Saturday, February 28, 2015

Page 993

That is largely correct,’ said Qorvass. ‘We have never had “kings,” per se, but we did believe that individuals with a certain power had been chosen to guide our people.

Hector put two and two together and looked at Asad, who was busy yawning and hardly even seemed to be paying attention.

Such individuals are historically quite rare,’ Qorvass went on. ‘They usually appear only once in five generations. Oftentimes longer. There were several instances where we went without a clear leader for extended periods of time. But then the gods decided to play a cruel prank on us, and three children manifested the divine ability in the span of a single year.

I suppose it would’ve been too much to ask for them to just rule together,’ said Garovel dryly.

The children themselves were not the real problem,’ said Qorvass. ‘They were children. They did as their Hahls told them. And each Hahl feared--perhaps quite correctly--that one of the other two Hahls would betray them for power. And precaution became escalation, and escalation became war.

Hector still didn’t understand something. “But, er... uh, how did the Shards factor in?”

The Shards are powerful catalysts for servant abilities,’ said Garovel. ‘And they work for anyone, divine power or no. They would even work for you, for instance. But there is a catch.

Hector was not surprised.

They fall dormant when there remains no living person who wields the Sandlord’s divine ability with sufficient skill.

“Uh... not sure I understand...”

It has to do with the way they were made,’ said Garovel. ‘The so-called “Dry God” was, in truth, just another person who happened to have the divine ability. Like our good friend Asad here.

Asad matched Hector’s gaze evenly. His expression seemed somehow sad.

The Dry God’s real name was Rasalased, and he was one of the most powerful servants of his age,’ said Garovel. ‘The story goes that he was so powerful and so heavily relied upon by his people that he became terrified of what would happen to them if he were ever killed in battle. As was known to happen. So he created the Shards, hoping that they would help keep the Sandlords safe after he was gone. The only problem was that in order to create them, he had to fuse his soul with his ability so completely that he turned himself to crystal. Which killed both him and his reaper, ironically.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Page 992

It is,’ said Garovel. ‘However, I remember there being many more shards than this. I remember a mound of them. As big as a person, one might say.

Qorvass’ hollow eyes narrowed a moment. ‘Where are you from, Garovel?

I was born a Lyzakk.

Ah. A most ancient brother.

You were born a Lyzakk as well?’ Garovel asked.

Of course,’ said Qorvass. ‘But you must have guessed that by now.

I try not to presume too much these days,’ said Garovel. ‘Rather, I find it more surprising that your loyalties haven’t shifted in three thousand years.

Three thousand? I am not as old as that, but yes, it has been a while. My loyalty may not have wavered, but my curiosity has certainly led me to wander on more than a few occasions. But I am curious as to why you did not tell me of your heritage sooner? You must have realized it would have gone a long way with the Sandlords.

Well, I wasn’t a Sandlord. And I don’t exactly have a birth certificate to show you.

Even so,’ said Qorvass, ‘I would have liked to know that I was fighting alongside my kin this whole time.

Garovel’s skeletal face twisted somewhat. ‘You are very kind. But I get the impression that your experience with the Lyzakks was more enjoyable than mine.

Yes, I am getting that impression as well,’ said Qorvass. ‘Perhaps you would care to share your story with me.

Perhaps I would. But for now, I am more interested in these jewels. I remember hearing about their creation, and I went to see them shortly thereafter. Why are there so few now? What happened to the rest of them?

The War of the Three Sands happened to them,’ said Qorvass. 'Strange that you are able to recognize the Shards but not know their history.

Ah,’ said Garovel. 'I was on the other side of the world when that was going on. So these were what that whole fuss was about, huh? I probably could have guessed as much.

Hector just had to interject now. “There was a war fought over these things?”

Pretty much,’ said Garovel. ‘It was a war between the Sandlords themselves. That’s the trouble with a system built on divine right.’ He looked to Qorvass. ‘But you must know more about it than I do.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Page 991

Hector expected Garovel to ask another question, but the reaper said nothing further. They hurried to catch up with everyone.

Soon, the butlers began showing different people to different rooms. Hector’s room shared a hallway with the Elroys. There were no windows, but to his eyes, the chamber would have been fit for a king. It was almost too nice, in fact. The giant rug at the foot of his bed had been woven with such a complex fractal design that he didn’t even want to step on it.

As lovely as it was, however, he didn’t linger in it for long. He was more interested in exploring the rest of Dunehall, and Garovel seemed to agree with him.

After only a short while of wandering, he and Garovel found themselves in a globular chamber full of paintings and artifacts on pedestals. There was one particular pedestal which caught Garovel’s attention. It seemed to have been relegated to a position by the wall, enough so that Hector might not have noticed it if the reaper hadn’t pointed it out. On its mantle lay a transparent case filled with four large slivers of crimson glass.

And before Hector could even ask a question, Qorvass arrived, flanked by Asad.

Hello again,’ said Garovel cheerily.

Hello,’ said Qorvass. ‘I see you’ve found the gallery.

Indeed. It’s lovely, as is everything here. But I am wondering--are these what I think they are?

I don’t know,’ said Qorvass. ‘Do you think they are a bunch of shiny rocks? Because you would be right.

Hector saw Garovel tilt his head.

Actually, I was thinking they were the Quta Jaf’lah.’

Mm,’ hummed Qorvass. ‘Well, they’re not.

Oh?’ Garovel paused. ‘I see.

Hector was lost, but he didn’t want to interrupt.

Supposing they were, though,’ Garovel went on, ‘why might you keep them here? This seems like an odd place for objects of such value. Hypothetically speaking.

