Saturday, June 30, 2018

Page 1853

((Belated Triple Saturday -- Page 1 of 3))
And indeed, Hector had read the historical accounting of the ambassador of the Mohssian Empire who had been largely responsible for convincing the emperor to grant Atreya its independence. In the account, the ambassador had arrived in this brazen little country to chastise its newly appointed King Domitrus and negotiate terms of a legal retraction, believing that a nation with such comparatively little land would have no other choice.

However, according to the account, the ambassador began changing his mind almost immediately upon seeing Bosliat Palace, because he didn’t think there would be enough wealth in the entire nation to create such a grand structure.

It had made one hell of a first impression, in other words, and the king and all of his supporters had furthermore been able to follow through and change the ambassador’s view of them so radically that Atreya’s independence was officially recognized by the Mohssian Empire in less than a year.

Weirdly enough, Hector had never really felt or put much thought into national pride, but reading that had stirred something inside. Just a bit.

An odd feeling. Especially considering he’d already met the Queen and even fought for her. Multiple times. Shouldn’t he have been feeling this way about Atreya all along?

He couldn’t recall the school system ever evoking any sense of nationalism in him. Which was strange, wasn’t it? Shouldn’t they have been teaching national unity or whatever?

Eh, maybe they had, and he just hadn’t been paying attention. In fact, that seemed like the most likely explanation, the more he thought about it.

He’d been thinking about what he would say if he were to be asked what he thought of Atreya--which, tonight, might very well happen. It was a tough notion to wrestle with. In the end, he felt like his allegiance was more to simply protecting innocent people, but he certainly knew that there were limits to that. There was only so much that he could do. And if he overextended himself, then the people who were already safe under his protection might very well end up in danger again.

Lives were on the line here. With a whole castle full of people waiting for him back in Gray Rock, Hector felt like he’d been too naive in the past. He needed be realistic about things now.

As he stepped out of the black SUV and onto the blue-striped carpet, he tried to push his anxiety down as far as it would go.

Which wasn’t very far, sadly--not with all the cameras and microphones and eager reporters in front of him. The path forward remained clear, at least, thanks to a team burly guardsmen holding the news crews behind a velvet rope, but the shouting and shuttering of cameras was still plenty distracting.

Oh man.

Jamal Easton was already there in front of him, having stepped out first, and Amelia Carthrace was stepping out behind him.

Page 1852 -- CXCIII.

Hector turned and looked out the window. “That’s... good to know.”

“If I had to pick one family that I thought you should be wary of, it’d probably be them. For obvious reasons.”

Hector nodded at his own faint reflection in the glass. He could only imagine what a miserable first impression he would’ve made if he ended meeting the leader of House Gaolanet without even realizing who they were. “Thank you for telling me...”

“Sure.”

Hey, I could’ve told you most of that,’ said Garovel.

Then why didn’t you?’ said Hector.

You never asked. And I was planning to. On the way to Sescoria, that is.

Mm. Have you got any other information on the nobles for me, then?

Of course I do. Hector, I’ve probably been preparing for this dinner even more than you have.

Heh. Well, I’m listening.


Chapter One Hundred Ninety-Three: ‘The Gathering at Bosliat...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

It had felt like ages since he’d last seen the royal palace, but he knew it hadn’t really been all that long. After having seen Warrenhold, the Golden Fort, Marshrock, Dunehall, and the Swallow’s Nest, Hector now felt an even greater sense of appreciation for this place. Despite all that competition, Bosliat Palace did not pale in comparison. Sure, it may not have been as big as Warrenhold or the Golden Fort; nor did it have a particularly eye-popping gimmick like Marshrock’s rock or Dunehall’s sand or the Nest’s defensive structure, but it did have a certain “regalness” to it, he thought.

Perhaps it was the national colors that did it. The more he looked at it, the more it seemed as if the blue-and-white flag of Atreya had been imbued into the building itself, somehow.

And perhaps it was, in a sense.

After receiving the invitation to the Gala, Hector’s curiosity had been piqued, so he’d been looking up the building’s history during his rare moments of downtime--which usually meant reading off his phone while he was out patrolling Gray Rock. He remembered vaguely learning about the palace in school, but he certainly didn’t remember any of his teachers telling him that it had been built as part of a declaration of independence.

Economic independence, that was. No actual rebellion had been fought, but Bosliat Palace had played a key role in accomplishing that feat--of securing the nation’s borders without bloodshed. Of course, it had also helped that the Mohssian Empire had already been fighting five other wars at the time and probably hadn’t wanted to make it six.

The idea that this building, with its turreted towers and sprawling gardens and dozens of guardhouses, was designed to be the proud, beating heart of an emerging nation, to represent Atreya as much as the sun-and-stars of the flag did--that made sense to Hector.

Page 1851

“Yeah,” said Gina. “As I understand it, she got into an argument with another reaper the other day. And ever since then, she’s been acting even more out of control than usual. That was what Master Roman told me, anyway.”

“Huh...”

“But anyway, that’s not really important, right now.” Gina folded her hands on the small table in front of her. She was sitting in the corner of the room while Hector stood by the wide window that overlooked the great courtyard of Warrenhold far below. “There’s not much time left before you have to leave. Do you really not know anything about the political establishment? You were born in this country, weren’t you?”

“Uh. I mean, sure, I know a little. Like, names and stuff. But, er...”

“Well, I assume you know who the Carthraces are, at least? You do have their oldest member working for you, after all.”

“Ah... yeah,” said Hector, suddenly trying to recall everything he’d ever heard about them over the course of his entire life. “I haven’t met any of them besides Amelia yet, but uh, they’re... real estate people, aren’t they?”

“That’s right,” said Gina. “They own tons of land, especially in Sescoria and Klein. Probably other cities, too. And that makes them very influential. Who else do you already know about?”

He thought about it. “...Masdens. Volliers. Holbachs. Greenways. Um...?”

She kept waiting, but he couldn’t think of any more. “That’s not bad,” said Gina. “You named pretty much all the major players, apart from the Kemps and the Gaolanets.”

He was glad to hear that. “But like I said, all I know are names, really.”

She straightened in her chair and cleared her throat. “Alright, well, let’s run through them real quick. House Masden. They’re a big fishing family. Their main territory is coastline, but they’re pretty influential outside of Atreya, too. House Vollier. They’re the country’s leading industrialists. Nobody owns more factories in Atreya than they do. House Holbach. They’re the nation’s biggest tech family. Which isn’t really saying much, compared to what’s going on in Intar and Melmoore, but y’know. They’re the best we’ve got.”

She paused a moment, eyeing him and perhaps also gathering her thoughts.

Hector just waited patiently.

“House Greenway,” she went on. “They’re a little weird. They’re more of a pure political family. A lot of people wonder how they’re able to maintain their fortune, but there’s no great mystery there, really. They invest. All the families invest in things, of course, but the Greenways take it to a whole different level. It’s like all they do.”

Hector nodded to show that he was listening.

“House Kemp,” said Gina, looking at her phone now. “Their money comes from fashion and clothing. They’re also pretty influential outside of Atreya, too. And then, finally, there’s House Gaolanet.” She paused again. “I’m a little surprised that they weren’t on your list.”

“Why?” said Hector.

“Because they’re the local power around Gray Rock,” said Gina.

Hector blinked.

“Or at least, before you showed up, they were,” she added.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Page 1850

((Belated Triple Wednesday -- Page 3 of 3))
Hector had an idea. “Can you tell me about the other big Atreyan houses?”

She eyed Roman, then pursed her lips together.

“Why’re you askin’ her?” said Roman.

Hector scratched his cheek but couldn’t help smirking just a little. “Ah... well, I just figured that she knows lots of stuff, and she probably isn’t going to get sidetracked arguing with Voreese, so...”

Roman blinked, and his neck whipped around so that he could stare at Voreese.

What?’ she said. ‘It’s not my fault that Hector’s finally realized he’s been talking to a dumbass this whole time.

As usual, Roman didn’t look especially fazed by her insults, but seeing as his own name and thoughts were being brought into it, Hector felt compelled to intervene.

“I don’t think Roman’s a dumbass,” he said.

A close approximation of a dumbass, then.

“No,” said Hector through mild laughter.

Aw, Hector, are you just saying that, because you guys are friends?’ said Voreese. ‘That’s sweet, but it’s okay. You can totally have a friend who’s a dumbass.

Hector just sighed and looked at Roman apologetically.

“Sometimes, I envy Gina for not being able to hear Voreese,” said Roman.

See?! That right there is a prime example of his dumbassery! As if not being able to hear me could ever be considered a good thing! Absolute fucking idiocy, I tell you!

Roman tapped Gina on the shoulder. “You just go ahead and explain the rest for me, please. It looks like I’ll have to take care of Voreese again for a little while.”

Take care of me?! What’s that supposed mean, asshole?! I’m not some baby! I can--

Without looking, Roman’s hand shot out and grabbed the reaper’s center of non-existent mass.

Whoa, hey! Easy on the merchandise! What do you think you’re doing?!

“C’mon,” said Roman, standing. “We’re gonna leave ‘em to it.”

What?! No! I’m not done talking!

“I know,” said Roman. “Everyone knows.”

No! I wanna stay! Stop it! I’ve still gotta tell them all about your tiny penis!

