Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Page 1995

'Hmm. I think there's another floor below this one,' said Garovel.

'How can you tell?'

'Bugs. The way that their tiny little soul-masses are congregating below us--it's vaguely room-shaped. If it were just regular dirt down there, I would sense them filling the whole area.'

'I don't see any more stairs, though.'

'Mm. That's a big "uh-oh," then.'

'What do you mean?'

'Let's have another look around the rest of the house first, but if we aren't able to find a way down there, then guess what? That means it's a secret room. And maybe I'm just jaded, but when I think of a secret room, I start imagining some pretty fucked up shit inside it.'

Hector wasn't about to argue.

They returned upstairs and gave the house another once over. There were second and third floors to examine as well, but they were just as empty as the first, so it wasn't long before Hector and Garovel were back down in the basement again, reevaluating their circumstances.

'Looks like you're gonna have to break in there, chief,' said Garovel.

'I'd rather not destroy someone's property,' said Hector, scanning the cobblestone walls. 'Shouldn't there be like a hidden lever that opens a path somewhere?'

'Maybe. It might not even be in this room, though.'

'Well, let's just... look a little harder before doing anything dramatic.'

'That's less fun, though.'

'Garovel, c'mon.'

Hector used the Scarf again. He looked for any strange movement in the air as he walked along the basement's walls.

There. In the corner. The air was flowing just a little bit differently. He moved closer to examine the location, and sure enough, the crevices around one of the stones were noticeably deeper than of those surrounding it.

A button, perhaps?

Monday, December 30, 2019

Page 1994

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
Hector wanted to press further, but figured that Garovel would tell him in his own time if it was important. However, after a while of looking around the first floor and not finding much besides empty rooms full of dust, Hector's mind began to wander.

'I wonder if I would be able to pick a more modern lock with materialization.'

'Still going on about that, huh? What's with the sudden interest in locks?'

'I just feel like I should learn a lot more about locksmithing in general,' said Hector.

The reaper gave him a flat look. But then Garovel shook his head, laughed a little, and said, 'Y'know what? Good for you. I was about to try and rain on your parade, but if you're really so eager to educate yourself on a new subject, then I think that's great, Hector. I admire your enthusiasm--even if you DO have about a thousand other things on your plate, right now.'

'Well, we need to make sure that Warrenhod has good, strong locks, right?'

'Oh my GOD. Is THAT what this has all been about?! Your castle fetish again?!'

Hector just kind of stood there awkwardly.

Garovel lowered his voice. 'Alright, maybe that was an overreaction on my part. Look, I'm not mad at you. I'm mad at myself. For not seeing that coming. Of course you would care about locksmithing, because it's tangentially related to castles. I just feel dumb, now.'

Hector gave a sympathetic chuckle. 'You seem a little high-strung, Garovel.'

'And YOU seem weirdly chill. It's making me uncomfortable.'

'Sorry. I'll try to freak out more often for you.'

'Hmph. Is this the effect of those few morsels of praise that Zeff has been giving you, lately?'

Ah. He'd noticed that, too, huh? Of course he did. Hector wasn't sure what to say now.

They found some stairs leading into a lower level and took them. This area was also empty, but Garovel stopped.

Page 1993

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
Hector only spared a quick glance around the dusty old antechamber before returning his eyes to his phone. After a while of silent browsing and considerable reading, he decided to share his findings.

'Hmm, I think that might've been what's called a "warded" lock.'

'And what is that?' said Garovel.

'Well, according to this website, it's a really old type of lock that doesn't get used much anymore because of a major design flaw.'

'Which is?'

'Skeleton keys,' said Hector. 'It says here that all you have to do is take a key that belongs to one warded lock, file down some of the bumpy parts, and then bam. It'll open any other warded lock you want. I think.'

'That's fascinating, Hector.'

'I can tell you really mean that and aren't being sarcastic at all.'

'Sorry,' said Garovel. 'I don't mean to be rude. I'm just a little preoccupied at the moment. Y'know, with trying to solve a case of multiple homicides.'

Hector put his phone away and started looking around more carefully. 'I still think that lock is weird.'

'Of course you do.'

'What if there's a reason why it's there?'

'A reason, huh?'

'Yeah. A reason it was never replaced with a more modern lock.'

'I dunno, Hector. Perhaps the owner just never got around to it.'

'But warded locks fell out of usage like 150 years ago or something. That would mean that EVERY owner since then never got around to it. And how many owners do you think this place has had?'

At that, the reaper actually stopped hovering and slowly turned to look at him. 'That is... a decent point, I suppose...'

'Right?' Hector couldn't conceal the smile that accompanied his sudden feeling of accomplishment. 'That lock might be an important clue!'

Garovel was looking more worried than intrigued, however.

Hector hadn't expected the reaper to share in his enthusiasm, but the expression on Garovel's skeletal face still caused him some concern. 'Something wrong?'

'...I hope not.' Garovel floated onward again. 'Let's just keep looking, for now.'

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 9

<<Page 8 || All Side Story #1 pages || Page 10>>

"It would be nice if I could relieve myself of all feelings of guilt or responsibility," said Alice, "but that is not what Cocora teaches us."

Colt found that surprising. Wasn't Cocora all about peace and forgiveness and all that sappy shit?

"'Those who make light of their burdens shall become callous under their weight,'" she said. "'And a calloused heart shall never know peace.'"

What? How did that make any sense? It was something out of her holy book, no doubt. Colt wanted to ask for details, but considering he was supposed be a follower of Cocora himself, he felt like he probably shouldn't.

He did have another question for her, but he was struggling to think of a way to not make it sound like the rudest thing he could possibly say to her. He had to ask it, though. It was relevant to the investigation. Probably.

He deliberated in silence for another minute or so before ultimately deciding to say, "No offense, but it doesn't seem like you have much tying you down here. So if everything you just said is true, then why are you still here? Why haven't you left this place behind?"

Surprisingly enough, Alice smiled at him. "That would be the normal thing to do, wouldn't it?"

Colt just listened.

"I wanted to leave, certainly," she went on. "A part of me still wants to, I think. But I can't. Cocora doesn't want me to."

He couldn't help letting his expression go flat a little. "What?"

"After praying on the matter for several days, I felt in my heart that I must stay here in Orden."

That just provoked another question from him. "...Why?"

Her own expression slackened a little, and she exhaled a long breath. "I am still trying to figure that out, myself."

Colt didn't understand. Was she lying? She had to be lying, right? But why? What was she trying to hide?

"Reason tells me that if I am to remain here, then it must be because I am needed," she said, "but it is difficult to see how I could possibly be useful to the townspeople now."

'Reason' was telling her that, huh? That was a word he hadn't expected to come out of her mouth.

He wanted to argue with her. Or perhaps try to get her to admit to lying. But after she'd shared what was obviously a sensitive subject with him, he figured that would probably be too much of a dick move, even for him.

Or hell, maybe she wasn't lying. He supposed that was technically possible, though it seemed incomprehensible to his mind. Maybe she really did just believe in the divine will or whatever of her goddess that strongly.

At length, he ran out of things to talk about. It was still too early to ask her about the dead sheriff. He didn't intend to deliver that news to anyone. It would make its way around Orden just fine on its own.

Having not had breakfast this morning, Colt was starting to get quite hungry, and he supposed he'd gotten all that he could out of Alice for the time being. The twins had already had various snacks, but he hadn't brought anything for himself. Maybe he'd stop by a restaurant on the way back to the cabin. Or just hunt something down when he got there, perhaps.

Thinking about it was making him hungrier. He was about to get up and leave when his stomach growled.

And Alice noticed.

Her face lit up. "Oh, my, are you hungry? Allow me whip something up for you!"

"Oh, no, that's really not--"

"Please! It would be my pleasure! Do you mind meat? How does bacon sound?"

He opened his mouth to say no, but the word didn't come out. What was the harm, really? And it was an extra chance to get to know her better, wasn't it? For the potential purpose of babysitting? "Well, if you're sure it's not too much trouble..."

"Certainly not! Would you like some eggs? Hash browns? Coffee?"

"...That all sounds great."

"Wonderful!" She bounded up from her seat and practically skipped out of the room and into the back of the chapel again. "I'll have it ready in a jiffy!"

For some reason, Colt was beginning to wonder if Alice Ridgemont was a real human being. Maybe she was just a hallucination. Maybe this was a fever dream, and Bohwanox would wake him up any moment now.

In no time at all, he could smell fresh bacon again, and his mouth began to water.

How the hell had he ended up here? Yesterday, he was hunting snakes in the woods, and now a beautiful woman was making him breakfast.

As he waited, he tried to get his head straight again. There was a murder investigation going on. He had to be vigilant. What was his next move? Colt, of course, still didn't actually trust this woman, but he also felt like he was probably spending too much time on her. Who was the next suspect he should consider?

It sure would help if Bohwanox could give him something more to work with. But it hadn't been all that long since he'd last prodded the reaper for information. He decided to hold off for now.

"It's ready!" came Alice's voice. "Come on back!"

