Thursday, May 31, 2018

Page 1798

He was going to have to interrupt them one more time, Hector knew. No great surprise there. He waited briefly so as not to talk over either of them and then jumped in.

“Mr. Roman,” said Hector, drawing the man’s attention, “I have to--”

“You can just call me Roman, you know.” Roman’s head bobbed to the side. “Unless you intend make me call you Lord Goffe from now on. In which case, yes, you absolutely have to call me Mr. Roman. Or Mr. Fullister. Or Master Fullister. I do like being called Master. Not Master Roman, though. Only Gina can call me that. It’d be weird if you started saying it, too.”

As he listened, Hector found it increasingly hard to believe that this man was a billionaire. It probably didn’t help that the guy had, as usual, found something weird to wear again. Instead of the armor that Hector had originally materialized for him, Roman was sporting a billiards visor and a windbreaker coat with the words ‘Right On Cue’ on the back in sharply styled letters.

“Fine,” said Hector flatly after Roman was done. “Just Roman, then.”

“Good. And I’ll just call you Hector. Glad we got that all sorted.”

“I have to ask you something,” said Hector, still trying to find the right words here. “And... it’s not... a small something, either.”

“Hmm. I see.” Roman placed his hands on the table. “This not-so-small something wouldn’t happen to be money, would it?”

“...It would, yeah.”

“Ah.” Roman spared a glance at Gina before returning to Hector, then scratched cheek absently. “And here I thought you liked me for my personality.”

At that, Hector couldn’t help exhaling half a laugh, almost like a sigh, and his eyes fell to the table. “I... ah...”

“C’mon, then,” said Roman. “Out with it. How much do you need?”

Hector’s gaze remained on the table as he inhaled through his teeth. He looked up at Roman, then over at Garovel, then at Gina and Voreese, then back at Roman. “...A hundred million?”

Roman’s eyes widened.

“To start with,” Hector felt compelled to add.

Roman’s mouth hung open for a moment, and he furrowed his brow. “What the fuck do you need that much money for?”

“To start a bank,” said Hector. “One that’ll be big enough to... prevent Atreya from being taken over by... foreign interests.”

Roman just kind of kept that same look on his face and didn’t say anything.

“I know it’s a lot to ask,” said Hector.

“Oh, well, that’s good,” said Roman. “I was worried you didn’t know what the fuck you were saying, for a second.”

“And I don’t necessarily... ah... need you to give me all of that. I mean, if you can’t, then--”

“Of course I can’t!” said Roman. “Look, Hector. Yes, I’m filthy rich. I’m not gonna pretend I’m not, but--”

“Ah--are you sure about that?” said Hector. “Because you kinda seem like you’re pretending. All the time, actually.”

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Page 1797

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 3 of 3))
“A very helpful way of looking at things, as always,” said Roman.

I’m just jokin’, c’mon. Obviously, I care greatly about what happens to this worthless piece of shit you call a homeland.

“It’s not the land we’re worried about, Voreese,” said Roman. “It’s the people.”

You think I don’t know that, you fucking dolt? Don’t try to argue semantics with me.

“Why not? Semantics are important. You saying clarity doesn’t matter now, you ignorant bint?”

Hector exchanged glances with Gina and wondered how many times she’d heard half of an argument like this. All things considered, she didn’t look particularly confused.

Roman and Voreese’s arguing didn’t seem like it was slowing down, however, so Hector decided to intervene with a question for Gina. “Have you been following the economic crisis?”

“Of course,” she said. “There seems to be a lot of confusion about what actually caused it, though. I don’t think anyone will know that for a while.”

“Madame Carthrace said something similar,” said Hector. “Is there anything else you can tell me?”

“Um...” Gina took a moment to think, perhaps noticing that Roman had stopped back sassing his imaginary friend. “Well, I’m not much of a financial person, myself, but I’ve got a guy for that, and he--.”

“I think you mean I’ve got a guy for that,” said Roman.

Gina tilted her brow at him. “Yes, Master Roman. Technically, he works for you, not me, but do you even know what he looks like?”

“That’s not important.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Why would it be? I bet he doesn’t know what I look like, either.”

“That’s not a good counterargument, Master Roman.”

“What did your financial guy tell you?” said Hector with a mild laugh.

“Oh, he said that the situation probably isn’t as bad as everyone is currently making it out to be,” said Gina. “He’s mainly an investment guy, so he’s really annoyed and thinks that all of this panic is going to upend a lot of the projects he was eyeballing.”

Hector didn’t know what to make of that. It sounded counter to what Amelia had told him.

Or, wait. Did it?

She had said that a bunch of foreign interests would come in and “save” the economy. Maybe that was why this guy, whoever he was, didn’t see the crisis as that big of a deal. Atreya’s financial sovereignty probably didn’t matter to most people.

Hell, did it even matter to Hector?

A year ago, he would’ve said absolutely not, but now?

Shit.

Do you want to bring it up, or shall I?’ said Garovel privately.

He knew the reaper was referring to the loan. The specter hanging over this conversation.

I’ll do it,’ said Hector. ‘There’s no reason to exclude Gina.

Have at it, then. We can’t sit here all night.

Roman and Voreese were already arguing over one thing or another again.

Page 1796

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 2 of 3))
You can’t just say no like that,’ said Voreese. ‘You’re confusing poor Gina. She can’t hear my end of the conversation.

“She probably prefers it that way. Right, Gina?”

“Whatever you say, Master Roman.”

That’s not funny. Tell Gina that’s not funny.

“Voreese says she loves you and thinks you’re hilarious.”

“Oh, thank you, Voreese.”

You’re both assholes.

“Tell Voreese I love her, too.”

Eh, okay, I guess she’s alright. You’re still a bucktoothed penis, though, Roman.

Honestly, Hector was content to simply eat his meal and enjoy their conversation with a smile on his face, but he knew that he probably shouldn’t do that. And even if he left all the important talking to Garovel, that would be a little rude to Gina, he felt.

The subjects of killing worms and meeting gods soon came up, and Hector and Garovel struggled through those explanations together.

“...So you’re telling us that there are now a couple of ‘ancient beings’ with untold power roaming around in the Undercrust, doing whatever they want?” said Roman.

Hector bobbed his head. “Well... they wouldn’t be the first. Reapers, servants, worms, feldeaths, Hun’Sho. Those are all ancient beings, too, right?”

“Guess that’s true,” said Roman with a small laugh. “I’m sure a couple of gods will barely even make a splash, then.”

Hector couldn’t really argue with the man’s sarcasm. He had no idea what Royo and Malast would do next, and he almost didn’t want to know.

Roman gave him a look. “You realize this is going to be a gigantic problem, don’t you?”

“Probably, yeah,” said Hector.

“I mean, you’ve got a direct line to the Undercrust here. They could pop up here any time they want and attack you.”

“I don’t think they know where the hole to Warrenhold is,” said Hector.

The Warrenhole,’ said Voreese.

“If they’re really gods, they could know just about anything,” said Roman.

They’re NOT really gods,’ said Garovel.

“But you said you don’t know the extent of their power,” said Roman. “If they’re strong enough, it doesn’t really matter if they’re gods or not, does it? We still wouldn’t be able to stop them.”

“They didn’t seem... that hostile toward us,” said Hector.

“That’s good,” said Roman. “Guess you wouldn’t be here if they had been, eh?”

Who knows?’ said Garovel. ‘I wouldn’t bet against Hector, though.

Hector threw the reaper a look and noticed Roman and Voreese doing the same. He felt like this conversation was going down a strange road and decided to change the subject. “Whatever happens, we’ll deal with it when the time comes,” said Hector. “For now, I’d rather focus on the problems facing Warrenhold and Atreya.”

Oh yeah, you guys are in some pretty deep shit, aren’t you?’ said Voreese.

“We’re in it, too, you know,” said Roman.

Maybe YOU are,’ said Voreese, ‘but I’m not. I’m an intangible ghost woman. Your crummy economy isn’t gonna affect me.

Page 1795 -- CXC.

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 1 of 3))
Chapter One Hundred Ninety: ‘O, respectable reunion...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

The meetings with the Rainlords ended up taking most of the day. He mainly just told them exactly what he had told Horatio about there being no need for financial reimbursement, and as expected, each family required a similar degree of convincing.

House Elroy was the worst in that regard. Hector wasn’t exactly surprised about that, though. By the end of it, Zeff ended up making Hector promise to train with him everyday from now on. Hector didn’t know if he would actually have the time for that, but he was more than happy to try, at least. Training was important, after all.

Perhaps more than ever, now.

If nothing else, however, Hector was at least glad to see that Zeff had finally managed to get some proper rest. Everyone was still looking pretty battered and worn out, but for the first time in what felt like a very long time, Hector had hope that that might actually begin to change soon.

He had less hope for himself, however. With so much to do, so many things to worry about, he wondered if he would ever be able to find time to sleep again.

At the moment, odds weren’t looking too good.

Around dinner time, he was finally able to sit down and talk to Roman, Gina, and Voreese.

Thankfully, this meeting didn’t feel quite so redundant or formal. It was arguably the most important one of the day, though, Hector knew.

