Friday, January 31, 2020

Page 2048

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
Ibai nodded with understanding. "I suppose that would be a problem, wouldn't it?"

'Yeah. But anyway, it sounds like listening to anything else that book had to say would just make me angry, so what about the other one you mentioned?'

"Oh, The Theory of Empty Worlds by Hamish Harandel," said Ibai. "That one was kind of neat, but I have a feeling you might hate it, too."

'Oh? And why is that? Does it include more crackpot conspiracies, pseudoscientific musings, or idiotic historical takes?'

Ibai pursed his lips and avoided looking at her. "Maaaybe..."

The reaper gave a small laugh. 'Well, I'll try to keep an open mind this time.'

"Heh, okay." He took a second to consider how best to begin. It was a pretty weird thing to try and explain, he was suddenly realizing. "Um. Basically, the book was trying to put forth this idea that the physical world as we know it is, in truth, comprised of many 'sub-worlds,' so to speak."

'Hmm.'

"Another way of thinking about it might be alternate dimensions, but not in the sense of parallel realities. When I think of parallel realities, I think of alternate versions of myself and everyone else roaming around, living slightly different lives 'n whatnot, but that's not what the author was getting at. In fact, he went on a rather long tangent about how frustrated it made him when people mistook his theory as something like that. That part was interesting. You could really feel his exasperation. It seemed like his theory wasn't very well-received by his scholarly peers."

'...Are you sure you only "skimmed" this book?'

"Yeah, why?"

'Doesn't matter. What made this theory of his different from more conventional ideas of alternate dimensions?'

"Oh, because his versions of alternate dimensions are directly connected to and affected by one another. And most importantly of all, our dimension is the only one with people in it. The only one that's not 'empty,' in other words."

'Ah. So that's why he called it the Theory of Empty Worlds.'

"Yeah."

Page 2047

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
"But you don't believe it, I suppose," said Ibai.

'I don't know,' she said. 'It just seems a little counterproductive to obsess over it when there's no real proof to go on.'

"Hmm-hmm."

'What about those other two books you mentioned? What were those about?'

"One was about shared qualities of famous historical figures," said Ibai. "The Composure of Fate's Arbiters by Jara Hanseth. It has some pretty wild theories of its own, actually."

'Oh, goodie.'

"It puts forth the idea that there's this super-secret 'bloodline of kings' that has existed since ancient times!"

'Uh-huh...'

"The author points to a bunch of ancient people like Rizo the Great, Arnel the Terror, and Makio the Immense, saying that they all emerged from total obscurity to build vast empires."

'Okay, look, I hate to shit on reading, but this is why books are overrated. Comparing Rizo the Great to Arnel the Terror is the stupidest fucking thing I've ever heard in my life. Good god.'

At her reaction, Ibai's eyes widened a bit, and he smiled. He had seen her get like this a few times before when they were discussing reading material, and he couldn't wait to hear more of her opinion.

'I lived through both of those men's eras, and Arnel was such a colossal douche and overall hate-filled bastard that I don't even want to mention his name any more than that. Rizo, meanwhile, was a visionary who actually worked to improve the lives of his subjects. Sure, in some ways he failed at that, but in many others he succeeded. Suggesting that those two guys had anything more than the most superficial qualities in common is utter nonsense. They could not have been more different.'

"Heh heh. You're very passionate."

'Yeah, well. I know a lot of historians try their best, but I also know that a lot of others DON'T. And it pisses me off, because who's gonna correct them, huh?'

"Mm, reapers?"

'Theoretically, yeah. But what about when the reapers are the ones getting it wrong in the first place? We're certainly not perfect, either.'

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Page 2046

"What about the potential for a technological solution to the same problem?" said Ibai, still chewing.

'What do you mean?'

"It's another idea put forth in The Hypothetical Evolution of Friendship--the concept that one day, perhaps, science and technology will be able to accomplish what only you reapers are currently capable of."

Chergoa was silent.

"It makes sense, doesn't it? It might be a very long time, but given the steady march of human ingenuity, it seems all but inevitable, don't you think?"

'Hmm.'

"I think that book had a slight anti-reaper bias, though. The author seemed to take a certain level of delight in the idea that reapers might one day be rendered obsolete."

'That's understandable,' said Chergoa. 'I would wager that reapers, in large part, could be blamed for many of the world's societal problems throughout history. We make for pretty easy scapegoats.'

"The book also discussed a kind of 'secret society' of reapers," said Ibai. "The Andanatt? Or 'Sovereign,' in modern Mohssian? Ever heard of it?"

'I have.'

"And? What do you think of it?"

The reaper was quiet a moment, and she glanced around the room another time.

Ibai looked as well, but it didn't seem like anyone was paying them any attention at all.

'It's tough to say for sure,' said Chergoa. 'I've heard rumors, of course, here and there. But decades go by, or centuries, until I hear something else, and it's hard to tell if it's anything more than someone's overactive imagination.'

Ibai's nose was itchy, so he scratched it. And kept eating. "Well, Kareem Rambata seemed to believe it was real. He even said that Andanatt was the true enemy of all mankind and that it had been actively trying to suppress technological development all over the planet for millennia."

'Yes, I've heard the like before,' said Chergoa.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Page 2045

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
"The book also mentioned instances of 'multi-emergence' and 'counter-emergence.' Battles between emergence-prone servants have historically been known for that type of thing, along with all the collateral damage caused."

'Hmm, it doesn't sound like you only "skimmed" this book,' said Chergoa.

Ibai smiled as he took another bite. "I skim very thoroughly."

'That doesn't--y'know what? Alright. Anything else?'

He thought about it as he chewed. "Mm, don't think so. It had a lot of dates and stuff in it. The author was a very detail-obsessed, I think. Which is cool 'n all, but I got kinda bored. The Hypothetical Evolution of Friendship by Kareem Rambata was able to hold my attention a bit better."

'Oh? And why is that?'

"Because it was full of all sorts of crazy ideas!" A bit of food flew out of Ibai's mouth, but he paid it no mind. "Like, what if it was possible for normal people to sync their souls in the same way that servants and reapers can?"

Chergoa looked unimpressed. 'Is that what the title was referring to by "Friendship?"'

"I think so, yeah. The writer theorized that a strong enough bond of friendship could make up for the lack of a reaper's presence in the relationship."

'Uh-huh...'

"Wouldn't that be neat?"

'Sure. If it wasn't complete horseshit. Such an idea is demonstrably untrue. Thousands of years of servant-reaper history prove it. Honestly, that's one of the dumbest things I've ever heard.'

Ibai's mouth flattened. "Well, if you're gonna be like that, then maybe I won't tell you about the other theories that the book talked about."

'Doesn't sound like I'd be missing out on much,' said Chergoa.

"That's very rude, you know."

'Look, not every book is gonna be a winner, okay? In fact, statistically speaking, most are gonna be stinkers. I know you're a curious guy by nature, and that's good--great, even. But you should really try not to get distracted by crackpot ideas that make no sense.'

"Hmph." He went back to his tendies for comfort.

'Don't get me wrong. They're fun to delve into every now and again for a laugh, but c'mon.'

Page 2044

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
"Oh, it said lots of other stuff," said Ibai. "Have you heard of something called the 'Breaking of Korgum?'"

Chergoa was silent a moment. 'Yes.'

"And did you know that there were tons of famous people who achieved emergence during it?"

'Yes...'

"Like the Devil's Knife, the Man of Crows, Bloodeye, the Hammer, the Gargoyle, the Surgeon Saint. And those are just the ones still alive. There were dozens more who are dead now, like the Red Tiger, Bug Boy, Darkhand, the Owl, the Mad Piper, and so on. There were loads of 'em."

'It is a trend I am familiar with,' said Chergoa. 'And it makes a degree of sense, of course. Those prone to achieving emergence in the first place are generally not the most safety-conscious. They keep throwing themselves into dangerous situation after dangerous situation. It only makes sense that, at some point, their luck runs out. Or the ungodly level of stress gets to them, and they just snap--at which point, any reasonable reaper would release them.'

Ibai had to frown. "That's not a very pleasant way of looking at it."

'Is there a way of looking at it that IS pleasant?'

"Hmm. Maybe not. But I also imagine that their undoings might not have all been their own fault. That kind of fame would place a target on your back, no?"

'Oh, of course. Your kin have a term for that, don't they?'

Ibai nodded. "An astero."