He gathered the kids and got up from the pew. It wasn't a long walk.

The back of a church was somewhere he'd never been before. Somehow, it felt a little sacrilegious.

It probably was, he decided. For someone like him? To be here? Yeah.

Alice had no idea. Of course she didn't. She just looked at him eagerly, waiting for him to sit down and eat the meal she'd prepared for him.

This wasn't right.

He should never have come here. As much as he wanted to enjoy her hospitality, an equal part of him wanted to leave. No explanation. Just go.

Why? Because it would be the right thing to do.

This wasn't right.

It wasn't.

But he sat down. And he started eating. And he enjoyed it. And he told her as much. And she seemed happy about it.

And it wasn't right.

But he was accustomed to not doing the right thing. What difference did it make in the end? Why should he allow himself to feel guilty now? Of all times?

Even if it wasn't right, who cares? No one.

No one would ever know how wrong this was. Not unless he told someone. And he wasn't going to.

It was too late. For so many things, it was far, far too late.

"Is something wrong?" said Alice, sitting at the table with him and watching.

"Hmm?" said Colt, still eating. "No. Why do you ask?"

She shrugged lightly. "I don't know. It's just. You've gone quiet. And you've got this look on your face like your mind is somewhere else."

Impulsively, he wanted to say something rude. Something defensive. Something that would get her to mind her own business. But he resisted. "It's nothing. Just remembering the past."

"Mm," she hummed. "Well, if you ever want to talk about it, I'm right here. Listening to people is kind of my job, you know."

She was the absolute last person in the universe that he wanted to talk to about his past. "I'll keep that in mind."

The meal grew quiet from there. Perhaps uncomfortably so. Colt couldn't really tell anymore. Alice still seemed content enough, so maybe it was just him.

He finished it up quickly and thanked her one last time before finally leaving.

When he was at his car again, and the kids were in the backseat, he stopped with his hand on the driver's side door.

What the fuck was wrong with him? What was going through his head, right now? He couldn't even tell.

And why was he so angry?

He threw one last look back at the chapel. He saw Alice there, standing in the open doorway. She smiled at him and waved goodbye.

Stiltedly, he waved back.

And he hated himself.

That much was suddenly quite clear.

He wasn't sure why--but perhaps that was because there were so many potential explanations for it. It seemed somehow so obvious that it hardly bared any serious questioning. In fact, a better question would be, why shouldn't he hate himself?

He got in his car and drove off.

His belly was full, so he didn't see much point in heading into town anymore. He didn't know who else to talk to yet or what leads to pursue, either, so he decided to just head back to his cabin and wait for nightfall. He might be able to go inspect the crime scene then, and tomorrow, news of the sheriff's death should have been pretty well-disseminated throughout the town. He wouldn't have to worry about drawing as much suspicion, then. Hopefully.

That, and he just wanted to be alone.

As he was in the middle of chopping more wood, however, Bohwanox's voice arrived.

'So I managed to get some new info out of the dead sheriff.'

Colt set his axe down. 'Yeah?'

'I asked him about who might possibly have wanted him dead, and he mentioned several names. Keith Hopper, Leonard Pink, Robert Plenty, and Janet Beaumont.'

'Janet? Why does he suspect his own niece?'

'Well, he's not too sure on that one. Says it's just a vague sense of unease that he got from her. Like she was hiding something from him and that she might've secretly hated him.'

Colt's brow tilted. 'But he can't think of a reason WHY she might've secretly hated him?'

'He thinks she might've blamed him for her father's death.'

Colt took a long breath and went to let the twins out of their playpen. 'Sounds like a long story.'

'Not particularly. Sheriff Rex used to work in the capital. He was part of a gang violence task force and ended up becoming a target. The task force was ultimately successful, but before it was over, his brother was killed as retribution for one of the first gang members he'd put away.'

'Hmm.'

'It was a whole big mess, from the sound of things.'

Sounded like he was going to have to figure out a way to talk to Janet again, after all. 'What about the other three names?'

'Okay, so there's a lot to go through, and Rex wasn't entirely coherent for all of it, but I'll do my best to summarize. Keith Hopper is the gang member from the capital who he put in prison. Supposedly, he's still in prison, so that makes him a pretty unlikely suspect in my book, but Rex keeps saying he could've gotten someone else to do it. I intend to go check on Hopper tomorrow.'

'Okay.'

'Leonard Pink is a fellow police officer, and in fact, is still here, right now, investigating the crime scene.'

'Ah.'

'Yeah. Apparently, Leonard and Rex used to be good friends, but they had a falling out when Rex discovered that Leonard was stealing money from crime scenes.'

Colt wished he could say he was surprised, but he'd witnessed that exact thing himself a few times back in Atreya. It was easy enough to justify. The money belonged to criminals, and it was just going to get logged into evidence and forgotten about, so what was the harm in skimming a bit off the top and just logging a lower amount into evidence?

Cops needed to eat and provide for their families, too.

Nevermind that it could screw over investigations if inconsistencies were ever found. Nevermind that it could lead to some absolute piece of shit getting off scot-free.

'Rex brought Leonard's misconduct to the attention of his captain, but for whatever reason, Leonard was never formally charged. The man's career, however, may have been stalled, which could be the main source of the theorized grudge.'

'Mm. And Robert Plenty?'

'That one's a bit more complicated...'

'Why?'

'Well, first of all, according to Rex, the name "Robert Plenty" is an alias.'

Colt blinked dully. 'Tell me you're joking.'

'Nope.'


<<Page 8 || All Side Story #1 pages || Page 10>>

These Side Story pages are released each week on Sunday at 6 pm EST.
However, they are released four weeks earlier over on Patreon, along with many extra pages of the main story.
Thanks for reading, everyone.

Page 1992

'Well, not all materialization users can use the Scarf of Amordiin to sense the inside of the lock,' said Garovel.

Hector remained unconvinced. 'I barely used it. In fact, I basically just filled the hole with iron, turned, and it worked on the first try. That seems way too simple...'

'Are you actually complaining because something went RIGHT for a change?'

'I'm not--I mean--that's not what I'm trying to say!

'Then what ARE you trying to say, exactly?'

He took a breath and scratched his head, examining the house and the lock another time. 'How old is this place, anyway?'

'Pretty old, I suspect. By your standards, at least. Why? What difference does it make?'

Hector rubbed his chin. 'Er... was this particular lock just super old and shitty? But you said someone was living here eight years ago, didn't you?'

'I did.'

'Then the lock shouldn't be THAT old...'

'Hector. We didn't come here to examine locks.'

That was a fair point, but Hector felt like being stubborn. 'No, we came here to investigate the place. And I think this lock is suspicious. This is a form of investigation, isn't it?'

The reaper sighed. 'Technically. I guess.'

'You seriously don't think that was weird at all?'

Garovel just stared at him, not saying anything.

Hector persevered. 'Aren't locks supposed to have, like, tumblers in them or something?'

'Do you even know what a tumbler is?'

'No, but I'm sure I could find out.' He whipped out his phone.

'Please DO NOT start surfing the internet in the middle of our murder investigation.'

'It's research!'

'Is it, though?'

'Garovel, just... have a look around while I do this.'

'I need your flashlight, goddammit. It's too dark.'

Begrudgingly, Hector pulled out his flashlight with one hand while he tried to search the internet with the other.

Garovel just turned and shook his head as they both entered the building together.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Page 1991

When they reached the main entrance, Garovel just phased through it, and Hector was left standing there. He tried the curved handle, but as expected, the door was locked.

Garovel poked his head back out through the door. 'Sucks being corporeal sometimes, doesn't it?'

'How do I get inside?'

'I mean, you could just break the door down.'

'Garovel.'

'What? Do we have to be law-abiding citizens ALL the time?'

Answering that question seemed like it would open up a can of worms, so Hector decided to ignore it and look around the front of the building another time. There were several windows, but they were all boarded up. He supposed there might be a chimney to he could go through somewhere.

'Can't you just do something clever with materialization?' said Garovel.

'Hmm. Like what?'

'Like make a key for yourself.'

'How would I--?' As he thought about it, though, he wondered if that might actually be possible.

He hunched forward a little and found the keyhole in the evening darkness. Relying on the Scarf of Amordiin, he focused on the air flowing through it, trying to get an image in his mind of what the space inside the lock was like.

Not knowing much about how locks actually worked, Hector wasn't sure if this would be as simple of a task as it seemed. He gave it a shot, though.

He pressed his gloved right hand against the keyhole and filled it with iron. He made a flat protrusion for himself to grab onto, and then tried turning it.

It resisted, but it turned, and Hector heard a low shunk.

He pulled his materialized "key" back out and stared at it, a little surprised with himself.

'There you go,' said Garovel. 'Easy, right?'

Hector was somewhat disconcerted by this revelation, however. 'Garovel, if all materialization users can pick locks like this, then this is a serious design flaw.'

Friday, December 27, 2019

Page 1990

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
'This place isn't haunted, is it?' said Hector.

