Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Page 930

Sanko’s eyes filled the holes in her mask. “Where did you get that?”

“My grandson, Diego,” said Octavia. “Said he nearly killed himself trying to use it, so he thought I would like it as a birthday present. He is now my favorite grandson.”

“You fool,” said Sanko. “Do you know whose bones those are?”

“Sure do.”

“You’ll kill half your allies. Or all of them.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ve been practicing. It is pretty terrifying, though, isn’t it? Are you sure you still want to fight us? I promise we won’t think any less of you if you decide to back down now.”

“Quaint. But your trinket won’t stop me. I faced the monster it belonged to, you may recall.”

Octavia frowned. “Did you really? Y’know, I was kind of hoping that was just a rumor.”

“You are an amusing person,” said Sanko. “I only wish I were better at holding back.”

“Oh, I know the feeling. It’s quite frustrating, isn’t it?”

But Sanko was through talking, it seemed.

The Gargoyle took a single step, and a series of ripples ran across the pavement as if it were a pond, unsettling the Rainlords’ footing for a moment before the ground came shooting up all around them in a dozen geysers of living stone.

Octavia responded with a flash of her blade, and shadow gushed forth, pure blackness, enveloping the six of them in a brief cage that exploded outward, knocking the rocks down and letting the Rainlords free.

By this point, they were already merging with their reapers.

Zeff could feel his mind shifting. Ax’s mind was there now, too. He could feel every emotion that Ax felt, share every thought as if it were his own. And the memories. They were an ocean. A thousand lifetimes, and hardly a thing forgotten. Names and faces, histories and places, firsthand knowledge and endless information.

The pan-forma merge completed itself. The normal enhancements paled in comparison to this feeling. This was beyond adrenaline. This was fire with all of the heat and none of the agony. Burning in glory, flirting with death, certain in the strength of their two minds.

When the moment passed, and Zeff and Axiolis returned to the present, they were already mid-stride, running adjacent Rayen and Evangelina. Santos and Socorro were running with Octavia in the opposite direction.

Page 929 -- CVI.

Chapter One Hundred Six: ‘When the waters run red...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

It seemed like no one wanted to make the first move. Even the gentle wind had gone, leaving the air so still that Zeff could feel his own heartbeat. And perhaps that wasn’t a coincidence. Zeff had heard that a strong enough soul could affect the atmosphere physically.

Indeed, the pressure of the Gargoyle’s presence was palpable. Zeff had felt it as soon as he met her, but now it was on another level. Everything seemed heavier. Even breathing felt somehow more difficult. Was this really just the field density of her soul? Filling the air with pure willpower?

It was a warning, he knew. His own body was telling him. This person standing before him was not someone he should fight. This person was a monster. And he was nothing. Thirty years as a servant? A child, by comparison. Helpless.

But no. That wouldn’t work on Zeff. He wouldn’t succumb to mere dread. The old well wouldn’t let him. His pit of boiling hatred. It wouldn’t let him forget everything that had brought him here.

Gargoyle or not, this woman was standing between him and his son, between him and the people responsible for Mariana’s death. So he maintained his concentration and tried to assess the situation.

The first point was hyper-states. None of the Rainlords were using them yet, but Sanko was already wielding pan-rozum. If any of their reapers moved to merge with them, she would undoubtedly attack. But she probably didn’t know who had which abilities, so she wouldn’t know whom she should target first. What they needed was a distraction so that Octavia and Rayen could safely merge with Wendy and Lonogren. Perhaps he could provide that for them.

At least, that was what Zeff was thinking until Octavia Redwater surprised everyone by stepping forward.

“Everyone, wait a moment,” the little old lady said. “I have something I need to show you.” She ripped the top of her cane off, revealing a white inner piece, which she grasped with one hand.

And immediately, Zeff could sense it, as could everyone else, he was sure.

Octavia pulled the rest free. A white blade, thin like a rapier but so much more deadly than that. Because it was made from bone.

Zeff didn’t need to look any closer. The foul aura leaking from it told him everything he needed to know.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Page 928

Sanko breathed a laugh. “Simpler times, to be sure.”

Then came silence as the Rainlords responded no further, deciding only to wait as Sanko deliberated. In the intervening period, the watchmen that she ordered out earlier arrived through the hole in the gate. She spoke to them in turns, quietly enough that the Rainlords could not hear what she was saying. She showed them the photographs they had taken, presumably attempting to corroborate as much of Parson’s information as she could.

At length, she concluded with the watchmen, took one more opportunity to mull things over on her own, and then returned to speak with the Rainlords.

“I find your demands agreeable,” she said. “I am willing to grant you all three of them.”

Rayen was the one to say it. “But?”

“But I have one condition of my own,” said Sanko. “This matter of potential treason is not something that can simply be overlooked. If not properly addressed, the ripple effects could result in the loss of hundreds, if not thousands, of good Vanguardian soldiers--and by extension, the countless civilian lives that they protect.”

“State your condition,” said Rayen.

Sanko gave her a look. “You must submit yourselves to a formal investigation by the Vanguard so that these allegations against you may be put to rest.”

Zeff saw the shifting postures around him. Already, he could tell that they were going to reject her.

“Once your innocence is confirmed,” Sanko went on, “you have my word that all of your conditions will be met.”

Rayen shook her head. “After everything your people have put us through, why would we ever believe that such an investigation would be fairly conducted?”

“Because I give you my word that it will be,” said Sanko.

“Of course you do,” said Octavia. “But even if we presume that you are trustworthy, your people have already proven that they are not.”

“Your condition is unacceptable,” said Rayen.

Sanko tilted her head. “Can the two of you merely decide that by yourselves? And so quickly? Should you not at least discuss the matter among you? What do the other four say?”

“This is not something which requires debating,” said Evangelina Stroud. “You may consider this our resignation as well.”

“Indeed,” said Socorro Garza. “We have already told you to leave, and you have responded by offering to invade our privacy more than ever before.”

“The Ladies have the truth of it,” said Santos Zabat. “I stand with them.”

And when Zeff didn’t add anything, Sanko took notice, indigo eyes lingering on him.

“...Do not ask my opinion,” said Zeff. “You would like it even less than theirs.”

Sanko exhaled a heavy breath and stiffened. “Well, then,” she said, still with two voices. “It appears there is nothing more to say.”

Octavia Redwater placed both hands upon her cane. “So it does.”

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Page 927

Zeff could feel his brethren crowding in around him, as if preparing to shield him with their very bodies. Rayen and Octavia stood in front, Evangelina and Santos in back, while Socorro circled around to the right.

And they weren’t alone, either. Farther away, servants from the five presiding families had gathered to observe. They squatted inside blown-out buildings or stood upon nearby rooftops or hunkered behind manmade barricades, and there was no doubt in Zeff’s mind that they would all jump in to lend a hand if the need arose. Not necessarily to protect Zeff, of course, but certainly to protect the respective head of their household.

“Ha...” The sight of their collective body language seemed to make an impression on Sanko. “You Rainlords... you certainly are a curious lot. You asked me to save you from this mess, and yet now you believe you can defeat me?”

“We didn’t ask you to save us,” said Rayen. “We asked you to do your job. Out of respect for the Vanguard’s jurisdiction, though that respect is diminishing rather quickly at the moment. And, perhaps, we also hoped that corruption had not spread to your core.”


“Do you not consider yourself responsible for the actions of your men?” asked Octavia.

Sanko fell briefly silent as she looked over her audience another time. “Honorable Rainlords,” she said, almost laughing. Whether it was amusement or awe, Zeff could not rightly tell. “Nearly to the point of madness, but honorable nonetheless. Very well. Let us speak terms. What would it take to placate your anger here?”

The six ruling Rainlords exchanged looks with one another.

Octavia was the first to speak up. “This is why we wanted to have a meeting earlier. We have three conditions. First, you must return Francisco Elroy and the reaper Dennex to us. Second, you must also give us Xavier Lawrence and the reaper Dergoz, so that we may ensure they are given a proper trial for their crimes.” And perhaps Octavia expected to be interrupted there, because she paused.

But all Sanko said was, “And the third condition?”

“The Vanguard must leave our territory. That means all of Sair west of the Waress Mountains, including Rhein’s Keep here.”

“Quite demanding, that last one.”

Octavia returned a thin smile. “In another age, we would have simply executed all of your men without consulting you.”

Page 926

Parson smacked his lips as he observed the gaping hole in the gate. Then he just looked at Sanko, bobbed his head a little, and proceeded to do as he was told without another word.

Once he was gone, Sanko turned her attention up toward Lawrence, who was still watching from atop the gate. “Bring me the officers who took these photographs!” she yelled.

Lawrence nodded and disappeared from view.

She turned her attention back to Zeff and Axiolis. “Now. Explain why Salazar was visiting you.”

Zeff folded his arms. “She said she was abandoning the Vanguard. She wanted us to join her. We did not appreciate the offer very much and instructed her to leave.”

“And you simply let her go?”

Rather than fight a Vanguardian general in our own home?’ said Ax. ‘Yes. You’ll have to forgive us for prioritizing the safety of our children.

“I see,” said Sanko. “However, a mere day before this photo was taken, Juliana Salazar and several of her subordinates stopped reporting for duty. A large number of important items disappeared along with them, including weapons and classified documents. Their actions have jeopardized many sensitive operations all over the world. So I am sure you can understand my reluctance to trust your word alone.”

If we’d taken Salazar up on her offer, then we would have disappeared with her,’ said Ax.

“They would have also avoided a lot of trouble,” said Rayen Merlo. “Instead, they chose to stay--for the good of your organization. And look how their loyalty has been rewarded.” And when Sanko offered no response, Rayen only seemed to grow angrier. “How do you plan on rectifying this situation?”