Perhaps they are not as valuable as you are imagining,’ said Qorvass. ‘Or perhaps this place is more secure than you are imagining.

Garovel laughed faintly. ‘I suppose your suspicion is understandable, but I assure you that my interest is purely academic. And I am quite certain that these are indeed the Quta Jaf’lah.’ He turned to Hector. ‘The Shards of the Dry God.

Hector was only slightly less lost now.

I got quite a good look at them once,’ said Garovel, facing Qorvass again. ‘Ages ago.

Is that right?’ said Qorvass.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Page 990

Asad appeared and led everyone inside. Hector moved to help carry Zeff, but a pair of much larger men were already there, so he just stuck close to the children.

The building’s interior left him gawking again. Polished black tiles covered the floor of the entryway, matched by an obsidian lion that looked pretty much life-size, by Hector’s estimation. A team of butlers were there to greet them as well, offering to take luggage that most of the Rainlords chose to hold onto. Hector did the same with his one bag.

Wow,’ Garovel said privately. ‘We knew Asad was rich, but holy shit. This place is ridiculous.

Hector had to stifle a laugh. ‘Do you think he’s richer than Roman?

Ha. Dunno. Now that I think about it, we seem to have a lot of rich friends, don’t we?

Hector gave a sideways nod. ‘Yeah, I guess so. How the fuck did that happen?

Maybe it’s because whenever you meet a poor person, you usually just save their life and leave, you classist prick.

What--?

You should take a good long look at yourself.

He knew the reaper was joking, but he also knew that there was some truth to be found there as well. They’d discussed the topic at length back in Grey Rock and come to the conclusion that he should work on achieving a better relationship with the lower classes. Indeed, that had been the purpose of his visits to homeless shelters just prior to his trip to Sair. Thinking about it now reminded Hector of all the things that still needed doing at home.

It still felt a little strange to think of Warrenhold as home. Strange in a good way, though.

He glanced over and saw Emiliana lagging behind her siblings. Hector pulled back to ask her, “Are you okay?”

She looked at him, as if surprised, and adjusted her mask. “Ah. Yes. I apologize.”

Chergoa floated up beside her. ‘Something wrong?

“No,” said Emiliana. “It was only an odd shiver.”

A shiver?’ said Chergoa.

“Goose pimples. They surprised me. But I am fine.” She walked on ahead, not waiting for a response.

Hector exchanged looks with Chergoa before the reaper left to join her.

Hmm,’ hummed Garovel privately, who’d apparently been close enough to overhear. ‘A shiver, huh? Is it cold in here?

Not really,’ said Hector. ‘Well, maybe compared to outside...

Monday, February 23, 2015

Page 989 -- CXII.

I know plenty about him,’ said Shenado. ‘Like the fact that he isn’t real, for instance.

What else?’ asked Marcos.

The reaper’s beak twisted impossibly into a frown, and her burning eyes flared up a little. ‘Why the sudden interest?

I was just thinking that it might be good to learn about religion from someone who isn’t also trying to make me believe it.

Shenado blinked at him. ‘You want a more objective teacher.

Well, I don’t know if I’d call you “objective,” but--

Ha, fine, alright. I suppose you have a point. When Axiolis inevitably brings it up, I shall make sure that I sit in on all of your lessons.

...Will he be okay with that?

Probably not.


Chapter One Hundred Twelve: ‘The house of four flames...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

As they continued north, Hector was surprised to find the vast stretch of barren and cracked flatlands gradually give rise to fields of grass and even the occasional tree. Considering that they were going to a place called Dunehall, he hadn’t been expecting to see much other than sand.

When they finally reached Moaban, it was the dead of night, but even through the darkness, Hector could see that the city wasn’t struggling for water. Rows of trees with arching canopies covered many of the roads, blocking out the night sky’s vibrant half-moon. The foliage was so thick that the first few areas they drove through made it feel like they’d suddenly entered a forest. After a time, however, there came a break in the trees, revealing an array of buildings buried in sand.

The change was so stark that it took Hector a while to understand what he was looking at.

Mountains of sand in the moonlight. In the middle of an otherwise lush, sand-free city. Hector could see four bulbous towers just barely peeking out from the centermost mound, each one topped off with a jagged spike pointed skyward.

As they pulled closer, the fortress before them became more obvious. Tall lamps illuminated the path into its heart, making the sand all around them glisten like still water. A tunnel guided their entourage up to an underground entrance, where the limousines finally eased to a stop. Everyone began exiting.

Hector marveled at the fine stonework around him. There seemed to be some wooden beams thrown in, along with some metal ones, but the whole area had a golden aura about it thanks to the lighting.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Page 988

As Marcos deliberated over what his next question should be, he abruptly realized that he was outside again. And someone had put a cold sandwich and drink in his hands, along with his bag of chips--which didn’t contain chips at all, now that he was looking at it. It was actually a bag of dried seaweed. That sounded pretty gross to him, but he resolved to at least give it a try.

Everyone else was already eating, he saw, so he joined them. The sandwich’s bread and meat were nearly frozen, making the task more difficult, but he didn’t mind so terribly. A cool meal was quite welcome in this baking heat. Even with the sun going down, the temperature didn’t seem to care. This was definitely Sandlord territory.

And that sunset--a mural of blazing streaks above the mountainous horizon, deep yellows and oranges and reds, even a few purples burning around the edges of an occasional cloud. They sure didn’t get that back in Aguarey.

Before anyone could even finish eating, the refueling was done, and everyone returned to their respective limousine so that the entourage could get on the road again.