'About as haunted as Warrenhold is,' said Garovel.

'...I can't tell if that's a "yes" or a "no."'

'It's a "no." Ghosts aren't real, Hector. And therefore, hauntings aren't real, either.'

'I feel like I've heard this conversation before...'

The reaper phased through the gate's black bars, not waiting for him. 'Don't tell me you're scared of some old building without its lights on.'

Hector used an iron platform to leapfrog over the gate, then employed a descending platform on the other side to ease himself back down the ground without making a big thud.

The courtyard was more expansive than it had seemed from the other side of the gate, and the house, a bit farther away. The plants were overgrown, crowding the narrow walkway.

'So why did you pick this place to search?'

'It was where the first death on the list occurred, eight years ago.'

Hector quickened his pace to catch up with the reaper. 'And how are all these deaths connected, again?' He was pretty sure that Garovel had already told him that part, but he'd only partially been listening, since he'd been busy chasing an attempted murderer down at the time.

'Poisoning,' said Garovel. 'Remember? The potassium cyanide in the alcohol? Like I literally just mentioned?'

'Right, but, uh... are you saying ALL of them were killed with cyanide? 'Cuz that seems kinda, er...'

'No, no, the poisons themselves have varied. As far as I could tell, that was the first case of cyanide poisoning in Gray Rock in the last two hundred years.'

'Hmm.' That made Hector curious, though. 'What happened two hundred years ago?'

'Heh, I looked into that, actually. Apparently, it was a "scientist" experimenting with the stuff. His notes mentioned a hypothesis that cyanide might be the key to increasing human intelligence to astonishing new heights.' A beat passed. 'It killed him, instead.'

Hector just kind of pursed his lips together flatly as he imagined that.

Page 1989

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
As for the meetings regarding the tentatively titled "Bank of Darksteel," those had been progressing a bit as well. Hector was able to get a better picture of the kinds of people whom Amelia Carthrace was planning to bring on board to help manage the project; and thus far, Hector hadn't seen anything that discouraged him.

Other than, of course, the whole problem with lacking the necessary funding. But that was a different matter. And he and Garovel were working on it.

Right now, Hector's biggest concern was what he was going to do with Leo. The day when he was supposed to meet with that man again was fast approaching, and the last thing that Hector wanted to do was go in without a solid plan.

He was hoping that his task this evening might be able to offer some help on that front, but Garovel kept telling him not to get his hopes up too much.

Apparently, the address that the reaper was leading him to was part of an ongoing investigation for the Gray Rock Police Department.

'There's been a string of rather mysterious deaths over the last several years,' the reaper had told him before they set out. 'And do you remember that guy whose drink was laced with potassium cyanide?'

'Yeah?'

'Well, he didn't die, thanks to you, so the police haven't quite put the pieces together on this yet, but I suspect that was meant to be another person along that string.'

'...Are you talking about a serial killer, Garovel?'

'Mm, possibly, but no, I don't think so.'

'Then what do you think is behind these mysterious deaths?'

'Well, I don't know, Hector. That's why we're investigating further. I think the police could do with some more clues on this one.'

Beyond that, the reaper hadn't been able to provide him with much more information. Hector was starting to worry that this whole "case" would ultimately turn out to be some kind of dead end or otherwise not worth his time, but at least it gave him an excuse to go out on the town for a while.

When they arrived at their destination, Hector wasn't sure what to think. It was a large house surrounded by a tall gate, and in the pale moonlight of the late evening, the building had a bit of an ominous look to it.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Page 1988 -- CCI.

Chapter Two Hundred One: 'The house of the hushed...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

It was nice to be out on patrol. Hector hadn't had much time for it over the last few days. Between all the meetings, training, and maintenance around Warrenhold, he had started to wonder if he would ever be able to do this again.

Even now, he wasn't entirely on patrol. He was just sort of taking his sweet time as he went to look into something else. The fact that he was able to stop a burglary and a murder along the way was technically just a coincidence, though Hector had gone quite a bit out of his way to do so.

It was a bit annoying how every criminal just started running as soon as they saw him, but it also served as good practice for various mobility techniques that he'd wanted to try out. Flight, in particular.

Creating iron that could counteract gravity and support his weight was certainly doable, but exercising tight control over it was still rather difficult. And he was very hesitant about ramping up its speed in these situations. If he went too fast and accidentally barreled into someone while in full plate armor, that person would probably die.

When it came to dealing with normal human beings, he always tried to err on the side of caution, especially when practicing relatively new things. All of his really dangerous ideas, he intended to save for Zeff.

And possibly Asad.

The Najirs had left Warrenhold a few days ago now, but not without a promise to return soon. Hector got the impression that Asad's wife, Samira, had not found the underground castle to be a very pleasant place to stay. Whether that was because of all the Rainlords around or because all the construction going on was bothering her, Hector couldn't say.

Or maybe she just didn't like Warrenhold in general. It wasn't exactly a five-star resort.

Whatever it was, Hector tried not to take it personally. It was kinda hard, though. He hadn't been the Lord of Warrenhold for very long, all things considered, but he was already quite attached to it.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Page 1987

~~The Christmas Day Special + Mon/Wen/Fri Double (page 10 of 10)~~
Overra melted out of his body, ending the pan-forma merge, and yet another wave of fatigue washed over Parson. The reaper must've been feeling it, too, but she wasn't showing it.

'Hello,' she said to the giant wolf. 'Thank you for your help. I suspect my servant and I would be dead now, if not for you.'

That was an understatement, Parson thought. All of Bellvine probably would've been annihilated, though perhaps the Demon would've taken his time with that.

The Beast made no response. It only walked over to the pile of leftover rainbow sludge and gobbled it up.

Parson frowned. He would've like to have captured that stuff for study later.

The wolf licked its chops, threw them both a look, then lowered its butt and sat down. If not for its size, Parson might've mistook it for a regular old dog now.

'...Do you have a name? Mine is Overra, and this is Parson Miles. We are with the Vanguard.'

Still, the wolf said nothing.

Overra tried talking to it a few more times, but to no avail, and Parson was beginning to think the whole thing was a fool's errand. After a while, he decided to interrupt her.

'Overra,' he said, eyes still on the wolf.

'What?' she said in the echo of privacy.

'Are you sure that thing can even understand what you're saying?'

'I suppose not. You think I should try different languages?'

He rubbed his sore neck as he stretched it. 'Go ahead, but that wasn't what I was getting at.'

'What do you mean?'

'I mean, is that thing even a servant?'

She hesitated. 'Of course it is. Why wouldn't it be?'

Parson didn't have an explanation for her. Just a feeling that he couldn't quite articulate.

Page 1986

~~The Christmas Day Special + Mon/Wen/Fri Double (page 9 of 10)~~
Ninety percent of his body was sacrificed to heighten the attacks explosive power, but pan-forma's improved regenerative effects could take care of that problem in a matter of seconds.

When the dust cleared, a crater stood where Morgunov had been. He looked around for any trace of the man. And after a few more seconds of not finding it, Parson began to wonder.

Could it really be? Was the Mad Demon gone?

Parson hardly allowed himself to breathe. He wasn't sensing anything. Just more terrified people fleeing. And the dog approaching.

And the slime.

It was there in front of him--or what was left of it was, at least. Its movements were sluggish now. Tired, perhaps. Parson had to wonder if slime could even feel exhaustion.

He took a deep breath, finally, and let his legs buckle while he considered what to do. He wanted to run and leave all this madness behind. He wanted to go grab his two unconscious friends and never look back.

And a rather large part of him was still waiting for Morgunov to pop up again out of nowhere.

But that didn't happen.

The Beast reappeared first, ambling nearer at a leisurely pace. Its hulking body had shrunk back to its comparatively smaller form, and its black fur had reverted to silver again.

Oddly enough, the dog's calm movements helped to confirm for him that Morgunov really was gone.

Not for good, of course, but Parson wasn't about to complain. It would've been downright incredible if he had been able to capture the Mad Demon's head at the end of that fight, but the more he thought back on how it had all gone down, the more certain he was that he had made the right call. If he'd tried to hold back even a little bit in order to prevent the Instant Air Burst from obliterating Morgunov's head, then there was a decent chance that the bastard might have lived it well enough to keep fighting.

Then again, maybe that was just his lack of experience talking. Lamont probably would have been able to capture him in that situation. Morgunov had all but offered himself up.

Parson sighed.

Page 1985

~~The Christmas Day Special + Mon/Wen/Fri Double (page 8 of 10)~~
At that, Parson expected to see Morgunov start turning the innocent bystanders into disfigured monsters, like the slime had done before, but that was not what happened.

Instead, entirely new monsters were starting to appear.

They came from the ground--or more precisely, from the black pools that the Mad Demon seemed to be summoning.

To Parson's disbelieving eyes, they were entirely inhuman. Impossible creatures. And not very alike in shape, either. Some were bloated, some were gangly. Some had far too many eyes, some had none at all. Some had several arms, some were just blobs. They didn't even all have heads.

