Saturday, November 30, 2019

Page 1943

Rather than trying to dodge, Hector just relied on Haqq's shield in his left hand. The Lord Elroy's bullets left a few impressive dents in it, but that was all, and Hector kept 'loading' up more bullets of his own.

After having his ice armor pierced a few times, Zeff raised a full barricade for himself and took cover behind it.

Hector decided to do the same. He strengthened his iron barricade with his soul, as well. He knew it wouldn't help much with his weak soul-synchronization, but he wanted every bit of extra durability that he could get.

And then they had a shootout on their hands. Just straight up gun-blazing chaos, constant firing back and forth. The stream of deafening cracks in the air that accompanied each and every bullet soon became just background noise, like a waterfall raging in his ear, and Hector could hardly think of anything other than loading more bullets, keeping it going, not falling behind. He sacrificed his warming variant armor and devoted a second thought process to just making more ammo. He started adding heat to his bullets as well, just to give them that much more of an edge over ice.

The barricades on both sides were being shredded like cardboard, and they both just kept remaking them.

It probably wasn't even an entire minute of battle, but the sheer intensity of it made Hector feel like it was taking an eternity. At length, he felt like he might actually be gaining a slight advantage until he realized that most of his right hand was gone, blown off and spurting blood.

And suddenly, Zeff's gunfire seemed to grow even more furious. The man's barricade was in shambles, but he didn't bother recreating it. He merely stood up and started marching closer.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Page 1942

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
He sensed more spears coming for him, a trio this time from the side. He simply stepped out of their way. They, along with the two from before, hadn't really been moving all that fast now that he was thinking about it. Zeff was going easy on him again, he figured.

And while he appreciated not getting gored through the chest or having another limb torn off, Hector wasn't sure he liked this sudden show of compassion from his teacher.

In fact, he was starting to find it kind of annoying in its own way.

He needed to find Zeff if he was ever going to give the man a reason to stop taking him so lightly, and Hector had a couple ideas of how he might be able to accomplish that.

The first was to make his tornado larger. More uniform wind meant more area for the Scarf to describe for him, and he still felt like he wasn't losing control of it yet.

His second idea was guideposts. At the edge of his vision, he raised temperature-manipulated iron pillars, making them hot enough to glow so that he could see them better through the blizzard. He would've liked to make the pillars more complicated, or even add orbiting whirlwinds of their own, but he was already worried about reaching the limit of his cognitive load. Between his warming suit of armor, his growing tornado, and his loaded finger gun, he already had plenty of things that required constant focus. The most he wanted to risk on anything else was single-instance creations like platforms or guideposts.

Plus, of course, he had to keep an eye out for Zeff. Where the hell was he? Hector just needed--

There. A whiff of movement and shadow on his right. Hector let his gun rip, firing multiple shots this time. He thought he heard them make contact, but he couldn't be sure.

Until a few moments later, when Zeff came charging in with a slew of his own icy gunfire.

Page 1941

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
Hector put a half-dozen big iron plates into orbit around himself, positioning them flat against the clockwise direction in which they were moving. He wanted as much air resistance as possible so that when he increased their speed, they would begin to whip up a nice little tornado around him.

And it worked like a charm. As he focused, pushing them for higher and higher speeds, the winds began to rise visibly amidst the blizzard. Snow and hail stopped touching him entirely, and then he began to notice something very interesting.

The Scarf of Amordiin was telling him all sorts of crazy new things that he'd never sensed before. Being at a center of a whirlwind changed everything. The flow of air immediately around him had become uniform, and as a result, it was suddenly very easy to sense any disturbances within that flow.

Like, for instance, a pair of icy spears flying at him from behind.

He launched himself out of their path on an iron platform, and the whirlwind moved with him.

This was so weird. Not quite disorienting, exactly--just very unfamiliar. He almost felt like he was in a video game all of a sudden, where there was a set radius of visibility around him while everything beyond it was just darkness--except in this case, that darkness a blizzard. Unfortunately, that blizzard wasn't simply dispersing as he had hoped, but his miniature tornado was still cutting into it like butter. It was progress, at least.

He was looking for Zeff, but the man must've been keeping his distance. He wondered why Zeff didn't seem to have any trouble seeing through his own blizzard. Was Axiolis just telling him where Hector was with soul radar? That seemed a little unlikely. So was there some other trick to it, then?

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Page 1940

~~Thanksgiving Special (page 6 of 6)~~
The most pressing problem...

To Hector's mind, that had to be the poor visibility. But how in the world was he supposed to overcome that? He'd already tried to escape the blizzard, and that hadn't worked at all.

Agh. Don't complain. Just focus. Figure it out or die trying. That was his job, when it came down to it.

Well, how about just big, fat chunk of iron? So big that it could disrupt the blizzard? Make the snow and wind break against its body?

Worth a shot.

He materialized an enormous cylinder all around him as a kind of shelter, making it far wider than it was tall. As it grew, he hollowed it out and gave himself more space to move around. It wouldn't be long before Zeff broke in, so he was already preparing for it. He had multiple bullets "loaded" into his finger gun, and they were larger than that test version had been. He was just waiting for Zeff to show himself.

That did not happen, however. Instead, a dozen giant spears of ice pierced the iron shelter and peeled it apart like so many can openers.

And Hector still couldn't tell where Zeff was. The blizzard was still there.

Hector expected another walloping, but that didn't happen, either.

"Better," came Zeff's voice again, "but still not good enough. You're at least trying to solve the problem, now. Your solution was just incorrect. Try again."

Huh.

Hector couldn't help being a bit awestruck at how much slack the man was cutting him. Maybe he really was in a good mood, today.

He focused on the task at hand.

A simple structure wasn't going to work. That much was clear. He could try a complex one, like the maze that he'd used against Karkash.

But no, that didn't seem right, either. The problem was locating Zeff. A maze wouldn't improve his visibility. It would just help him hide--essentially giving Zeff the same problem that he had, right now. And sure, maybe that would be useful in its own way, but he felt like he could do better.

In parallel, another thought process was thinking about wind. Could he generate wind with his iron? Yeah, probably. But could he generate enough to blow the blizzard away?

Hmm.

Time to find out, he supposed.

Page 1939

~~Thanksgiving Special (page 5 of 6)~~
Zeff took his time considering what Hector had said. The disappointment in his face seemed to diminish somewhat, but the sternness didn't. "If you truly believe that, then there is little point in discussing this further." He waved Axiolis away and took a readying stance. "Your hypothesis is set. If you are to ever prove it true, then we will have to push you much harder than we have been until now."

Aw, shit.

The sparring erupted anew, more brutal than ever. It soon seemed obvious that, despite what Hector might've previously thought, Zeff really had been going easy on him before.

It was like trying to fight a blizzard all of a sudden. The Lord Elroy had never bothered to use any visibility-reducing tactics against him, and the piercing cold that accompanied it couldn't be overlooked, either.

He tried to rely on the Scarf, but with all the snow, hail, and icy daggers flying everywhere, it was only so helpful. In fact, the Scarf might've even been making things more difficult, because there was just so much more sensory information swirling around him constantly. Choosing what to focus on was crucial, lest he lose a limb to a blade that he didn't see coming.

And if he didn't maintain a heated variant of his armor, then the cold would quickly begin to wear down his movements and render him even more vulnerable.

He tried simply escaping from the localized blizzard entirely, but that didn't seem like much of an option, either, because Zeff could just make it follow him.

After a while of getting smacked around, sliced up, and just generally humiliated, a period of calm arrived as Hector was still trying to pick himself up off the frozen ground.

"You're not thinking clearly," came Zeff's disembodied voice from somewhere in the blizzard. "You must assess your circumstances quickly and efficiently. And prioritize. Determine your most pressing problem. Don't try to deal with lesser issues first. A man can't repair his house while it's still on fire."

Page 1938

~~Thanksgiving Special (page 4 of 6)~~
"No, I understand that," said Hector. "My intent is to prep beforehand, and then just keep it 'loaded' in my head. Like an actual gun, y'know? So I'll still be able to react to that one second window."

Zeff's expression was doubtful. "You'll keep it 'loaded?' Hector, doing that is not free. You would be sacrificing some of your cognitive power for a technique that you may not even use, depending on how the rest of the fight goes. And because you have less cognitive power at your disposal, the rest of the fight is then more likely to go badly for you. You'll be distracted. Your reactions will be slower."

'Trying to multitask so heavily like that in the heat of combat is highly dangerous,' added Axiolis. 'Your brain is already processing a million different things at once in those moments. Prioritizing a "loaded" gun, so to speak, means not paying attention to other things.'

They had a solid point, Hector knew. And he didn't want to go against their collective experience and wisdom, especially when compared against his own, but... he also felt like they were underestimating the blessing of Focus that Rasalased had given him.

He had explained it to them previously, but in retrospect, he couldn't tell if anything he'd said had actually made sense. It was difficult to explain something that he didn't fully understand himself.

