Friday, September 21, 2018

TZKS will return on October 6th

Hey, everyone. I'm sorry for the radio silence all this time. It's been a hell of a year for my family. I meant to give you guys an update ages ago, but I just kept getting distracted and putting off, and time got away from me.

I guess I needed more time away than I thought. I'm very sorry for taking so long to get back to you. I can't thank you enough for all the support you've given me over the years, but especially lately. Many of you have sent me emails expressing your concerns, and I can only thank you for your kind words.

But yeah, I'm still not QUITE ready to start posting again. I'm gearing up for it, though. Going through my notes. Rereading. Reminding myself of lots of thing. And actually writing new text, of course. That part's pretty important.

I'm gonna do what was working for me before, which was building up a backlog. That's my current game plan. As the title of this post says, I just need a bit more time to get back into the swing of things. Thank you for your patience.

In the meantime, however, there is something you guys could do for me. Considering how long TZKS has become, and how many mysteries still permeate the text, I've begun wondering which of those mysteries you guys are most eager to get answers to.

Or in other words: what are your most burning questions?

Of course, I'm not promising to answer them anytime soon, as I have many plans for when and where I want to reveal certain things, but I'd still like to hear from you guys on this. The feedback could prove very helpful, both in the short- and long-term. So please leave a comment, if you can think of anything.

That's about it for now. I'll see you on October 6th. And as always, thank you for reading.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 2

Rex’s brow receded. “That right?”

“It is.” Colt bent down to pull his kids out of the car and show the man.

Rex’s brow receded even farther upon laying eyes on them. “Wow. Well. Color me surprised. Shocked, even.”

A child in each arm, Colt closed the door with his leg. “Shocked, huh? Is it really so unbelievable? Seems like a great little town you’ve got here.”

“Oh, it is. It is.” It took the sheriff a moment to find his smile again. “Of course it is. Just don’t get many visitors around these parts, much less folks who actually want to stick around.”

“Why’s that?” said Colt. “Any reason I should change my mind right now and turn around?”

“Oh, ah, no, nothing like that. Unless you count my ex-wife. Which I would, if I were you.”

Colt was able to smirk at that. “I hear you, brother.”

The man gave a short but hefty laugh and stepped closer. “I’m sure you’ll find that the locals around here are as friendly as can be. But we have had a string of burglaries lately.”

“Oh?” That piqued his interest. He hadn’t seen or heard anything about that during his scouting.

“Yes, sir. It’s nothin’ too outrageous, not like you might see in the big city. Probably just some teenagers getting up to no good, but all the same, you’d do well to keep a close eye on your belongings while you’re here.”

While he was here? He just told him that this wasn’t a temporary visit. “I appreciate the warning, officer.”

“Sheriff,” the man clarified, pointing to the silver star on his chest.

“Ah. My mistake.”

Rex gave him a shrug and another smile, then eyed the children. “Adorable little darlings. Twins?”

“You can tell?”

“Sort of. Lucky guess, mainly. What’re their names?”

“Stephanie and Thomas.” Colt had thought long and hard about changing their names, but he’d ultimately decided against it because of what that doctor had told him. Getting them to learn their own names at this stage in their development was important, so changing it on them now seemed like an unnecessary complication. No one was going to identify him through their first names. No one was even looking for him.

“Fitting. Oh, and what’s your name, sir? Never did ask.”

“Colton Thompson.”

The sheriff paused. “Thompson, huh? So then, your son’s name is Thomas Thompson?”

Colt didn’t even blink. “That’s right. And don’t blame me. His mother named him that.”

“Ah. And where is the little lady, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Colt did mind, actually, but he figured it would be best not to say so. “Dead,” he said flatly. That was a lie, of course, but he preferred it to the truth, not the least because admitting that she was in an institution for the criminally insane would likely spark more questions. Maybe Rex wouldn’t actually ask those questions, but Colt didn’t want the man thinking them, either.

And hey, maybe it wasn’t actually a lie. It had been a long time since he’d seen her, so technically, for all he knew, she could have died.

That would’ve been nice.

“I... see,” the man said. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

It took Colt a moment to realize that he was supposed to act sad. “Thank you. It’s been difficult since her passing.”