He wasn’t at all sure how to broach the subject of a loan. He certainly would’ve preferred to not broach it at all.

Okay, boys, it’s time to fess up,’ said Voreese. ‘How in the name of all that is sacred did you two manage to get yourselves mixed up with a bunch of a fucking Rainlords? Not that I don’t absolutely adore them all, of course, in case any of them happen to be overhearing our conversation, right now.

“That’s an easy question,” said Hector. “Garovel’s sister got mixed up with them first.”

What?! Garovel, you’ve got yourself a living sister?!

Yup.

Well, where the hell is she, then, huh? You know I’ve gotta meet her, right?!

Sadly, she and her servant ended up separated from us.

Aww.

We’re not sure of her whereabouts, at the moment.

Well, that seriously bites. You got my hopes up, dammit.

Her name’s Chergoa, in case you somehow happen to cross paths with her before we do.

Oh, I doubt that’ll happen. Roman and I intend to never leave you guys alone again. Isn’t that right, Roman?

Roman seemed more interested in his ricotta-filled lasagna than anything else.

Hector didn’t blame him. It was damn good. But of course, everything Gina made seemed to turn out that way.

Stop ignoring me, you son of a bitch.

“No.”

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Page 1794

“As others tell it, however, Lhutwë chose a divine successor to lead us in his absence. The Water Dragon. They say that Lhutwë, though he can no longer intervene in our lives directly due to our own profound imperfection, still continues to work through the Water Dragon to guide and protect us.”

“Wow. I’m guessing you don’t believe that?”

“No, I do not. Few among us do, anymore.”

“It does seem a little far-fetched.”

“But there is evidence to support it.”

Madison blinked. “Really?”

“For all of the fable’s faults, there is certainly a degree of truth in it.”

“How so?”

“The fountain,” said Dimas. “The Fountain of Lhutwë is real. Or was, at the very least. In the story, its power seems exaggerated, but in reality, there are many historical accounts of the Fountain being used by the Water Dragon of a given generation to acquire unparalleled strength.”

Madison didn’t quite follow. “But in the story, Lhutwë took the fountain away, didn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“So then...?”

“It does not make sense, yes.”

“Oh. Okay. Just checking.”

“However, due to recent... events, I have been thinking about this story quite a bit.”

“Why?”

“A friend of mine put forth a new theory. He said that, rather than choosing to abandon us of his own accord, perhaps Lhutwë was forced to leave for some other reason.”

“What other reason?”

“...That is difficult to say,” said Dimas.

“You seem awfully interested in it for someone who said you don’t believe any of this stuff.”

“I also said that I did not know what I believed.”

“Well, if you’re looking for answers, then I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong person, because I don’t know what I believe, either.” At Dimas’ blank expression, Madison nudged herself closer again. “If you’re looking for a girlfriend, though... I might be able to help you out.”

He cocked an eyebrow at her another time. “Is that right?”

Rather than answering, she just returned a big smile.

“Even after hearing that story, you would be interested in a relationship with me?”

Madison was confused. “Why would that have deterred me? And, hey, wait a minute. Did you know I was interested all along?”

“...That story paints a rather bleak picture of my kin, I feel. Are you sure you wish to get involved with people like us? Because make no mistake, I am inexorably bound to my brethren. I have a duty to them which goes beyond anything else in this life or the next.”

“Excuse me, but you didn’t answer the question.”

“I answered a question.”

“Honey, if you’re trying to make me stop finding you attractive, you’re doing a terrible job of it. I happen to love being teased.”

At that, Dimas’ eyes widened a little.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Page 1793

((Memorial Day Special -- Page 12 of 12))
“According to the tale,” Dimas went on, “Lhutwë ‘claimed us as his very own kin.’ Supposedly, he began treating us like his children. It is said that this was a long-held desire of his, to have children. And soon after this kinship began, Lhutwë spoke thus: ‘I shall bring to you the sea, for it will make you strong, and strength will bring you peace. And all those who believeth in me shall partake of my fountain; and all others, should war exist in their hearts, shall know my wrath.’”

“Whoa,” said Madison. “That sounds pretty serious.”

“Yes. The fable goes on to say that, by Lhutwë’s command, a great fountain arose out of the earth, and the land was overcome with all manner of water. Lakes and seas flowed forth from the bottom of the fountain, and clouds full of rain billowed from its peak. The story even claims that this fountain was the source of all water in the world--not just the water in our territory. Our water was considered the most sacred, of course, being closest to the fountain, but all water in the world was kindred to us and to the fountain.

“However, the waters were far from a blessing. At first. The land changed so dramatically that our people struggled to adapt. Many despaired and even cursed Lhutwë for what he had done. But in time, we did adapt, and just as he said, we grew strong, and we grew peaceful. For a time.

“Disputes broke out over who should lead us, over whether we should even have a leader. And our people fought. Blood was shed. And Lhutwë grew angry with us. He had protected us from outsiders for many years, but now he was troubled, because he did not know how to protect us from one another.”

Madison figured she should say something to demonstrate she was actually listening. “That sounds rough. What did he do?”

“He took his fountain away from us,” said Dimas. “According to the story, he raised the Waress Mountains in order to seal the fountain’s power so that we could never use it against one another again. That is also where the name ‘Waress’ comes from. In the tongue of my ancestors, it means ‘war’s end.’”

“I see.” Madison wasn’t sure what she was supposed to take away from any of this, but she didn’t care all that much. She just didn’t want him to stop talking, really.

“Unfortunately,” Dimas went on, “that is where the fable begins to break down.”

“Oh?”

“How it ends depends on whom you ask. As some tell it, Lhutwë abandoned us because of our foolishness. They say he could not abide war among his children and so simply disowned us, leaving us to our fates.”

“Pretty harsh.”

Page 1792

((Memorial Day Special -- Page 11 of 12))
Aw, crap. That hadn’t been very dainty or graceful. Maybe he didn’t notice.

“That was a cute laugh,” said Dimas, looking right at her.

Wait, what?! Did she hear that right?! “Ah--uh! No, it wasn’t!”

Dimas was silent again, however.

She didn’t know what to say. Thank you? Should she blush? Wait, was she already doing that? What had she just said, again? No, it wasn’t? Why the fuck had she said that?! Taking compliments was easy as shit! She’d done it a million times!

She averted her gaze again, trying to think, to refocus. Calm down. It was just a game. A game she was good at. There was no reason to panic. Dimas was just a man. A tall, strong, and beautiful man who might even have a great personality, too. Jury was still out on that one, but it was looking good so far.

Looking damn good.

Oh, boy...

“...So did you want to hear a fable of Lhutwë?” said Dimas. “Or was that a polite way of saying no?”

“No! I mean, yes! I’d love to hear it!” At the moment, she could listen to him talk about paint drying or his car or just about anything, really.

“Are you certain?” he asked. “I promise I will not be offended.”

“Of course! Tell me!”

“Very well...” The man took a moment to observe his hands, as if to find his words there. “There are many stories of Lhutwë to choose from, but the one I have in mind is the story of how he came to choose my ancestors as his most beloved people.”

“The Armans, right?” said Madison.

“You know of them,” Dimas observed.

“Only a little. The common knowledge stuff. Peace-loving people of the rain, until a great war came along, and they kicked everyone’s butts.”

“A flattering summation.”

“Was I wrong?”

“I suppose not. But there are many important details being left out.”

She nudged herself ever so slightly closer. “Well, tell them to me, then.”

He eyed her briefly before nodding. “If the tale is to be believed, then my ancestors were not born into the rain.”

“Oh? Uh... what does that mean?”

“Our land. It was not always flooded as it is now. Nor did the Waress Mountains exist. Lhutwë was the one who bestowed them both upon us.”

“Ah... but, uh... haven’t mountains existed for, like, ever? Like, a lot longer than humans have?”

“Yes. And radiometric tests have confirmed as much for us, as well.”

“So I guess that’s why this is just a fable, then?”

“Indeed.”

“Right. Okay. Please continue.”

“The story tells of a time of immense strife and poverty for our people. However, the story also says that we had such nobility of spirit that these tribulations did not break us, which was why Lhutwë chose to grant us his protection. Again, a rather flattering portrayal, no?”

“I’m not judging. Yet.”

Page 1791

((Memorial Day Special -- Page 10 of 12))
“Ah,” said Dimas. “Yes, we have mostly ceased all such religious practices regarding him. However, he still remains an important aspect of our history, in my opinion. And... there are some among us who do still truly believe in him.”

She nodded attentively, not wanting to miss a single word. “I see. And does that include you?”

“I... honestly do not know,” said Dimas.

Huh. Madison was a bit surprised by that. He didn’t strike her as the indecisive type, and now she had to know more. “Why not?”

“One of my family members is quite religious,” said Dimas, “and he frequently tries to convince me that the old ways were correct. I do not yet know if I believe him or not. And there is also...” He seemed to think better of whatever he was going to say, and the sentence went unfinished.

That was okay, though. Madison could relate. “I’ve had friends like that, too,” she said. “Lemme guess. Is he super nice and friendly but also kinda guilt-trippy?”

“...That describes him exactly, yes.”

