the man soon broke it.

“...So how are you doin’ up here?”

“Fine, sir.”

“Tedious work, isn’t it? I was a watchman myself once, you know. Surprisingly little has changed about the job. With how quickly tech develops, you’d think it’d be completely different by now.” He knocked a finger against the clear wall. “Armoring has gotten a bit better, I suppose.”

Dunstan wasn’t sure how to respond, so he just said, “Yes, sir.”

For some reason, that seemed to amuse the man. “Do you consider yourself a company man, Corporal?”

“Sir?”

“A company man. A believer in the system. In the Vanguard’s mission to provide protection and justice.”

“Yes, sir. Of course.”

“Good. That’s good. That’ll take you far.” A beat passed. “What about your family? How do they feel about the Vanguard?”

Dunstan hesitated. “...I’ve never told them about it.”

“Ah, so they’re just nice and normal folk?”

“Yes, sir. Though, I wouldn’t call them nice, exactly.”

“Mm. What is it that they think you do, then?”

“I... don’t know.” He blinked. He hadn’t meant to say that. He’d meant to tell some insignificant lie. That was what he usually did when someone asked him about his family.

“You don’t know?” said Miles. “How can you not know?”

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Page 869

Then what did you talk about?’ said Dunstan.

Mostly, Dennex has been trying to pump me for information. And he’s pretty clever about it, too. I almost told him all sorts of juicy things.

Great.

All in all, he seems like a bit of a stiff, but he’s still way better company than the rest of the reapers around here. Except maybe Overra. But I only got to talk to her a couple times. She’s always busy with Miles.

I thought you hated those two.

Oh, I do. But Overra is a hell of a conversationalist. She’s got a ton of ridiculous stories. Says she knows Tenebrach pretty well, and I believe her. And she’s met most of the strongest Abolishers in battle, too. She and Miles were there at the Battle of Lac’Vayce a few years ago.

He was pretty sure that was more than a few years ago, but he didn’t bother trying to correct her. ‘Wasn’t that the one where nearly a million people were killed?

Yeah. Lamont and Jackson against Jercash, Ivan, and Gunther. The fight leveled the entire city and completely wrecked the local ecosystem. And Lamont and Jackson almost lost. Barely managed to hold on until Sermung arrived and bailed them out. And Overra was THERE. Can you imagine?

...Yes, I can. Quite easily.

Oh. Well, I suppose this battle is somewhat comparable, but it’s hardly the same scale. Five of the strongest servants in the world all duking it out in one place. Overra said Lac’Vayce won’t be habitable again for hundreds of years. They basically made a mini version of the Dáinnbolg all by themselves.

He didn’t much care for the way she talked about it as if they’d broken some kind of baseball record, but something caught his eye before he could tell her so.

A figure darted out from behind a building, only visible in the split second it took to reach a line of bushes.

He had a choice between two covered buttons on the arm of his chair. One was for the silent alarm, and the other was for the old analogue bell that would alert the entire compound. He lifted the cover and chose the silent alarm.

Without his binoculars, he surveyed the whole network of streets below, looking for any movement at all.

No more than a minute later, however, Cpt. General Miles appeared right outside the Nest, buffeting its bulletproof glass with a sudden flourish of wind. Overra melted out of the man’s body, and Miles gave Dunstan an unworried smile. “What did you see, Corporal?”

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Page 868

Really?’ said Rezamaar. ‘Nothing? I wish you would at least pretend to be upset at me for a change.

Sorry. Though, you’ll have to let the aging thing go sooner or later. I know you wanted me to stay a teenager forever, but I--

That’s not what this is about!

Sure it isn’t.

Dunstan, I am so tired of your lip.

Are you, though?

Yes, I am! Agh! Don’t test me! I will release your soul in a heartbeat!

Well, if you’re gonna do it, then you’re gonna do it.

What the fuck do I have to say for you to get angry?! It’s really creepy the way you never get mad, you know! I basically called you a fucking swamp monster, and you don’t even care!

I can’t help it if you’re into little boys, Reza.

I’m not into little boys!

Aren’t you, though?

I’m into young men!

Are you, though?

And it’s not a sexual thing! It’s purely platonic!

Is it, though?

Shut the fuck up!

Alright.

A long beat passed.

I just find them adorable,’ said Reza. ‘Like teddy bears and puppies. Reapers don’t even have sexual urges, you son of a bitch.

No judgment here. You’re free to lust disgustingly over whomever you like.

God, I hate you so much, Dunstan.

Then I guess I am not long for this world.

Reza just growled at him. For all her talk, Dunstan knew she wouldn’t really do it. But even if she did, he honestly wasn’t too concerned. He hardly considered himself alive, anyway. This was all just borrowed time, and it wasn’t like anyone would miss him.

You really need to make some friends,’ said Reza. ‘This is getting pathetic.

If you say so.

How about the Elroy boy? He seemed nice. Well, not nice, but loyal. Well, not loyal to us, but to his family.

He is also a frozen head, at the moment.

Yeah, but Dennex isn’t.

Dennex?

His reaper. He and I have been talking. Dennex is cool.

Could you please not fraternize with the enemy when I’m not around?

I told you I was bored.

If the wrong person overheard the two of you talking, it could come back to bite us.

Please. I’m more careful than that.

Mm. Did Dennex tell you anything useful?

Well, he didn’t admit to being an Abolish spy, if that’s what you’re getting at. But I have a sneaking suspicion that a spy might be reluctant to reveal that sort of thing.

Page 867

Dunstan hoped the conversation would die there so that he could return to watching in peace, but it seemed he was destined for disappointment.

This is so stupid,’ she went on. ‘What is even the point of capturing these Rainlord children, huh? I’ve been asking all around, but no one fucking knows. Or they’re just not telling me. Pricks.

Rumor is, the Elroys are Abolish spies.

I don’t give a shit! Let them be spies! You don’t screw with the Rainlords unless you have a damn good plan! And that twat Miles obviously doesn’t!

Technically, it was Lawrence who ordered their capture.

Whatever!

If they really are feeding intel to our enemies, then we cannot simply allow them to continue.

Sure we can.

Reza.

Fine, then we could feed them false intel and try to lure Abolish into a trap. That’d be the smart thing to do.

Again, she wasn’t wrong. It was hard to imagine how the handling of this conflict could be anything but foolish and clumsy. If there really was some kind of greater plan at work, he couldn’t see it.

Maybe we should have joined Abolish instead,’ said Rezamaar.

Be serious.

I’m sure they aren’t all crazy assholes. It’d just be a matter of finding the right faction.

Abolish commits genocide, Reza.

Well, yes, that is a problem.

Even if certain factions were not physically involved, they are still guilty by association.

Bit harsh. People make mistakes, you know.

Genocide is more than just a mistake.

Oh, I don’t know. Sometimes, you trip over a loose rock and accidentally stab a thousand people in the face. It’s important to look at the bigger picture, Dunstan.

Your wisdom continues to astound me.

The Vanguard has never been very good with the big picture. They’ve always been too busy winning battles to realize that they’re losing wars. They could probably learn a few things from Abolish. Or maybe Sai-hee.

If that’s really how you feel, then why did you even agree to join the Vanguard with me in the first place?

Because that was when you were all passionate and adorable about everything. I couldn’t tell you no. But now that you’re a turgid old curmudgeon, I can.