“Wow.” He started carrying her toward the exit.

No! Hector, save me! Roman’s abusing me! This is illegal! It’s a human rights violation! I want my lawyer!

“You don’t have a lawyer.”

Then I’ll use yours! This is a miscarriage of justice! I’ll sue, you bastard! I’ll take you for all you’re worth!

By that point, Hector didn’t really know what to do, so he just kind of sat there and watched them go, watched Roman wave apologetically with one hand while gripping the thrashing reaper with the other.

There was a brief period of silence after they were gone.

Garovel was the first to speak up. ‘Well, that was... certainly something.

Hector had to agree.

Gina smacked her lips. “Well, um... judging from your silence and the look on your face, I’m guessing Voreese just made a scene?”

“Uh. That’s... one way of putting it, I guess.”

“Yeah... she’s been doing that a lot, apparently.”

Hector cocked an eyebrow. “You mean that’s, like, a recent development?”

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Page 1849

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 2 of 3))
“Really?” said Hector, not having known that. “The royalists believe the Queen was chosen by Cocora?”

I think it’s a little more complicated than that, but basically, yeah,’ said Voreese.

“Hence why I have trouble calling myself a royalist, even though I obviously do support the Queen,” said Roman.

Hector could understand that. He wasn’t so sure he would be able to call himself a royalist, either, in that case--or why it was politically relevant, for that matter.

He wanted to keep an open mind, though. It was not lost on him, the fact that he was stepping into an arena that was very different from what he was accustomed to. It didn’t seem like a good idea to go into it with too many preconceived notions about the way these things should or shouldn’t work.

From the sound of it, though, it seemed like Roman wouldn’t agree with that sentiment. “Anyway, the royalists are mostly a bunch of a small-minded pricks trying to get in the way of progress.”

Hector couldn’t help laughing. “Your objectivity impresses me,” he said dryly.

Roman gave a shrug. “Look, I’m not your history teacher.”

Yeah, that’s my job,’ said Garovel. ‘Don’t try to teach him your biased version of events. Only I’m allowed to do that.

Roman looked to Voreese. “It’s the truth, isn’t it?”

Of course not, you ignorant douche. The royalists are about all about protecting the system--you know, the one that’s been in place for over three hundred years now and that seems to doing pretty well for the people of this country?

“You mean the system that’s currently threatening to collapse and plunge the nation into poverty? THAT system?”

YES, that system! The solution is to preserve what works and fix what doesn’t! Not to shit on everything, you barbaric fuck!

“Oh, here we go...”

Shut up,’ said Voreese. ‘I’m not saying the current system is perfect, or that I agree with royalists all the time, but there’s definitely something to be said for the importance that they place upon traditionalism.

That is the absolute last argument I ever expected to hear from you,’ said Garovel.

Really?’ said Voreese. ‘Garovel, I’ll have you know, I am very old-fashioned kinda gal, deep down.

“Horseshit,” said Roman. “You’re always yappin’ to me about shit that you wanna change.”

Yeah, but it’s gotta be the CORRECT shit!

“Yeah. And it usually is.”

NO, IT USUALLY FUCKING ISN’T! That’s the whole point! You need to be really fucking careful whenever you decide to disregard conventional wisdom, dammit! Oftentimes, it’s conventional for a good fucking reason!

Alright, alright,’ said Garovel. ‘We’re getting sidetracked here. And Voreese, I’m not sure yelling is helping your case.

Bah.

Roman took a moment to put his hand on Gina’s shoulder. “Sorry. I was just arguing with Voreese again.”

“Yeah, I could tell,” she said.

Page 1848

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 1 of 3))
“...I was hoping for advice about how to conduct myself properly,” said Hector.

“I don’t think Master Roman is the right person to consult about conducting yourself properly,” said Gina.

“That is both hurtful and profoundly untrue,” said Roman. “I am a wonderful party guest. Ask anyone. Except maybe the President of Steccat. Though, I doubt he’d remember me, so that might be fine, too, now that think about it.”

“Well, then, uh... could you maybe tell me a little about the other nobles? Like, is there anyone I should be, er... wary of? Or something?”

Oh-ho!’ said Voreese. ‘Good question!

Roman bobbed his head to the side. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “I do know a fair bit about the major players in the Atreya. Your Madame Carthrace might know more, though, of course.”

With the way that Roman let his gaze linger on Hector for a moment, Hector had to wonder if he had met her. By now, he must’ve. He wanted to ask what Roman thought of her, but now probably wasn’t the best time.

“But, ah, yeah,” Roman went on. “You’ve got your straight-up royals, of course. The Belgrants and the Lumenbels. The Lumenbels took a significant hit recently, as I’m sure well know, so they’re not quite as... shall we say, “politically potent” at the moment, as they once were. The Belgrants, as far as families go, probably have more influence now than any single family has ever had before in this country.”

None of that was really news to Hector, but it was at least nice to have his current understanding of Atreyan politics reaffirmed as being correct.

“After those two, though, all of the other families can pretty much be described as either ‘royalist’ or ‘nationalist’ in nature. With maybe a couple wild cards thrown in there, for good measure.”

Which one are you?’ said Garovel.

“Me?” The question seemed to take Roman by surprise. “Mm. That’s a tough one. A year ago, I would’ve said nationalist without the slightest bit of hesitation, but now that I’m BFFs with the Queen, it’s kinda hard not to consider myself more of a royalist.” He smacked his lips. “I hate to be one of those fence-sitters, but right now, I guess that’s what I am.”

You’re kinda making it sound like Hector and I are royalists,’ said Garovel.

Roman just returned a flat look. “Sayin’ you aren’t?”

Heh. Maybe.

Roman glance at Hector, who had no idea what to say. “Whatever,” said Roman. “The royalists and the nationalist aren’t terribly different from one another, anyway. They definitely agree with each other more than they disagree. The main point of controversy between them, as you might expect, is their support of the royal family.”

Specifically, it’s about whether or not they believe the royal family is appointed by divine will,’ said Voreese.

Page 1847

You might be right about that,’ said Mevox. ‘At least with regard to the larger houses. I doubt Zeff or Joana will want to do this.

Hector very much doubted that as well.

That’s fine,’ said Garovel. ‘Their numbers are few enough that it shouldn’t be a problem. Same goes for Evangelina and Diego, of course.

The other reapers merely nodded, as did their servants.

In the meantime,’ said Garovel, ‘I would suggest ensuring all of the men involved in the fight are given plenty to do over the next few weeks.

Way ahead of you there,’ said Mevox. ‘We have a very old saying in Deynos. Haven’t gotten to use it in, oh, seven hundred years or so, but now seems like a good time to bust it out again. “Idle hands will be put in chains.”

There was a brief quiet.

Ah--well, you may not need go quite THAT far,’ said Garovel.

Why not?’ said Mevox.

Because you’re essentially talking about slavery?’ said Garovel.

Eh, what’s a little slavery among family? Builds character and establishes discipline, if you ask me. Besides, it worked pretty well in the past.

I seem to recall a slave revolt taking place in Roth,’ said Yovess. ‘Which, funnily enough, also happened around seven hundred years ago, I think.

Yeah, but up UNTIL then, it was working great.

The conversation lasted a little longer, and they discussed what sort of work would be assigned to the offenders. They ultimately decided on breaking down rocks and laying brick. There was certainly enough of that that still needed doing. After the two lords and their reapers left, there wasn’t much time left before Hector would have to depart for Sescoria.

While he was getting ready, Roman paid him a visit, accompanied by Voreese and Gina, as usual.

I still think it’s bullshit that we weren’t invited,’ said Voreese.

“You know there’s no way that I could show my face at such an event,” said Roman. “And the Queen knows that, too.”

I’m not saying I think we should go. I’m just saying it would’ve been nice to be invited.

“Shut up, Voreese.”

No, you shut up.

As he was adjusting his black tie, which he’d finally managed to get right after nearly half an hour of trying, Hector thought of a question for his billionaire friend. “You’ve been to lots of parties like this before, haven’t you?”

Roman gave a shrug. “Sure.”

“Any advice for me?” said Hector.

“Oh. Hmm. Well, now, let me think...” Roman scratched his nose and sucked on his teeth for a moment. “Find the richest girl in the room, turn on the old charm faucet, leave her wanting for more, and THEN go and impress her father.”

Hector just gave the man a look.

“Not that I’ve. Ever. Done that before. Or anything.”

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Page 1846

((Triple Monday -- Page 3 of 3))
Both men returned a solemn nod, still looking rather defeated.

Aw, geez. Even after saying all that, how exactly was he supposed to help these people?

We need more information,’ said Garovel privately.

All of their reapers were also present. Hector had invited everyone to discuss the matter in his bedroom. There was a conference chamber one floor above that he had been using pretty frequently, but Hector hadn’t wanted this meeting to feel quite as formal as the ones in that chamber had begun to feel.

It didn’t seem to be helping, though.

Garovel’s next words were public. ‘We would like you both to provide us with twice-weekly assessments of your houses’ interpersonal affairs.

Hector’s eyes widened a little.

Mevox, Salvador’s reaper, was the first to respond. ‘Say what?