“Knew it,” she said with a nod. “Friends like that can be tough to deal with. It’s usually best to just be straight with them, though, and tell them when they’re making you uncomfortable with their proselytizing.” Man, that word-a-day app was the best thing she ever downloaded.

“I don’t think that will work with him,” said Dimas.

“Really? Well, you might be surprised. But even if it doesn’t, you could just tell him to cut it out.”

“But what if he is right?”

“Oh. Uh. Then... listen to what he says?”

“And what if he is wrong?”

“Alright, hey, I don’t have all the answers. I know I look like I do, but gimme a break.”

That finally pulled a smile out of him. Not a big one, maybe, but she could at least be sure that she’d seen it this time.

Her heart swelled up a little, and she couldn’t help smiling as well. She hated when that happened, though. Her most natural smile was goofy and stupid, she’d always felt. It was too mouthy, if that made any sense, and it had been that way ever since her awkward teenage years. The smile that she’d perfected for her movie career was the one that she wanted Dimas to see, but it was so damn difficult to control, sometimes.

She averted her gaze and pretended to observe the rainbow room another time while she recomposed herself.

“...Would you like to hear an old fable of Lhutwë?” said Dimas. “Perhaps then you will be able to tell me what you think of my friend’s beliefs.”

“Oh, ah, sure! Though, I’m not sure I should pass judgment on an entire religion after hearing only one story from it.”

“...That is true and wise,” said Dimas. “But I want you to do it, anyway.”

She actually snorted a laugh that time.

Page 1790

((Memorial Day Special -- Page 9 of 12))
Oi. Madison was beginning to see a few potential hiccups in her grand plan to get herself a boyfriend who was the strong, silent type. Why had he even brought her here, anyway? She wanted to ask him that directly, but she was struggling to think of a way to make it not sound terribly rude.

Seriously, though, what a weird place to bring a date. Well, maybe he didn’t think it was a date. In fact, he probably didn’t. It was her hopeful delusions that had put that idea in her head, she knew.

Dammit. How was she supposed to save the situation? The silence was already so long and awkward. She could do it, couldn’t she? Being a social butterfly was practically her job--no, her life.

That had mostly come from attending tons of ritzy parties, though. And this was not that.

She didn’t have much experience dealing with people like this. Hell, did anyone have much experience with it?

“Do you know of Lhutwë?” said Dimas, stirring Madison from her thoughts.

Agh, she had to pay better attention. That was key to any good social interaction, she knew. Paying attention to whoever you’re talking to--and not paying so much attention to yourself. When you paid too much attention to yourself, you became self-conscious, and when you became self-conscious, you became uncertain and awkward. Avoiding that pitfall was usually easy, but it got it a lot harder when the person you were talking to didn’t actually talk.

Regardless, it was a rookie mistake. She did her best to recover, though. “Oh. Um. Ah... Lhutwë? Is that... some kind of Rainlord cuisine?”

Dimas’ expression flashed with the faintest hint of what looked like a smile. Or irritation, perhaps. Madison couldn’t really tell.

“No,” the tall man said. “Lhutwë is the name of the old water god whom our ancestors worshiped.”

“Ooh...” Yikes. That one had been a genuine airhead moment. She hoped he didn’t think she was a complete idiot now. “I, ah... I guess I’m not all that knowledgeable when it comes to religion. I only know a little bit about Cocora, and that’s it.”

“I see.”

Crap. She needed to step her game up and try to ask an intelligent question or something. “But, um... I’m curious about them.” Okay, maybe that would’ve been a lie two minutes ago, but it was totally true now. “Is there a reason why you only said that your ancestors worshiped him? Or, wait, is Lhutwë a woman?”

“No, Lhutwë is described a male.”

“Ah, okay. I love it when I assume things that turn out to be true. It sure is better than the opposite thing.”

“I am not sure I understood your first question. A reason why I said only my ancestors?”

“Oh, I meant, like, did you mean that you don’t worship him anymore? And if so, why?”

Page 1789

((Memorial Day Special -- Page 8 of 12))
She was in some tiny country she’d never heard of, walking around a creepy castle she didn’t much care for, surrounded by a bunch of people she didn’t know.

And yet, she wasn’t freaking out. For the most part.

Maybe she’d just expended all of her freaking out energy back in Steccat. In retrospect, Roman had been an absolute saint in dealing with her for those first couple days on the run.

Too bad.

Hopefully, he and Gina would figure things out between themselves soon. They had only just reunited, but Madison was already feeling immensely tempted to help them along. She knew better, though. She didn’t have enough information about Roman’s feelings toward Gina, so trying to force the issue now could easily just make everything worse. Madison knew only too well that these kinds of things required a delicate touch.

At length, her internal musings came to an end when she noticed Dimas had dismissed his apparent associate and was returning to her.

“Thank you for waiting,” he said, as calm and flat as before.

“No problem,” she said as they started walking again. “It seems like you’re in high demand around here.”

Dimas didn’t have anything to say to that, apparently.

She tried again as they set foot in the Entry Tower. “Are you a... I dunno, a high-ranking Rainlord or something? Do you guys have ranks?”

“No, we do not,” said Dimas. “However, yes, I am the current head of House Sebolt.”

“Ooh, the head, huh? That sounds important.”

“...Yes.”

They took a left and ascended a curving staircase, then Dimas guided her down a corridor and into the room in question.

It was empty, and there were giant cracks in all the walls, but she supposed it had a certain charm to it. Rainbow tiles were an interesting choice. Not something she would have chosen, certainly, but she couldn’t deny that it made an impact.

“Are all of your shrines this colorful?” she asked.

“This is not a Rainlord shrine,” said Dimas. “This is not our castle, either.”

“Oh. Right. I knew that, I think. It belongs to, uh... ah...?”

“Lord Goffe. He is not a Rainlord.”

“Ah. Gotcha.” It didn’t make much difference to her, but she figured it would be rude if she didn’t at least try to keep track of these things.

Dimas walked toward the far corner of the room and sat by the lamp there. There was no chair or bench to sit on, though. Instead, it was a long, blocky protrusion from the wall, seemingly designed to be sat on, given the row of concave indentations where butts were presumably supposed to go.

“The Lord Goffe’s associate mentioned that he wished for these shrines to be places where people of all different faiths could come to observe peace.”

Madison sat down next to him. “That sounds nice.”

“Indeed.”

That was it, huh? Of course it was. “So... you like this place, then?”

“...Yes.”

Page 1788

((Memorial Day Special -- Page 7 of 12))
She still had no idea what she was going to do about that whole mess. She’d been trying not to think about it too much, if only because it felt like there was nothing that she really could do.

The Andalero group wanted her dead, and they tended to get what they wanted, especially in Steccat. They were a pretty mysterious bunch, and truth be told, Madison hadn’t previously known all that much about them, really--aside from the rumors, that was. The rumors about them being a cult. About them controlling half of all the money in the world from the shadows. About them being malevolent puppeteers in matters on an international level. And about them disemboweling farm animals and wearing their still-bloody skins as meat suits during all manner of depraved rituals.

She didn’t think that last one was true--mainly because of how stupid it sounded--but unfortunately, she had already gotten tentative confirmation on those other ones. Maybe they didn’t actually control half the money in the world, but they definitely had a terrifying degree of influence. A hotel receptionist, a burger shop employee, a bus driver, even a damn kid with a lemonade stand--they’d all tried to pull a gun on her and blow her brains out without any warning whatsoever. And those were just all the ones she could remember. She genuinely wasn’t sure how many assassination attempts Roman had foiled while getting her out of Steccat.

She was alright now, but that had definitely been the most terrifying experience of her life. Knowing that literally any random stranger might just walk up and try to kill her at any moment? That hadn’t been fun.

And all because she overheard a conversation she wasn’t supposed to. She didn’t even know what the hell was so scandalous about it. It had just been her ex-boyfriend Darius talking to some old guy about something called “black song.” Apparently, it was some kind of super secret meeting or something going down in a place called Ridgemark. She didn’t even know where that was or what the meeting was about.

Yet that was enough for them to want her dead. And Roman, too, of course, though they had no idea who he was. After all that craziness, Madison hadn’t needed to ask why Roman had originally disguised himself as her new assistant.

She’d been furious with him, at first. Dragging her into all this. But after a while, she realized it wasn’t actually his fault that she’d overheard what she did. He’d actually tried to ditch her a couple times before that, which she now realized had been for her own safety. And of course, he had saved her life about a dozen times since then, too. That had earned him more than a few points with her as well.

It felt so strange, thinking about all of that stuff now. It had only been a few weeks ago, but her life had changed so much since then, and she still felt like she was caught up in a whirlwind, like her feet hadn’t quite touched the ground again just yet.

Page 1787

((Memorial Day Special -- Page 6 of 12))
She agreed with as courteous a smile as she could muster, of course, and observed the two men step away from her for a minute.

Okay, yeah, Dimas was definitely some sort of big shot around here, she figured. What to do with that information, she wasn’t quite sure. It wouldn’t have really mattered to her if he was flat broke and utterly unremarkable in everyone else’s eyes--in fact, she might have even preferred that, because then she would’ve had him all to herself. And she certainly didn’t need any more money. Sure, she didn’t currently have very good access to that money, but that problem would likely change soon.