'That's an old Arman word, isn't it? Does it have a literal translation?'

"'Star that burns with the fires of all.' And the word 'all,' in this instance, is specifically meant to include oneself."

'Bit of a mouthful, that. I can see why they wanted a term for it.'

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Page 2043

'Interesting,' said Chergoa, looking around the refectory. 'What else did it say?' Her voice had noticeably lowered. While she couldn't technically "whisper," since the radius of people who would be able to overhear her would always remain the same, she could still control her speaking volume, somewhat.

Ibai knew why, of course. The other people in the room were Gohvis' men. Members of Abolish. Ideally, she didn't want to share information with them needlessly. Chergoa might have come right and told him as much, but unfortunately, she could only speak privately with her own servant, Emiliana.

Ibai didn't know if that should be such a big concern, though. These Abolishers were quite different from the ones he'd met at Dunehall. He couldn't even tell if any of them actually wanted to leave this place. Many of them seemed perfectly content to remain in the Library with Gohvis.

He'd asked a few of them why. They'd all given some variation of the same basic sentiments.

"Because we are safe here, and it is the Master's will."

The loyalty that these people had for Gohvis was not to be underestimated, Ibai felt. Whether it was fear or adoration that motivated them, he couldn't yet tell, but whatever it was, it was strong. It seemed like some of these servants were even more loyal to Gohvis than they were to their own reapers.

But he understood Chergoa's caution, of course. Even if these people planned to stay here indefinitely, it was still a good idea to keep as much information between the two of them as they could. And given that notion, it might've been wiser to move this conversation somewhere other than the refectory, but Ibai felt like it hardly mattered, really. As far as he could tell, there was no location within the Library that could truly guarantee privacy. For all they knew, even the Library itself could've been listening to their conversation.

Technically, he also could've enveloped her with his muddy shadow to conceal her voice for her, but how suspicious would that be?

No, it was better for Chergoa to simply be careful with her words.

Ibai, however, being able to whisper, was quite happy to say whatever he wanted.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Page 2042

~((National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day Special - page 6 of 6))~~
"Well," said Ibai after swallowing his food, "I suppose there were a few other titles that also sounded interesting, like Emergent Phenomena, The Composure of Fate's Arbiters, The Theory of Empty Worlds, and The Hypothetical Evolution of Friendship."

Chergoa needed a second to process all of those.

Ibai had more, though. "Oh, or maybe The Little Grape That Tried His Best, Kaleidoscopes for Kaleido-dopes, and Little Jimmy and the Pear-Shaped Pear."

'...That first batch sounded a little more to my tastes.'

"Hmm. Really? I also saw How to Climb the Ladder of Success by Only Cheating a Little Bit, How to Program a VCR, and Learning to Read Your Own Thoughts."

'Yeah, uh. Still prefer the first ones.'

"Oh, but you might also like--"

'Have you actually read any of these books yet?'

"I usually just skim. Reading titles is super fun, though!"

'Uh-huh...'

"Truthfully, I'm always a little reluctant to actually sit down and try to get into a new book," said Ibai, "because I can't tell you how many times I've ended up disappointed. I see a title that sounds super neato-burrito, only for it to get boring really quickly. It's super unfortunate when that happens."

The reaper paused. 'And how often DOES that happen for you, exactly?'

"Oh, I don't know, maybe ninety-three percent of the time or so."

'I see...'

"Hmm. You think that's too much?"

'Maybe a tad, yeah.'

Ibai resumed eating.

'Well, I don't suppose you happened to skim through any of those first books you mentioned, did you?'

He thought back. "Emergent Phenomena by Roberto del Otoya. That one talked about famous historical instances of emergence among servants. Apparently, it's a bit of a bad omen when lots of people find out you've achieved emergence, because in many of those cases, the servant and reaper pairing were either killed a few years thereafter or otherwise ended their relationship for some reason."

Page 2041

~((National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day Special - page 5 of 6))~~
Typically, when looking for a good spot to sit and eat, Ibai would join the nearest group of people and just start chatting away. He'd gotten to know several of Gohvis' subordinates much better as a result, but today, he wasn't feeling quite so sociable--and he already had Chergoa for company. He settled on a table in the far corner of the room.

'By the way,' said Chergoa as he was sitting down, 'have you found any neat books, lately?'

"Boy, have I!" he said mid-bite. "There was one I saw the other day called The Deadly Cantaloupe and the Five Rings of Mercy."

'I... see. What did you like about it?'

"Oh, I haven't read it yet, but with a name like that, it has to be incredible."

The reaper's tiny, plastic face seemed suddenly even more flat than it already was. 'Anything else?'

He took a minute to chew on that question and his chicken at the same time.

She'd been asking a lot about his reading list, lately, and the question as to why she was so interested had occurred to him a few times. He hadn't bothered to actually ask it, though, because he was a little afraid it might deter future inquiries. And he liked telling her.

Maybe she was honestly just curious, but Ibai had the feeling that she was looking for something. Maybe not something specific, though. Just something to latch onto. Something that might trigger a thousand-year-old memory, perhaps, and present her with an opportunity to learn some phenomenal secret.

In the short time he had known her, Ibai had come to care very deeply for Chergoa, but he was also not blind to the ambition that burned quietly within her.

He kind of liked that about her, too, though. It was good to be so driven.

Page 2040

~((National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day Special - page 4 of 6))~~
"Why did the chicken cross the road?" said Ibai.

'To get to the other side,' finished Chergoa.

"Oh, so you've heard this one before?"

The reaper laughed. 'Yes. Crazily enough, I have.'

"Well, anyway, you see, the reason that joke is funny is because the punchline is so mundane that you don't expect it. And humor, at its core, is all about subverting expectations."

'Uh-huh.'

"With that particular joke, you probably would've expected something sillier like, 'to get to his five-O'CLUCK meeting.'"

'...That's probably a better punchline, actually.'

"Hmm, maybe. And the reason that one is funny is because it's a play on words."

'Yeah, I got that.'

"It's what they call a 'pun.'"

'Okay, please stop,' said Chergoa, though she was laughing again.

"Are you sure you don't need me to keep explaining?"

'I'm pretty sure.'

"Well, I think I've proved my point, anyway."

'I'm really not sure you have.'

"Oh, so you do want me to keep explaining! In that case--"

'Oh, look, we've arrived!' laughed Chergoa. 'Why don't you go pick something out to eat?'

Ibai couldn't deny that he was famished, so he decided to do as she suggested.

The refectory was an interesting place in its own right. A huge, vaulted chamber--the selection of food here rivaled what he had known in Marshrock all his life. Which made very little sense to him, considering the Library of Erudition was located on the dead continent of Exoltha, surrounded by the impassable storm, the Dáinnbolg. It was certainly enough to make him curious about how they were able to maintain such a luxurious stock, but he hadn't been able to solve that mystery yet.

He decided on chicken tenders. A simple meal, perhaps, but an old favorite. His mother had previously chastised him for his "unrefined palette," not befitting a nobleman, but his father had never seemed to mind, so Ibai had never really taken her words in that regard to heart.

Page 2039

~((National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day Special - page 3 of 6))~~
'You should really be more mindful of these things,' Chergoa was saying as they navigated their way through the maze of bookshelves together. Even as a reaper, she had to follow the path along with him. For whatever reason, she was unable to phase through the any part of this building, even the books. 'What would you do if you collapsed from exhaustion, huh?'

For a change, Ibai didn't know what to say--nor did he particularly want to say anything at all. Somehow, he enjoyed listening to her talk to him like this. Her tone may have been a bit harsh or irritated, but it still made him happy, nonetheless.

Heh.

It was a rather long walk, and Chergoa inquired further into the details of the story that he was writing. Ibai was quite pleased to elaborate for her, but after a while, she asked about another subject.

'Still no luck finding any books about aberrations?' she said.

"Nope," said Ibai. "I think our existence might be too recent for this Library. It's tough to find any book that's less than two hundred years old."

'Shame. I bet Gohvis would know more about your kind, but good luck getting it out of him.'

Ibai flashed a quick grin. "He does seem pretty tight-lipped, doesn't he?"

'Ha. Good one.'

"Because he doesn't have lips."

'Yes, I understood the joke, Ibai. You don't have to explain it.'

"Yeah, but I wanted to, though."

'Well, it kind of kills the humor of it when you explain the joke.'

"Mm, I've heard that before, but I disagree. I think it makes it even funnier, actually."

'You do, huh?'