"I get what you guys are saying," said Hector, "but I, uh... I think I can manage it pretty easily with parallel thought processes." He scratched his cheek. "I mean, it's true that I could be using that extra thought process for something else, but... I think having a 'loaded gun' at all times during the fight might be my most powerful option, right now--even if I don't end up using it all that often. Especially because... well, that was the weakest version of it. I'm sure I can make it stronger without overextending myself."

'Hmm,' was all Axiolis said.

Page 1937

~~Thanksgiving Special (page 3 of 6)~~
"Time out," said Zeff as Axiolis flew in to check his wound for him. The regeneration had been active for a while, so Hector knew that wasn't their concern. More likely, they wanted to see exactly how much damage the bullet had caused.

Axiolis in particular had been quite studious about these things whenever Hector and Zeff sparred. The aged reaper seemed especially interested in trying to measure every major wound they received and collateral impact points in the environment. Hector still wasn't entirely sure how observing these things so closely all the time was supposed to be of any use, but he wasn't about to doubt a four thousand-year-old reaper's expertise, either.

'This is fantastic,' the reaper was saying. 'Hector, this puncture is significantly more damage than anything you have previously landed on Zeff. The flesh wound is still relatively minor, of course, but this impact area where your iron connected with the armor--the diameter of this must be around, oh, five hundred percent larger than even your second most damaging blow was.'

Hector wondered if he would ever be able to share Axiolis' apparent passion for geometry. He certainly wanted to be able to share it. But math just sucked so hard. It had always been one of his worst subjects, and learning new concepts in it always felt like he was trying to chisel rock with his bare hands. Or even his bare face, sometimes.

'How were you able to muster such a profound increase in velocity with so little prep time? I was watching closely, and I didn't see anything.'

Hector explained what he'd done.

"Ah, so you cheated, then," said Zeff, carrying that familiar tone of disapproval again. "I told you to do something with zero prep. Hiding your prep, while potentially useful, was not the point of the exercise. You need to be able to summon power like that on a moment's notice--to take advantage of fleeting openings in combat. If your prep takes two seconds, but your window of opportunity is only one second, then your technique is still useless."

Page 1936

~~Thanksgiving Special (page 2 of 6)~~
Even before the man had responded, however, Hector had technically already begun. Rather than simplifying his technique to the point where he no longer needed any prep time, Hector felt that he might be able to achieve better results if he could just make his prep time invisible to his opponent.

The orbiting technique that he had developed in the Undercrust had gone through several iterations since its inception, especially during the worm fight. Here and now, Hector was sure that it was his best idea so far for creating powerful attacks.

The problem with it, as Zeff had already mentioned, was the prep time. Anything that he put into orbit around himself required at least a few seconds to accelerate before becoming truly threatening.

But what if he didn't actually put something into orbit, and instead merely imagined that it was there?

Everything about materialization only functioned as a result of the imagination in the first place. The cognitive process would be identical. The only difference would be that there was no physical object there.

Until he put one there, of course.

So what would happen if he went through the entire cognitive process of putting an object in orbit, increasing its speed, and then, only materialized that object into reality at the moment he was ready to let it fly?

It would conceal his prep time, wouldn't it?

Hector hadn't actually had time to test this theory out, but it had been in the back of his mind for a while now, and he was fairly confident that it would work.

So when he pointed his finger gun at Zeff--having the cognitive process already "loaded" into his mind and made easier by the hand sign--he was able to instantly let rip an iron bullet.

It burst into existence with a deafening crack and tagged Zeff right in the chest. It didn't go cleanly through, but judging from the fresh red stain on the man's translucent armor, it at least managed to draw blood.

And considering that was just the proof of concept, that he hadn't even tried to soul-strengthen the bullet, Hector was pretty damn pleased with that outcome.

Page 1935

~~Thanksgiving Special (page 1 of 6)~~
"Good," said Zeff. "We'll go slow this time. Show me the simplest concept of what you have for a quick projectile--something that you can use to retaliate instantaneously at range. Then we'll see about amplifying its intensity."

The simplest concept, huh? Hmm.

Hector actually hadn't put much thought into that. He'd only really been thinking about how to make things more potent, recently. Thus far in his "career" as a servant, he felt like his offensive abilities had always been his biggest weakness. It didn't help, of course, that he always seemed to be fighting uphill battles, but he also didn't expect that trend to change anytime soon.

He took a few more moments to think about Zeff's instruction here. A simplified version of what he had been working on. For purposes of instantaneous retaliation.

That definitely seemed like a useful thing to have in his arsenal.

Alright, then.

Hector made a hand sign that would be familiar to anyone in the world. A finger gun. He held off on pointing it at Zeff, though. "Ready?" he asked.

The Lord Elroy frowned, perhaps with disappointment. "Your control over velocity states has improved, but I don't think you are quite at the point where you can use it as a replacement for real firearms. I've yet to witness you harness that kind of explosive power without first requiring at least a few seconds of prep time."

That was true. Velocity states were fairly simple, all things considered, but they still had a high skill barrier when it came to achieving really potent speeds.

Hector already had a notion of how he might overcome that, though. He raised his finger gun in front of his chest. His question hadn't actually been answered, so he decided to ask it again. "Are you ready?"

Zeff's brow lowered, but he seemed intrigued at least. He donned his ice armor once more and took a bracing stance. "Yes, I am."

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Page 1934

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
In an instant, thousands of iron spikes grew out of his armor--a tactic he had used several times before--but it didn't end there. With the basic spike defense mapped to his right fist, he was able to devote more cognitive power to adding complexity.

So the spikes grew faster than they ever had previously, granting them greater puncturing ability. But even more importantly than that, they branched off into more spikes--and kept branching.

Hector felt his spikes catch flesh briefly before Zeff backed off and covered himself in his own armor of solid ice, but this new spike technique was still not done, because he was giving it direction.

The spikes continued growing away from Hector and chased the Lord Elroy down--a feat which the man did not seem to expect, because they managed to catch up to him and enveloped him completely.

Not that it mattered too terribly much, of course. After a moment, giant icicles tore through the network of iron barbs and set Zeff free.

"Hmph." The Lord Elroy dematerialized his ice armor and wiped a bit of blood from a gash on his cheek. "Not bad. Simple, yet effective."

Hector dematerialized his spikes but not his armor. "Thanks..."

"Many a warrior look down upon little tricks like that, but in my experience, they might very well save your life, one day."

Was that praise? Was Zeff actually in a good mood today? Hector was still waiting for the criticism.

"However, that particular trick won't help you much against an opponent who keeps their distance."

Ah, there it was. Still not nearly as harsh as he'd expected, though.

"Have you put similar thought into improving your projectile capabilities?" the man asked.

"Ah--yeah, I have." His projectiles had been key in that fight with the worm, so of course he'd been thinking about different ways to iterate or otherwise modify those types of attacks since then.

Page 1933

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
He was hungry, but he decided to forego a meal for now. Zeff had warned him before about training on a full stomach, and Hector didn't doubt him. With how demanding the Lord Elroy was becoming during these sessions, Hector could easily imagine himself puking his guts out afterwards.

And today was certainly no exception.

"How is your progress with mapping?" said Zeff, as calm as if he were asking about the weather, despite the fact that he was currently trying to chop Hector's head off with a broadsword of solid ice.

Hector met the blow with his own iron sword, but the man's soul-strengthened ice still cut through it, though not without resistance. The icy blade was partially deflected and clipped the top of his iron helmet instead of decapitating him. "It's going okay, I think," Hector managed to say through labored breath.

"Show me," said Zeff, not even pausing to let Hector do so. The flurry of slashes from his sword only seemed to grow more intense.

They were wild, though. There was more power behind them, sure, but Hector could tell that Zeff was really just trying to push him back now instead of actually hitting him. And that was why Hector decided to do the opposite.

Instead of losing ground, Hector gathered his concentration and moved toward the slashes--between them. His armor made him bulky, but he didn't mind if it took some shallow cuts. The Scarf of Amordiin helped him sense the path of least resistance, and he was able to get in close and do exactly what Zeff just asked for.

The mapping technique was something that Hector had been working on for a while, ever since Zeff and Asad had told him about it when their group had first entered the Undercrust. In short, it was a method of easing the cognitive load of complex materializations by "mapping" them to physical movements in one's body, such as hand signs.

It was a slow process to refine, since it required memorization, but Hector hadn't been slacking on that front. He focused and made a fist with his right hand, but not to throw a punch with.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Page 1932 -- CXCVIII.

Chapter One Hundred Ninety-Eight: 'Preparedness, be acquired...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

It was a relief to be back at Warrenhold again. He hadn't even been gone a day, but it felt like weeks. As much as he had enjoyed catching up with everyone at the Gala, it was still exhausting, and the media circus around it certainly hadn't helped, either. The sun had already started coming up by the time he'd finally left the palace, and he had naively thought that the media would've dispersed by then, but nope. They jumped on him the second they saw him and made that last stretch to his vehicle as uncomfortable as possible.

At least he'd been able to say goodbye to Lynn and the Queen before departing. Thinking back on it now, in the comfort of his own bed, he wished that he could've talked to them more. About what, he wasn't sure. Anything would've been fine, really. As he drifted off to sleep, he foggily wondered when he might see them again.