Hopefully.

She gave the men their space, nonetheless, putting her hands together behind her back and turning around to take in the view of the enormous underground courtyard another time.

It was quite something, she supposed, though it maybe wasn’t as romantic as she would have personally preferred. The amber lamps were a nice touch, though if it was up to her, there would be about two dozen more of them scattered up and down each tower--perhaps even hanging from that distant ceiling. There was obviously a ton of open space here, but so much of it remained in darkness that it didn’t look nearly as spacious as it could have, she thought.

An interior decorator on the payroll would not be a waste of money, she felt; but at the same time, wow, such a person would definitely have their work cut out for them. More light would be a good first step, but it would take a lot more than that to make this place not look like a haunted ruin. Some greenery would probably be a big improvement, too, but she wondered if anything would even be able to grow down here. Maybe some artificial plants would fit the bill, instead. They could practically fit a whole fake forest down here, if they wanted, though that would obviously be pretty weird.

She was far from an expert on these things, however. While decorating had been a passion of hers ever since she was a little girl, she had never actually owned her own place for long enough to really get invested in it. Her acting career had taken over her life for the last several years, so her love for interior design had mostly been relegated to watching home makeover shows on television and ogling pictures of pretty houses on the internet.

Maybe Valerie Reinbach would be able to do something with this place. On her show, Reinbach Renovations, she made it look like she could beautify just about any location in the world. In fact, now that she was thinking about it, Madison was pretty sure there was an episode where Valerie restored an old, ruined castle for an Ardoran prince or something.

Madison wouldn’t mind meeting her, one day--assuming she ever managed to make it back out into the world, that was.

Page 1786

((Memorial Day Special -- Page 5 of 12))
Madison tried not to read too much into that. She didn’t need any other excuses to feel insecure. “Is something the matter?” she dared to ask.

“No,” said Dimas, and he waved at the other man as if shooing him away.

The shorter man merely nodded and excused himself.

Wait a minute. Was Dimas some sort of big shot, on top of everything else?

Oh, hell.

Was she getting herself into trouble again? Because she was starting to feel like she was.

And she didn’t know what to do about it, either.

“I apologize for not engaging with you more,” said Dimas. “You must be bored.”

“Oh, no, I’m fine. And besides, it’s a little early for us to be getting engaged, don’t you think?”

That just made him raise an eyebrow at her again.

“That was another joke,” she clarified.

“...I know,” said Dimas. “It was very funny.”

Her face scrunched up a little. “Are you...? Are you being sarcastic?”

“No.”

Her face scrunched up a little more. “Are you sure? Because it sounded like you were.”

“I promise that I was not being sarcastic.”

“Well, if you thought it was funny, then why didn’t you laugh?”

A beat passed, and the man gave a hulking shrug. “I don’t know.”

Not sure what to say to that, she pouted.

Surprisingly enough, that seemed to get a reaction out of the man. Not a big one, of course, but something at least. She couldn’t tell what that expression meant, partly because it was gone as quickly as it appeared, but immediately thereafter, Dimas took the lead in walking. “Perhaps I can show you something,” he said.

Madison’s eyes lit up, and she skipped a bit closer to him. “Oh? What kind of something would that be?”

“A certain room,” said Dimas, taking them through the main courtyard where Warrenhold’s eight great towers all surrounded them.

“What kind of room?” she said with a slight grin. That room wouldn’t happen to have a hot tub or a bed, would it? She had to stop herself from saying that out loud.

“A shrine,” said Dimas.

Oh. Well, that was a little disappointing, but she was curious, at least. She’d never been taken to a shrine on a date before. She didn’t think she’d ever been taken to a shrine, period.

“From what I understand,” Dimas went on, “there are several shrines in Warrenhold, but I only know where two of them are. I’ll take you to the one that is probably quieter.”

“Alrighty,” said Madison with a nod. She followed him toward the tallest and skinniest building, the one she’d heard people calling the Entry Tower.

As they neared it, another man approached Dimas and spoke quietly into his ear. He held up a finger in her direction before excusing himself and asking her to wait a moment.

Page 1785

((Memorial Day Special -- Page 4 of 12))
She contained herself with just another smile. Bubbly and cheerful was one thing. Psychotically happy and clingy was another.

“Oh, you’re just terribly sweet, aren’t you?” said Madison. “Thank you for humoring me. I’ll try not to be too annoying--I promise!” She knew that fishing for compliments was an old and very well-known tactic, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t still be effective, especially against strangers. People who knew her well would doubtlessly show no mercy in calling her out on that, but she was betting that the mysterious gentleman in front of her wouldn’t mind.

“Not at all,” said Dimas. “It will be my pleasure.”

Madison didn’t even have to force her smile, this time. Sure, maybe Dimas didn’t have the most receptive tone or expression, but somehow, she still felt like he meant those words.

Ah, but that could’ve just been her wanting him to mean them, she knew. She’d certainly made that mistake before. She wanted to be smarter than her past self.

They exited the banquet hall together, with Madison having to take the lead. She had no idea where she was going, of course, and the two of them were now drawing even more attention than she’d been getting on her own, but none of that could remove the grin from her face.

A date. This was totally a date. Not an official one, of course, but it was basically the same thing, just not as formal. And there was plenty of potential there, she knew.

Now she just had to not fuck everything up.

In spite of herself, she was getting nervous. She was only twenty-eight years old, but truthfully, she was already beginning to feel a little bit like she was over the hill. She experienced heartburn for the first time in her entire life last year, and every time she thought about all the newer, younger actresses making waves now in Steccat... Not to mention, she hadn’t actually landed a movie role in several months now... Oh, and how many of her girlfriends had gotten married over the last few years?

And that wasn’t even broaching the subject of that old drug problem...

Agh. The more she allowed herself to think about it, the more reason she found to justify each and every one of her insecurities.

If Dimas knew everything she was thinking, right now, he would ditch her in a heartbeat. Hell, maybe he was already planning to and really was just being polite.

Hmm? Where he’d go? She looked around. Oh, goddess, please--

Wait, no, there he was, following a few meters behind her. Phew.

Someone was walking with him and talking quietly. A fellow Rainlord, presumably. Of course, she hadn’t actually gotten confirmation that Dimas himself was a Rainlord, but it seemed a safe gamble.

Madison slowed her pace to match theirs, but they stopped talking before she was close enough to overhear what they were saying.

Huh.

Page 1784

((Memorial Day Special -- Page 3 of 12))
She had to try something different. Maybe he would want to talk about himself. “So, uh, what brings you here, Dimas? How’d you end up in a spooky place like this?”

“...It doesn’t matter,” said Dimas.

Well, crumb. She should’ve known better. Men hated talking about themselves.

Well.

Most men.

She’d known many exceptions, certainly, but Dimas here didn’t appear to be one of them.

She liked that, though. Damn, did she like that. A boyfriend who wasn’t in love with the sound of his own voice? That was basically her ideal man, after the repeated dumpster fires that were her last few relationships. Peace and quiet without all the loneliness that usually came with it? Where did she have to sign?

And sure, maybe Dimas seemed a little scary, but that was just a preliminary thing. She didn’t know anything about him yet, really. And... if she was being entirely, horrifically honest with herself... she found that scariness kinda hot, too--so help her. She’d never dated anyone who seemed genuinely “mysterious” or “dangerous” before.

Not from the beginning of the relationship, anyway.

Dimas also seemed like a gentleman, though, curiously enough. So she wondered if she could attack him from that angle.

“Well, ah... would it be too much trouble to ask you to show me around?” said Madison.

“...I am not very familiar with Warrenhold, myself.”

A meek woman might’ve gotten discouraged by that response. Not Madison, though. “Perfect!” she said, grabbing Dimas’ arm. “We can explore it together, then. That’s even better, right?”

Dimas just kind of stood there, looking down at her on his arm as if he were assessing a rash and trying to decide if he needed to take medication for it.

At least, that was what it seemed like to Madison. Honestly, she wasn’t accustomed to seeing expressions like that--certainly not from men. She’d seen a lot of other things from them. Eagerness, confidence, anger, even timidity and desperation--but this?

This was pretty new to her.

She was becoming more determined by the second to not let this one get away.

But she couldn’t be too aggressive, either, she knew. A hunk like this probably liked to do most of the work himself. And she still didn’t know much about him, of course. There were still a lot of deal-breaking obstacles that could crop up any moment now.

She decided to release his arm and take a step back toward the empty bar behind her. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just very excitable, sometimes.”

“...It’s fine,” said Dimas, as gorgeous and expressionless as ever.

Madison gathered her courage and went straight for the first big thing that she needed to know. “Yeah, well, I’m sure your wife wouldn’t appreciate some strange woman hanging all over you, right?”

“...I’m not married.”

She resisted the urge to leap into his enormous arms. “Oh,” she said with forced calmness. “Then... does that mean you wouldn’t mind exploring this castle with me?”

“...Sure.”

Page 1783

((Memorial Day Special -- Page 2 of 12))
“Your name is...?”

