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 some 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?

Page 1823

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 2 of 3))
After a short time, he felt bold enough to step closer to it. Perhaps Overra was right, and he was being overly cautions, but he was in a certain mental state now, in his life as a servant. It was something he’d heard about many times previously but never taken all that seriously. Some called it the Firing Phase or the Goldening Stage.

Put simply, it was the time period in a servant’s life when they were beginning to grow powerful enough to witness truly monstrous events, yet not powerful enough to actually take part in them.

The reapers and older servants considered it a kind of rite of passage. All it really did, though, was make Parson see danger around every corner. For all the power he wielded, he was only too aware of how quickly it could be taken from him, either by one of the obscene powerhouses that lived in this world or simply by a stray attack that obliterated Overra in an instant.

Carelessness was all it would take. And fifty years of work, of growth, and of ambition would be snuffed out. Gone.

He’d seen it several times before.

So to say that he was hesitant to get close to the statue of Ettol would be something of an understatement. Of course, he could have told her to go back to the city and wait for him, but separating himself from her had its own dangers, he knew. And she probably wouldn’t listen to him, anyway.

The ironic thing was that if he were twenty years younger, twenty years weaker, he would’ve waltzed right up to that statue without a second’s hesitation.

How odd, this kind of strength was.

All the same, he still made the trip over to it, albeit slowly. And once he was near enough, he could hear a noise amid the uneven sound of the varying winds.

Cracking?

Yes. The stone was cracking. He could see it, too. Tiny fissures growing in the otherwise smooth gray surface.

It’s breaking down,’ said Overra.

Parson was about to ask why when the statue’s left arm fell off. It hit the dirt and clumped apart like ashes.

Fascinating,’ said Overra. ‘Try touching it.

Be quiet.

The other arm fell off now and broke apart even more intensely. Parson could see dust trailing off of the statue’s head and shoulders in the aggressive wind. It wasn’t much longer before the torso gave way, and the whole upper body crumpled to the ground as well.

It was all rather grotesque and more than a little strange, but there was one thing that he was looking for in particular. One thing that was noticeably missing.

The soul.

Parson was more than old enough to see souls that no longer had a body. Obviously, Ettol’s body was gone now, but his soul should have remained behind. Yet it was nowhere to be found.

Page 1822

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 1 of 3))
Another cough, and the black increased yet again. This time, however, it was different. This time, it didn’t splatter anywhere. Instead, it stopped halfway down the length of his arm and retracted.

Then it moved. On its own. Like some sort of tentacle. It stirred and swirled and soon began to coat Ettol’s entire body.

Parson could only watch with wide eyes. The way the black goop moved... he’d seen the like before. It was similar to that of those monsters in the Undercrust. Perhaps that was mere coincidence, but he doubted it.

However, as the coating completed, he noticed the blackness begin to shift and change. Where before it had been a liquid-like substance, it now seemed sharper and thinner.

Like a living shadow, perhaps.

That, he had most definitely never seen before, and he had no idea what to make of it, either. It was difficult to tell if the goo itself had transformed into the shadow or if the shadow had simply appeared on its own and encapsulated the goo.

Ettol’s pained groans grew quieted, muted behind the coating, and his movements became more rigid and slow, until at length, the man stopped moving altogether.

Parson thought it was done, until the black coating began to change again, this time cracking faintly and turning deeply gray.

Stone, Parson realized, though that did little to alleviate his confusion.

The sludge that had splattered near his feet earlier was still black, he noticed. And it was still moving, too--weakly, perhaps, but moving, nonetheless. It oozed out in all direction, then contracted again into a trembling, uneven lump before repeating the process.

A pulse, perhaps,’ said Overra.

Hmm?

Capture that sludge so that we might have it examined later,’ she told him.

Parson knew of a few eager men who would be most interested in doing so. He was not one of them himself, however. ‘Capture it, how? I’m not a materializer, and I don’t exactly have a glass jar on me.

If it is the same material which comprises worms, then such a small amount should be safe enough for you to touch.

If.

Yes. If.

I can also imagine it trying to consume me the way that it consumed him.

That is very unlikely.

What makes you sound so confident?

Look at it. It is hardly moving. It seems to me that it is struggling even to retain its shape.

I’m content to let it keep struggling,’ said Parson. ‘I can’t believe you want me to touch it.

Where is your courage?

Where is your common sense?

Hmph. Fine. Do what you will.

Parson pulled his eyes away from the small sludge pile to look at Ettol--or what remained of him, anyway.

A stone statue.

How strange.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Page 1821

“What in the world are you talking about?” said Parson.

“It is a privilege that few have had,” said Ettol. “To see beyond what is and into the realm of what could be.”

A beat passed, and Parson blinked dully. “Right. Well, I think I’ll forego it, just the same. I’m largely content with what is.”