I know it might be a hassle or even a bit controversial,’ said Garovel, ‘but I assure you that you can trust Hector and I to keep any sensitive information you share with us to ourselves. And this is a very important matter. Above all, Hector and I want Warrenhold to be a place where everyone who comes here can have a reasonable expectation of safety. You must understand. Anything which might jeopardize that... well, that’s just not something we can ignore, even if it inconveniences you for a while.

Mevox opened his skeletal mouth but no words came out.

And I do apologize for the imposition,’ Garovel went on, ‘but it is my hope that these reports will help us come to grips with this problem before it gets out of hand. It’s imperative that we identify the cause of all this before taking any other kind of action which might make things worse.

With the way Garovel was talking, it didn’t sound like he was leaving much room for discussion. It sounded like he was issuing an order, Hector thought. And he didn’t think the Rainlords would appreciate that.

There arrived an intermission of silence, presumably in which the other reapers and servants were discussing the matter privately.

Hector used the opportunity to ask Garovel a question of his own. ‘This is a little much, don’t you think? What if they say no?

They won’t.

But what if they do.

Then I guess you’ll have to show them who’s boss.

Hector’s jaw clenched. ‘Garovel! I’m not their boss!

You’re the Lord of Warrenhold, Hector. We’re in Warrenhold. You’re the boss.

Argh. He wanted to argue, but there wasn’t time, because Mevox spoke up again.

We understand,’ the reaper said. ‘Assessments sound like a reasonable step to take.

Yes,’ said Yovess. ‘We think so as well. Obviously, we know what the overall cause of these tensions is, given what happened in Sair, but I do think a closer look at the finer details with an objective third party such as yourselves might prove helpful. I would even go so far as to recommend this as something all of the houses should begin doing.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Page 1845

((Triple Monday -- Page 2 of 3))
That was just like them, though. Even now, with all they’d been through, the Rainlords were still concerned about not being a bother or a burden to their host. They made that pretty clear. Repeatedly, even.

“Yeah, but the thing is,” said Hector, “you doing that is being a bother to me.”

Horatio Blackburn and Salvador Delaguna just sat there, looking back at him. The last mention of a heated argument breaking out had been between members of their two houses, though they refused to acknowledge it, much to Hector’s growing annoyance.

Hector frowned at their silence. “While I’m gone, Warrenhold and even Gray Rock is under the Rainlords’ protection. If you guys can’t even tell me what’s wrong, then how am I supposed to trust you to take care of all these people in my absence?” This was something he’d given a lot of thought to already, and he was trying not to sound too irritated with them.

Horatio just cast his eyes to the floor, still not saying anything.

Salvador, however, kept his gaze locked on Hector.

Hector had a hard time looking back at the man, though. Not because he was embarrassed, but rather because the man’s recent losses were so painfully visible on his face. The Lord Delaguna was one of the largest men Hector had ever seen, but that shrunken posture and those big brown eyes full of remorse made him seem somehow smaller.

Hector knew only too well how much grief the man was still coping with, how many family members he’d lost at Dunehall. It seemed wrong to be doing anything but trying to accommodate him, but after consulting Garovel a couple of times on the matter, he’d come to believe that treating Salvador any differently would just make things worse.

The man needs many things right now,’ Garovel had said, ‘but from us, he needs only normalcy and respect. We need to treat him like a companion. Not a child or a victim.

And though a part of him didn’t want to, Hector agreed. Remembering his own, personal experiences with such things, he felt like Garovel was right on the money with that assessment.

So it was hard to look back at him, but Hector did it, nonetheless. Looking away would have been disrespectful in its own way, Hector felt.

“...You are right,” Salvador eventually said, sighing. “My house is not in order...”

“Nor is mine,” said Horatio, glancing over at the man before sighing as well. “I don’t know how my uncle was able to make everyone feel so united and... I...”

“H-hold on,” said Hector, feeling abruptly like he’d just slapped both of these poor men across the face. “I mean... look, all I’m saying is that you should let me help. It’s, ah... it’s okay if things aren’t exactly stable for you, right now. It would be weird if they were. But you can’t shut me out like you’ve been doing. You can’t just... you can’t just pretend like there’s no problem when there obviously is, okay?”

Page 1844

((Triple Monday -- Page 1 of 3))
Hector’s irritation was only growing. “I told you, already. She’s not telling me anything about her situation. Probably because she’s worried you’ll try to rescue her and get yourself killed by Gohvis.”

Surprisingly, the Lord Elroy did not get angry at that response. Which was perhaps even more unsettling, somehow. Instead, he merely returned a flat, dead-eyed stare for a moment.

“...Fine,” said Zeff. “In any event, I suppose we can end our session a bit early today. We wouldn’t want you to be too exhausted to attend your royal dinner tonight.” The man turned and started walking away. “You’re free to go, whenever you like.”

“Wha? How do--? I’m still--!” Hector stopped himself. Obviously, Zeff knew what he was doing, that Hector was still trapped inside the soul-strengthened ice.

Maybe he was mistaken, but in that moment, Hector felt like Zeff wanted him to say something in desperation. To beg the man to let him out.

And Hector didn’t want to do that.

Why, though? Was this pride? Or just stubbornness? It was weird, whatever it was, and Hector didn’t like it much. It was putting strange thoughts in his head. In all likelihood, Zeff was just messing with him to mess with him. Or to teach him something, maybe. Not to humiliate him or assert dominance.

Probably.

Regardless, Hector held his tongue as he watched the Lord Elroy walk away. And much like the man had said, it took about half an hour to finally free himself. He was freezing his ass off and hardly able to move after he was out, but he was out.

He materialized himself a fresh suit of warm armor before heading back.

After that, the rest of the day went by way too quickly for Hector’s liking. But then, most days were like that, recently. With so much he wanted to check up on and so many people he wanted to talk to, he was genuinely starting to feel like there were simply not enough hours in the day anymore. It sucked to always be in a rush.

He had a couple of interviews with more of the people Madame Carthrace was planning to hire. He had the reconstruction to help with. He had people coming up to him constantly, wanting to discuss one thing or another.

Independent though they were, the Rainlords sure had a lot of concerns. The tension between House Blackburn and the others worried him most, though. He’d heard about a few heated arguments that had taken place--so heated that they’d nearly come to blows.

The last thing Hector needed right now was the Rainlords fighting amongst themselves again, so he’d been trying to figure out what to do abuot it, but they weren’t making it easy for him. Most of them didn’t even want to talk about it. They seemed to find it embarrassing. Unbecoming of “lords,” perhaps. And whenever Hector was around, everyone appeared to be very polite with one another.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Page 1843

The storm of water around Hector subsided, giving him some room to breathe, but he knew it wouldn’t last long. Zeff would no doubt get mad if he didn’t seize the opening and attack.

He rushed in from the front and decided to flank Zeff with a trio of materialized lances, all bearing a velocity state.

A small castle of ice froze everything in place, including Hector.

He struggled, but without the undead vigor, the ice was way too strong to break through. Hell, it might’ve been too strong even with the vigor.

Well, shit.

Zeff opened a hole in the ice so that Hector could hear him. “That was better,” he said. “You almost managed to hit me that time.”

Hector just kind of sighed.

“It was impressive that you could materialize something under my feet without even looking in my direction. I suppose that, too, is thanks to that scarf of yours?”

Hector didn’t answer him. Zeff probably knew that he wouldn’t. Everything that the man knew about the Scarf had come from the past few days of observing Hector wearing it. Hector hadn’t even told him its name.

“You have very good agility and spatial awareness, even for a materialization user, but neither of that really matters if your opponent is able to seal your movement, now does it? Preventing precisely this situation should be one of your top priorities.”

“...I’ll try to keep that in mind,” said Hector. Damn, this ice was cold. His teeth were chattering, and he was already losing sensation in his extremities.

“Good.” Zeff his just folded his arms and stood there. “Now. Try and get out of it.”

Hector could barely even move his neck. “...How, exactly?”

“There are only two choices. Force or heat.” A rare smile found the Lord Elroy’s face. “Hmph. Or you could try to talk me into undoing it, I suppose.”

Heat it was, then. Hector focused on his armor. It was stuck in the ice just as thoroughly as he was. But he could still dematerialize it and remake it from scratch, hotter.

So that was what he did.

It didn’t do much.

Some sizzling and cracking noises permeated the ice, but that was about it. No breaking free, and certainly no melting.

“Mm. Wow. Another thirty minutes, and you might be out of there. Assuming I don’t just make more, of course.”

Hector didn’t want to spoil one of Zeff’s anomalous good moods, but he was getting annoyed. “Yeah, you’re stronger than I am.”

“Yes, I am,” said Zeff, frowning again. “Why don’t you do something about it, then?”

Hector squinted with one eye. What was this supposed to accomplish? Was Zeff trying to make him achieve emergence? Because there was no fucking way that was going to happen.

“Alternatively,” said Zeff, “you could tell me what you’ve been hiding from me with regard to Emiliana. I might be persuaded to let you out, then.”

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Page 1842

((Triple Saturday -- Page 3 of 3))
As had quickly become the norm, Hector started the next day early by training with Zeff. That may have been another reason for his persistent exhaustion, actually. The Lord Elroy did not hold back. At times, their sparring grew to have such ground-shaking intensity that Hector worried they might wake up everyone in Warrenhold despite the increasingly long distances they traveled from it.

