Friday, August 28, 2015

Page 1077

“Jimmy!” Madison shrieked, leaping out of her seat while still trying to brush the tears from her eyes.

Roman spared her a look as he nursed his hand. Admittedly, he’d never been very good at normal fighting. He’d been full of fiery confidence a second ago, but now that he was thinking about it more clearly, he might be in trouble if Darius decided to get back up.

Which he did. And then a few apparent buddies emerged from the crowd to join him.

“Gentleman,” Roman tried, “I’m sure you’re all very reasonable. Your friend here had it coming. Just look at the young lady there. He was clearly upsetting her.”

None of them so much as glanced at Miss Reach. “How dare you lay a hand on one of us, peasant,” someone said.

Roman scratched his brow. “Did you just call me a peasant? I’m sorry, did we travel five hundred years into the past, or are you just an idiot?”

Surprisingly, that didn’t seem to placate their anger.

And Roman sighed, knowing what was about to happen. In order to maintain his cover, he was gonna have to get his ass beat, at least until security got here. Assuming they would even bother to come help him.

Agh, I’m so bored,’ came Voreese’s unhelpful interruption. ‘This plan of yours is really unfair, you know. At least you get to enjoy all that ritzy, high society bullshit. Meanwhile, I’m stuck here with someone who can’t even see me.

Roman watched them close in around him. ‘Well, it’s not the most enjoyable party I’ve ever been to.

Oh, why? Do they not have those crab shits you like so much?

He avoided the first punch, as well as the second, but the third caught him right on the jaw and sent him stumbling into the grip of a much larger man. ‘They’re not crab shits.

Man, I wonder what Hector and Garovel are doing. Whatever it is, I bet it’s way better than this monotonous fuckery.

Voreese. Gonna need you to shut up right now.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Page 1076

“You think a few movies and a bit of fame have changed you?” Darius went on. “I suppose I can’t blame you. I thought so, too, at one point. That’s the only reason I ever bothered dating you. But I learned, so why can’t you? You have no value, Madison. Those gaudy clothes are worth more than you are. You can play dress up all you like, but we both know the truth. You’ll always be a junkie. And the only reason these people let you near them is because you amuse them. Their drug-addled little monkey.”

Roman could hardly even process what he was hearing. Mostly, though, he didn’t understand why Madison was just sitting there, listening to this. Granted, he didn’t really know her very well, but he would’ve expected her to tear Darius’ head off by this point. It made no sense.

Or wait--was she actually listening to him? Maybe she’d fallen asleep or something. Roman’s view of her was obscured by Darius’ head, so he couldn’t be sure. He refocused his hearing another time, trying to find Madison’s voice. There was something there, behind Darius’ rambling. Breathing? Uneven, maybe. Erratic. And slight hiccups, perhaps? Faint, but--

Roman’s expression went completely blank as he realized.

She was crying.

And Darius was still going. “But hey, it’s not your fault that you came from trash. Both parents addicts? You had no chance. Don’t you see? No one understands you the way I do. You’ll never find--” He cut himself off when he saw Roman pushing through the crowd toward him and stood up straight. “Ah, Jimmy. Is something--?”

Roman punched him hard enough to break his own fist.

The man dropped like a sack of bricks, but he wasn’t dead. Probably. Roman had deliberately not used his ability or soul power.

Page 1075

Enrico wasn’t giving up, though. “Does that mean I can expect a nice bit of intel, later tonight?”

“Oh, you can expect much more than that, my bad little doggie.”

Roman immediately began choking. Then he horked up the crab puff, which sailed right into the wine glass of the Steccati President, who was already staring right at him. Roman frowned and bit his lip at the same time.

They shared a moment of silent contemplation from different sides of the snack table, and then the other man slowly set his wine glass down. Roman fled into the crowd behind him.

He made his way back toward Madison, traumatized and determined to keep his head down for the remainder of the evening. His only solace was the fact that Voreese hadn’t been here to see that.

His bath of hot shame was interrupted, however, when he spotted Madison’s table from a distance, but saw someone leaning over his chair. Judging from the familiar suit, it was Darius. The man seemed to be whispering into Madison’s ear as he eyed the crowd around them.

