Sunday, November 30, 2014

Page 892

It was like watching a bull facing down a trio of wolves. The three Blackburns were attacking him in unison with minimal effectiveness, due to the Lord Delaguna’s passive defenses combined with his cobalt transfiguration. However, they did have one destruction user, who finally managed to hit Salvador’s metallic shoulder. Cobalt burst apart into a thousand brittle chips, but scarcely a moment passed before it regenerated, allowing Salvador to charge forward undeterred. The destruction user was forced to retreat sideways so that the other two Blackburns could buy him time to avoid being flattened.

Hector couldn’t tell if Salvador actually needed help or not, but he wasn’t going to wait and find out. He dove in shield-first and materialized a pillar beneath the destruction user, knocking the mustachioed man off balance. Hector swung his sword vertically, looking to lop the man’s arm off, but instead, the iron blade only cut partially through the armpit before snapping in half.

The man, whom he now recognized as Tomas Blackburn, did not look pleased. Tomas brought a meaty hand around to use his ability, and Hector wrenched away in time to lose an arm instead of his head. The heater shield endured a pummeling and went flying out of Hector’s shredded grasp.

Hector didn’t let the loss slow him down, though. He discarded his busted sword, wrapped his good arm around Tomas’ half-severed one, and pulled with all his strength. The appendage popped right off in a cloud of blood, and Hector clobbered Tomas in the face with the man’s own soul-strengthened bicep in one smooth motion. Tomas went toppling backward, and Hector moved to recover his shield, which had nearly finished restoring itself to perfect condition already.

When he looked back toward Lord Salvador, he found the man overpowering his two opponents. Tomas was scrambling back into position, but it was already too late. A huge hand found one of their heads and tore it off as if nothing had been holding it in place. The other Blackburn retreated, and when Tomas arrived again, Salvador put him through the wall.

Maybe we should help someone else,’ advised Garovel.

Hector looked around the foyer and saw that everyone was quite occupied, apart from him. The frenzied collision of smoke and liquid metal in the middle of the room made the very air shudder, but he couldn’t even remotely tell if one of them was winning.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Page 891

As Xuan eyed the apparent gunman, he burst into a laugh that had the deep rumble of a man thrice his size. “I’ve never had the honor--no, the pleasure--of meeting House Blackburn in real battle. And seeing as you’ve refused every chance at clemency, I hope--” He paused, perhaps to see if someone was going to shoot him again. “--I hope you won’t disappoint me. I haven’t had any good mayhem in a while, and I hate when my opponents die too quickly.”

That made Hector blink, along with everyone else in the room--including Melchor, Salvador, and even Dimas, the Seadevil’s own cousin.

They did not have long to be surprised, however.

Xuan and Duvoss chose that opportunity to converge. In an instant, the little Rainlord’s body disappeared within a column of white smoke, billowing up and out in a way unlike any smoke Hector had ever seen.

And chaos erupted. Gunfire rang out from all around, as did the piping reverberations of destruction users, and Hector decided that staying in one place was a bad idea.

Stay close to Asad,’ Garovel told him coolly.

Hector concurred. The lone Sandlord launched up to the second floor’s gallery amidst a flurry of bullets, explosions, and shattering quartz, and Hector followed.

Their first opponent, Hector recognized straight away. That was the face of Ismael Blackburn, Lord of Marshrock. The man’s file said his ability was potassium transfiguration, which now manifested in the violet flames leaping from Ismael’s body and shooting toward Asad like a volley of arrows.

Rather than stopping the flames with a wall, Asad doused them completely with a blanket of sand, allowing Hector to push closer with shield and materialized spear in hand.

Ismael severed a forearm and retreated, and Hector certainly did not need to be told why.

The shield took the explosion well, though the force still sent Hector flying. He grabbed the guardrail to catch himself, but it snapped right off and came with him, all the way to the other side of the chamber where his armored body left an impressive crack in the far wall.

For a second, he didn’t know where Garovel was, and then he realized that the reaper had somehow wriggled into his armor and latched onto his back. ‘Er--you okay in there?

It’s actually quite cozy,’ said Garovel. ‘Wish I’d thought of this earlier. Careful on your right.

Lord Salvador was there, dealing with three Blackburns all by himself.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Page 890

Hector saw the other man standing there on the second floor, watching them from over the hefty guardrail. “Hello, Seadevil. And company.”

“I see you have decided not to ambush us,” said Xuan. “That is appreciated.”

“I figured you would want to talk,” said Melchor.

Xuan chortled. “I’m surprised that you would.”

“I am in no hurry.”

Dimas took a step forward. “Only to tell us more lies, I imagine.”

Melchor made no response.

Xuan picked up the slack. “How’s about we stop all this nonsense, eh? Return the Elroy kids to us, and we’ll leave you alone.”

“I doubt that,” said Melchor. “I’m sure you have pressing questions now that would keep you here, regardless. Not that it makes a difference. I cannot give you the children.”

“Why not?” asked Xuan.

“I cannot tell you.”

Xuan pursed his lips. “Are you sure? Because I really hate having to fight scary guys like you.”

“Same old Xuan. I always did enjoy your ability to speak plainly. I would prefer to avoid this as well, if I am honest.”

“Then why are we doing this?”

“Because your loved ones wish to hurt my loved ones,” said Melchor.

Xuan frowned. “I don’t think that’s quite right.”

“Unfortunately, it is.”

Why can’t you tell us?’ asked Duvoss. ‘There must be a reason.

“Of course there is. And I cannot tell that to you, either.”