A sudden surge of ice water knocked Hector off his feet, and the shield in his hand went flying from his grasp. He clattered to the ground like a sack of iron potatoes. Half of his armor was cracked or crumbling off of him already.

“Not good enough,” said Zeff. “If you plan to keep using that shield, then you had better learn to keep it in front of you.”

Hector appreciated all the effort the man was going through for him, teaching him personally. Truth be told, tough, he was getting a little tired of the condescending lectures. “I’m trying,” he said as he climbed back onto his feet and reformed his armor.

“Try harder, then.”

Something in the man’s inflection made Hector immediately think that another attack was already coming at him from behind. Zeff had also made a habit of doing that, attacking him before he was actually ready to keep going.

Sure enough, he sensed something there with the Scarf of Amordiin, but even by then, he was already moving, having predicted what Zeff was going to do.

However, the attack did not arrive, and Hector ended up dodging out of the way of nothing at all.

Then a block of ice clobbered him from the front, and put him right back on his ass.

“Where are you trying to dodge?” said Zeff. “You face opponent who is familiar with your capabilities. You can try to predict my actions, but I can predict yours as well, you know. Maintain your awareness at all moments and react accordingly. And keep your shield up, for god’s sake.”

Hector exhaled and just lay there for a moment longer.

“This is not the ferocity I witnessed when you were fighting that worm,” said Zeff.

Yeah, because this was just practice. Why would he--?

Oh shit.

Hector shoved himself out of the way of a half-dozen frozen spikes and was back on his feet again. More were coming, though, and he had to keep dodging, just barely skating out of the way and occasionally losing chunks of armor to them.

“Better, but not perfect,” said Zeff, raising his voice as the distance between them grew. “Are you ever going to get around to counterattacking, I wonder? Or do you plan to keep on like this forever?”

The swirls of water were only growing faster, Hector noticed, and some had the sharpness of blades in addition to their speed. Everywhere around him. So much to keep track of.

He split his focus and materialized a thin, moving layer of iron beneath Zeff’s feet while simultaneously launching a boulder down on the man from above.

Perhaps the Lord Elroy hadn’t been expecting a two-pronged attack, because the man lost his footing for a moment, and the boulder nearly hit him before being slapped away by a tower of ice.

Page 1841

((Triple Saturday -- Page 2 of 3))
Well, firstly, the time and place are incredibly strange for someone trying to commit suicide,’ said Garovel. ‘Out in the middle of the street? And after a vaguely clandestine meeting with someone?

Yeah, I guess that would be a hell of a coincidence...

And secondly, the method. Cyanide? That would be a profoundly strange choice.

Why? Is it super painful or something?

I don’t think it’s very pleasant, but then again, I can’t really attest to that, personally. Accessibility would be an issue, though. Getting your hands on cyanide, while certainly not impossible, would be inconvenient. So why choose that over something more widely available? Or something painless, perhaps?

That was another good point, Hector thought. But he couldn’t help relating everything the reaper was saying back to his own death. He was a little surprised that Garovel hadn’t brought it up yet.

Plus, it’s all just a little too shady,’ the reaper went on. ‘Poison in the drink? If you were going to knowingly ingest poison, why would you bother mixing it with something?

Er. Maybe he was worried about the taste?

Yeah, sure he was. As far as I’m concerned, the presence of the drink really suggests murderous intent by some as yet unknown third party.

Well, uh... okay. What should we do about it?

We can probably just let the police handle it for now.

Wait, what? Really?

Sure. As far as we know, no one is immediate danger now. There’s an attempted murderer out there who still needs to be brought to justice, of course, but that’s what the police are for. I’ll be keeping an eye on their investigation, though.

What happened to all that shit about this being our second case together?

The reaper laughed. ‘Are you disappointed?

Well, you kinda built it up like it was a big deal...

I was just screwing around, Hector. Having fun. You know what that is, right?

Garovel...

Relax. And you should actually be hoping that I don’t ask you to do anything else on this case. Because if I do, then that’ll mean that the police can’t handle it on their own.

Ah...

You’re like a fire extinguisher, Hector. We only want to break you out for emergencies.

I... uh... hmm.

You did good work tonight, though. You should be proud of yourself.

Pride wasn’t a feeling that Hector was particularly familiar with, but he appreciated Garovel saying so, at least. ‘Thanks...

How does it feel to go around protecting normal people again?

It’s, uh. It’s pretty nice, actually.

How does it compare to fighting giant worms in Hell?

...I like it a lot better.

Me, too.

Soon, they made it back to Warrenhold, and Hector went straight to his room. He’d been getting good sleep the past few days, but he was still feeling consistently exhausted. Eight hours never quite seemed like enough, but Garovel said that feeling would go away in a week or so, as long as he kept to a healthy schedule.

Page 1840

((Triple Saturday -- Page 1 of 3))
“Once upon a time, I, too, harbored such thoughts,” Madame Carthrace had told him. “That it was just a chance for my peers to flaunt their wealth and indulge in all manner of debauched excess, but I’ve long since changed my mind about that, and I think you will, too.”

Hector was trying to keep an open mind.

He still wasn’t exactly looking forward to it, though. With as much as he’d been in the news recently, he was a little afraid of how much attention he would be getting--both from the other lords and from the camera crews.

Ugh.

It was gonna be an absolute shit show.

He really would’ve liked to just not go, but that would probably make matters even worse. Plus, he did need to talk to the Queen.

And of course, there was also Lynn to be worried about. Garovel had been trying to get him to call her for some inexplicable reason, and with so much on his plate, Hector had been able to ignore him relatively easily. But not tomorrow. She was almost definitely going to be there. She was the White Sword of Atreya, after all. The Queen’s personal bodyguard.

Hector knew he was being irrational, though. This was such a strange feeling. He was dreading seeing her. Obviously. And yet, just as much as he was dreading it, he was looking forward to it, too.

What sense did that make? What sense did he make?

It would’ve been a lot easier if he was just scared of her. Crazy as that seemed. He could deal with fear. He knew he could. But there was so much more to it.

Wanting to be liked. Not wanting to be humiliated. Or hated. Or pitied.

It reminded him so much of his school days. The endless anxiety.

However, between worrying about all of that again and simply discussing Mr. Lang’s “case” with Garovel, Hector knew which one he wanted to do, right now. He’d already gotten his fill of agonizing over tomorrow night’s dinner and didn’t feel like getting into it again.

Why don’t you just save us both some time and tell me what YOU think of the case?’ said Hector.

No, no. You first. Like I said, I’ve gotta evaluate your critical thinking progress, my dear boy.

He thought about arguing, but... oh, whatever. ‘Okay, well, uh... I don’t really know what to make of it yet, I guess.

Stunning. You’ve floored me with your observational brilliance.

Are you telling me you’ve already got it all figured out?

Well. Obviously, no case is too mysterious for my ferociously sharp mind. But y’know. For purely academic reasons, I think you should put a little more thought into it before asking me for help.

Right...

So? C’mon. Put some brain mass into it, Detective Goffe.

He sighed and tried to think. ‘Alright, uh... I guess... there’s a chance that he just...’ He hesitated, but this was the only thing coming to mind. ‘Er... is it possible that he tried to kill himself?

Mm. Not likely.

Why do you say that?

Friday, June 22, 2018

Page 1839

So,’ said Garovel after a while of silence. Instead of attaching himself to Hector, he was flying on his own and keeping pace with him as they soared through the night sky together. ‘Got any idea why someone tried to kill that guy?

You’re asking ME?’ said Hector.

I’m just curious about where your mind’s at. I’m trying to keep track of how your critical thinking skills are developing. This is our second mysterious case we’re working on, after all.

Second? What was the first?

The mystery at Dunehall. You remember. When it looked like Ibai Blackburn had killed Fuad Saqqaf.

Oh, yeah.

Shame, too. I was getting really invested in trying to crack that case wide open. Then everything started exploding, and nobody really cared, anymore. I never got a chance to show everyone my unfathomable intellect.

...Unfathomable even to yourself, you mean?

Heh. Yes. Even I don’t fully grasp the enormity of my brain.

Your brain which technically doesn’t exist.

Oh, don’t start down that road. We’ll be busy for hours.

Hey, why does Dunehall count as the first case? Why not the, uh... all that shit with Colt and Rofal? That was a case, wasn’t it?

Eh, not REALLY. I mean, where was the mystery, huh?

YOU were the mystery, I think.

Hmm. I’m not sure whether to be flattered or offended. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. This is our official second case. I’m calling it now. Everything else was just build up to this.

Hector snorted a laugh. ‘Everything, huh? Even though we have no reason to believe that Mr. Lang is in any way related to anything we’ve seen or been through so far?

That doesn’t matter. Chronologically, everything has been building to this.

Oh, okay. Then I guess everything has been building toward breakfast tomorrow morning, too.

Heh. Well, maybe not breakfast but definitely dinner.

Hector knew what the reaper was referring to. He would be having dinner tomorrow in Sescoria. With the Queen and about a hundred other lords and ladies of Atreya.

The invitation had been delivered to him two days ago--in person, no less, by a sharply dressed officer of the royal court.