Suitably suspicious, Roman decided. Fortunately, he was still far enough away for Darius not to notice him, so he decided to resort to a new trick that he’d been working on.

He turned his body perpendicular to Darius and Madison, then rubbed his ear with one hand. A funnel of controlled particle vibrations extended out from his hand, completely invisible to the naked eye as it searched for the words coming out of Darius’ mouth.

It required quite the delicate touch, this technique, and he still hadn’t really mastered it yet, but after a few moments of careful tuning, Roman found what he was looking for.

“--never seen anything so pathetic,” came Darius’ voice. It was muddled but still clearly him. “It’s incredible that you still think you belong here. It’s incredible that you thought you ever could belong here.”

Roman cocked an eyebrow and squinted as he listened.

Page 1074

“Oh, no, madame, I’m afraid there isn’t,” said the other voice. “From what I hear, she is quite busy abroad and won’t be visiting us for another few months.”

“Is that so? What a shame. I’ve been hoping to meet with her for a while now. Not an easy person to find, that one.”

“Indeed, indeed, I know that problem well. Both the president and the prime minister have been attempting to coordinate a meeting with her for more than a year now. They haven’t been very pleased by how little regard she seems to have for them.”

“Mm, I’m sure to her, a five-year presidency feels like little more than a fad, at this point.”

“They fear she sees them as children. I only worry that she would be justified in doing so. Some of their suggestions to me about how I might get her attention... they strike me as no better than tantrums.”

The rainbow-haired woman laughed. “I do sympathize.” She paused, perhaps for a drink. “But that’s also why I come to you, Enrico, and not them. Middle management is always more reliable when push comes to shove, I’ve found.”

Upper middle, thank you.”

“Of course.”

Enrico cleared his throat. “Mm, but now you’ve made me curious. What business does the Vaghrakaanas have with Sai-hee, exactly?”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t really give details.”

“Oh, come on. You have to give me something. That’s how we’re able to maintain this lovely little give-and-take, you and I.”

“Of course, but you never know who could be listening.”

Roman scratched his nose and turned toward the banquet of hors-d’oeuvres behind him. They had crab puffs, he noticed. No sense in letting those go to waste just because he was working.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Page 1073

Regardless, he had something to go on now. If nothing else tonight panned out, he could at least resort to following Darius around in order to find out more about this Andalero group.

He considered asking Madison for more information, but he didn’t think he could manage it without arousing her suspicion. Instead, he stood up from the table. “Bathroom,” he said. “Back in a bit.”

Miss Reach barely even acknowledged him.

Roman ventured off, navigating his way through the crowd as he searched for Darius’ face again. All he needed to do was plant a tracker on the man, and then he would be set. Any more intel he could gather after that point would just be a bonus, as far as he was concerned.

Unfortunately, Roman couldn’t find the damn guy. After a good ten minutes of looking, he was about to give up when something entirely different caught his attention.

A ghostly crow. Finally, a reaper. It was hovering next to a woman with rainbow-colored hair.

Roman averted his gaze just enough to keep the pair of them in his peripheral vision and moved closer until he could make out what the woman was saying.

“--ha, that’s very kind of you to say, but please, don’t do anything dramatic on my account. I won’t be staying long. I doubt anyone who's looking for me will bother you, but if they do, just cooperate and tell them everything. I can protect myself, I assure you. I’d feel much worse if something happened to you just for helping me.”

“Ah. I do not like it, but as you wish.”

“I’m glad you see things my way. Anyhow, I wanted to ask: is there any chance that we might see the Peacemaker here sometime tonight?”

Roman blinked as he kept listening.

Page 1072

Another look around the fete had Roman agreeing with her. ‘Yeah, it is... But I’m trying to not get us killed. That’s important, you know.

Yeah, whatever.

I did find out that the Hammer of Steccat has returned from Jesbol, though. That’s something, right?

No,’ she said flatly. ‘You’re not there to learn about the Vanguard, you shit burger.