The only shared feature among them seemed to be their sickly pale and gray skin, but even that had a degree of variation with spots, stripes, blemishes, spare hair, and probably more that Parson couldn't even see.

He was without words.

Was he really going to have to fight all these things? What were they?

However, as he was preparing himself for wherever this new nightmare was going to take him, the circumstances changed yet again.

Before any of the pale monsters climbed fully out of their black portals--or whatever the hell those were--they all stopped, frozen.

As did the Mad Demon, Parson noticed.

After a moment, the monsters all began to slink back down into the blackness below.

Morgunov clutched his head with his one hand. "No!" He dropped to his knees, trembling. "Listen to me!"

By now, Parson's utter confusion had amplified a dozen times over.

But he wasn't about to waste an opening.

He readied the Instant Air Burst once more, trying to hurry while the Mad Demon just sat there, having of some sort of existentially psychotic breakdown.

And perhaps the fourth time was the charm, because to Parson's own amazement, the attack actually, finally connected.

Page 1984

~~The Christmas Day Special + Mon/Wen/Fri Double (page 7 of 10)~~
Parson loosed a barrage of wind blades from his hands as he soared around Morgunov. The Mad Demon's arm had not grown back after being ripped off by the dog earlier, but it didn't seem to have slowed him down at all. Parson kept up the pressure while the dog torpedoed closer.

Just before impact, however, Morgunov decided to simply take Parson's attack and spun around to catch the wolf by its open and salivating jaws. The Beast tried to bite down, but the man's horde of shadows had a hold on it as well, so even with one hand, he was able to check the Beast's advance.

The wolf wasn't exactly stopping, though. His massive bulk still pushed Morgunov backward, digging into the earth when the emperor's legs didn't budge and carving out a visible path of destruction through Bellvine.

Parson hadn't expected his wind blades to do much, but the fact that Morgunov just ignored what little damage they had done was a problem. He needed to go stronger.

He readied the Instant Air Burst again as he tried to move in closer. Maybe this time, he'd actually get the chance to use it.

He could hear the Beast roaring again, and he could see the emperor's shade wavering as well, but at the end of the exchange, it was the wolf who went flying backward from a one-handed punch from Morgunov.

And even among the increasing number of shrieks from innocent bystanders, Parson heard that familiar cackle one more time.

"Ah, this is so wonderful! I haven't had a fight this messy in ages!"

Parson thought he saw his opening while Morgunov was busy prattling on. He narrowed the distance a bit more and then launched--

Something blindsided him and clobbered through a line of trees.

"No, no, little Vanguardian! You'll have to be sneakier than that!"

The Instant Air Burst was dropped from his thoughts again, and he tried to pick himself up off the ground.

"Wouldn't it be better if we had more playmates?" said Morgunov. "We shouldn't keep all the fun to ourselves!"

Page 1983

~~The Christmas Day Special + Mon/Wen/Fri Double (page 6 of 10)~~
Catching up with them proved rather difficult with how fast they were both moving, and as he got closer, Parson began to notice greater and greater changes in the environment. The air was thicker, making it harder to breathe, and it felt like there was an electric charge gathering around him, too.

And his vision.

The ability to see souls was decidedly not helpful here. Wisps of souls--or at least, soul-like energy--could be found all around him, like fragmentary embers escaping a fire.

At first, he was horrified, thinking they were all souls belonging to the hapless citizens of Bellvine--hundreds, if not thousands of people being killed.

But that couldn't be it, he realized. The battle between the Morgunov and Beast was certainly razing the land all around them and leveling buildings like they were sand castles, but they simply weren't covering enough ground to have killed so many people in so short a time.

Which begged the question.

Where was all this soul power in the environment coming from?

Parson had only ever seen this phenomenon twice before--and both times, it had been when two emperors clashed.

He didn't get the opportunity to dwell on it, however.

Morgunov vanished underground, and a moment later, a chunk of landmass as big as a city block was cast into the air. Parson had to stop and throw himself out of its path, but even while it was still in midair, he caught sight of the wolf running horizontally across its uneven body as easily as water flowing over a rocky riverbed.

Parson decided to follow the wolf's lead. It seemed like it still had a perfect bead on Morgunov's location, regardless of all the obstacles and debris in the way.

Attacking the Mad Demon head on was obviously a bad idea, but if he could provide covering fire for the wolf from a distance, then perhaps that would be enough.

Page 1982

~~The Christmas Day Special + Mon/Wen/Fri Double (page 5 of 10)~~
"Uh-oh!" said Morgunov, too late but still smiling.

The beast's jaws found the man's shoulder and bit through it.

The attached arm had been holding Parson, and with it severed, he dropped to the rooftop below and rolled haphazardly down its wooden shingles, taking several with him. He tried to catch himself on the ledge, but the shingle that he grabbed just ripped free, and he went flying off.

He hit the already-broken ground with a thud and groaned as he tried to get his bearings back. The sense of urgency in the back of his mind spurred him on, despite his entire body protesting, and when he looked up, he saw Overra there. The wolf had freed her, too?

She melted into his body without a word, and he felt the hyper-state once more.

Not pan-rozum. They'd already stretched themselves to the limit with that one. But pan-forma was still doable.

Parson launched himself up into the air with legs of pure wind and reassessed the situation.

He was not prepared for what he saw next.

The wolf had grown to twice, or perhaps even thrice, its previous size. And its fur was even blacker than the night surrounding it. And moving. Almost like a shadow of its own.

The rainbow shadow raged even more wildly around Morgunov than it had before, but the beast was not being deterred. Parson could hardly believe his eyes, but it looked like the beast might've actually been pushing the Mad Demon back. Its hulking teeth and claws were tearing through the rainbow shade like so much paper. And... eating it?

Parson couldn't let himself remain awestruck, though. He may not have known the first thing about that monstrous dog over there, but he knew that he had to give it every bit of assistance possible.

Page 1981

~~The Christmas Day Special + Mon/Wen/Fri Double (page 4 of 10)~~
Parson tried to keep struggling against the shadow, but even that much effort was proving difficult for him. The energy just seemed to be draining out of him. Was his body being turned to glass again? He couldn't tell. Maybe it was just pan-rozum's aftereffects.

Whatever it was, he was losing hope by the second.

But Overra, bless her, was still trying.

'What is this Chaos you keep referring to?' she asked, sounding genuinely curious and quite calm somehow. Hell, maybe she really was both of those things, but Parson highly doubted it.

Reapers were like that, weren't they? Always desperately trying to talk their way out of a situation--and always trying not to sound desperate when doing so. Parson had learned that long ago.

"To attempt to explain Chaos would be doing it a profound disservice," said Morgunov. "All that is not, all that may yet be--even all that should not be. Can you even begin to imagine that? I do not think--"

Morgunov's expression froze, and his mind abruptly seemed to be elsewhere.

Was he sensing something unexpected? Parson's own senses were too foggy to tell.

The Mad Demon turned around just in time to see a pair of open jaws, mere inches from his face. They had been halted by the rainbow shadow, apparently, and when they snapped shut, Parson recognized the silver fur of the giant wolf from earlier.

"Ah," said Morgunov, though he sounded considerably less jovial now. "The Beast of Ardora. Still, you persist. But of course you do, hmm? The Prime Hunt must continue, mustn't it?"

The beast's growl had enough force behind it to make the surrounding shadows tremble.

"Do you even remember anything?" said Morgunov. "Or are you now a creature of instinct alone?"

The growl grew into a snarl, and this time, the shadows shuddered so strongly that the wolf was able to thrash itself free again.

Page 1980

~~The Christmas Day Special + Mon/Wen/Fri Double (page 3 of 10)~~
Parson tried to speak, but the Mad Demon's hold on his throat was too strong. How did he have such strength? The man didn't have two voices. He didn't appear to be in a hyper-state. And his reaper, Bool, was nowhere to be seen.

Overra, however, could still talk despite her shadowy bindings. 'Explain yourself, Demon. What have you done to them, exactly? And why?'

"Hee-hee, so good of you to ask! Your curiosity speaks well of your worthiness! But that alone is not enough, I am afraid!"

'Then what must we do to prove ourselves?'

"A good question, hmm! Perhaps if--" Morgunov cut himself off as his eyes locked with Parson's. He clicked his tongue before smiling in that horrible way again. "No. You have already born witness, haven't you? To Chaos?"

He might've answered if his throat wasn't being crushed. For all this madman's ramblings, Parson felt as if he might actually know what Morgunov was talking about this time.

The Mad Demon laughed. "Would you like to see it again?!" Wide-eyed, he forced Parson to nod his head, treating him like a puppet. "Oh?! Such courage! What's that, you say?! You aren't frightened at all?!" He made Parson shake his head. "My, my! Are you, perhaps, suggesting that you would like to do more than merely see it again?!"

Parson's mind was racing as Morgunov forced him to nod another time. He could of course transfigure his entire body at once, excepting only his brain. That was the one thing that a transfiguration user could not manipulate directly, and leaving Morgunov with his brain certainly wouldn't improve his circumstances--or Overra's, which was the real problem here. Even if he exploded his entire body and destroyed his brain in the blast radius, how would that help her? It could very well kill her.