“I can imagine.”

That was good, because Colt honestly couldn’t. As far as he was concerned, his life had improved a thousand fold after that crazy bitch had been removed from it.

“Might I ask what it was that made you choose our humble little town?” said Rex. “Not every day we get new residents.”

Colt didn’t want to admit that he had come here because his grandparents were originally from Snider. He figured that would only lead to whole new line of questioning that he didn’t wish to answer, especially if this guy somehow happened to be familiar with Colt’s grandparents. Unlikely, maybe, but not outside the realm of possibility. Small towns were like that, after all.

Instead, Colt gave an answer that he felt would be much safer. “Wanted somewhere nice and quiet with a good community. This place seemed like a good choice.”

“Ah, I see. You’re a man of real taste, then! Orden is a great little town. And quiet, of course, yeah, I understand that. Unfortunately, I’d say we’re not quite as quiet as we used to be, what with being so close to the capital ‘n all. That city’s been growing like mad in recent years. That’s somethin’ we’ve all been worried about, actually. Don’t want our humble country lifestyle to disappear as those city lines inch closer, but ya know how it goes, sometimes. Not much we can do about that, eh?”

“I actually liked that the capital was so close,” said Colt.

“Oh.” A brief frown crossed the sheriff’s face before he wiped it clean with a smile again. “That so?”

“It is,” said Colt. “The big city has its benefits, after all.” Health and education came immediately to mind. In the even that the modest facilities here in Orden proved somehow inadequate, Colt had liked the thought of having relatively easy access to the more extensive ones in Lagaroc.

“That, it does,” said Rex. “Plenty of extra appeal for young bucks like us, am I right?”

Colt cocked an eyebrow. “That sarcasm I hear?”

“Why, yessir, it is.”

“You don’t think you’re young anymore? You can’t be a day over thirty-five.”

“Heh, I appreciate the compliment, friend. I’m thirty-two but sometimes, I feel twice that.”

Thirty-two was pretty damn young for a sheriff, Colt thought. “Maybe you should go see a doctor, then.”

“Nah, it’s just the job. Makes a man feel his age, this line of work.”

Oh, yeah, patrolling a sleepy little town for rowdy teenagers must’ve really been eating away at his soul.

Fuckin’ dumbass had no idea how good he had it.

Rex wasn’t done running his stupid mouth, however. “You sure you wouldn’t be happier living somewhere with a bit more excitement? I know you got kids ‘n all, but somethin’ tells you’re a man who lives for adventure.”

“Oh, no, not me,” said Colt as genuinely as he could manage. “I’ll take order and stability over adventure, any day.”

Rex squinted at him. “That right?”

“Yes, sir.” Colt knew exactly what he was doing. He was trying to look him in the eye, get the measure of him. Too bad Colt’s sunglasses were in the way, and the sheriff had no justification for asking him to remove them.

After a few moments, the man relented. “Well, if you say so. But are you sure your kids’ll like it here? Youngins need stimulation and whatnot, right? Won’t find much of that here in Orden, I’m afraid.”

At that, Colt paused. What the hell was this? It was perfectly normal for the local sheriff to take an interest in a new resident, but was that really all this was? Because it was starting to sound like he was trying to dissuade him from living here.

But what sense did that make? Colt had already asked the guy if there was any reason to change his mind and go live somewhere else, and the man hadn’t offered any actual reasons.

Maybe this guy really was a fucking idiot.

Well, shit. It was best to be direct with idiots, Colt had always found. “...Sheriff, is there some reason why you think we shouldn’t stay here?”

And Sheriff Rex Margot just stared at him for a moment.

A long moment.

“Ah,” Rex finally said. “Sorry, did you say something? I must’ve missed it.”

Colt resisted the urge to conclude their conversation by strangling him. “...I said, is there some reason why you think we shouldn’t stay here, in Orden?”

Rex gave him another big smile. “Oh, no, no, no. Orden’s a wonderful place. If everything you just told me is true, then I’m sure you’ll find it very cozy and welcoming.”

Why was he becoming less convinced of that, all of a sudden?

“Anyway, I suppose I’ve taken up enough of your time,” said Rex. “I’ll leave you to it, then. Pleasure meeting you, Mr. Thompson.”