"Yup!"

'Well. Uh. That's. Really weird, but alright.'

"Plus, I think it helps ensure that no one is left out of the joke--which is important, because that's never a good feeling, is it? Missing out on the thing that everyone else is laughing at? That's no fun."

'You've given this more thought than I would've expected.'

"Here, let me tell you another joke."

'Oh, okay, this oughta be good.'

Page 2038

~((National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day Special - page 2 of 6))~~
'Hey, Ibai,' came the voice of Chergoa.

Ibai looked up from his paper to see the reaper hovering over him. To his eyes, reapers were tiny things--little action figures that bobbed amusingly through the air as they moved. He had always enjoyed watching them, though they had not often enjoyed being watched. By him, in particular.

Chergoa, however, didn't seem particularly uncomfortable around him anymore. And he found that quite surprising. Even the reapers of House Blackburn, despite all that they had done to protect him, had still always carried a slight air of uneasiness in his presence. He had long since grown used to it. That was just how reapers were.

But Chergoa was different. She'd been going out of her way to spend time with him, lately.

It was really nice.

'How's the story comin' along?' she asked.

He looked down at what he'd written and discovered many more pages full of text than he'd realized. "Uh. Pretty good, I think. Thanks for asking." It was easy to give her a big smile. "Is there something you need?"

'No. Just checking in with you. You've been writing all day, you know.'

"Have I?" He blinked and scratched the middle of his forehead.

This little desk that he'd been using was wedged into one of the farthest corners of the Library's main chamber. Giant bookshelves surrounded him on all sides, save one narrow gap that led to a zigzagging path back to the middle of the room.

Cramped was one word for it, but he'd found it quite cozy. It was so quiet here, and the smell of books was its own kind of alluring.

'Have you eaten anything today?' Chergoa asked.

Ibai wasn't actually sure. "Um...?"

'Alright, c'mon. You and me. We're going to the refectory right now.'

Ibai chuckled faintly and put his pen down again.

Page 2037

~((National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day Special - page 1 of 6))~~
Ibai returned to his writing.

Despite his lack of experience, his pen moved without the slightest hesitation. The words just flowed.

He hadn't spent long agonizing over what to write about. At first, he considered just compiling and commenting on various reading materials that struck his fancy, but then he began to think that, no, he shouldn't use material that the Library already possessed. He wanted to give this book to the Library as a gift--to make it happy--and he figured that his best chance of doing that was to make something original.

So he resorted to fiction. A little novella. And at the rate he was going, it would probably be finished before long.

He just wrote. He had no idea where the story was going. Hell, he didn't even know where each new sentence was going. He just focused on keeping his hand moving and letting the words fall where they may.

It was surprisingly quite fun. He'd heard about the supposed difficulty of writing, but so far, it had been easy as pie. Almost like he wasn't even doing anything, like he was merely a vessel for the story being told, rather than the one creating it.

He hadn't thought of a title just yet, but thus far, his story was about a snake that could transform into a human. The snake enjoyed being a human so much that he began to question if he hadn't been a human all along and simply forgotten. Was he a snake that could become human? Or a human that could become a snake? Or did it even matter?

Oh, and there were robots. And flying camels. And two sentient bowls of chili that argued over philosophy.

All in all, he was eager to see how it would progress.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 13

<<Page 12 || All Side Story #1 pages || Page 14>>

Bohwanox gave a curt laugh. 'Is it so strange for me to be wondering about my servant's mindset? It's important, isn't it?'

Colt said nothing.

'I'm just as new to this whole reaper-servant thing as you are, remember. If we can come to a better understanding of one another, I think that would be of benefit to both of us, don't you?'

Colt squinted. 'Weren't you the one who said you preferred a business-like relationship between the two of us?'

'It was actually YOU who said you wanted that. I merely said I was fine with it.'

'Either way, are you trying to tell me you've changed your mind?'

'Not at all. Understanding your business partner is just as important as understanding your friends and family. Hell, it might be even MORE important.'

Again, Colt elected to say nothing.

'What, are you afraid I'll tell someone that you enjoy seeing justice done? Oh, my, how scandalous. What will the girls down at the beauty parlor think?'

'I don't have a problem talking about it. I just don't see the point. It's irrelevant.'

'Given the current circumstances, it seems quite relevant to me.'

'You know what else seems relevant? Your wavering neutrality.'

'It's not wavering. I'm still perfectly neutral.'

'Sure about that?' said Colt.

'Yes.'

'But since you have a servant, you're no longer protected by the Old Law, isn't that right?'

'Technically, yes, but the Old Law existed before aberrations. Such beings call the viability of the Old Law into question.'

This was a conversation they'd had before, months ago. Colt didn't feel like reiterating it any further. He already knew that Boh was worried about running into more of those psychotic fuckers. It was rather odd to think about, though. Aberrations were responsible both for his death and for his subsequent revival.

'So are you saying that even if we find this killer, you don't want me to do anything about it?'

It was Boh's turn to fall silent.

Colt eyed the reaper there, hovering adjacent the driver's side window as the car sped down the moonlit service road. He considered prodding the reaper for an answer, but he decided to wait instead.

'It just depends,' Boh finally said. 'Ideally, we'll be able to find an elegant solution.'

'Ideally, the fuckin' cops will find the killer all on their own and never bother me at all.'

They soon arrived back at the cabin, and Colt brought the kids in and prepared them for bed. Thankfully, they were already asleep and so didn't make a fuss. He stayed up a while longer and talked to Bohwanox, mostly reviewing the case as they both understood it thus far.

There were four suspects provided to them by Rex's departed soul: the prisoner Keith Hopper, the cop Leonard Pink, the niece Janet Beaumont, and the still-mysterious Robert Plenty. Additionally, there were at least three more persons of interest: the nephew Jason Margot, the mother Nina Margot, and the still-unnamed ex-wife.

And given all the evidence at the crime scene, it seemed likely that the murder had been premeditated. There seemed to be a degree of caution in the killer's methodology. It would've been difficult for a lone woman to rig up Rex's body like that, but Colt wasn't prepared to rule it out yet.

At length, Colt decided that he should get some sleep. Bohwanox offered to knock him out, but Colt refused, reminding the reaper that the twins would essentially be left unattended if he was out too coldly.

Sure enough, the kids woke up in the middle of the night. They weren't crying, but they were up and about, which was perhaps worse. Colt changed their diapers, gave them some warm water to drink, played with them for a bit, then put them back to bed. They didn't want to cooperate, so he had to be stern, and they soon settled down.

In the morning, once the kids were fed and the chores were done, Colt was faced with the decision of what next step to take with the investigation. Bohwanox departed before dawn to go observe Keith Hopper in his prison cell, as well as the capital cops again. Colt didn't expect to see the reaper again today.

Truthfully, he wanted to just stay home. While he did have a few leads to go on, it wasn't like he could just go around town asking questions. More than anything, he needed to avoid drawing suspicion from the townsfolk. If any of them began to suspect he was investigating their sheriff's death, it would lead to a world of questions and problems that he really did not want to deal with.

So what was the best course of action here, then?

He struggled with that question all morning. He couldn't conduct this investigation like a cop. He had to think outside standard procedures and protocols.

Shit.

The more he thought about it, the more he felt like this case could take a very long time. If the capital cops weren't able to solve it within the next few days, then the odds of them ever doing so dropped significantly, especially in a big city like Lagoroc.

It had to be said, however, that the odds of them solving it within the next few days, statistically speaking, were actually pretty good. In Colt's experience, "solving" cases wasn't usually the problem. The problem was gathering up enough evidence to prove the killer had done it in a court of law--or, in some instances, gathering up enough evidence to convince a chicken shit prosecutor to take the case to trial.

Colt had known a few of those. It was hard tell if a lawyer was scared or just corrupt. Colt suspected that the corrupt ones had a tendency to act scared in order to help conceal their corruption, but either way, the end result was basically the same. Lowlifes going free.

That was the entire reason why he had started taking the law into his own hands back in Brighton. Pure frustration, built up over years of watching justice not done.

At first, it had been surprisingly easy. Just some punks who got what was coming to them. Easily concealed among all the other criminal activity and no one to miss them. Even their own mothers usually weren't that upset.

But over time, he supposed, he must've gotten sloppy. Allowed an obvious enough pattern to form. And that was when that bastard Joseph Rofal took an interest in him. And rather than simply expose him or try to have him killed, Rofal sought to use him, because apparently his "work" had impressed.