Agh, and this fatigue. He could hardly think straight. What could be done? Were there truly no options?

"I admire your enthusiasm!" Morgunov was saying. "But witnessing Chaos is quite different from experiencing it, you know!" He giggled and propped up Damian and Germal's limp bodies. "Why, just ask them! When they wake up, of course!"

Page 1979

~~The Christmas Day Special + Mon/Wen/Fri Double (page 2 of 10)~~
Parson didn't plan to take him up on that offer, but he was having trouble coming up with what to do, instead. Madly, he could sense Overra's thoughts humoring the idea. Perhaps whatever Morgunov had done to the others wasn't actually that bad. Perhaps Morgunov really was trying to help them in some strange way.

Those arguments only served to make Parson angry.

"Alas!" shouted Morgunov. "It seems our time together is at an end!"

Parson didn't know what he was talking about.

Then the rainbow shadows swirled one more time and vanished. Blinking? Teleporting?

When Morgunov had teleported every time previously, there had been the briefest flash of brown, but Parson hadn't seen that this time. And none of the Parsons could see where Morgunov had jumped to, either.

"Improve thyself!" came Morgunov's voice again, seemingly disembodied. "I will be taking my silly boy back with me, but I hope you and I will meet again, one day! Little Vanguardian! Ehehe! Until then, farewell!"

And Parson waited. And kept waiting.

Nothing happened.

He didn't understand. Why had he just left like that? Had the Demon sensed someone else approaching in the distance? And if so, who? Parson wasn't sensing anyone, even after all this time waiting.

But at length, he knew that if he remained in pan-rozum much longer, he would begin to lose himself. Parson and Overra chose the clone nearest Germal as the location of their split, and the other three Parsons all disappeared into whiffs of dematerializing oxygen.

The fatigue hit him immediately and strongly, but he knew there was much work still to be done. And he was worried that something else might--

"Just kidding." Morgunov's whispering voice was right in his ear this time.

Without even a moment to think, Parson tried to wrench himself away from the voice, but it was too late. The Mad Demon's hand found his neck, and the swirling rainbow shadow turned him around to face Morgunov.

"I apologize for lying like that. Lying is such a base form of trickery--I know. But hey! If it works, it works, eh?! Ehehe!"

Page 1978

~~The Christmas Day Special + Mon/Wen/Fri Double (page 1 of 10)~~
The Mad Demon teleported again, and half of the Parsons accompanied him--the two trying to free Damian and Germal, along with one other who was clinging to Morgunov's back and trying to drill into it. The remaining three Parsons gave chase.

Morgunov jumped several more times before apparently realizing that the three clones clinging to him were not going to be thrown off. In another shadowy flash, the clone trying to free Damian was turned entirely to glass, but the one trying to free Germal actually succeeded.

"So many new powers!" said Morgunov, teleporting again. "So much to play with! It's almost too much! Even for me!

With Parson and Overra's consciousness now divided between five bodies, it was relatively easy to track the Mad Demon's erratic movements.

It was not so easy to do anything about the multicolored swamp that kept expanding outward all around him. Two of the clones became quickly stuck, waist deep, and had to separate themselves at their torsos and retreat to the air with hovering tornadoes of oxygen. The clone on Morgunov's back had been swallowed almost immediately.

Germal and Nerovoy were both out cold, and one of the Parsons had to pick them up and carry them so that they didn't get swallowed by the swamp.

The four remaining clones all spread out, each finding a point of high ground to squat on--chimney, a pine tree, a tall boulder, and a rooftop. Parson and Overra's collective consciousness tried to reevaluate the situation as a sudden lull in the chaos arrived.

Damian and Feromas were still in Morgunov's grasp, but they were no longer screaming. Perhaps they had fallen unconscious like Germal and Nerovoy. What in the world had the Mad Demon done to all of them?

"Little Vanguardian!" came the Demon's echoing call. He was high up in the air as well, propped up by a tower of rainbow shadows. "Would you like to know the secrets of this world, too?! I am generous, but I am not sure I wish to share them with you, little Vanguardian! Perhaps if you show me that you are deserving, I might change my mind!"

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Page 1977

By the time Parson was back on his feet, Damian was caught in Morgunov's shadowy grip as well. Most of Damian's body was glass, and Morgunov was holding his face with one hand and Germal's face with the other.

"Become as you were meant to be! See truth unlike you have ever known!"

Both of his old friends were screaming in agony, and so were their reapers.

Parson's most reliably powerful attack would require sacrificing most of his body, but the collateral damage might very well destroy the very people he was trying to save in the process. He had to do something else--and what came to mind in that moment was far riskier.

'Rozum,' he told Overra.

She melted out of his body for the briefest moment to deactivate pan-forma before returning to it and reactivating pan-rozum.

He wasted no time. His body divided in two, creating a second Parson.

But he doubted that would be enough. This was the Mad Demon they were dealing with. And they weren't likely to get another chance.

Parson demanded more. Difficulty be damned.

A third Parson. A fourth. A fifth. And finally, a sixth.

Six of himself. Six warriors of oxygen, manifested with pan-rozum.

It was so much information at once, overwhelming his mind even with Overra's help. But that hardly mattered now. He didn't need to know it all. He only needed to know his goal.

All six moved together. Three attacked the Mad Demon in unison directly. One grabbed Germal. One grabbed Damian. And the last stayed back, readying his most powerful attack--the same attack that he'd elected not to use with pan-forma a moment ago.

The Instant Air Burst.

As soon as the others were clear, the sixth clone would sacrifice its entire body to use it.

But Morgunov did not make it that simple, of course.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Page 1976

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
Parson loosed a surge of wind blades, but they broke harmlessly upon a sudden wall of red. And when the red vanished, Morgunov and Germal and Nerovoy were all gone, having blinked a dozen meters to their right.

Damian reacted first and attacked with an invisible impact. The red shade rose to Morgunov's defense again, but this time it buckled under the force of the blow.

Parson and Overra resorted to pan-forma once more and concentrated on increasing their speed. Multiple small jets of transfigured oxygen appeared on his back and behind each limb. He'd had considerable practice with this technique in the past and could now control it effortlessly even while being propelled along at speeds high enough to tear a normal body to shreds.

Parson launched another flurry of wind blades in advance as he dove straight toward Morgunov. They didn't do much, but they were just padding while he prepped a pressurized drill in place of his entire right hand. As soon as he was close enough, he would--

Morgunov caught him by the throat.

Parson found himself completely immobilized, though he couldn't tell precisely how. A swirl of colors flashed across his vision and when he looked at the drill that should have replaced his right hand, he instead found the limb replaced with something transparent.

Glass? He had a glass arm now?

He didn't get the opportunity to process what had happened before Damian barreled into the group, jostling Parson free of Morgunov's grasp but not Germal.

"Release him!" yelled Damian with two voices.

"Ehehe! Calm down, dear boy! Your turn will come!"

"I said release him, Demon!"

Parson was on the ground, struggling to regain himself. Even with pan-forma making his regeneration almost instantaneous, the glass was getting in the way of his flesh regrowing properly--and even more of his body had been replaced by it than he'd first realized. Only his head, chest, and left arm were still flesh and blood. He had to break the glass to free himself.

Page 1975

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
"Ehehe!" Morgunov raised his hands towards the sky, and his laughter only seemed to heighten with each passing moment. "Well, well, well! Isn't this just the greatest gift that a man of science could have ever asked for?! What have I done to deserve this?! Oh, magnificent God of All That Is Not! Have my sacrifices truly pleased you this much?! Rarely have I ever known humility in my life, yet even I can't help feeling unworthy of such love! Ehehe!"

Parson wished he were anywhere but here, right now. The man's laugh carried through the air, as if being amplified by the field density of his soul, and Parson could've sworn that the night sky was becoming even darker than it already was. The more he watched and the more he listened, the more he realized how terrifyingly accurate the moniker of "the Mad Demon" truly was.

"This wealth of knowledge is nigh unbearable!" cackled Morgunov. "Ignorant world! You leave me no choice! I must share it with you!" He turned suddenly, and his gaze snapped to Germal. "O, Heart's Trinket! I see your Path! Allow me to help you achieve Fulfillment!"

And in a flash of dark brown, Morgunov blinked out of existence, only to reappear with both hands already wrapped around Germal's head.

"What are you--?!" The words died in Germal's throat and were replaced by a bloodcurdling scream.

"Yes! YES! See and understand, young one!"

Damian and Parson were both moving. Their friend's agony was proof enough that there could be no peaceful resolution to this situation, and it now seemed an insane notion to Parson that he ever humored the idea that there could be.

Whether they lived or died here--it mattered not. They could not stand idly by and watch.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 8

<<Page7 || All Side Story #1 pages || Page 9>>

Colt considered his options.