And as he polished off his sandwich, Marcos finally thought of another question for Shenado. ‘Do a lot of reapers believe like you do?’ he asked.

You mean are a lot of us doubting, cynical bastards?’ Shenado shrugged. ‘Yes. In fact, I would say the majority of us are.

Marcos glanced at Dimas. ‘What about Iziol?

Iziol is a freak of nature. I have no idea what he believes, but it is probably something ridiculous.’

That’s a little mean...

Oh, Iziol is wonderful. Don’t get me wrong. I adore him. Being half-crazy is part of his charm.

Ah...’ That made him curious about something else, and he looked toward his unconscious father and the equally unconscious reaper attached to the man’s arm. ‘What is Axiolis like? I still haven’t met him yet, but you and he are... uh...?

Axiolis is also wonderful,’ Shenado said flatly.

Marcos just stared at her, waiting.

...But don’t listen to anything he tells you about Lhutwë.

That almost made Marcos smile. ‘He still believes in the old water god?

Yes,’ sighed Shenado. ‘He will probably try to teach you all about it, at some point. Preserving the old ways, he calls it.

Really? I wouldn’t mind learning.

Ugh.

That actually did make him smile. ‘How much do YOU know about Lhutwë?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Page 987

I don’t really know much about Cocora,’ said Marcos. ‘Why did Ma stop believing in her?

Oh, well, Cocora is supposed to be this benevolent and all-powerful being who is just the greatest thing ever in the history of the universe. And I think during her travels, your mother began to have trouble consolidating this idea of Cocora with the state of the world around her.

Hmm...

Mariana saw a lot of death, even before she met me. A lot of senseless brutality and suffering. And even the holiest, most convincing rhetoric in the world has a difficult time standing up against all of that.

I get the impression you’re not very religious, either...

Oh, me?’ Shenado laughed. ‘I’m even worse than Mariana was. In spite of everything, your mother still believed in SOME kind of ultimate creator. She just thought all religions were bullshit.’ The reaper hesitated. ‘Agh, sorry, I keep forgetting you’re only twelve.

It’s fine. I don’t mind.’ It was hard to take much offence to swear words after having seen Darktide literally squash several people into a bloody pulp.

Mm. But yes, Mariana still possessed a tiny morsel of spirituality. I, on the other hand, do not.

Really? You don’t think there’s like a reaper god or something?

Nah.

How can reapers exist without some kind of creator?

The same way that people can.

Uh... then how can people exist without a creator?

Ah. A very old question, that. One that has been used to justify all manner of deistic belief in the past. Nowadays, though, we know about something called “spontaneous quantum creation.” It’s a bit difficult to explain, but in very simple terms, it means that the natural forces that make up the universe are such that there is no reason why the universe could not have created ITSELF. No divine intervention necessary.

Uh...

There have been other ideas about godless creation throughout history, too, and perhaps there will be still more in the future, but spontaneous quantum creation is what currently seems to make the most scientific sense.

...But Ma didn’t believe any of that, did she?

No. She could be quite stubborn.

Unlike you?

Shenado laughed again. ‘Excuse me?

I’m sorry. That was ruder than I meant it...

I can already tell that you’re going to give me a lot of sass as you get older.’ She didn’t sound particularly upset about it, though.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Page 986

Marcos bit the inside of his lip. ‘You’re not a very optimistic person, are you?

I consider myself a pragmatist,’ said Shenado.

For some reason, that made him smile. And after a moment, he realized why. ‘You... um...

Yes?

Ah... never mind.

Oh, come now. Tell me. There’s no need for secrets or hesitation, Marcos. I know you’re still getting accustomed to seeing me, but I’ve known you your whole life. I watched you grow up.

Right. It’s just... er, this might sound weird.

I’m sure I’ve heard weirder.

It’s just--you kind of... you kind of remind me of my mother.

That gave the reaper pause.

Sorry,’ Marcos said hurriedly. ‘I didn’t mean to--

No, it’s fine,’ said Shenado. ‘More than fine, actually. I don’t mind being compared to Mariana. Although, you might have things a little backwards.

Backwards?

Not to toot my own horn, but Mariana probably took after me more than I took after her.

Oh...’ Marcos blinked a few times. ‘How old was she when you met her?

She was twenty.’

That doesn’t sound like a very impressionable age to me.

Yes, well, I was somewhere around fifteen hundred, so I think I was a little more set in my ways than she was by then.

Ah...’ It was weird to think about, that this reaper he barely even knew had influenced his mother so much. He supposed she was practically his grandmother. Very weird.

But it also opened up an avenue of inquiry that he hadn’t thought of before. ‘How did the two of you meet?’ he asked.

Mm. That is not an altogether pleasant story.

Marcos had figured as much. ‘Please. I want to know.

The eagle stared at him a moment. ‘Very well. I met her in a little town called Saloma, which is in Steccat, far to the east of here.

What was she doing there?

Ha. You might be surprised to hear this, but your mother was a Cocoran missionary when she was younger.

Marcos’s brow receded. ‘As in the goddess, Cocora?

The very same.

But she hated religion.

By the time you came along, yes. Even by the time I came along, she’d pretty much lost her faith already. But she told me that she was extremely devout in her youth--enough to embark on a journey to aid people across the world. While also trying to convert them, of course.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Page 985

Marcos looked over the assortment of junk food another time. He was starving, but somehow, he still didn’t have much of an appetite. He supposed it didn’t really matter. He grabbed something without even looking at what it was and then went to stand blankly behind Emiliana. It would be easiest to put his brain in autopilot and follow her around. She stuck out like a sore thumb with that black mask of hers.