“My name is Madison,” she decided to say. It was a common enough name, she supposed, so long as she omitted the latter part of it. Something about this guy’s face told her that he wouldn’t have any idea who she was even if she did tell him her last name, but it was better to be safe than sorry. She forced herself to smile and held out her hand daintily. “And what is your name, Mr. Giant?”

For a moment, the man just stared at her.

Madison just maintained her smile and her composure. It was best to confront uncomfortable situations with as much charisma as could be mustered, she’d always found.

But maybe that only worked in Steccat. This gentleman here wasn’t looking too impressed with her, at the moment.

At length, however, he did eventually say, “...My name is Dimas. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Huh. Those words were significantly more courteous than his expression implied.

Madison allowed her smile to turn a little mischievous--a trick she’d perfected in one of her earlier films. “Is it a pleasure?” she said teasingly. “Is it, really?”

Dimas made no response.

Oh crap, time to clarify. “Ah--it’s just, well--I’ve noticed the looks everyone has been giving me. It doesn’t quite seem like I’m the most desirable girl at the ball, if you take my meaning.”

Dimas threw that same flat expression around the banquet hall before returning it to her again. “They are concerned that you might attempt to kill someone,” he said.

Madison laughed and touched Dimas’ arm. It was a strange joke, to be sure, but Madison had heard worse. She could easily ‘magnify’ how funny she found it--for the man’s sake, of course. Men always seemed to love that. Hell, so did she, honestly.

Dimas’ face did not change in the slightest, however.

Madison’s mirth died rather abruptly. “Wait, are you being serious?”

“Yes.”

She looked around the room another time, suddenly even more conscious of all the people observing her now. “What?!” she said, lowering her voice while still heightening its urgency. “Why would they think that?! I’m completely harmless! I’m less than harmless, even! I’m harm-negative! Like, mathematically or something!”

Dimas just cocked an eyebrow at her.

Well, that was a slightly different response, at least. She tried a frown--hopefully a cute one. “...You don’t think I’m dangerous, do you?”

“I have not decided yet.”

“Seriously? What about me could possibly hurt anyone? I mean, I know I have eyes that are to die for, but that doesn’t count, right?”

And again, Dimas made no response.

Madison’s expression tightened. What was with this guy? Couldn’t he tell that was a joke? Oh shit, had it not sounded like one? Did he think she was an arrogant bitch, already?

“I-I was just joking,” she felt compelled to say. “I’m not that full of myself, just so it’s clear.”

“Mm,” was all Dimas had to say, apparently.

Agh, this was going terribly.

Page 1782

((Memorial Day Special -- Page 1 of 12))
She’d heard about them in passing before, but she didn’t really know much about their lifestyle or culture. She’d hoped to change that over the course of a conversation with an interesting gentleman, but that was looking less likely by the minute.

Maybe there was something wrong with her, she wondered. Maybe she was dressed inappropriately in their eyes. She wasn’t showing any cleavage and barely any thigh, but maybe that didn’t matter to them. She seemed to recall hearing something about the Sandlords having an ultra conservative culture, so maybe the Rainlords were the same way?

Dammit. She hadn’t been prepared to take the initiative here, and seeing some of the disapproving looks she was getting, now she was no longer sure that she even wanted to.

Maybe it was a bad idea to go off on her own. Maybe it was just the artificial “uneasiness” getting to her. Whatever it was, she was beginning to feel uncomfortable. And undesirable. And depressed.

It wasn’t like she was perfect. Maybe they could just see right through her. Maybe they could tell what a phony she was, how insecure she was.

Ugh, and now she was starting to think about her ex, about all those terrible things he’d said about her, about how much truth had been in them.

She’d been trying to quit drinking, but now she really wished this place had some damn alcohol. Why didn’t it have any, anyway? Did the Rainlords have something against that, too? Or was it the local lord’s fault? Whoever was to blame, she would’ve liked to give them a piece of her mind, right about now.

“Excuse me,” came a distinctly masculine voice from behind her.

That alone was enough to make her perk up and turn. Her breath caught at the sight of the chiseled jawline on the incredibly tall man standing there. She tried to say something, but her words couldn’t find her mouth--or even her mind, for that matter.

“What are you doing here?” the towering man said. His expression was noticeably flat and not at all welcoming, but Madison was still too stunned to be bothered by such things.

He was exactly her type. It was like he’d walked right out of her imagination and into reality in order to sweep her off her feet. That was what he was here to do, right? Oh, dear sweet Cocora, please let that be the case.

The man seemed to become mildly impatient, however. “Do you have some business here? Are you a guest?”

“Oh!” she said, finally regaining herself. “Yes! I’m a guest!”

“Of whom?” he asked.

“Ah... G-Gina and Roman? My name is, er--” She caught herself. She was supposed to be in hiding, after all. A part of her wanted this prime specimen of a man to recognize her--maybe even tell her that he was a fan--but it was probably for the best if that didn’t happen. There was still a chance that he would recognize her name, though, so she should take steps to avoid that, she felt.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Page 1781

Just wandering around this underground castle for half an hour or so, she’d already seen scores of men. And not the pampered-looking types that she’d grown accustomed to seeing in Steccat. Sure, they didn’t exactly look like movie stars, but there was a certain... something to them that she had rarely ever seen before, something she was having trouble articulating to herself.

A realness, perhaps? A heaviness in their presence. A sense of importance in the way that they carried themselves. Not self-importance, no. Not smugness. She’d seen that plenty of times before. This was like... an importance of intent.

Men at work.

Yeah. That’s what it was. These were men with missions in mind, with tasks that needed doing.

And, damn, was that hot. She could feel herself getting flustered just being here.

She needed to calm herself down. Madison Reach had never been in this type of environment before, and it was a bit overwhelming to say the least, but it certainly wouldn’t be good for her if her potential beau saw her like this, drooling over every eligible bachelor in sight. While she wouldn’t mind a jealous man, in the right context, but this was not that context--not before a relationship had even begun.

She’d come here with Gina in order to see Roman, but knowing what she now did of Gina’s feelings for him, Madison decided not to intrude on their bonding time. Hopefully, Gina would be able to take advantage of the circumstances, but Madison wasn’t getting her hopes up. The poor girl seemed a bit repressed when it came to these things.

Warrenhold was a strange place, though. She’d of course been preemptively informed of the “uneasiness” that the castle could cause, but it was still taking some getting used to. But then, maybe she’d be able to find herself a dashing gentleman to help her feel safe again.

She’d taken notice of several candidates already and had been attempting to stealthily learn their names. Eager though she was, she didn’t want to overplay her hand. She was still alone in a crowd of strangers, after all.

To that end, however, things were unfortunately not going so well. When she went to the banquet hall in the big dark tower where everyone was conglomerating, not a single one of the hunky guys there bothered to approach. She could see them looking her way, but none of them made any moves.

So what the hell?!

This always worked back in Steccat. She could just go to a night club, sit at the bar, and wait to be approached. Granted, it had led to meeting a lot sleazeballs, but there’d been some nice ones in there, too.

What were they waiting for? Were they intimidated? They didn’t look intimidated. If anything, they were kind of glaring at her. Like they were suspicious of her or something. But that couldn’t be the case, right? What sense would that make?

What the hell was wrong with these Rainlords?! Argh!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Page 1780 -- CLXXXIX.

((Triple Saturday -- Page 3 of 3))
Now, of course, if you ARE older than you say, you have every reason to keep that information private,’ said Yovess, ‘so it would not be terribly surprising that you would want to put on an act in front of us, and I don’t think any of our kin would hold it against you.

This sounds like more than rumblings,’ said Garovel. ‘It sounds like you believe these things yourself.

I don’t know if I do,’ said Yovess. ‘But it would make a degree of sense, I suppose.’

Hector wanted to intervene with a question that he doubted Garovel would ask. “Have you met my mother?”

“Briefly,” said Horatio. “She seemed a curt woman.”

That was one way of putting it. “But... lemme get this straight. You’re saying that you think she might not actually be my mother?”

“Or that she is secretly a servant as well and far older than she appears,” said Horatio.

Hector took a breath, unsure of what to make of all this new information.

I admit,’ said Yovess, ‘it does seem a bit unlikely that you would go so far as to use your own mother to throw us off, but at the same time, it seems similarly unlikely that you would have fended off Melchor at Marshrock, Ivan at Dunehall, and Leo in Capaporo.

Hector didn’t know where to begin explaining--or if he even could, for that matter. “Uh...”

Your confusion is understandable,’ said Garovel, making Hector wonder what the hell the reaper was about to say. ‘The simple truth of the matter, however, is that Hector is significantly more powerful than his age would suggest. And you’re right to be thinking that his age is a difficult issue for us. If word were to get out about how young he is in spite of his prowess, unwanted guests would likely come knocking on our door.

You are saying he is an astero?’ said Yovess.

An astero?’ said Garovel. ‘I’m unfamiliar with that term.

Ah. Forgive me. It’s a old Arman term for exactly what you just described.

I see. In that case, yes, I suppose that is what I am saying.

Then there is no need to explain further,’ said Yovess. ‘I understand your dilemma very well. Thank you for trusting us with that information. I imagine you must have been hesitant to do so.

Hmm.