“Same here, Sheriff.”

Colt watched him walk over to his patrol car and drive away.

Hmm.

He supposed if the sheriff’s intention had been to unsettle him, then the man had achieved his goal.

Fuckin’ prick.

Colt filled up his own car’s gas tank and then went inside the shop, taking the kids with him. It wasn’t particularly hot outside, so they probably would have been fine on their own for a little while, but there was no way he was going to risk it. For all he knew, some fucking psycho could come along and kidnap them while he wasn’t looking.

Also, he felt like having the kids with him made him look like much less of a suspicious asshole.

It was all for naught, though, because the store didn’t have much that he was interested in. Not even any diapers. What kind of grocery store didn’t have diapers? He paid for his gas and left.

With Orden being so small, there wasn’t a whole lot to do or see, but it did help him to remember where everything was. With all the scouting he’d done, he already had town’s layout memorized, so he already knew where he would most likely be able to find diapers. The local market was one of the largest buildings in Orden and the big neon sign with the word “ANYTHING” on it was pretty difficult to miss.

It was a strange name, Colt though. What kind of person names their store Anything? The kind of person named Fred Millerman, apparently. Colt had scouted this guy, too, of course. Owning the largest shop in town obviously pointed to him being one of the most influential people around, and what Colt was able to learn of the guy only seemed to confirm that.

Fred was a middle-aged man of above average height and a full head of inky black hair. And yet, Colt didn’t think that anyone would claim the guy had been burdened with an overabundance of physical charm. Colt wasn’t usually one to give even half of a shit about anyone’s appearance, but Fred’s lopsided face was difficult to ignore, as was the scar that extended down the left side of it.

Often, scars had an odd appeal to them in their own way, but not Fred Millerman’s. His scar had a discomforting sort of sheen to it, and rather than looking twisted or gnarled, the flesh looked more bloated and sickly smooth, as well as paler than his already pale skin. It was a burn scar, Colt was fairly sure, and it looked like the guy might’ve endured a botched surgery or two in an attempt to fix it.

Colt pitied the poor bastard, but not that much. Instead, he was more interested in learning what kind of person was behind that fucked up mug, though not because Colt was looking for a friend. In his time as a cop, Colt had encountered a few other people cursed with that level of hideousness, and he’d come to notice a few similarities between them.

He felt that there was something that happened to a person psychologically when they had an appearance like that. Other environmental factors were at play, of course, but in Colt’s experience, it seemed like there were basically only two possible outcomes for something this extreme. Either the person was one of the nicest, most compassionate people Colt had ever seen... or the exact opposite. A real, genuinely heartless monster.

Colt wasn’t sure why that was. It was just something he’d noticed. He suspected that it had something to do with how different people reacted in overwhelming cruelty and trauma, but then again, maybe it was a chicken and egg scenario. He might’ve asked a psychologist about it, if he’d ever met one who seemed like they actually knew what the fuck they were talking about.

Regardless, all of this meant that Colt had become keenly aware of Fred Millerman. From what Colt had seen during his time scouting the city, Fred didn’t seem like an especially dangerous son of a bitch, but that was far from confirmative. It was true that people who were genuinely monstrous usually didn’t know how to regulate their behavior, much less hide it, but exceptions certainly existed.

He was one such exception himself, Colt knew.

Whatever the case, he didn’t intend to let his guard down around this Fred Millerman anytime soon. Or ever, for that matter.

“Will this be all, sir?” said Fred after Colt had finished placing the items from his cart on the checkout desk.

Diapers, baby food, and a can of mixed nuts was all he’d picked up, but the shopping cart had been useful to let the kids ride in. He would’ve liked to pick up a stroller, but he hadn’t been able to find any. Pretty disappointing for a store called Anything, he felt.

Maybe he just had to ask, though.

“Actually,” said Colt, “do you have any strollers?”

“No, sir,” said Fred, “but I can custom order one and have it here by lunch time, if you like.”

Huh. Interesting. “Alright, how much?”

Fred held up an index finger and turned to his computer.

While Colt waited, he stopped Thomas from chewing on his own thumb. The kids had pretty much all of their teeth now, and they’d become quite the annoying little biters.