Even with what little he'd seen so far, Alice Ridgemont was very unlikely to be the one who killed Rexord Margot. Nothing about her gave the impression that she would hurt a fly, much less a person.

But Colt had been deceived before. Hmm.

There was the matter of the physicality of the murder. The killer had to have rigged up the dead body to make it look like Rexford had hanged himself.

But if she were a servant, it would be possible easily. Or maybe she could've used a system of pulleys. Murderers didn't often possess such ingenuity, but Colt wasn't prepared to rule her out yet.

He needed more information.

Just sitting here and watching her didn't seem like it was going to yield much more in the way of results, but should he really go and talk to her? It was daytime now, and she did live in a church, so it wouldn't be difficult to make up some excuse for the sudden visit...

He could hardly believe that he was humoring this notion, right now.

He decided to check in with Bohwanox again. 'Learn anything new, yet?'

'Oh, uh. Yeah, I think so. The sheriff's body was discovered by his nephew.'

'In the middle of the night?' said Colt.

'Apparently, the boy had been staying at the sheriff's house for the last few days. Family visit.'

Colt blinked at that bit of information. 'Was he in the house when the murder took place?'

'No,' said Bohwanox. 'He was out late with friends. When he got back, he found his uncle hanging in the living room.'

Hmm.

'What's the boy's name?' Colt asked.

'Richard Beaumont.'

Colt's expression twitched. 'Is his mother a woman named Janet, by any chance?'

'Older sister, actually, but yeah. How'd you guess?'

'Met her yesterday in the park.'

Bohwanox paused. 'You just HAPPENED to meet a relative of the victim?'

Colt exhaled. 'Yes. Small towns can be like that, you know.'

'...And you're super, EXTRA sure that you didn't kill this guy, right?'

He was starting to get pissed off. 'Bohwanox.'

'Yeah, alright, relax. I'm just trying to add some levity to the situation.'

Colt wondered if he would ever understand the way reapers thought. Probably not, he figured. 'Was Janet staying with the sheriff, too?'

'No. She has an apartment in town.'

Might be worth paying her a visit, but Colt had no idea how he might justify such an encounter without drawing immense suspicion from her--and possibly her entire family. And there was also that dog of hers to be mindful of, too.

'Learn anything else?' said Colt.

'Not really. The cops on the scene are taking their sweet time.'

'Well, it's one of their own. Theoretically, they should be extra motivated to not botch the investigation.'

'Seems like several of them knew him personally,' said Bohwanox. 'They're taking it pretty hard.'

Hmm. That spoke well of their trustworthiness, Colt supposed. 'Can you memorize which of them seem heartbroken and which don't?'

'Sure.'

After that, Colt kept pressing, but Bohwanox didn't have much else to tell him yet. He soon settled back into observing Alice Ridgemont.

Not much changed.

Which was a good thing, of course, but it also meant that he had to make a decision. He couldn't just sit back and keep watching Alice forever. If he was going to investigate Rex's murder properly, he'd have to move on to a different "suspect" sooner or later.

The smell of bacon was still tormenting him, as if trying to lure him to the church, but he resisted temptation.

When the smell of a full diaper hit him, however, he could not just sit around and endure that. He went back to the car and changed Stephanie, and by the time he was done with her, Thomas needed changing, too.

That was how it usually went. The twins pooping schedules had always been quite in sync with one another.

Dear goddess, he couldn't wait until they were potty trained.

Once the kids were taken care of, he decided against resuming the stakeout. Time was not on his side, he reminded himself. If the capital cops had known Sheriff Margot well enough to be distraught over his death, then they were more likely to have strong doubts regarding his "suicide." Perhaps that would be good for the investigation. Or perhaps it would put the suspicious man who lived in the woods in their crosshairs.

He got in his midnight blue Pontiac and went to the church. He parked out front. There was plenty of space. A little white compact was the only other vehicle present, and judging from all its scratches and dents, it had seen better days.

He decided to try letting the kids walk with him for a change instead of carrying them, but as soon as Colt set them down, Thomas started going toward the forest instead of the church, so he picked him right back up again. Stephanie, on the other hand, followed him like a good girl.

He used his back to push open the chapel's front door, and it swung quite easily on its hinges, though not without a rusty screech. Colt spotted a large dent in the adjacent wall were the door's wooden handle appeared to have impacted many times before.

The main hall was moderately spacious, and several rows of pews lined the chamber all the way up to a tall dais at the other end. Colt noticed a few more blemishes in the walls here and there, along with a couple broken windows, but at least the place was clean. All in all, it looked better than it did on the outside, he thought.

Alice wasn't here in the main hall, and it seemed inappropriate to go looking for her in the back, so he chose to take a seat in the pews and wait. The third row from the front seemed like a good choice.

The kids just seemed confused as they waited. This was their first time in such a place. The tall figure of Cocora that hung on the rear wall seemed to have gained Thomas' attention in particular. Colt wondered why. Was it the wings? Or maybe the face?

Now that he was looking at it more closely, he realized how elaborate the statue was. For a place as rundown as this? He had to wonder where it had come from.

Footsteps on the wooden floor acquired his attention, and Colt shut his eyes and pretended to be praying.

"Ah!" came an even higher-pitched shriek than Colt might've expected.

He opened his eyes, and sure enough, there was Alice Ridgemont in the open doorway.

She was staring at him. "Oh! I'm sorry! I didn't mean to interrupt your time of private communion with the goddess! Please, I--! I just--! I didn't expect--!"

Colt remained seated. "Don't worry about it. I was done, anyway"

She still looked shaken, but she was smiling now and walking closer. "Ah, um, welcome! What--uh? This wasn't--er--I--"

Just how desperate for followers was this chick, anyway?

"I'm sorry! I never learned your name! How terribly rude of me! Mine is Alice Ridgemont. I work here as a priestess of Cocora. It's an absolute pleasure to meet you." She offered him a handshake, and he took it.

"Colton Thompson. Colt is fine." He motioned to the kids. "Stephanie. Thomas."

She giggled while giving them little handshakes as well.

The kids just looked like they didn't understand what was happening.

"Is there anything I can help you with?" said Alice. "I am here to serve the community! Please do not hesitate to ask!"

Colt very nearly asked her to babysit right then and there, if only to see how she would react. Instead, he decided to be smart and take it slow. "I'm alright for now. But thank you."

"Ah. Alright, then. Wonderful. That's wonderful." She backed away, but her smile didn't wane at all. "In that case, I will just be right over here, if you need anything. Aaanything at all." She took a seat in the front pew on the other side of the hall.

Colt just gave a small nod. And after a period of silence, he couldn't help noticing something. "You're staring."

"Am I?" she said, turning away and facing the Cocora statue. "I apologize. I didn't intend to."

Colt eyed the kids. They were both staring at him. What the hell was their problem?

And how was he supposed to carry on a conversation with this religious freak, anyway? This had all been a horrible idea.

Well. Of course it was. He hadn't chosen it because it was a good idea. He'd chosen it because it seemed slightly less shitty than all the others.

Miraculously, Alice tried to revive the conversation for him. "It's just--I'm sorry if I come across as a bit of an oddball to you. It's just that... we don't get many people visiting the church, these days."

Yeah, no shit.

But she had said something that piqued his curiosity. "'We?'"

"What?" said Alice.

"You said 'we don't get many people visiting,'" said Colt. "Is there someone else who works here?"

"Ah..." Her gaze went to the floor briefly. "N-no. It's just me now, I suppose..."

That sounded like a sensitive subject. Colt decided to just let it drop, but after a time, Alice volunteered a bit of detail.

"There used to be more of us," she said.

When? Colt had been skulking around Orden for months now, and he'd never seen anyone else visiting the church. Granted, he hadn't spent all that much time watching this place, but still. The way the other townsfolk mostly ignored her seemed relevant as well.

Obviously, he couldn't say any of that, though. So instead, he just asked, "Were there a lot of Cocoranites in Orden?"

That question seemed to surprise her. Perhaps she'd thought he stopped listening. "Oh. Um. No, not really. Actually, there were only seven of us."

"What happened to the others?"

"They... left."

Hmm. That was it, huh? He guessed he shouldn't pry.

Alice ended up elaborating on her own again, though. "They lost their faith, I think. Or had it... taken from them."

That sounded a bit loaded. But it made him curious. "Does that mean they're still in Orden?"

"Some, yes." She pressed her hands together in front of her face and shut her eyes.

Colt waited until she opened them again before asking his next question. He was tired of beating around the bush, so he just went for it. "What do the townspeople have against you?"

She blinked a few times but didn't turn to face him again. "You... noticed that, huh? I suppose anyone would..."

He kept pressing. "Did you do something wrong?"

"I..."

Colt tilted his head at her, just waiting.

"There was... a fire." She took a deep breath before looking at him with a deeper frown than he had yet seen from her. "It has been a while since I spoke of this to anyone other than the Lady of Light. Please forgive me if I do not explain it well."

She was still apologizing for every possible reason she could think of, Colt noticed. Oh well. Maybe it was just part of her religion or something. He decided not to let it bother him.