The Atreyan Gala of Royal Associates was an annual occurrence--one that Hector had heard about since he was a kid and had certainly never expected to be invited to. It was being held a month early this year, possibly because of the economic crisis, though Hector didn’t really know what the Queen was thinking in that regard. The news certainly wasn’t making light of the timing. With so much concern over money in the public consciousness, it seemed to him like a bad idea to have all of the wealthiest people in Atreya show off in front of a bunch of cameras.

According to Madame Carthrace, though, the Gala was more than just a fancy gathering for the nobility. It was an unparalleled opportunity for the nation’s most influential people to discuss policy and make decisions that could affect their own communities for many years to come.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Page 1838

Hector was glad to see that the man could laugh in these circumstances. Then again, doctors were probably pretty accustomed to stress, he figured.

I like this guy,’ said Garovel. ‘Ask him if he wants to come work for you.

Hector had to consciously keep his face still. ‘What?!

What, you can ask Leo to work for you, but this doctor is a bridge too far?

He JUST said that he likes his current job.

You could still ASK.

No, Garovel.’

Bah.

“Ah, well, I suppose I should be going now,” said Dr. Carlyle. “Is there anything else I can do for you before I go? Questions? Concerns?”

“Oh. Um. I’d like to take a look at Mr. Lang’s belongings, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Mm. Given everything else that I’m not supposed to be doing for you, I guess one more thing wouldn’t hurt. This way.”

The doctor led Hector to Mr. Lang’s room, which was different from the one that they had originally taken the man to. This one looked a bit more comfortable, and that had him hooked up to all sorts of different machines.

Mr. Lang’s clothes were in a folded pile on the chair in the corner. Before sorting through them, Hector materialized some coatings for his fingertips so as not to contaminate any potential evidence with his fingerprints. The last thing he needed was the police making him a suspect.

Dr. Carlyle just watched. The doctor didn’t have to stay, Hector thought, but maybe he was still a little worried about leaving Hector alone with the guy.

It didn’t matter.

Hector found the financial note that Garovel had mentioned earlier, though he couldn’t really make heads or tails of it. He knew someone who might be able to, though, and decided to take a picture of it with his phone. Then he took pictures of everything else, including the unconscious Mr. Lang.

“Where’s the drink?” asked Hector at length, noticing its absence.

“It was a hazardous material, so we had to contain it,” said Dr. Carlyle. “We haven’t disposed of it yet, however, since it is evidence. I can take you to it, if you want.”

Hector took him up on that offer, but it didn’t prove particularly illuminating. He made sure to get a picture of the poisoned drink just in case, but there wasn’t much to see. It was just a simple metal canteen, featureless and pretty nondescript. Dr. Carlyle didn’t think that they would be able to trace the poison back to either the distributor or manufacturer, either.

From there, Hector’s hospital visit drew to a close, and he left. It felt a bit strange, just leaving like that, but he didn’t actually know Mr. Lang, and the hospital had placed security on his room, so Hector didn’t see much point in sticking around. According to Dr. Carlyle, Mr. Lang’s family was currently out of the country and so wouldn’t be here until tomorrow.

Hector was still trying to decide if it was worth coming back in order to talk to them. If they’d been out of the country, they made for pretty poor suspects, and he didn’t want to make things even more difficult for them, either.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Page 1837

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 3 of 3))
Hector wasn’t sure what to say say to that. Being famous sure was fucking weird.

The doctor reached into his lab coat and pulled out a folded up paper. “Here’s a copy of my preliminary assessment.”

Hector took it and looked it over, though he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

“It’s still too early to say for sure,” said Dr. Carlyle, “but... there is unfortunately a very real possibility that the patient will never wake up.”

Hector blinked. “Why?”

“The damage done to his brain and nervous system may not have been fatal, but it would not be strange if he remains comatose. As I said, it’s still too early to tell. He may wake up. He may not.”

“...Do you know what caused this?” said Hector.

“We do,” said the doctor. “We identified the alcoholic drink in his possession as containing a lethal dose of potassium cyanide.”

Hector’s head reared back a little. “Cyanide...?” Now there was a scary word.

“It is safe to say that if you had not gotten him here as quickly as you did, he would be dead.”

Holy shit.

So someone really did try to kill the guy.

He needed information. Hector asked the doctor for details regarding the man’s identity, and the doctor obliged, producing a folder from his lab coat with everything the hospital knew about the man.

Jeremy Lang. Thirty-seven years old. Employed as an Administrative Assistant in the Human Resources Department at Lindhold & Barter.

That was was one hell of a job title, Hector thought.

“I hope you find your culprit,” said Dr. Carlyle. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.” He turned to leave.

“Will you call me if he wakes up?” said Hector, pulling out his phone. “Or if there are any other developments?”

The doctor’s expression became strained. “I... suppose I could. It wouldn’t really be proper, since you’re not with the police or listed as one of his emergency contacts, but... you are a lord. And a national hero. Conventional rules don’t really apply to you, I guess.”

Hector was speechless and embarrassed.

Dr. Carlyle smirked. “You’ll use your status to protect me if I get in trouble for this, won’t you?”

“Er. Sure.”

“That answer does not fill me with confidence, milord.” Dr. Carlyle adjusted his glasses and smiled. “Stressful as it sometimes is, I do like this job and would prefer not to lose it. It pays very well, and my wife loves spending money.”

Hector couldn’t help but breathe half a laugh. The man wanted confidence from him, huh?

Alright.

“...I promise you will have my protection,” said Hector.

“That’s better. Thank you.” The doctor pulled out his phone as well.

They exchanged numbers.

Dr. Carlyle smirked another time as he eyed his phone. “I imagine there are plenty of journalists who would love to get their hands on this, eh? How much do you think I could get for it?”

“Do that and you’re dead to me,” said Hector flatly.

The man just laughed.

Page 1836

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 2 of 3))
“I’ll--I’ll, er, I’ll let the doctors know,” she said. “They’ll figure it out. You don’t need to do anything else. Believe me. It’s good enough that you got him here as quickly as you did.”

Hector just frowned at her, but he supposed she had a point. The doctors would probably have a better idea of what clues to look for, as well.

He wasn’t ready to give up, though. “Well, uh... when the doctors are done with his clothes, I’d still like to examine them, myself. If you don’t mind.”

“Ah, uh, o-okay. Very well. Erm. M’lord.”

Oi, that looked awkward for her. She seemed like she wanted to be just about anywhere but here, right about now.

He wondered if there was anything he could to do help put her at ease. That was the kind of thing a lord was supposed to be able to do, right?

“Ah--by the way,” said Hector, “I never caught your name.”

“Oh. Um. It’s Jenna. Jenna Brandt.”

His body resisted, but he forced himself to extend a hand toward her. “It’s... a pleasure to meet you.”

She looked about as reluctant as he felt, but she took the hand nonetheless and shook it. “Th-thank you, m’lord.”

He tried to give her a smile but only managed to press his lips together flatly. Eh, maybe that was more appropriate, anyway, considering the circumstances.

After that, she excused herself, and Hector was alone again.

He breathed a sigh of relief and sat back down. He didn’t know if ask her name and shaking her hand had actually made her feel better or not, but it was pretty much all he had been able to think of.

Why, he wondered?

Hmm, maybe because that was what Garovel had instructed him to back at Warrenhold with those two Rainlord cooks. The husband and wife. What were their names? Agh, so many names to keep track of.

But yeah, that was probably the reason.

Oh well. Whatever.

The wait continued for a while longer, and Hector ended up meditating to pass the time. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when Dr. Carlyle entered the room, looking more disheveled than before.

Garovel followed him in.

“I understand that you bear no relation to the patient?” said the doctor. It wasn’t actually a question, but he posed it like one.

Hector sat up straighter. “That’s right...”

The doctor nodded. “In that case, I’m not supposed to share information regarding his treatment with you.”

Hector merely returned a blank expression. Then what he hell had he been waiting here for?

“However,” the doctor said slowly, “these are... extenuating circumstances, I suppose.”

“What do you mean?” said Hector.

“Well... would I be correct in thinking that you are investigating this man in some way?”

“...Yes.”

“Then... normally, this information would only be shared with the police, but you’re... well, you’re you, aren’t you?”

Page 1835

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 1 of 3))
Dr. Carlyle was the one to step forward again. “W-well, uh, I’ll just take a look then, shall I?”

“Please.” Hector obliterated the top half of the pod so that the doctor would have plenty of space to work. “And, ah, thank you...”

The whole room was watching now as Dr. Carlyle checked the man’s pulse.

Scarcely ten seconds passed before he turned to his colleague. “Get a cart ready now.” The other man nodded, and he turned to Hector. “Quickly, follow me.” He was already jogging away.

Oh shit.

Hector pursued the doctor down a hallway and corner, bringing the unconscious man along as well, of course. They entered a small room with an elevated bed and all manner of medical supplies on the counters.

“Place him there, if you would,” said Dr. Carlyle as he pulled on a pair of blue rubber gloves.

The doctor hadn’t actually pointed anywhere, but it was apparent enough that he meant the bed, so that was where Hector put him, using iron to lift him up and then ease him down again.

Hector wanted to ask some questions, like if Dr. Carlyle knew what was wrong, but he didn’t want to interrupt. The doctor’s facial expression and body language were both warning of urgency and the need for concentration.

The other doctor arrived with a wheeled cart full of equipment, and Hector made way for him. Then more people began flowing into the room, and a nurse ushered Hector away.