Yeah, I know that, you ass crack. But I don’t even have a face to go on here.’

Well, that sounds like your problem.

Well, it’s not. If I don’t find this ‘Andalero’ person, then all of this has been for nothing.

Have you asked Madison about the name? She probably knows lots of people.

Egh. I’d rather not get involved with her any more than I already am, but...

Use all resources at your disposal,’ said Voreese.

Yeah, alright.

Between all of the introductions and agonizingly light conversation, it was actually quite difficult to find the opportunity to ask Miss Reach anything, but after they sat down for a meal together, he finally managed it. “Do you know anyone named Andalero?”

Madison paused mid-bite, a chunk of her leafy salad dangling from her mouth. She stared at him as she finished chewing. “Is that supposed to be a joke?” she eventually asked. “If it is, it’s not funny.”

Roman returned a confused look. “Did I say something wrong? I wasn’t trying to upset you. And believe me, I’d tell you if I was.”

She pursed her lips at him, but then said, “Andalero isn’t someone’s name. It’s a club. A clique, really. One that Darius belongs to.”

“Oh. Sorry, I didn’t know.”

She just shook her head and went back to eating. There were other people at the table, but they’d given up trying to converse with her. Roman hadn’t really been paying attention to what she’d been doing, so he didn’t know what had put her in such a bad mood. Probably something to do with Darius, he figured.

Page 1071

“As far as I see it, the Hammer can do nothing but good things for this nation.”

“Maybe our young folk’ll finally have a real role model to look up to for a change.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice. Assuming they even know who he is!”

“Oh, don’t even joke! They must, surely? The man is practically a founding father, for goddess’ sake.”

“I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if they claim to have never heard the name Kane before in their lives. If it’s not a musician or a movie star, they probably--”

He wasn’t sure he wanted to keep eavesdropping, but after another moment, it didn’t matter, because Miss Reach was pulling him away, having apparently concluded her conversation with Darius.

“Ugh, that was a nightmare,” she said, already looking like she was ready to leave. But then she rounded on him. “And you! What the hell was that, huh, Jimmy?! There’s no way he believed you! I’ve never seen anyone so bad at lying!”

“I’m sorry, Miss Reach.”

“Agh, whatever. I guess I can’t really blame you. Dressed like that, there’s not much you could’ve done, anyway.”

Indeed, his generic coachman’s hat and coat probably hadn’t impressed Darius very much. He noticed, however, Miss Reach had not let go of his arm yet. And it seemed she was not going to, now that he was supposed to be making Darius jealous.

This was far from ideal. He wasn’t sure how much actual scouting he would be able to get done if he had to be anchored to this woman for the rest of the night.

After a while of superficial mingling and no progress, he was beginning to grow restless and was actually relieved at the soundless interruption for a change.

Hey, Roman, why is your plan so boring?

It’s not... that boring,’ he said.

It’s pretty boring,’ said Voreese.

Page 1070

As he surveyed the crowd for the tenth time, trying to put a bit more distance between himself and Miss Reach, his ears finally caught whiff of a promising conversation.

“--oh, the Hammer?” an elderly man’s voice was saying. “You mean that old lummox has finally returned?”

“Oh yes,” said the voice of an elderly woman. “Hadn’t you heard?”

“What prompted--? Oh, the war! Of course! Wow. So does that mean he’s back for good, now that it’s done?”

“Who knows? I can’t imagine the Peacemaker’s people will be too pleased about it, though.”

“Mm. They have gotten comfortable here, haven’t they? They’ll probably worry that he’s come to stir up trouble.”

“You know, I hope he has. It’s been so dreadfully dull around here, and I can think of a few folks who deserve a right good thrashing.”

“Oh, you terrible woman! Not that I disagree, though!”

They shared a laugh, which devolved into hacking coughs on both sides.

As he listened to them slowly recovering, he couldn’t help glancing in their direction. Unless his eyes deceived him, that old man used to be Steccat’s Chief Treasurer, while the old woman had been the Chief of Defense. He might not have recognized them if he hadn’t done his homework on all of the attendees tonight.