Arrogant fucker.

Colt shook his head, not wanting to dwell on the past. It was over and done. Rofal was dead, and the world was a better place for it. He needed to focus on the present.

And as much as it pained him to admit, he supposed his best course of action now was to check out the local daycare. While he didn't want to leave his kids there, the place was run by the dead sheriff's mother, Nina Margot. The twins would provide a good excuse for his visit.

By midday, he gathered them up again and headed into Orden again.

The Orderly Orden Daycare was a peculiar building, taller and slimmer than the residential housing all around it--a little tower in its own right. Colt figured that it probably wasn't originally meant to be a daycare, but he also couldn't imagine what its intended purpose might've been.

The front door was locked.

Were they closed?

There was a pretty good chance of that, considering the manager's son had just died. There should have been two employees who worked here, though. Where were they?

Instead of just leaving right away, Colt decided to return to his car and just observe the area for a while.

It was pretty quiet, and after a time, it began to feel like another stakeout. At length, however, he saw some people approaching.

Yeah. There was Nina, a little old woman full of wrinkles, frazzled brown hair, and large bags under her eyes. Her two employees, Isaiah Marsh and Susan Rock, were following close behind her, and they all seemed to be discussing something. They unlocked the door and entered the building together.

Maybe they'd been out for lunch?

Colt gave it some time, wanting to let them settle in, then gathered the kids up again and went inside.

The teenage Susan noticed him immediately, but she didn't get up from her corner chair--or even bother to move at all. She just looked at him vacantly, not saying anything, perhaps because Nina and Isaiah were talking so loudly in the back room that Susan probably would've had to shout to be heard.

"I'm done talking about this, Isaiah!"

"You might be, but I'm not! Not until I've at least gotten my last paycheck! And now you're telling me--!"

"This is NOT the time to be pestering me about money!"

"I get that! And I'm sorry! But I've got bills! They're threatening me with eviction! And my medication! You know how I--!"

"I don't fucking care! Quit, if you want!"

"Nina, don't say that!"

"Why not?! It's not like you ever DO anything around here, anyway! You think I need your help to run this place! I don't! Get out! And don't ever come back!"

The door to the next room swung violently open, and Isaiah came stomping out with more force than Colt would've expected from an old-timer like him. The elderly man didn't even spare him a look as he stormed past and threw open the outer door with similar fury.

Colt just stood there in front of the empty reception desk, looking around. It certainly wasn't the most comfortable-looking place. The off-white tiles on the floor probably could've done with a good mopping, and the baby blue paint on the walls was cracking and full of water stains near the ceiling. And considering what he'd just listened to, Colt's intention to never let his kids stay here was growing more potent by the second.

Still, he tried to give Susan a nice smile.

She did not return to it.

Nina entered from the back room and stopped dead in her tracks when she laid eyes on him. "H-hello," she said unsteadily. "Welcome... to Orderly Orden Daycare..."

If awkwardness were poisonous, they would've all been dead. "This a bad time?" said Colt.

Nina opened her mouth, then apparently thought better of her answer and closed it again.

"Yes," said Susan flatly from her corner. "It is."

"Ah--" Nina threw the girl a hard look, then gave Colt a smile. "Please, ah--don't mind her. We'd be happy to--"

"A member of her family just died," said Susan, still expressionless. "She's grieving."

Nina glared at her again. "Why did you have to--? You stupid--"

"I'm very sorry to hear that," said Colt with as much empathy as he could muster.

Nina turned to him, surprised again. Now that he was getting a better look at her face, the streaks in her makeup made it clear that she'd been crying.

"I know what that's like," Colt offered her, taking a couple steps away from the door, still with both of the kids in his arms. "I couldn't help overhearing your argument with that guy who just left."

"Ah--uh--yes, I'm sorry about that..." The old woman's uncertainty was obvious. She was trying to decide if she should ask him to leave or not.

"No need to apologize at all," said Colt. "And given what I just learned, that guy sounded like a real insensitive prick."

"Ah--he's, uh--"

"Do you have anyone to talk to?" said Colt. "For me, that was an important problem. Didn't have anyone. I actually ended up just talking to a complete stranger in the park for hours. Sweet old fellow, turned out." Colt decided to set the twins down in the row of chairs on Susan's side of the room.

"That's, um, I--uh, I don't--"

Colt sat down next to the kids, holding them in place so that they didn't start running around. "If you want someone to listen, I honestly don't mind. In fact, after the kindness I received, I almost feel like I need to. That is, if you'd be willing to grant me such an honor."

The old woman was just staring at him.

As was Susan. "What're you, some kind of psycho?"


<<Page 12 || All Side Story #1 pages || Page 14>>

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 2036

Ibai's pen stopped moving for a minute. How was his mother doing, he wondered? Hopefully well. The rest of the family, too.

The news of his father's death had had a strange effect on him.

He supposed this was what people meant when they referred to being "sad"--this oppressive feeling, deep in his chest and in his mind. Like someone had draped weights all over him.

Even though he was thirty-five years old, sadness was a thing unfamiliar to him. Sure, he'd known that horrible stuff could happen, that the world beyond his little "cage" in Marshrock could be cruel and unforgiving. Anyone who had watched a serious movie or read a sad story could tell that much.

But this?

Actually experiencing it?

It was absolutely awful. And the worst thing about it, Ibai thought, was that there was nothing he could do. Because in the end, it wasn't really about him, was it? It was about what had happened to his father.

In a weird way, sadness was a surprisingly selfish compulsion. It was like it wanted him to focus on himself, on this horrible feeling within him, instead of on his father--on the actual loss. And wasn't that what he was supposed to be focusing on? The object of his grief?

Was this what sadness was really meant to feel like?

It was confusing.

His body didn't always feel in perfect concert with his thoughts. Occasionally, there would just be tears in his eyes for no apparent reason to him, and he found himself thinking of the past a lot more as well.

That part, at least, he didn't hate. It felt nice to remember the past. It seemed like a better thing to do than simply dwelling on how terrible he felt. Less self-concerned, maybe.

He wondered if he would ever be the same again. Or if anything would, really.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Page 2035 -- CCV.

'Make sure you bring plenty of your gadgets and tools. Never know when you might need something,' said Bool.

'Right!'

'And personnel, as well.'

'Oh. You think?'

'Of course. More people will help the search go faster. And besides, traveling in a group is always more enjoyable than doing it alone.'

'Hmm-hmm.'

'And we have many fantastic subordinates who are eager to help you. You have not even met some of them yet. Let us send out word for them all to begin gathering. We shall make a party out of it.'

'Okay! I mean, I know you're trying to trick me, but I don't care, because it just sounds so great!'

'That is perfectly fine with me.'


Chapter Two Hundred Five: 'O, light that shines from the darkness...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Ibai Blackburn never had so much to do. The Library of Erudition was unlike anything he had ever dreamed of. So much knowledge resided here, just waiting to be discovered--or rediscovered, perhaps.

The Library had a mind of its own. That much was quite clear to Ibai by now. And it was greedy, too. Despite how much it tried to tempt people into its clutches, the Library most certainly wanted to hoard all its secrets for itself.

Hopefully, it would like the book he was writing for it. Maybe then it would warm up to him a little.

He didn't have much experience with writing, really. It had always seemed like a rather boring thing to do, and the only reason he knew anything about sentence structure or grammar was because his mother had forced him to learn at a very young age. Even now, he wasn't quite sure how she'd managed that feat. He remembered being quite the rambunctious kid, back then--not at all like his more mature and serious self today.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Page 2034

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
'One of these so-called primordial "gods" would make for a great pet, don't you think?' said Morgunov. 'No, not just a great pet. The BEST pet. Right? You agree, don't you?'

'I am sorry,' said Bool. 'I must be misunderstanding something. You want to turn an ancient being of untold power into your PET?'

Morgunov's smile widened. 'Yep!' He bounded off of his fuzzy beanbag and onto his feet again.

'And. Um. Okay. How do you plan to pull that off, exactly?'

'That IS the question, isn't it?'

'You don't even have an idea?'

'Eheh. Didn't say that.'

The reaper sighed yet again. 'Were you not trying to turn feldeaths into your pets, also?'

Morgunov's expression soured a little. 'No. That was for aberration research. Feldeaths wouldn't make good pets. Don't be stupid.'

'Oh, but an ancient god would be a better choice?'

'Duh!'