“Hmm. Pity. In that case, might I ask you to deliver a message for me?”

“I’m no messenger, but I’m sure you can find someone else.”

“Not likely. I have little time.”

“What do you mean?”

“Please. I am begging you.” Ettol’s eyes grew abruptly wider, and Parson saw something in them that he had not at all been expecting to see.

Desperation.

“You may be my only hope,” said Ettol. “Tell your friend to come find me.”

“I have many friends.”

“I know not his name. But you and he are bound. You and he and one other.” The man smiled again, though it seemed somehow sadder this time “A trio.”

Parson only stared at him.

“You know of whom I speak,” said Ettol. “Please, tell him to come find me.”

Parson didn’t know what was happening here, but he felt abruptly as if this man might not be spouting complete nonsense, after all. And more importantly, he felt as if perhaps there really was a limited amount of time to ask questions. “...Why would I do that?” he decided to say. “Why would I want him to find you?”

“Because I need his help. Your friend is a key unto Chaos, where I am sadly trapped.”

Well, that was... somewhat of an explanation. Not a particularly good or believable one, but it was still more than Parson had been expecting, honestly. “Even if that’s true, why should he bother helping you?”

“Because, Parson Miles, I can grant your wish.”

That was too vague. Parson wasn’t buying it. “What wish would that be?”

Ettol looked at him for a long moment. “Why, the wish, of course. To change the world.”

Parson was without words. How could he know about that? Who was this man, really? Did Overra--?

“Chaos beckons,” said Ettol. “Time is vengeful. Please pass on my message to your friend. Ah, and you may wish to move away from me. This will likely not be pretty. But fear not, for I--” The man’s eyes bulged, and he broke for a cough. Then another. And another.

Parson did as he’d been asked and took a few steps back.

Ettol tried to cover his mouth, but upon the next cough, something black and slimy spewed forth, coating his hand and dripping down his arm. He heaved another time, and more blackness appeared, splattering against the dry ground and nearly reaching Parson’s feet.

Parson wanted to ask what was happening, but he was too appalled to say anything.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Page 1820

((Triple Monday -- Page 3 of 3))
“Is there some way that I might be able to improve your dour mood?” said Ettol, smiling now.

Parson took a step back unconsciously. ‘Overra...

Ask him why his own mood appears to have improved so suddenly.

It sounded like as good a question as any. “Why do you seem so different from how you were a moment ago?” said Parson. “You were acting very confused before, yet now you’re behaving rather cheerfully.”

Ettol looked up at the sky as the wind from earlier was beginning to return. “Hmm. You may be right. Perhaps I was lost in more ways than one.”

“But now you are not? What changed in so short a time?”

The man gave him another smile. “I met you.”

That did little to provide Parson with comfort. “So what? You don’t know anything about me.”

“That is not true, Parson Miles. I know your name. You told it to me yourself.”

“You are beginning to annoy me.”

“Am I? Oh dear. I apologize. And here I thought we were getting along quite well. Hmm. I think I will blame the weather. I am not feeling myself with all this fog around.”

Parson didn’t need to check. “There is no fog here.”

“Oh? Curious. That does not bode very well for me, then. I suppose I should get to the point.”

“Point? What point would that be?”

“I cannot be quite certain, but I believe that I have come here because of you, Parson Miles.”

Somehow, Parson already felt prepared for this conversation to get even stranger. “Is that so?”

“I would have liked to befriend you, but it seems that the best I will be able to manage is an introduction. If I had but more time, perhaps you would not be thinking so poorly of me already. ‘Tis a shame.”

Parson merely eyed the man dubiously.

Ettol slowly extended a hand, palm up. “I know this may seem odd, but would you mind holding my hand?”

Parson eyed the hand even more dubiously.

Don’t you dare touch that thing,’ said Overra privately.

He absolutely agreed, but he would’ve liked an explanation. ‘Why? Do you know who this man is?

I haven’t the faintest idea, but I do not trust him.

That makes two of us, then.

“Please,” said Ettol, extending his hand a little further now. “I will not harm you. And it will only take a moment.”

Parson’s mind went to his earlier concerns, which had quickly vanished but now would make a suitable justification for this reticence that he was currently feeling. “I mean no offense,” said Parson, “but I know nothing about you. You could be contagiously ill.”

“Ah...” Ettol frowned. “I see. Would you perhaps change your mind if I told you that touching my hand would allow you a benign glimpse into Chaos itself?”

Page 1819

((Triple Monday -- Page 2 of 3))
“Ettol. Okay. Good to meet you, Ettol. I am Parson Miles.”

“A pleasure, is it?”

Parson tilted his brow a little. “Y-yes? It is a pleasure to meet you, yes.”

“Thank you, cedo.”