You’re talking about four years ago.

Yes, and you’ve aged like a beautiful oak tree that caught fire, fell into a river, and then got pulled along by a current into an illegal dump site for toxic chemicals.

You’re a true poet, Reza.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Page 866

As a measure of caution, Rezamaar did not occupy the watchtower with him. Dunstan didn’t like being separated from her, but there was nothing for it. Though, if being separated had meant that he could no longer hear her talk, then he might have liked it very much.

Hey, Dunstan,’ she said from wherever she was inside the Keep.

What?

I’m bored.

That’s too bad.’ Dunstan occupied his eyes with his binoculars. Nothing moved among the ritzy hotels and empty streets below. It had been a few hours since he last saw a Rainlord. Usually, they sent someone to harass his tower at least once an hour.

Most likely, this was a deliberate tactic meant to make him and his comrades lose concentration with a suddenly longer period of downtime. It wasn’t going to work. Not on Dunstan, anyway. Perhaps the Rainlords would have better luck after his shift was over.

Wanna know what I think?’ said Rezamaar.

Not really.

I think this whole business of throwing in with the Vanguard has blown up in your stupid little face.

Thank you for that tremendous insight.

Four years, you let them train you. And now they’ve involved us in this crap. I don’t know what’s going through their fat heads, but I don’t think this is the sort of thing you imagined us doing when you told me we should join.

She wasn’t wrong. Dunstan hadn’t left home to become a pawn in someone else’s war game. He’d left in order to finally do something positive with his life. And to get away from his family. ‘...True, it is difficult to be completely onboard with the abduction of children.

Oh. Yeah. That’s. Whatever. Listen, what I don’t like is having to go up against the goddamnn Redwaters. Or the Merlos. Or the Sebolts. Or just any of the Rainlords, really. These aren’t the type of people we should be fucking around with, regardless of what Lawrence or Miles or any of your other idiot bosses tell you.

They’re your bosses, too, Reza.’

Yeah, sure they are.

Needless to say, she had never quite embraced the ways of the Vanguard like Dunstan had. She could be very convincing with her feigned loyalty when she needed to be, but she certainly didn’t have any reservations about telling Dunstan what she truly thought. Ever since they’d joined, it was like being followed around by some kind of automated complaint dispenser.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Page 865 -- XCIX.

At length, Asad simply gave up, instead choosing to add several more layers of glass to the pyramid around Sabas. Then he raised a platform beneath the prison and pushed it along behind him while he ventured over to collect Fidel’s severed head.

Hector annihilated his own work, revealing Silvia’s flattened corpse, splattered against the pavement in gruesome enough fashion that it actually made Hector grimace a little beneath his helm. He’d seen plenty of carnage before, of course, but it usually involved people who were still moving and regenerating. This brought back some of the more horrible things he’d witnessed. He had to remind himself that Silvia wasn’t actually dead.

Garovel floated up behind Hector. ‘Her reaper fled underground. We will be seeing Silvia Blackburn again, it seems.

Oh well,’ said Qorvass. ‘Two out of three isn’t bad.

I see you’ve decided to spare their reapers after all,’ said Garovel.

You disapprove?’ said Qorvass.

Quite the contrary, in fact. It’s nice to see a bit of mercy on the battlefield for a change, and I’m sure they’ll make valuable hostages.

Indeed.

They started back for the tunnel together with their captives in tow. Hector queried Garovel about Asad’s tattoos, but the reaper didn’t seem certain and so posed the question to Qorvass.

By the way, why were Asad’s tattoos flashing yellow?

Trade secret, I’m afraid.’

Ah.


Chapter Ninety-Nine: ‘The Siege of Rheinhal...’
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Dunstan Rofal was not enjoying his new position very much, even if it was technically a promotion. All in all, the Rainlords hadn’t pressed their assault very hard, but every time they did, he ended up directly in their line of fire thanks to his station in the southwestern tower. A week ago, Rhein’s Keep boasted four towers, but the two easterly ones had since been knocked down.

A host of Vanguardian servants protected his tower from the outside, but only Dunstan had the privilege of occupying the tiny Watcher’s Nest at its peak. There simply wasn’t space for another person, especially not with this beastly swivel-mounted .50 caliber HMG in the middle of the chamber. It had an ammo feed up through the floor, which one of Dunstan’s comrades attended to.

For the most part, though, he didn’t get to use the gun. His primary job was simply to keep watch, as per usual, and when enemies came within firing range, they were typically repelled by someone else--often Cpt. General Miles. And so, whenever Dunstan DID get to use the gun, it naturally meant that he was in imminent danger of being obliterated along with the entire watchtower.

And that was not a very pleasant working environment.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Page 864

Sabas was certainly getting his share of hits in, but Asad was hardly budging at all. Even when a titanium fist--no doubt with enhanced strength behind it--connected with his bare skull, the Lord Najir barely even flinched. But it also made something else happen.

With each blow that Asad received, his tattoos flashed golden yellow, lighting up for an instant and then returning to black just as quickly. Hector wasn’t sure what he was seeing, but he didn’t get the chance for further observation.

She’s breaking out,’ warned Garovel, accompanied by the sound of cracking glass.

Hector went to work on a gigantic slab of iron high above Silvia’s head. He could see that Silvia had coated herself in cesium, which seemed to be reacting with and corroding the glass; and after a few more moments, the cracks grew, and she was finally able to break herself out of Asad’s glass, at the cost of having melted much of her skin via her own cesium.

At the very second she was free, the iron slab was right there to greet her. Having started its fall at only about eighty meters above the ground, Hector knew from his own practical studies that it didn’t have nearly enough altitude to achieve its terminal velocity.

But that didn’t mean it wouldn’t hurt.

The slab crushed her into the pavement. The impact force kicked up chunks of road all around the slab and sent them reeling into vehicles and buildings, even right past Hector.

Nicely done,’ said Garovel.

And Hector waited, wondering if that was really enough to keep the woman down. He seriously doubted it, though it did seem to have bought them some more time.

Jada walked up from behind. She didn’t say anything and instead offered him a nod of approval.

Asad seemed to be finishing up. He carried a helpless reaper in one hand while in the midst of extracting the other from Sabas’ glass-encased body. Fidel had been skewered in a dozen different places and no longer seemed to be regenerating, perhaps because his pan-forma had been forcibly ended. Hector was immensely curious how Asad had accomplished that and so paid close attention to him trying to extract Sabas’ reaper, but Sabas appeared to be making it impossible. Even Asad couldn’t pierce the man’s titanium flesh, which Hector intuited to be a necessary step in the procedure.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Page 863

Hector flew into the side of a car, which did not survive the impact nearly as well as he did. His weight collapsed the cabin like tin foil, but Hector certainly appreciated the softened landing. He could feel a few bones snapping back into place as he stepped back onto pavement, parts of the vehicle’s shattered frame clinging briefly to his armor.

Already, Silvia had completely regenerated. It couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds since he took his eyes off her, but all that melted flesh, even the missing arm, had returned. Only her shredded raincoat and still-smoldering vest remained as evidence of the attack she’d endured.

Jada was on the move now, bounding over fences and behind vehicles in search of fresh cover while cesium erupted in her wake. Hector helped her out, materializing a half-dozen iron logs above Silvia’s head, granting them spikes for good measure. That bought Jada some space, while Hector thundered headlong into the breach for the third time.