Hector wasn’t sure he followed all of that, but it sounded like it went surprisingly well.


Chapter One Hundred Eighty-Nine: ‘O, ravenous flower...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

There were certainly a lot of people around. Surely, there had to be a good man here somewhere. It had been months since her last real relationship. Frankly, she was getting a bit desperate, and she knew it. Going this long without a boyfriend was just ridiculous. At this point, she was prepared to lower her standards quite a bit.

But wow. Maybe she wouldn’t have to.

Page 1779

((Triple Saturday -- Page 2 of 3))
Garovel, however, simply laughed. ‘Well, if you’d like to make this a permanent solution, I can’t say that Hector and I would mind. And it would certainly make the deception easier if it actually WASN’T a deception, eh?

Horatio and Yovess did not seem to share his amusement.

But Garovel was not deterred. ‘So serious. Fine. If you want to actually hear us say it, then no, we are not trying to trick all of you into working for us--or something. How would that even work, precisely?

“...I was merely mentioning what I think some will believe,” said Horatio. “I did not say that I believed it, myself.”

You must understand,’ said Yovess. ‘Lord Goffe’s recent... accomplishments have left quite an impression on our people, particularly the younger ones. And though we know you are our allies, it is also in our nature to be... cautious.’ Her hollow gaze fell upon Garovel. ‘Especially when it comes to reapers. We know all too well about how manipulative our kind can be.

Holy shit, Hector thought. Was this gonna be yet another problem he had to worry about?

Agh...

I understand completely,’ said Garovel, sounding less jovial now. ‘And I most definitely do not want there to be any ill feelings between us. I hope that if you are ever beginning to get the impression that Hector and I are trying to manipulate you, then you will give us the benefit of the doubt first and communicate your concerns to us. There are many out there who would like to do us harm, and if we allow a rift to form between us, I fear that will only make it easier for them to succeed.

Heh. You know just what to say, don’t you?

Well, I’ve had lots of practice,’ said Garovel.

Yovess shook her skull and chortled. ‘Very well. We will continue to place our trust in you, for the time being.

Thank you. We’ll do the same.

And in this spirit of trust,’ said Yovess, ‘there is something that we should tell you.

Oh?

We have heard rumblings on this matter already. That is why Horatio said that, just now.

What kind of rumblings?

“There is a concern that you may have lied to us,” said Horatio.

Hector couldn’t help blinking. “Lied? About what?” Oh shit. Had he lied to them? He didn’t think so, but...

“Regarding your age, specifically,” said the Lord Blackburn.

Hector couldn’t help blinking even more.

“Given your recent track record, some have been worried that you might be... shall we say, significantly older than you claimed to be,” said Horatio.

Wait, what the fuck? They thought he might’ve lied about how young he was? Shouldn’t it have been the opposite?

Yovess continued where her servant left off. ‘A few have expressed concern that you might have been pretending to be weaker than you really are. Acting like you needed a climate suit, for instance. And now, your mother appearing to be relatively young and a non-servant.

Oh shit, they’d met his mother already? He hadn’t even thought about how she must be handling all of these foreign visitors.

Page 1778

((Triple Saturday -- Page 1 of 3))
“If it’s just about not wanting to be in our debt,” said Hector, “then there are other ways you could pay us back. I mean, money is nice and all, but, er...”

It would be kind of a hassle to exchange all of your Sairi escaltos for our Atreyan troas,’ said Garovel, ‘especially because we’d have to come up with an official excuse for why we suddenly have a steady influx of foreign currency.

“I... see,” said Horatio.

Plus, Hector here made a fairly large impression on the locals in Moaban, so it probably wouldn’t be too difficult for someone to find out that he was in Sair while the country was in turmoil. We really shouldn’t be giving anyone more dots to connect beyond that.

Your reasoning is sound,’ said Yovess, ‘but are you really suggesting that we simply stay for free? That is not something that we as Rainlords can abide, and I know that all of our kin will feel similarly.

“Ah--like I said, if it’s just about not wanting to be in our debt, then there are other ways you could help us.”

Such as?

“Well, er--you’re kinda doing it already, aren’t you? It seems like a few of you guys have, uh... have taken a bit of... initiative with helping restore Warrenhold.”

Ah, yes,’ said Yovess. ‘However, I believe that has more to do with some among us feeling restless, not wanting to remain idle.

“Even while you’re supposed to be resting?” said Hector.

Yes,’ she said plainly.

Horatio looked briefly amused. “And perhaps you are overestimating how much rest we require. Not all of us have had to push ourselves beyond the point of absurdity.”

Hector just kind of scratched his chin.

Still,’ said Garovel, ‘the point remains that it would be of immense help to have a bunch of superhuman construction workers on the job. If you’re willing to accept food, shelter, and our winning smiles as payment, then I think we can agree that you won’t be in our debt.

Horatio and Yovess looked at one another for a time, perhaps deliberating privately.

Oh, and also,’ added Garovel, ‘this arrangement might prove useful in keeping up appearances with Leo.

You intend to bring him back here?’ said Yovess.

“Not anytime soon,” said Hector with some confidence, “but... eventually, maybe.”

But it also may not be up to us,’ said Garovel. ‘There’s always a chance that Leo could decide to just drop in on us unannounced. It’s not like Warrenhold’s location is some great secret.

Horatio and Yovess looked displeased.

In such an event, it would be good if it looked like the Rainlords really were working for us.

“...Some might argue that this is more than merely looking like it,” said Horatio, though his expression remained neutral.

Hector met the man’s gaze evenly. Somehow, it seemed like it would be disrespectful to look away. Or cowardly, perhaps.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Page 1777

She has not spoken in several days,’ said Horatio’s reaper. Her name was Yovess, as Hector recalled.

Is there anything we can do?’ said Garovel. ‘Anything you need?

Thank you, but I do not think so,’ said Yovess.

Does she need a doctor?

We have one tending to her.’

I see.

“There’s... something you should know,” said Hector. In truth, it was something that he probably should have told the Blackburns a while ago now, but with everything going on, it had somehow slipped his mind. “Ibai is alive.”

Horatio and Yovess both stared at him.

“How do you know that?” said Horatio.

Hmm. How to explain? The only ones he’d told about the Shards and Emiliana were the Najirs and the Elroys. Both of those families were directly involved, so it only made sense that they should know, but he supposed now that the Blackburns had just as much right to know.

So he told Horatio everything. About the Shards. About Rasalased. About being able to communicate with Emiliana. About her telling him that Ibai was with her. And about Gohvis.

Horatio and Yovess didn’t seem so surprised about that last part. They’d already known that Gohvis had chased after them at Dunehall, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine that Gohvis hadn’t allowed them to escape.

The expected question of Ibai’s current location came up, and Hector had to give the disappointing answer that he didn’t know, that Emiliana seemed to be refusing to tell him--likely for everyone’s safety.

Horatio and Yovess fell quiet again.

Hector wondered if that news would help the Lady Nere at all. He hoped so. And he felt bad for not telling the Blackburns about this earlier. He didn’t see much point in telling them that he could have told them earlier, though. That only seemed like it would piss them off.

And justifiably so.

He wondered how he’d forgotten about it all this time. Maybe it was because he barely ever interacted with the Blackburns. They were always sequestered away from the others, never really mingling much. That was no excuse, of course, but Hector supposed it made a degree of sense, at least.

He had to be more attentive in the future, he felt. These people were hurting. Any support he could provide would be well worth the effort, but it seemed like they didn’t want to ask for help at all.

It seemed that way with all the Rainlords, really. Maybe it was a pride thing.

We spoke to Madame Carthrace about you and the other Rainlords,’ said Garovel. ‘She mentioned that you insisted on reimbursing us for everything while you’re here.

“That’s right,” said Horatio.

While we appreciate that, it isn’t necessary in the slightest,’ said Garovel.

“Yes, it is,” said Horatio, more strongly now. “We do not intend to be a burden.”

If we were concerned about things like that, we never would’ve invited you back to Warrenhold in the first place,’ said Garovel.

“All the same,” said Horatio, “it is a matter of honor. And we take such things very seriously.”

So we’ve noticed,’ said Garovel.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Page 1776

Oh, indeed,’ said Garovel. ‘And I’m afraid it was also my idea to venture down there. I must apologize again for putting your family in harm’s way.

“Nonsense,” said Asad. “We chose to go with you of our own volition. Why, I even said--”

Yes, but you chose to do that because you are so fiercely kind,’ said Garovel. ‘I fear that perhaps Hector and I have taken advantage of that kindness, in some ways.

Asad merely frowned and exchanged glances with his wife.

If you are ever in need of our help, I hope you will allow us the opportunity to repay you for that kindness,’ said Garovel. ‘For the moment, however, we’ll leave you in peace. Hector and I have several pressing matters we must attend to. Good day, all.

Hector followed the reaper’s lead, and they left the robed family alone. Hector had hoped to talk to Asad more about various things like Rasalased and materialization training, but he supposed there was no rush.

Hector also wanted to ask Garovel if he knew something about the Najirs that he hadn’t mentioned yet, but there wasn’t time. Before Hector even finished climbing the stairs up to the second floor, he encountered Horatio Blackburn.