The warm embrace of sleep was fully welcome. Damn, this bed was cozy.

Only too soon, he awoke--and not on his own.

A dreadfully familiar voice was talking to him in a horrifically familiar tone.

"--up. If you don't get up in the next twenty seconds, a cold shower will be visiting you in your bed."

Hector groaned but began to stir.

"It's time to train, Lord Goffe." Whenever Zeff called him that, it didn't sound like a term of respect for some reason.

Much as he wanted to, though, Hector didn't complain beyond a few more grunts. There was nothing to be gained by resisting, especially because in the back of his mind, he knew perfectly well how important these training sessions were--and how lucky he was to have found an instructor as experienced as Zeff.

He got dressed, making sure to choose clothes that he didn't care too much about, in the likely event that they ended up utterly obliterated.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Page 1931

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
The King motioned to the charred book from earlier, which he had since laid on the conference table. "In Irina's journal, she describes her father's version of events regarding Lobo. According to her, Lobo became much more 'persuadable' after Charles showed him... something. The chunk of text where Irina presumably named and provided details about the object in question was unfortunately burned off."

Of course it was, Hector thought. "So... to sum up... this is secondhand information that is in dispute by other, firsthand information. And it's been partially burned, too, so this secondhand information isn't even complete."

A beat passed as the King looked at him. "Yes, that about covers it."

Hector gave a chuckling nod. "Great."

"You can see why most of our historians do not put much credence into this theory."

"Yes, Your Highness. Yes, I can."

"I acknowledge that it is not ideal."

Hector held back a sigh, but not because he found the King's story exasperating. Rather, if he was being one hundred percent honest with himself, he already kinda believed it. He just wished that he didn't.

As little as three months ago, he probably would've been far more skeptical of a story like this, but after his experiences in the Undercrust--particularly in Himmekel--this flimsy, barely-making-any-sense tale from the King was actually ringing somewhat true to Hector's ears.

The idea of a magical artifact holding such power... sadly, that sounded perfectly reasonable now.

Agh.

Somehow, Hector felt like this was spoiling the entire tale of Atreya's independence for him. The notion that Bosliat Palace in all its splendor had wowed Ambassador Lobo so greatly that it changed the course of history? That had been such a beautiful and surprising thing to learn about. In retrospect, Hector loved it.

And now it was ruined by some kind of dark magic mind fuckery.

Goddammit.

More free pages

Alright, guys. A few announcements.

First, I've gotta thank everyone supporting me over on my Patreon again. I've been posting two/three pages per day there for a while, so we've got quite a hefty buffer to work with now. There are currently over fifty extra pages to read there, so please have a look, if you're interested.

And now that we've reached that fifty-page milestone, I feel like it's a good time to start posting more pages here on the main site again. So on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays you can expect a second page at noon.

Also, if you didn't already know, I've started posting TZKS over on RoyalRoad in full chapter posts. Check it out, if you like. You might prefer the format to here on the main site. OR YOU MIGHT NOT. I DUNNO.

Regarding the question of the mobile version that I posed a few days ago, I've been considering your guys' feedback, and I've decided to re-enable it. Janky thought it may be, the fact that it's optional is a big plus. If you like, you can keep using it. If not, the desktop version is available, too. Thanks for all your responses.

Oh, and you can expect a handful of extra pages on Thanksgiving, by the way. I'll have some news next month regarding the Vol. 5 ebook, and maybe another surprise as well. MAYBE, I SAID. DON'T GET YOUR HOPES UP TOO MUCH, GODDAMMIT.

Anyway, thanks for reading, everybody. And thanks for all the support.

Page 1930

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
"But you are right," said William. "Nominus Lobo's personal account of the visit makes no mention of Charles. This fact is precisely what most historians point to whenever they try to downplay Charles' role in the independence movement."

"Ah--I didn't mean to be disrespectful or anything, er--"

William held up a hand. "Oh, no, I understand that. Worry not. I appreciate your concern, but it is not necessary. While I do cherish my family's legacy, it is not pride that compels me to share this story with you. Rather, I am hoping it will be of some use to you--or your reaper, perhaps."

Hector glanced at Garovel.

'Thoughtful guy,' the reaper said.

"In any case," said William, "there is a reason why I believe Nominus Lobo's personal account may be inaccurate, and that is because of Paul Greenway's account of the knight's tourney.

"Late in his life, Paul wrote a memoir in which he reveals that, despite how much of an impact that tournament had on the rest of his life, he did not actually remember the final melee. He could recall nothing after his first joust, in which he was injured. After that, he only remembered waking up and being informed of the spectacular events after the fact."

Hector's eyes went to the floor as he thought about that.

"To me," said the King, "this speaks to the nature of Charles' intervention. I believe Charles did something to help Paul, and in so doing, left the man with no memory of what happened. And if this was truly the case, then I do not think it unlikely that Charles could have done something to Lobo's memory as well."

Hector was quiet. He did not much care for how uncomfortably familiar this tale was beginning to sound.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 4

<<Page 3 || All Side Story #1 pages || Page 5>>

Colt could hardly believe his ears. The twins had said their first words a while ago, but this was the first time that he could recall where they had strung two words together in a way that made sense.

Though, he didn't particularly want to admit that those words had made sense.

"Daddy is not scared," he said through a begrudging laugh. "And Daddy doesn't appreciate being laughed at, either."

"Daddy scared," repeated Thomas.

"Oh yeah? What is Daddy scared of, huh?

Silence arrived in the car, and Colt wasn't sure whether to be happy or sad about that. Oh well. Even just hearing them say that much was enough cause for excitement. He shouldn't have expected--

"Pretty lady," said Thomas.

Colt barked a laugh so suddenly that he accidentally spat a little.

"Pretty lady!" affirmed Stephanie.

Colt stifled himself, shook his head, and rubbed his face in disbelief. "You rascals..."

In spite of himself, he could not have been more pleased. He wanted to do something to reward their accomplishments, but he wasn't sure how. And maybe he was also a bit hesitant to positively reinforce their teasing of him.

As he looked at their happy faces, though, he felt his reluctance melting. "How about a snack, huh? You two hungry?" He patted their heads and poked their cheeks a little, but they didn't have anything else to say apparently, aside from more giggles. He got the car moving again.

He didn't want to waste money on a restaurant, but he supposed it might be a good place to meet more of the locals. That was why he had come to town today, after all. Somehow, he'd nearly forgotten that. Going out of his way to talk to strangers was not something he was accustomed to doing in his free time.

He had done it plenty of times as a cop on duty, though. Sure, it was in the context of rooting out information about potential criminals, but he remembered being fairly good at it, now that he was thinking back.

Damn, that felt like a lifetime ago. Was he even the same person, still? Could he still put on that sort of act? If so, then he hadn't been doing a very good job of it so far, in retrospect.

He took a deliberate breath as he pulled into a local restaurant, making sure to choose one with cars in the parking lot. He just had to concentrate. He could act like a friendly and harmless tool, if he really wanted to. It was just a matter of relaxing and not overthinking things. And if all else failed, he could try to recall some of the things said by the various dumbasses he'd met throughout his life. That might help.

The restaurant he'd chosen was a little mom-and-pop diner which seemed to have just opened for the day. It was simply called Sam & Jenny's, and he didn't know much else about the place. In his scouting, he hadn't bothered to investigate restaurants very much, but maybe he should have.

That was enough to give him a paranoid pause as he stood in front of the frosted glass door with the twins in his arms.

Agh. He had to relax. It was just a plain old restaurant. No one was going to try to steal his kids here. And if they did, he'd murder them. Simple.

Hmm. Maybe that wasn't the best way to comfort himself.

Then he noticed that it was a pull door and scowled. He set the kids down in order to open it, and sure enough, Thomas tried to bolt on him. Thankfully, his stubby legs didn't let him get very far before Colt caught him.

This was why Colt still wanted that stroller, even though the kids didn't technically need it. It probably wouldn't be that long before they grew too big to ride in it, but even so, if he was planning to make more trips into Orden like this, he figured he could still get his money's worth out of it.

By the time he made it back to the still-closed door, it was opening from the inside, and an older woman poked her head out.

"You look like you could use a hand there, sir," she said with a smile.

This was one of the citizens whom Colt didn't already know the name of, but given the name of the diner, her apparent age, and the fact that she wasn't exiting the restaurant herself, he was guessing that it was Jenny. "Yeah, I'd appreciate it," he said with both twins in hand again.

"Welcome," she said. "I'm Jenny. My husband and I run this little joint."

Yep.

"Haven't seen you or these little darlings around before," she went on.

The conversation continued about as expected, and Colt suffered through it with a smile on his face. She was a perfectly warm and pleasant woman, chock full of questions that he'd already answered once or even twice today, as well as a few that he hadn't but that he nonetheless still found mildly annoying.

"What can we get for you today?" was the question that he'd actually been waiting for.

At a booth with the twins sitting across from him, he took his time ordering and was thankful when she left him alone to deliberate. It seemed to surprise her that he didn't know what he wanted, perhaps because all her customers already knew the menu by heart.