Colt kept an eye on Fred, too, though. It was strange that the owner of the bigger store in town was tending the checkout himself. Granted, that wasn’t saying much in terms of size, but Colt was pretty sure the guy normally had a couple teenagers working for him. An airheaded-looking girl and a boy with a serious acne problem. He might’ve asked where they were if it wouldn’t have given away how much he knew about Fred’s life.

“Would I be correct in presuming that you would like a double stroller?” said Fred, eyeing the twins.

“Yeah.”

“Are there any other features you’d like it to have?”

“Ah... what sort of features?”

“Cup holders, extra wheels, extra pockets, extra cushions, a pull down cover--it’s a pretty long list.”

This was turning into a more complicated purchase than he’d expected. The old stroller that he’d used back in Atreya had just been some barely-holding-together piece of shit that the twins’ mother had shown up with, one day. He hadn’t been missing it terribly.

And perhaps the scarred businessman could sense, because he started scribbling something on a piece of paper. “Here are the general price ranges we’re talking about.” He slid the paper over. “I can show you some pictures as well, if you like.”

Hmm. Pretty steep, some of those prices. But you got you what paid for, right? He didn’t really want the kids riding around in another cheap pile of crap.

Agh, but he also had to conserve funds. And from what he’d come to learn of Sniderian financial law, all purchases over a thousand marcks were supposed to be logged and reported to the government for monitoring. The country had been infamous for its financial crimes a few years back, and international pressure had mounted in a pretty frightening way for the government here, as he recalled.

Of course, Colt had everything he needed in order to pass an identity or background check, but he still wasn’t exactly in love with the idea of having his activities logged in some database.

He was living in the woods, after all.

“Just give me something from here,” he said, pointing at the mid-tier price range.

“Very well, sir. One moment.”

Colt waited again. He’d heard someone’s footsteps approaching from behind a few moments ago and now turned to see who was there.

It was a blonde woman, maybe a few years younger than him. She was stunningly gorgeous as well, the complete and utter opposite of the man on the other side of the counter.

She was Alice Ridgemont, Colt knew. The local nun. Or priestess. Or whatever the fuck the women who devoted themselves to Cocora and covered themselves in white-and-gold robes were called.

Colt had never much cared for religion. And from what he’d seen, Orden didn’t much care for it, either. Alice’s chapel was a rundown pile of dogshit on the edge of town, and she was the only one using it. She, alone, comprised the entirety of the clergy here, apparently.

She was looking at the kids, then noticed him eyeing her. “Beautiful children,” she said.

“Thank you,” Colt told her.

“They’re yours?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

She held a hand up toward the kids and smiled warmly. “Do you mind?”

“...Do I mind, what?” he said flatly.

“Do you mind if I lay hands on them?”

“...Yes, actually, I do mind.”

She blinked at him, but her smile hardly diminished at all. “I... see. My apologies.”

Hmm. If her reaction was anything to go by, that wasn’t the first time she’d been shot down.

Colt almost felt bad. “I’m worried about your germs, not your religion.”

“Oh.” She pulled out a small bottle of hand sanitizer. “Then, would you be okay with it if I use this first?”

Colt’s expression remained unchanged. “Do you always carry that around with you?”

“Only when I go out looking for kind souls to bless.”

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 1

~ Part One ~
A New Man in an Old Place

The sun had just begun rising high enough into the canopy of leaves that long beams of sunlight were starting to angle their way toward his humble cabin in the forest. The deep, satisfying thunk of an axe splitting wood was the only noise that wasn’t ambient, and when that, too, ceased, the man once known as Jeremiah Colt wiped his brow and glanced over at his two children.

Stephanie and Thomas were both standing there behind the wooden bars of their makeshift playpen, staring at him like they were prisoners waiting for the warden to let them out.

He hated it when they did that. With as active as they’d gotten recently, he couldn’t very well let them roam around freely while he was swinging a damn axe, but did that stop them from giving him those big, sad eyes? Of course not.

