Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Page 1021

It’s not inconceivable that someone could have framed him,’ said Garovel. ‘And according to Ibai’s own account, Fuad was dead before he arrived.

“He also sounded extremely confused,” said Lorenzo. “Could be that he didn’t realize what he’d done until it was too late, but that doesn’t change the fact that he did it.”

“That is not a fact until we confirm it as such,” said Carlos. “You are also not a part of this investigation. You’ve given us your witness statement. You may leave now.”

“And who put you in charge, exactly?” said Lorenzo. “This isn’t Roth.”

“You are correct,” said Carlos. “But this is not Deynos, either. This is Moaban. And as we are guests here, we should defer to the Lord Najir. Agreed?”

Lorenzo gave a slow nod before he and everyone else turned to Asad and Qorvass.

And despite having been put on the spot rather suddenly, the tattooed Sandlord lost none of his composure. “Lord Lorenzo. It is my understanding that you worked as a constable in Deynos for many years, no?”

“I did, yes.”

“And Lord Carlos, you served in the Vanguard’s OSI, did you not?”


That caught Hector’s attention. ‘OSI?

Office of Special Investigations,’ Garovel said privately.

“I would like the both of you to head up your own investigations, independent of one another,” said Asad. “Do not waste time sharing information. Simply return to me in six hours with whatever you have learned.”

Lorenzo shifted his feet and tilted his head. “Six hours isn’t much to work with.”

“You’ll keep investigating afterwards, but I need your preliminary reports by then. At most, I can buy us twelve hours before Hahl Saqqaf shows up and starts asking a lot of difficult questions--not the least of which will be why the hell I chose to give refuge to so many Rainlords without informing them.”

“Do you think they will kick us out?” said Carlos.

“No,” said Asad. “This is my jurisdiction. But they will certainly not be pleased.”

“All the same,” said Lorenzo, “perhaps we should be ready to leave in a hurry.”

“I won’t discourage your people’s caution,” said Asad, “but just focus on the investigation right now. I will inform Abel and Salvador of what I am having you do.”

What about the Blackburns?’ asked Garovel.

Page 1020 -- CXVII.

Chapter One Hundred Seventeen: ‘Riddle in the sand...’
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So what do we know?’ said Garovel, addressing the full audience of investigators, which now included the three Najirs and their accompanying reapers. ‘We don’t have the luxury of a DNA test to confirm whose blood this is or even if it all belongs to poor Fuad here, but we are all in agreement that these blood patterns seem strange, at least.

It’s difficult to tell,’ said Qorvass. ‘Given the extent of mutilation, one would assume that there would be plenty of blood on the walls, counters, and ceiling, but it is only on the floor.

Which suggests that Fuad was not killed here in the south kitchen,’ said Atalim.

But that could also be consistent with Ibai’s story,’ said Qorvass. ‘He said he teleported AFTER colliding with the body. We assumed he meant from one end of this room to the other, as described by the two separate blood stains, but he could have just as easily teleported twice. The first teleport would have been from wherever the murder took place.

“Can any of you corroborate that?” asked Asad. He was staring at the group of reapers who’d been close enough to sense Ibai.

They each shook their head.

He was too difficult to follow,’ said the one bound to Lorenzo Delaguna. His name was Marosso, Hector was pretty sure.

Garovel decided to move on with the summation. ‘Pretty much everything we’ve found points to Ibai. He was also the only one in here just prior to the disappearance of the soul that we can only presume to have been Fuad’s. That’s fairly strong evidence that he consumed Fuad’s soul, even if we DO assume that he didn’t actually murder him.

“However, the position he was found in was also odd,” said Carlos Sebolt. The thick lines of his middle-aged face deepened as he spoke. “His foot was stuck inside the body, as if he had decided to stomp the boy to death, but this is inconsistent with the extensive mutilation. He would’ve had to tear the body to shreds in a matter of seconds before suddenly resorting to stomping. Why would he have done that?”

“Because he’s an aberration,” said Lorenzo Delaguna. “It’s no use trying to understand how they think.”

Hector had a pretty good idea whose side that guy was on. Not that he completely disagreed with him.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Page 1019

I see,’ said Chergoa. ‘Er, I mean--I understand.

Emiliana just looked at her.

Well, hey, you barely even need your eyes anyway. If it comes down to it, I’ll just tell you where everything is.