Several more people entered the foyer from the second and third floors. Hector recognized some of the faces from the photographs Lady Amaya had shown everyone.

Nine new souls,’ Garovel told him privately. ‘Melchor makes ten. I also sense the woman from the other day.

Hector remembered her. The cesium materializer, Silvia Blackburn. Already, Hector was wondering how much use he would be in this fight. He felt Asad touch his left pauldron and realized the man had soul-strengthened his armor for him again. He gave the Sandlord a grateful nod.

Lord Xuan pulled off his small coat and began rolling up his sleeves. “Well, then, if that’s how it’s going to be, then I hope--”

A gunshot cut him off, and Hector saw Xuan’s head twitch and heard the ping of the bullet’s ricochet. Xuan looked up to their right, but rather than looking up as well, Hector noticed the tiny bruise on the Seadevil’s temple where the bullet had struck him.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Page 889

Hector hadn’t wanted Garovel to join them on the mission, but the reaper insisted on it.

It’s fine,’ Garovel had said. ‘If we find Chergoa, I need to be there to talk to her; otherwise, she won’t know she can trust you.

I could just tell her I’m your servant.

Could you, Hector? Could you really?

...Y-yeah. I mean, probably.

Well, even so, I’m sure you’ll have need of my observational support.

Hector couldn’t tell if Garovel was being brave or stupid, but he knew that he didn’t have much room to argue about it. He wasn’t exactly an expert on how much value one should place upon one’s own life.

The group proceeded on, making slow progress. With the stony walls all soul-empowered, the reapers couldn’t sense where the enemy would be coming from, so they had to be cautious each time they entered a new room. Hector consulted one of the maps he’d been given and noticed they were coming up on a large complex of rooms which had been collectively marked as a foyer. It seemed to be the center of transit in this area, bearing two staircases, two elevators, a pair of bathrooms, and connecting three major hallways and a massive auditorium.

And when they approached its double doors, they found that the foyer’s lights were still on.

Xuan waddled through them without much care, and everyone followed.

With only Xuan’s exceptionally modest stature ahead of him, Hector got a clear view of the room. Spacious was the first word for it, bearing rectangular chambers on the first floor and staircases that led up to a second and third. Ornate was the second word, though perhaps not in the conventional sense. Polished rock was the theme of this place. The floor, the walls, the stairs, the guardrails, the chandeliers, even some of the furniture had been constructed from stone. The handful of chairs and sofas at least had darkly green cushions to go along with them, but it truly seemed like stone was utilized in every conceivable manner, save only where sheer practicality required otherwise.

The room reminded him of Warrenhold, actually--like what Warrenhold might have looked like in an earlier era, all furnished and obviously cared for. The only real difference to Hector’s eyes was that the shadowy stone still didn’t have quite the same pitch blackness that nightrock did.

Xuan stopped abruptly. “Ah. There you are, Darktide.”

Monday, November 24, 2014

Page 888

None of the Rainlords seemed to realize that Hector’s resilience was all the shield’s doing, but Garovel wanted to keep it that way, lest they decide that they needed it more than he did. Asad might have known of its power, being the crafter’s brother, but if he did, he wasn’t saying anything.

And so here Hector was, having somehow lied his way into a situation where no one in their right mind would want to be. He felt like the most ridiculous member of their party, too, clad in full plate armor that clinked every time he moved, while everyone else hardly even bothered with bulletproof vests. At least it wasn’t a mission that required stealth.

Their purpose here was to draw Melchor’s attention so that Lord Abel and the rest of their forces would have time to rush in and seize the castle. If they defeated Melchor, then that would mean instant victory, since no one else would be able to stand against Lord Xuan; but even if they somehow lost, Lord Abel’s forces would have already gone through and neutralized enough of the other Blackburns that they could simply focus on the weakened Melchor and overwhelm him with numbers.

As far as plans went, Hector thought Lady Amaya had come up with a pretty solid one.

The first corridor they found was completely dark. Lord Xuan lifted a burning hand and illuminated the way forward with a greenish light. At first, it only flickered faintly, and then it became bright enough to reveal even the high ceiling.

Is that really necessary?’ said Duvoss. ‘You have a flashlight, you know.

“Yeah, but how often do I get to use my glowy powers to actual effect?”

You’re hurting your hand for no reason.

“You’ll fix it for me, won’t you?”

Use your bloody flashlight before you fill the air with toxic smoke.

“C’mon, I have more control than that.”

Lord Dimas intervened. “I do smell garlic...”

“Really? Shit!” Xuan’s hand dimmed suddenly and flailed up and down, apparently having trouble undoing his own work. “Eek! Ow! Ah...! Whew... that was close...” In total darkness again, there came a clearing of a throat, and Xuan’s flashlight clicked on. “Not to worry, everyone. I meant to do that.”

Hector no longer felt the most ridiculous. ‘I don’t want to be rude, but... this guy is our ace in the hole?

I... I’m sure we’ll be fine,’ said Garovel privately.

Qorvass and the others looked similarly dubious, however.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Page 887 -- CI.

“Even if they did show mercy, Ibai would still be executed,” said Ismael. “As would you and I.”

I would be surprised if they let any of our reapers live,’ said Rholtam. ‘The non-servants might be spared, but they would be shunned for the rest of their lives and no longer be allowed to hold office in this country. Letting our House retain any power would just be asking our people to betray them the next time they were vulnerable.

“I believe you are right.”

That sounds like a decision to me.

“No surrender.”

Then let us see this through to the bitter end.

And as if on cue, another reaper entered the Hall. It was Orric. ‘The enemy has breached the castle,’ he informed them. ‘Xuan Sebolt is leading their infiltration team, so Melchor and I will have to confront him. Your assistance would be most appreciated.