Sanko glared at her. “Be silent. Circumstances here are more complicated than you seem to appreciate, and I did not ask for your opinion.”

The Lady Merlo scowled. “I do not answer to you, Gargoyle.”

“You do today.”

Octavia pressed a tiny hand against Rayen’s arm. “Calm your blood.” But she also spared a look for Sanko. “And you can bark orders all you like, but remember that we are not Vanguard.”

“You may not be, but the Elroys are.”

No, we aren’t,’ said Axiolis. ‘Not anymore.

Sanko stared at him now. “You claim you are not traitors, yet now you tell me you have abandoned your duty?”

“You cannot honestly expect them to stay with you!” said Rayen.

“They are Rainlords first and foremost,” said Octavia.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Page 925

Zeff exchanged looks with Ax and the other Rainlords. After everything that had happened, Salazar’s visit had been the furthest thing from his mind.

“This is your home in this picture?” Sanko asked.

“It was,” Zeff said through gritted teeth. “Until the Vanguard attacked it without warning or cause. I have yet to return there to see if it is still standing.”

I’m sure someone told you,’ said Axiolis. ‘That was the attack that resulted in the death of Zeff’s wife.

Parson blinked. “What? Mariana is dead?”

Yes,” Zeff said lowly. “Did you not know the extent of your crime?”

“I’m very sorry to hear that, Zeff. I had no idea.”

“You’re not sorry, Parson. Not yet.”

“Zeff, I swear to you, the orders were always to take your family alive.”

Zeff glowered. “You say that like it makes a difference.”

“Doesn’t it? No one was supposed to die, Zeff. I would never have ordered--”

“Keep talking, Parson. That seems to be all you are good for anymore.”

Oddly enough, that seemed to shut him up, which was perhaps why Overra decided to chime in.

You’re being unreasonable,’ she said. ‘If Mariana had simply followed her orders, then we could have avoided this whole mess. And she would still be alive, I’m sure.

Axiolis responded with a hoarse laugh. ‘Don’t try to goad us, you stupid bitch.

I wasn’t trying to goad anyone. But it sounds like it wouldn’t be very difficult. Have you all inherited Mariana’s paranoia now that she’s gone?

That very nearly broke Zeff’s composure.

But Octavia stepped forward first, tapping her cane against the pavement. “Have some respect for the deceased, lest you find yourself joining them shortly.”

Ah, the bloodthirsty Redwater clan. Tell me, are those old stories about how you got your name true?

Enough,” said Sanko, and the ground trembled beneath everyone’s feet. “No one says another word unless it is in answer to my questions.” She pointed at Overra. “You. Back inside the Keep. Now.”

Why? I’ve done noth--

The ground shot up around the reaper, encasing her in a cage molded from pavement before anyone could even blink. And then the whole cage moved, speeding away like a shark’s fin atop water. It smashed a hole through the gate and kept going, undeterred until it was out of sight.

Sanko looked to Parson next. “I suggest you join her. And advise her not to return.”

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Page 924

Parson rifled through his box another time while Overra picked up the conversation for him.

Believe it or not, we aren’t trying to annoy you,’ she said. ‘We DO have the evidence you’re looking for, but we also wanted to establish a more precise sense of what is at stake here. Hopefully, you understand that much now, yes?

The Gargoyle might as well have been made of actual stone, for all the response she gave.

And... well, the evidence involves some photographs... which I’m sure Parson will find... any second now.’ She tossed a few glances at her servant. ‘They depict the Elroys in various places, you see. And I’m sure you’ll understand once--

“Got ‘em!” Parson pulled out another folder. “Sorry about that. It seems it was misfiled.” He threw a look up at the General still atop the gate. “Lawrence can be such a dolt, sometimes.” He offered the folder to Sanko, but she didn’t take it just yet.

“If these photographs are so damning, then why were we not informed of their existence earlier? Over the telephone, for instance. Did you not think to save us the trip here?”

“Ah, well, I apologize for that. It was an unfortunate miscommunication. And you know how these things are. With so much going on--so many moving parts. Sometimes the right hand forgets to tell the left hand that it has been conducting covert surveillance on suspected traitors.” He gave the woman a big smile.

It didn’t seem to do much for her. She snatched the folder away from him, though, and started thumbing through the pictures.

Parson pointed one out to her. “This here--we suspect this is Gema Elroy crossing the border into Sair. A mere twelve hours after the information leak took place, I might add.”

“This photo does not even show her face,” Sanko observed. “It could be anyone. You call this conclusive evi--?” The sentence was cut short as she stopped on a different photo. She flipped it over, perhaps to inspect the timestamp.

Is something wrong?’ asked Axiolis.

Sanko held the photo up for Zeff to see.

It was a shot of Juliana Salazar leaving the Elroy’s home. Zeff and Mariana were standing on the porch, watching the woman go.

“Explain your relationship with this person,” said Sanko.

She was the commanding officer of Zeff’s wife, Mariana, before they got married. Why?

“Because this woman is a known traitor.”

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Page 923

Sanko took the folder, and Zeff watched her silently flip through its contents.

“Project Blacksong,” said Parson.

And the Gargoyle stopped flipping briefly, then continued.

“Those reports all confirm it. Gema Elroy sabotaged Blacksong. I’m sure you understand what that means, ma’am.”

Sabotage?’ said Ax. ‘Lawrence told us that Gema had killed an Intarian diplomat, so what are you saying now?

I am afraid that information is classified,’ said Overra.

Sanko started handing papers off to Zeff. “And now it isn’t.”

Parson almost jumped. “Ah--! Um! Ma’am--those documents! They’re not really meant for other--!”

“Oops,” Sanko said flatly.

Parson just stared with wide eyes.

Overra remained calm, however. ‘I suppose that’s one way to negotiate. Fine, then. An Intarian diplomat WAS killed, but we have not confirmed who was responsible. Gema Elroy is a suspect, but she and her reaper are primarily wanted because they are traitors.

Zeff was busy skimming through the report in his hands. It referenced some kind of information leak. The word ‘Blacksong’ was indeed mentioned multiple times. The text didn’t go into detail, but Zeff had seen reports such as this before. The vague language. An overabundance of codenames. These reports were from the Covert Intelligence Division.

Spies. Ramira would have been excited. Zeff, however, was not. There were few things worse than having to deal with people who lied for a living.

What is this Project Blacksong?’ said Axiolis.

“It does not matter,” said Sanko, eyeing Parson and Overra. “The point is moot. Even if Gema Elroy were attempting to destroy the whole of Intar, that would still not give you the right to detain her family members for more than a single day of questioning. And as we understand, you held Zeff for much longer than that and are in fact still holding his son.”

“Well, yes, but--”

“Unless you have further evidence that proves the other Elroys were conspiring with Gema in her sabotage, then you are obligated to release Zeff’s son now and stand down.”

Well, you see--

“And as we do not currently have the time to conduct an investigation into your unit ourselves, you and all of your men will leave for Jesbol immediately and report to Field Marshal Jackson for a mandatory evaluation. If you do not comply with these orders--”

“Wait!” Parson nearly dropped his box. “You can’t just--!”

“Do not test us, Miles. Patience and mercy have never been our strongest points. If you have conclusive evidence, then present it now.”

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Page 922

--donation bonus day (Page 3/3)--
“Captain General Miles!” Sanko called out. “And General Lawrence! What manner of welcome is this?! Open the gate!”

Parson leaned over the wall with his arms folded. “I’d rather not do that! Sorry!”

“You know why we have come, do you not?!”

“Yes, indeed!”

“And yet you still test our patience! You have five seconds to start explaining yourselves before we arrest you for insubordination!”

“Now just hold on!” After a moment, Parson leapt off the gate. His legs vanished as he neared the pavement, letting the pants of his airman’s uniform flap wildly while his descent slowed within a rising gust of wind. His socks and shoes popped off of his missing feet and flew up past his head, and when his freshly reappeared legs touched the ground, he was barefoot. One of the falling shoes smacked his shoulder as Overra melted out of his body.

However, there was a reason Parson had chosen to vanish his legs instead of his arms. The man carried a box with him. “Before you go getting all intimidating and whatnot,” said Parson, “I hope we can have an honest conversation.”

“Honest?” Zeff growled. He could feel his fist shaking involuntarily and had to consciously relax it.

“Ah, Zeff!” said Parson. “It is good to see you again, my old friend, though the circumstances are disappointing. As are you.” The man’s expression turned suddenly grave. “In your youth, you demonstrated such potential. I’d hoped to foster greatness in you, but since I’ve been away, it seems you’ve grown content with being the willful stooge of more conniving men.”

Zeff was almost as confused as he was angry. “What the hell are you talking about?”

And Axiolis, too,’ added Overra. ‘Such complacency in the face of wrongdoing is very unbecoming of someone as old as you.

I see the two of you haven’t lost your gift for spouting complete nonsense,’ said Ax.

Sanko intervened. “Make your point, Miles. Before we make ours.”

“Okay, well, first of all, the attempt to apprehend the Elroys was motivated by a suspicion that they were harboring a fugitive.”

“Gema Elroy,” said Sanko. “We are aware. That is far from sufficient cause for the unlawful capture of this man’s other children.”

Parson began rifling through his box. “Of course. I won’t do you the disrespect of assuming you don’t already know the details of what transpired after Zeff was questioned by General Lawrence up there.” He retrieved a string-bound folder and offered it to Sanko. “But I don’t think you know the whole story.”

Page 921

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“Ah,” said Octavia, “we were hoping to conduct a quick meeting before going to the Keep.”