He rested his axe and began taking stacks of freshly cut logs down into the cabin’s cellar. He might’ve liked to keep more firewood stored down there, but too much would just attract bugs. He figured it would be better to simply chop wood more frequently than risk having to deal with an infestation problem. He knew the quick turnover wouldn’t give the wood a chance to dry out properly, meaning it wouldn’t burn as cleanly, but there were many things about his circumstances that were less than ideal. That was the least of his problems.

When he was he done, he let the kids out and watched them walk around. They liked to play in the fallen leaves, so he’d gotten into the habit of making a pile for them. Thomas fell, but Colt resisted the impulse to help him back up. Instead, he watched the boy do it on his own and enjoyed the tinge of pride in his son that came along with it.

Much as he might have liked to sit around and just watch them, however, there was still more work to be done by nightfall.

He had never lived off the land to this extent before. These past few months had been a learning experience, to say the least. The cabin that he’d settled in was one that he’d visited a couple times in his youth. His grandfather had taken him here, purportedly to “show him a thing or two about how to be a real man.”

It had been hell, of course. The old bastard didn’t seem to care that he was only seven years old at the time. If he couldn’t find food, he went hungry. If he couldn’t build a shelter, he slept out in the open. If he couldn’t make a fire, he didn’t get to warm up or cook anything unless he begged and cried for help. And certainly, if he didn’t understand something after Grandpa explained it to him the first time, the old man made him feel like a complete fool.

But he’d learned. His grandpa, for all his harshness, never actually gave up on him--not like his worthless father had, at least. Perhaps that was the reason why these lessons had stayed with him so clearly more than twenty years later, even if some of the skills that accompanied said lessons had since become a little rusty.

The cabin had barely been standing when he found it again after all this time. The roof was almost entirely caved in, so the first task had been replacing it. Doing the job properly would take days of work cutting down trees and carving battens and hooked tiles out of the lumber, but for those first few nights, it had only been a badly-woven canopy of leaves that kept the rain out--and not very effectively, either, especially after the wind picked up and knocked half of it off.

After a couple weeks, however, his perpetual worries about the state of the cabin began to abate. His continuous attempts at maintenance paid off, more or less, and the creaking and groaning mostly stopped. He made sure the walls had fresh support beams, and any patches of wood that looked rotten were replaced. Insulation was a bit of a problem, but thankfully, much of the cabin’s original material was still usable, and for the areas where it wasn’t, he resorted to a mixture of mud, clay, and straw.

He could’ve simply gone into town and bought new insulation instead, but that wrapped bale of straw had just been sitting there in the basement. No point in wasting money when he didn’t have to, though he supposed he should replace the bale at his next opportunity. He couldn’t get more straw from the forest itself, and there was no telling when something like that might come in handy again.

And yes, it was difficult living without electricity, but the basement also had a nice cache of candles and matches, which made things easier. And the cabin didn’t have running water, either, but it did have a sliding chamber pot for easy cleaning. Relatively easy, anyway. He’d even managed to make his own soap from wood ashes and animal fat, though he bungled the boiling, filtering, and mixing process a few times. That had been frustrating, the first few days, but by now, he had it down to a science, and he’d started mixing in new scents to make the soap more like something that he could find in a store. He preferred lavender, but that stuff didn’t grow around here apparently, so he’d mostly been trying sandalwood and evergreen aromas. The kids seemed to like it better, at least--possibly a little too much, considering Stephanie had started trying to eat it.

All things considered, though, he couldn’t really ask for more.

Except maybe diapers. He would’ve killed someone if there was no other way he could get his hands on some proper diapers. He intended to get some from town eventually, but first, he tried to make some on his own. And he even succeeded, though not without many failed attempts, and his successes--while admirable--had been middling at best. Sure, the twins looked excruciatingly adorable in diapers made mostly out of leaves--like little Tarzan babies, really--but the leakage was still quite the problem.

He’d tried getting them started on potty training, but alas, they hadn’t taken to it very well yet.

Still, in spite of everything he was doing--all the time, effort, and resources he was pouring into this little place--he knew that it wasn’t enough. Not for much longer.

Yes, he’d succeeded in creating a relatively safe and stable environment for them here, and yes, he could teach them how to live off the land as they grew older, how to take care of themselves and one another--but what kind of lives would they have?

These were his children. His boy and girl. They deserved the world, even if it didn’t deserve them.