His eyes glazed over as he let his mind wander. A question occurred to him. ‘When will my ability manifest?’ he asked.

It varies from person to person,’ said Shenado privately. ‘Give it time.

It’s been a month. And Emi’s manifested after only a few days...

Hers was stress-induced.’

So I should be more stressed?

That is not what I am saying.’

Then what are you saying?

I am saying be patient. We’ll worry about it after we reach Moaban.

He took a long breath. Really, he was just trying to keep his mind busy. ‘What do you think my ability will be?

It could be anything.

...Could I get the same ability as Pa?

It’s not very likely, but it is certainly possible. Servant abilities are determined by genetics.

They are? I thought it had to do with personality. Or just... brain... stuff.

Well, there’s some debate about that, I suppose,’ said Shenado. ‘But “brain stuff” is genetic, too, you know. As are personalities, to an extent. So there might well be a link there, but it is probably a case of correlation rather than causation.

I’m not sure what that means...

It means that genetics might make it LOOK like servant abilities are determined by personality, even though they aren’t necessarily.

That’s confusing...

Most things are. As much as we might like the world to be simpler and easier to understand, it usually isn’t. And that can be good. Sometimes, complexity is wonderful. Usually, though, it sucks big time.

He spared her a cock-eyed glance. ‘What do you mean?

Have you ever heard the old saying that the more complicated your plan is, the more opportunities it’ll have to go wrong?

Uh, sure.

Well, it’s the same for everything else in life. For example, the thing we were just talking about. Genetics. DNA is extremely complex. And rather predictably, all sorts of things can go wrong with it. People can be born with so many different kinds of genetic deformities or diseases. And they all suck. Apart from the very occasional one that is actually helpful, maybe offering the person an immunity to something terrible.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Page 984

Marcos wasn’t sure what the reason was, but he suspected that finally being able to see his father again had something to do with it, even if the man was still unconscious. The presence of the other Rainlords might have helped, too. Dimas in particular.

The party of limousines didn’t stop for another break until they reached Seisoro, and by then, it was nearly dark again. They’d been driving all day long, and yet Moaban was still a few hours away. Everyone needed to stretch their legs, use the restroom, and finally get a bite to eat. Marcos entered the gas station’s little store with his sisters and a host of guardians, including Dimas and Hector.

Marcos didn’t know what to make of the Atreyan lord. He looked to be about Cisco’s age, but that didn’t mean anything. The guy could be eighty years old for all they knew, and from the sound of it, perhaps he was, since he’d apparently gone up against Melchor Blackburn and not died in two seconds. Marcos had been hoping someone would ask Hector about that, but no one did, and Marcos wasn’t comfortable asking himself, so he just let the matter drop.

It did make him think of Cisco, though. And Gema. He wondered where they were now. He wondered if he would ever see them again. But mostly, he wondered if they would hate him.

When Shenado had told him what his mother had done, he hadn’t understood. It had taken a while. It was a difficult thing to grasp. That someone had actually sacrificed their life for his...? That it had been Ma...? That she was just gone now...?

It still didn’t really make sense to him, if he was honest. How could she do a thing like that? How could she have loved him that much? He’d never done anything to deserve that kind of love. He’d caused her nothing but problems. How could...? It didn’t...

Marcos,’ came Shenado’s echoing voice.

And abruptly, he realized that he was just standing there in front of a shelf full of chips. His nose was running, and his eyes were hot with tears. He wiped his face with his sleeve. ‘Sorry,’ he said.

There’s nothing to apologize for,’ said the eagle with burning black eyes. She wasn’t quite perched on the shelf, instead hovering just slightly above it.

Page 983

Really?’ said Hector. ‘I figured you would think I’d never be able to do something like that.

We were all young and stupid once,’ said Garovel. ‘Hell, you still are.

Fuck you.

The reaper snickered. ‘Actually, I’d say you’re strangely mature for your age. In fact, sometimes I forget how young you are.

The sudden compliment made Hector hesitate. ‘...Really?

Yep. But then again, it might just be your natural gloominess. Adults are all jaded fucks, y’know, so a kid can seem older by acting all dour and cynical. Little tip for ya.

Mm. I kinda knew that already, I think...

Not surprising. Were there any other bad things you tried to do?

Well... uh... nah, I guess not.

Seriously?’ said Garovel. ‘That’s it? Two things? That’s your terrible list of past misconduct?

...I jaywalked a couple times.

What a thug. I guess you were just fated to be on the side of righteousness and broken motorcycles.

I thought you didn’t believe in fate.

Oh, I don’t. It’s just amusing to think about some cosmic, universal force thwarting a little preteen’s bumbling efforts at being a badass.

...I could be a bad guy, if I wanted.

Uh-huh.

I could! I mean, it’s not like I’m a saint. Technically, I’ve done all sorts of bad things. Stole drugs. Beat people up.

First of all, saints are overrated as hell. And secondly, none of that shit even counts.

Hector frowned. ‘I broke a cop’s arm once...

Oh, you mean that thing you felt really bad about afterwards? That thing I’m sure you STILL feel really bad about?

I... uh... that’s beside the point.

Pfft. Y’know, despite how keen you might have been to get arrested back then, it really shouldn’t have been that difficult for you. All you had to do was throw a brick at a police car or something.

Eesh, I didn’t wanna do anything THAT bad.

Garovel just stared at him.

...Alright, fine,’ Hector relented. ‘I’m a fuckin’ goody-two-shoes. Are you happy?

Mmhmm.

...By the way, if we ever make it back to Atreya, don’t let me forget to visit Klein and find that cop again.