Ismael stood.


Chapter One Hundred One: ‘The clash of Tide and Sea...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Hector climbed through the gaping hole in the rock that Lord Dimas had made for their group. They were entering through the front. The intention was to be noticed, after all.

With Xuan at the head of their party, Asad bringing up the rear, and Dimas and Salvador on either side, Hector was in awe of the power that surrounded him. These men were the strongest members of their respective houses, so it was a little intimidating, accompanying them to battle like this.

He had to keep his wits about him, though. There was a reason why it was only the five of them on this mission. They fully expected to face Melchor Blackburn, and according to Dimas’ father, combatants without the requisite soul defenses would only be a liability against the man.

Hector had figured that would disqualify him and Garovel from participating, but Garovel did not seem to agree. Instead, Garovel insisted on joining and even told everyone that Hector would be able to hold his own just fine.

Are you crazy?!’ Hector had said. ‘Don’t tell them that!

Relax. You’ve got that shield of super-cheating, remember?

This piece of shit isn’t gonna save me!

You don’t think so?

No!

Well, let’s see if you’re right, then.

Garovel, what the fuck?!

Thanks to that, Lord Salvador had tested Hector personally. Which had been terrifying. But in the end, the shield did its job. Salvador hadn’t been able to hurt Hector and so did not object to the young Lord Goffe’s company.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Page 886

He does not know what to think. The Rainlords have been wounded many times in the past, but the massacre of House Elroy is undoubtedly the greatest scar of his lifetime. The losses in his own family a mere seven years prior pale in comparison and only serve to deepen his sympathy for what the young Zeff and Joana are going through.

And he played a part in it.

The guilt twists his stomach into knots. The shame rips his heart in half. And he can do nothing to mend them. If he confesses his involvement, the other Rainlords will learn of Ibai’s existence. His family will fall to ruin. Parson Miles assures him of that. Only silence will protect his blood.

Years pass.

He observes with disgust and haunting dread as Parson is promoted to the rank of captain general. He is only glad that it means Parson will be leaving Sair.

A small measure of relief arrives when Cousin Melchor returns to Marshrock. After all this time, the man has finally achieved vengeance for their House.

He is fearful that Melchor will leave again--or worse, consider him a traitor for what he has done. But this is not a secret he can keep from the man. If he tried to, Melchor would never forgive him when he inevitably found out. So he explains everything.

And Cousin Melchor consoles him.

Of all the possible reactions, that was the last one he expected. It is enough to make him weep. He could not possibly be any more grateful for his cousin’s return than he is in this moment...

Ismael blinked slowly as his mind came back to the present. The memories still weighed on him, on his soul. They wanted him to quit, to surrender and just let whatever happens happen. It was so tempting.

I’m tired, too, you know.’

The reaper’s heavy tone pulled Ismael out of his daze.

Don’t act like you’re the only one,’ said Rholtam. ‘I’ve been right there with you the whole time. Your sorrow is my sorrow, Ismael. Your guilt is my guilt. And your worry--certainly, your worry is mine, too.

Ismael only nodded.

But our feelings don’t matter now,’ said Rholtam. ‘It’s time to stop being indecisive. If you intend to surrender, you can’t put it off any longer.

“Do you think surrendering would make a difference? Once they know the complete truth, do you think they would be merciful?”

It’s... possible, but...

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Page 885

For a time, he does not believe what he is hearing. It is true that, even as his superior, Parson could not have gotten away with simply labeling the matter “classified” as long as it involved Rainlord territory, but even still, this is more than absurd. That such an old friend would threaten his family while they are so vulnerable is a betrayal beyond anything he has ever experienced.

But all the same, he does what Parson asks in the end. An international road is left unguarded for a single evening. It only connects Sair and Intar. He cannot imagine what need Parson would have of it. Vanguardian troops can already move between the two countries with relatively little difficulty. Perhaps Parson intended to move such a large volume of people that taking them through the proper channels might have spooked the other Rainlords. But if that was truly the case, then why would Parson not simply tell him so?

Then the news arrives.

House Elroy has been slaughtered. Only a pair of teenagers have survived.

And he realizes. This is no coincidence.

He contacts Parson immediately.

“I advise you not to say anything,” Parson tells him. “Else you may find yourself shouldering the blame for their deaths.”

“Parson... What did you do, exactly?”

“Again, I’ll thank you for your discretion, as long as you’ll thank me for mine.”

He can pull no more information out of the general. He learns from the other Rainlords that Abolish was the culprit, but they are all disturbed and bewildered by how such an apparently large and dangerous sect of Abolish could infiltrate Sair undetected.

And he finds himself faced with a choice. Remain silent or risk telling them what he knows.

It tears his heart out, but he and Rholtam decide to say nothing. They believe that, with how little they know of Parson’s plot, even telling the other Rainlords a “version” of the truth would likely blow up in their faces. They must not attract attention.

Thankfully, the other Rainlords discover a lead on the Abolishers, anyway. His House helps hunt them down while Ibai is kept under guard at Marshrock. The hunt ends abruptly and with little satisfaction when they find that the Abolishers have already been obliterated. Their severed heads have all been put on gruesome display. He later asks in private, but unsurprisingly, Parson does not claim responsibility.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Page 884

Ibai is a difficult child, to say the very least, but they are managing him. Really, the boy just needs entertainment and supervision--but those two needs are constant. It becomes clear that Ibai is unfit to be the House’s heir. They attempt to have a second child, but it is thus far proving fruitless.