“You are... welcome. Ettol, do you know where you are, right now?”

“I am searching.”

“Yes, but do you know where you are? Can you tell me what country you are in?”

The man was quiet a moment, perhaps thinking, yet he never removed his gaze from Parson’s face. “Angdolia,’ he said.

“Angdolia?” What a confusing answer. Was that even a word? Parson needed to make sure he was understanding what he was hearing. “You think you’re in a country called Angdolia, right now?”

“Yes. This is Angdolia.”

“No,” said Parson slowly. “No, it isn’t. This is Calthos. Do you know where Calthos is?”

Ettol didn’t answer him this time. Instead, he merely looked around, as if examining his surroundings anew.

Parson took a breath. This was going to be an excruciatingly slow and difficult conversation, wasn’t it? “I don’t know what you--”

He’s not entirely wrong,’ interrupted Overra privately.

Parson didn’t turn to look at her. ‘What?

Two thousand years ago, this region used to be called Angdolia.

At that information, he couldn’t help blinking a couple times. ‘What are you saying?

I’m saying exactly what I said. This placed used to be known as Angdolia. Make of that what you will, but ask him something else, first.

Parson’s expression flickered with sudden doubt mixed among the confusion. “Ettol?”

The man looked at him again. “Yes, Parson?”

That gaze. There was something different in it now, Parson felt. The man’s hazel eyes seemed a bit brighter. More open. More alert. More inquisitive, even.

Parson found that strangely unsettling, somehow.

“Why are you wandering around out here by yourself?” asked Parson.

Ettol tilted his head, thinking again. “I am not sure.”

“Are you lost?”

“Lost? Perhaps I am. Yes. Lost.”

“You said you were searching for someone.”

“Did I?”

“...Yes, you did.”

“I see. Who am I searching for?”

“I was hoping you would be able to tell me that.”

“I see. You are very helpful, aren’t you, Parson Miles? Good. That’s very good.”

Parson’s eyes narrowed. “I’m glad you think so. What is your full name, Ettol?”

“Full? Is the name Ettol not full?”

“Assuming Ettol is your first name, then no, it isn’t. What is your last name?”

“Ah. You mean like yourself, Parson Miles. I do not think I have one of those. I am only Ettol, I am afraid.”

Parson sized the man up another time. His appearance was unremarkable, sure, but there was something about him that he didn’t like.

“You seem displeased, Parson Miles.”

Parson couldn’t really deny that. He didn’t wish to admit it, either, however.

Page 1818

((Triple Monday -- Page 1 of 3))
Parson made his way down to the ground, taking the stairs this time instead of sacrificing more flesh needlessly. It was slower, but it didn’t seem like the stranger was going anywhere. He ordered the heavy gates open, slipped through the crack, then ordered them closed again behind him.

Overra latched onto his shoulder as he made his way over.

The winds were picking up, stirring enormous clouds of dust into the air and obscuring the stranger’s silhouette at times as Parson drew nearer.

So bothersome. Such was the weather of Montero, however. It was called the Dusty Jorum for a reason.

“Sir!” yelled Parson over the howling winds. “Sir, are you okay?!”

Only the scratching sound of swirling dirt answered him.

He pressed closer and tried again. “Sir! Do you need help?! Are you unwell?!”

After a flash of passing dust, the man in question was suddenly right there in front of him, close enough to touch.

Parson went rigid as he eyed the man carefully.

Whoever he was, he had the attire of a commoner. Only a ragged tunic and cotton trousers, both caked with dirt. He didn’t even have a traveling cloak, though he must have been walking for days to have ended up here, unless he’d gotten separated from a caravan or something.

“Where are you?” the man said in a haggard, desperate tone. “Where are you?”

Parson craned his neck forward a little, trying to examine the stranger’s face. “I’m here,” he said.

“Where are you? Where are you?” He kept not looking at Parson and instead looking past him--or through him, perhaps.

“Sir, I’m right here,” Parson tried. “Can you not--?”

“No. That is wrong. You are wrong. This is wrong. Where is he? Yes, where is he? Where are you? No, where is he? Can you not see me? How far did you go? Did he go?” The man reached a hand out, and Parson recoiled from it.

“Sir, what is your name? Can you tell me?”

The man stopped and looked at his own hand as the wind calmed for a brief moment. Then he looked up at Parson, eyes renewed with light, as if seeing him for the first time. “Yes, it’s you.”

Parson squinted. “Me? You’re looking for me?”

“No. Yes. But no. You are not he. Where is he? Where did he go?”

Parson was growing impatient, and the wind and dust were, too, it seemed. They grew in fury again, making it difficult to hear the confused man over the noise.

Having had just about enough of this windstorm, Parson resorted to pan-forma with Overra.