'Why? You're not making any sense.'

'Because! A feldeath is just a creature of pure instinct. There's no rational mind there to converse with. There's no ego to be laid low. You can't humble a feldeath. They have no pride.'

'Ah... and what if you can't control whatever "god" you manage to find?'

'Eheh. Well, then, things will get fun.'

'Morgunov. This isn't--' But the reaper didn't finish.

And Morgunov was made to wonder why.

'Actually,' said Bool with a sudden spark of enthusiasm, 'you might just be onto something.'

'You think so?'

'I do. And of course, if you intend to find yourself a pet god, then I suppose you'll have to do some rather extensive traveling, won't you?'

'Hmm. Yeah, I suppose I will.'

'What could be more fun than that?' said Bool. 'Exploring the world for ancient secrets?'

'Yeah! It's been a long time since I went on a proper adventure!'

Page 2033

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
'Okay, maybe I got a little muddled here or there,' said Morgunov, 'but I'm telling you, it's the truth. There's a nuance to it that I don't think you--or most people, really--can appreciate. When voices are just appearing in your mind from your very own imagination or subconscious, there is a difference. Compared to when someone is trying to invade your mind? Talk to you? Plant ideas in your head? Control you? You can feel the intent behind it. That's the thing that never changes. The will of the speaker.'

'I suppose you would be an authority on that subject, wouldn't you?' said Bool.

'Eheheh. Yeah. I wish another telepath would try to play with me again. The last time was so much fun.'

'After what you did to the Weaver, I doubt any of them would be so stupid.'

'Hey, she did that to herself. It wasn't my fault.'

'If you say so. Why are you bringing all of this up, anyway?'

'Because I had a thought. That time in Bellvine. I searched for so long afterward, but I never did find the source of that voice I was hearing.'

'Yes, I recall it causing you quite a bit of frustration.'

'That voice was so bossy. It really wanted my body.' Morgunov paused for a chortle to himself. 'It seemed very upset when it realized that my will was stronger than its own.'

'Didn't you say that you had an idea that you wanted to run by me? What does any of this have to do with that?'

'Oh, because I was thinking I might like to give that another go.'

'What? You want to try merging with a primordial ooze again?'

'Hmm? No, no! That would be boring! Merging is boring! But pets?! Pets never get boring! Everyone loves pets!'

'...Come again?' said Bool.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Page 2032

Morgunov probably could have located him more precisely if he concentrated, but he didn't really feel like it. 'Hey, are you mad at me again?'

'Always.'

'Aww.'

'Are you finally finished playing around with your toys?' Bool asked. 'The world is still in dire need of purging.'

'Eheh.'

There came a pause. 'What is that laugh for?'

'You sure love your purges, don't you?'

'You used to love them, too, as I recall. Before you got lazy.'

'I dunno. After the hundredth one, they got kinda boring, y'know?'

'Morgunov.' There arrived a familiar sigh. 'I know I might as well be talking to a tree at this point, but I shall keep trying, nonetheless. This is a serious matter. The Vanguard is at an advantage, right now.'

Morgunov picked his nose and inspected the booger. 'Oh, are they?'

'Yes. If you continue to do nothing, they may soon destroy the whole of Abolish.'

'Uh-huh...'

Another sigh. 'If you would take to the field but one time, I am sure that we could--'

'Eh, I'm sure my boy can handle it.'

'Jercash has his back against the wall, at the moment. If you care for him at all, then you should--'

'I JUST told you he could handle it.'

'Yes, but if Sermung or Jackson--'

'Hey, I had an idea I wanna run by you real quick.'

Another noticeable pause arrived. '...What is it?'

'You remember that time I went a little crazy?'

'...You will have to be more specific.'

'In Bellvine. With the whole rainbow slime situation?'

'I was not present for that. You deliberately left me behind, remember?'

'Oh, yeah. But you remember me telling you about it afterwards, right?'

'Yes. Why?'

'You know, that was one of the few times in my life that I've heard a voice in my head that wasn't you.'

'...I do not think that is true at all.'

'Hmm? Oh, yeah, sure, I've heard loads of other voices, but ultimately, I knew those were all still ME.'

'...I doubt that as well.'

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Page 2031

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
This was why he had never had a problem with hubris and never would. Unlike certain others. He knew only too well how fine a line there was between intellect and delusion, genius and madness. It was as slippery a matter as the very struggle between Order and Chaos themselves. And that probably was not a coincidence.

Hmm.

Wait a minute.

Yeah. Now there was a thought. It probably wasn’t a coincidence, was it?

So then... what was it?

Morgunov sat up suddenly.

Order and Chaos. Intellect and delusion. Order and Chaos. Genius and madness. Order and Chaos. Death and life. Order and Chaos, Order and Chaos, Order and Chaos...

Hmm.

Destruction. And. Creation.

Or?

Creation. And. Destruction?

It all made sense to him now. And yet, none of it did.

Was this, too, as it was supposed to be?

There was a grand separation between merely understanding something and manifesting that knowledge into reality. Understanding how to build a thermonuclear warhead, for instance, was one thing, but actually building one--now that was quite another thing, wasn't it? There were little differences here and there that came with the genuine experience. Philosophizing and intellectualizing were only good up to a point.

He wondered how well the ancient "gods" of this world had known that. Hmm. Perhaps they'd known it even better than he?

Well, if they hadn't known it then, they certainly knew it now, didn't they?

Eheheh.

He stroked his chin.

Whoa, there was a lot more hair there than he remembered. When was the last time he'd shaved? Two years ago? Ten? No telling.

'Hey, Bool, when was the last time I shaved?' he asked.

The response arrived so slowly that Morgunov thought Bool might've been giving him the silent treatment again. '...I have no idea,' the reaper said from elsewhere in the underground compound.

Page 2030

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
In a way, Morgunov was proud of him. The world hadn't started calling his sly boy the Devil's Knife for nothing.

Of course, Jercash probably didn't think that he could see any of that.

But he could.

Morgunov could always see.

If anything, his problem was that he could see too much.

It had always been that way.

There was a time, long in the past now, when he had hated that part of himself. When he had wanted to be normal. To have a regular brain like everyone else. The world had certainly tried its damnedest to make him feel that way in his youth. Adults didn’t like being seen through by a child, nor told what to do, even for their own betterment--even if they could tell that it was for their own betterment.

But perhaps that was merely human nature. Compulsive independence, even against demonstrable truth. ‘Twas a matter of pride, he supposed.

It too often was.

Those times were so distant to his mind now that they felt almost as if they had happened to someone else--and indeed, he sometimes questioned if they did.

The mind was a funny thing, wasn’t it? There was no more powerful object in the known universe than the human brain, and yet it was still so prone to errors. The philosophical problem of the unreliable narrator: summarized. How can a man trust his own thoughts when he knows his mind to be so deeply flawed? How can one think correctly when the act of thinking itself might be incorrect?

It was a dilemma that had always fascinated him--even to the point of dabbling in the treacherous technology of cerebral enhancement for a while--but he had yet to find a satisfactory resolution to it.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Page 2029

His fervor for the feldeath problem had diminished rather substantially, of late. He had always despised the idea of "giving up," no matter what the experiment entailed, but living as long as he had, he'd slowly grown to have a different understanding of what that meant. To him, he wasn't so much giving up as he was just shelving the project for a while. He'd return to it whenever his interest in it was rekindled. True, that could be a hundred years from now or more, but such was the nature of immortality.

On the other hand, though, a part of him didn't think he would actually last another hundred years. In truth, a part of him didn't want to--but not because he was so miserable or otherwise tired of living, as several of his contemporaries seemed to be.

Rather, it was just the opposite.

The idea that someone out there might finally punch his ticket for him?

That would be so exciting. Who could pull off such a feat? And how?

There was a time when he genuinely thought that Jercash might be the one to do it, but that sourpuss didn't seem interested in the idea, anymore. What a disappointing realization that had been. Jercash obviously wanted to lead Abolish, but apparently, he didn't much care about getting the credit for doing so. These days, the sly boy seemed only too happy to use his "crazy" boss as an excuse for all manner of things, whether it be scapegoating him or feigning an inferiority complex or some other underhanded thing.