He appoints Cousin Horatio as the new heir as a precaution. It is unfortunate, of course, and he does not tell Horatio of his decision, but he can at least rest easy in the knowledge that Horatio is a man of admirable, if curious, intelligence and fortitude. It should really be Cousin Melchor, he feels; but he has no idea where that man is, and even if he did, Melchor had already refused the role of leadership before and doubtless would again should the time ever come.

They reach out to Parson Miles once more. They aim to apologize for being so brusque with him before and hope that he has learned more about aberrations in the intervening years. Parson sends word, saying that he was planning to visit them soon, anyway.

When he arrives, however, he does not seem very interested in helping them with Ibai. Instead, he requires a favor of his own. “As Lord of Marshrock, you oversee the Northwestern Border Guard, do you not?”

“I do. Why?”

“On the fifteenth of next month, could I trouble you to give your guardsmen the night off?”

“What ever for?”

“I have some friends who need to get into the country.”

“What sort of friends would need to sneak past the Border Guard?”

“The sort you would be better off not asking questions about,” says Parson.

He narrows his eyes. “Excuse me?”

“Ismael, I come to you with this because it is a matter that requires discretion, which I know to be one of your strong points.”

“I understand that, but even so, I am afraid I must know more about these people if I am to help you smuggle them into my homeland. And the way you speak of them does them no service in my imagination.”

Parson’s youthful smile wanes. “Well then, this is awkward, because I can’t tell you anything else about them.”

“Then I cannot help you.”

“But you can. And you will. Or would you like the rest of your kin to know about your son?”

And there it is. The fa├žade drops at last, though they do not yet know the extent of it.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Page 883

Five years transpire.

Ibai is found clutching a dead cat in his sleep. The animal has been mutilated. Ibai is covered in its blood.

They are not sure how--or even IF--they should punish him. In spite of their shock and dread, they attempt to approach this rationally. They decide to speak with the boy first.

“Do you understand what you did, mijoro?”

Ibai smiles eagerly. “Yes, Papa! I killed him!”

And they come to realize that, at the age of five, Ibai possesses a concept of death. The boy already knows that life can end, despite never having had it explained to him.

Nor does it frighten him in the least. Instead, Ibai chooses to ask, “What is death like, Papa? Will I be able to die soon?”

“Death is not something to look forward to, mijoro.”

“Why not?”

“Because life is precious. In fact, it is the most precious thing in the world. Do you understand? Ibai, what you did, taking that cat’s life, was
wrong. You must not do it again.”

Ibai returns a curious look. “But I
wanted to do it, Papa. Why would I want to do it if it was wrong?”

They have a hard time answering such a strange question. “Just because you want to do something does not make it acceptable,” says Nere.

It takes a while for Ibai to comprehend that, and even after the boy claims to, they are not wholly convinced that he does.

Moreover, they come to learn that, despite knowing about death, the boy possesses no concept of pain. It seems he has never felt it before. They must endeavor to teach it to him. It will serve as his punishment, they decide.

Their efforts backfire. Ibai does not mind pain at all. Rather, it seems to only make him happier.

An incredibly disturbing discovery, it is. They begin to see that Parson may have been correct. But they will not give up on Ibai. That is unthinkable.

They devise an alternate means of punishment. Isolation and boredom. After only one taste--alone in a soundproof chamber with nothing to do for a mere fifteen minutes--Ibai proves much more agreeable. They have found something he genuinely fears. They must use this tool carefully in order to guide his behavior in the proper direction.

And for the most part, it seems to work. It is worrisome, yes, and certainly requiring patience, but Ibai appears to learn that he must not hurt others.

Page 882

By all accounts, he appears to be a normal baby, save only for that muddy shadow. After a week, the shadow begins to come and go at seemingly random intervals, twirling up from his tiny head and fingers and toes, only to vanish like smoke. At a glance, it could almost pass for some type of odd hair.

Then, Parson Miles arrives. As the current head of all Vanguardian forces in Sair, he has been a valued comrade and friend of the family for many years, especially after their most recent tragedy.

“Your son is what we call an aberration,” says Parson. He is normally jovial. He is not so now.

Knowledge of aberrations is still a top-level secret within the Vanguard, but given the family’s unique circumstances, Overra says they will make an exception.

And so Parson explains at length. Ibai is a monster in human form. How these monsters are created is yet unknown, but it involves Abolish in some way. Aberrations exhibit powers that are otherworldly, even by servant standards. And they grow more powerful by consuming souls. They are deadly beings. Ibai will only bring ruin upon their family.

So it would be best to kill the boy now.

They refuse, of course, and demand that Parson and Overra leave.

“Fine,” says Parson. “We will go. But if you will not kill him, then keep his existence a secret. You will eventually see the truth with your own eyes, and I suspect the rest of the Vanguard will learn about aberrations soon. When that time comes, you will not want them knowing what he is.”

Parson goes in peace, but the seed of doubt is planted.

He and Nere begin to worry about the future of their son. They decide to exercise caution and keep Ibai a secret from everyone outside the family. He orders all branches to return to Luzo. He wants his House brought together.

He explains their circumstances to all of the branch heads. They are all so terribly young. With Melchor gone, he is now the eldest servant by far, and similarly, everyone knows that Rholtam is one of the most ancient and loyal reapers in the family. As a pair, their age affords them both a certain reverence that helps them gather everyone’s favor; and in the long lingering and still deeply felt aftermath of their most recent losses, he has never seen his House so united and comforting as it is now.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Page 881

Suddenly on the cusp of fatherhood. He has never felt this way before. The anticipation, the excitement. It is even more wonderful than he had imagined. He’d thought his line had reached its end, that one of the younger branches would lead the family after he was gone. And it will be a boy, he is told. A son.