That reminded Emiliana that this was going to happen again. It was only a matter of time. Unless she did something about it, of course. She knew she only had herself to blame on this one. Chergoa had warned her previously that she needed to use her power in small, controlled ways, and Emiliana had been neglecting that. It might’ve been irrational, but a part of her had been hoping that she could just sit back and never have to worry about making things worse.

Foolishness, she knew. She was just grateful that Chergoa wasn’t rubbing it in her face.

She didn’t know how she was supposed to get used to this. Everything was so bright, despite all the gaps everywhere. The oddest thing, though, was that not all of the holes were the same. There seemed to be two types, actually. Some were just strange fluctuations in light, occasionally even moving to and fro, shrinking and growing, creating an illusion of distance from her. The others were just big dark spots, blurry and completely stationary, making it feel as if she were stuck looking through a pair of mucked up binoculars.

Before they made it back to the room, however, a commotion at the far end of the hall caught Emiliana’s attention. A number of Rainlords had gathered there, and when she turned to Chergoa again, she saw that the reaper had stopped and seemed to be concentrating.

“Is something happening?” Em asked.

I think so. There’s a lot of movement a couple floors below us.

“Do you want to investigate?”

Chergoa thought a moment. ‘Nah. It doesn’t seem like a fight’s broken out. We should stay close to Zeff. I’m sure someone will find us if there’s anything we should know.

Emiliana had no problem with that. They finished returning to their room.

Something still felt odd, though. She couldn’t quite tell what it was. A stray shiver ran down her spine, and she became abruptly conscious of the hairs on her arms and the back of her neck. And even after rejoining her family, the feeling didn’t go away. It lingered, keeping her on edge and making her scan the room over and over again, trying to reassure herself that nothing was actually wrong.

If not for the holes in her vision, she might’ve had an easier time believing that.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Page 1018

She shut her eyes and poured all of her concentration into her work. A curved structure encapsulating the back of each eye. Right now, that was all she needed. All she wanted.

Searing pain arrived, as expected. Tearing tissue, she figured. Something had to be moved in order to make room for the keratin. She’d forgotten to ask Chergoa to numb her beforehand, but the reaper must have been able to tell from Emiliana’s expression alone, because abruptly, the agony disappeared. Only a lingering shiver was left behind.

In her head, she completed the image of what she wanted half a dozen times before finally realizing that everything had settled. Her heartbeat, her breathing, even the panic, for the most part. She was still sweating, and her nerves were still putting her a little on edge, but at length, she decided that there was nothing left to do but open her eyes and see the results.

Slowly, her eyelids peeled back, letting light in again. And she was confused. And panic spiked through her chest another time when she saw how blurry everything was. Then a quick wash of relief as the world began to come back into focus. The mirror was still there in front of her.

There were, however, splotches. Great dark spots. Hovering in the middle of her vision. Quivering. And the light--it made her squint. It didn’t quite hurt, if only because she was numb, but she found it difficult to keep her eyes open now.

But she supposed that only made sense. She’d been a bit sensitive to light before, and now she’d added a structure that only increased the amount of light on her photoreceptors.

How’s it look?’ Chergoa asked. ‘Can you still see me?

Emiliana blinked very slowly. ‘Yes... but I think I am going to need sunglasses from now on...

Chergoa’s laugh was full of relief. ‘I’m sure we can manage that.

Emiliana rubbed her face and washed it in the sink before putting her mask back on. It did dim the light in her eyes a little bit, but she would certainly be needing more than just this now.

They started back toward the Elroys’ room together as Chergoa offered reassurances and Emiliana only half-listened. She still had holes in her vision. Everywhere she looked, murky pits of black and gray seemed to swallow light or distort it, and she wasn’t sure if she should tell Chergoa. At length, though, she decided that she probably should.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Page 1017

Chergoa floated in front of Emiliana’s face. ‘Open your eyes wide for me,’ the reaper said.

Emiliana tried and encountered resistance. Her eyes had been more sensitive to light ever since her power manifested, and now she had to struggle through the discomfort of forcing them open so wide. She could feel them twitching even more than earlier.

Yeah,’ said Chergoa. ‘Whether you want them to or not, your eyes are about to mutate. Try to guide the mutation.’

Emiliana grimaced. Impulsively, she wanted to ask how the hell she was supposed to do that, but she already knew. They’d gone over this already.

There was really only one trick to it. She needed to imagine the desired change clearly in her mind. Simple.

The catch, of course, was that if she imagined something too ambitious, her power would go crazy in an attempt to compensate and do something random, instead. Random--and probably horrific, she figured.