There was no doubt in Morgunov's mind that Jercash had a hand in the untimely deaths of Gunther and Dunhouser. Sure, Jackson may have been the one that actually killed them, but Jercash probably manufactured the circumstances that had allowed that to happen.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Page 2028

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
Feldeaths were so obnoxious. It was unbelievable how stubborn they were. It was like they were somehow made of stubbornness. At first, he'd merely been curious as to whether or not it would be possible to supercharge an aberration by feeding a feldeath to one of them, but after a string of continuous and sometimes explosive failures, he'd resorted to merely trying to observe feldeaths more closely and hopefully learn something about the composition of their mysterious bodies.

They were the only beings on the planet that could manipulate physical reality directly while having entirely incorporeal bodies--or at least, that was the commonly held belief. He'd begun wondering if perhaps they did have some physical component to them--a component which had simply yet to be discovered by any scholar in history. It shouldn't be possible, given everything that was known about how feldeaths were born, but Nibas Dimitri Aurelion Lotorevo Morgunov wasn't one for allowing his curiosity to be sated by the theories of other supposed scientists.

He'd learned long ago not to trust information he couldn't verify for himself. And boy, did feldeaths make that widely held theory difficult to verify.

They absolutely hated being observed. And the way they could change the composition of their bodies at the drop of a hat certainly didn't help, either. If they did have some hidden physical component to their bodies, he wondered if they might be able to phase said component in and out of reality at will. And in such a case, confirming the component's existence would require around-the-clock study using every observational instrument known to man--and perhaps some which were still unknown to it.

But accomplishing all of that meant capturing one of the bloody things, and there existed no material on this planet which could keep a feldeath caged for very long. Maybe if he took a break and studied up on quantum fluctuations, he would be able to figure out some new method of approach for these problems.

But.

Meh...

Page 2027 -- CCIV.

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
Chapter Two Hundred Four: 'When an archdemon stirs...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

It had been a long and frustrating day, to say the least. He sighed wearily as he flopped down onto his favorite bean bag, enjoying its soft and fuzzy coating in tandem with its familiar squishiness. Sour-faced and upset with himself, he allowed his eyes to drift slowly around the room.

As far as workshops went, his wasn't exactly what one might call "conventional." Old televisions lined one of the walls entirely, but most of them hadn't seen any use in twenty years or more. At one time, he'd been enamored with so many different daytime soap operas that he'd gotten into the habit of watching many of them simultaneously, but these days, he didn't have much love for the genre anymore. Looking back, it may've perhaps been a bad idea to mail in that threatening letter to the producers of Daily Love. Sure, the show had gone to hell, and everything he'd written in that letter had been one hundred percent accurate, but he hadn't wanted them and virtually every other producer in all of Bellvine to quit making daytime soaps altogether.

It had taken a few years before any new soaps had dared to start airing, but the industry had never quite recovered, he felt. The stories just didn't have the same kind of punch that they used to. True, they didn't infuriate him like before, perhaps because they no longer killed off his favorite characters--or any characters, for that matter--but they also felt, on the whole, much safer now. The writers were too afraid to take risks, he supposed. Which was a shame.

Then again, maybe it was for the best. Without so many soaps distracting him all the time, he'd been able to focus more on his creative work again.

Which was the source of his current frustration.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 12

<<Page 11 || All Side Story #1 pages || Page 13>>

It was going to be quite a chore, but Colt supposed he would have to search through the whole house. He had a pessimistic feeling that he'd already found all the clues that he was going to, but it was important to ignore such negative impulses during criminal investigations. As valuable as it was to listen to one's gut, it was more valuable to be thorough.

Before getting into that, though, he decided to check in with Bohwanox.

'Kids okay?'

'Yeah. Thomas seems like he wants out, but other than that, everything is fine.'

Colt had hoped that the twins would just settle down and go to sleep in the car, but he supposed that was too much to ask from Thomas. It was a bit of brisk night, but he'd brought along plenty of blankets for the kids, so they should be fine for the next few hours. Hopefully, this wasn't going to take quite that long, but given the apparent size of the dead sheriff's house, Colt was feeling less optimistic about that with each passing minute.

Two floors and a basement? Seemed a little excessive for a man living alone. And on a government salary? How much had this sheriff been making, exactly? That looked like a new refrigerator in the kitchen, as well. No scratches or markings or even dust on the top.

And that television in the living room had looked like a new purchase, too, hadn't it?

When it came to things like this, Colt's first instinct was, of course, criminal activity, but he knew that there were other potential explanations for such conspicuous displays of financial success. And given what Bohwanox had just told him about Rex's beef with another cop who was supposedly stealing from crime scenes, it seemed a bit unlikely that Rex would be so corrupt himself.

But then again, maybe it was more likely. Liars often accused others of their own crimes. Colt had always wondered why that was, exactly. A psychological thing? Or maybe just pure cunning on their part. Certainly, the average person wouldn't suspect them of being that much of a two-faced bastard. There was a certain refuge in the simplicity and brazenness of it, perhaps.

Something to keep in mind, Colt figured.

He decided to check inside the fridge while he was here.

Hmm...

Pretty sparse pickings, even for a bachelor. Just a couple cans of beer, a half-eaten sandwich, some cheese slices, and a carton of milk. And the freezer? Just some ice cream, ice packs, and a frozen loaf of bread.

Colt couldn't help thinking that it looked like the food selection of someone who didn't plan on being alive for much longer. Which would lend credence to the idea that the man had killed himself.

But Colt already knew that Rex hadn't, so what the hell was this? Had the killer actually bothered to tamper with the sheriff's fridge? Just how meticulous was this person?

Colt gave the half-eaten sandwich another look.

Didn't look like it was from a restaurant. Looked handmade. What were the ingredients, though? Lettuce, cheese, tomato, mayonnaise, and some kind of meat.

Where were the rest of those ingredients, then? If Rex had made the sandwich himself, then it was doubtful that he'd used up the last of everything but the bread and cheese all at once. Colt rifled through the nearby trash can.

Ah. There was the wrapper for the cheese. The wrapper for the meat. The rest of the tomato. And an empty jar of mayonnaise.

But the lettuce.

Where was the damn lettuce?

He remembered his own time as a bachelor in an apartment. He'd never used up a full head of lettuce even a single time. So maybe Rex had bought a smaller amount in a package, but where was the packaging, then? Everything else was here.

To Colt's mind, this was absolutely insane.

The killer had gone through Rex's fridge to make him look more suicidal. That spoke of obsessiveness.

And yet, they'd also made the mistake of taking the lettuce but leaving the sandwich. And the tracks in the carpet as well.

The killer was obviously clever, but maybe not that clever.

Or maybe they were that clever, but they'd been in a rush. Didn't have time to cover all their bases completely. Maybe the arrival of Rex's nephew interrupted the killer's work.

If that was the case, then there was a good chance that the body was discovered several hours before it was supposed to be, which would mean that any drugs in Rex's system might still be discovered in the autopsy.

Oh, but wait, excrement was found beneath the body, too. Drug traces would definitely be found in that. Perhaps the killer had intended to clean up the excrement and hadn't had time to, but that seemed pretty unlikely as well. The excrement's absence might be suspicious, and why the fuck would anyone make a plan that involved cleaning up human shit?

Suddenly, it seemed much more plausible that the killer hadn't drugged Rex at all. If they were clever enough to be mindful of the damn refrigerator, then they would probably have avoided leaving drug traces in the body.

Agh.

He moved on to the rest of the house.

Again, he couldn't help being suspicious of how large it was for one person. He kept thinking he would find evidence of someone else living here, but none of the extra rooms on the second floor had beds in them, nor did any of the other bathrooms have toothbrushes in them.

One of the rooms was just completely empty, and another was full of boxes--boxes which were not empty, judging from how they didn't move much when Colt tried nudging them. He wanted to go through them, but they were sealed with packing tape, and he wasn't sure if he should bother. Would that leave too much evidence of his presence behind?

True, he'd already blasted a hole through the basement wall, but at least he could conceal that behind something else.

He was a bit surprised they were still sealed, actually. The capital cops hadn't opened them? Sure, there were a lot here and they probably weren't immediately relevant, but it still seemed like a bit of an oversight on their part. Maybe they really were planning to come back here tomorrow or the next day to continue searching for clues.

Well, shit. All the more reason to leave these boxes alone, then.

Unless... he could reseal them after he was done...

He looked around the room with his flashlight and miraculously enough, he found a roll of packing tape on the window sill.

Alright, then.

He set to work with his knife and his flashlight, opening boxes and searching through their contents.