This is fate. It must be. He has never much cared to believe in such things until now, but there is no other way of explaining this avalanche of joy. Fate has blessed him after testing his family with hardship.

Nere’s spirits are not quite as high, but he is only too glad to be the doting husband. He wants to do everything. Often, he sends her attendants away so that he can be the one to bring her whatever she desires. It annoys her, sometimes, and she tells him that he should concentrate on his work with the Vanguard; other times, she tells him she was wrong, and she cries as she urges him to stay with her. She is all over the place, even more unpredictable than usual as her hormones play havoc with her body.

And then the day comes. Ibai is born.

The moment he lays eyes on his son, his heart swells with such pride and joy that he can feel the change coming over him. He feels that he is no longer the same man. He is a father now, but it is also more than that, he realizes. He is a father by blood, but he has already been a father in spirit for some time. After the loss of the previous generation and the departure of Melchor, he is the one everyone looks to for answers and guidance. Rholtam has been trying to help him see this all along, and now he understands the depth of his responsibility. Ibai has shown it to him.

However.

Ibai is very strange. It first becomes clear when a doctor attempts to vaccinate him. The needle cannot pierce the boy’s skin. A solid splotch of dark brown appears in its path each time piercing pressure is applied.

And they do not know why. They do not know what Ibai is. But they can tell that the brown shadow is a construct of imaginary power. The boy receives his vaccines with the aid of a soul-empowered needle. They take him home and attempt to understand what makes their son so special.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Page 880

Well, I suppose Parson and Overra could show up earlier than they promised and rescue us,’ said Rholtam. ‘But frankly, I’m not entirely convinced that they intend to show up at all. I’ve never been able to understand what their true goals are. Perhaps we’re just tools that have outlived our usefulness now.

Ismael rubbed his forehead. “That was not what I wanted to hear...”

Now is not the time for lies, old friend.

Ismael only sighed and let his eyes glaze over. The struggle was so exhausting. Perhaps it would be best to just give up already. Perhaps this battle was an inevitable reckoning. No stopping it. Even surrender would achieve the same outcome. Inevitable. Inevitable... And his mind drifted back.

A man. The day of his wedding. He has found the perfect woman. She can be a bit impulsive and unpredictable at times, but he loves that about her. He can hardly believe Nere agreed to marry him. He wishes his parents could have met her. They were both killed just two years prior. Cousin Melchor did not take their deaths well. That poor man has grieved so much for this family, living through the extinguishment of two entire generations. The groom is glad that Cousin Melchor is able to smile on this day.

Bliss does not last long. Cousin Melchor has become a person others fear, a person that even some of his own family fear. Melchor is possessed of an abiding hatred, a need to find everyone responsible for hurting his family in years long past. Melchor leaves both the family and the Vanguard, allowing none to accompany him.

In the meantime, Marshrock knows peace as House Blackburn attempts to rebuild its damaged bloodline. There are many weddings in only a few short years. The family is growing. All except the man’s own.

He and Nere are seemingly unable to have children. Even after multiple work-ups and analysis, doctors tell them the problem is idiopathic. Unexplained infertility, is what they call it.

Years go by without any solutions. Current medicine is of little help. Adoption is not even worth considering. As the primary branch of the family, they require an heir by blood.

For a time, he and Nere are so distraught that they can barely look at one another. With therapy, however, their relationship manages a slow recovery. And just when it seems they are growing closer than ever before, a miracle occurs. Nere is pregnant.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Page 879

He needed to figure out what to do. Protecting the family was his responsibility. Even if Melchor was physically the strongest, Ismael was the one who had to lead the Blackburns away from the ruin that was knocking on their door.

It was such a mess. The whole reason he’d had Melchor bring the Elroy children here was to divide the other Rainlords’ attention and make it easier for Parson to end the siege at Rheinhal quickly. After which, Parson would come to Luzo and help House Blackburn rout the enemy before anyone became the wiser. But now, Ismael doubted Marshrock would hold out that long.

If it had only been Houses Sebolt and Delaguna, then it might have been manageable, but that one extra Sandlord had proven to be the dreaded wrench in this machine. He was the reason they had completed their soul net so quickly. With all the attempts at interference that the Blackburns had been running, it should have taken at least twice as long. But no.

Certainly, it hadn’t been the best plan with Ibai here, but Parson hadn’t given Ismael much choice. If Ibai’s presence were discovered, it would be the end of everything. It would not matter that Ibai had never actually killed anyone before, nor would it matter that Ibai was Ismael’s only child--the only child that he and his wife had ever managed to create in the past thirty-eight years of trying. The other Rainlords would never allow an aberration to live. There were no exceptions. Especially now, after having kept Ibai a secret for so long, after what his family had done in order to keep Ibai a secret.

No, it was much too late to reconcile. The Elroys would want his house to drown in lakefire before the end.

Have you decided yet?’ came Rholtam’s voice with the echo of privacy.

Ismael looked up to see him floating above the center table. To his eyes, the reaper was a pterosaur, glowing faintly gray all over but also with only about a third of its flesh still intact, the rest decaying gorily or just missing altogether. He’d always wondered why his subconscious had chosen to see reapers as undead, extinct flying reptiles. Even taking into account his youth studying paleontology, pterosaurs still seemed like a strange choice. He had more important things on his mind at the moment, however.

“No,” he said aloud, as there was no else in the Hall to hear. “Tell me what I should do, Rholtam. Tell me how this can end well for us.”