“Nonsense,” said Sanko. “We understand the situation well enough.”

“Yes, but--”

“Explain what you will on the way.”

Zeff certainly had no complaints about the woman’s attitude. After being told to wait all day long, the sudden forward momentum was most welcome.

They led Sanko to one of the two limousines waiting to carry them to their next destination, which was apparently going to be the Keep now. Octavia, Rayen, and Zeff joined her. Evangelina Stroud, Socorro Garza, and Santos Zabat took the other limo, but their three reapers stayed to listen in.

Octavia and Rayen began offering a quick outline of all the forces they currently had in Rheinhal, but Sanko didn’t seem very interested.

Instead, Sanko’s gaze lingered on Zeff. “You have a familiar face.”

Zeff raised an eyebrow. “Do I?”

“Would you happen to be this Zeff I’ve heard of?”

How did you know?’ said Axiolis.

“Elroy family resemblance. But we are confused. It was our understanding that you had been captured.”

“I was released. For what reason, I don’t know.”

“Ah. That bodes well for negotiations, then.”

Zeff wasn’t so sure he agreed. He hadn’t given it much thought before, but it certainly did seem strange that he had been let go.

“I knew a man named Agam Elroy rather well,” said Sanko, and the sudden change in pronouns did not escape Zeff’s notice. “Was he an uncle of yours, perhaps?”

The name was only vaguely familiar, but Axiolis had him covered.

Agam was an uncle to Zeff’s grandfather.’

That seemed to surprise her. “Really now? Oh my, how embarrassing. I suppose that is what I get for attempting to connect with the younger generations.”

Don’t feel bad,’ said Ax. ‘I’m sure I knew Agam even before you did. He was a charming fellow.

“That he was.” Sanko’s nostalgia and sentiment seemed to die there, however.

Fortunately, it made little difference, as they were nearly there. Their two vehicles pulled up in front of the closed gate and parked. Everyone exited.

Zeff looked up and saw that Xavier Lawrence was just then joining Parson Miles atop the gate. Doubtless, their reapers had sensed the Gargoyle’s presence.

Zeff had to muster every modicum of restraint he had left. It probably would not go over very well if he immediately started attacking them in front of Sanko.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Page 920

--donation bonus day (Page 1/3)--
Zeff didn’t know very much about Sanko, but that wasn’t especially surprising. Promotions within the Vanguard tended to work that way. As servants moved up through the ranks, their identities became increasingly concealed so as to protect any uninvolved family members or friends from Abolish. Naturally, the promotion from captain general to field marshal was the most dramatic, which was why none of the field marshals had last names. Sanko was undoubtedly not the woman’s birth name, either, and given her age--likely pushing two hundred years, if not more--there would not be many people left alive who knew what her original name was.

But it was easy enough to see why she was called the Gargoyle. She wore a gray mask with a grotesque devil’s face on it, bearing stubby horns at the top and long fangs around the open mouth. It hid everything but her pale lips and large eyes, which were so darkly blue that they almost looked purple.

If she had hair, it was concealed beneath the hood of her uniquely black overcoat, which she chose to drape over her shoulders like a cape rather than wear properly. Beyond that, however, her uniform was no different than the average member of the Vanguard’s ground forces--simple brown-on-white camo.

All-in-all, one could be forgiven for assuming she was a man. Only the subtle curves in her uniform offered any real visual clues.

“Octavia Redwater,” the woman said in two voices.

And her audience of Rainlords shifted uncomfortably as they realized that she was already using pan-rozum.

Octavia kept composure well enough. “How’ve you been, you old crone?”

Sanko responded with quite a long pause, perhaps not appreciating the Red Lady’s attempt at affection. But she did answer the question eventually. “We have been fine.”

Why are you using pan-rozum already?’ said Wendy, apparently unafraid of asking the question everyone was thinking.

“Merely a precaution,” said Sanko. “For the unlikely case in which you intended to ambush us upon arrival. Do not take offense.” It sounded more like an order than an apology.

Wendy wasn’t through asking questions. ‘Why have you come alone? Shouldn’t you have a security escort with you?

“We did not come to fight. And we will not be staying long. We must return to Korgum as soon as matters here are settled.” She started walking for the airfield office’s exit, and the Rainlords made way for her, soon falling in behind.

Page 919 -- CV.

Ax had informed Zeff of Asad’s involvement, along with the sudden appearance and assistance of Chergoa’s brother, and while Zeff was thoroughly glad to hear that their siege was progressing well, he could not imagine leaving Rheinhal right now, not while he knew that Francisco and Dennex were here.

“I will wait with you,” he said.

“Are you sure?” Octavia asked. “Because if I were in your position, I don’t know if I would be able to control myself.”

Zeff nearly told her that ‘he was not her’ before thinking better of it. “I’ll stay close to you,” he said instead. “If I step out of line, you can give me a good caning.”

The day drew on from there, painfully slow. He met with the other family heads in turns, as they came and went from their patrols, and he exchanged words with each. It was frustrating, to say the least, but he felt that it was also good, seeing everyone’s support like this. These were his people. His kin. Redwater, Merlo, Stroud, Garza, and Zabat. Commanding more than sixty servants in total.

They offered him their sympathies, of course. But they also offered him their anger, which he found much more comforting. Their desire for justice. The Rain’s justice.

But of them all, Rayen Merlo surprised Zeff the most. By appearance, she had not changed since Zeff’s childhood. Unlike Octavia, Rayen was a large woman, soft-faced and motherly-looking, until she really started sharing her feelings. The vitriol in her voice nearly rivaled that in Zeff’s own heart. And he could not have appreciated it more.

At length, however, word finally arrived.

“Sanko is here,” said Octavia.

Chapter One Hundred Five: ‘The Gargoyle of Korgum...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Zeff had never met Field Marshal Sanko before, but he knew the woman as soon as he saw her. She had that inexpressible something about her, a kind of invisible aura that every servant who stood at the top of the world seemed to possess. He’d felt the same thing when he met each of Sermung, Jackson, and Lamont. The Crystal Titan, the Star of the West, and Iceheart.

And now, the Gargoyle, too.

Axiolis had explained it to him once. These were people who had acquired such immense synchronization with their reapers that it made their passive soul defenses begin to feel oppressive to the less powerful people around them. It was a kind of gravitational pull created by the sheer strength of their souls.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Page 918

The little old woman shivered with apparent surprise at his embrace. “Oh! I didn’t realize you were the hugging type, Zeff.”

He usually isn’t,’ said Ax, sounding perhaps even more surprised.

Zeff released her. “Thank you for everything you have done for my family.”

Octavia gave a low snort. “Fat lot of good it’s accomplished.” She locked arms with him, and they began walking together. “Honestly, darling, I’m surprised you don’t hate me. I assume Axiolis has filled you in on everything?”

“He has.”

“Then you know three of your children were captured under my watch.”

While you were here,’ Ax reminded her, ‘trying to rescue Zeff and his son. We can hardly fault you for another House’s betrayal.’

“Even so, you shouldn’t--”

I’ll hear no more of that,’ said Ax. ‘Not when you could have turned the Elroys over to the Vanguard whenever you wanted.

“Ax is right,” said Zeff. “You will accept our appreciation, whether you think it appropriate or not.”

She snorted again. “You are much bossier than I remember.”

It was true that it had been some time since he’d last spoken with this woman. There’d been various Council meetings over the years, sure, but those were purely business, and Zeff recalled multiple occasions where Octavia had attempted to converse with him afterward, only for him to brush her off. And all because of that old resentment he’d felt when she’d tried to forbid him from rejoining the Vanguard in his youth.

What a fool he’d been.

He wanted to apologize to her a dozen times over, but he was too ashamed of himself to broach the subject now. And of course, there were more pressing matters at hand, anyway. “When will you launch your next assault on the Keep?” he asked. “I would like to be a part of it.”

“This evening.”

He frowned.

“I know,” she said. “That is longer than you care to wait, right now. But Sanko is supposed to arrive sometime today. Wendy is waiting for her at the airfield right now. So as difficult as it may be, I must ask you to be patient.”

He tried not to scowl. “Patient...”

“I’m sorry.”

And when Zeff did not respond, she seemed to become uncomfortable.

“Perhaps you would prefer to depart for Luzo, instead,” Octavia said. “I hear the siege on Marshrock has been proceeding more quickly than expected, thanks to your Sandlord friend.”

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Page 917

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“Why?” asked Zeff, pulling his vest on. “Are you worried people will think I’ve gone mad?”

Axiolis paused. ‘Yes. Exactly that, yes.

“Do you think I’ve gone mad?” Zeff considered wearing a tie. It wasn’t the most battle-appropriate attire, but a significant part of him didn’t really care about that right now. He was thinking more about what calming effect it might have on him. A certain sense of order and professionalism could help him keep a clear head. Maybe.

To be honest, I hope you have. A little, at least. Because I’m fairly certain that I’ve lost some of my marbles, too.

“Oh? How so?” He decided in favor of the tie. He liked the blood red one on the dresser.

Well, for instance, I know we shouldn’t fight Lawrence. He and Dergoz have a good forty years on us in terms of both experience and soul-syncing. And they can use pan-rozum. In my mind, I know these things. Attacking them by ourselves would almost be suicide. And yet... I’d go with you to hunt them down right now, if you asked me to.

Zeff nearly smiled. “That’s not fair. I wanted to be the unreasonable one.”

I apologize.

He stared at himself in the mirror, not able to see Ax reflected behind him but still knowing the reaper was there. “It’s alright. I just have to remember them. Francisco, Emiliana, Marcos, Ramira. And Gema. Any word on her whereabouts?”