So she had to concentrate. On her eyes, apparently. She hadn’t realized that such specific mutations could occur on their own, but now wasn’t the time to be worrying about it. Her thoughts went to her studies. The book she’d been reading earlier.

The temptation was to imagine something like an avian eye, perhaps to enhance her ciliary muscles for more versatile lens movement, but she had to keep her limitations in mind. At the moment, her mutation power only allowed her to manipulate the protein known as keratin; and unfortunately, keratin didn’t have much to do with vision, unless she intended to grow hair on her eyeballs.

And for a few terrible seconds, that’s what she thought she might have to do. There was no stopping this change. She had to do something.

And then she recalled a structure in the eye which humans didn’t have but that certain animals like cats and dogs did: the tapetum lucidum. It sat right behind the retina and reflected light back through it, which ultimately increased night vision and made it look like the animals had glowing eyes in low light conditions.

That, at least, seemed like a better plan than eyeball-fuzz. The only problem was whether or not she could construct a tapetum lucidum out of keratin alone. She had no idea how feasible that was.

She supposed she was about to find out.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Page 1016

It seemed there was no hiding it now. Emiliana just tried to keep herself from sounding as panicked as she felt. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I’m--I... ah--’ When she looked up from her book, she realized that there was something else wrong.

Spots. Distortions in her vision. It was like the light in the room was bending, somehow; and it made her blink involuntarily, but nothing changed. Those spots weren’t going anywhere. She could feel her breathing becoming even more erratic.

Chergoa’s voice cut through everything. ‘Listen to me,’ the reaper said, more urgently now, yet still carrying that same calmness that she always had. ‘Emiliana, it’s okay. I’m right here. Everything is fine. You’re perfectly safe. Just listen to my voice. Now I want you to try and stand. Slowly. Don’t rush yourself. There’s no hurry.

Emiliana latched onto those words as if she were lost at sea and they were the only thing that could keep her afloat. She gradually made it onto her feet while a whirlwind of muddled thoughts and twisting light threatened to knock her off balance.

We’re going to the bathroom,’ said Chergoa, suddenly much more casual, presumably for the others in the room. ‘Be right back.

Emiliana saw the door ahead of her. She just had to make it there. To walk straight. If only the floor would stop moving.

Good,’ said Chergoa privately. ‘You’re almost there.

It didn’t look like it, but after a moment, Emiliana realized that the reaper was correct. Her hand was touching the doorknob. She was leaving the room. And it almost felt like she wasn’t the one who’d done it.

All the way to the nearest bathroom, this strange sensation continued.

Then she was in front of a mirror, removing her mask in order to look at her face, at the stubby horns there.

Does anything hurt?’ asked Chergoa.

Emiliana had to think about it. ‘No.

Good. That’s good.

What’s happening?

You can’t tell? Em, your power is growing.

Emiliana’s expression twisted into a scowl. Clearly, Chergoa thought this was a good thing, and perhaps it was, but Emiliana would’ve been quite pleased to never have to deal with this again.

Chergoa had told her about this, though. One of the things that made the mutation type so volatile was that, eventually, it had to be used, whether the user wished it or not.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Page 1015 -- CXVI.

Chapter One Hundred Sixteen: ‘Vision in the dark...’
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The Elroys’ shared room was quiet. The three children hung around their father’s bed. Ramira was sleeping; Marcos looked like he was having a silent conversation with Shenado; and Emiliana--she was trying to read a book she’d grabbed off the shelf.

Trying and failing, unfortunately. She just couldn’t seem to focus on the words anymore. Things kept distracting her, things she couldn’t quite grasp. Fleeting sensations. A flicker in her eye. A twitch in one of her horns. And sweat--warm and then cold and then warm again. Even her own breathing was starting to play tricks on her. Easy and then erratic and then easy again. Over and over.

She didn’t know what was happening. Some kind of panic attack? She’d never had one before. Was this what they were like?

But for some reason, she wasn’t even concerned. Not about herself, at least. The only thing on her mind was to bottle it up. To not let anyone else find out. They’d just worry about her. Become scared for her. It made no sense, but right here and now, in the middle of whatever madness this was, not inconveniencing anyone seemed like the most important thing in the world.

At this point, the book in her hands was just a tool to help conceal herself. As long as she could look like she was reading it, everything could still be okay. The problem, whatever it was, could still pass. It could just go away. It could. It had to.