Monday, November 10, 2014

Page 878

Lawrence didn’t see the point, though. It was one thing to conceal skill from enemies; it was another to conceal it from allies. But then again, given Parson’s rank, perhaps the right people already knew all they needed to.

Lawrence marveled at how young and stupid he could still feel after all these years. He would have liked to stop being the ignoramus that he knew he’d been in his youth, but it seemed that was not yet to be. Dergoz didn’t have that excuse, though. The reaper had several hundred years on him, which admittedly made him younger than most other reapers, but the point remained. If Dergoz couldn’t see through their ruse, either, then Lawrence didn’t feel quite so bad.

It did give him pause, however. If he could be so thoroughly wrong about Parson, then perhaps he was also wrong to continue holding onto his faith in Sermung. Dergoz and Parson both seemed so certain, and Lawrence knew that--for Dergoz at least--it wasn’t a personal matter, either. Dergoz simply believed Sermung and Tenebrach could no longer handle the burden of leadership. And indeed, Lawrence would be lying if he said he didn’t see some merit in that belief.

But still, it was hard not to worry about what would happen if Sermung ever fell. The Crystal Titan was a name that carried so much weight behind it. In some places, its mere utterance was enough to prevent war. And as long as those other names were out there--names like the Mad Demon, the Living Void, the Monster of the East, and the Salesman of Death--as long as those existed, the Crystal Titan seemed entirely needed. Lawrence could hardly imagine anyone ever being able to step up and fill those enormous shoes.

But he supposed one day, someone would have to.

-+-+-+-+-

Ismael Blackburn sat with his face in his hands. The Black Hall was deep enough into the castle that he could no longer feel the muffled quakes of the battle. He thought it would help him think, coming here, but all it did was make him mindful of the complete silence.

Three days had passed since the siege began. It wouldn’t be much longer now. According to his scouts, the Sebolts and Delagunas had completed their underground net. It was only a matter of time until they launched an assault with their full strength.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Page 877

Dergoz seemed duly hesitant now, though whether it was out of respect, confusion, or fear, Lawrence could not tell. Perhaps all three. ‘What about Sanko? Is she involved in your plan, too?

“No, unfortunately. She remains entirely loyal to Sermung.”

But she could arrive any day now. If she joins the Rainlords against us--

“It won’t come to that.”

How can you be sure?

“You will just have to trust us.”

You have something up your sleeve?

Parson only smiled.

And Lawrence began to realize how wrong he’d been about these two. For as long as he’d known them, Parson and Overra had been the most moronic of all his superior officers. Parson perhaps a little more so than Overra, but still. They’d always been goofball slackers, enjoying themselves just a bit too much for Dergoz’s liking, and Lawrence couldn’t really disagree.

And yet, now that Lawrence was thinking about it, they had been largely successful in most of the missions where he’d worked with them.

No.

There was more to it than that, wasn’t there? By now, he and Dergoz had worked with them dozens upon dozens of times, but Lawrence was struggling to think of an instance when they’d truly failed a mission. Things had certainly gotten messy sometimes, and no doubt, some of the official reports would indicate failure as a result, but that wasn’t the whole truth of it.

Lawrence recalled an incident during the Jungle Wars where Parson lost track of a certain unruly Melmoorian diplomat whom they were supposed to protect. They eventually found the diplomat in an Abolish prison and rescued him. The man was so grateful that he went on to provide the Vanguard with decades of key political support that probably ended up saving Melmoore from the same financial ruin that caused its neighbors to crumble.

Then there was the assassination attempt that should not have succeeded but did anyway, because Parson insisted on an overlong equipment check that morning. They caught hell from Lamont for that screw up, and yet, a few years later, documents surfaced which indicated that the man they let be assassinated had been maintaining secret prison camps for Abolish.

There was always something like that, Lawrence was realizing. Parson would make some mistake, be labeled an idiot for it, and then everyone would forget. Or at least, Lawrence would. Only in retrospect did it become clear that most of those “mistakes” had since been vindicated in some way.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Page 876

Given the accuracy and detail, Lawrence could tell they were not bluffing, but he had to wonder how Parson and Overra knew so much. It didn’t sound like they were members themselves, but even if they were, it wouldn’t explain how they knew that Lawrence and Dergoz were. All members of Lamont’s faction kept their identities hidden, even from one another. Only Lamont himself should’ve known who everyone was. Lawrence wanted to ask as much, but he didn’t know if he should say anything at all. Fortunately, he didn’t have to.

“Your shadow faction was not founded by Lamont,” said Parson. “It was founded via proxy. By us.”

That earned a blink from Lawrence.

“So you see, telling us that you are not members is a bit like trying to sell ice cream to the ice cream man. I am that ice cream man. Incidentally, I really was an ice cream man for a time when I was younger. My favorite flavor was--ah, wait, no. Forget we said that. Um... where were we? Lamont’s faction. That’s right. We founded it in order to give Lamont the support he needs in order to take Sermung’s place. It was important that our involvement be an especially well-kept secret, because at the time of the faction’s inception, we had to take on the even more pivotal role of growing close to Sermung and earning his trust. Which we’ve since accomplished. Soon, Lamont will make his move, and the Vanguard will experience a regime change for the first time in five hundred years. Exciting, no?”

Lawrence had no idea what to say now.

If all of that is true,’ said Dergoz, ‘then why in the world did you free Zeff? You did free him, didn’t you? I assume that is where this explanation is going.