A spear of frozen cesium shot toward him and broke upon his shield, causing him to miss a step and stagger to his right before finding his feet again. Silvia doused him in liquid cesium another time, but Hector was prepared. He stopped moving as soon as he heard the splash against his metal and added a much thicker layer of iron to the armor. The iron popped out all at once, shaking off most of the cesium before the rain could cause it to explode. A few splotches remained, but it was only enough for Hector to hear a handful of light pops from within his now brick-like iron shell. The cesium all around his feet was busy going off like a ring of fireworks as he annihilated his extra layer of iron so that he could move again.

Silvia seemed ready to receive him when a pyramid of solid quartz materialized all around her, sealing her movement.

And Hector stopped, abruptly unsure what he should do. Silvia Blackburn merely stood there, eyes moving while the rest of her was stuck fast, as if she were being preserved for posterity.

Hector looked toward Asad, who did not seem to be having very much trouble on his end. Fidel was suspended in the air, impaled on a huge glass spike while his melted arms and legs all struggled to regenerate; and Sabas was locked in hand-to-hand combat with Asad.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Page 862

Hector used the opportunity to accomplish two things simultaneously. First was simply adding to the chain around Silvia. The links grew thicker and more numerous, now carrying enough mass to actually weigh the woman down and give her a reason to break them--which Hector anticipated would not be a problem for her. Hence, the purpose of his second task. An iron meteor. It had served fairly well against Karkash, so he hoped it would do even better against someone without magnetic control.

He was quickly disappointed.

In spite of creating it faster than he could against Karkash, he still only managed to make about half the mass he wanted before Silvia noticed and decided that it was her turn to multitask. A cesium spear shot straight up and punched a hole through the iron like tissue paper, splitting it, exploding it, and knocking it off course. And simultaneously, she fired a second spear directly at Hector.

Shield raised, he braced himself.

The cesium exploded upon contact. Whether it was due to the impact or merely the rain, Hector could not tell, but he was quite surprised to find that the shield absorbed the blow very well, only pushing him back about a meter or so when he’d been expecting to be sent through a building. He glanced at the broadside of the shield another time and saw that it was scuffed but not at all structurally compromised.

Silvia seemed surprised as well, but she didn’t get the chance to attack him again. A wave of molten quartz fell upon her, glowing harshly orange and yellow. It boiled the flesh off her bones in a matter of seconds, offering a faint hiss of steam with each drop of rain that fell upon it.

A vest provided Silvia with some protection, but Hector could see actual bone through the melted skin and muscle of her arms and skull. The quartz left her slowed, and Jada and Hector both capitalized--Jada with bullets, Hector with a materialized broadsword.

Go for the limbs,’ said Garovel while Hector was mid-sprint. ‘Decapitation won’t work.

Hector went for her left arm and got it, severing it at the shoulder. One of Jada’s bullets caught Silvia right in the forehead, splattering brain matter out the back of her skull.

Yet it was not enough. Silvia was still moving, still regenerating; and she still managed to swirl up and dropkick Hector square in the chest.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Page 861

Hector could only watch the Lord Najir in awe. The one glass handle could only sustain Asad’s movement for a few seconds, but Asad created more on the fly, alternating between handles and platforms as he pleased, striding and soaring through the open air with such apparent ease and swiftness that Hector could hardly believe he and Asad shared the same ability type.

The Blackburns kept him busy, bombarding him with fleets of copper and cesium that he had to deflect while also keeping Sabas pinned down. They seemed to have regrouped very quickly, somehow.

Careful, they’re all using pan-forma,’ said Garovel, and Hector understood why their three reapers had vanished from sight all of a sudden. ‘Even headshots won’t kill them now. You’d have to obliterate their entire bodies or tear their reapers away from them--neither of which you’re capable of doing.

Had the circumstances been less dangerous, Hector might have taken issue with how ridiculous that all sounded, but here and now, doubt was a luxury that he could not afford. He took Garovel at his word, and instead simply asked, ‘What should I do, then?

Same as before. Asad needs space to breathe. Provide it for him.

Jada was doing precisely that, Hector saw. She’d lobbed a cooked grenade at Silvia, which exploded before even hitting the ground and blew a chunk out of the woman’s face. Silvia dropped but didn’t stop moving, and Hector could see her head regenerating just as Garovel had said--and with a speed he’d never seen before, even. Combined with unrelenting gunfire, Jada had certainly earned the woman’s attention and would doubtless be receiving an overabundance of cesium momentarily.

Hector was already sprinting by this point. And because he had the distinct impression that trying to coat Silvia Blackburn in iron would be about as effective as attacking with a feather pillow, he instead decided to materialize an iron chain in his free hand, broad and strong as he could make it. When he drew close enough, he chucked it at her with all his strength, and it caught her around the torso, huge links wrapping around her but still not stopping her.

A hail of exploding cesium came for Jada, and the young woman only managed to dive partially out of its path, losing her left arm, shoulder, and ear in the process. It did, however, buy precious time for Hector.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Page 860

Hector looked up to see that he was being ignored. And for good reason, too.

Asad was no longer on the ground. Rather, he seemed to be running on thin air, and it took Hector a second to notice the barely visible platforms beneath him. They didn’t even touch the ground. The platforms were already moving in midair when Asad stepped on them, pushing him upward or outward or any which way he desired while the Lord Najir showered his opponents with an endless storm of glassy spears. So many at once, Hector saw, crashing down through the heavy rain and sticking into the pavement or shattering against each other.

It was all the Blackburns could do to weather the attack. Fidel’s copper cage could hardly keep up with all the holes Asad was carving into it; Silvia had to focus on exploding the spears before they reached and skewered her; and Sabas appeared to have turned his whole body into a metal statue, sealing his own movement in exchange for making the quartz blades break ineffectually against his body.

Titanium transfiguration, Hector recalled from Sabas’ file. Not the deadliest power but one that made him particularly difficult to kill, and if he was allowed to provide cover or a distraction for the other two, then it could be very problematic.

At the moment, however, Asad seemed to have the situation rather well in hand.

Jada had moved away from the battle and was now standing by behind a madega, busying herself with her firearms. Plural, Hector realized. He’d only seen the one handgun before, but she’d apparently been keeping a whole armory beneath her robe. The grenades especially caught his attention.

Hector still wasn’t sure what her power was. Garovel had asked, but for whatever reason, the Najirs had kept that information to themselves. The reliance on firearms perhaps suggested destruction type, but now was not the time to be giving the matter more thought.

Soon, the Blackburns were buried in a mound of shattered quartz. But they were certainly not dead yet, and now Asad’s own glass was in his way, so he let up on his attack and began dematerializing his work.

The Blackburns, of course, saw this as their opportunity to counterattack, and likewise, Asad seemed to predict as much. He leapt off his platform and grabbed a glassy handle that was already in motion, and for a brief moment, the man was flying--pulled quickly forward via the handle’s momentum.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Page 859

Rather than responding, Fidel merely let the heavy atmosphere linger. Only the occasional booms of distant thunder and battle above broke the oppressive stillness.

Guess he’s not going to bring anyone,’ observed Garovel.

Hector could see a wall of rain approaching from the other end of the street, could hear its noisy patter growing quickly louder.