He wasn’t about to argue.

The nurse led him into another room. Not a waiting a room, per se, just an empty one. She told him that someone would be in to talk to him soon.

He waited.

Garovel had stayed with the doctors, however.

How’s it going in there?’ Hector asked.

Too early to tell,’ the reaper said. ‘Not super great, though.

Hector supposed it would be a while for he learned anything. He noticed a chair in the corner of the room and sat down.

Soon, someone new did arrive, as promised. It was an older woman. Maybe a doctor, though she only had purple scrubs on. She began asking him questions. How was he related to the patient? What prompted the hospital visit? How was the patient’s condition previously?

Those were somewhat difficult to answer. When he told her that he just found the guy on the street, she seemed a little surprised but kept going. When he told her his name, she actually stopped for a second and stared at him.

Only for a second, though. Professionalism soon won out, and she kept going with her questions.

It was only when he started asking questions of his own that she became visibly uncomfortable.

“Would you mind getting his clothes for me?” said Hector.

“I... ah... that’s not really, um--I’m not really supposed to--”

“I know,” he said, “but this is important. I didn’t have time to examine his belongings before bringing him here. There might be, uh, some sort of clue about what brought this on, so...”

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Page 1834

He followed Garovel’s directions, pushing the pace while focusing on making the ride smooth. It didn’t take long to reach the nearest hospital. “UGR Health” was the logo on the side of the main building, though there were many accompanying it. Hector was glad that Garovel seemed to know where he was going, because there were about a half-dozen entrances that Hector could see from the air.

There were plenty of cars around, but thankfully, the place didn’t seem especially busy at the moment. Hector had no trouble walking right through the front entrance, even with all iron that he was materializing behind him.

A few shrieks rang out in the main lobby, but Hector didn’t have to be concerned about that. He went straight up to the reception desk and addressed the pair of wide-eyed women who were sitting behind it.

“Excuse me,” he said, keeping his voice calm so as not to startle anyone. He brought the iron pod forward so that they could see the person lying therein. “I think this man may be in need of medical attention...”

It took a moment for the nearer woman to blink and then respond. “Ah! O-okay! Um! One moment please!” Her hands fumbled for the phone on her desk.

Hector hoped she was calling a doctor and not security.

Garovel was busy observing the man’s condition. ‘When you get a chance, search his pockets. There are probably some clues on him.

Okay.

Hector noticed a couple of men in white coats walking through a small, indoor plaza that was off to the side. Or rather, he noticed them stop walking. They had noticed the commotion in the lobby. They had noticed Hector.

Hector might’ve liked to wave them down or something, but he figured there was probably a procedure to these types of things. And more importantly, he didn’t want to scare them.

Maybe he wasn’t doing such a good job of that, though. He wondered if they were going to just turn around and walk away. Judging from the looks on their faces, they wanted to.

The one on the right, a balding and bespectacled man, just kind of took a deep breath, bobbed his head forward a little, and then walked over. His companion soon followed.

“Hello, I’m Dr. Carlyle,” said the balding man. “Is there some way I can be of assistance?”

The receptionist from before almost leapt out of her chair. “Ah! Yes, this, um--this man here said--” She cut herself off when Hector looked at her.

Wait. Why had she done that? Aw, shit. He hadn’t meant for her to stop explaining.

Hector brought the pod closer to Dr. Carlyle and his colleague.

They both took a few steps back as the hulking iron contraption materialized its way toward them.

Dammit! Why was it so hard not to frighten people?!

Was it the armor? It was probably the armor. Argh.

He dematerialized it and tried again. “Sorry... I, uh... I’m just trying to get this guy some help.”

Thankfully, that actually did seem to ease the tension a little.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Page 1833

((Triple Monday -- Page 3 of 3))
The man slipped the paper into his coat, and then exhaled noticeably. The night air was cold enough that Hector could see breath, though only faintly.

Bah,’ said Garovel. ‘Couldn’t tell anything else about it.

After a short time, the man pulled out a cigarette and a small drink and began partaking of both.

Hector relaxed a little, feeling mildly irritated. ‘Back to waiting, I guess...

Hmm. Well, I suppose you could just walk up and talk to him, ask him if anything’s wrong.

You really think that’d work?

No. Just saying it’s an option.

I feel like he’d just run away if I did that.

I’m sure you’d be able to catch him and make him talk.

Uh... he’s not a bad guy, Garovel.

We don’t know that. We don’t know anything about him, other than he’s in danger. He could be the biggest son of a bitch in the world, for all we know.

I’m not sure that justifies torturing him.

I never said anything about torturing him. I said you could “make him talk.” That doesn’t mean torture.

...It kinda does, though, doesn’t it?

No, Hector. It could mean scaring the information out of him, for instance.

By threatening to torture him.

Hey, threatening to torture someone is not the same as torturing someone.

Garovel.

Look, I’m just spitballin’ ideas here. Not saying you have to do anything you don’t feel comfortable doing.

I don’t feel comfortable threatening to torture some random dude on the street, no.

Alright, fine. Geez. It’s not like I was--’ The reaper cut himself off, which drew Hector’s attention anew.

There was something different about the man now, Hector suddenly realized. The way he was standing had changed. He seemed unsteady. Weaker. After a moment, he leaned against the street lamp for support but struggled even to hold himself up and began sliding against it toward the ground.

Hector!

He was already leaping off the roof. He summoned a descending platform to soften his landing, and then he was in full sprint toward the man, no longer caring how noisy the iron armor might be.

Hector slid up beside him as the man was just about flat on the pavement. ‘What’s wrong with him?! He didn’t hurt himself, did he?!

No, I was watching for that. He might just be sick. Let’s take him to the hospital. And don’t carry him. Use your iron. You want to keep his body from flailing around and worsening his condition while you’re transporting him.

Okay!’ Hector did exactly as the reaper instructed and materialized a kind of small, stabilization chamber. A pod, basically--not so dissimilar to the ones that had been used to transport the non-servant Rainlords through the Undercrust. This one was just purely iron, of course, but it seemed to do the job well enough as Hector brought it along with him on its own, accompanying platform.

Page 1832

((Triple Monday -- Page 2 of 3))
It was too dark to tell much about the newcomer with just his eyes alone, but Hector was near enough for the Scarf to help him discern some of the details.

Short. Long hair. Long skirt. Slim, feminine figure. And he could sense the shape of her high heels, as well as hear them clicking against the sidewalk’s pavement.

Hmm. Hector focused harder and checked inside the purse she was carrying.

Wow, it was full of stuff. And not knowing much about the kinds of things that women carried in their purses, Hector found it a bit difficult to pick out any object in particular, except maybe--

Was that a gun?

He couldn’t be sure, but that shape definitely seemed like it could be the barrel of a small pistol. And considering that it was illegal for average citizens to carry firearms in Atreya, that didn’t bode especially well.

He’d have to pay close attention. In a place like this, at this time of night, there was a fair chance she was just carrying it for her own protection, even if it was unlawful. Hector wasn’t about to judge someone who didn’t have the luxury of superpowers on their side for prioritizing their own safety over following the law.

Or hell, maybe she wasn’t an average citizen. She could’ve been an undercover cop or something.

Sticking to the rooftops, Hector tried to stay close to her as she approached the man at the other end of the street. If nothing else, he wanted to stay in range of the Scarf so that he could react in time in case she went for that weapon.

Judging from the man’s body language, he had been expecting her.

Seems like they’re going to talk,’ said Garovel privately. ‘I’ll go eavesdrop. Make sure they don’t kill me, eh?

Hector clenched his jaw, wanting to tell the reaper not to, but he held his tongue. In all likelihood, neither of them were servants, and he was paying extra close attention to where their heads were pointing. If either of them turned to look at Garovel, Hector would know it immediately.

Hector waited and observed, ready move on a moment’s notice. The man and woman met below a street lamp and exchanged a few words. Pleasantries, according to Garovel. Neither one seemed to notice the reaper’s presence a couple meters away from them.

That was good, of course, but Hector did not allow himself to relax.

Whatever they were talking about, it didn’t take very long. The woman handed the man a piece of paper and a small bag, and then walked away, in the opposite direction that she had come from.

...What was that about?’ he had to ask.

Dunno,’ said Garovel. ‘They didn’t say much. Guess they didn’t need to.

The man was still there, reading the paper that he had been given. Garovel hovered up behind him, no doubt trying to read it as well.

It’s some kind of report’ the reaper said. ‘Financial in nature, looks like.

Page 1831

((Triple Monday -- Page 1 of 3))
So unless you plan on taking the blame for the economy, too, then I don’t think this spike in crime can be fully attributed to you,’ said Garovel.

That’s... comforting, I guess.’

Good. I’m glad you think so. I was worried you were gonna start acting all guilt-ridden and annoying.

Well, uh... I mean, maybe I was working up to it.

The reaper just snorted.

Hector breathed half a laugh, too. ‘It’s just, I mean... I dunno. I know they were saying it was my fault ‘n everything, but... like, what the fuck was I supposed to have done differently? Just never leave Gray Rock, no matter what? That’s kinda...

Unreasonable?

Y-yeah.

Mm. You make a good point. I’m happy that you’re thinking clearly about this. Blaming yourself for things you can’t control could really end up biting you in the ass, in the long run.

How do you mean?