Ha. What do you mean to do for him?

I don’t know, but there’s gotta be something. I’m the Lord of Warrenhold, right?

Indeed, you are, my friend.

-+-+-+-+-

Marcos Elroy hadn’t slept this well in over a month. There’d always been something getting in the way. Something in his head. Something fueling the nightmares that he couldn’t even remember after waking up. All he’d known was that they left him sweating and his heart racing in a panicked way.

It was only here and now that things had changed.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Page 982

I didn’t realize that qualified as a kind of fun,’ said Hector.

Oh, sure. Like mountain climbing. Or skydiving. Or playing that version of rock-paper-scissors where the loser gets kicked in the testicles.

...I knew some guys in middle school who did that last one.

Really?

...I did it, too, actually. I was part of their group.

The reaper paused. ‘You’re fuckin’ with me.

Hector flushed a little and covered his embarrassed smile with one hand. ‘Sadly, I’m not...

Wow. I bet that was a learning experience.

You could say that...

These weren’t the kids from the carpentry club, were they?

Oh, no. Carpentry club was high school. These guys were middle school.

Right. And these idiots were your friends?

I wasn’t... I mean, they weren’t... ah... Yeah, pretty much.

What happened to them?

Well, one moved away. One got expelled for punching a teacher. And the last one got sent to juvie for setting the school on fire.

What the fuck?

I don’t think he meant for it to get that big. And nobody got hurt. He was just kind of a pyro and...

And a dumbass?

Well... yeah.

Garovel snorted a laugh. ‘I’m seeing you in a whole new light, Hector. Were you a troublemaker, too?

I, uh... I tried to be, but I wasn’t very good at it.

Oh, well, now I need details.

Ah... okay.’ Hector took a breath and scratched his chin. ‘One time, I tried to steal a pack of cigarettes from a guy. I accidentally took his wallet, instead. I felt so bad that I just pretended he’d dropped it and gave it back to him.

Wow.

He gave me twenty troas.

Garovel snorted again. ‘Smooth. What other terrible crimes have you committed?

Uh... I put graffiti inside a public bathroom.

Oh yeah?

Yeah. It said, “Wait here if you wanna see some real shit go down” and had a picture of a dude pooping.

The reaper laughed publicly this time and drew glances from the others in the car. ‘You didn’t really do that, did you?

I thought it would get me in trouble! That was the whole point! Then I saw a fucking cop walk in. He asked if I was the one who did it. I said yes. He just laughed at me, took a really loud dump, and left.

Knowing you, I one hundred percent believe that story.’

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Page 981

Hector rubbed his face, trying to clear his head again. He wasn’t sure where all these thoughts were coming from. Maybe it was just the Rainlords’ presence. He envied the bond they all shared. Even after nearly killing each other, they were still trying to work through everything together.

At length, Garovel rounded on him, wrapped in the echo of privacy. ‘How ya doin’, buddy? You’ve been staring out the window for a while now.

Oh, I’m fine,’ he said. Ramira had ceded the window seat to him. Now she was sitting perpendicular to him, adjacent her sister against the side of the limousine. ‘I was just, uh... er, lost in thought, I guess.

About what?’ said Garovel. ‘Ibai?

That wasn’t the correct answer, of course, but now that Garovel had brought it up, it seemed like a much more interesting subject for discussion. ‘What do you think of him?’ Hector asked.

Oh, I have no fucking idea,’ said Garovel.

You were awfully friendly with him back there...

We’re not here to make enemies, Hector.

Hector’s expression hardened. ‘We are if they’re going to kill innocent people.

Ha.’ Garovel returned that hollow stare of his. ‘Allow me to put it another way, then. If Ibai is our enemy, it’s better that he believes he’s our friend.

Hector looked out the window again. ‘Hmm...

And if he’s NOT our enemy, then he could be a very valuable ally. A power like his? Can you imagine how helpful that could be?

Hector could. ‘A good aberration... I’d like to believe it.

I think most of us would.

The trouble is knowing so.

It’s impossible to know. Even if he weren’t an aberration, it would be impossible. Anyone could betray us, under the right circumstances.

Yeah, but you know what I mean. It’s not the same.

Maybe it is the same. There are plenty of normal people out there who are complete lunatics, too, y’know. And all things considered, we really don’t know very much about aberrations.

I realize that. And I realize that Ibai might help us learn more about them. But that doesn’t mean I’m in a hurry to trust him.

Mm. Well, there’s no use worrying about it right now. And you look gloomy as hell in your little corner here. Let’s talk about something lighter.

Like what?

Like how much fun that fight against Darktide was!

Hector gave the reaper a look. ‘Fun?

Yeah. Y’know. Fun in a pants-shittingly-terrifying kind of way.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Page 980

“It all tastes funny,” said Dimas, sounding rather unlike a lord--or even an adult person, Hector thought.

Hector kept that opinion to himself, though.

So unreasonable,’ said Iziol. ‘He was like this even before I became his reaper, you know. When he was a child, he would stay awake for days upon days and eventually just pass out from exhaustion. One time, he collapsed in the middle of a track race, and another child tripped over him and broke a tooth.

“Uh, wow...” Hector checked Dimas’ expression, but the man just looked out the window.

It was quite bad,’ said Iziol. ‘At one point, Lady Amaya resorted to having his dinner laced with soporifics.’

Dimas turned back around. “...Is that true?”

Oh indeed. You never talked, so people could not tell that, in actuality, you were a spoiled brat who rarely ever did as he was told.’ Iziol gave a faint laugh. ‘And that, I would say, has not changed very much.