In an instant, the area burst clear of all dust, and the roaring winds died upon an explosion of transfigured oxygen. He’d expelled it in all directions, save in front, where the poor and confused stranger was standing.

“Sir,” he tried again, as Overra melted out of his body again, “can you tell me your name?”

The man was staring at him in rapt attention, now. “...My name is Ettol, cedo.”

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Page 1817

Parson wasn’t sure what to make of it. That posture brought to mind the notion of a broken servant, one whose reaper had been killed; but if that were the case here, then this man would have been acting much, much more aggressively instead of merely stumbling around.

Was the man simply ill? If so, he could pose just as much of a threat to the city as an army of ten thousand strong.

The guards along the wall were looking to Parson for direction now.

He wanted to consult with Overra another time, however. ‘What do you think?’ he asked.

I’m not happy about it, but I think you’re going to have to go talk to him yourself. If he’s carrying some sort of plague, we can’t risk sending any of the guards.

Parson had been afraid she was going to say that. She was right, of course, but he knew from personal experience that merely being a servant did not mean that he could wholly disregard all forms of disease and waltz around as he pleased.

That was a common misconceptions among younger servants--and indeed, even among reapers, it seemed. Perhaps it was because reaper themselves were truly immune to disease and therefore did not pay the subject the attention and concern that it was due, but from the servant’s end, Parson had found that illness was a hugely complicated and underestimated issue.

Too many young servants seemed to think themselves invincible against the natural world. And yes, while it was true that their reaper could “cure” them of almost any disease by invoking the regeneration or simply resurrecting them from scratch, there was still the very real problem of spreading contagions. Even if servants themselves did not have to worry about a normally fatal illness, they could still spread it to non-servants and annihilate entire cities without even realizing what they had done.

Parson was keenly aware of that issue because it was the pet project of one of his earliest comrades within the Vanguard. Fen Frederick was his name. He hadn’t seen him in years, but the man had left such a favorable impression that Parson didn’t expect to forget him anytime soon. Moreover, Parson had recently heard about him receiving a promotion to regional captain much like himself, as well as acquiring the nickname of the Surgeon Saint while touring the Ardoran continent.

And so, that was where Parson’s mind went as he looked out over the barren stretch of land outside the city and observed the obviously troubled man there. He wondered briefly how Fen would handle this situation. It didn’t take him long to realize that he already knew exactly what the man would do.

With his legs under him again, Parson stood and turned to his guards. He pointed at the nearest group. “You three, go fill my position in the Arlick Tower. Watch the border. Don’t listen to my wife if she asks you for anything.”

There were a few nods and chuckles, and they were off.

“The rest of you, stay here and wait for my order.”

“Yes, sir.”

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Page 1816

((Triple Saturday -- Page 3 of 3))
He rushed onward to the northern end of Montero. It was quite a distance, but the rooftop route offered a clear path, at least, and he could boost himself along with extra surges of oxygen from his skinless feet. If he hadn’t had so much experience with this technique, he would’ve had much more trouble keeping his balance, let alone compensating for the uneven footing on the top of all these buildings.

How urgent is it?’ he asked Overra along the the way, wanting to know if he should push himself harder and sacrifice even more of his flesh to transfiguration.

I can’t tell,’ said Overra. ‘It’s just a man outside the city gates. I don’t recognize him, and his movements are a bit odd.

At that information, Parson decided to heighten his pace somewhat. ‘Odd in what way?

Hunching forward. Clutching his stomach. Taking unsteady steps. The guards aren’t sure what to make of him, either. They’re talking about going over to him, which I would highly advise against. Please get here before they do something stupid.

Very well.’ At the edge of the next rooftop, Parson leapt off and then launched himself in mid-air with a pounding explosion of oxygen that replaced both of his legs from the knees down. There was enough force behind it to send him sail over the entire city, which was why he’d waited until after leaping off the building to invoke it. He knew from experience that a roof such as that one would have caved in completely and perhaps even collapsed the entire structure.

And for a time, he was flying. His long coat and empty pant legs flapped in the rushing wind while he reached the peak of his jump and slowly began arching back down again.

He might’ve been able to enjoy the far reaching view a bit more if not for the agony of his missing legs.

He was pleased, however, to see to that he had at least managed to estimate the distance correctly, more or less. He only needed to adjust his trajectory with a couple tiny jets of oxygen in order to make it the rest of the way to the northern gate.

Twenty-five years ago, he wouldn’t have been able to land safely from a jump of this height. But now he had the control and the power. He sacrificed the rest of his legs in order to create a kind of oxygen cushion for himself to land on and ease his descent and thereby prevent the rest of his body from splatting against the top of the gate.

Overra met him before he even touched down and began invoking the regeneration. While he waited for his legs to return, he held on to the edge of the battlements and looked out in the direction that Overra was pointing.