He took note of the handful of other people in the diner. It wasn't a very large establishment, so he could overhear a conversation between a pair of old men who were sitting at the small bar behind him.

"You're loony. It'll be a cold day in hell when anything even remotely out of the ordinary happens in this town."

Alright. Now that was what Colt wanted to hear. The more boring and peaceful this town was, the better.

"I'm tellin' ya, man, it's true," the other was saying. "It's a conspiracy. The government doesn't want us discoverin' where they hid the bodies, so they've disappearin' people who might leak their location. It's the only explanation. I mean, just think, we haven't seen Jeff around lately, have we?"

"I saw him this morning. Walking his dog."

"Oh. Uh. Well, what about Bernice, huh?"

"Saw her yesterday in the park."

"Er--really? Huh. D-did she mention me?"

"No."

"Do ya think she's avoiding me?"

"I would if I were her."

Colt wasn't sure he had the patience to keep listening. The twins were getting antsy again, but at least they weren't trying to escape their booster seats. Instead, they seemed to be staring at him with the expectation that they would be getting a treat soon.

When Jenny returned to take his order, he decided on chocolate ice cream. She left him alone again, and in spite of himself, he got pulled into the conversation behind him again. They'd moved onto a new subject, apparently.

"Something's hinky," said the conspiratorial one. "One day, my tarp's there, the next, it ain't, then the next, it's back again. Why would someone do that if not for some nefarious purpose, eh?"

"Heh. I guess you could say... it's a cover-up, huh? Huh?"

"...Wha?"

"'Cuz you were talking about a tarp. So it's a cover-up. Get it?"

"Oh. Hey, man, this is serious. I think there's a thief on the loose."

"A thief who returns what they stole, huh? Scary."

"Max, my friend, if you knew your history, you'd know how terrifying thieves can be."

"Don't pretend to lecture me on history, you old fart. I went to college."

"Yeah? What, were you a paleontologist? Musta been real helpful, being able to just walk up and study them in person like that, eh?" He laughed heartily at his own joke, but Colt had to admit, he'd heard worse.

"Oh, we've got a wise guy over here. Hey, Denise, we've got a wise guy."

"Sorry," said the plump brunette behind the bar. The daughter of the owners, Colt guessed. "I can't pretend that didn't make me laugh."

"Yeah, yeah," said Max. "Hey, Denise, shouldn't you be in school, right now?"

"I'm thirty-seven, Max. And you've made that joke the last three days in a row, now. It stopped being funny after the first time."

"Hey, I'm not trying to be funny. I can't help it if I'm blinded by your youthful radiance."

"Yeah, okay," she said with a doubtful laugh. "How about you, Robby? Need a refill?"

"Oh, yes. Thank you, darlin'."

Colt found himself wondering if this was how normal people interacted with one another. It was tedious and exhausting, and yet...

Not wholly terrible, he supposed. He tried to imagine himself up at that bar, one day, old and crotchety. Would he be nearly as personable as those two? Hell, would he even be welcome in a place like this?

And Stephanie and Thomas? What would they be like when they were older? Would they hate being around him? Would they be able to have normal conversations with people?

He didn't know why he was getting so worked up about the future all of a sudden. Maybe Boh was right. Maybe he'd been spending too much time in the woods with no one but a grim reaper to talk to.

When the ice cream arrived, he was more than glad for the distraction. The twins seemed to appreciate the taste quite a bit, and he certainly didn't disagree with them. He couldn't even remember how long it had been since he'd last had ice cream.

He closed his eyes and tried to savor each bite for as long as he could.

"Hey, you two hear about that trouble in the capital yesterday?" said Denise.

"No," said Max. "Why, what happened?"

"The Rindol family was back in the news."

Colt opened his eyes.

"Not them again," said Max. "What did they do this time?"

"Well, nothing for certain," said Denise, "but a politician's daughter was kidnapped, and everyone suspects that the Rindols were behind it."

"I thought they were all in jail," said Robby.

"The old guard is," said Denise. "Been there for years. But they're saying this is the work of the new generation of Rindols. And there's no proof, of course."

"Great," said Max. "Just what this country needs. More criminals."

"The government should just exile the lot of them already," said Robby.

Colt's expression twisted a little as the chocolate flavor seemed to spoil in his mouth.

The Rindol family. He recognized the name. Of course he did. He'd learned of it years ago when he'd grown curious about his ancestry.

Rindol was his grandmother's maiden name. The same grandmother who had immigrated to Atreya from this little country called Snider.

"They've been causing problems since before I was born," said Max. "People like that'll never stop. And they raise their kids to be just as bad as them or worse."

Colt eyed Stephanie and Thomas another time.

Both of their faces were covered in melted brown ice cream, and they were staring right back at him. For a moment, he wondered why, before realizing it was simply because he hadn't yet finished eating his own ice cream.

Those big eyes full of longing were almost enough to make him give up his last few bites. Almost. They'd had enough sweets for one day. Anything more and they'd probably puke on him later.

The old men kept talking, but Colt had heard enough. He finished up, paid the bill, and hit the road again.

That pit stop hadn't exactly been the meet-and-greet that he'd hoped for, but his next destination was likely to prove more fruitful in that regard, he felt.

The main park was even busier than he expected it to be. He'd done all of his scouting of the town at night, so he'd only ever seen it when it was empty, but now there were so many people around that he began to wonder if it was some sort of special occasion or if it this was just normal.


<<Page 3 || All Side Story #1 pages || Page 5>>

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 1929

"This next part of the tale is not widely agreed upon by Atreyan historians," said William. "Many, I am sure, would argue that Charles' role in persuading Ambassador Lobo was minimal or even nonexistent. But I tell you: I do not believe it. Two other members of that welcoming party wrote of their experience, and they both stated that Lobo was incredibly unpleasant from the moment he set foot in the palace. He refused to try any local cuisines and instead demanded that every meal include certain foods, one of which was carambola, a fruit which only grows on the other side of the world in Ardora."

"Geez..."

"He was also reportedly disrespectful toward King Domitrus and even made a pass at the man's wife--along with several other married women."

Hector pressed his lips together flatly as he painfully imagined that.

"However," the King continued, "on the third day of his visit, his attitude suddenly and dramatically changed. He became much more accommodating and amiable. He even apologized for his past behavior."

Hector scratched his cheek, still a bit skeptical. "And you think Charles was behind that?"

"I do."

"But..." Hector was worried he might spoil the King's enthusiasm by saying this, but he needed clarification. "Lobo's own accounting of those events never even mentioned a Charles Belgrant."

"Ah!" Instead than looking upset, the King's expression lit up even more. "You have read it?"

Oh, crap, he'd intended to keep that to himself, hadn't he? "Er, y-yeah..."

"Wonderful!" The man's smile only broadened, but he tilted his head at Hector, too. "Why do you seem so embarrassed?"

"Uh... I... ah..." Aw, shit, what should he say? Maybe just the truth? "I... I don't know."

The man's brow depressed with either confusion or pity--or possibly both. "You are a very strange young man."

Hector just kind of rubbed his neck and averted his gaze.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Page 1928

"In the end," said William, "I believe this tournament served as a springboard for Charles into the upper class. Naturally, in the wake of the tourney, Paul's reputation skyrockets, and his friendship also grows even stronger. Nearly every event to which Paul is invited, Charles also attends.

"And now, finally, we arrive at the heart of the story. The push for independence. Charles' role as a mediator between the aristocracy and the lower classes is more important than ever. He understands the plight of the common man, and he is also able to articulate his points to the lords and ladies without slighting them or otherwise incurring their wrath.

"Within six months of the Tourney at Brighton Castle, Charles has gained a reputation for charm and persuasiveness. It is he who convinces the many advisors to King Domitrus to build Bosliat Palace as show of wealth and power to all who would later visit our nation."

Hector was still listening, but in a parallel thought, he couldn't help being surprised at something.

There was a castle in Brighton? Was it still standing to this day? What did it look like? What kind of fortifications did it have? Was it still functional?

"It was for this reason," the King was saying, "that I believe Domitrus chose Charles to be a member of the welcoming party for Nominus Lobo, the now famous ambassador of the Mohssian Empire who would later convince the emperor to grant Atreya its independence."

Hector merely nodded. He'd read Lobo's personal account of events just the other day, but somehow, mentioning that now seemed like a bad idea--like he would be trying to show off, maybe. That, and he didn't want to interrupt the King. He enjoyed observing the man's apparent passion for his subject matter as he spoke.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Page 1927

"It does not paint a very 'noble' picture, does it?" said William.

Hector had a question that he both did and did not want to ask. "Was... was King Domitrus' faction doing that, too? Cheating?"

"The exact truth of the matter is unclear, but it would not surprise me if that were the case. At the very least, I suspect that Charles did something because of what happens at the climax of the tourney.

"Paul Greenway is alone in the final melee against four mounted opponents. Half of his quad had become suddenly ill and were therefore unable to participate. His only companion in the fight was killed almost immediately, and even his own horse threw him off and fled the arena."

Hector could guess where this was going. "And he still won?"

"Yes. In a miraculous display of ability, Paul Greenway is able to win the day single-handedly."