He knew that he would have to return to civilization eventually. Probably sooner rather than later. He’d known ever since he came here.

That was one of the reasons he’d chosen this old shack in the first place: because it was near enough to a town in the case of some sort of emergency, but not so near that he had to worry about unwanted visitors.

That town was called Orden, and he’d been sneaking into it periodically under the cover of darkness in order to scout it out and learn about its inhabitants. Bohwanox had been of help on that front, too, but he still preferred do his own scouting, as well. Thankfully, he didn’t have to worry about the twins crying and giving away his position, so he could simply take Stephanie and Thomas with him instead of leaving them alone in the cabin with only an intangible reaper to watch them.

He tried to avoid doing that whenever possible. It was still necessary when he had to go hunting--which was just about every day--but he tried to never be away from them for more than half an hour, and he was always ready to bolt back to them at the slightest word from Bohwanox.

Mostly, though, the reaper didn’t hang around with Colt very much. Bohwanox spent his time elsewhere, presumably in Lagoroc, the capital city, which was only about a ten minute drive from Orden.

Snider was a good country like that. Everything was close together. Not a whole lot of wilderness to wander around in. Colt’s patch of forest sat right on the border with Dante, perhaps even crossing over it. The exact lines were a bit unclear. That was what it was like living in the second smallest nation in the world.

Lagaroc, therefore, made up most of the country by itself, so it was a safe assumption on Colt’s part that Bohwanox would go there. He could’ve simply asked, but he frankly didn’t care that much. Sure, Bohwanox was important, and Colt knew that acquiescing to the reaper’s “commands” was a necessary part of his life now, but Bohwanox didn’t seem particularly interested in ordering him around, either. From what Colt could tell, the reaper just wanted to do precisely that: reap.

Orden, on the other hand, was a small enough that reaping wasn’t much of a priority. With a total population under one thousand and a peaceful social environment to boot, death was a rather infrequent occurrence, comparatively.

Which was good. Colt hadn’t come here to get stuck in another death trap. He’d come here to raise his kids.

And the people of Orden were going to help him do that.

Hopefully.

That was the biggest problem, he knew. No matter how hard he worked to provide for the twins, they needed to be around other kids if they were going properly socialized and develop into functional human beings.

If they were going to be normal, in other words.

That was perhaps his greatest fear. That they would turn out like him, instead. They already had his blood. That was already one strike against them. They didn’t need a fucked up life of solitude with their debatably sane father, too.

It was strange thing to be worried about, he thought, because he wasn’t ashamed of who he was, of what he’d done. He wasn’t proud, either. He just was. Reality was reality. He was who he was. And he was fine with that. He’d been fine with all his life, even when he was a little punk-ass elementary schooler, lighting shit on fire and picking fights with kids twice his size and just breaking things for the hell of it. He’d grown and changed, of course--learned what was acceptable behavior if he didn’t want to end up dead, broke, or in prison. But he’d never regretted who he was or what he’d done.

And yet, now, the idea that Stephanie or Thomas might take after him... or end up like him...

He just couldn’t allow that to happen. He couldn’t even really explain why, either. Maybe he was lying to himself. Maybe it was parental instinct. Or maybe it was a goddamn paradox. He didn’t give two cold shits, whatever it was. He only knew that he had to do something about it.

Which was why, after months of getting settled in the cabin and scouting Orden for potential danger, he was finally going to go into town today and let people see him. Him, and his two kids.

He had to clean himself up first, though. It wouldn’t do to look like some kind of hairy-assed wild man, not as a first impression. The last thing he wanted was to give anyone there a reason to think he might be an incapable parent. He knew only too well how nosy some people could be.

And that was the kind of thing that he would have to kill someone over.

So when he finally entered Orden for the first time, he was looking about as good as he could manage. He was cleanly shaven. His gray shirt and black pants were both freshly handwashed and air dried. His work shoes and old leather jacket had both been scrubbed mostly free of dirt and mud. His hair was cut short enough to remind him of his boring days in the Atreyan military. And he was wearing sunglasses, because of course he was. It was so goddamn bright out.