No. I would’ve told you earlier if there had been.

“That girl...”

We’ll find her.

Zeff straightened his tie. “Yes, we will.”

They left the room. His brethren had chosen one of Rheinhal’s nicer hotels for their headquarters, he noticed, and that was saying something in this resort town. If he were in a better mood, the luxury might have been appealing.

Axiolis led him out into the street, and Zeff immediately turned east in order to see the castle on the hill there. A few of its turrets were missing, and the red paint on its walls was rather heavily marked up, but Rhein’s Keep was still standing.

Zeff didn’t have to go any farther, however. Octavia Redwater found him before he could find her.

She smiled that tiny, wrinkled smile of hers. “It is so very good to see you again, Zeff.”

He hadn’t even thought about what he should say to this woman, and that seemed like a mistake now that she was in front of him. Too many thoughts stirred in his head at once. Gratitude, apologies, questions. Far too many.

He settled on a silent hug, instead.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Page 916

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Before informing Axiolis, however, Zeff had something else he wanted to say. “I’ve never heard of this happening before. I thought each servant could only see reapers one way for as long as they live.”

Usually, that is the case, but in rare instances, it can change. Very rare. I’ve never had it happen to a servant of my own.

“Do you know why this happened?”

Axiolis seemed hesitant. ‘Mm... well, it sounded sensible enough to me in the past, but now I’m not sure I want to believe it.


Supposedly... a change in the way you view reapers is reflective of a change that has already occurred in yourself. It indicates a kind of mental paradigm shift.

“Ah. Then I suppose it does not bode very well for my mental state that I am now seeing you as an ice-breathing hellbeast of Lhutwë.”

The reaper floated back a little. ‘Of Lhutwë? You mean I’m--?

“A lhugleoth, yes. It’s quite hideous.”

...Huh. A full-size one?


Yes. They could grow to be twenty meters in length, you know.

“They were also mythical, Ax.”

You don’t know that.

“You’re, what, four thousand years old now?”


“Have you ever seen a lhugleoth?”

Well, no, but maybe I just never looked hard enough.

“I’m sure that’s it. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

I’m not entirely in love with your tone right now.

“You do recall our people putting a stop to all of that water god nonsense back when my grandfather was a child, don’t you?”

Yes, well, just because the rest of you are dirty heathens doesn’t mean I have to be.

Zeff merely gave a resigning nod.

I still love you, though.

“Thank you.”

A beat passed. ‘...So am I full-size or not?

“No,” said Zeff, able to release an amused breath but not quite able to manage a laugh. “You’re about the size of a horse.”

Mm. That’s a little disappointing.

Zeff sighed and rubbed his face. He stood up and realized that he was half-dressed. He’d only managed to get that far before Axiolis had told him to sit down and listen. He resumed the task now, appreciative of the armored vest that someone had left for him by the fireplace.

By the way, you shouldn’t tell other people that you see reapers differently now.’

Page 915

--donation bonus day (Page 1/3)--
Zeff could feel that old well filling up. In the back of his head, he could feel it. He thought it had run dry ages ago, but now he realized that every drop was still there. And now there was more.


That was how he’d kept himself sane the first time. He’d poured all of his anger, misery, and confusion into that dark place. And the result was the old well. Distilled and purified. A reservoir that he’d kept for Abolish. It had helped him more than a few times in the past.

It would do the same for the Vanguard, he figured. For Lawrence and Dergoz and whoever else stood in his way.

He only needed to focus. To let it all drain in there. To add it to the well. Years of meditation, of discipline, of emotional control--it all served him now.

And at length, as his head finally started to clear, Axiolis’ voice began to register again.

-please... it’s been over an hour... Talk to me, Zeff. Please, just say anything.

He turned his stone gray eyes toward the reaper. But what Zeff saw made him rear back in his seat.

Axiolis was different. The reaper wasn’t a large bat with white eyes anymore--like he’d been for as long as Zeff had known him. Instead, Axiolis just looked like some kind of abominable monster--so much so that Zeff still wasn’t even certain what he was seeing.

...Are you okay?’ the reaper asked.

Staring, he said, “You’re not the same.”


“You look... very different.”

Ax was briefly quiet. ‘Hmm. What do I look like, exactly?


Take your time and tell me.

Zeff sat up straight and tried harder to understand what his eyes were telling him.

It almost looked like some kind of gnarled dragon, though decidedly more marine, what with its lithe body and dark-on-top, light-on-bottom coloration. It did have wings, but Zeff couldn’t tell how large they were, because they were kept retracted into long grooves on its back, with sections rearing up into the shape of a dorsal fin. The scaly underbelly was similar, bearing space for its thick legs and hooked claws to fold up into its chest cavity. A pair of small, twisted horns crowned its head, just above its reptilian eyes.

But it was the creature’s huge mouth that made Zeff realize what he was looking at, because just beyond the jagged teeth poking out, he noticed a few faint trails of lingering white frost.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Page 914

“I believe an explanation is in order,” said Asad.

Several explanations,’ added Qorvass.

“Indeed.” Ismael took a haggard breath and exchanged looks with Rholtam. “But first, we must inform everyone of the ceasefire. Does anyone here have a working phone or com device?”

Asad shook his head. “My earpiece was destroyed in the fight.”

“As was mine,” said Ismael.

They both looked at the young black man, who seemed to have difficulty removing his gaze from Ibai even as he answered them.

“...I didn’t bring anything,” Hector said. “I figured it would just get broken.”

Ismael turned to Ibai, who was still trying to put his pants on Melchor. They seemed a little snug around the thighs. “Ibai, can you... tell our forces to stand down? Quickly?”

Ibai popped up to his feet again, leaving Melchor with an impressive butt crack. “Sure thing, Papa!”

Ismael held up a hand. “Ah, but before you do--please, release the reaper.”

“Aw, but we were gonna go on an adventure...”



We’ll take a rain check on that adventure,’ said Chergoa. ‘Ha. Get it? Rain check?

Ibai laughed. “I do get it! You’re funny!” He let her return to Emiliana and then teleported away in his underwear.


The feeling was that of a slow boil, beginning in the pit of his stomach, reaching up through his chest and all the way into his head.

It had been thirty years since he’d felt anger like this.

Raw fury. So powerful and blinding that he knew the dam inside him would burst if he so much as moved. And he wanted to save this anger, to bottle it up inside and use it later. But right now, he couldn’t even blink. He just stared at the wall, expressionless, waiting for his brain to stop feeling so numb, for his sense of reason to start working again.

It was just too much to process at once. Everything Axiolis had told him.

The children, captured. The Rainlords, at war with each other, in addition to the Vanguard.

And Mariana...

Zeff had thought he would be able to handle it better than this. They’d both been members of the Vanguard. The notion that she might leave on a mission one day and never come back had crossed his mind before, as the reverse had undoubtedly crossed hers. They’d both known it could happen. They’d planned for it.

But not this. Betrayed by their own comrades. This was something else.

Page 913

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Ibai frowned at his father. “It’s not over already, is it, Papa? I barely got to fight!”

Ismael didn’t seem to hear him. “A ceasefire,” the man said, almost inaudibly. “Yes, a ceasefire...”

So you agree, then?’ said Chergoa.


Alright, then call off your monster.

Before Ismael could move, however, Melchor came splattering toward them. The mercury bubbled and sizzled beneath trails of smoke and steam, and Melchor’s liquid mass seemed to have trouble keeping its shape, dripping like hot wax.

Ismael ran over to him, pulling Ibai along as well. “Melchor!” he shouted. “Stand down! For now, this battle is over!”

“What are you saying?” came Darktide’s growling voices.

“Just stand down! I command you!”

And Melchor needed no further convincing. The mercury liquid coalesced into a human form once more and regained the pale skin color that all Blackburns shared. Orric melted out of the man’s naked body and fell into his hand. Melchor dropped to his knees, breathing heavily and sweating, looking as if he were about to retch.

Xuan arrived, still bursting with smoke and fire, as Ismael was pulling off his own overshirt to drape around Melchor’s shoulders.

“What’s all this, then?” said Xuan. “Surrendering? Wait--is that an aberration?”

Ibai was busy pulling off his pants.

Chergoa spoke up again. ‘We’ve reached a temporary understanding,’ she said. ‘Em, tell him.

Emiliana placed herself in front of Melchor and raised both hands toward Xuan. “Please stop fighting. There’s been a big misunderstanding, and we’re requesting a ceasefire. Please.”

The Seadevil just continued to hover there, swirling in place and hardly seeming human enough to have a voice at all anymore. Slowly, however, he lowered himself down to the ground and took on his usual, smaller visage. And of course, he was also stark naked.

Asad lent him his robe, which fit Xuan like a blanket.

Everyone else had released their reapers, and by extension, their hyper-states, but Xuan still clung to his. “Return the children to us,” he said with two voices. “Only then will my cousins agree to talk to you.”

“Very well,” said Ismael.

“Good.” Xuan looked over at Asad and Hector. “Don’t let that thing eat Duvoss while I’m out, yeah?”

“What do you--?”

Duvoss melted out of Xuan’s body, and Xuan fell flat on his face, unconscious.

And when Melchor saw that, he collapsed onto his side, also out cold.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Page 912

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Ibai pulled Asad through the hole in space and, with a great crack, relocated the man inside the northern wall.

The tattooed man and the wall competed for existence. And the wall lost.

Asad’s tattoos burned fiercely golden, enhancing the surly look in his similarly yellow eyes and illuminating Ibai’s gaping face as he fled into another teleport.