"Do you think he was a servant?" Hector asked.

"That is one possibility," said the King, "but by all accounts that I have read, Paul went on to live a largely unremarkable life thereafter. Never again did he distinguish himself in any military matters, and he died peacefully in his sleep at the age of seventy-three."

"Hmm."

"While it is possible that he could have hidden his abilities for the rest of his life or that these records could simply be false, I am now of the opinion that Charles gave Paul some manner of supernatural aid."

"Were there any details of the fight itself?"

"Only that his opponents never landed a single blow on him. This, despite him being lightly wounded earlier in the tournament."

"That does sound pretty suspicious..." Hector wondered if even the Scarf of Amordiin would allow him to avoid getting hit by four simultaneous opponents on horseback. Eh, maybe it could. He almost wanted to give it a try.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Page 1926

"I see," said the King. "In any case, the tournament in Brighton that I am speaking of is perhaps different from what you might be imagining." Before continuing, he seemed to catch himself, and then smirked. "Then again, perhaps it is exactly what you, of all people, would imagine."

Hector cocked an eyebrow at that. "What do you mean by that?"

"Heh. Because it is a knight's tourney."

Hector was unsurprised. Of course it was. Was there any other kind of tournament three hundred years ago? Well, on second thought, Hector supposed it could've been one of those super old sports for rich people, like polo or something.

Oh, but this was what the King meant, wasn't it? That he, of all people, would already be imagining it correctly.

Hmm.

"In terms of physical prowess, I am sure this tournament pales in comparison to those featuring the monstrous knights of Intar or Sair," said the King, "but I feel it is nonetheless still an event of virtually incomparable importance where the history of Atreya is concerned.

"Charles, of course, is not a knight, so he does not personally participate, but at the beginning of the tournament, he befriends one Paul Greenway, who does participate--and in spectacular fashion, no less.

"You see, Paul is one of many knights who support Domitrus, but they are still outnumbered by those who support Linus. As far as the Empire is concerned, the official prize of the tournament is merely coin and horses, but unofficially, there is a quiet agreement among the lords that whichever faction wins will be the one that they all rally behind in pursuit of independence.

"As you might imagine, this raises the stakes quite a bit. In particular, the melee is especially brutal, where over a dozen men are killed, and even more are wounded. There are rumors of sabotaging horses and equipment, rampant bribery, and even attempts to assassinate competitors while they sleep."

Hector was staring. "Holy crap..."

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Question for mobile users

Those of you reading on mobile devices, do you prefer the desktop layout (how it is right now), or the supposedly "mobile" layout (the way it was yesterday)?

I ask because whenever I'm on a mobile device these days, I actually find the default mobile theme for this site to be a huge pain in the ass to navigate and not very flexible, whereas the desktop theme lets me zoom in/out as I please or rotate and read horizontally (which is actually quite comfortable on a phone, imo). This desktop theme also preserves the "next page" and "previous page" links that are supposed to appear beneath each post, whereas the "mobile theme" forces you to scroll all the way down below the comments sections (and Disqus' ads, which I can longer deactivate without paying Disqus a monthly fee, btw) in order to find those same links. Which is especially annoying when trying to binge-read.

But the fact of the matter is, I'm not on mobile all that often, so a change like this won't really affect me all that much. That's why I'm wondering what you guys think. According my site analytics, something like 70% or more of you are using mobile devices, so please, share your opinions with me on this subject. Or just yell at me to change it back. It's okay. I can take it.

Page 1925

Perhaps it was a bit late into the conversation, but Hector decided to pick one of the conference chairs and sit down as he listened.

The King followed suit with barely a pause. "I believe that Charles, at this point, may have already been in possession of the special object in question."

"Really?"

"Yes, I think his appointment as mediator might just be odd enough to have been instigated via some supernatural means."

"Hmm."

"In any case, the job of the mediators at this time is very important. Though the aristocracy may be loathe to admit it, they need the public's support on grand matters of state such as this, lest they end up having to fight both a revolutionary war and a civil war simultaneously. And moreover, there is no definitive Atreyan royalty yet. The aristocracy can choose anyone to lead them at their own discretion, of course, but if they pick someone who is sufficiently despised by the commoners, then that too might very well result in a quick demise for this fledgling nation."

'Y'know, I really appreciate all these unnecessary-yet-still-relevant-and-interesting details,' said Garovel. 'This is a man after my own heart.'

Hector knew the reaper wasn't being sarcastic.

"And so," the King went on, "Domitrus Lumenbel emerges as a candidate for rule. He has both the pedigree and disposition for it. We know now, of course, that he went on to become Atreya's first king, but he was not without competition. His foremost rival in this endeavor is Linus Vollier, and in the competition between these two men, Charles becomes a significant factor. You see, there is a tournament being held in Brighton." The King paused again, apparently remembering. "Your hometown, no?"

"Oh, uh, actually, I was born in Selbury," said Hector. "But my family moved around a lot when I was younger, so... uh, I don't really... feel like I have a hometown, I guess." After a beat, he felt compelled to add, "I do like Gray Rock so far, though."

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Page 1924

"Well, I am pleased to please," said William.

Hector smiled but also cocked an eyebrow at the man.

"Heh." The King's expression was briefly distant with memory. "My father used to say that all the time. He greatly enjoyed making other people happy." After a moment, the nostalgia in his eyes passed. "But I suppose we are getting sidetracked again. Where am I in Charles' story?"

"He's meeting revolutionaries around the Empire," said Hector.

"That's right. It is at this time that the Atreyan independence movement begins to gain popularity--in large part, I think, because the idea of achieving it peacefully is put forth by a young and vibrant Domitrus Lumenbel. The news of all the inhuman violence taking place elsewhere in the world has likely soured the general public to any and all notions of war. Charles, meanwhile, returns home after another long journey abroad, and this is where his story becomes... questionable."

Hector just tilted his head and waited.

"As far as I have been able to tell, up until this point in his life, Charles Belgrant has had no direct contact with any members of the aristocracy. He has built up quite a network of friends and associates all across the Empire--and perhaps even beyond it--but no Atreyan nobles have ever been among them. Until, that is, his long-time involvement in the independence movement propels him to the forefront of discussion between the aristocracy and the lower classes.

"Why he is chosen as one of the mediators between these clashing groups... is unclear. Perhaps it is merely his charisma, but it still seems strange to me, given the rather oppressive era in which this took place, that someone without even a drop of noble blood would have been picked for such a task. Every other mediator mentioned is someone of this type. A distant cousin's fifth son. An eccentric lord's stepchild. Lower nobles, yet nobles nonetheless. But not Charles."

Monday, November 18, 2019

Page 1923

William continued. "Charles becomes involved in the independence movement several years before it begins to pick up steam with the general public. He continues to travel to other countries regularly for various reasons, but increasingly, those reasons involve speaking with prominent revolutionaries across the Empire." The King paused, eyeing Hector a moment. "The Rainlords were among them. Lluc and Marcelo Redwater. Perhaps you know of them?"

The last name certainly rang a bell, but he didn't recognize the first ones.

Garovel chimed in privately. 'Those two were the chief instigators of the Redwater Uprising. I'd be happy to explain all about them later.'

Hector didn't doubt the reaper's enthusiasm. "The Redwater Uprising," was all Hector chose to say to the King, however.

"Yes. Now that I'm thinking of it, Warrenhold had an oblique connection to that ordeal as well, did it not?" He smiled, but his eyes seemed to hold a keener interest behind them. "What an interesting coincidence."

Garovel was chortling. 'Is this guy some kind of history nut?'

Hector was beginning to think so.

'We should talk to him more often.'

That pulled a small laugh out of Hector, despite trying to hold back. And at the King's apparent curiosity, he tried to clarify. "I think my reaper likes you, Your Highness."

"Oh? I am... flattered. I think."

"Yeah, it's a compliment."

The man looked aimlessly around the room. "Well, thank you then, wherever you are."

Hector pointed the reaper out for him, and the King corrected his line of sight.

'Hey, tell him my name.'

"His name is Garovel, by the way."

"Ah, yes, that sounds familiar. Helen may have mentioned him before."

Garovel gasped. 'Now I'M flattered. Tell him how flattered I am.'

"Now he's flattered, too."

'Tell him how smart and handsome I am, as well.'

'Shut up, Garovel.'

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 3

<<Page 2 || All Side Story #1 pages || Page 4>>

“What exactly is this blessing supposed to accomplish?” said Colt.

“Ah...” Alice seemed to lose a bit of her fervor at that and recoiled a couple steps away from him. “I apologize f-for, um...”

Now Colt was just confused. Why was she apologizing again? He’d merely asked--

Oh. Right.

His question had probably sounded rhetorical or snide, as most of the things that came out of his mouth tended to. Bohwanox had warned him about that not too long ago, when they were discussing how he could avoid making the people of this town hate his fucking guts.

I thought you didn’t care what anyone thought about you,’ Bohwanox had said to him.

Of course I care,’ Colt had told him. ‘If I end up being ostracized, then so will the kids.

That had turned into a very long conversation.