Then came Chergoa’s echoing voice, ruining everything. ‘Hey. Is that interesting?

Interesting? What was she talking about? Oh, the book. Of course. Emiliana had to answer, though. What was this damn thing even about? She’d picked it off the shelf for a reason. She just had to remember.

Birds? No. Eyes. The book was about eyes. Bird vision was just one of the earlier parts. She’d picked it in hopes of learning more about ocular anatomy, but it wasn’t particularly helpful, as she already knew everything that she’d managed to read.

...Em? You awake?

Emiliana’s hands twitched as she realized she’d taken too long to respond. ‘Y-yeah.’ Oh no, that was stupid. She could have just pretended to be asleep.

You okay?’ Chergoa asked, hovering in front of her. ‘Hey. You’re shaking. What’s the matter?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Page 1014

He supposed Garovel had a point, but Hector really didn’t want to believe that could be true. The idea that some of the Rainlords might sabotage their own peace did not sit well with him. In the brief time he’d spent with these people, he’d seen nothing but reasons to respect them. Even their aberration--somehow, they’d made a monster seem honorable. The kind of people who could pull off a feat like that deserved the benefit of the doubt, didn’t they?

Maybe they didn’t. That was the question at hand, after all. When it came down to it, maybe Ibai really was nothing more than a monster.

Hector touched his forehead as he realized that he was just going around in circles and confusing himself.

There’s another option we haven’t thought of,’ said Garovel, still privately. ‘Perhaps this whole thing is a fake out.

What do you mean?

The victim’s wounds are obviously excessive. Unless, that is, they are meant to prevent us from identifying the body. In which case, this “victim” could actually be a servant, and the reason their soul isn’t here is because their reaper took it and regenerated them somewhere else.

Oh... you mean like we had Colt do.

Basically, yeah.

Asad and Qorvass seemed to have finished their conversation with Carlos and ventured over to inspect the corpse.

Garovel posed the most pressing question. ‘Can either of you tell us who this is?

The Lord Najir merely frowned, but Qorvass hovered closer to the victim’s feet.

The old skeletal Sandlord let out a heavy sigh. ‘This is Fuad,’ he said.

Hector saw Asad stiffen.

“How do you know?” Asad asked.

The shoes,’ said Qorvass. ‘They’re a little torn up, but you recognize them, don’t you?

Asad just shrugged.

No one else around here wears that brand or color. It’s Fuad. I’m sure a DNA test will confirm it.

Does Fuad have a reaper?’ asked Garovel.

No. He was just a normal kid. He was living here as part of an apprenticeship.

Garovel spared one last word in private. ‘Shit.

It was a good theory,’ said Hector. And then he saw something on Asad’s face that bothered him. Not sadness or anger, but worry. And a sudden question occurred to Hector. “What was Fuad’s last name?”

Asad returned a hard stare. “Saqqaf.”

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Page 1013

Hector tilted his head. ‘You think someone is trying to frame him?

Well, either he did it, or someone went to a lot of trouble to make it look that way. I don’t imagine that Ibai “just happened” to stumble onto this dead body during the very brief window when none of his bodyguards had eyes on him. That would be one hell of a coincidence.

Hmm. But if someone framed him, then how could they have known where he would teleport to? Like you said, that window of opportunity was pretty damn small, and Ibai isn’t exactly predictable.

Yeah, that’s a good point. If someone did frame him, they did it quite well.

A question occurred to Hector, and he realized that he probably should have asked it earlier. ‘Where is the victim’s soul?

I don’t know,’ said Garovel. ‘It wasn’t here when we arrived, but I did sense that it was in here with Ibai just beforehand.

Wait a minute, what?’ Hector looked over the scene another time. ‘So you know for a fact that the victim was alive and alone with Ibai just before we got here?

Not necessarily alive. Just that there was a second soul with him and that now it’s gone.

Hector gave the reaper a look.

I know,’ said Garovel. ‘It’s rather strong evidence that Ibai consumed the soul. I’m not disregarding that as a possibility.

It kinda seems like you are.

I’m just saying that we should be thorough about this. Whichever way this ends up going, we need to be certain. Or at least, as certain as possible.

Except, if Ibai and the victim were the only ones in the room at the time of the murder, then I don’t really see how anyone else could’ve done it.

Hector. This building is full of servants. People with ridiculous powers. People who would also know to account for the reaper’s ability to sense souls.

You’re talking about the Rainlords. You really think one of them would kill one of their own just to frame Ibai?