As soon as their phlegm-filled intermission ended, the old woman spoke up again. “Honestly, young people today have gotten too full of themselves. And why? Because of a few movies?”

“We’ve become a nation of entertainers, it seems.”

“Don’t I know it! All the glitz and glamour has gone to their heads--and this, in spite of the fact that they’re clearly this country’s softest generation since the Hammer left.”

“Mm. Steccati aristocracy--it’s become synonymous with ‘high art.’ Whatever that means.”

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Page 1069

“Oh, this is my date,” said Madison, pulling him closer. “Jimmy. James, I mean. He’s--” She hesitated as she glanced at Darius. “He’s not from around here.”

“Interesting.” Darius offered a hand. “You seem a bit underdressed, friend. Not that I’m one to judge people on that sort of thing.”

After a beat, he took Darius’ handshake with a confident laugh. “Oh yeah, the outfit. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m actually a billionaire in disguise. This is all a very delicate undercover operation.”

And to the man’s credit, Darius returned a laugh of his own, though it seemed more polite and uncertain than actually amused. Darius turned his attention back to Madison.

Their conversation meandered between pleasantries and probably a few veiled jabs at one another, but he wasn’t interested enough to keep listening. Instead, he scanned the crowd and tried to focus on the other conversations going on around him. Though, really, his search would be dramatically simplified if he could just spot one of those ethereal crows.

Then came the interruption that he’d been expecting for the last hour.

So how’s it going?

Fine,’ he said.

You sure? ‘Cuz I can still book it on over there, if you need me.

I don’t.’ Having a reaper following him around would just give his position away to any other servants here. But she knew that already and was probably just bored.

You find your lead yet?’ she asked.

Still looking.’

I really hope this one pans out. Why isn’t there just like a number we can call, huh? A hotline or something. You’d think someone called the Peacemaker would be easier to make contact with.

You should tell her that after we find her.

I know you’re being sarcastic, but fuck you, maybe I will.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Page 1068

Her face scrunched up. “What’s impossible? I could talk to anyone here tonight! Why do you think they invited me, huh? I am a goddess in this country! They love my movies!”

“No, I was talking about being nice to you. No way I’m doin’ that.”

“Ugh! Again with this?! Why did my agent even hire you?!”

“Because you fired your last ten assistants over stupid shit, and now no one else wants this job?”

“What?! How dare you talk to me like that!”

“I’m sorry, Miss Reach.”

“Oh, you’re sorry?! You’re sorry?!”

“Nah, I was just being polite.”

“WHAT?! I will can your ass so quickly--”

“Hey, isn’t that your ex-boyfriend?”

She stopped cold and looked where he was pointing. As soon as she spotted the other man, she spun back around. “Oh my god!” she whispered “What is he doing here?!”

“I imagine he was invited.”

She pressed her lips together a moment. “Is he with someone?”

“Looks like it.”

“Is she pretty?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Shit!”

“Why don’t you go talk to him?”

“Are you kidding?! No!”

“Well, I think he noticed you.”

“What?!”

“Yeah, he’s coming this way.”

“Shit shit shit! I didn’t bring a date! Jimmy, you have to distract him--”

“Too late.”

Miss Reach spun around, all smiles. “Darius! Sweetie! Great to see you!”

Darius returned a smile of his own. “You look well, Madison. Ah, and this is Amanda, of course. I’m sure you know of her.”

“Of course!” said Madison. “You were amazing in Elementary Love! Really knocked it out of the park! Y’know, I’m surprised we haven’t met before, actually! We should definitely do lunch sometime!”

The other woman gave a nod and a placid smile. “And who is this?”

Page 1067 -- CXXII.

Hector knew he didn’t have time to stay down. He rolled off the pile of lavatorial debris he’d made and sprinted for the door, but a string of explosions sent him through another wall instead. He could hardly tell what was happening, but he could hear acid hissing against his armor and feel the fumes burning his nostrils. He found himself in a darker room this time, perhaps some kind of storage closet, but he didn’t get the opportunity to check, instead hearing that deep piping sound closing in again.