It was slow going. There was a lot of crap here that he didn't really know what to make of. Mostly knickknacks and bobbles. Old toys. Old clothes. Old electronics.

Was this all stuff from Rex's childhood? Personal belongings, mostly.

After a while, Colt sighed. Technically, any of this stuff could prove relevant to the case, so he wanted to keep going, but in all likelihood, he was just wasting him time.

But that was detective work in a nutshell, really. Sifting through mountains of irrelevant bullshit until you found one or two things that might actually be of use.

At length, he found a photo album.

Hmm.

Usually, this type of thing made for a pretty juicy piece of evidence, but maybe not so much in this case. It began with Rex's apparent baby photos. Then childhood with his parents. Angry-looking folks. Elementary school pictures with his class. Middle school. High school. Graduation. Police academy?

Hmm. Any of those faces he was standing with could be suspects, Colt supposed.

He kept looking.

Whoa, whoa, whoa.

A wedding photo.

This fucker was married? Why hadn't--?

Wait, no, Rex had mentioned an ex-wife, hadn't he? The man made a joke out of it, so Colt hadn't paid it much mind, but now that he was remembering it, he felt like an idiot.

Fuck.

'Did Rex tell you anything about his ex-wife?'

'No,' said Bohwanox.

Double fuck.

He had a feeling that it was going to be difficult for him to find out more about this woman. The capital cops would probably question her, if they hadn't already, but if she was the killer, then she would no doubt be on guard around them. And it would look pretty damn suspicious if he went around town asking about a dead man's wife.

He tried to think. He was fairly sure that Rex had said that she still lived in Orden, so maybe it wouldn't be that difficult to engineer a "chance encounter" with her. Once he knew her name, that was.

He went through the rest of the album, looking for any other clues. Did this damn sheriff have a kid as well? Hmm. Didn't look like it. As far Colt could tell, there weren't any--

Wait.

The very last photo in the album. It was of Rex and the wife smiling together, with Rex holding up the camera for the both of them. It looked like it was taken in this house--in the room that was now empty, judging by the placement of the window.

The wife's hands were folded over her stomach, but that could've been a baby bump there. And the wall behind the couple, it was decorated with frilly pink posters and pictures of small animals and flowers.

One more thing to keep in mind.

After that, he continued searching the house for a while longer. It was tough to tell if anything else he saw might be relevant to the investigation, so he just tried to keep a mental image of everything as best he could.

And finally, after making sure all the boxes were taped up again and placed back in the positions he'd found them in, Colt gave the whole house one last quick look and then decided to call it a rest.

He couldn't tell how much time he'd spent in this damn place, but he was getting hungry, and he was sure the kids were, too. And he still had to fill in that fucking tunnel he'd dug.

Ugh.

That also took way longer than he would've liked, but he was pleased with the end result, at least.

When he made it back to the car, covered in dirt, sweat, and unhappiness, he found the kids asleep in the backseat.

The sight of them there was enough to pull the smallest of smiles out of him.

'You look like shit,' said Bohwanox, hovering up from behind him.

'Thanks.'

'All done, then?'

'I guess. For now.'

'What's next?'

'Sleep.'

'You filthy corporeals and your sleep.'

Colt got in the car and started the engine.

'What do you think I should do?' said Bohwanox. 'Keep haunting the cops?'

'Yeah. But they've probably turned in for the night by now, too.'

'I can't just wait around for everyone to wake their asses up again. We've got a murder mystery to solve.'

Colt did a K-turn and headed back toward the main road. 'Well, I admire your enthusiasm, but I don't think the rest of the world cares about your schedule.'

'Don't remind me.'

'You've been surprisingly gung-ho about all this, y'know that?'

'You're one to talk.'

'I have an excuse. I used to be a cop. Doing this sort of thing was... it was...' On second thought, he decided that he didn't want to finish that sentence.

Boh tried for him. 'What you lived for?'

'Hmph.'

'Would you go back to being a cop, if you could?' the reaper asked.

Colt kept his eyes steady on the dark road ahead. He hadn't really given that question much thought before, mostly because of how obviously impossible it was, but even so, he didn't feel terribly uncertain about how to answer it now. 'No.'

'Why not?'

'Seen too much shit. Don't believe in the system.'

'I suppose I can understand that. But you do still believe in the pursuit of justice, don't you?'

Colt spared the reaper a glance. 'Why're you bringing all this up?'

'No reason. Just curious.'

'Bullshit.'


<<Page 11 || All Side Story #1 pages || Page 13>>

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 2026

You may think your life is in ruins,’ said Sentsia, moving even closer still, ‘and you may think that there is no point in living anymore, no future for you to look forward to. And you may be right. For you. But for the family? For all of House Blackburn? We are far from defeated.

Was she right? Nere had a hard time imagining that she could be, but Sentsia did have two thousand years of experience and knowledge to pull from.

You will likely find it difficult to believe in your current state of mind,’ the reaper continued, ‘but allow me to remind you that this family has endured worse circumstances than this in the past. You know our history. Our struggles. Even if you are ready to roll over and die, your kin--those who still consider you their family--are perfectly capable of seeing the dawn of a new and even more glorious age.

But if you ever wish to see such a future, then you must first be punished. And as I am the only who knows the depths of your crimes, I must be the one to deal it out to you.’ The reaper latched on to her arm and stayed there.

Nere did not resist. She could only think to ask one thing. ‘If you do not intend to release my soul, then what do you intend to do?

I will have you abandon yourself.

W-what do you mean?

Any notions of your own well-being, your own desires--you will discard them. On the outside, you will pretend that nothing has changed, that you are still the same Nere that the family knows and cares for. But in private, between the two of us, you will submit to my will. Entirely.

Again, Nere found herself without words.

You are my servant no longer. Now, you are my slave.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Page 2025

Nere just shut her eyes and hung her head. Arguing was fruitless, she felt. She deserved all of this and more.

I’ve never been a believer in punishment, really,’ said Sentsia. ‘I always thought that it was better to try to “rehabilitate” someone than to “punish” them. The desire to rehabilitate comes from a place of empathy. It’s “nicer.” While the desire to punish comes from a place of, arguably, anger. It’s more brutalistic. It felt like something that only the unenlightened person would pursue.

But thanks to you, I see now that I was wrong. I was too confident in my sense of moral superiority. I think, perhaps, my lack of awareness in this regard may have only served to make this situation worse. If I had thought to punish you for your actions sooner, to make you seek repentance as Lhutwë would want, then perhaps we could have begun on a slow road to betterment. Somehow.

Now, of course, it is far too late for that. You are too far gone. Or perhaps I am. The hatred I feel for you is unlike any I have ever known in the last two thousand years. And that, I must say, is quite an accomplishment.

Nere didn’t move. ‘Then just release me…

Ah, yes. I am considering it. This is what you desire?

She chanced a frail look at Sentsia. ‘Yes…

You don’t wish to find a way to atone for your sins?

Nere sat on that idea for a time. It had crossed her mind before, briefly, but it seemed so utterly impossible that she hadn’t really given it much consideration at all. ‘How would I be able to do that?

By helping me bring House Blackburn into a new, golden era.

Nere’s head reared back a little.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Page 2024

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
Honestly, why do you look so surprised?’ said Sentsia, still in the echo of privacy. ‘Tell me. Do you remember when we first harnessed pan-moc, you and I? Hmm?

Nere managed to shake her head.

No. You must. Do you remember how it nearly killed us both? Do you have any idea why that might have been? No? Of course you don’t.’ The reaper sighed. ‘That was precisely the time when I learned of what you had done. When I probed our shared minds. I couldn’t believe what I found. I didn’t WANT to believe it. The shock was so great, in fact, that I nearly lost control of the hyper-state and allowed it to kill us both.’ She paused for a chuckle. ‘Perhaps I should have.

Nere was trembling. She couldn’t look at the reaper anymore.

I want you to think about the decision that I was faced with at that time, Nere. Really think about it. Ibai was already a teenager. Melchor had returned to us. He was his old self again. House Blackburn was more unified than it had been in generations. And this knowledge that I had just acquired would tear all of that apart in an instant. Can you imagine what was going through my mind then? Hmm?

Nere clutched her head with both hands as if to shield herself from Sentsia’s words, but there was no stopping them.

Naively, I thought there was hope,’ Sentsia went on, ‘because you really DID come to love Ismael and Ibai and everyone else. I could see that in you as well. I saw it. But I was a fool. Something like this was always going to happen.