Asad decided to strike first. With a mere flick of the wrist, the six rear Blackburns had glassy spikes bursting out the top of their skulls. They dropped immediately, all dead.

Fidel, Sabas, and Silvia attacked in unison, all gunning for Asad.

Don’t let them gang up on him,’ said Garovel, touching Hector’s bare hand.

That familiar vigor burned through him, awakening every muscle in his body and rendering his armor no heavier than a blanket. Garovel retreated halfway underground in order to observe the fight a bit more safely, while Hector bolted forward, armor clinking with each rapid step he took toward the closest opponent.

Silvia Blackburn, it turned out to be--a lanky woman with big green eyes and short black hair. Her file had mentioned her explosive ability. Cesium materialization. Dangerous even in a novice’s hands due to its violent reaction with water and tendency to spontaneously ignite in air. And Silvia had already been a servant for twenty-five years.

She noticed Hector’s approach right away and doused him completely in her silvery-gold liquid metal, which instantly set itself ablaze and engulfed Hector in blue flames. This, of course, was not enough to stop him from charging, so Hector just powered through.

And then she clobbered him with a block of frozen cesium the size of a bus.

Hector went flying, toppling, bouncing, and scraping across the open road. And that was also the unfortunate moment when the curtain of rain caught up with him. Each raindrop popped with the force of a firecracker when it touched him, reacting to the still-flaming cesium. On the one hand, it put out the fire; on the other, it caused a chain of explosions from every direction at once, pummeling his plate armor and rattling him so furiously that he could only flail like a fish on dry ground.

When the explosions finally subsided, his fist slammed against the pavement, and he struggled angrily back to his feet. The armor had done its job, even if it now bore so many dents as to look like he’d crafted it out of crumpled paper. Haqq’s shield still looked pristine and untouched.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Page 858 -- XCVIII.

Chapter Ninety-Eight: ‘Tread not upon the Pride...’
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Garovel moved behind Hector. ‘Nine servants with nine reapers.’

“Stay close to me,” said Asad.

Hector intended to.

The Blackburns all wore brown-and-green raincoats that made them blend into the murky background of Luzo. He’d heard some of the other Rainlords referring to these people as the “Mudlords”--an unofficial title according to Garovel and from the sound of it, meant more as a slur than anything, but Hector was beginning to see where it had come from.

With their faces concealed beneath their hoods, Hector couldn’t tell who they were. And weirdly, they did not seem interested in stopping to introduce themselves.

A massive copper boulder materialized before them, already hurtling their way.

Hector was about to dive out of its path when Asad simply raised a glass platform from beneath it, catching the hulking mass in mid-flight and smacking it away as if it had been nothing more than a kickball. The thing crashed down into a murky stream and tossed up a cloud of mud, blanketing a small footbridge entirely.

That seemed to give the Blackburns pause. They slowed their approach, and several of their reapers went underground.

“What is a Sandlord doing here?!” someone called out in a booming voice. It belonged to the man on their left. He pulled back his hood as he and two others stepped closer, all with their reapers still present. The remaining six servants in their party hung back.

Hector recognized the man’s face from his file. Fidel Blackburn. And he was much more imposing than he was on paper, visibly muscular even through his raincoat. After a moment, the two others were revealed to be Silvia and Sabas Blackburn.

Hector’s gauntleted grip on his shield tightened. Already, they’d encountered three of the people whom Lady Amaya had warned them about.

“You have no investment in this fight, amergo!” said Fidel, stopped now. “Begone! And no harm shall come to you! You have my word!”

“Very kind of you!” said Asad, shifting his feet and looking between them. “I have an even kinder counteroffer!”

“Is that so?! Go on, then!”

“Tell me why you have abducted the Elroy children! In exchange, I will do my best to avoid killing any of your reapers!”

“Aha!” said Fidel. “Very kind, indeed! Would you believe me if I said I do not know?!”

“I would, yes! As long as you bring me someone who does know!”

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Page 857

Next came the faulds and modified tasset, which protected Hector’s waist and crotch, respectively. Together, they basically looked like a metal skirt, though Garovel assured him that they made him seem very intimidating and manly. Hector wasn’t too concerned either way, as long as they shielded his balls.

The piece covering his ass was called the culet, which had been perhaps the most difficult thing to find in his studies. There weren’t many pieces of plate armor designed for the ass, probably because knights in full plate historically fought on horseback. Ultimately, he’d decided that a culet was slightly more practical than materializing a horse.

For his thighs, there were cuisses; for the knees, poleyns; and for the shins, greaves. All easy enough. And for his feet, he simply created a series of riveted plates, called lames, over the top of his shoes. He certainly didn’t want to lose the superior traction of his modern footwear, especially on this already slick ground.

All together, it was heavy as shit. Which was another strike against wearing it all the time, he supposed. But of course, he would be cheating with undead strength as soon as the fight started. The knights of ye olden times must have been monsters to be able to fight like this. But then, as he thought about it more and remembered how long reapers and servants had been around, he began to wonder if they actually had been monsters.

Hey, Asad, would you mind?’ said Garovel, motioning toward Hector. ‘Lend us a bit of your soul.

Asad paused when he saw Hector. “Interesting,” was all he said before pressing a tattooed hand against the iron. After a few moments, he removed his hand and said, “That should last about fifteen minutes.”

“Th-thank you...”

“You are welcome.” Asad crafted a glassy helmet for his daughter and handed it to her. “Tell me what I need to hear.”

Jada donned the gift immediately. “Only as a last resort,” she said. Her hands rustled beneath her dark robe for a second, and then she revealed a handgun. “Otherwise, I will provide support from a distance.”

“Good. I will be fine on my own, so concentrate on helping Hector.”

“Yes, abbi.”

Asad did not bother creating a helmet for himself, Hector noticed, despite still having time to spare.

They are surrounding us,’ warned Qorvass.

Hector could see them approaching now.

Page 856

With his flashlight, Hector could see a second pillar of quartz above them, pushing up and clearing the rest of the way to the surface. They popped up in the middle of a street. It was no longer raining, thanks to an apparent hole in the overcast sky, but the pavement was still plenty damp.

Hector pocketed his flashlight and removed the shield from his back, then began materializing fresh iron armor for himself, beginning with the helm--which was something of a relief to be wearing again. He’d been aching for something to hide behind ever since leaving Warrenhold. Decorum aside, he wondered how feasible it would be to just start wearing armor all the time. Considering he could simply dematerialize it whenever it became an inconvenience, maybe...

Hector had to concentrate. He was going for a genuine, complete set of plate armor, this time. It had taken him so long to study and comprehend all of the ins and outs of a full suit, but he was finally there. More or less. He’d occasionally tested his mobility in it during his downtime and patrols around Gray Rock, and it seemed to do well enough, but he had obviously not been able to test it against a true opponent yet. It certainly seemed to scare the hell out of the few criminals who’d seen it, though.

He didn’t take shortcuts with it, either. The temptation was to simply coat himself in iron wherever he didn’t need to worry about his joints or flexibility, but he knew that partial coatings would hang too loosely over his clothes and would not interlock with the other pieces of the armor. So he made sure that his ridged breastplate linked properly to the pauldrons, which linked to the segmented rerebraces, then to the spiked couters, then to the gauntlets--or rather, gauntlet, as he kept his left hand unarmored and also pulled off his glove there. He would need bare skin available on a moment’s notice in order to use Haqq’s shield to its fullest potential.