Ibai reappeared next to his father. “Okay,” he said, watching the Lord Najir step from the crumbling wall unscathed, “I may have miscalculated that one.”

Ismael grabbed his son’s arm. “How did you--?! Agh, it doesn’t matter! Just leave! These people will kill you!”

“Eh, I don’t know, Papa. I’m pretty tough to kill.”


Asad interjected with two voices as well. “Did that aberration just call you ‘Papa’?”

Ismael placed himself in front of Ibai. “Stay away from him!”

And even though Ibai was interested in their conversation, he couldn’t help noticing the thunderous clash between Xuan and Melchor on the other side of the room. He stared with wide eyes and a wider grin as each attack made the castle shiver. “So this was where the quakes were coming from!”

A glass prison brought Ibai’s attention back to his father and Asad. Ismael was already bashing it down with burning fists. Ibai figured he should just teleport everyone out, but then he noticed that Emiliana was missing.

The girl was with Asad and Hector now. And she was yelling something at them that Ibai couldn’t hear over all the mayhem. He could, however, hear Chergoa speaking up, as the reaper still remained in Ibai’s grasp.

If you are Ibai’s father,’ she said, ‘then you must be an important member of House Blackburn.’

Ismael merely ignored her and pulled Ibai toward the door, but the reaper wasn’t done.

If I promise to support you in protecting Ibai, will you agree to a temporary ceasefire?

That made Ismael acknowledge her, at least. “Why would you possibly do that?!”

I doubt I can make you understand right now,’ said Chergoa. ‘But I am a member of House Elroy, and I am giving you my word. If you are still a true Rainlord, like I believe you are, then you know that I will honor my promise.

Her words stopped the Lord of House Blackburn in his tracks. The man stared at her hard, then at Asad, whose attacks had noticeably stopped.

Please,’ said Chergoa. ‘I’m only asking for a ceasefire. Not your surrender.

Page 911 -- CIV.

You okay?’ Hector asked, mindful of Darktide’s bristling form.

Garovel did not answer.


Still nothing.

He supposed there was no use worrying about it now. Melchor seemed more interested in Xuan at the moment, but Hector knew he could turn and crush him anytime. But of course, given that Melchor didn’t know about the shield’s power or the temporary nature of it, the man was probably thinking Hector would be too annoying to kill first. Hopefully.

He watched as the two monstrous Rainlords clashed again. Xuan appeared to be keeping his distance this time, letting his smoke waft around more so that he could use it to screen his attacks. Pillars of white flame flashed intermittently, lighting up the foyer each time like a very slow strobe. And Melchor’s inhuman shadow appeared during each flash, sweeping across the smoke with a boom that invoked more earthquakes.

It was quite obvious to Hector that his role in their battle was concluded. He decided to go help Asad, who was still occupied with Ismael.

Theirs was a battle of more human proportions, though only just. Asad flipped through the air on clear platforms, hurtling glass boulders and molten quartz and inconvenient mounds of sand. Ismael proved quick on his feet, however, and with pan-forma, he could pick and choose which attacks to avoid while still drawing upon a plentiful supply of flesh for his potassium-fueled volleys of lavender fire.

Hector moved to intervene, but something else stopped their battle cold.

A brown shadow appeared in thin air, and from it, a smiling man stepped forth, along with a reaper and a young woman.

And even with the horns on her face, Hector immediately recognized her from her photograph.

He saw Ismael’s sunken eyes go as big as marbles.

Chapter One Hundred Four: ‘Chaos, be ended...’
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When Ibai saw his father there, he bit his lip. “Oh. Um. Hello, Papa.”

“Ibai!” the man yelled with two voices. “What are you doing here?!”

“Um. Frankly, I didn’t realize you were in this room.”

“You can’t be--! You have to leave now!”

“Aw, but I can help!” He looked toward the man with the tattoos. “Is that the guy you’re fighting? Mm, he looks scary. Here.” Ibai teleported behind Asad and wrapped his arm around the man.

“Behind you!” came someone else’s warning.

The Sandlord turned but not fast enough.

Page 910

Hector tried to stay bundled up, but too much of Xuan had regenerated. The Seadevil could no longer fit inside the small pocket of safety between Hector’s chest, arms, and shield. So the mercury seeped through the cracks, and Hector could only thrash against it.

It was like trying to fight ten opponents at once, all with invisible hands guiding the flow of mercury, pummeling Hector’s whole body, tearing at him, swarming him. A tendril wrapped around one of Xuan’s regenerating arms and tore it off. Another tendril tried to do the same to the other arm, but Hector used the point of his shield to chop it off. And he saw Xuan’s one remaining hand. It was nearly complete. The stubby fingers were all that was still needed.

And then Hector felt himself being pulled away by the legs. Only Garovel stayed with him, having somehow repositioned himself to Hector’s hand, hiding just behind the battered shield. Melchor spat the pair of them out like old chewing gum, and Hector clattered to the floor in his crushed armor.

Before even standing, he stared back up with wide eyes, wanting to know if he’d bought enough time for Xuan. And he still couldn’t tell. Chunks of shattered iron were falling all around him, crashing into the rock and making the room tremble, and Hector had to annihilate the pieces that would have otherwise fallen on him.

When he saw Darktide again, the man was a writhing mass of marbled silver. Moving, shifting. Struggling.

And then a white flame burst out of the mercury like a sword, smoldering and bright. Swirling trails of white seeped through the hole, growing as the flame did, until a plume of smoke finally spewed outward, accompanied by a booming laugh that filled the foyer.

Darktide splashed down to the first floor while the Seadevil billowed up to the second. The liquid mercury shuddered violently, almost boiling, and Hector couldn’t tell if that was the result of anger or just a dose of Xuan’s acid.

Hector,’ came Garovel’s strained voice, ‘stop using the shield...

Hector let it drop to the floor and heard Garovel let out a groan of relief. He armored up his other hand so that he could pick it up again. The leather glove underneath was shredded, but he wasn’t presently concerned about the added discomfort.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Page 909

Already, tendrils of mercury had made it up to the third floor. Hector leapt away from them with the aid of more platforms, scraping the broken ceiling with the back of his breastplate and jostling another boulder loose. It fell toward Melchor, who slapped it aside like a volleyball.

Meanwhile, Xuan was busy laughing. “That Darktide sure is a tough bastard, isn’t he?”

Hector landed with a metal thud and promptly launched himself away again. “Please stop distracting me, Lord Xuan.”

Midair, a tendril caught up to him and found his shield. Hector gripped the handle with all his might and wrenched it free, but the tendril settled for his bare leg instead. And when Hector landed again, a second tendril was already there, snaking around the other leg and crushing its armor.

He was in no position to run away this time, he knew, and in a moment, the mercury would surround him again, preventing even his ability to materialize iron. So he used it while he still could. He poured everything into adding spikes to his armor. Maximum volume.

The spikes exploded out, each one thick as a tree trunk, covering his armor and his shield and creating a small pocket at the center for Hector and his three passengers. The spikes also appeared on the back of his armor, lifting him off the floor and sending his giant cluster of iron needles over the third floor’s guardrail.

They fell, though Hector could hardly feel it from inside. He couldn’t see the fruits of his concentration, either, but it didn’t matter, because he just kept pushing for more. More spikes. More iron. More defense.

Hector’s work quickly filled the length of the chamber and caught on the second floor’s porous walls and crumbling staircase. They were stuck fast now, suspended above the first floor like some kind of grisly ornament, all while the iron spikes continued to grow, touching the ground and even reaching toward the ceiling.

Hector pressed his soul into the iron, hoping the shield’s passive enhancements would be carried along as well, but unfortunately, that did not seem the case. And with no light, he couldn’t see Xuan’s progress. He could only hear the muffled crack of iron above him and feel the fierce vibrations in his metal cocoon.

And then Darktide broke through. The foyer’s dim light poured in, along with a river of living mercury, searching and grasping for Xuan.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Page 908

Hector found himself upside down and in a corner, bundled around Duvoss, Garovel, and Xuan. He scrambled back to his feet, a bit surprised to discover that he wasn’t missing any limbs or even armor. His shoes had blown right off his feet, and his ear drums had been ruptured, but he was too concerned with present circumstances to even notice. The only thing on his mind now was that he’d lost track of Asad through all the dust.

But Garovel hadn’t. ‘Run left. Melchor is still after us.

Hector bolted, following the scarcely visible wall. Then he stopped, but not because he wanted to. Something had a grip on his armor below the knee. He couldn’t quite see what it was, but there was no way he was going to wait around and find out. He annihilated the armor above the knee, slid his leg free, and kept running.

He came upon a sudden clearing in the dusty clouds and saw Asad. The Sandlord was already fighting Ismael yet again. Hector hadn’t been able to watch their repeated clashes very closely, but knowing all he did about Asad, it was informative enough just seeing that the Lord Blackburn had not yet fallen to him.

“Oh, hey, I’m still alive,” came Xuan’s voice, and Hector looked down to see that the man had regained consciousness. His already small body was still only half-regenerated, but at least he had lungs and elbows now.

Hector didn’t get a chance to respond. A tidal wave of mercury barreled through the fog after him. He launched himself out of its path with a slanted iron platform, but the mercury made a sharp turn and kept up the chase. Wide-eyed behind his helm, Hector launched himself again before he could even stop to regain his balance and went flipping sideways through the air.

A bed of sand softened Hector’s fall, and a massive barricade of crystalline spears shot up to defend him from another cage of frozen mercury that tried to box him in. They kept an escape route open for him while simultaneously launching daggers at Melchor, not that they did much good. Hector fled the glass shelter just as Darktide crashed through it, sending fist-sized shards in all directions.