Indeed, he could see the man she had been talking about in the distance. A fumbling, zigzagging little ant.

Page 1815

((Triple Saturday -- Page 2 of 3))
“Oh, ha-ha. But I’m being serious. Where are all your men? I’ve hardly seen any of them around. Not even that handsome one with all the muscles.”

In spite of himself, Parson turned and glared at her. Then he remembered his work and returned his eyes to the empty field ahead.

“Hah. Made you look.”

He growled. “Woman. Supper had best be ready by the time I get home, tonight.”

She laughed. “It will, dove. Which reminds me. I need to go to the market, today. I was hoping you’d come with me, actually.”

“Can’t.”

“Tch. You don’t mind Lerotos sprouts, then, do you?”

“Of course I mind Lero--”

North entrance,’ interrupted Overra’s silent voice. ‘Come quickly.

On my way.’ He stood immediately and gave his wife a peck on the cheek. “Back soon.”

“Where are you--?!”

“No sprouts!” He leapt out of the watchtower and down onto the top of the Wall.

It was a long drop, but his body held fast, and he ran along the Wall at top speed, looking for a safe place to jump down. He wasn’t concerned about himself, but rather the crowd of pedestrians there. If he dropped down that far, the impact would doubtless crush several hapless people.

The street below was far too crowded, however, and he couldn’t see a safe or quick way down from here. So it was going to be annoying, but he decided that he would use the rooftops.

The nearest roof was a good twenty meters away, much too far to jump normally, but with his ability, it was doable.

Transfiguration was an irritating power, however. Without Overra present, it required him to sacrifice body parts in order to be useful, which could be quite the downside at times like this.

To accommodate, Parson had devoted much of his training over the years toward trying to mitigate the amount of bodily mass required for each use of his ability. Twenty years ago, he might’ve needed to sacrifice both legs in order to propel himself with enough force to make such a leap, but now, he needed only sacrifice the epidermal layer and blood. It hurt like hell, of course, but that was no new thing. Pain was more common in this life than not for a transfiguration user.

As he soared through the air, his shoes and socks slipped off and flew away from him. That, too, was an annoyingly common occurrence. He was beginning to think that he should simply stop bothering to wear socks and shoes altogether. It was just a shame that he had to be mindful of his appearance as a ranking officer of the Vanguard.

Page 1814

((Triple Saturday -- Page 1 of 3))
He didn’t want to think about it. Erisa was still young. Barely even in her thirties. When the time came...

No. That was not today’s concern. Or even tomorrow’s. That was a lifetime away.

He just needed to stay focused on the task at hand. It may have been tedious watchman’s work, but that was fine. It was similar to meditation, in a way, requiring discipline of the mind. Patience. Attentiveness.

Those were not qualities his wife possessed.

“Ugh! I don’t know how you can do this all day, dove!”

“I told you that you would be bored, my dear.”

“Oh, don’t give me that! Entertain me!”

“No.”

“Wah...? How dare you.”

“Feel free to return home at any time. It will not be getting any more exciting than this. I promise you.” If he’d actually expected there to be any ‘excitement’ today, he wouldn’t have agreed to letting her accompany him.

“You really know how to kill the mood, don’t you?”

For a moment, Parson considered telling her that he was accustomed to killing a lot more than just moods, but he thought better of it. A year ago, he might’ve said that to her, but after the passing of her mother, things had changed. Now he felt as though saying something like that would just make Erisa worry. And for all her talk, Parson knew that his poor wife certainly didn’t need any more of that in her life, right now.

“Couldn’t you just loosen up a little?” she was saying. “You’re so tense all the time. It’s not good to go through life like that. You’ll drive yourself mad, dove.”

Parson recognized that familiar lilt in her voice. A faint hint of sincerity. Of concern. It was sometimes difficult to parse out from all of her snarky and less serious overtones, but he’d gotten better at picking up on it recently, he felt. “Isn’t that what I have you for?”

“Oh? I thought you just kept me around to cook your meals and wash your uniforms.”

“Those do come first, yes.”

“Hmph. One day, you’ll see that I’m right. You’ll look up and realize that life is just like this here ice cream. You’ll realize that you’ve let it melt.”

“That doesn’t seem to have stopped you from finishing it.”

“How do you know I’ve finished it? You haven’t so much as glanced at me this whole time.”

“I assumed you were done after I stopped hearing you licking the bowl clean.”

“...Alright, smart guy. Yeah, I finished my ice cream. Now why don’t you go fetch me some more? Like a good husband and provider?”

“Tempting, but I think I shall continue watching for invaders from the south.”

“Don’t you have peons for that sort of thing?”

“I have you.”