Don’t touch the shield directly until I tell you to,’ Garovel said privately.

Okay.

The neck had been a bit of an issue, but he’d managed to come up with a gorget that allowed him to turn his head, and he’d also perforated the faceguard of his helm for a bit more visibility.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Page 855

Hector wondered what they thought of him. Maybe they thought they’d be better off without him. And maybe they’d be right. These people obviously knew what they were doing. Of course they wouldn’t need him.

No. He couldn’t fall into that old thinking again. That wouldn’t help anything. He wasn’t here to prove himself to a bunch of people he barely knew. He was here to help Garovel’s sister. He just had to remember that. After all his meditating, his practicing and studying, his fighting and struggling and winning and losing--after all of that in the last eight months, he wasn’t the same person as before. And he knew it. Even if it was easy to forget, he knew he was different.

He just hoped that difference was for the better, meager though it might be.

The party continued on, listening to the destruction users burrow their way through the mud. And it was slightly weird, Hector realized. He’d heard it before, of course, but he’d never really stopped and listened closely to the actual sound that destructive paths made. It was a kind of faint piping noise, almost musical even, like a brief gust of air through a tube.

He also noticed that their tunnel had a gradual slope to it, taking them continually deeper underground, probably to avoid the city’s utility lines and ensure that the soul net would run below any basement levels that Marshrock possessed. It would’ve been more convenient if there were some type of subway network to work from, but Hector doubted such a thing existed anywhere within the Rainlords’ domain. If it did, it’d probably be more of a submarine network or something, he figured.

At length, Hector noticed the reapers all stop at the same time.

A number of unfamiliar souls are heading our way,’ announced Qorvass.

Eighteen by my count,’ said Garovel.

Asad took that as his cue. “Keep going,” he told the four Rainlords, who voiced no objection. Then he turned to his sister. “Imas, protect them and construct the tunnel in my place.”

Imas and her reaper both nodded and moved into Asad’s previous position.

“Jada, Hector, you’re with me.”

Jada and Hector nodded as well.

“A vertical hole, please,” ordered Asad, and one of the Rainlords punched a path through the roof of the tunnel. Asad lined the walls with quartz as Jada and Hector gathered around him, and then the Lord Najir pushed the three of them up on a crystal platform.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Page 854

Hector could hear more rumbling from aboveground. Part of him wondered if he wouldn’t have been more useful up there with Lord Dimas.

The hyper-states aren’t so difficult to remember, though. Forma goes with the mass abilities; moc goes with the wave abilities; and wzrost goes with the mixture abilities. Oh, and rozum goes with them all.

Uh-huh...’ And then Hector paused, squinting. ‘Hey, wait a minute.’

What?

Mutation. You know how they develop their powers now. Back when I first asked you about mutation, you said you didn’t know any of the details.

Your memory must be playing tricks on you.

No, I definitely remember.

Nah. That never happened. Trust me. I’m Garovel. The smart one, in other words.

...You had one of the other reapers explain it to you while I was unconscious, didn’t you? Who was it? Voreese? Mehlsanz?

I’ve always known, Hector. In fact, I’m actually omniscient. I just didn’t tell you before because you obviously weren’t ready for the incredible truth. But I’m glad I can finally reveal my secret to you now. Concealing my all-knowing super-coolness can be such a burden.

Hmm. Wait, was it last night? Is that why you put me to sleep so suddenly when you were talking to Qorvass?

I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Hector shook his head and smirked. ‘Then you obviously don’t know everything, do you?

It’s just that one thing. Everything else, I totally know. Go on. Ask me anything.

Hector took a second to deliberate. ‘How many raindrops are above Sair at this very moment?

Sixty-one billion, three hundred and forty-nine million, two hundred and fifty-two thousand, one hundred and thirty-three,’ said Garovel. ‘Now, how do you intend to check if I’m wrong, exactly?

...Shit.

See? That proves it. I really am omniscient.

I’m sorry I doubted you.

That seemed to catch Garovel off guard, making the reaper laugh publicly. It drew a few strange looks, but no one said anything. Hector did notice, however, that Asad’s daughter was watching them now. Those golden eyes were easy to spot even in this relative darkness.

Despite being in their presence non-stop for the last thirty straight hours or so, Hector hadn’t been able to figure the Najirs out at all. Jada seemed slightly more outgoing than her aunt, but that wasn’t saying much. Both of their reapers seemed equally content to simply follow Qorvass in silence.

Page 853

Huh. I think I understand... mostly.’ Hector scratched his neck. The integration users had completed their work, and the tunneling party was making headway again.

There are various ways to go about making a net,’ said Garovel. ‘Generally, you want your strongest combatant to empower the net so as to make it as durable as possible. Opponents will often try to break nets with EMPs and the like.

Can’t the enemy just break these relays or whatever?

They sure can. That’s where the integration users come in. They conceal their work so that the opponent won’t have such an easy time locating the net’s weak points.

Er... I’m still kinda unclear about what the integration type actually is,’ said Hector. ‘I know that it fuses materials together, but, uh... how?

Are you sure this is the time and place to be asking about all these different things? I can’t help but feel you’d retain the information better when we aren’t in mortal peril.

Maybe, but... uh... I mean, as long as we’re not being attacked right this second, it seems like as good a time as any to me.

Garovel gave a small shrug. ‘Fair enough, I suppose. Integration involves elements like materialization and transfiguration do, but it differs in that a single integration user can eventually learn to work with any number of different elements. An integrator starts off with only two elements already in their repertoire, and they have to manually acquire more from there.

How do they do that?

By using a hyper-state. Which is a whole different conversation, really, but the short of it is that integration and mutation users have a hyper-state called “pan-wzrost” which lets them learn to use new materials.

Hyper-states again... eesh. How many are there, anyway?

Four. Pan-rozum, -forma, -moc, and -wzrost. Rozum is the most difficult to use; wzrost is the easiest; forma and moc are about the same.

...I guess I need to know what they all do, huh?

Probably.

Ugh...

Garovel chortled. ‘What happened to that eagerness to learn you had earlier?

This is different. This shit is all, like... I mean, I’m nowhere close to using any of it, right? So... it’s just...

Materialization can only use pan-forma and pan-rozum. But yes, they’re both quite impossible for us, currently. I can save the explanation for later. Though, I do get the feeling we’ll be seeing them in action fairly soon. I’d bet anything that Asad can at least use pan-forma.

Page 852

When they reached the first objective, Hector observed the integration users at work. Together, they’d brought along immense lengths of uninsulated cables and a duffel bag full of compact electrical devices. They’d been laying the cables down as the tunnel progressed, but they only now stopped to plant one of the devices into the ground. Then they attached cables to the device and used their abilities to somehow craft a barricade around the device.

Hector had a number of fresh questions for Garovel and decided to start with the broadest one. ‘So, uh... what are they doing, exactly?

Making limiters for the soul net,’ said Garovel.

Limiters?

Yeah. Ever wonder what happens when you try to empower an energy field with your soul?

Er. I’m not even sure what that means.

Then this won’t be an easy explanation.

Hmm. I’m sure you can do it.