Another iron platform shot Hector up past the second floor, all the way to the third, and his bare feet hit cold rock again. He checked on Xuan again and wanted to cry when he saw that barely any progress had been made after all that effort.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Page 907

Hector was getting accustomed to running in full plate armor. He glimpsed a nearby corridor and considered fleeing through it, but the narrower quarters struck him as more of a death sentence than anything. He proceeded straight ahead, bounding over a pile of rocks that used to be part of the high ceiling and trying to reach Asad.

Frozen mercury shot up around Hector, caging him in completely, but Asad was close enough now to punch through with glass-coated fists. They kept running together. Hector decided to leave a few iron walls in their wake, while Asad was busy keeping Ismael away.

The first wall was simple enough--it spanned the entire length of the foyer, but it wasn’t nearly tall enough, and Darktide just splashed right over it. The second wall, at least, was a large enough obstacle that Darktide chose to break through rather than lose time scaling it. The third was the same, not enough to buy even a moment of extra time.

The fourth, however, was not a wall at all. Instead, Hector materialized a sphere where he expected Darktide to be, but still made it massive enough to look like a wall for the brief glimpse Melchor would get of it after busting through the third. So when his liquid body slammed into it, no doubt expecting to smash it down, the sphere began rolling away instead, creating a moment of stumbling confusion as Melchor ended up rolling with it. Hector had even added a few dents in its surface, so the giant ball ended up veering off to the left and distracting Melchor for a moment more.

It was a stupid trick, Hector knew, but extra time was extra time, regardless of how he achieved it. And now he had the opportunity to work on an old scheme: a soul-empowered maze. It had hidden his presence against Karkash. Maybe it could do so against Melchor.

He set to work, creating a four-way intersection with himself and Asad at the center, then expanding each branch in three different directions. Then again. And again. All while he and Asad kept pressing through the tunnels together.

Melchor wasn’t having it, though. The same kind of explosion that had subdued Xuan shook the chamber once again. Hector’s tunnels shattered under the impact and went flying, sending him and Asad along with them. White dust filled the air just as before, but Dimas wasn’t around to clear it away this time.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Page 906

Hector tried raising platforms beneath Nere to trip her up, but she was simply too fast; and the one time he actually succeeded, Nere just leapt off the platform as if she’d expected it to be there.

Asad, however, employed a better strategy. With a clenched fist, he raised a huge bed of powdered quartz beneath Ismael and Nere, slowing them both down as they suddenly had to go from running on stone to stomping through clumps of sand. Of course, they also had superhuman strength in their legs, so the sand only offered a brief opening as they adjusted their running motion accordingly. But that was enough for Asad.

A quartz spike gored Nere through the stomach, then spawned dozens of barbed branches in quick succession, exploding out of her torso and severing the top half of her body from the bottom. Her arms moved to destroy the quartz, but it was already too late. The glass cut cleanly up through both shoulders, stopping her movement completely before proceeding to encase her neck and head.

Hector looked on in horrified awe. He would definitely have to steal that technique, he decided.

And it had gone almost unnoticed thus far, but Asad was the main reason why none of the fallen Blackburns had been able to return to the fight. Even when he’d been fending off two or three opponents at once, Asad managed to coat the severed heads in quartz and prevent regeneration. Ismael or Melchor would sometimes break someone free, but Asad would just coat them again without losing a beat. Hector, at least, managed to provide some assistance on that front, recoating a couple with iron when Asad didn’t have the time.

Now, with Nere taken down, Hector checked on Lord Salvador again. Darktide already had him pinned and was almost finished extracting his reaper.

Only Ismael, Melchor, Asad, and Hector remained. The last four combatants. How he’d ended up in this position was entirely beyond him, but the good news was that Xuan’s head, neck, and shoulders had finished regrowing.

He heard Garovel ask the question that was already on his mind.

How much longer?

He just needs one hand,’ said Duvoss.

In calmer circumstances, Hector might have asked why. He also might have complained about it, because that was still way too long to wait--especially now that he was watching a living metal monster barreling toward him.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Page 905 -- CIII.

Ibai handed the reapers off to Rafael and the others, keeping only Chergoa for himself.

And everyone abruptly stopped yelling. They were all staring at him now, even his own family members. Only the faint rumble of distant battle prevented complete silence.

“Ensure no harm comes to them,” Ibai said, uncertain if those words were his own or his father’s or Uncle Mel’s. “They don’t deserve to die, and we won’t be so afraid of their future actions as to execute them unjustly, either.”

More silence, until Rafael spoke up. “...A-are you certain, m’lord?”

Ibai grinned. “‘The rain fears not the torch,’” he said.

That only made everyone stare again.

Ibai became impatient. “What’s the matter?”

We are just--’ Ustox broke himself off. ‘As you wish, m’lord. Rafael, let us go.

Rafael still seemed a bit awestruck, but after a moment, he blinked and looked at Chergoa. “What about her, m’lord?”

“Oh, she’s with me! We’re going on an adventure together!”

Chapter One Hundred Three: ‘Ye who must hold firm...!’
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Hector’s armor kept crumbling. His clothes kept burning. And he kept losing extremities to the Lady Blackburn’s very annoyingly well-placed attacks. Even Haqq’s shield couldn’t stand up to her destruction power--Hector had lost an arm, shoulder, and half his face figuring that out. She seemed particularly intent on clipping his legs, and Hector was equally intent on not allowing that to happen. If it weren’t for Asad, he definitely would’ve been dead by now.

But here he was. Still alive. Still keeping hold of Duvoss and Xuan. He really wished they’d hurry up and finish regenerating already. He knew the chaos of a fight tended to make time feel longer, but this was getting to be a bit much.

He just focused on avoiding Nere’s attacks. His shield and body could weather Ismael’s flames, if absolutely necessary. Ismael seemed to be trying to close in on him, probably for some kind of explosive attack, but Asad was keeping him at bay while also giving Nere glass javelins to worry about.

And then he saw Darktide finally snatch Dimas out of the air and snap the man in half, ripping Iziol from his body in one smooth motion.

Hector didn’t get the chance to keep watching, but knowing that Salvador was now alone against Melchor, Hector had a dreadful feeling that he was about to be seeing a whole lot of liquid mercury again.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Page 904

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A ripple of cries and protests went through the few captive reapers who were still conscious, but it was Emiliana who proved the most vocal.

“You can’t be serious!” she yelled. “These are your fellow Rainlords! They would certainly have showed you mercy! You must do the same for them!”

Don’t listen to her, m’lord,’ said Ustox. ‘Perhaps they would have been merciful at first, but once the full truth came out, our executions would be assured.

“What ‘full truth’?!” said Emiliana.

Ustox ignored the question.

Rafael spoke up now that the burns on his face were gone. “It’s okay, m’lord. You won’t get in trouble this time. Go on, if you want to.”

Oh, he wanted to. That wasn’t the issue. “But what if Mama and Papa find out? Or Mel? They would never forgive me.”

As far as anyone else is concerned, you were never here,’ said Ustox. ‘The battle in this corridor simply grew too chaotic, and we were unable to take any of the enemy reapers alive.

“No!” cried Emiliana. “You mustn’t kill them!”

Ibai’s eyes widened with anticipation, and he bit his lip. “I-I’ve never consumed a human soul before...”

That can’t be true,’ said Ustox, sounding abruptly surprised. ‘To manifest that ability of yours, you must’ve consumed at least a few.

“No,” said Ibai. “It was only ever animals. I... I tried to think of it like hunting. I even put the meat and fur to use. When possible. So... this is... this is new.”

I see,’ said Ustox. ‘I apologize, then. Please forgive my ignorance, m’lord. I thought--well, never mind. We will speak no more on the matter, if that is your wish. I implore you to do whatever you think is best.

Emiliana was shouting again--something about honor this time--but Ibai had stopped listening.

Ibai truly did not know what to do now. He stared at the reapers with hunger in his eyes. Just this once, it might be okay. He would be able to see what it was like. He had a feeling that humans souls were much more potent than animal souls--and another feeling that reaper souls were stronger still. All he needed to do was crush them with his shadow and then teleport before their ethereal remains disappeared. It would be so easy.

But for some reason, he didn’t. He stopped himself.

Page 903

Ibai teleported, leaving Emiliana behind but keeping Chergoa wrapped in a brown tail, and reappeared next to the man who’d been hassling Rafael. Ibai’s shadow ballooned around the man and his reaper, and Ibai jumped away again with both in tow. This time, he reappeared next to the wall.

The man, however, reappeared in the wall. In an instant, his flesh completely fused with the rock, cracking it only slightly and creating a lifeless human statue embedded in otherwise smooth stone.

He didn’t get time to admire the craftsmanship, however. The other reapers had noticed him by now, and the fight broke out anew. Ibai jumped from enemy to enemy, creating even more havoc while they were already scrambling to contain the thrashing Blackburns.

It didn’t last very long at all, and by the end, Ibai had collected two more reapers for himself. One final reaper was fleeing down the hallway, but Ibai caught up to him easily enough, bringing the number of trophies to four. He could’ve called it five, but he decided that it wasn’t fair to count Chergoa. All the same, he returned to the other Blackburns with a grin on his face and a hop in his step.

“Thank you, m’lord,” one of them said. “You saved us.”

Indeed,’ said Rafael’s reaper. This one’s name was Ustox. ‘But you aren’t supposed to be here, are you?

“Aw, c’mon!” whined Ibai, waving his captured toys around. “All the action’s out here!”

As you say, m’lord. We could certainly use your help. But how long have you possessed this teleporting power?

“Er. N-not long...”