Friday, June 8, 2018

Page 1813

Those victories had given Parson some much needed encouragement after the Breaking of Korgum, which was what they had begun calling Dozer’s first invasion into the once prosperous nation. That was fifteen years ago now, though it hardly seemed like it, Parson thought. And despite the fact that the invasion itself had ultimately failed, the Breaking had not.

Korgum was a perpetual battleground now.

Tensions between the two nations had been high since the beginning--since Dozer had taken over the now defunct nation of Olotes, renamed it after himself, and begun implementing all manner of aggressive foreign policy with regard to the country’s neighbors.

Despite the Vanguard’s best efforts over the last century, the NRD--the Nualist Republic of Dozer--had steadily been gaining in power, even after its “defeat” at the hands of Korgum and the Vanguard.

Even now, it seemed as though Dozer might decide to launch another full scale invasion at any time. Smaller skirmishes were frequent occurrences, and the Korgumites were constantly struggling to maintain a hold on their resources and supply lines.

Perhaps Dozer preferred it this way. For several years now, he was keeping the Vanguard quite busy without actually investing all that much in the war effort himself. Overra was of the opinion that this left him free to conduct other, stealthier operations elsewhere in the world, unmolested by the notoriously interventionist Vanguard. This would also explain why the NRD’s strength appeared to be growing especially quickly in recent years.

Parson bought into Overra’s theory as well, but thus far, Germal and Nerovoy had been unable to confirm it for them.

More and more, as he’d grown older, Parson had begun to see his reaper’s perspective of things more clearly. She was always concerned first and foremost about the bigger picture. That was something that she had been trying to drill into his thick head for quite a long time now, and he’d often resisted her efforts.

Even now, he was doing so. His marriage to Erisa had not been met with approval from Overra. Instead, the reaper had tried to warn about the dangers of getting attached to non-servants, the weight of the responsibility he would be taking on, and the fleetingness of love.

And yet, Overra hadn’t tried to outright forbid him from marrying Erisa, either. Which, quite frankly, Parson had found surprising. The reaper hadn’t been shy about forbidding him from doing other things in the past, like drinking and visiting brothels, so he wondered why she hadn’t pulled that trigger this time.

Perhaps she’d considered it an unwinnable battle. Perhaps she could tell that he genuinely did love this woman and that no “rule” was going to stand in his way.

Whatever the case, Parson was now just trying to be grateful for the time that he had with Erisa. He’d lived long enough as a servant to know that it wouldn’t last forever.

He knew that Overra’s warnings were not without their merit. As was frequently the case.

Page 1812

Parson had argued with her. The idea that he could be the one to replace Sermung...

Well, it was absurd, quite frankly. He was far too young, and there were obviously many more people who were better suited to the task.

No, there really are not,’ she’d told him. ‘There aren’t many Vanguardians with useful ties to anyone in Abolish. When the time comes, you will see. It will be just like I said. You three boys will help us change the world.

And she rebuffed any attempt Parson made to reason with her. She had a counterargument for everything, praise for every expression of insecurity, and confidence in her plan.

Her goal was set. And it had been so for many long years, it seemed--since before she had even met him.

Even now, sitting next to Erisa like this while trying to focus on his work, he couldn’t fully extricate those thoughts from his mind. They were almost always there, in the back, lingering, looming.

A great and terrible shadow of the future.

He didn’t know if he would be able to handle it. He didn’t know if he would be able to live up to Overra’s expectations or be the kind of man that she apparently thought he was.

He wondered how the others were holding up. Parson felt at times as though, of the three of them, he was the one having the easiest time. Germal had undergone such a radical personality transformation over the years that Parson hardly even recognized him. It was almost impossible to believe that he was the same bratty kid who used to follow him around all the time.

And Damian?

Damian had to deal with the Mad Demon. If what he’d told Parson was true, then he was living in a state of almost perpetual fear, never quite knowing if Morgunov would simply snap and decide to torture or kill him.

Everyone had advised Damian and Feromas to give up on their strategy, to come up with some alternate means of infiltrating Abolish, perhaps alongside Germal, but the pair refused every time. Hellish though it was, they said, they were learning a lot from the madman, and they were convinced that they were genuinely earning his trust, as well.

Parson didn’t see how any of that knowledge would be useful if they ended up dead.

It had to be said, however, that the greater plan was finally beginning to bear fruit. Only slightly, perhaps, but fruit nonetheless.

Only six years ago, while he was working in Kavia, Parson had managed to successfully evacuate an entire town after receiving word from Damian that the Devil’s Knife was on his way to seize it.

And two years ago, Parson had managed to avert disaster here in Montero when Germal sent him word that a platoon of Abolish soldiers planned to enter the country by haphazardly digging an underground network.