Ha. Well, I suppose I’ll start at the beginning. Quite a long time ago, something like a soul net would have been considered impossible. We only knew that servants could empower physical mass with their soul, and we thought that things like light and electricity didn’t have mass, but as was later discovered, they do--it’s just such a small mass that there isn’t enough to attach a soul to. If you tried, the soul power that you expended would just bleed out into the air and attempt to fill the entire body of gas that makes up the planet’s atmosphere. Which is impossible to do, by the way. It’s simply too big for even the most powerful servant’s soul to fill. It’d be equivalent to spitting into an ocean.

Okay, I’m with you so far...

Anyhow, it was later discovered that soul power CAN occupy an energy field, as long as that field is strong enough within a contained area. Relativistic mass plays a role here, but that’s probably more complicated than is worth going into right now. Simply put, a soul net is an energy field that has been empowered with someone’s soul.

Uh, alright...

In this case, the Rainlords look like they’re going to use a magnetic field. Those devices they’re carrying are most likely protective relays, which will serve to prevent the net from overloading--and possibly also amplify the electric current that will run along these cables. Someone will empower the current with their soul, and since the magnetic field is a product of that current, it will also be empowered.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Page 851

He fled. It would have been nice to capture Horatio, especially considering their files didn’t have much information on him, but Dimas would probably need to use pan-moc in order to do so, and it was much too early into the siege to be going all out. If he didn’t conserve his strength, he and Iziol would end up too exhausted to fight when they were truly needed. ‘Were you able to analyze Horatio’s ability?

No,’ said Iziol, apparently focused on their mission again. ‘There was too little to go on. I would need to see what else he can do with it.

From his vantage point above, Dimas could see more Blackburns pouring out of Marshrock from different places. No doubt, Carlos and Lorenzo would be in need of his assistance very soon. He dove back down to go look for them.

-+-+-+-+-

The ground above them trembled, and trails of twinkling dust shook loose from the freshly materialized ceiling.

Sounds like the battle has started,’ said Garovel privately.

Their underground party numbered eight strong. Him and the three Najirs, along with four Rainlords--two destruction users for the tunneling and two integration users for the construction of the net.

Hector had carefully slung his shield over his back, positioned low so that it couldn’t accidentally touch his bare neck and cause the pain that Sazandara had warned him about. It felt a little awkward there, but as long as he didn’t need to sit down, he figured he’d be fine.

All things considered, Hector wasn’t sure how much use he would be here. If they got attacked, the onus of protecting them would largely fall upon Lord Asad. But then, he supposed that was nothing new to him. It seemed like he was always relying on better fighters to do the real work. Hector just hoped he’d be able to find some small way of helping.

Asad also decided to handle the maintenance of the tunnel. Mushy didn’t even begin to describe the ground here, and Hector could see veins of muddy water through the transparent ceiling and walls--which Asad made from crystallized quartz, according to Garovel’s assessment.

They’d only just begun, but so far, progress seemed smooth. Flashlight in hand, Hector looked at his copy of the map, which said that their first checkpoint was located fifty meters from where they’d started. The net itself would form a rough circle beneath a section of the city, capturing not just Marshrock but also a few of the neighborhoods around it. One of the other tunneling parties would have to go through a river, Hector noticed. He didn’t envy that group.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Page 850

Just wait,’ said Iziol. ‘I’m thinking.

Dimas waited.

Try insulting him.’

...What?

See if you can goad him into attacking us first.

Dimas nearly gave a mental sigh.

Call him a... a turkey. Maybe that’ll get a rise out of him.

...No, Iziol.’ The sad part was, he knew the reaper wasn’t joking.

Dimas, come on, help me out here. I hate having to be the bad guy. You can even use a crude word, if you like. A pissing turkey, maybe. Oh, or would that be too harsh? I don’t want to hurt his feelings.

...I’m attacking him now.

Dimas!

I’ll remember to feel bad about it later.’ And without any warning to Horatio, he shoved one hand forward and launched a gravity wave at the man.

However, Horatio was prepared. With an extended hand of his own, a sudden explosion appeared in the wave’s path. It was large enough to neutralize Dimas’ attack, though a cloud of dust particles washed back over Horatio’s tower before the man dematerialized his work.

Dimas did not let up. He pressed forward with both hands this time and forced Horatio to either leap off the balcony or be shredded along with it. Horatio retaliated with targeted dust explosions as he dropped down to the uneven rock below.

Dimas, how can you be so heartless?! You’re a monster!

Shut up, Iziol.

Horatio’s reaper appeared from the gaping hole in the tower and latched onto the man’s back. To Dimas’ eyes, reapers were small wyverns--winged and dragon-headed, but with only two legs and a double-barbed fishtail.

Dimas never stopped moving and fired off a series of gravity bullets that Horatio couldn’t see until he’d already been riddled with bloody holes. Another moment may have been enough to finish him off right then and there, but an explosion caught Dimas square in the chest and sent him spiraling off course with an impressive hole in his vest. His raincoat flapped wildly as he brought himself to a hard stop in mid-air. He could feel a rib out of place, but the vest had more or less done its job. Pity it could only take one hit, though.

That’s what you get for attacking first.

Iziol, please--

I sense more approaching. I believe it is time for us to go harass some other part of the castle.

That information, Dimas could appreciate.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Page 849

Dimas soared up high again. He could already see the clouds beginning to crowd back in on the hole he’d made. It would only be about half an hour until he needed to make it again, he knew.

He started plummeting back down toward the castle another time, gathering gravity around both hands and then combining them into one.

Uh, Dimas, that might be a little too much...

Dimas propelled himself even faster than freefall, veered horizontally along the top of the rock, and then barreled into it with both hands, releasing the gravitic force upon impact.

He tore through the rock like cardboard, gouging out a small valley of crumbling stone. He swooped back up into the sky to inspect his work.

Iziol sighed. ‘I really need to teach you how to find the happy medium in things.’

Dimas moved closer to the craggy scar. Impressive as it was, it still hadn’t made that much of a dent in Marshrock. The upper rock was so thick that the attack hadn’t even broken through to a chamber or hallway.

I sense someone close,’ said Iziol. ‘Eastern tower. Someone just exited.

He turned and saw the man on the highest balcony there. Dimas recognized the flat face and pug nose from the picture he’d seen earlier. Horatio Blackburn.

The man shouted up at Dimas, exuberant enough to easily be heard over the bracing wind, “Could I ask you to kindly stop attacking my home?!”

Dimas let Iziol handle the response.

We would love to do that for you! Just as soon as you release your hostages!

Horatio gave a lame shrug. “I’m afraid that’s not my call!” The man’s friendly smile was entirely out of place, given the circumstances, and it reminded Dimas of a certain loud-mouthed Redwater. A loud-mouthed Redwater who had better still be alive. “Even so, I would really like to avoid fighting you!” said Horatio. “So I’m not going to attack first! I’m just going to stand here and hope that you go in peace, amergo!”

And they waited--Dimas hovering above and looking down, while Horatio only stood there and steadily met his gaze with a wide grin.

Oi,’ said Iziol privately. ‘I wasn’t prepared for politeness.’ A beat passed. ‘In fact, this is worse than being attacked. This is diabolical.

...Are you ordering me to stand down?

Agh. No.

...So I should attack him, then?

No!

Iziol...