He wasn’t just here to meet people, though. He hoped to be able to get his hands on some supplies as well, and he hoped to get via trade as well. He had some money, but he didn’t want to dip into it unless he had to. He’d considered the option of trying to find a steady paycheck instead of the woodsman life, but he doubted that a town this small would have much work available. That, and he also didn’t want to leave the kids at the local daycare while he was busy at whatever crappy job he could find.

Bohwanox thought he was just being paranoid, but Colt didn’t really give a shit about the reaper’s opinion on this particular subject. He had been scouting the staff at said local daycare--with the reaper’s help, sometimes--and what he’d discovered was easily enough to disqualify them.

The manager, Nina Margot, was a heavy drinker who also liked to get behind the wheel of a car while doing so. If Colt was still a cop, he would’ve absolutely arrested her stupid ass by now. He thought about trying to get her caught red-handed by the local sheriff, but he just didn’t have that kind of free time on his hands, right now. Maybe later.

Then there were the two daycare employees, an elderly man by the name of Isaiah Marsh, and a teenage girl named Susan Rock. The old man was barely conscious enough to look after himself, let alone children, and the girl was a fucking pothead.

Colt had always hated potheads. Having attended a high school that was absolutely full of them back in the day, he’d come to see them as just about the pinnacle of obnoxiousness; and the thought that this girl might light up a joint while she was supposed to be looking after Thomas and Stephanie--or perhaps in front of them, even--well, that just wasn’t going to happen. And he definitely wasn’t going to pay for that kind of service, either.

If you’re looking for a perfect babysitter, then I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed,’ Bohwanox had told him.

They don’t need to be perfect. Just not pieces of shit.

Bit harsh, don’t you think?

No. Fuck ‘em.

You know, you’ll have to trust someone other than me, eventually.

No, I won’t. And I don’t really trust you, either, by the way.

Wow, okay.

The only reason I ever let you look after them is because it’s physically impossible for you to harm them. No offense.

Oh, yeah, sure, why would anyone be offended by that?

If he was being completely honest, Colt did find the reaper amusing every now and then, but trust was a strong word, he felt. When he genuinely stopped to think about it, there was probably only one person in the entire world whom he would trust to look after his kids for him. Sure, there were other people that he liked, people from his past, people he would’ve been happy to see again. But liking someone didn’t suddenly make that person competent and responsible.

Unfortunately, that one person he trusted was in a completely different country now.

He wondered how things were going for Hector back in Atreya. Colt had pretty much stayed completely off the grid all this time, only occasionally checking his phone for messages, but he had a feeling that if he found a real internet connection and searched for news about the Darksteel Soldier, he’d find plenty of information about the kid.

And most of it would probably be wrong, too. That was part of the reason why he hadn’t bothered with it in the first place. He didn’t much care to read a bunch of twisted truths and made up horseshit. That would probably just make him angry, and he wasn’t looking for a reason to go back to Atreya.

And besides, Hector would be fine. Better off, even.

Colt knew that was the truth. One hundred percent.

He drove into Orden via the main entrance, an old and tired archway that had the town’s name written on in it bold and fanciful letters. He parked in front of the very first building on the right, which was both a grocery store and a gas station.

As he exited his vehicle and gathered the kids up, however, he noticed a familiar man in a familiar uniform already approaching him.

Rexford Margot. Or Rex, for short. He was the son of the daycare lady.

And also Orden’s sheriff.

“Wow, that’s quite a vehicle you’ve got there, sir!” the man called out to him as he approached.

“Thank you,” said Colt, trying not sound immediately annoyed. He hadn’t gotten the kids out of the backseat yet and decided to let them just sit there for a bit longer, out of the sheriff’s view, for the time being. The ex-cop in him was curious what the man’s first words for him were going to be.

Rex stopped as he reached the front of the car, admiring the headlights. “Why, I don’t believe I’ve seen this beauty around town before. You must be new here.”

“I am.”

“Well, then! Welcome to Orden!” The sheriff showed him a wide, toothy smile. “I hope you won’t think me rude for asking, but we don’t get too many visitors around here, and this is a place where folks appreciate their peace, so would you tellin’ me your business?”

“Not at all,” said Colt plainly. “I’m actually looking to raise a family here, believe it or not.”