Indeed? I suppose it doesn’t matter. Here, m’lord.’ Ustox bobbed his tiny body toward the others, and they all seemed to understand. In addition to Ibai’s captives, the others had captured five more enemy reapers, all currently rendered unconscious.

And the Blackburns offered them to him.

Ibai blinked at the apparent gifts. “W-what are you doing?”

Our House is outnumbered,’ said one of the other Blackburn reapers. ‘We need you strong, Lord Ibai.

This was too sudden.

Ibai could hardly believe what he was hearing. For more than thirty years, everyone had told him the exact opposite of this. They’d told him how much trouble he’d been in, how he should try to be more thoughtful, more careful, more gentle.

That was simply the way of things.

But now...? He didn’t understand. Were they testing him? Surely not. That would be cruel.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Page 902

Emiliana didn’t seem pleased by that information, but she chose not to argue.

Ibai took her hand again, but then paused, thinking. “Oh, I almost forgot to ask: is there anyone else you want me to bust out of here before we go? The more the merrier, I say!”

“...No,” said Emiliana.

“Are you sure? No other hostages or anything? It seems odd that you two would be the only ones.”

She kept a flat expression and shrugged. “If there are any others, they weren’t with me.”

“Hmm.” Ibai tilted his head and squinted. “That’s funny, because I heard one of those soldiers earlier say that I had ‘an Elroy’--as if to imply that there was more than one. I forget how many children House Elroy currently has, but it seems a fair bet that you’re one of them and that more are being held hostage here right now.”

That seemed to put Emiliana at a loss for words.

Chergoa spoke up for her. ‘The rest were killed. Very recently, too, so it’s not surprising that those soldiers didn’t know. Please don’t ask her any more about it. She’s been through considerable trauma already.

“Ah, that makes sense, then. Oh, and I’m sorry to hear that.”

Don’t worry about it,’ said Chergoa, abruptly changing her tone. ‘So what’s this you said about going on an adventure? Because that sure sounded interesting.

Ibai’s face lit up again. “I’m glad you think so! Let’s go find some fun stuff to do! See if we can put her mind at ease!”

Ibai jumped all three of them up a few floors and immediately ran into another group of unfamiliar soldiers. These ones were already in the middle of subduing a handful of Blackburn guards, and they were all facing the other way or otherwise too busy to notice the new arrivals. Even their reapers didn’t seem to sense Ibai’s presence yet.

“--word of an aberration in the building!” one the soldiers was yelling. The target of his anger was a Blackburn servant with a half-melted face, pinned against the wall alongside his reaper. “If you know something, tell me now!”

As Ibai looked over the scene, his smile waned. That servant’s name was Rafael, and Rafael was a dynamite checkers player.

After a beat, however, Ibai’s smile returned, even wider and toothier than before.

Page 901

“How do you know she is here?” Emiliana asked.

“Well, I don’t, but the cells on this floor are super old and were designed specifically to hold reapers. Normal cells won’t work even with soul-empowerment, because normal cells have to allow air in, and reapers can squeeze through even the smallest of physical gaps. Unless you’re using a soul net, I suppose. But those require added maintenance since they need electricity and other science-y stuff. Which didn’t even exist way back then, anyway. Or hadn’t been discovered yet, I guess. Whatever.”

“You... seem to know a lot about it.”

“Do I? That’s cool. Studying is boring, but knowing stuff is fun. Hey, what’s your reaper’s name?”

Emiliana seemed reluctant, still, but said, “Chergoa.”


After a beat, Emiliana blinked. “She can.”

“You lead the way, then,” said Ibai.

Emiliana proceeded down the length of the hall, shouting out to Chergoa intermittently, and soon, Ibai could hear the reaper’s responses.

You sound really close now.

Emiliana stopped in front of a cell on their right. “I think she’s in here.”

“Okay,” said Ibai. “Be right back.” And he teleported inside on his own.

It was pitch dark inside, but he did not need light to see her. To his eyes, reapers were very small, human-shaped toys. Tiny action figures, in truth.

As soon as Chergoa saw him, she began bobbing frantically up and down. ‘Holy shit, an aberration! How did you--?!

With nowhere for her to run, Ibai just scooped her up with his shadow. “Shh, it’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you.”


They jumped out again, and he held the reaper up for Emiliana to see. “Here she is! Safe and sound!”

“Thank you!” Emiliana moved to take Chergoa from him.

Ibai recoiled from her touch, keeping the reaper well in hand. “Ah. That’s okay. I’ll keep her safe for you.”

The relief on Emiliana’s face disappeared. “No, please, I would much rather she be--”

“Sorry,” said Ibai. “It’s not that I don’t trust you. It’s that I don’t trust her. No offense, Chergoa.”

Chergoa made no response.

“I know how most reapers see me.” He frowned. “If I let her go, I’m sure she’ll just run away. And then she’ll make you run away. And then we won’t be able to go on an adventure together! So I’ll hold onto her for now.”

Monday, December 8, 2014

Page 900

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“What a pretty name,” said Ibai. “Why are you in here all by yourself?”

Emiliana lowered her brow at him. “Shouldn’t you know that already?”

“Mm. Probably. But I don’t. Do you know what is going on outside?”

“Some kind of battle.”

“Right. It’s dangerous. You shouldn’t be here. So why are you?”

“...I’m being held prisoner.”

“Prisoner? Why? Did you do something wrong?”


“Oh, so like a hostage, then?”

“I suppose so, yes.”

“Well, that seems pretty unfair. Not to mention boring.”

She only squinted at him.

Ibai laughed suddenly. “I understand! Not being allowed to leave! You can’t possibly know how much I sympathize with you! By the way, what’s wrong with your face?”

Emiliana chose not to answer that.

“Oh, I bet you’re a servant, aren’t you? You’re one of those super-rare mucus users I heard about, right? Do you fight using snot bubbles? Could you show me?”

“Er, I think you mean mutation users...”

“Do I? Well, that sounds way less cool. Hey, where’s your reaper?”

“I don’t know, actually. She’s being kept somewhere else.”

“Oh, should we go find her, then? I bet I know where she is. Ooh, and then we could all go on an adventure together!”

Emiliana hesitated again. “What do you mean by adventure?”

“I don’t know. That’s how adventures work, right?”


“Sounds like a plan!” He grabbed her hand and teleported them both into the next room. They appeared in midair, having to fall a few inches before touching the floor again, and Emiliana ended up stumbling forward.

“What in the world was that?!”

“Neat, eh?”

“But--all that--?! What was all that stuff that flashed by?! All those lights!”

“Oh, those?” A beat passed, and then he gave a lame shrug. “Anyway, let’s keep going. It’ll take a couple more jumps to reach the dungeon.”


They teleported once more, three floors down this time. Another troupe of armed strangers with reapers was right there to greet them.

It’s an aberration!


It’s got an Elroy!


And they vanished behind a muddy curtain. When they reappeared, there was no light, and Ibai had to fumble around in the dark for a bit before finding the switch on the wall.

The ceiling lit up in intervals, revealing a long, arching corridor full of musty prison cells, all wrought from ancient rock and steel but still airtight even to this day.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Page 899

The walls had been soul-empowered by Papa and then later overridden even more strongly by Mel, so Ibai already knew that he couldn’t simply bust his way out. What Papa and Mel didn’t know, however, was that Ibai’s ability had manifested a long time ago. He’d kept it a secret for nearly two decades now, knowing that it would only upset his family and make them look for a way to counter its effects. And that would’ve sucked all the fun out of it.

He had the layout of Marshrock more or less memorized. He’d probably spent more time here than anyone else in the entire world.

So teleporting out of this room was not going to be difficult.

He stood in the middle of the chamber, thought about where he wanted to be, and then wrapped himself in the brown shadow. It swirled around him and then winked out of existence, taking his body with it.

And for an instant, he could see.

The infinite void.

Everything and nothing. Life and death. A trillion burning stars in the sky and all around him. Souls suspended in space. Eleg, too, spinning and breathing and alive.

And all of them, ethereal. Massless shadows of reality. The universe of zero weight, where space itself was of no consequence.

In a flash, it was all gone, and Ibai reappeared in the next room over, stepping from his muddy shadow onto Marshrock’s dark stone again.

Ibai frowned. No one was around. But wait, no, that was probably a good thing. He was supposed to be sneaky. He jumped through space again, this time reappearing on the next floor up. Still no one. He jumped again, and this time there was a group of strangers looking directly at him, including several reapers. Many of them carried guns.

“Hello!” said Ibai.

An aberration!

“Kill it!”

He teleported away as the gunfire erupted, reappearing in a bedroom a few floors down. “Well, that was unfortunate.” He shrugged it off and looked around.

He saw a girl with four horns on her face. She was staring at him with wide gray eyes.

“Hello,” Ibai said cheerily. “You don’t look like you want to kill me. What is your name, young lady?”

She stood up from the edge of her bed, hesitant. “...Who are you?”

“Oh, my name is Ibai. And yours?”


Page 898 -- CII.

Dimas kept his distance, staying in the air while trying to keep the army of silvery tendrils from overwhelming Salvador, who was busy sacrificing and then quickly regenerating his hands in order to hit Melchor with molten cobalt. And Melchor was handling them both, swirling around their attacks while countering with his own. It was all they could do to keep him from simply blowing past them and going after Hector again.

Hector, in the meantime, worked on remaking his armor. Much as he would’ve liked to help, he knew that rushing back in would just put Duvoss and Xuan in danger. The best he would’ve been able to offer was a distraction, but that was exactly what Dimas and Salvador were trying to provide for him now.

Careful behind you,’ said Garovel. ‘We’ve drawn everyone’s attention.