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Page 848

Dimas reached the clouds and stopped. He saw more electricity crackling within that dark fog, brewing up another bolt.

This was the first objective. His troops didn’t need the added distraction of a lightning storm, and the underground units would no doubt appreciate a break from the rain while they worked.

He gathered his power into his hand and punched a hole straight up through the clouds. Then his gravity bomb went off. Space bubbled and distorted as gravitic force gathered and then suddenly reversed outward, sending a visible shock wave horizontally through the sky and dispersing all clouds for at least a kilometer in each direction.

Sunlight poured through the opening, lighting up the city below and making its many domed buildings glisten. He could see the rain still falling like a curtain all around the hole he’d made.

The spectacle signaled the beginning of the assault for his comrades.

He released the orb of gravity around himself and plummeted into freefall, straight back down toward Marshrock’s looming form. When he drew near enough, he pulled up and soared around the castle’s upper reaches for a clearer view of its exterior.

Can you sense the Elroy children?’ said Dimas.

No,’ said Iziol. ‘Melchor empowered the rock with his soul. I can’t tell where anyone inside it is.

What if I make a hole?

It’d have to be a pretty big hole. Bigger than you’d be able to make, most likely. There’s a reason Marshrock isn’t just a pile of rubble after all these years.’

A part of Dimas wondered about that, but another part knew that this was not the time to be putting his pride to the test. ‘Not a big hole, then. Many small ones.

That might work. You are going to piss off a lot of people, though.

That is the job, is it not?

So it is. But do be careful.

He swooped down lower, just above a suspended extension on the western side. He mustered a gravitational bubble around his right hand. It pulsated, and he knew it was ready. He drew up close to the protruding tower and slammed his fist through it with force enough to make the entire extension crumble.

He’d been prepared to catch any hapless personnel that had been inside and take them hostage, but none had been there. Instead, he saw that the corridor that led into the rock had already been sealed off.

I know I said small, but you’ll have to do better than that,’ said Iziol.

Dimas hovered there a moment. ‘...Very well, then.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Page 847 -- XCVII.

--BELATED donation bonus (day 6/7, page 2/3)--
The meeting didn’t last much longer after that. Hector returned the Elroys’ pictures but was able to hold onto the enemy intel. Lord Dimas was the first out the door, immediately followed by his mother.

Qorvass had another question for Abel. ‘Are you sure it was wise to task your own son with harassing the enemy? It’s probably the most dangerous job you could have given him, no?

Lord Abel nodded. “Dimas may be my son, but he is already stronger than I am. I have complete confidence in him.”


Chapter Ninety-Seven: ‘The Siege of Marshrock...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

At this distance, Marshrock was a hulking lump on the dark horizon. Dimas could hardly make it out, excepting only when lightning flashed and lit up the entirety of Luzo.

He adjusted the hood of his long raincoat, ensuring it was snug enough to hold his front-brimmed helmet in place and keep the rain out of his eyes. He knew that he’d also have to compensate for the added weight of his heavy combat boots and aramid fiber vest. Truthfully, he would’ve preferred to just wear his usual suit and tie, but his mother wouldn’t allow it.

Technically, he was wearing clothes that she had personally prepared for him. He supposed that was one way to feel young again.

Are you sure you don’t want to take anyone with you?’ asked Iziol.

Yes,’ said Dimas. There were a variety of abilities that could achieve flight, but some had an easier time of it than others, and even fewer had his level of control. Instead, he had already ordered Lorenzo Delaguna and cousin Carlos to begin their assault after he completed the first objective.

His boots lifted gently off the rooftop, and Iziol grabbed onto his back. He strengthened his entire body with his soul, flexed his folded arms, breathed deep and fully exhaled, and then rocketed off into the sky.

Marshrock wasn’t that far, so there was no need to break the sound barrier. His view of the enormous fortress soon became much clearer. It really was a giant boulder with a few towers poking out from the top.

For the moment, he was not concerned with the castle itself. Instead, he turned upward and climbed toward the clouds. Lightning flashed again, only this time, it hit him.

This was expected. He was prepared for the impact with an invisible field of concentrated gravity. And yet, it still wasn’t enough to trivialize the lightning. The sheer force of it knocked him off course, making him stagger in the air as electricity surged all through his body. After a moment, however, he regained his composure and kept climbing.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Page 846

Asad handed one of the folders off to Hector, who began sifting through it. There were many more names than the ones that Lady Amaya had just listed. Most had mug shots to go along with them, and about half had full bios, including breakdowns of their abilities as well as what they were known to be capable of with said abilities.

Hector stared at the pages like they were goddamn treasure maps. He wasn’t accustomed to knowing this much about the enemy prior to battle, but he certainly welcomed the change. He held a page up for himself and another for Garovel as he poured through the intel. He wished he’d been allowed to look at these files yesterday.

Do you have pictures of the Elroy children?’ asked Garovel.

“Yes, of course.” Amaya retrieved a much smaller stack of photos from her briefcase and handed them off to Hector. “Bear in mind, these were all taken about a year ago. Also, I will need them back before you leave.”

Hector understood. The Elroys seemed to be in rather high demand around here. No doubt, Lady Amaya didn’t want their images spread around. And indeed, Hector could see why. They all seemed to share the same black hair and harsh bone structure, not to mention the same hard gaze. He wondered if Rainlords considered it improper to smile when having their pictures taken.

Amaya pointed at three of the five faces. “These are the ones we’re looking for. However, this girl here--” She picked out the apparent middle child. “--Emiliana Elroy, she is Chergoa’s servant, and she now has four small horns on her face and claws on her left hand. She may be wearing a black mask if you see her.”

Ah,’ said Garovel. ‘Mutation user?

“Yes.”

Hector lingered on Emiliana’s picture. The servant of Garovel’s sister. How strange. It was as if he were looking at a long lost relative or something. He tilted his head and reevaluated the other four faces.

All through his childhood, his only family had been his mom and dad. No aunts or uncles or grandparents. Maybe this was what it felt like to have cousins. Sort of. Still kinda weird, seeing as they were all white people.

In any case, he tried to burn their faces into his mind. He knew Garovel would remember for him, but this struck him as important enough to warrant the extra effort.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Page 845

The Lady Sebolt placed a briefcase on the table. “The Blackburns have kept to themselves in recent years, so it is possible that they have combatants we do not know about. However, it is a fairly safe assumption that our most powerful opponent will be Melchor, or Darktide, as he is sometimes called. I’m sure you have all heard of him, but here are pictures for anyone who does not know what he looks like.” She pulled out a stack of photographs and handed them around. “If nothing else, please ensure that all of your subordinates know this man’s face. His power is mercury transfiguration, but even if you believe that you have an elemental advantage over him, DO NOT attempt to engage him unless Xuan is with you.”

Garovel chose to interject. ‘Pardon my ignorance, but how old is this Melchor?

It’s been 104 years since he was resurrected,’ said Xuan’s reaper. This one’s name was Duvoss, as Hector recalled.

Holy fuck,’ said Garovel privately, coinciding with Hector’s bulging eyes. Then publicly, the reaper asked, ‘What about you, Xuan? If you don’t mind saying, that is.

Xuan made as if to answer, but then paused and deferred to his reaper.

Duvoss shook his skeletal head. ‘Xuan is 106.’