“Yes, I ordered Adam to free him because I was bored--wait, no. We ordered Adam to free him because the siege has been proceeding too slowly. We have a timetable to keep, and we cannot justify crushing the Rainlords until they press their assault much harder than they have thus far. And obviously, leaving the Keep to fight them would be tactically unwise. With any luck, Zeff will be able to motivate them for us.”

What timetable are you talking about?

“All you need to know is that Lamont will be needing our full attention shortly, so we cannot spend much more time in Rheinhal. But if we leave before this siege concludes, then many of our precious subordinates here will be killed or captured. Present company included, of course. It is quite the dilemma.”

Friday, November 7, 2014

Page 875

I’m sure you have any number of collaborators in this game of yours,’ Dergoz was saying. ‘I don’t think we’ll be trusting anyone’s word concerning your whereabouts. Why don’t you just admit it?

Parson exchanged lingering looks with Overra, perhaps indicative of a silent conversation between the two.

Easy, Dergoz,’ said Lawrence. ‘He may be ridiculous, but we do not want to pick a fight with Parson, especially not here.

They need us as much as we need them,’ Dergoz said privately. ‘Sanko is coming, so they can’t afford to fight with us now, either. This is the perfect time to press them with hard questions. In fact, it’s probably the ONLY time.

Lawrence wondered how much truth there was in that, but he knew there was no point in arguing.

Parson finished off his ice cream sandwich. He smacked his lips a couple times and took a long breath. “I’m just going to tell them. If they’re this suspicious of us, then there’s really no point in pretending anymore. We’re all on the same side after all.”

Overra gave a public sigh. ‘I suppose you’re right. Go on, then.

“Oh, but soundproofing first.”

Right.’ Overra flew into Parson’s body, and a moment later, Parson’s forearms disappeared, leaving his sleeves to flap wildly in the sudden whirlwind that consumed the room.

Lawrence had seen similar techniques before. The airy hum of Parson’s oxygen would prevent physical eavesdroppers, and the tightly controlled movement allowed the man to also press his soul into the air and thereby prevent reapers from hearing them through the walls.

And Lawrence felt abruptly unsettled. Such a precautionary measure was disturbingly unlike Parson and Overra. Whatever they were about to say was not going to be pleasant, he felt.

Parson stepped closer. “Time is short, so allow us to make this quick. First, we know your secret. You and Lawrence belong to a shadow faction within the Vanguard--a shadow faction which believes Sermung is no longer fit to lead all of us. Which is true. He isn’t.”

Dumbstruck, Dergoz needed a second to respond. ‘That’s not... We’re not--

“Please. Let’s not waste time. We also know that Lamont is the head of your shadow faction, and that no one is able to speak with him about it directly due to the immense secrecy required. Because he is constantly surrounded by Sermung supporters, Lamont is restricted to passing along coded instructions until the time comes when he can reveal himself.”

Page 874 -- C.

Chapter One Hundred: ‘How the Wind doth rise...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Lawrence’s small office had begun to feel a bit cramped. Physically, only he and Parson were present, but the two reapers appeared to occupy plenty of additional space with their silent tornado bodies. There was also the matter of Dergoz’ yelling.

I know it was your doing! You’re behind this somehow!

Rather than responding, Parson seemed more interested in savoring the taste of his ice cream sandwich.

Overra answered for them. ‘“Somehow,” huh? Well, in spite of that very compelling, evidence-laden accusation, I’m afraid I’ll have to go ahead and deny it.

It’s painfully obvious!’ said Dergoz. ‘How stupid do you think we are, exactly?! It’s no secret that you and Parson held this position before Lawrence and I did! Your affection for the Rainlords has clouded your judgment!

Parson decided to interject now. “We don’t really have time for this now, do we? The Rainlords--”

Shut up!

Parson frowned and went back to his treat.

Parson and I were busy defending the western perimeter. You can confirm with Corporal Rofal, if you like.

Lawrence wasn’t sure what to make of the circumstances. He was mainly just glad to not be the target of Dergoz’s ire for a change. Freeing Zeff had actually crossed his mind before, but pulling it off with Dergoz constantly attached to him would have been nigh impossible. If Parson and Overra really were responsible, then Lawrence would be impressed.

What Dergoz had yet to tell them, however, was that they’d already caught the supposed culprit. Lieutenant Colonel Adam Leroy was the one who actually destroyed Zeff’s head, and the guards had only just managed to prevent him from destroying that of Zeff’s son as well--not that it would have made much difference, since they had the boy’s reaper in custody, too.

Regardless, that didn’t seem to be good enough for Dergoz. As far as subordinates went, Adam and his reaper had never proven themselves as anything more than blunt instruments. Good at following orders and not much else. The only reason they’d achieved a higher rank than Zeff and Axiolis was because the Elroys decided to raise so many children.

Which was another thing. Where was Mariana in all this? According to the watchmen, she’d somehow killed six highly trained servants by herself and escaped, which was almost as surprising to Lawrence as the fact that she had apparently conceded the responsibility of reclaiming the rest of her family to the other Rainlords.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Page 873

Miles zipped away from most of the assault, endured the rest, and counterattacked with a storm of his own. The resultant explosion made the ground tremble even from this distance, and a thin tornado swirled into existence around Miles, ripping up more of the city.

Dunstan could not keep watching, however. He had to keep an eye on the rest of the battlefield. If the clash with Miles was somehow a diversionary tactic, then Dunstan would not allow it to work. But his caution proved needless, as he didn’t see any other disturbances.

Then the analogue bell inside the Keep went off.

Dunstan held his position, knowing it was not his job to deal with whatever the problem was. He did, however, ask Reza for an update. ‘What’s happening?

Shut up, I’m looking into it.’