“I’m not trying to be a dick,” said Colt. “I’m asking because I actually want to know. This blessing of yours is supposed to be helpful in some way, isn’t it? Like a four leaf clover or something?”

“Oh. Um.” She seemed suddenly amused. “Well. First of all, it’s not my blessing. It’s a blessing from the Goddess of Light, Cocora.”

“Right...”

“And secondly,” Alice went on, “while you could think of it like a lucky charm of sorts, I feel you might be missing the deeper meaning behind it.”

“Which is?” said Colt. Stephanie’s little hands were reaching towards him and grabbing at his jacket, so he decided to pick her up while he was listening.

“The purpose of a blessing is to share one’s good fortune with others,” said Alice, smiling warmly now. “I am blessed, therefore I must bless others.”

She considered herself blessed? Colt supposed everything was a matter of perspective, but knowing what he did about her, he was a bit surprised that she would go so far as to say that about herself.

“Um, sir?” came Fred Millerman’s voice again, and Colt turned to see a picture of a stroller with two seats on the monitor. “Sorry to interrupt, but how does this look?”

There were multiple pictures to go through, actually, and Colt took a minute to sift through them. It certainly looked like a step up from the last one. He gave the man a nod and pulled out his wallet.

He was reluctant to part with any of his cash, especially because he didn’t have any actual income to replace it with, but this was a worthwhile investment, he figured. He knew he’d have to find a way to get his hands on more of the local currency eventually, though. The current stash of marcks that Gina had helped him attain wasn’t going to last forever, and he had no intention of asking for her assistance again.

“Thank you for your patronage,” said Fred Millerman after Colt had finished paying. “It should arrive in about a week. Or, if you prefer, I can put a rush order on it for another thirty marcks and have it here by this afternoon.”

Hadn’t wanted to mention that added fee up front, eh? “A week’s fine.” He’d lasted this long without a stroller, after all.

The other man nodded. “If you provide your phone number, I will text you as soon as it arrives.”

“Thanks, but I’ll just come back in a week.”

Fred paused a moment at that. “Very well, sir.”

What, did everyone around here give out their number like it was nothing? Colt didn’t even have a phone, aside from the emergency burner he was reserving for calls from Hector. Perhaps he could have mentioned not owning a phone to ease Fred’s apparent discomfort, but that would technically be a lie, and he only wanted to lie when he saw no other reasonable alternative. Saying nothing seemed plenty reasonable here.

With his business concluded, he turned to leave and found Alice waiting to finish their conversation with apparent eagerness.

“So do you mind if I lay hands on them?” she asked again, hand sanitizer at the ready.

For some reason, he really, REALLY wanted to tell her to fuck off, but he thought better of it. “Yeah, alright, go ahead.” He set Stephanie back down in the shopping cart next to Thomas.

Alice took a moment to rub the sanitizer on her hands and then touched the children on the tops of their heads. She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them, and smiled at Colt. “Thank you for allowing me to do that. I hope you have a wonderful day.” She picked up her carrying bag and began walking to the checkout counter.

Wait, what? That was it?

He blinked a couple times as he processed what just happened. All that fuss made over so trivial a thing? Should he be pissed off? Or just--?

Oh, whatever.

He checked the kids one more time, just to make sure she hadn’t planted a tracking device on them or some other ridiculous shit. He was ready to leave the store finally, but he took his sweet time, as the kids seemed to be enjoying their little ride in the shopping cart. He was also somewhat interested in the conversation going on behind him at the checkout counter.

“Hey, Fred.”

“Hi, sweetheart. How is your day going?”

“Oh, just fine, thanks. How’s yours?”

“Cant complain.” There came a pause. “...I see you’re buying more cleaning supplies. Vandalism again?”

She gave a small sigh. “Yeah...”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart. How bad?”

“It... could’ve been worse.”

“I’ll send Todd over to help later. Assuming that boy ever shows up for work again.”

“Oh, you don’t have to do that. I can take care of it on my own.”

“Wasn’t sayin’ you couldn’t. Just that you don’t have to.”

Colt supposed he’d heard enough and decided to return to his car. No sense in loitering around like an asshole, and it sounded like they might go on talking for a while.

That proved to be an incorrect assumption, however. After loading up his few items and getting the twins fixed safely into their car seats, Alice exited the store as well.

There came a moment of awkwardness as she just stood there, watching him and perhaps debating whether or not she should try to talk to him again.

For some reason, he waited for her. So far, it didn’t seem like she had much clout with the other locals, so it wasn’t like he needed to get on her good side or anything, but even so, something still compelled him to wait there for her, hand on the driver’s side door.

“...Was there something else?” he finally said before the silence and waiting could become too unbearable.

She blinked, perhaps realizing how weird she was being. “Oh, I’m sorry for bothering you. It’s just... I haven’t seen you around here before. Are you visiting family?”

What fucking business was that of hers? He’d already been interrogated by the sheriff today. Now he had to get it from her, too?

He resisted the urge to say any of that. He couldn’t act like he had in the past. He had to try and be... friendly. These small town folk were going to be nosy. He’d known that when he came here today.

“...I’m thinking about living here, actually,” said Colt.

Her eyes widened at that. “Really?!”

Colt was surprised by the excitement in her voice and on her face. If he were a younger man, he might’ve interpreted it as an expression of romantic interest.

If he were a younger man. And if he hadn’t come to distrust women on principle.

He didn’t trust men, either, of course, but there was something particularly deceptive about women, he’d come to think. And he’d become especially wary of beautiful women. There was undoubtedly something sinister in the way they could slip past an otherwise cautious man’s defenses.

He wasn’t going to make that mistake ever again.

Rather than be passive aggressive about it, however, he decided to confront the issue bluntly. “What’re you so excited about?” he asked her, sounding perhaps a bit more surly than he’d intended.

“Oh--uh, it’s just that we don’t usually get people who stick around,” she said. “A new sheep in my flock is quite a blessing, I would say!”

It took everything he had not to roll his eyes.

After a beat, she hastily added, “Ah--not that I think you can’t take care of yourself, of course. Ooh, I hope you did not find that insulting. I honestly did not mean it that way, oh...”

“Don’t worry about it.” A part of him still wanted to tell her to fuck off, but he resisted. He did, however, decide to say, “Stop apologizing so much. It’s annoying.”

She opened her mouth but seemed to catch herself.

Then, nothing.

Shit.

The silence was quickly becoming uncomfortable. He wanted to get back in his car and drive away without another word, but she looked like she wanted to keep talking. What was she waiting for, then? For him? What the fuck was he supposed to say?

Thankfully, though, she did manage to find her voice again. “Where are you from?”

Another question he didn’t much care to answer. He did have a cover story prepared, though. “Dante,” he said. He could have elaborated, of course, but he didn’t think there was much sense in doing so unprompted. The fewer lies he was forced to tell, the better.

“Oh, really? Is it nice there?”

“It’s like anywhere else,” said Colt. “Except maybe colder. People included.” Having visited there a few times in his youth and having driven through the entire length of the country on his way here to Snider, he was fairly confident in that answer.

“Do you miss it at all?” she asked.

“Not especially,” he said. Wow, this lady was persistent. To what end, though? To build some sort of rapport with him? Possibly. Religious folk could certainly be that way. But given everything else he knew about her, he was more inclined to think that she was simply desperate for human interaction.

After another noticeable pause, she said, “I’m actually from Richland, myself. Ritoma Falls. Ever been there?”

“Can’t say I have.”

“Oh, it’s a lovely city. So full of life and... ah... Well, the scenery alone would...” For whatever reason, she just trailed off and allowed silence to return.

What the hell was wrong now? Colt had no idea.

It didn’t look like she was going to find her words again, though, so he decided that he’d better help her out, or they would be here all day. “Maybe I’ll visit it one day. Anyway, I’d better go. It was nice meeting you.”

“Ah, oh, likewise!”

He finally got into his car.

“I hope to see you at mass this weekend!” she said right before he started the engine.

There was no way in hell that was happening, but he forced a smile through the windshield and gave her a wave goodbye as he backed out of his parking spot.

When he was back on the main road, he allowed himself a sigh of exasperation. He heard someone giggling in the backseat and saw Thomas in the rear view mirror with a big grin on his tiny face. Colt smiled back, not wanting to spoil his son’s good mood, but he couldn’t conceal his confusion, either. “What’re you so happy about, huh?”

“Daddy scared,” said Thomas.

At that, Colt had to pull the car over to the side of the road and turn around to face his son. “Excuse me?” he said through a laugh.

“Daddy scared!” said Thomas, louder this time and still giggling.

Stephanie wasn’t laughing but nodding instead, in an almost professorial manner. “Daddy scared,” she concurred.


<<Page 2 || All Side Story #1 pages || Page 4>>

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 1922

A special item, huh?

After everything that happened during his last treasure hunt, Hector wasn't terribly excited to get involved in another one.

Still, he couldn't deny that his curiosity was piqued. "Do you have any clue what this 'special item' actually was?" he asked.

"Not exactly," said William. "I was hoping that you would be able to help me discover more details--or the item itself, even."

"Ah--hmm." Hector nearly asked how the King expected him to be of any help, but he held his tongue. It seemed like the man had more to say, anyway.