Parson had informed Air Marshal Artemis of this “discovery,” and together, they had crushed the assault before it even had a chance to attack anyone.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Page 1811

Parson recalled, then, an occasionally odd feeling whenever and Overra had merged for pan-forma--and more recently pan-rozum. It had been a feeling like someone was present in the back of his mind, digging through him. That someone had been Overra, of course. He’d come to that conclusion rather early on, but now he was thinking on that feeling again. It hadn’t been constant. In fact, it had been rather infrequent. But he remembered it giving him a strange and uncomfortable sensation, like that of entering his home and finding a stranger there.

Overra hadn’t been a stranger, obviously, but the feeling remained the same, nonetheless.

Remembering that made him realize. She had been using their time together in hyper-state all these years for this very purpose. To examine the darkest recesses of his mind and discover who he truly was, beneath it all.

That was not a very comforting realization, to say the least, but he supposed there was nothing to be done about. He felt as if he had come to know Overra similarly well, himself. Not completely, perhaps, but he had more than merely glimpsed the twisted darkness within her. And not just from sharing minds with her, either. He’d seen it even in her outward behavior and especially in her actions.

She could be almost inhumanly brutal and uncompromising, Parson knew.

But even further down, beneath even that darkness, existed a wondrous light.

He didn’t know how else to conceptualize it. Perhaps that was a gross oversimplification. In fact, it almost certainly was. But because of that, there was no one he trusted more in this world than her.

He wondered if that was a consequence of soul-synchronization or simply a product of knowing her for nearly fifty years.

This secret,’ she continued, ‘is something that you must never tell anyone else. You understand? Even if you think they might know of it already, do not speak of it.

Okay... What is it? Is it honestly that bad?

She had taken her time answering. It had seemed, even, as if she might decide to change her mind and not tell him after all.

But at length, she finally did.

Sermung is looking for a way to die.’

Those words had stuck with him. As had the ones that followed them.

Much of the reason I am doing this is motivated by that knowledge,’ said Overra. ‘Sermung is one of the greatest heroes in the history of humanity--and a dear friend, besides. He doesn’t let it show, for obvious reasons, but I know for a fact that he is at his psychological limit. And has been for some time now. I would like to help him find peace, if I can.

Parson didn’t need her to explain the implications of this information.

If Sermung died, Abolish would run rampant as perhaps never before.

At times, Parson had certainly felt as if the weight of the world were resting upon his own shoulders, but for Sermung?

For Sermung, that was actually true.

And everyone knew it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Page 1810

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Over these last fifty years, Overra had remained somewhat cagey when it came to what she had actually meant by what she’d said to him on that fateful night when she’d first revived him--that Parson, Damian, and Germal would “change the world.”

She had offered him bits and bobs of the plan, usually just enough to placate him whenever he grew bold enough to broach the subject, but it wasn’t until quite recently that she had finally deigned to share more details with him.

The infiltration of the Vanguard and Abolish was only the first step. And the longest step, of course. It was a slow game that they were playing, but it wasn’t just about acquiring power and influence. It was also about learning and growing as a servant. As a person, even.

That is the most important aspect of this all,’ Overra had told him. ‘And that is why I have not wanted to go into too much detail for so long--because I wanted you to focus on yourself, honing your abilities and your intellect. You’re still not quite there yet, I’d say, but I honestly do think that you have the potential to be a great leader, Parson.

A leader?

Yes. The kind of leader that this world badly needs, in fact.’

And what kind of leader is that?

One who will not avert his gaze from the horrors and instead understands the utility of them in the pursuit of greater interest.

He hadn’t needed to ask what “greater interest” she was referring to. She’d told him that much long ago.

True peace. That was what she was after. An end to the eternal war between Vanguard and Abolish.

The Vanguard is wonderful and necessary,’ said Overra, ‘but it is also blind, at times. Sermung, as much as I love him and Tenebrach--they simply aren’t suited to the role. And I don’t blame them for that, either, because almost no one is. Sermung’s rise to power was largely an accident. He didn’t outwit or outcompete his contemporaries. He simply outlived them. They mostly killed each other or gave up.

You truly think I can do a better job of leading the Vanguard than Sermung?

Not in your current state, no. But in time? Absolutely.

How can you sound so certain of that?

Because. There is one thing that I have never told you, Parson. The darkest secret of the Vanguard.

Parson had been hoping at that point that she was simply joking, but her tone did not suggest that at all.

But now, I think I can tell it to you.

Hmm. Not that I don’t appreciate the thought, but why now? Why have you waited so long?

I needed time to examine your thoughts. To come to know your heart. And I now feel that I do know you. Perhaps even better than you know yourself.

Page 1809

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“Agh, could you at least look at me when you are talking to me?” said Erisa.

“You know I can’t,” said Parson. “My job is to not take my eyes off the field in front of me.”