Well, speaking hypothetically here, if you become overly concerned about messing things up, then you’ll likewise become hesitant to take action when you might otherwise need to. When you might otherwise be able to save someone’s life, for instance. Maintaining a healthy psychological state is important for keeping yourself focused.

Hmm.

Hector supposed that was true, though he wasn’t so sure that his current psychological state could be considered “healthy.” He wasn’t sure of a whole lot when it came to his own mind, right now. The issue of Domain was still lingering in the back of head, making him second guess himself every now and then.

It was discomforting feeling, knowing that his mind had been messed with in some unspecified way. The first time with Rasalased had been bad enough, but he’d more or less worked out what the blessing of Focus was.

At least, he hoped he had. He was getting a little sick of surprises, even theoretically good ones.

But judging by what he knew of Focus, Hector had been wondering if the benefits of Domain would similarly be constrained entirely within his mind. Going by the name--Domain--he’d thought, at first, that it might have something to do with his ability to materialize his iron in the environment. However, he had thus far been unable to discern any changes in his abilities in that regard.

With Zeff’s help, Hector had also managed to test out the strength of his soul. But there, too, no noticeable difference had been observed. Neither his field density nor his passive soul defense seemed improved or changed at all.

Of course, it was possible that it was still too early for any changes to be observable, but the effects of Focus hadn’t taken all that long to manifest, so Hector wondered what the hold up might be. Or if there was just something else that he was missing.

Someone’s coming,’ said Garovel.

Where?’ said Hector.

The reaper pointed in the opposite direction that Hector had been looking, and sure enough, Hector saw a silhouette through a side street.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Page 1830

Madame Carthrace certainly hadn’t been exaggerating when she mentioned there being a spike in criminal activity during his absence. Hector could hardly believe how easy it was for Garovel to find people in trouble.

It was worrisome, actually. After the first night, things settled down a little bit but still not to the same extent that they were before he’d left for Sair.

At first, he’d thought it was his fault for leaving. News outlets were explaining it that way, at least. Without the Darksteel Soldier around, the criminal element in the city had felt suddenly emboldened.

But if that were truly the case, then Hector was having trouble understanding why the crime rate wasn’t going back down all that quickly now that he’d returned. And it wasn’t like those same news outlets were shy about reporting his return, either. It seemed like he saw some news anchor talking about him every time he passed a television.

With all this attention, he’d been rather worried that they would find out that he had been in Sair with the Rainlords, but so far, the news didn’t seem to know about that.

According to Asad, he had the Sandlords to thank for that, apparently. He’d been especially worried about his activities in Moaban making the news, but the Hahls Najir, Saqqaf, Duxan, and Shihab had all had a hand in keeping Hector’s time in that city quiet.

Hector was grateful, though he knew they hadn’t done it for his benefit. The Sandlords had as much stake in preventing the Vanguard from finding out where the Rainlords were as he did. Invariably, if the Vanguard discovered that the Sandlords had facilitated the Rainlords’ escape from the country, it would cause the lords of the desert all sorts of problems.

You shouldn’t be too surprised if the news is getting it wrong,’ said Garovel. ‘Journalists are only human, after all. And with all this newfangled technology of yours, they’re lazier than ever.

In full armor, Hector crouched on the edge of a rooftop. Even just a couple months ago, he probably wouldn’t have been able to crouch in armor as heavy as this, but he’d tweaked it enough and gotten so comfortable wearing it that it hardly felt like a hindrance anymore, even without the undead vigor enhancing his strength. ‘Uh... are you defending journalists or insulting them?

Bit a both, I guess.

He was watching a man on the far end of the street below. Apparently, the guy had the aura of doom around him, but it wasn’t yet clear what the cause was.

Hector hoped the guy wasn’t planning to kill himself. Apart from not even knowing how to handle that kind of situation, Hector knew that it would also mean that the aura could persist for months without any other apparent cause.

And that would be something that no amount of skill in materialization would be able to resolve.

But it makes sense that the crime wave wouldn’t be your fault,’ Garovel was saying. ‘Or at least, not JUST your fault.

Why’s that?

Because of the economic crisis, of course.

Oh yeah. Hmm.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Page 1829 -- CXCII.

((Triple Saturday -- Page 3 of 3))
He sat down on the dry earth. He’d experience this a handful of times before. It was never pleasant. The first time it had happened, he’d just about lost his mind from worry alone. Now, though, it was strangely easy not to panic. Perhaps the dulling of his thoughts was factoring in there. Or perhaps it was just going to be the end, this time.

Well. If it was, it was.

He closed his eyes and meditated, tried to focus his murky mind. He knew that there was essentially nothing he could do at this point.

This was any servant’s greatest fear. Any person’s, really. This feeling of utter powerlessness and uncertainty. Whether it was the end or not.

Difficult though it was, he knew there was naught he could do now but wait. Either Overra would recover, or she wouldn’t. Either he would die along with her, or he wouldn’t.

So he waited. And he waited. And he waited.

For the end. Or whatever came next.


Chapter One Hundred Ninety-Two: ‘Dalliance with fortune...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

The next few days were a constant mash of maintenance and activity for Hector. He never had any downtime, and indeed, he was beginning to feel like he never would again.

Mornings were usually devoted to training with Zeff, though Asad and a few others frequently joined in. Afternoons were spent checking up on affairs around Warrenhold, meeting with the top Rainlords and Madame Carthrace, and helping out with the restoration project. Evenings, if he had any time left by then, went toward the city of Gray Rock.

It had felt like ages since he’d actually been able to go out and just patrol the city for crime. Which was strange. This was his whole reason for becoming a servant, after all. To help normal people.

Now, though, it felt like a very different activity. Much less stressful. Almost relaxing, even.

No less rewarding, however. He didn’t think that helping people in mortal danger would ever stop being that, no matter how much easier it became.

Plus, it made for the best kind of practice, he thought. Field experience, is what Zeff had called it. And it certainly gave him plenty of opportunity to try out various techniques, even just when navigating the city--which was smoother than ever before. With the Scarf of Amordiin and his improving control over materialization, Hector was able to slingshot himself into the air haphazardly and catch himself without having to worry about causing any collateral damage. And of course, honing his flying technique was a priority as well.

Still, it did feel supremely strange that he considered this to be practice, now. This used to be the end goal. The aim. Yet now... it was more like a hobby or something.

The only thing that stopped it from feeling quite like that was the sense of urgency in it, the panicked people he ran into, ones in the midst of being victimized. He could only relax so much when hearing a man screaming for his life inside a burning building or witnessing a terrified shopkeeper being held at gunpoint.

Page 1828

((Triple Saturday -- Page 2 of 3))
He could practically sense the hunger that dwelt within the Chaos. It was scratching at the cage, trying to reach him, trying to devour him.

Hmm.

So this was what those Abolish fools were always salivating over? He supposed that only made sense. Madmen in love with madness.

Parson, however, had seen his fill and wished to return to reality or to consciousness or wherever his physical body had gone.

And just like that, he did. As suddenly as his vision had changed, it shifted back. He saw the dusty wasteland outside Montero once more, felt the heat of the sun on his skin and the flailing of his coat in the wind.

He looked down at his hands to inspect the sludge again. If such a vision could be induced every time it was touched, then this sample could prove immensely--

The sludge had turned to stone. It, too, was already beginning to crumble. He could hear it cracking and see dust trails escaping from it.

Had he already used up its power?

Damn.

He would keep these ashes, too, but he had a feeling that they wouldn’t prove very useful. He wondered if anyone would even believe him after telling them what he had seen just now.

Bah. He could already see the stain to his reputation that such nonsense would have if he went around blabbering about it like a tactless moron. He’d have to be very careful who he mentioned any of this, too, he felt.

At length, he started back toward Montero. As confused as he was, his men were probably even more so right about now, though for different reasons.

En route, he remembered that Overra was still there on his back. Maybe she would be able to tell him something. ‘Did you manage to see any of that?

There was no response.

...Overra?

Still nothing.

He stopped walking. She was definitely there. He could feel her clinging to him. ‘Overra.’ He reached over his shoulder and grabbed her with a soul-empowered hand. ‘Overra, wake up.

She did not answer him.

He peeled her off of his back and held her in his hands.

Her ethereal body was shriveled to the point that it was hardly recognizable. She should have been a swirling and perpetually silent tornado, but instead, she was scarcely even a shrunken cloud--and not so much swirling now as just slowly turning. It looked like her body might even cease spinning entirely, what with the way it was struggling.

His eyes widened with urgency. He’d seen this before, when she had been gravely wounded in battle. ‘Overra. Overra! Please...!

And then he realized that he felt somewhat weak, himself. His body was a bit stiff. His muscles felt somehow farther from his brain, as if his orders were taking longer to reach them, as if they might not even be his.

His soul’s grip on his body was loosening, he knew. His mind was becoming foggy. Overra must have been even closer to death than he’d thought.

Page 1827

((Triple Saturday -- Page 1 of 3))
It was all so far beyond him that he didn’t even know how to pursue any of it in greater detail. Everywhere he looked was a thread leading into a never-ending hole. And it was all woven together and clashing in a mad kind of tapestry, destroying itself while simultaneously creating new things.

Infinite infinities. All in conflict.