Xuan frowned and scratched his cheek. “Damn. Are you sure about that?”

Quite.

“Shit, I’m old.” He only had a few age lines on his face that Hector could see.

Garovel had still another question for him. ‘In a straight fight, are you confident you could defeat him?

“Not at all. It could go either way.”

Lord Abel exhaled audibly. “Xuan, please don’t be quite so candid with our troops.”

“Yeah, yeah. Morale and all that jazz. I know my role.”

Abel’s flat stare did not imply an abundance of faith in the man.

Lady Amaya picked up where she had left off. “In addition to Darktide, the Blackburns have several other combatants of which everyone should be aware. Ismael and Nere are of course quite powerful, as they are the heads of House Blackburn, but according to our information, they have no children of their own.” She started handing out folders with personal profiles. “Instead, House Blackburn’s impressive numbers are attributed to its many branches. On the battlefield, other Blackburns to watch out for include Fidel, Silvia, Pilar, Tomas, Horatio, and Sabas. Any of them could rip through our forces if we fail to keep them in check.”

Friday, October 3, 2014

Page 844

The Lord Abel Sebolt looked over the gathering of servants around his empty table. “Is everyone here, then? Good, let’s begin.” He gestured with one hand, opening his palm, and suddenly the table was no longer empty. A metal rock stood upon it, and it took Hector a moment to realize that it must have been a miniature replica of Marshrock. Abel added a few ant-sized people next to it for scale.

Even as he continued listening to Abel speak, he had to admire the precision of the replica. It had tiny windows and balconies and even courtyards and motionless flags. He had no clue how accurate of a representation it actually was, but as a fellow materialization user, he was duly impressed.

“Given the circumstances that brought about this conflict, we must assume that the enemy is fully prepared to receive us,” said Lord Abel. “With our current strength considered, a direct assault on Marshrock has an unknowable outcome, but it would most likely result in the greatest number of casualties for both sides. Therefore, we will be taking a slower approach.

“Our first objective is to construct a soul net. We will organize into three teams headed by myself, Salvador, and Asad. Xuan will remain in a neutral position so that he may rush to the aid of any team that becomes targeted by Melchor. In the meantime, Dimas, I want you to harass the enemy aboveground in order to keep them occupied.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Do not commit to a prolonged attack or attempt to infiltrate the castle,” said Abel. “If you see an opening in their defenses, the opponent is most likely trying to lure you into a trap. Make that clear to anyone you choose to take with you.”

“Understood,” said Dimas.

“Radio coms will be distributed to everyone for observational support. You will also receive physical maps and itineraries in case the enemy employs signal jammers. As for the net, I expect we will be able to complete construction within two-to-three days. Afterwards, we will begin putting true pressure on the castle and seek to infiltrate. Questions?”

Qorvass spoke up. ‘Do you have a list of all known enemy combatants with their corresponding abilities and estimated threat level?

“My wife will be handling that topic next,” said Abel. “Are there any questions concerning our immediate strategy?” He waited, but there were none. He took a step back from the table and motioned to Amaya.

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Yes,’ said Qorvass. ‘It’s no longer so extreme as that, but an underlying reverence for their abilities is still very much alive. Even now that Asad and Zeff are older, they often have unfair expectations placed upon them.

“Unfair?” said Hector.

To simultaneously lead their people and yet also abide by the wishes of their elders,’ said Qorvass. ‘But that is just one example. Other times, people simply expect them to be more powerful or influential than they are. In some ways, Asad’s power is more of a burden than an advantage. Not that I’m complaining.

Hector began to wonder what abilities their other new comrades might possess, but he couldn’t find an opening in the conversation to ask Qorvass about them. Garovel probably had it under control, though. Both of the reapers seemed interested in exchanging information, so Hector figured it was only a matter of time before the subject came up. However, after a while, Garovel addressed Hector privately.

Hey, why aren’t you asleep yet?

Uh...

Garovel tapped him on the head. ‘Here.’

And he was out. He plunged into a warm darkness, devoid of thought and worry. When he awoke, his body briefly argued with him before Garovel pulled that away, too.

They’d already arrived in Luzo, he discovered. Dark clouds filled the sky, but according to Garovel, it was past dawn. Apparently, a select group of Rainlords had gone ahead and forged a safe path to the city for the rest of them. That must have been a dangerous job. He wondered who’d done it.

Luzo’s covered walkways offered protection from the pouring rain, though not from the booming crash of thunder in the sky. The lightning was so close that the resultant sonic boom left windows rattling in its wake. For a second, Hector thought he was about to encounter Karkash again, but that wasn’t the case. The thunderstorm was natural. This region of Sair was known to experience them rather frequently, Garovel explained.

Hector followed the Najirs to another meeting, this time in a tall office building overlooking a river. It seemed there were no civilians around to object to the property seizure.

The Rainlords were waiting for them inside. Hector had already met the seven servants here back at Rheinhal, though only briefly. The Lords Abel, Xuan, Dimas, and Lady Amaya all belonged to House Sebolt, while House Delaguna was represented by Lord Salvador, Lord Alejo, and Lady Elba.

That was about all Hector could remember. He would definitely need to rely on Garovel in order to tell all their reapers apart.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

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A few of the bridges that they used had small settlements attached to them--quaint houses clustered around pit stops or refueling stations, even the occasional odd-looking tree. And in the areas where there was currently no flooding, Hector could often see wharfs or boathouses in the muddy grass, tied to the bridges via long chains and cables.

Bridge maintenance must have been a pretty popular and steady job around here, he figured.

Soon, night arrived. Knowing that they wouldn’t be near Luzo until almost morning, the Najirs decided to rest up while they could. Hector was of a mind to do the same, but he had a bit of trouble falling asleep in spite of how exhausted he felt.

He had ample company in Garovel and Qorvass, though. Jada and Imas’ reapers were off elsewhere, perhaps scouting or talking to people in other cars, and Axiolis had decided to remain in Rheinhal, as that was where his servant was.

Do you mind telling us what Asad’s ability is?’ asked Garovel. ‘It seems we’ll be fighting together after all. Hector’s is iron materialization, in case Sazandara didn’t tell you.

Ah. Asad’s is also materialization. In fact, he is probably the most powerful materializer among the Sandlords.

Hector eyed the tattooed man’s sleeping face. He’d figured Asad was crazy strong, but still.

I’m glad he’s on our side, then,’ said Garovel. ‘What is his element?

Not an element,’ said Qorvass. ‘A compound. Silicon and oxygen together.

Oh! Quite the rare servant you have.

Heh. Indeed.

If I’m not mistaken, that’s an inherited power, isn’t it? Unique to the Sandlords?

It is. And you might say that it’s also why we’re even here in the first place.

How so?

Zeff Elroy inherited the unique compound of the Rainlords. Hydrogen and oxygen together. I highly doubt Asad and Zeff would have become friends if either of them had different powers. When they were younger, they were both treated rather specially, which is an experience not many people can relate to.

“W-what does that mean?” Hector asked. “‘Treated specially?’”

They were the “darlings” of their respective peoples,’ said Qorvass. ‘You see, their abilities aren’t just strong. They have immense cultural importance. They are seen as confirmations of their bloodlines.

A couple thousand years ago, their powers would have granted them the right to rule over all their brethren,’ said Garovel, ‘and the public would have viewed them as divine beings.