"The only clues I currently have are those that can be gleaned from the story of Charles and our nation's independence. And that it is not much from which to work."

Hector bobbed his head, then shrugged. "Well. It's better than nothing. Tell me."

"Very well," said William. "There are various tellings of the tale, but they all begin the same way: with Charles having the spirit of an explorer from a very young age. He enlists in the military not in order to serve the Empire, but instead simply to escape Sunland, his hometown. And a life of poverty, perhaps.

"His time in the Mohssian army is always glossed over in the tales, and his service records paint a rather uneventful picture as well, but I feel that something quite crucial must have happened to him during this period of his life, because in every telling of his story, he returns to Atreya a changed man. He is charismatic and confident. He gets married and starts a family. He quickly builds a reputation for himself as a reliable and personable man. And though he is not described as extravagant, he never seems to struggle financially, either."

Hector already had more questions, but he decided to just concentrate on listening for now.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Page 1921

The King took a deliberate breath. "I am saying there may be evidence--which I previously dismissed as mere superstition--that my ancestor used something from your realm of expertise in order to help secure Atreya's independence from the Mohssian Empire."

"Something like what?" said Hector.

"Some type of object, I think."

"Why do you think that?"

"Stories told among my family imply the existence of such an object. And more recently--" William reached into his coat and retrieved something. "--I discovered this."

It was a small, misshapen book, leathery and brown apart from the black edges on one side, where it looked like a chunk had been ripped out of it--or burned out, perhaps.

"The ancestor in question was named Charles Belgrant," the King said. "Unfortunately, this is not his journal. From what I have gathered, he may not have even known how to read or write, despite being the one who elevated my family into the upper class. Instead, this is the journal of his eldest daughter, Irina Belgrant."

Hector was sufficiently intrigued. "And what does it say?"

"Well, as you can see, it is somewhat... charred. I believe this was the result of the tragic fire which nearly ended my family's bloodline--and also burnt Belgrant Castle to the ground."

"Wow, uh... I'm sorry to hear that."

"As was I."

That last bit of information sparked an incredulous question from Hector. "How many times has that castle been destroyed, by the way?"

The man took a moment to think. "Four, I believe."

Hector's eyes widened a little. "Seriously?"

The man nodded. "But we are digressing. This journal, as you might imagine, gives only a partial picture of Charles' life and accomplishments, but having pored through its pages multiple times now, I can say with some confidence that it corroborates the notion that Charles was in possession of some type of special item--if only briefly. It also mentions him losing it, though the text is unclear as to when this occurred."

Friday, November 15, 2019

Page 1920

"Before Atreya was born, this land belonged to the Mohssian Empire," said William. "And at that time, the noble House of Belgrant did not exist, either--unlike virtually every other family that is present at the Gala tonight. As far as the aristocracy is concerned, we are still comparatively young."

"You're talking about over three hundred years ago," said Hector. "If your house is young, then what does that make mine?"

The man gave a faint laugh. "You have a point, but such is the nature of this country's aristocracy." He paused, perhaps to regather his thoughts. "Regardless, the story of how my family rose to the noble class is intimately tied to the story of Atreya's independence."

"Er, really?" said Hector. "I, uh... I happened to be reading about that subject the other day, and I don't remember seeing the name Belgrant mentioned."

"Ah, yes. We were given little credit for our role, historically. The nobles of the era likely thought that our ascension into the aristocracy was enough of a reward."

"I see..."

"But if you know the story of Atreya's acquisition of independence, then you know that it was a peaceful affair accomplished with no bloodshed."

"Yeah," affirmed Hector. "And it was even more impressive because of how violent things were at the time."

"Indeed," said William. "Some might even argue that it was more than impressive. They might say that it was a genuinely impossible feat."

Hector wasn't sure what he was getting at.

"Such claims, when I heard them in the past, I did not take seriously," said William. "And why would I? It was an achievement to be admired, not questioned--not used to fuel conspiratorial or magical thinking."

Hector couldn't conceal the confusion on his face. "What are you trying to say?"

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Page 1919

William guided Hector to the eastern hallway, then into a small conference room. A couple of palace staff members were using it, but when the King asked to borrow it for a few minutes, they were practically falling over themselves to accommodate him.

Once they were alone, William walked to the other end of the long table in the middle of the room. While he waited for the man to begin talking again, Hector noticed Garovel phase through the wall.

'What're you talking about in here?'

'Don't know yet,' said Hector. 'The King seems kind of... apprehensive for some reason.'

Garovel didn't get the chance to inquire further, because William began talking.

"This has been stewing in my mind for some months now, and yet with all of that time to prepare my thoughts, I am still uncertain about where to begin."

Hector gave a sympathetic frown. The man sounded like he needed reassurance, so Hector decided to say, "Whatever it is, I'm listening."

The King spared him a glance. "I appreciate that."

And there was more silence, but Hector chose to just be patient.

"In this past year," said William, "I have come to realize that the world is far stranger and more terrifying than I ever dared imagine. In particular, learning about the existence of reapers has caused me to reevaluate my perspective on a great many things."

Still, Hector merely waited.

"...How much do you know about my family?" the King asked. "About House Belgrant?"

"Ah... not very much, I guess."

"Are you at all familiar with the story of how House Belgrant came to be?"

Hector shook his head.

"Then perhaps I should tell it to you before I say anything more. Forgive me if this seems self-indulgent. That is not my intent. I do not mean to waste your time or mine."

"Okay..."

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Page 1918

"Your Highness," Hector said with an uncertain bow. "How are you feeling?"

The King smiled at him. "Quite well, thank you. And are you in good health, my young friend?"

"Ah--yeah. I'm--er--thank you." Crap, why was he getting nervous again? Sure, he didn't know all that much about King William compared to the Queen, but they were just exchanging pleasantries here. Why was that beginning to feel more stressful than talking business with a bunch nobles he'd never met?

"You certainly look well," said William. "Unlike the poor Lt. General over there."

They both glanced at Harper, who was unconscious again. Perhaps Darsihm had knocked him out to prevent him from drinking more.

That made Hector curious, though. "Have you been getting to know him?"

"I have. And I must say, I find his company quite enjoyable when he is sober."

Hector bobbed his head. "I found it quite enjoyable when he was drunk, too."

The King chortled. "At first, I was worried that such inebriation would hinder his ability to protect my wife, but he was happy to demonstrate for me earlier this evening that he could turn it on and off as easily as flipping a switch."

Hector wondered if the King knew about the longer term ramifications of 'turning it off,' but he supposed it didn't matter that much.

"You servants are very curious," said William. "The term 'servant' hardly even seems appropriate, given all of which you are capable."

Hector could only bob his head again. He was pretty sure that the man already knew all about reapers as well, so he didn't try to clarify that point.

"But I digress," said the King. "There was a matter that I have been wishing to discuss with you. Perhaps we could talk in private?"

Hector was a bit surprised to hear that, honestly, considering he'd already had a serious conversation with the Queen earlier this evening, but he certainly wasn't about to turn the man down, either. "Ah--sure. Lead the way."

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Page 1917

'Germal?' said Garovel. 'That's an Ancient Melmoorian folk hero. How do you even know that name?'

"Mugh?" was all Harper had to say.

Darsihm chimed in for him. 'You're very knowledgeable. But as it so happens, Germal is also currently the name of a prominent member of Abolish. Perhaps you've heard of him without realizing it. The Liar of Lyste?'

'Ah, yes, I remember that moniker,' said Garovel. 'Have the two you ever encountered this person?'

'We have not,' said Darsihm, 'but one of our superiors has taken a keen interest in him--an interest which I think has rubbed off on Harper here.'

Harper looked like he wasn't even listening, anymore. He was staring at the bartender, who was busy pouring a glass of wine for a different guest.

'When he's sober, anyway,' the reaper added.

'Hmm. Which superior would that be, if you don't mind my asking?'

Darsihm took a moment to perhaps deliberate whether or not he should share that information with them. 'Captain General Frederick. I'm not at liberty to share any more than that, I'm afraid. I probably shouldn't have even shared that much, honestly, but I feel you've earned a modicum of trust.'

'I understand,' said Garovel. 'Believe me, there's no need to explain yourself.'

The reapers kept talking, but a familiar voice acquired Hector's attention.

"Lord Goffe?"

He turned to see King William standing there, looking quite regal in his formal attire. His coat was mostly white laced with silver, aside from the big blue sash that extended diagonally down his chest. The man's missing arm wasn't all that noticeable if one wasn't looking for it, but Hector was. In fact, it was usually the first thing he thought of when seeing the King, and that probably wasn't going to change anytime soon.

Hector had no intention of ever forgetting the brutality that Abolish had visited upon this innocent man.

Upon his king.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Page 1916

'Mm, sort of,' the reaper said privately. 'We can suppress it temporarily, and we can numb the pain of a hangover, but they just come back stronger later.'

Perhaps Darsihm was guessing what they were thinking, because he said, 'If there's anything important you want to talk about, I can put him back to normal for you real quick.'