Dimas exhaled a short breath, and Hector saw him crack a tiny smile.

After that, Iziol offered to knock him out, but Dimas refused, citing the fact that Xuan and Duvoss were still unconscious. Iziol argued, but not very fervently, and soon drifted back to sleep himself.

And Hector just sat there in silent awe of this person next to him. He barely even knew the man, but his respect for Lord Dimas had already grown by leaps and bounds. He could imagine the weight that Dimas must have been feeling upon his shoulders after hearing the news of Rheinhal. This man was one of the strongest remaining Rainlords. So many people were relying on him to protect them.

Of course, Hector had felt that kind of pressure before, as well. A few times, in truth. And it had never stopped being terrifying, especially after seeing just how badly things could go wrong.

But that was also the point, he was realizing. Yes, of course, the worst could happen. Everyone could end up dead, and everything could be for naught. That was why people needed someone to protect them. Things were not going to just be okay on their own. Someone had to make them okay.

And that was why he wanted to keep living. To be that someone.

He’d felt all of these things in the back of his mind for some time already, but it was somehow different here. Making them explicit. Asserting his own sense of purpose to himself.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Page 979 -- CXI.

Chapter One Hundred Eleven: ‘Thy respite, embrace...’
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The Waress Tunnels were longer than Hector could have imagined. Much of the journey was spent in darkness. The headlights of all the limousines in their party often weren’t enough to reach the walls or ceiling, which gave the illusion of a pitch black night all around them. Exceptions came via the brightly lit intersections where the Tunnels crossed paths with one another, usually accompanied by some kind of refueling station or resting point. They didn’t stop at any of them, but Hector wondered what it would be like to work in such a place. He didn’t think he’d be able to handle something this isolated. More than that, though, he wondered about any poor folks who’d had their vehicles break down in here. He supposed that problem was one of the main reasons for all the rest stops, but even still. That’d suck pretty hard, he figured.

At length, they finally made it out, and even the limousine’s tinted windows were not enough to stop everyone from having to shield their eyes from the daylight. It had only been a few hours, according to Hector’s phone, but it felt like an entire night had passed.

Chergoa and Garovel never seemed to run out of things to talk about. On and on and on, they spoke, exchanging information, talking about new and old friends, discussing politics and science and history and something about a dog smoking a cigar. Hector had kind of stopped listening by that point--and so had the Elroys, by the look of it.

After a while longer, Hector managed to get a bit more sleep. When he awoke, he saw that Dimas was still awake if the dark circles under his eyes were any indication.

“...You should really get some sleep,” said Hector.

Dimas’s gaze was even more potent than usual. “I did,” he said. “For about ten minutes.”

Hector just frowned at him.

“I am not staying awake because I want to,” Dimas added. “I cannot usually sleep unless Iziol knocks me unconscious.”

“Oh,” Hector said. “What about sleeping pills?”

“...I cannot swallow pills.”

“Ah... er, don’t they make stuff you can drink?”

“...It tastes funny.”

Hector opened his mouth and then closed it again.

Don’t bother,’ came Iziol’s groggy voice. He stirred on Dimas’ shoulder but didn’t detach himself. ‘I told him there are different flavors, but he never listens.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Page 978

Hector wasn’t surprised by that reaction in the slightest, but this “Uncle Mel” caught his attention.

Garovel inquired for the both of them. ‘Uncle Mel? He wouldn’t happen to be Darktide, would he?

Ibai nodded. “Mmhmm. Technically, he’s not my uncle. He’s just a super old cousin, but he’s always been like Papa’s big brother.”

How is he doing, by the way?’ Garovel asked. ‘Still sleeping, I take it?

“Yes,” said Horatio, who seemed to have regained his composure. “And what of your Seadevil?”

Oh, he’s not OUR Seadevil,’ said Garovel. ‘We’re not Rainlords, in case you hadn’t already guessed.

“Ah.” Horatio tilted his head. “I thought your servant had perhaps married into one of the families.”

No, no. I’m Garovel, and this is Hector Goffe, the Lord of Warrenhold in Atreya. We only came to see my sister. Got a little more from this visit than we bargained for, you might say.

“Oh, so you’re not even from Sair!” said Ibai. “Is this your first time seeing the Tunnels, then?” He didn’t wait for an answer this time. “Mine, too! Pictures really don’t do them justice! Did you know that they’ve been used since ancient times in order to transport vital resources? Even when the Rainlords and Sandlords were at war! They traded valuable materials even while they were trying to stab each other in the back!”

Really?’ said Garovel, and Hector couldn’t tell if the reaper was genuinely interested or just playing along. ‘That seems kind of counterintuitive, doesn’t it?

“I know, right?!” said Ibai. “They used to poison each other’s stuff! But the thing was, neither side trusted the other, and they would always expect it to be some kind of trap. So they’d test their imports really well, and decontaminate it and use it, if they could. If not, they’d try to find some sneaky way of sending it back. It was a really crazy time! Our ancestors were lunatics! I wish I could’ve met some of them!”

Some of your family’s reapers must have lived through those times, no?

“Well, sure, but it’s not the same,” said Ibai. “And besides, Rholtam and Orric never share any of their stories, even though I’m sure they must have tons of juicy ones. What about you, Garovel? You must have some neat stories.”

Oh, of course,’ said Garovel. ‘But unfortunately, I sense Lord Dimas returning from his scouting mission. Story time will have to wait.

“Aww...”

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Page 977

Strangely, Hector knew exactly what Ibai was talking about. In his lonelier days, he’d often pondered the nature of companionship himself, and indeed, he’d reached a similar conclusion. There was something different about the approval of others, of strangers. It vindicated one’s existence, perhaps. That was what he’d come to believe, anyway.