"...I was out of town when it happened," she said. "Visiting my family in Richland. A happy occasion. My cousin had just gotten married. And when I returned, I learned that... during one of our youth assemblies, a fire broke out and..."

Her voice trembled, and Colt wasn't sure if she was going to continue.

"Ten people perished in the blaze," she said. "Eight of whom had been children." She shut her eyes again, perhaps praying.

Colt thought he could work out the rest. "...And the townspeople blame you? Even though you weren't there?"

When she opened her eyes again, her expression spoke of difficultly. "I don't know if they blame me, exactly..."

"They blame your religion," Colt surmised.

She sighed and bobbed her head a little. "I can't claim to know their hearts. Or the pain that they have been forced to endure. Perhaps some do blame me--and perhaps rightly so. Whether I was present or not, I was in part responsible for the safety of those children..."

Colt eyed Stephanie and Thomas another time. They were both staring at him again.


<<Page 7 || All Side Story #1 pages || Page 9>>

These Side Story pages are released each week on Sunday at 6 pm EST.
However, they are released four weeks earlier over on Patreon, along with many extra pages of the main story.
Thanks for reading, everyone.

Page 1974

At the same time, however, Parson didn't know how he was supposed to avoid Morgunov's questions. He very much did NOT think it was a good idea to share his encounter with Ettol. There was no telling what the Mad Demon would do if he knew that Germal was supposedly "a key unto Chaos," as Ettol had claimed.

"Not very cooperative, eh?" said Morgunov. "Well, I can't say I'm surprised. I suppose I could just force you to tell me, but..." His gaze returned to the slime. "How about you, Slime-o? Do you know anything useful?"

It shivered visibly.

"Don't be scared. Share with me all your secrets, and you'll see just how kind I can be." He held the slime up to his head, right by his ear. "Here. I'll make it easy for you."

Still, it just sat there, shivering.

"Go on. I know you're tempted. Show me what a Primordial is really capable of, why don't you?"

The slime stopped suddenly, then bristled one more time. It launched itself against Mogunov's head and started struggling there.

Parson squinted as he watched, unsure what was happening until he noticed that the slime was slowly shrinking.

It was disappearing.

Into the Mad Demon's ear.

Into his head.

Morgunov looked far from concerned, however. His eyes were alight with as much excitement as Parson had ever seen. "Oh, wow! I see! Yes! So that's what you were hiding! Ooh, and I feel quite ill as well! I could yack at any moment! Amazing!"

Parson found the scene so repulsive that he thought he might vomit at any moment, as well.

But it was all he could do to watch and wait, for whatever happened next--for whatever Morgunov decided to do.

The Mad Demon's head twitched grotesquely as he eyed his own hands.

Then, the rainbow gradually began to appear again, as if melting out of his skin. But it didn't quite look like ooze or slime any more. It was more like just a coating around Morgunov's body.

Or a shadow, perhaps. One of many colors.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Page 1973

Apparently, Damian had been thinking the same thing. "Don't act like you don't already know. I'm sure you know exactly who they are."

"Hmm." Morgunov turned slowly toward Damian and, with an abrupt flatness, said, "Perhaps I just wanted to know if you would try to lie to me again."

At that, Damian seemed to lose most of his fervor, and Parson could feel a physical difference in the environment. The upturned earth all around them shifted beneath the extra weight in the air. Even the slime on Morgunov's arm settled down.

Without moving his head, Morgunov's silver-gray eyes shifted to Germal. "You. You are one of the Monster's men, are you not?"

"I am." Germal looked perfectly calm, at least.

Morgunov spared a glance for Parson as well but chose not to address him and returned to Germal. A morsel of his earlier cheer found his face again. "What does Slime-o want with you?"

"I have no idea," said Germal.

"Hazard a guess, then," said Morgunov.

Germal opened his mouth but apparently didn't know what to say. He looked to Nerovoy for help, then to Parson.

Parson wished he hadn't done that, because it made Morgunov look in his direction, too.

"Do you know something?" said the Mad Demon.

Parson clenched his jaw, trying to think.

The silence only seemed to amuse Morgunov. "Come now, General Miles. Your hesitation does a disservice to the Vanguard's reputation."

Parson struggled not to scowl.

"What would your Lawman think if he was here? I imagine he would be embarrassed by his pupil, hmm?" The Mad Demon smiled wide again. "Or do you think he, too, would be afraid?"

'Parson,' came Overra's private voice.

He didn't need her to say anything more. He knew what she was warning him against. No matter how much he cared for Lamont as his mentor, he wasn't about to let this bastard goad him into reacting stupidly.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Page 1972

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
Damian ignored the question and asked his own. "You say you were worried about me, but I was hardly in any danger. Why did you really decide to show yourself?"

Morgunov's smile became briefly manic in that infamous way. "I was planning to just observe from afar, but when this little guy appeared, my curiosity was piqued." The rainbow slime was slapping him in the face with enough force to create ground-shaking impacts, but it didn't seem to be bothering him in the slightest. "I'll admit, I was worried that you and your friends here were going to destroy it without even bothering to analyze it first! Which would've been so heartless of you! I mean, just look at how cute it is!"

The ooze manifested a sudden mouth and hissed at him.

"Ehehe. What should I call you? Binky? Slime-o? Stretchy McJeffy?"

Parson was helping Germal to his feet, finally, but he was still wary of moving any closer to Morgunov. Maybe it didn't matter at this point, but frankly, he was at a loss for what to do now.

Damian and Feromas seemed to be having a silent conversation, but it was again Damian who decided to speak up. "That thing was trying to kill us."

"You don't know that," said Morgunov. "Maybe Slime-o just wanted some attention."

It latched onto his face.

Morgunov grabbed it with his other hand and squeezed it like a balloon before yanking it off again. "Some face-hugging attention. But isn't that what we all want, at the end of the day? I don't see what's so wrong about it."

"It kept attacking us," said Damian. "And I'm certain it was trying to touch my friend over there."

And Morgunov's gaze finally turned to Parson and Germal. "Mmhmm. And just who are these friends of yours, by the way?" Somehow, the man's smile only ever seemed to widen. "Introduce me, why don't you?"

Did he really not know? Parson had to wonder. He certainly didn't know the Mad Demon like Damian did, but it didn't seem unlikely that the man might decide to play dumb on any number of different subjects.

Page 1971

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
Parson tried to think. The Mad Demon was here--quite possibly the most dangerous person on the planet. What was the best way to handle this development? Did Morgunov know who he was? That he was Vanguard? Would it be better to just flee?

Damian just ignored all of those concerns and called out to him. "Morgunov! What the hell are you doing here?!" Somehow, he sounded more like he was talking to a child than to his superior officer. "Don't tell me you were following me again!"

"Okay, I won't tell you!" said Morgunov, not bothering to remove his gaze from the slime.

Germal seemed to be regaining his senses, Parson noticed.

Parson was reluctant to get any closer to the Mad Demon, so he decided to move toward Germal instead.

"You can't keep doing this," Damian said, having walked right up to him. "I told you. I need my space."

"Aw, don't be like that," said Morgunov. "I was just concerned for your well-being, my boy."

"Yes, well, as you can see, I'm perfectly fine."

"Hmm, I'm not so sure you are. You wouldn't have allowed me to follow you if you were in top form." With his free hand, Morgunov touched Damian's forehead. "You're not coming down with something, are you?"

Damian batted him away. "Stop that. You're being ridiculous."

"Silly boy. Just because you're a servant doesn't mean you're immune to sickness."

"Um. Yes, it does."

Morgunov just stared at him for a second. "Oh, yeah, I guess you're right. But hey, you should still be careful. What if someone engineered a new disease that specifically targets servants, huh? Where will you and all of your certitude be then, huh?"

Damian's expression was flat. "And who would do such a thing? Other than you?"

"What, I don't count?" said Morgunov. "I could betray you at any time, you know. Why, perhaps I'll use this technicolor puke here to achieve some nefarious end. You can never be too careful, Damian. Why aren't you wearing the mittens I made for you? They'll help keep the germs at bay, you know. Especially in this cold."

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Page 1970

The pan-rozum merge provided him with more than enough control to manipulate the tornado that he'd previously created. He was therefore able to dive headlong into it without having to worry about the winds slowing him down like the husks.

He blitzed cleanly through the roaring maelstrom as quickly as one might blink, and in rapid succession, he crushed each of the disfigured abominations into the ground with a bone-breaking blow straight to their skulls.

Within seconds, his work was done, and he and Overra separated again so as not to let pan-rozum keep draining their collective stamina.

It looked like Damian was just about finished as well, though his work was far messier.

Germal, meanwhile, was still on the ground and shaking his head.

Parson was just waiting for the rainbow ooze to reappear so that he could obliterate it with his most powerful attack. The Instant Air Burst. It would require sacrificing almost all of the flesh in his body, but pan-forma could fix that in no time, and Overra was still attached to his back, ready to activate it.

What happened next, however, completely disrupted his plans.