And again, he found himself waiting.

Cpt. General Miles got back to Dunstan before Reza did, arriving inside another rumbling gale. The man’s shredded clothes barely clung to his body now, and his airman’s overcoat was still smoldering with blackened stains. “Yep,” he said in the dual voice of pan-rozum. “That was definitely a trap.”

Dunstan’s brow receded. “A-are you alright, sir?”

“Oh, sure, don’t worry about us. We could really go for an ice cream sandwich, though. Think we’ll go get one from the kitchen. You want anything?”

“Er, n-no thank you.”

“You sure? Not even a drink? A bag of chips? One of those giant pretzels, maybe? Do we have those things?”

“Sir, the emergency alarm is going off.”

“Ah. So it is. Guess we’ll look into that, afterward.” He allowed a beat to pass. “So did you want a snack or...?”

“No, sir, I’m fine.”

Miles stared at him. “...We’ll get you something, anyway.” And he was gone again, leaving his residual gust of wind behind as usual.

Dunstan wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or worried. When he looked back at the enemy’s location, he saw a street riddled with blood and body parts.

Well,’ came Rezamaar’s voice, ‘I found out what all the commotion is about.

Tell me.

Someone managed to break into the freezer and destroy one of the captive Rainlords’ heads.

Dunstan’s eyes widened. ‘Which one?

I’m listening for that answer now. Sounds like... oh shit. It was Zeff. They fucking freed Zeff Elroy.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Page 872

“Ah, so you’ve actually met your grandfather in person?” asked Miles.

“Yes, sir.”

“Must be a different guy, then. The man I’m thinking of died about forty years ago.”

Unless he somehow survived,’ amended Overra.

Miles laughed lowly. “That would be awkward, wouldn’t it?”

Dunstan was curious now. “Who was the man you were thinking of?”

The Cpt. General took a second to respond. “He was a lunatic. The kind of person that the world is better off without.”

The abrupt severity in the other man’s voice did not escape Dunstan’s notice. “What was his name?” Dunstan asked.

“It’s not important. Best to just forget about people like that.”

Dunstan sensed something contradictory in that statement, but he decided to keep his mouth shut. Miles acted like the most laid back boss in the world, but the fact remained that Dunstan didn’t know the man very well. He’d rather not get on his superior’s bad side by asking too many questions.

Finally, something new caught his eye. Another figure darted across the street in the same location as earlier. Dunstan raised his binoculars in time to see it happen a third time.

“You see that?”

“Yes, sir.”

They waited, but there was no other movement.

Such was the thrill of being a watchman.

Personally, Dunstan didn’t mind the long periods of nothingness. Coping with tense downtime was a skill, like anything else. The trick was to think without getting lost in thought, to wonder without daydreaming.

And in spite of the man’s earlier claim, Dunstan could not imagine Cpt. General Miles doing this job. And this notion was soon reaffirmed for him.

“They could be luring us into a trap.” Miles allowed a beat to pass. “I’ll go check.”

Overra melted back into his body, and then Parson leapt away in a gust of wind that made the armored walls shudder.

Dunstan could see the man going to work, tearing through the air like a missile and falling upon the enemy’s location with just as much force. An explosion of air crushed four buildings at once and flung their remains up from the ground. Broken trees and vehicles and slabs of concrete tumbled down the road together, and Miles just hovered there in the middle of it all, waiting.

After a weighty pause, the storm hit him. Crowds of metal spikes, audible gunfire, visible distortions in space even from this distance, and all manner of flaming chaos came for the man at the same time.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Page 871

Dunstan shifted in his seat. He wasn’t sure how they’d ended up on this topic all of a sudden. He never liked talking about his family, even with Reza. “The truth is, sir... I ran away from home when I was fifteen.”

“I see. And why did you run away?”

He hesitated again, impulsively pulling his eyes away from the battlefield in order to glance at Miles. A mistake, Dunstan immediately knew. Miles didn’t seem to notice or care, but Dunstan was kicking himself for his unprofessionalism as he refocused on observing.

It was odd, though. Like a faint pressure in his chest. And around his head. His whole body, even. And as much as he would have preferred not to answer that question, remaining silent seemed somehow untenable, nor could he come up with an appropriate lie in time. “My family is full of criminals. If I didn’t leave, I probably would’ve ended up like them.”

“And your reaper didn’t have a problem with that?”

“I didn’t meet her until I was seventeen. She doesn’t have any ties to my family. I doubt they even know reapers exist.”

“I wouldn’t be too certain of that.”

Dunstan’s gaze flickered again, and he had to concentrate in order to keep his eyes where they needed to be. “What do you mean, sir?”

But instead of answering, Cpt. General Miles chose to ask a different question. “Where was your family living when you left?”

And there it was again--that unexplained pressure, pushing him onward, compelling him to speak. “Dante. I think we had some cousins in Atreya, too. Why?”

“What is your grandfather’s name?”

“Damian. Why, sir?”

“Ha. No reason.”

“Sir, please stop being so mysterious. Do you know my grandfather?”

“I don’t know anyone named Damian Rofal, no.”

“Then...?”

“But you do remind me of someone I once knew. You have the same eyebrows he had.”

Same eyes, chin, and hair color, too,’ added Overra.

“It’s really the eyebrows, though,” said Miles. “Very distinctive, those things. You could probably pull them off your face and use them as weapons.”

They’re like angry boomerangs,’ said Overra.

Dunstan tried to take that as a compliment. “Apart from his name, I don’t remember much else about my grandfather. He only visited a few times when I was a child. I don’t think he got along well with my parents.”