"What're you sayin'? I'm not broken. I'm feelin' great, right now. I could talk about anything. I could tell you the secrets of the universe. Ask me whatever you want. I've got an answer."

'Is that right?' said Garovel through mild laughter, and Hector could already tell that the reaper planned to screw with him.

"You're damn right it is," said Harper, sniffing loudly.

'Alright, then I've got a question for you,' said Garovel. 'What is the meaning of life?'

"Oh, duuude. What a great question. Y'know somethin'? You're a great questioner. Anyone ever tell you that? 'Cuz it's true. Hundred percent. So great. If I could give you an award, right now, I would. I'd vote for you, too. Come election time. You'd be a great prezi-p-prezi... m-minister."

'Well, thank you.' Garovel sounded like he could barely contain himself.

"You think I'm kiddin'? I'm not. You'd kill it. I'm sure you could fix. Just. Everything, y'know?"

Garovel was nodding along. 'Do you even remember my name?'

Harper squinted at him. Then he inhaled so much air at once that Hector wondered if he was trying to inflate his whole body until he popped like a balloon. "Yeah, o'course I 'member your name. You're... V... Vvv--?"

'Starts with a "G",' advised Darsihm, who apparently didn't feel like keeping that bit of assistance private.

"Mm." Harper thought for a long moment. "Grant?"

'That's a Vanguardian Field Marshall,' said Garovel. 'Good try, though.'

"Buh..." Harper scratched his head. "Germal?"

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Page 1915

Amelia and her apparent secretary set to work writing up apology letters, including requests to reschedule. It looked like Hector was going to be having sporadic meetings with the rest of the Atreyan lords for the next two or three months.

He wasn't terribly excited by that notion, but at least it freed up what little remained of the evening. He still hadn't even gotten to talk to Harper Norez yet.

When he finally did, however, it was not quite the reunion that he had expected.

'Well, look who it is,' said Darsihm, Harper's reaper. 'A pleasure to finally see you two again.'

'Likewise,' said Garovel, though his hollow eye sockets were drifting towards the unconscious man sitting at the bar. 'Uh...'

'Oh, ah--sorry.' Darsihm tapped his servant on the back of his head, and Harper jolted awake.

"Mugh?!"

Hector caught the stocky man before he fell off his bar stool. When Harper turned and squinted confusedly at him, Hector returned a flat smile. "Hello, Mr. Norez..."

The man needed a moment. "Oh, hey." He stood up without Hector's help and suppressed a burp. "Great to see you guys. How've you been? You look great. Been workin' out? It shows. Me, I'm doin' good, too, thanks for asking. You guys are so thoughtful, y'know that? There's no one better. Y-you--you guys're just the best. I hope you know that, okay? If anyone tells you different, y'just--" He had to steady himself on the edge of the bar. "Y'just send 'em my way. I'll set 'em straight, mkay? And y'know what else? This country of yours is great, too. You should be so proud of all the things that, uh, y'know. You have. Here. It's just great. Everyone's great. I hope we can--"

And the man just kept talking.

Hector was wholly entertained, but he did have a question. 'Garovel, can reapers fix drunkenness in their servants?'

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Page 1914

Hector's next few meetings went a bit more smoothly, perhaps because the Madame Carthrace was present for them. She didn't speak all that much, but when she did, it usually served to point the conversation in a helpful direction.

The meeting with Domitrus Vollier left perhaps the biggest impression on Hector. The wealthiest man in the country certainly did not carry himself like everyone else, but Hector wouldn't go so far as to call him arrogant, either. The man was very collected and polite, and his relationship with Amelia seemed somehow both affectionate and hostile, though maybe that was just some trick of the aristocracy that he didn't quite understand yet.

Oddly enough, Hector ended up kind of liking Domitrus, but he didn't exactly know why.

"He would be a very good ally to have," said Amelia in between meetings. "The Volliers are probably the second most influential family in the nation, at the moment."

Hector wanted to ask about her history with him, but there wasn't much time, and it seemed like there would be a lot to tell.

As the evening drew on, with meeting following meeting following still more meetings, Hector gradually began to feel less like a guest of royalty and more like a prisoner being interrogated.

'How many are left?' he asked Garovel.

'A mere fifty-seven,' the reaper said dryly.

He tried not to sigh audibly. 'Garovel, if I asked you to release my soul right now, would you do it?'

'Maybe if I got to go with you.'

Each meeting was only five to ten minutes, but with so many to get through, it quickly became clear that they were simply not going to be able to finish them all tonight.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Page 1913 -- CXCVII.

'I encourage you to search your memories when you find the time,' said the Weaver. 'One day, you may discover more there than you expect.'

'And what might she discover about you?' said Chergoa.

'I would like to know that myself.'

Chergoa's next words were private. 'She's being evasive again.'

Emiliana was hardly surprised.

Gohvis unfolded his arms, but his tone remained grave. "Whatever the case, you will stop bothering her in her dreams. You will not bother her at all without my permission."

'As you wish, Master.'


Chapter One Hundred Ninety-Seven: 'O, lordly guardian, know thy burdens...'
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Boy, had there been a lot more that Lionel Carthrace had ended up telling Hector. For all the fuss that the guy had made about not wanting to speak ill of his aunt, once he’d finally gotten going, it was like a dam had burst, and story after story flowed out with such force that Hector eventually began to realize that Lionel probably didn't care so much about changing Hector's mind regarding Amelia as he did about finally having someone listen to him complaining about her.

Which seemed odd in its own way. Surely, his other family members would be happy to listen to him complain, no? Then again, perhaps not. Lionel was the head of House Carthrace, after all. Maybe he didn't want them to think he was weak or something by whining a whole bunch.

It didn't really matter, Hector supposed. After a while, he just kind of tuned the guy out and consulted Garovel about how best to extricate himself from the situation.

In the end, Hector relied on the thankfully good excuse that they had many more meetings to get to before the night concluded, and Lionel became abruptly apologetic, having apparently regained control of himself.

And after all that, Hector still didn't really know what to make of Amelia Carthrace and her family.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Page 1912

'Ah.' The Weaver sounded amused for the first time so far. 'I would not call it reincarnation, no. Rather, I suspect it is a higher form of inheritance.'

'A higher form?' said Chergoa. 'You make it sound like some kind of magic.'

'I cannot help how you choose to interpret my perspective,' said the Weaver.

'Hmph.'

'In the matter of inheritance, the Rainlords of Sair already carry quite a pedigree, would you not agree? The ancient Water Dragon walks among us still, does he not? Is it so difficult to believe that this blood of kings might yet hold more secrets?'

Blood of kings? That was one way of putting it, but Emiliana had to disagree on principle. "You seem to know a lot about about me," she said, "I'll grant you that. But you don't know much about Rainlords, do you?"

'Why do you say that?' the Weaver asked.

"We do not suffer kings. We never have." And Emiliana couldn't explain it, but she had felt an unexpected warmth in her chest when those thoughts had occurred to her--and it only swelled further when she spoke them.

Her entire life, she had never once thought that being a Rainlord was anything special. Despite all the stories and lectures and reapers and powers, she had always thought it was just silly bravado. Masculine posturing.

But here and now, all of a sudden, it made complete sense to her.

She was a Rainlord. And she was proud.

'Call it what you like,' the Weaver said. 'The purportedly divine appointment of the Water Dragon is a kingly quality. But that is neither here nor there. All that matters is your inheritance from Agam. Perhaps we should reconsider the potential of such a gift.'

Emiliana was still listening, but she couldn't help feeling suddenly homesick. Something in this strange conversation was making her wonder if she would ever see her family again.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Page 1911

'HER mind is curious?' said Chergoa. 'What about yours?'

'Ah. Flattery? I have not received that in many years.'

'Wasn't what I was getting at, but sure.'

"You still have not answered my question," said Gohvis. "What did you wish to talk to her about?"

The Weaver gave a telepathic sigh. 'If you must know, I was wondering if she remembered me.'

Emiliana blinked a couple times, and she glanced at both Gohvis and Chergoa in bewilderment. "I've never met you. I'm sure I'd remember if I had."

'As I am now, no, I suppose you would not remember me,' said the Weaver. 'And not you as you are now, either.'

For some reason, those words gave Emiliana a chill. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"Stop confusing her," said Gohvis. "You are mistaking her for Agam."

'No, I am not,' said the Weaver. 'Agam, you may recall, would sometimes remember people whom he had never met previously. Places he had never been before. Knowledge which, by all conventional expectations, should not have belonged to him.'

"And as I said, she is not Agam," repeated Gohvis.

'Hmph. Do not play dumb, Master. Her mind is not Agam's, yes, but does it not remind you of him? That curious complexion? His was not perfectly identical, but is the resemblance not still uncanny? I am sure that is why you have brought her here, no?'

Gohvis made no response.

Emiliana was only growing more uncomfortable, but she didn't know what to say, what question to ask.

Apparently, Chergoa did, though, and she didn't hold back, either. 'Are you talking about reincarnation? As in the true, reaperless variety? Because if you are, then I think you're trying to sell me some bullshit, right now. There are plenty of other explanations for why someone might have memories that they didn't recognize as their own.'