“Hmph. Honestly, what could possibly happen if you looked away for two seconds?”

Oh, what an innocent creature, she was. That was what he loved about her, though. Not a cynical bone in her body, not a jaded thought in her head. He just smiled to himself and kept watching.

She wasn’t entirely unjustified in her annoyance, however. She knew how old he was despite his appearance. She knew how powerful he was. No doubt, she thought this kind of work to be below a regional captain of the Vanguard.

And indeed, it was. But they were short-handed. Abolish had struck a major blow in Korgum two years ago, and Parson had been forced to send most of his men there as reinforcements. Now, he had to either help pick up some of the slack around here himself or let the weaknesses in the city’s security get worse.

It didn’t help matters that Calthos as a whole was in a state of disarray, either. Montero, being the capital, may have been the safest place in the country, but that was really only due to the Wall.

Parson knew very well that if something were to happen here--something beyond mere civil unrest and political turmoil--then the task of protecting the city would fall largely upon his shoulders.

His and Overra’s.

It had only been four years since he and she had finally become capable of using pan-rozum. With that, had come his promotion to regional captain from a normal captain, but even now, he wasn’t entirely confident in his ability to control that power. Pan-forma, though less powerful, was still much more comfortable and useful, he felt. And he and Overra could maintain it for a much longer period of time, as well.

But that was something that they needed to work on, he knew. Pan-rozum, as one might expect of the most difficult and advanced of all the hyper-states, was incredibly flexible and held such potential that even some of the strongest people in the world said that they felt as though they had hardly scratched the surface of what pan-rozum could theoretically make possible.

The problem, they usually said, was practice. Pan-rozum was so much more taxing on both the body and soul than any of the lesser hyper-states that even just maintaining it for long enough to test anything out would leave the servant and reaper unconscious for days.

Until they neared that crucial one hundred year marker, apparently.

From what Overra had been telling him, one hundred years was widely considered the “turning point” for any servant and reaper pairing. The level of soul-synchronization around that time would begin opening many doors.

Which was why it was their goal.

Overra, Nerovoy, and Feromas’ goal.

Page 1808 -- CXCI.

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Zeff glowered. “Thank you for informing me of this.” He eyed Hector again. “I’m afraid today’s training has been canceled. If you are free later in the day, I will make time for you.” He turned and started walking back toward the castle.

Hector and Garovel followed. “W-what are you planning to do?”

“Talk to my sister.”

Is that all?’ said Garovel.

“For the moment.”

Hmm. Well, if you do end up deciding to do anything drastic, I would advise you to talk to Axiolis about it first

“I do not need you to tell me that.” After a beat, he added, “However, I appreciate your desire to help. Thank you.”

The walk back to Warrenhold was a long and uncomfortable one.


Chapter One Hundred Ninety-One: ‘In times of peace and revival...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

...126 years ago...

The Wall of Montero was a sight to behold. It was taller than any of the buildings in the city itself, and in the evening sun, it had a kind gentle shimmer--a sparkle, even. That was the product of millions of tiny crystals embedded into its otherwise yellow sandstone.

Parson Miles sat at the top of it, inside one of its turreted watchtowers.

He was not alone, however. A plump, raven-haired woman sat with him, enjoying a mostly-melted mixture of chocolate and vanilla ice cream from an big, wooden bowl.

And enjoying it loudly. As she often did.

“...Mmmm!”

“...Darling--” Parson tried.

“Mm-mmm-mmm!”

He just shook his head faintly, though he didn’t avert his eyes from his work. A watchman’s job was usually a solitary one, but this woman had made such a fuss about being left home alone all day that Parson had eventually been convinced to bring her along. She had a way of wearing him down with cuteness. And occasionally a bit of guilt-tripping, but mostly cuteness.

“Are you sure you do not want any of this?” she asked.

“I’m certain,” he said, still not looking away.

“Are you suuure?”

He could see her pushing a spoonful toward him in his peripheral vision. Then he felt it bump against her cheek. “Erisa.”

She pulled back. “Oookay. Have it your way. However, I sincerely do not understand how anyone could dislike sweets.”

“I don’t dislike them. It’s just that I’m working, right now.”

“You can eat and watch the horizon at the same time. It’s not like it’s going anywhere.”

“Darling, you said you wouldn’t be a distraction.”

She sighed. “Alright...”

She lasted about ten minutes.

“It’s just, you never eat sweets. And it makes me feel self-conscious, because I end up eating them all by myself and feeling like a fat cow.”

“I eat them sometimes.”

“Not enough times!”

“Maybe I want to make sure that there is enough for my lovely wife.”

“Oh, that’s sweet. Horseshit, but sweet. You didn’t even like our wedding cake.”

“It was coconut.”

“You couldn’t even taste the coconut!”

I could.”