But he certainly hadn’t expected to be reminded of that now of all times.

Hector still didn’t know how to respond, though. No one had ever been so direct about asking for his friendship before, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about becoming someone’s token black friend, let alone an aberration’s token black friend. His gut told him there wasn’t much harm in it, but even still...

Garovel spoke up in his stead. ‘We would love to be your friends.

Hector gave the reaper a look.

Ibai’s eyes lit up. “Really?!”

Sure, why not?’ said Garovel. ‘You seem like a nice enough fellow--and not a bloodthirsty psychopath. People who aren’t bloodthirsty psychopaths are my favorite, you know.

“Is that so?! Well, that’s just wonderful!”

Oh, and I’m sorry that my buddy here is so quiet,’ said Garovel. ‘It’s nothing against you. He’s like this with most people. He’s super shy, you see.

“Oh! Shy! That explains it! Aha!” He gave Hector an even bigger smile, somehow. “I was afraid that you hated me! Wow! That is such a relief, then. Whew.”

Hector could only wonder where Garovel was going with this.

We heard all about you from Chergoa. She’s my sister, as it happens.’

“Wow, that’s amazing! I’d love to talk to her and Emiliana again! They were so nice!”

I’m sure they’d like that,’ said Garovel. ‘By the way, how old are you?

“Oh, I’m thirty-five. Why?”

Ah, no reason. I’m curious to know how long aberrations have been around. I wasn’t familiar with your kind until very recently. It’s just that the last aberration we met was only about twenty years old or so.

“Ooh, what was he like?”

Not nearly as pleasant as you, to be sure. He hurt a lot of innocent people.

“Aww... I’m sorry to hear that. I suppose I should have guessed. What happened to him?”

My buddy here killed him.

Ibai looked to Hector again. “Did you, now? Hmm. Was that difficult?”

Now there was a question that Hector wanted to answer. “Not so much so that I wouldn’t do it again.”

Ibai’s smile waned for a second, but then he broke into a laugh. “You’re kinda scary! I bet you’d get along with Uncle Mel!”

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Page 976

Horatio was still among the bodyguards, Hector noticed. “Ibai, you have to stay with us,” the man said with bags under his eyes. “You cannot just teleport away whenever you like.”

“Eh, I’m pretty sure I can.”

“No,” Horatio growled. “What if you accidentally teleported inside of a person?”

“There’s no risk of that,” said Ibai. “I can see everyone’s soul when I do it. Here, let me show you.”

“Wait--”

Ibai grabbed his cousin’s arm, and they blinked away together. Hector couldn’t tell where they’d gone, but it didn’t matter, because they returned to the same spot a moment later. Horatio looked like he was about to puke.

“Oh, whoops,” said Ibai. “Sorry. I didn’t even think about your motion sickness. Did that actually trigger it? You weren’t really moving, you know.”

Horatio just held up a hand and stared at the ground. Everyone waited for him to speak, but he said nothing further.

Ibai shrugged and turned back to Hector. “Well, anyway! Would you believe you’re the first black person I’ve ever met?”

Hector did not respond.

“I’ve seen some of you on television and such, but I’ve never had the pleasure to speak with one personally. Isn’t that something?”

Hector had to refrain from telling him that he still did not have the pleasure of speaking with one.

“I know there’s a pretty profound age difference here,” Ibai went on, “but would you like to be my first black friend? I’ve always wanted one.”

Hector could only squint at the man. With the way Ibai spoke, it was somehow easy for Hector to forget that this person was quite clearly a middle-aged man.

“Or wait. Was that a racist thing to ask? If so, then I apologize. I’ve never had very many friends, you see. Well, I’ve had my family, of course. They’ve provided such fantastic companionship; I wouldn’t want to give the impression that they haven’t. I love them very much.” He slapped Horatio’s shoulder.

Horatio turned and barfed over the edge of the cliff.

“There you go, cousin,” said Ibai. “Feel better?”

Horatio just returned a deathly stare as he wiped his mouth.

“But yes,” Ibai continued to Hector, “they are my family. It’s a different sort of relationship. I feel there is something uniquely special about becoming friends with someone who is in no way obligated to you already. It’s a bit purer, in an odd way. Or perhaps I am just romanticizing it. What do you think?”

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Page 975

Again, Hector wasn’t sure what to say, so he just said, “O-okay. Uh. Good.”

<“You’re being careful, too, aren’t you?”> said Lynn. <“Maybe I’m not the best person to give a lecture on not taking risks, but... um...”>

Hector felt like he was supposed to say something here, but jack shit came to mind, and he looked to Garovel another time.

Tell her you’re being careful, you idiot.

But I’m not really--

SHUT UP AND LIE TO HER. DO IT NOW.

“Uh--y-yeah,” Hector blurted, “I’m being cautious. I mean, I have to protect Garovel ‘n all, so...”

<“...Right.”>

He couldn’t tell if that meant she’d bought it or not. After a few more moments of unbearable silence, however, he decided to try and end this before he said some other stupid thing. “Well, uh... I should probably go now...”

<“Ah--alright. Talk to you later, then.”>

“Bye. Uh. Good to--er. Bye.” His expression twisted as he hung up. He took a deep breath and shook his head.

Hector.’ Garovel’s voice was perfectly flat. ‘What in the holiest of fucks was all that about?

I don’t know... I always fuck things up. Agh...

Hmm. You don’t even realize it, do you?

He sighed. ‘Realize what?