We don’t actually know that the victim was a Rainlord, yet. It could’ve been one of Asad’s people. Maybe a staff member here. And the Blackburns seem unlikely to turn on Ibai now, after how far they went to protect him, but almost any of the Sebolts or Delagunas might’ve wanted negotiations between the families to break down.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Page 1012

The victim’s body was so torn up that Hector couldn’t even guess the gender. He was a bit surprised at how much sights like this still affected him. Part of him wished that he could just get used to it all, that he could be unflappable in the face of this sort of thing, but there was just something about seeing the aftermath of brutality. Seeing it actually unfold was horrible, too, but he could deal with that. It was only when he saw the outcome, the terrible end, that it really started getting to him, making his chest hurt and his stomach turn.

This poor person. Whoever they were, their death certainly did not look painless.

At length, Garovel stirred Hector out of his morbidity with a private question. ‘So what’re you thinking?

Hector rubbed his chin with one hand. ‘Probably the same thing as everyone else. Ibai lost control and killed someone.

That’s it? Nothing else?

Hector’s mouth flattened.

C’mon, Hector, we’re investigators now. Doesn’t any of this strike you as strange?

Well, there’s a dead person here.

You know that’s not what I’m talking about.

...I take it you don’t think Ibai did this?

I don’t know. I’m asking your opinion. Your REAL opinion. The one you’ve formed using your actual brain. I know you’re a rational person, Hector.’ A beat passed. ‘Well, most of the time.

Hector cocked an eyebrow at him.

Agh, I’m asking for your help. Don’t be an asshole about it. A fucking terrible thing happened here, and we need to figure out exactly what it was. Because if Ibai isn’t responsible for it, then that means someone else is, possibly with the intention to kill again.

Hector knew the reaper had a good point. He’d known all along, really. He’d just wanted to be stubborn this time. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be an option. ‘Alright,’ said Hector. ‘Well... I mean... this IS kinda weird. When I imagined Ibai losing it, I didn’t think he’d be so... stupid about it.

Exactly. Only an idiot would kill someone this way. And with his powers? He could’ve easily hid the body before anyone discovered it.

Maybe, but he couldn’t have hid the mess,’ said Hector. ‘All this blood--this doesn’t strike me as something that was planned ahead of time.

Maybe that’s what the killer wants us to think,’ said Garovel.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Page 1011

Hector just watched as Horatio kept questioning Ibai and receiving no further answers. The aberration was fumbling over his words now, repeating himself when not merely looking confused. Hector kept expecting Ibai to flee, but the man never did, and Hector wondered what was stopping him.

More Rainlords arrived--all Sebolts and Delagunas. And Hector was surprised yet again when a fight did not immediately break out. Instead, they simply escorted the Blackburns out of the room, leaving a group behind to secure the scene.

Hector noticed the group of Sebolts eyeing him and Garovel, and sure enough, it wasn’t long before they ventured over. Hector braced himself for interrogation.

“Lord Goffe,” said the foremost gentleman, “are you well? Might we ask you to assist us in our investigation?”

Hector’s expression only flickered, but it required all of his composure in order to prevent his own mouth from just hanging open. And as usual, he let Garovel do the talking.

It would be our honor,’ the reaper said. ‘But I’m surprised that you would ask outsiders like us for help.

“In this instance, we believe an outsider’s perspective might prove advantageous,” said the same gentleman. By the look of him, he had to be at least twice Hector’s age. “You were also among the first on scene. But you are correct. If you were total outsiders, we would not ask this of you. I think, however, we can all agree that you are not total outsiders.” He offered Hector a handshake.

Hesitant, Hector took it.

“My name is Carlos Sebolt,” the man said. “This is my reaper, Olijas.”

Call me Ollie.

“H-hello,” said Hector.

Carlos proceeded to introduce the rest of their group. Jesenia, Nico, and Perla Sebolt, along with Manuel and Lorenzo Delaguna. Those last two had been Ibai’s bodyguards and therefore also witnesses, just like Hector. And of course, everyone had reapers of their own, but there was no way that Hector was going to keep all those weird names straight.

Carlos eventually got around to asking about what Hector and Garovel each saw, but then Asad and Qorvass arrived, and the conversation shifted over to them as explanations were demanded.

Garovel, however, did not seem interested in listening to what he already knew. Hector saw him drifting over the crime scene to inspect the body and the accompanying trail of blood.

Hector followed him.