Overra gasped with sudden panic and activated pan-forma without asking. 'The Mad Demon!'

'Wh--?!'

That was all the warning the reaper managed to give him before the ground beneath everyone's feet erupted with the force of a volcano.

Parson was sent tumbling through the air, completely confused and disoriented. He thought he saw the rainbow again in all the mayhem. It wasn't until he transfigured oxygen all over his body that he managed to catch himself in midair and reassess the situation.

And indeed, it was true.

From his position in the sky, looking down on the smoldering crater where the restaurant and surrounding property used to be, Parson saw the man standing there amidst the smoke--the man whose face he had only ever seen in wanted posters among the Vanguard.

The Mad Demon himself. Morgunov.

The rainbow ooze was wrapped around his arm, thrashing wildly as if to escape his clutches, while Morgunov just seemed to be calmly inspecting it and smiling.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Page 1969

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
For a few horrible moments, Parson could only stare, eyes wide with disbelief. This couldn't be real. It was impossible.

And yet, it was also somehow... familiar.

He had glimpsed similar forms before with his waking eyes. Forty years ago. In the infinite infinities of Chaos itself.

They had been only fleeting images at best, but he was recalling them clearly now.

Madness.

He remembered, too, being underwhelmed. He remembered thinking that such impossible things couldn't touch reality, couldn't affect it any way.

Ha.

He'd been a fool.

The distorted husks all began moving at once, completely unlike their previously human selves. They leapt or crawled or scuttled to and fro--but it was clear enough that they were all coming for the trio again.

Parson and Damian did not hold back this time.

The nearest one exploded into meaty chunks as Damian pointed at it with a fist, and the one next to it was shredded to pieces by a flurry of wind blades. A dozen more were still coming as the two men stood back to back with only Germal between them on the ground.

Parson, for his half of the enemies, sacrificed most of his left arm in order to summon a small tornado. He didn't want to make it too large, else it would disrupt whatever Damian was doing. And the abominable husks all had an obvious heft to them, so the tornado didn't have enough power in it to send them flying--but it did have enough to slow them down.

He could see them struggling to summon various counterattacks of their own--flames from one of their many mouths or bolts of crackling blue energy or even bubbling green acid.

He didn't intend to give them the opportunity to use any of that.

'Rozum,' he thought.

And Overra obliged.

Page 1968

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
And abruptly, the tremors stopped. Complete quiet arrived, save only for the panicked and terrified breaths of the woman in Damian's care.

Parson waited. A part of him wanted to just attack the ruined building with every blade of wind that he could create, but the thought of hitting the civilians inside stopped him.

But then those same civilians began to appear from the rubble, crawling out from under the collapsed roof or climbing atop it or emerging from behind a half-destroyed wall.

And they were not as they should be.

Even if he didn't pay attention to their abnormal movements or their too-still faces, Parson could sense something inherently wrong with their souls.

They were missing.

Whatever these creatures were, they were not the people who had been in that building a few minutes ago.

The reapers could tell something was wrong with them, too, and tried to warn their servants, but Parson was too focused on what these soulless husks were doing to listen.

The husks all lunged toward them in unison.

Parson and Damian smacked them all down without much difficulty, but they refrained from using deadly force. Whatever was happening here, these were still, seemingly, innocent people. Even if their souls were missing, perhaps they could be recovered in some way.

That was what Parson's Vanguardian instincts were telling him, and he was glad to see that Damian was apparently thinking something similar.

When the tremors returned, however, so did the rainbow ooze from beneath the cracks in the ground. And when it began to slather itself all over the soulless husks, everything that Parson had just been thinking went out the window.

The husks changed. Their bodies contorted impossibly. Grotesquely. And they grew. As big as gorillas. New limbs sprouted from their backs or even their necks. Their heads twisted and twitched, some splitting a part and becoming two or even three.

The rainbow's swirling colors seemed to melt away into nothingness, but in their wake, their work was apparent. New faces were there on the husks, but not on their heads. On their bulging stomachs. On their extra-jointed legs. Or their torn-open arms.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Page 1967

Germal was backing away from the scene, even as he continued barking. Parson was inclined to follow his lead on this one.

Without warning, the rainbow slime jolted straight toward Germal.

Damian, however, intervened. From too far away, he threw a punch with his right fist, and an invisible impact bridged the distance and blasted a massive chunk of the slime before it could touch Germal.

'Why is it going after him?' said Nerovoy.

The question went unanswered as a separate chunk of the slime leapt toward Germal from another angle.

Parson was the one to stop it this time, with a soaring blade of wind that he'd sacrificed the skin of his left forearm to create.

The different bits of ooze all bristled with seeming frustration for a moment, then started moving towards one another again, perhaps trying to recompile.

'Kill it,' said Feromas with commanding force, grabbing Damian's shoulder. 'Do whatever you have to do.'

Parson felt Overra grab his as well, and the regenerative vigor flowed through his body.

Perhaps sensing the danger, however, the ooze burrowed suddenly underground, causing cracks and tremors beneath their feet with increasing force.

Parson saw the cracks grow suddenly in the direction of the restaurant they had just left, and scarcely a moment passed before the foundation of the entire building shifted. A few shrieks rang out from the people still inside.

"Stay with Germal!" shouted Damian. And without waiting for a response, he bounded into the building.

More shouts and even more violent tremors erupted, and the building shifted again, this time shattering all of its windows and causing the walls to buckle.

Parson placed himself in front of Germal, who for whatever reason had finally stopped barking.

Then Damian came crashing back out of the building through a wall. A young woman was in his arms, one of the waitresses, Parson recognized. Damian managed to land on his back instead of her.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Page 1966

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
Parson hardly needed them to tell him that something was wrong here. He could sense it himself--physically, even. The air was different. Heavier. Thicker. And this sound. Like that of rushing water, perhaps.

Dark splotches began to appear on the ground, pools of black, as if the remains of a dark rain that had never come. They were small at first but spread quickly, staining the earth.

And from the nearest one, arrived something almost inexplicable to Parson's eyes.

A dark rainbow. Swirling and visibly confusing. But it seemed to have a shape. Like an arm reaching up out of the ground. It gripped the solid ground outside of the dark splotch and pulled itself up, retrieving more of its shape, revealing a larger, more beastly figure--yet still fully covered in the rainbow.

Everyone backed away from it, even Germal who was growling like an animal now.

But much to their surprise, as soon as the beastly rainbow form finished clawing its way out of its murky pit, it collapsed onto the ground.

Was it breathing?

It seemed to be. And quite heavily, too. As if it were exhausted.

Germal, meanwhile, was still on all fours and growling.

Parson was so baffled that he didn't even know where to begin asking questions or who might even possess answers.

Then the rainbow moved, but the figure it was attached to did not. Its dark swirls slid down the beastly form like oozing paint, and the monster beneath it was revealed more clearly.

A giant wolf? Silver gray fur. It merely lay there, not moving, aside from its barrel-sized chest as it was panting.

Inexplicably, Germal started barking at it. Or was he barking at the rainbow ooze? Parson had no idea.

The ooze was still moving, though. Even after dripping off the dog completely, Parson could see it pulsing and twitching erratically on its own.

Page 1965

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
"I think we should leave," said Parson.

"Hmm?" Damian sat back in his chair. "We just got here."

"I know," said Parson. "But Germal's condition concerns me. And if it's because of the location, then let's quit this place for the time being and gather more intel, first."

His old friends seemed uncertain, but they also began gathering themselves up to leave.

That was, until, Germal froze in place, wide-eyed and stuck like a statue.

Parson and Damian both stopped and stared at him, then looked to the man's reaper, Nerovoy.

'Germal,' the reaper tried, to no avail.

Parson touched Germal's shoulder and shook him. "Hey."

Still no response. And the sweat on the man's face was stronger than ever.

"Damian." Parson's voice held the urgency of a command under it, and Damian seemed to understand.

Together, they scrambled to pull Germal out of his seat and carry him out of the restaurant. People were gawking at the scene they were making, but Parson was beyond the point of caring about that now.

"The hell's wrong with him?" said Damian.

'I don't know,' said Nerovoy. 'I've never seen him react like this.'

Once they were outside, they started toward Damian's vehicle. Parson had brought a horse, still preferring them to automobiles, but he wasn't about to argue when the vehicle was closer and roomier.

Before they could reach it, however, Gemal spasmed violently and slipped out of both their grips. The man caught himself on the ground with all four limbs and just remained that way, his head swiveling around like an animal looking for something.

"What the--?! Hey!" Damian was about to walk up to him when Parson held out a hand in front of him.

"Careful," said Parson. "Be mindful of the reapers' safety, before everything else."

And indeed, the three of them were crowding around Damian and Parson now.

'I am sensing something VERY strange,' said Feromas.

"No shit," said Damian.

'I sense it as well,' said Overra.

'Same here,' said Nerovoy. 'It's--it's quiet. Subtle. As if it's been here the whole time but I'm only now realizing it. And it's... it's...'

'Everywhere,' finished Overra.