How WELL you just did. I mean. For you. That was pretty incredible.

What? Garovel, I’m really not in the mood to be made fun of right now...

Garovel just stared at him.

And Hector didn’t understand the reaper’s abrupt silence, but he was grateful for it, nonetheless. He sifted through his phone for Madame Carthrace’s number, and his feet wandered closer to the edge of the small ridge, allowing a better view of the road directly below. It wasn’t a long drop, and he noticed a few people with familiar faces standing at the base. One of those faces belonged to Ibai Blackburn.

As luck would have it, the aberration happened to be looking up at that same moment and so noticed Hector immediately. A swirl of brown shadow later, Ibai was standing right there next to him.

Hector decided to pocket his phone and call Amelia later.

Ibai was smiling, of course. “Hello again,” he said as his four bodyguards bounded up from behind him. They landed with one quick thud after another, but he paid them no mind. “Ah, is this your reaper? We were never properly introduced. I’m Ibai.”

Charmed,’ said Garovel.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Page 974

Hector straightened. “Ah... Garovel wants to know about the Sandlords.”

<“What about them?”>

“What about them, Garovel?”

The reaper’s bony brow twisted. ‘Ask what they’re up to. We heard they were having trouble with Abolish before, so have there been any notable developments with that? Or any other problems, maybe?

It took him a bit longer, but Hector relayed the reaper’s questions. More or less.

<“As far as I can tell, the Sandlords don’t like to discuss that type of thing openly,”> said Lynn. <“But the news has been a little odd.”>

“Odd, how?”

<“Ah---um, I should preface this by saying that I had to ask someone to translate for me. The news is in Valgan, you know, so... just, don’t get mad at me if I got something wrong here, alright?”>

Hector blinked as he listened, feeling a sudden worry that his own awful speech patterns might be having some kind of negative effect on her. And without even thinking, he said, “I doubt I could ever get mad at you.”

There came a very long pause.

His eyes widened as he realized what had just come out of his mouth. He wanted to take it back, but he was too afraid to say anything else. When he looked at Garovel, the reaper’s hollow eye sockets had grown larger as well.

<“...Well, uh.”> It was her turn to clear her throat. <“I just thought the news seemed odd because there are a lot of mysterious reports going around. Freak industrial accidents. Disappearing pets. Brushfires. Even a rise in burglaries and murders.”>

Hector’s brow lowered. “Where have these things been happening?”

<“Zebul, Guldamere, Shara, Egas--all over eastern Sair.”>

“Hmm... Do they think it’s Abolish?”

<“I assume so, but who knows? This place has been so busy. It seems like the Sandlords have had to dispatch people to investigate a new problem every few hours.”>

“Huh. That’s... unsettling.”

<“Yeah.”>

“Maybe you should head back to Atreya soon...”

<“Ha. That’s not up to me, Hector. Why? Are you worried about us?”>

“Uh... well, yeah. These Rainlords and Sandlords... they’re no joke, Lynn. I’ve seen them fight with my own eyes, and they scare the hell out of me--way more than anyone we fought back home. So... I mean, anyone who thinks they can go up against these guys is either really stupid or really dangerous.”

<“I see. Well, I’m sure Prince Meriwether knows that, too, but I’ll tell him what you said.”>

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Page 973

Hector just froze up again. He heard Lynn sigh.

<“Alright, well... can you at least tell me if you will be returning to Kuros anytime soon?”>

“Oh. Um. Er... are you still in Kuros?”

<“Yeah. After you left, Prince Meriwether decided to stay a while longer and spend some extra time with his children. I think he was worried about leaving you without a ride back to Atreya.”>

“Ah... o-okay. But I don’t, uh... I don’t think I’ll be back in Kuros very soon. You probably shouldn’t wait for me. I’ll try to bum a ride off the Rainlords or something.”

<“Okay. How are things going with them, anyway? I’ve been following the news, but it hasn’t been able to tell me much, other than the fact there’ve been a lot of evacuations.”>

“Ah, things have...” He cleared his throat and lowered his voice. “Er, things’ve gone fairly well, actually. I was kinda surprised, uh. I thought there’d be a lot of casualties, but I haven’t seen any whatsoever.”

<“Really?”>

“Yeah. The Rainlords are really nice, too. Very, um--very careful and respectful.” He paused. “Well, most of them, anyway...”

<“Huh. That’s good to hear.”>

Hector felt an awkward silence creeping in and snapped to the realization that it was his turn to pose a question. “W-what, um, what about you? How did the, uh... the thing go?”

Lynn breathed half a laugh. <“The thing?”>

“The, ah... agh, the negotiation thing? Between the Prince and Lord Saqqaf?”

<“Oh, I’m not too sure. Lord Saqqaf agreed to provide us with some money, but I think Prince Meriwether had been hoping for a lot more.”>

Hector scratched his cheek with his free hand. He felt like there was a more important question he should ask, but all he could think of was, “What was Lord Saqqaf like? I mean--er, did you meet him?”

<“Yeah, I met him. He asked me where I got my gauntlet.”>

“Oh. What’d you tell him?”

<“That the Vanguard gave it to me.”>

“Eesh... you sure that was wise?”

<“Not really, no. What would you have said?”>

“Uh... hmm.”

<“Exactly.”>

“Maybe... an unnamed friend gave it to you.”

<“Then he might’ve asked who.”>

“Well, you could’ve said that you were protecting their identity or something.”

<“Oh yeah, because that doesn’t sound suspicious.”>

“Hmm...”

Garovel decided to intervene. ‘This is a lovely chat ‘n all, but you should ask about the Sandlords.