Indeed, Hector turned in time to see Ismael’s purple flames descending upon him. They smacked against his shield as he rolled away, but he found that they would not come off. Melting flesh stuck to the metal like glue, continuing to provide potassium fuel for the flames. Hector smothered them with an iron coating.

Asad appeared next to him, materializing a storm of glassy spikes to keep Ismael and Nere occupied. “Are you alright?” he asked with two voices.

“Yeah,” said Hector. “You?”

“Wouldn’t mind a little assistance. Here.” Asad pressed a tattooed hand against Hector’s fresh armor, but they were interrupted before he could finish strengthening it again. He and Hector were forced to dive in opposite directions to avoid a destructive path from Nere.

And Hector just tried to keep moving as he raised his shield to deal with more flames.

Chapter One Hundred Two: ‘The demon in the mud...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Dust trickled down from the ceiling with each successive tremor, and Ibai Blackburn bit his lip as he stared up at it.

He’d been trying to ignore the shaking. He really had. But it just kept reminding him that a battle was going on out there. A real battle. And so close.

But Mama and Papa would be so cross with him if they found out that he left the room. Worse, they’d be disappointed in him. And of course, if he ended up having to explain precisely how he managed to get out, that would only make them even more upset.

But it had to be done. These quakes were simply too enticing to go uninvestigated. Maybe if he was sneaky about it, no one would find out.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Page 897

The mercury wanted through, but Hector wasn’t budging. He could see the brain growing slowly larger with each passing moment.

I think you owe your shield an apology,’ said Garovel privately. ‘It’s clearly not a piece of shit, and it’s definitely saving your ass right now.

I’ll make an iron girlfriend for it later,’ said Hector. He felt his bones cracking under Darktide’s constant pressure, but it wasn’t fast enough to be a problem for Hector’s undead regeneration. The bones just kept breaking and healing again and again, though it wasn’t exactly comfortable. He couldn’t even move.

“You cannot win,” came the calm double-voice of Darktide. “Give up Duvoss, and we will let you live.”

Don’t answer,’ said Garovel.

Hector didn’t intend to. The fact that Darktide was trying to bargain now seemed indicative of a stalemate having formed, and a stalemate was in their favor, because all they needed to do was buy a few minutes for Xuan.

But it was going to be a long few minutes.

Abruptly, Hector felt the crushing pressure let up for a moment, only to be replaced by a dozen points of spinning force. Mercury drills, digging into his arms and back and neck and skull. And they were making progress. He tried to fight them with iron, but it wouldn’t even materialize in here. The field density of Darktide’s soul was much too strong for him.

Hector didn’t know what else he could do. He was plainly overmatched, and Xuan still needed a lot more time.

Then Garovel decided to intervene. ‘HEY!’ he shouted, making Hector blink. ‘WE’RE STILL ALIVE IN HERE! AND WE COULD REALLY USE SOME HELP RIGHT ABOUT NOW!


Then Darktide’s belly splattered apart with gravitic force, and Lord Salvador’s huge arm reached in. Liquid metal was on the man in an instant, but he already had a grip on Hector’s forearm and yanked him out. Melchor still held Hector’s legs, but Dimas was there to pummel the liquid beast with invisible bullets until Hector was finally free again.

Hector hit the ground rolling. His armor clattered off his body in sundered chunks, and the clothes beneath were full of rips and bloody holes and still-writhing mercury as his skin and muscles regenerated. But Duvoss and Xuan were safe in his arms, and Hector hoisted himself onto one knee, watching Dimas and Salvador engage Darktide in unison.

Page 896

Duvoss and Xuan were separated now, and Melchor’s body began to swallow them both.

Unsure what else he could do, Hector just kept flinging iron while he also worked on a spiked boulder above the liquid metal beast’s head.

A visible pulse of gravity burst through Melchor’s arm, and Duvoss fell away from him, still gripped by the severed hand.

And Hector dropped everything else, suddenly knowing his most important task. He bolted forward and lunged for the reaper. He snatched Duvoss up just before the wave of mercury could, and the mercury crashed against Hector’s shield and armor both, sending him flying once more. But his concentration held firm, even as he crashed through the north wall into an auditorium and took out a row of seats before his armored body finally skid to a halt.

He pulled Duvoss close and kept him positioned just behind the shield, prepared to endure another metallic tidal wave, but it wasn’t immediately necessary. He saw Lord Dimas buying them precious time.

Can you move?’ asked Garovel.

N-no, I don’t--agh...’ Duvoss barely sounded conscious.

Forget it,’ said Garovel. ‘Regenerate Xuan now. Hector will keep you safe.

W-where... where is Xuan’s brain?

I lost him in the chaos. Just try regrowing him.

And Hector saw a tiny speck appear in his own hand--a dot of brain matter. He had no clue how Xuan’s previous brain had gotten destroyed, but he didn’t have time to worry about it.

Melchor came crashing through the wall like a freight train.

Garovel’s next words were kept private. ‘It’s time to cheat, Hector.’

And the young Lord Goffe switched hands with the shield. As soon as his bare skin touched it, he felt the enhancement course through him like a shiver that tautened every muscle, but he kept his focus. He raised a broad platform beneath Melchor, trying to throw him off and squish him against the ceiling, but the liquid mercury cut through his iron like butter and bounded closer, undeterred.

Hector launched himself away with a diagonal platform. The mercury caught up anyway and snaked around his leg, stopping him in mid-air before yanking him back toward Darktide’s gaping maw.

The iron spikes came out, completely engulfing his body, and Melchor crunched through them without a single care. Hector’s armor shattered and pressed against his flesh.

But Hector himself remained. Curled into a ball, he protected Duvoss and Xuan with his body alone.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Page 895

Hector kept thinking someone would attack him again, particularly Melchor, but it seemed that Darktide didn’t want to divide his attention again, seeing as he did end up losing Horatio the last time he tried. Still, it was a very odd thing, just watching the violence unfold rather than participating.

Dimas and Salvador had thinned their opponents down to the last one, and Dimas moved to assist Asad, who’d been stuck in an apparent stalemate with Ismael and Nere up to now.

This seems too easy,’ said Garovel. ‘The way they talked about Darktide, I figured he’d be able to do more with pan-rozum than flail around like this.

Hector was getting a similar vibe. ‘You think he’s holding back?

Maybe. I’m not sure why he would, though.

Well, if it were me, I might try to create an opening first--possibly by tricking the opponent into thinking they were beating me...

Garovel paused. ‘Colt taught you that, didn’t he?

Er. S-sorta... But, uh. I’m probably wrong. I’m sure that’s way too simplistic for a fight of this level. And if I could see through it, then Lord Xuan would obviously--

As if on cue, a chunk of Darktide’s body pierced the center of the smoke and detonated with such force that even Hector was thrown into the wall. The blast filled the whole foyer, leaving behind long-lingering tremors that made Hector feel like he’d been caught in a sudden earthquake. He could hear more crumbling rock, but the smoke was so dense that he could scarcely even see until Dimas’ gravity swept the air clear again.

And when Hector returned to the busted guardrail, what he saw made his breath catch.

Darktide’s hulking form had been torn asunder, and pieces of mercury boiled beneath pools of acid. But the liquid metal beast was still standing, while the white fumes had all but dispersed. And Darktide was already in the middle of tearing Duvoss free from the Seadevil’s almost smokeless figure.

Time to help,’ said Garovel.

Hector leapt off the second floor and slid down on an iron ramp, already running when his feet touched stone again. He chucked a materialized spear as he charged forward, shield first.

Melchor saw him, but just carried on anyway and let his liquid body devour the iron as if it had been intended to feed him.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Page 894

Hector observed the fight with grim wonder, trying to keep an eye on everyone. Dimas and Salvador appeared to have their situation well in hand, with Dimas occasionally boring enormous holes in the rock, earning more aerial space for himself. Hector watched the man fly into a tunnel of his own making, only to return a moment later, exploding through a wall behind one of the Blackburns.

Meanwhile, Xuan and Melchor were still a thunderous mess of scarcely understandable chaos. Pillars of white smoke and whiter flames slammed against sheets of flexing metal, making both burst apart each time.

What are they doing?’ Hector asked.

Trying to overwhelm one another,’ said Garovel. ‘They’ve both mastered pan-rozum, so there aren’t many ways they can subdue each other. Hyper states can be forcibly undone by tearing the reaper out of the user’s brain. But in pan-rozum, the user can melt their brain mass down into something incredibly small without losing any of its functionality--and on top of that, it can be MOVED, too. So right now, they’re both attempting to surround and destroy enough of one another that they can locate their opponent’s brain and end the fight.

Hector understood. ‘Process of elimination...

Exactly. The less original mass the user possesses, the fewer places the brain can be located.

Every now and again, Hector could see the smoke take on a vaguely human shape, sometimes with too many arms, all grasping at Darktide’s only slightly more humanoid form. Javelins of white flame punctured the mercury in multiple places, looking almost like fiery claws as they tore through the liquid body. Xuan’s own body expanded and contracted as he pleased, billowing one way and then the other, and not being particularly bothered by Melchor’s smothering walls. Even when Darktide actually succeeded in boxing some of the smoke in and compressing it, the Seadevil simply cut himself free with fire or acid.

What is Xuan’s element?’ said Hector. ‘Do you know?

No one told me,’ said Garovel, ‘because I guess they like to keep their trump card secret when they can, but seeing it now--it’s almost definitely phosphorus. The sheer volume of smoke is somewhat telling--though I’m a little surprised he can control the product of his chemical reactions so well. To make the smoke an extension of his body... well, I am quite impressed.

They did say he was 106...

Yes, they did.