Ah,’ said Garovel. ‘Just the man we were hoping to see. Do you have a few minutes to talk?

The flat-faced man had been descending the staircase and now began going back up it without turning around. “Is something wrong?” he asked.

No, no,’ said Garovel. ‘But we would like to take stock of things. We’re checking up on everyone.

The man stopped. “You needn’t worry about us.”

Well, we do anyway,’ said Garovel. ‘Come on. Let’s find somewhere we can talk in private.

Horatio looked reluctant, but he acquiesced nonetheless. They found a vacant room near the stairs. It was small and lacking furniture, but it would do. Hector materialized a couple chairs for them while they waited for Horatio’s reaper to join them.

When she did, Hector encased the room in iron and empowered it with his soul. Apparently, this would prevent any outside reapers from overhearing what the two reapers in here were saying.

Of course, it also created a vacuum seal in the chamber, limiting the amount of breathable air left in it. That wouldn’t be a big problem, but Hector was made to wonder if he would still be able to speak if there was nothing but carbon dioxide left in the room.

Garovel started things off. ‘So. How are things?

Horatio seemed almost reluctant to answer. “Things are... difficult but adequate.”

Garovel’s next words were private. ‘Ask him something.

Like what?’ said Hector.

Whatever you want to know.

Hector had expected a more direct, instructive answer. Maybe Garovel wanted him to think for himself on this. The way a lord probably should.

“...How is the Lady Nere doing?” asked Hector.

Horatio’s frown deepened.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Page 1775

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 3 of 3))
Garovel advised him to play coy, so he did. He told them that questions about strength were important secrets that he couldn’t divulge.

Half the kids lost interest when he told them that and wandered off, but the other half stayed and asked him other, more innocuous questions, like about his favorite food or color or animal.

Somehow, those proved even more difficult to answer.

He lost the interest of the rest of the kids soon thereafter. It felt like most of his confidence and self-worth left with them, as well.

However, his mood improved again after he entered the Tower of Night and found the Najirs there, having breakfast. It was the first time he’d seen them all together. Asad, his wife, sister, daughter, and son. Hector remembered Imas and Jada, but the wife’s and son’s names were escaping him.

Wait a minute. They were having breakfast?

Garovel, what time is it?’ asked Hector.

The reaper shrugged.

Hector supposed it didn’t matter much. Not having any daylight to go by was just one of the challenges of living in a giant hole in the ground.

He made his way over to the Sandlord family, who’d already taken notice of him.

They looked a bit tense, however. Perhaps because he and Garovel were watching them?

Asad spoke up first after finishing whatever he was chewing. “Hector. It is good to see you. Allow me to introduce my wife, Samira, and my son, Midhat.”

“We have already met,” said Samira. “Briefly.”

“Yeah,” said Hector with a nod. “Hello again.”

No introductions for us?’ said the reaper hovering behind Midhat.

“That is Ekkos,” said Asad, “my son’s reaper. Samira’s is Lemirat.”

Good to meet you both. I’m Garovel.

Yes, we have been hearing quite a bit about you and your servant,’ said Lemirat. ‘This is an interesting home you have here.

Yeah, it’s a work-in-progress,’ said Garovel. ‘You’re welcome to stay as long as you like, though we won’t be offended if you find the place a bit uncomfortable.

More fortress than resort,’ said Lemirat. ‘I cannot say it bothers me, personally. I generally find the sturdiness of fortresses more pleasant.

“I do not,” said Samira with an obvious tinge of irritation. “And it would appear we have made the trip here for no reason, as well.”

Asad gave his wife a look. “Samira.”

She saw his face, looked toward Hector and Garovel, then turned away.

Uncomfortable silence arrived.

Garovel was the one to break it. ‘You’re right, Lady Najir. I must apologize. I was the one who requested that Asad send someone here ahead of us. I didn’t foresee how strange our travels in the Undercrust would become. It’s not everyday you get teleported back to your home country, you know. It was quite the surprise.

The woman looked between Hector and Garovel again. “Yes, well... it is good that you returned safely. I have never been, but I have heard many tales of the perils in the Undercrust.”

Page 1774 -- CLXXXVIII.

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 2 of 3))
“You think they’ll leave Atreya?” said Hector.

“They will go wherever opportunity leads them,” said Amelia. “And Atreya is rather short on opportunity at the moment, so yes, I think they will have their pick of the many foreign companies that are no doubt observing the economic situation here.”

“...Who are these ‘skilled individuals’ you’re talking about?”

“Various people whom I have come to know and respect over the years. Some of them, I do not know personally, but I do know of their work and of their professionalism. I could go over each and every one of them with you right now, but there are quite a few, and I imagine you probably have more important things to do.”

“...Alright. I’ll leave it to your, ah... discretion.” He looked like he had more to say, however.

Amelia waited.

“...I’d like to meet these people, too,” said Hector. “Before you hire them.”

She smiled, then nodded. “Of course.”

Perhaps she didn’t have to worry so much about her family sinking their claws into this boy, after all.


Chapter One Hundred Eighty-Eight: ‘O, convalescing companions...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

The meeting lasted a while longer after that. They discussed the restoration of Warrenhold in a bit more detail, and Madame Carthrace also told him about some of the local happenings around Gray Rock. Apparently, there had been a spike in crime during his absence--perhaps even because of his absence--and a number of prominent figures around the city had been trying to get in touch with him, the mayor of Gray Rock being among them.

Hector had no idea why the mayor would want to talk to him, and he almost didn’t want to find out. Madame Carthrace and Garovel both seemed to think it was probably just a formal greeting-type-thing, but Hector didn’t know if he believed that.

There was also the matter of the Rainlords. Hector asked her about how she had been handling all of them, and she rather bluntly told him that she hadn’t been. For the most part, they were taking care of and keeping to themselves. Each time she’d talked to them, they had apparently been both extremely polite and very reluctant to accept aid without reimbursement.

After he heard that, Hector figured he should probably go talk to each of the families himself and concluded his meeting with Madame Carthrace. It wasn’t a long walk to the outside of the Book Tower, since the office had been on the bottom floor.

That is one sharp woman,’ said Garovel privately as they made their way back toward the Tower of Night. ‘If she’s as trustworthy as she seems, then we’re lucky to have her.

Hector couldn’t help but agree.

The gaggle of children from earlier caught up to him before he could reach the Tower of Night, and when they presented the knight figurine to him again, he was forced to answer more impossible questions like how strong he was or if he thought he could beat Dimas in a fight.

Page 1773

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 1 of 3))
Amelia tried to think. Honestly, she hadn’t given much thought to the issue of how to earn the young lord’s trust. Mostly because she’d thought that she’d already had it.

And perhaps that was strange. Why had she thought that? She was having difficulty thinking of the reason, but there must have been one. She couldn’t have been so naive as to overlook something like that, right?

What an odd thing to be asking herself. Where was her head, right now?

Ah. There was a reason, she realized.

“The Queen,” said Amelia. “If you are finding yourself uncertain with regard to trusting me, then perhaps you should ask those who know me better for a character reference. And I can think of none more appropriate than the Queen, considering she was the one who offered me this position in the first place. Have you spoken to her yet?”

“Not since getting back, no,” said Hector.

“Perfect, then. I imagine she will be wanting to hear from you, if for no other reason than to know that you have returned safely. Perhaps you can take that opportunity to ask about me.”

Hector was quiet again.

Hmm. Perhaps her young lord had already been planning to do that.

“...I’d like to meet your family,” said Hector.

Amelia pressed her lips together flatly as she thought about that. “If we move forward with the bank, then I am sure that they will like to meet you, too.”

“I mean before that.”

“Yes, I thought you did. And perhaps that would be for the best. Meeting them before we give them every reason in the world to ingratiate themselves toward you might give you a clearer picture of their true characters.”

The young lord looked abruptly remorseful. “...I don’t mean to reopen old wounds or anything like that. I just need to know more about you before we commit to... all of this.”

“I understand,” said Amelia. “Caution is an admirable quality in a lord. And I have nothing to hide, though you should be forewarned that my family is not likely to speak very fondly of me.”

“Yeah, I figured they wouldn’t,” said Hector. “I remember you calling yourself a black sheep.”

“Ah. Well, I shall attempt to arrange a meeting, but in the meantime, might I have your permission to begin preliminary hiring proceedings?”

“...What does that mean, exactly?”

“With the banks collapsing, there are a number of highly skilled individuals who are now looking for a new job--so skilled, in fact, that I imagine some of them have already found one. The rest will likely not remain unemployed for long, so I would like to, at the very least, send them... an expression of our interest, let’s say. Hopefully, that will give them a reason to stay in the country while you and I... figure things out.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Page 1772

“Brand recognition,” she reiterated. “People know who you are. They trust you. If we put the word Darksteel in the name of your bank, people will instantly associate it with you and everything that you have done. And that is very good. That is why I think this will work.”

Hector made no response. His gaze went to the floor again, and he paced toward the other side of the room now.

“It is safe to say that the Atreyan people have very little faith in banks, at the moment, so the trust that the public has in you will be absolutely crucial for this plan to succeed. Your friend Mr. Fullister, who I am sure is a wonderful man, would simply not be able to make up for that difference in public trust, regardless of how much money he may possess.”