Chapter One Hundred Twenty-Two: ‘Diversion of Fire...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

The evening fete was finally underway. There had to be hundreds of people here, most with very recognizable faces. Unfortunately, he needed to find a face that he didn’t recognize. At the moment, all he had to go on was a name.

“Jimmy, don’t walk so fast!” came that agonizing voice.

The last twenty-four hours had been an exercise in patience, thanks to that voice--or rather, thanks to the person it belonged to.

He had to resist the urge to break out into a run. “Yes, Miss Reach,” he said instead.

“What’re you in such a hurry for, anyway?” She held her hand out for her purse, and he gave it to her. She retrieved a compact mirror from it, checked her face for half a second, and then promptly returned it to him. “Excited to see someone?”

“Something like that.”

“Mm,” she mused. Even among all the fanciful dress around, her attire stuck out. The strings of feathers in her blond hair and the huge sleeves on her long dress gave it a faintly tribal look, even if the colors on it were probably too varied and bright. “Well, if you’re nice to me, maybe I’ll go talk to whoever it is you’re interested in.”

“Impossible,” he said.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Page 1066

Hector pushed on through the debris. If he couldn’t rely on Garovel, then he would just have to find Lord Asad himself. He materialized a cloud of iron dust ahead of him in order to scout out for any more invisible opponents in his path.

There were at least a dozen.

Hector summoned a field of spikes over the whole area but didn’t stop moving for a moment. With a flourish of his free hand, he annihilated a path for himself. His opponents were already doing similarly for themselves.

...Agh, Hector...

Garovel?!

Go to... shards...

Shards?

Another string of explosions stole his attention, nearly knocking him off his feet. He stumbled through a wall of smoke and fire but found his balance again and kept stomping onward. He’d nearly reached the underground entrance.

Garovel?

The reaper did not respond.

Hector racked his brain as he ran. Shards? What shards? Was that supposed to help him locate Asad? How would--?

And it hit him. He knew exactly where to go now.

The doors on the underground entrance flew from their hinges as Hector bulldozed through and stormed up the nearest staircase. It was time for another cloud of iron dust, he decided, and sure enough, there were plenty more hostiles waiting for him down the next hallway.

There was nothing for it, he supposed. He just had to push through. He leaned even farther into his run and prepared to weather still more shit.

Something changed, however. In an instant, all of his opponents were suddenly visible. It happened so suddenly that he lost focus and nearly stumbled.

A path of destruction caught his shield, which took the attack admirably, but the impact still put him through a wall. He brought down a line of bathroom stalls and landed on his back.

Page 1065

“Papa?” was all Emiliana had to say, and the ice dematerialized. The bodies of Zeff’s victims were still not visible, Marcos noticed, but there was so much blood that it dripped from the ceiling and splashed against a dozen red puddles on the floor.

With her arm around one of Zeff’s, Emiliana led everyone out of the room, and together, the Elroys left blood-soaked footprints as they made their way down the hall.

-+-+-+-+-

Dunehall was finally in sight again. The constant assault from every direction made it feel like he was running underwater. He’d tried launching himself on platforms, only to be knocked off course and forced back to the ground. He couldn’t remotely make out what was hitting him. In the low light, it was just an indistinguishable flurry of shit, but he had little doubt that it had all been materialized.

The shield did its job, though, and he pushed onward, recreating his full plate armor each time it was destroyed. On that front, he was also seeing progress. At first, the armor had only lasted a few seconds before being melted away or exploded apart, leaving his shield-strengthened flesh to weather the brunt of the force; but now, the armor was lasting longer, and while Hector had a vague idea why that was, he didn’t have time to stop and question right now. He only knew that he wanted his armor to be stronger and that his soul power was making it happen.

Garovel,’ Hector thought in the middle of a fully armored sprint, ‘can you sense Asad yet?

He waited, but there was no answer.

Garovel!

A pair of deep piping noises demanded his attention, and Hector rolled through a picket fence to his right, out of the way of two destructive paths that dug up the sidewalk and sent chunks of dirt and concrete and splintered wood flying past him.