And he felt as if he were part of it as well--or rather, as if it wanted him to be part of it. As if it were trying to suck him in, to send him on an endless journey through unfiltered mayhem.

But that wasn’t what was happening. He felt somehow, even though that seemed irrational to him. There was a feeling of being on the other side of something. An invisible wall, perhaps. It was like he was watching a lion roar inside its cage, only magnified to an ungodly degree. And he was so close to that cage, practically pressing his face up against it. There was little reason to think that any cage could contain all of that insanity.

And yet it did. The cage that was reality. Preventing the impossible from existing.

No. That wasn’t quite right, was it?

Not just the impossible. The possible, as well. That was what it was. Chaos. Both the possible and impossible. He could see it, in places. Things that could exist, hypothetically, but simply didn’t. Like that vile tower. Or that crying child. Or that other version of himself, staring back at him like a distorted reflection, screaming in muted agony.

That was about as much as Parson was able to perceive. Chaos merely excluded what was. All else was fair game, it seemed.

But so what?

What utility was there in any of this?

Overwhelming as it all was, as easy it would have been to lose himself in it, Parson had virtually no trouble in holding himself back. Perhaps the cage of reality played a role in that. Perhaps his own mind. Perhaps both.

Yes.

Yes, that was more likely. Both.

Oddly enough, he felt as if he understood himself a little better now.

Chaos? Dreams and nightmares? Infinity and darkness and monsters and madness?

He was unimpressed.

Reality was what interested him. Could this Chaos affect reality in some way? Because as he stared at it, stared into it, he was getting the feeling that it couldn’t.

But perhaps that was strange. Ettol had existed in reality, hadn’t he? Perhaps only briefly, but that at least meant that it was possible for Chaos to break through into reality, didn’t it?

Or did it?

Ettol mentioned being trapped. Perhaps Ettol himself was real, then? One real thing lost in a ocean of unreal things.

Hmm.

Parson could see why he wanted to leave. What indescribable misery that would be, Parson felt.

So miserable and so indescribable, perhaps, that it would drive a sentient mind to madness. Just perceiving what little of it that he could right now, that was the impression that Parson got. That if not for the cage of reality, that Chaos would be invading his mind and driving him mad.

Yes.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Page 1826

Every Vanguardian knew the basic tenets of Abolish’s various religions. Though they differed in minor ways, they all followed their ancient tripartite mantra of “Pursue Chaos, Sow Destruction, and Reap Death.”

He knew that certain sects added in further bits about “Peace at All Costs” or “True Equality for All” or “Salvation in Brimstone”--as if any of that made sense.

It was rare to know details beyond that, however. Parson had been passingly interested in it, at times, if only as a means of better understanding his enemy, but they were such confusing and disorganized bastards that it was difficult to make heads or tails of what most of them actually believed.

If anything at all. Mostly, Parson was of the opinion that all of their religious talk was simply a means of either concealing or excusing their own madness. It was no secret that Abolish attracted the violently insane, after all.

However, Parson had asked Damian and Feromas to explain the Morgunovian religion to him, once. It was called Mawtalla, though it was more widely known as the religion of Chaos.

There is the Void, and there is Chaos,’ Feromas had said. ‘While the Void is the ultimate, collective consciousness, Chaos is a specific subset within the Void. It is difficult to explain in a way that makes material or even rational sense, but you can think of Chaos as a “region” within the Void where “dreams” occur. Dreams. And nightmares. A volatile battleground of creativity, if that makes any kind of sense.

At the time, Parson hadn’t thought much of that explanation. It was just one more thing that made Abolish crazy. Not really worth thinking too deeply about.

Now, however... he was feeling less certain.

His right hand wandered up toward the pulsing sludge pile.

This was a terrible idea. He absolutely knew that.

But he wanted to know. He didn’t even know what he wanted to know, what sort of answer he was hoping for--or even why he was so curious. But it didn’t matter.

He hesitated one last time, right as the freshly regenerated skin of his index finger was about to touch the sludge. He was already resolved to go the rest of the way, but a part of him in the back of his mind was still warning him not to do this, telling him what an idiot he was.

As it turned out, however, his finger didn’t have to make the rest of the trip.

The sludge stretched suddenly to meet him.

He didn’t even have time to jump or react in any way. His vision flashed to darkness, then to lightness, then back to darkness.

And in an instant, he witnessed more things than his mind was capable of perceiving. A hulking beast with a million faces. A white tower with a million windows. A blue star exploding a million times. A million harps playing in perfect harmony. An army of snakes and an army of angels, all dying a million deaths. A million kings. A million heroes. A million explorers. A million sages, wizards, clowns, virgins, lovers, rebels, mothers. A million. A million? More. Uncountable. Imperceptible. Yet there, in his mind, all the same.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Page 1825

Okay, well, there is also the Tale of the Eternal Mason. In that story, a man strives to become the greatest stonemason who ever lived. Ostensibly, he achieves his goal, but in so doing, he also turns his own body to stone.

Not seeing much relevance in that story, either, Overra.

I think it is intended to be a cautionary tale about the single-minded pursuit of greatness at the cost of one’s own life. Which, while true, is hardly worth its salt as a wise old story, if you ask me. How many people need that kind of advice? Honestly? In general, people are lazy, and much of civilization has been achieved off the labor of a hard working minority. Why, if human beings were naturally hard working, then surely, slavery would never have been invented.

Fascinating.

Why, thank you. I am glad you genuinely think so and are not being in any way sarcastic.

Do you have anything to say that is of actual consequence or use?

In that regard, everything I have ever said and will ever say should qualify, I think.

Alright. I give up. I’m just going to dig around it.

Dig around what? Oh, yes, the sludge. I had nearly forgotten it was there.

Overra...

I am only teasing. Lord, I never thought I would be considered the laid-back one in this relationship. Perhaps your wife is right about you being too uptight.

Parson just sighed and knelt down to get to work. Digging in this harsh ground with his bare hands wasn’t going to be easy--unless he sacrificed some of his flesh to transfiguration, of course. He was reluctant to do so, but he supposed there was no getting around it and decided to start small. He sacrificed only the top layer of skin on his hands in order to create small, pressurized jets of oxygen at the tips of his fingers.

With careful strength, he pressed his hands into the earth and gathered up a pile of dirt around and beneath the pulsing sludge. He lifted it up, and then he had the sludge safely in his left hand.

It was more repulsive close up than he expected. There was a grotesque lumpiness to it that hadn’t been noticeable at a distance.

Surprisingly, it had no smell that he could discern. He’d been expecting a truly horrendous odor.

So are you going to touch it or not?’ said Overra.

A good question. The lack of a repulsive smell was making him consider it again. Maybe it was harmless.

A benign glimpse at Chaos itself, huh?

Parson had to wonder what that had meant. He wished now that he would have gotten some manner of clarification.

“Chaos itself” was a particularly interesting choice of words, he felt. Referring to chaos as a single, manifested thing instead of simply a concept--that was something that Parson had heard before.

In one of the doctrines of Abolish. Morgunov’s side, specifically.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Page 1824

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 3 of 3))
Overra noticed the absence of Ettol’s soul as well, of course, but she could offer no explanation for it, and after a while longer of observing the statue crumbling to dust, there was nothing left to be done here.

Nothing, that was, except gathering up some of the remains. He’d been afraid of touching the sludge, but this pile of dust seemed safer, somehow. It was just dust, after all. Not some some sort of semi-living abomination of nature.

If he’d known that he would be collecting scientific samples when he came out here, he would have dressed very differently. His overcoat did have an abundance of pockets, but it was hardly an appropriate means of carrying a dead man’s ashes.

What a strange day it had turned out to be.

When his pockets were nearly full, his mind returned to the sludge from earlier. He looked over at it, and sure enough, it was still there, still pulsing gently.

He had to admit that he was curious. God help him, he was. After what he’d just witnessed, how could he not be? And he already knew that he had Overra’s go ahead...

Maybe just a quick touch.

He started toward it again.

Oh?’ said Overra. ‘Are you going to capture it, after all?

I’m considering it.

Don’t let me pressure you into it.

What, now you don’t want me to?

No, I do. Of course I want you to. But I will admit that it may be a bad idea.

...Do you have an actual reason for saying that, or is this just a feeling you have?

I’ve just started to recall hearing a few ancient stories where living beings are turned to stone. An hour ago, I would have told you that they were just stories--or, barring that, perhaps the work of servants. But now...?

I see. Can you tell me anything more about these stories, then? Specifics?

Of course I can. There are several to choose from. Which one would you like to hear?

I don’t want to hear any of them. I want you to exercise good judgment and inform me of any relevant information that might contained within them.

I am not certain I like your tone.

Overra.

She sighed. ‘Oh, very well. If I think about it... then... I suppose there is the Tale of the Stone Prince. In it, a prince who defies the will of heaven is about to become king. But instead, he is turned to stone and watches as his kingdom achieves great prosperity under the tutelage of his blessed younger brother.

What part of that story is relevant to our circumstances here?

I don’t know. I’m still thinking.

Overra, please.

What? Are you in a rush? The sludge isn’t going anywhere, and you want me to get this right, don’t you?

He exhaled. ‘Yes. Fine. Take your time. It’s not like a there’s an army in the south that could invade Montero or anything, right?

There is that tone again.

Just hurry up, would you?