Hector stopped pacing and just looked at her again.

“It has to be you, Lord Goffe,” she said.

Hector did not look pleased to hear that, but if he had any complaints, he kept them to himself. He returned his chair and sat down.

Amelia didn’t know what else she could say to convince him, however, so she merely waited.

“...Alright,” he finally said. “Let’s just... let’s suppose all of this works out. Hypothetically. Everything goes smoothly or whatever.” He leveled a stare at her. “If that were to happen, and this bank were to become as big and important as you’re suggesting, then... you would have a lot more power and influence, wouldn’t you?”

Amelia’s head reared back a little, and she blinked.

Hector’s gaze didn’t budge, though. He was watching her carefully, probably wanting to gauge her reaction.

Amelia fidgeted in her seat, abruptly uncomfortable. “Yes... I suppose I would...”

“Convince me you wouldn’t abuse that power,” he said plainly.

Oh, goodness. She hadn’t felt like this since she was a schoolgirl on the verge of being given detention, some fifty years ago.

How was he doing that?

No time to think about it. She just maintained her composure. “How would you suggest I go about doing that?”

“I don’t know,” said Hector. “You seem to be pretty persuasive, though.”

She managed a weak smile. “I appreciate the compliment, assuming it was one.”

“It was,” said Hector. “And... look, I’m grateful for everything you’ve been doing here. For me. And I think... it’s fairly obvious at this point that I... value your opinion. And I definitely want to trust you. But the simple truth is that you and I still barely know each other.”

“You are not wrong,” she said. “But I do not know how I can convince you to trust me. I doubt words alone will suffice for an undertaking of this magnitude, no? Trusting me with your own money isn’t quite the same as trusting me with everyone’s money, is it?”

“No, it is not,” was all Hector said.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Page 1771

((Triple Monday -- Page 3 of 3))
“I do not mean to say that you should refuse any and all help they may offer,” said Amelia, “and I am sure that you understand these people better than I do, but all the same, I am advising caution. If you do decide to enter into any kind of financial negotiations with them, I hope you will include me. Truthfully, I would like to be present for such negotiations with anyone, but them in particular, should the need arise.”

Hector just looked at her for a moment longer, perhaps thinking on her words, and then he said, “...Of course.”

The tone of that response was a bit more reserved than Amelia might have preferred, but such was the nature of her young lord, she’d come to realize. Bright-eyed reassurance and enthusiasm was not something she should ever expect from him, she supposed.

“...There’s something else I’m wondering about,” said Hector. “With all this... stuff about needing a loan... I mean... why me?”

Amelia tilted her head at him. “I am sorry. I am not certain I understand. Why you?”

Hector stood up and walked over to the side of the room while rubbing his neck. “It’s just... if I don’t even have the money to pull this off in the first place, then why don’t we just let someone else do it?”

“You do not wish to save the country?” said Amelia.

Hector gave her a flat look. “Obviously, I do. I’m just saying, wouldn’t it be better to leave it to someone more suited to the task? Someone like... my friend you already mentioned? Mr. Fullister? Just as one example.”

Amelia frowned. “And the potential here to make an enormous amount of money and restore Warrenhold to its former glory? You do not find that motivating?”

“...Would it really be like that?” said Hector. “Because this bank sounds like a lot of responsibility and headaches. And I have enough of those, already. Besides, there are other ways we can make money, aren’t there?”

Amelia took a breath and leaned back her in chair. She’d thought that she had already convinced him that this was a good idea. It seemed fairly self-evident, but now it appeared as though he wasn’t going to be swayed by appeals to future prosperity or self-interest.

Which was very strange.

No doubt, he had many other things on his mind. She supposed it was understandable that he wouldn’t want yet another. But there was something he wasn’t seeing, and it seemed as though she would have to be the one to explain it to him.

“It has to be you,” she said, interlocking her fingers and resting them on her lap. “I can tell you now that, yes, several other people in this country will likely attempt this very same tactic. However, I earnestly believe that you are the only one who might be able to pull it off before foreign intervention squirms its way around the Queen’s regulations.”

“Why?”

“Because you are a national hero. Most of Atreya adores the Darksteel Soldier. And yes, some still do not, but everyone at least knows who you are. Aside from perhaps the Queen herself, you have better brand recognition than anyone else in this country.”

“I have better what?”

Page 1770

((Triple Monday -- Page 2 of 3))
“Hmm,” said Hector. “But you’re, like, an insider or something, right? Do you really think she’d be able to keep that kind of gigantic news from even people like you?”

Amelia bobbed her head to the side a little. “No, I do not. Eventually, we will find out, but for the time being, there remains quite a bit of chatter regarding the subject, and different people are offering conflicting information. I imagine for the next month or two, it will continue to be difficult to discern the genuine truth of the matter.”

Her young lord’s gaze went to the floor, then back to the empty air beside him.

Amelia just waited, and when Hector looked at her again, she braced herself for his next question.

“...How much money do we need to get from this loan, exactly?” he said.

Now there was a question that he would probably not like the answer to, Amelia felt. She tried to give him a smile, though it probably came across as more pitying than encouraging. “There are various methods for starting, but if we are to begin here, on domestic soil, then we will require seven million troa as the barest minimum.”

Hector’s mouth hung open as he looked at her.

Unfortunately, she was still far from done. “And when I say ‘barest minimum,’ I do mean that. Barring some sort of royal decree or other government action, proof that we possess seven million troa is required before we may even be legally recognized as a bank. There are several other qualifying factors, of course, but that is the big one, you might say.”

“So... you’re saying seven million isn’t even enough. Because we need more than just the barest minimum, right?”

“Indeed. Seven million would allow us to get started, so if that is all we are able to acquire, then at least we would be able to do something, but the difficult truth, in my estimation, is that we would require a loan in the neighborhood of... one hundred million troa.”

Hector’s hand slowly found his forehead, and he stared blankly at Amelia’s rosewood desk. “A hundred million...”

Amelia had no words of comfort for him. “And even that would only make for a good start. It would still be far from enough to resolve the economic crisis overnight, in case that was what you were thinking.”

Hector took some more time to gather his thoughts and perhaps consult his imaginary friend another time. “Somehow,” he eventually said with a sigh, “I don’t think the Queen is going to lend me a hundred million troa.”

“Yes, I do not think she will, either,” said Amelia. “However, we do not necessarily need her to. There are many other members of the aristocracy whom we could call upon. And there is your friend Mr. Fullister, of course. I have high hopes for his assistance. And... the Rainlords, perhaps. I would caution you against accepting too much help from them, however.”

Hector looked at her again. “Why?”

“Our entire purpose in opening this bank is to prevent foreign powers from taking over our country, and, well... to be blunt, the Rainlords are exactly that. A foreign power.”

“Hmm.”

Page 1769

((Triple Monday -- Page 1 of 3))
“That’s... good to hear,” said Hector, “but the renovations aren’t even halfway through the Entry Tower yet.”

“Yes, and that is another reason why I believe this bank is a good idea. With our current resources, renovating all eight towers properly is impossible, much less building new ones on the surface and attending to the sunken structures in the lake. A bank, however, would provide us with a valuable source of income.”

Hector fell quiet for a moment again, obviously thinking. Then he looked at her. “I interrupted you. What were you going to say about getting the ball rolling?”

“Ah. Yes. In order to get started on this bank, we will require considerably more capital than we currently possess. I could go into excruciating detail, but the short of it is that we will need a loan.”

“A loan?” said Hector. “You mean, like, from another bank? Wouldn’t they be opposed to the idea of, uh, funding their rivals or something?”

“Indeed. Which is why the loan would have to come from somewhere else.”

“You have somewhere in mind?”

“I would recommend multiple sources, actually,” she said. “In the event that one of them turns us down or ends up having difficulties of their own in the future, it would be best if we did not have all of our eggs in one basket, as they say.”

“Okay... but what sources are you thinking of?”

She almost didn’t want to say. “The government would be one.”

“...You want me to ask the Queen for even more money?” said Hector.

“Well... yes. It could not hurt to ask at least, no?”

Hector rubbed his face with both hands. Amelia was beginning to see that tiredness he mentioned earlier.

“I admit, it may be a bad idea to take more money from the government. No doubt, they have dire need of it, at the moment. Assuming they even have any left to lend. However, the point remains that you would be working to help them resolve the current economic crisis, and I imagine the Queen would be interested in helping you to speed your work along.”

Hector put his hands down again. “...Hold on. You just said, ‘assuming they even have any money left?’ Why wouldn’t they have any money left?”

“Ah, well... because there are some rather unsavory rumors about, regarding the true cause of this crisis. Some are saying that the government’s coffers are empty, and so the entire reason Atreya National and Longrun collapsed first was because they were so deeply connected with the state treasury.”

Hector’s brow lowered. “You’re saying the Queen’s broke?”

“I am only saying what I have heard. But such rumors, even if they are untrue, are terrible for business.”

“Wouldn’t something like that already be all over the news if it were true?”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps the Queen believes that such news would be so damaging to the nation that she has been suppressing it.”