Nere asked the only question that she could think of. ‘Why didn’t you tell me any of this sooner?

To what end? To shame you? What purpose would that have served, exactly?

I… I don’t…

I have always tried to be above such base instincts,’ said Sentsia. ‘But damn if it doesn’t feel good now. Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps I should have done this a long time ago.

Page 2023

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
Should she lie? Once upon a time, she had been quite a skillful liar, but here and now, with so much uncertainty roiling around inside her, she didn’t know if she could muster up even the slightest bit of cunning. “What does it matter? He would not be unwilling to speak to me, would he? I wish to see him. To hear his voice.”

No.’ Sentsia’s tone did not imply that her mind could be changed.

Nere wanted to ask why again, but she was afraid to now. What was Sentsia thinking? How much did she really know?

You seem confused,’ the reaper said. ‘As you would. You stupid girl. Even after all this time, you STILL haven’t learned to see beyond yourself, your own pain, your own worry. I can’t believe I ever thought you could change.

Nere’s eyes were wide as she listened. She could feel tears welling up already. “What are you saying? How can you--?”

Oh, shut your mouth, you lying whore. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t keep trying to support you in spite of everything. I can’t keep trying to bring out the best in you. There’s nothing left to bring, is there? You are little more than an empty shell now, aren’t you?

Nere had no words. Was this even the same reaper she had known all these years?

If only I had learned the truth sooner,’ said Sentsia. ‘I would have revealed your infidelity forthwith, and you would have been tossed aside by House Blackburn. And Ismael might have found a woman who was truly worthy of him. But no. For whatever reason, Lhutwë deigned not to allow that justice to come to pass, and now, here we are instead. Ismael, that wonderful boy, is dead. And I must continue to endure YOU.

Nere could only listen. The reaper was far from done.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Page 2022

Nere was trying to understand and failing. “What do you mean?”

Forget it. You are in no condition to be talking to anyone outside the family. Not right now, at least. Once you’ve had time to properly grieve and get your mind in order, then we can revisit this conversation.

Nere didn’t know what to say. No one outside the family?

Hmm.

Well, perhaps Melchor would do, then. In fact, now that she was thinking about it, he might be even better. Melchor was a man who had sought vengeance for House Blackburn many years ago--and found it.

That had happened after what came to be known as the Culling at Denya.

Nere had only learned of that horrible incident long after the fact, but her understanding was that it had been a Vanguardian stealth operation that went terribly awry. The Vanguardians were betrayed, their locations revealed, and Abolish turned what should have been an ambush against them into a slaughter in their favor.

Nere had occasionally wondered if Darktide’s subsequent terrorizing of Abolish had in some way impacted Morgunov’s decision to use her as a tool against House Blackburn the way he did, but if there was a connection there, she had never been able to find it. Surely, if the Mad Demon had wanted to destroy the Blackburns, he would have been more direct about it and not resorted to such subterfuge, no?

Well, she supposed that it hardly mattered now, anyway.

“In that case,” said Nere, “I would like to talk to Melchor.”

Sentsia just stared at her again.

Nere waited, shifting uncomfortably in her tall chair. The reaper seemed quite different today, and Nere found it very unsettling.

Why do you want to talk to Melchor?’ said Sentsia.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Page 2021

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
Morale? What was she talking about?

Oh, yes, there was some sort of family gathering today. Something to do with… a birthday?

Yes, one of the children was turning thirteen today, and the family was celebrating.

How nice.

She might have liked to go to such an event if she wasn’t sure that she would just bring the mood down. If it was to be a celebration, then her presence would ruin it for everyone.

Telling Sentsia that truth would probably just upset the reaper, however. Nere decided to ignore the subject entirely.

“I would like to speak with Zeff Elroy,” said Nere.

The reaper just stared at her.

To her eyes, Sentsia had the appearance of a dim ball of light with a face vaguely outlined in ethereal fire that flickered silently. A fading star of sorts.

“What?” said Nere.

You don’t say a word to me in days. You don’t speak to the therapist. You don’t talk to ANYONE. And then you say THAT? Of all things?

Why was she upset? Nere didn’t know. “I wish to speak with Zeff Elroy,” she said again.

No.’

Nere blinked. “Why not? You haven’t even asked my reason.”

I don’t need to. The answer is no.’ The reaper hovered closer.

“I wish to speak to him,” was all Nere could think to say. She hadn’t expected Sentsia to refuse her. Sentsia had almost never refused her in all the time they’d known each other, which extended all the way back to when her engagement to Ismael had been formalized.

There is not a chance in lakefire that I will let you to talk to that man, right now.’

“Why not?”

Don’t play dumb.’ The reaper’s echoing tone was perhaps colder than Nere had ever heard it before ‘Oh, but I guess you wouldn’t need to “play,” now would you?

Page 2020

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
Now there was a dilemma.

The best person to tell. Or the worst. Those two concepts seemed intertwined to her now.

Well, the first person who came to mind was Sentsia, of course. Being Nere’s reaper, it only made sense to tell her everything first.

But what if Sentsia decided to simply release her soul then and there? Wouldn’t that be too quick an end to her suffering? Sentsia probably would never do such a thing. She was too gentle and understanding.

But Nere still didn’t want to take that risk. And more than likely, it just wouldn’t be punishing enough. Sentsia might even try to comfort her, for some reason, and that was the absolute last thing that Nere wanted now.

No, she needed to pick someone who would hate her. Truly. Someone who would take vengeance on her.

And the more she thought about it, the more she could think of no better candidate than the Lord Zeff Elroy.

Of all people, his hatred for her would surely burn the most fiercely. He was one who sought vengeance. And he wouldn’t make it quick, would he? He would make sure she paid for what she’d done.

Oh, but he probably wouldn’t care all that much about Morgunov or Ibai, would he? Comparatively, at least. No, the thing that would make him hate her the most was a bit different, wasn’t it?

Yes. He still didn’t know about the role House Blackburn had played in the Elroy Massacre all those years ago. It had been Abolish’s work, of course, but the Blackburns had let them into the country. Unwittingly, perhaps, but since when did ignorance alleviate one of responsibility?

She nodded to herself as she decided. Yes. She could tell him about that.

Finally, she could see the path forward.

Someone was talking to her. Oh, yes. Sentsia was still there, wasn’t she?

--important to attend these things,’ she was saying. ‘It will do the rest of the family good to see you there. They could use a morale boost, right now.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Page 2019

As she sat there in the corner of her room, thinking over the idea more and more, Nere began to rock back and forth.

Yes.

Yes, perhaps telling someone the full truth of things would be for the best. Would it ease her conscience? Perhaps not. But it was a step forward, wasn’t it? A step somewhere, at least? As opposed to just being lost in this dark fog forever? And if it didn’t matter anymore, why should she be afraid to say anything? Because everyone would shun her? Because they would hate her?

She wanted them to. She deserved it. For too long, her sins had remained unknown, unpunished.

Maybe Sentsia would even release her soul.

She had never contemplated asking Sentsia to do that before. Why not? Perhaps it was selfishness. She had cared for her own life too much. But what need was there to care now? What was there left to live for?

All these years, she had never really understood those stories about servants asking their reapers to release them. And with as often as she had heard such tales, it seemed a fairly common occurrence. How could that be, she’d wondered?

Now she knew. Or rather, she had some semblance of knowing, at least. Perhaps it was presumptuous at this juncture to assume she could know anything of value to anyone, but she felt an understanding like she never had before.

A silent epiphany.

All those servants who asked to be released--they knew then what she had only just now realized.

In the future lay only darkness.

It was all, ultimately, without hope.

Looking back, it seemed somehow absurd that she had ever had hope to begin with. Hope for what? To what end?

Which meant that, for her, there was really only one thing left to do at this point.

But who should she tell? Well, everyone, perhaps. But who would be the best person to reveal this horrific secret to first?

Monday, January 13, 2020

Page 2018

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
Nere had to imagine that Ibai’s existence had been Morgunov’s goal all along. He’d wanted to create an aberration. One of the very first, seemingly, but if Morgunov was hoping for a monster of madness like himself, then he would be sorely mistaken.

Nere had no idea why Morgunov had never come for him. She had feared that every single day since he was born. But whatever the reason was, she thanked Lhutwë for it. She only prayed now that Ibai would be able to remain safe. Somehow. Please.

If there was any goodness left in the world, that had to be so.

But.

That was the real question for her at this point, wasn’t it?

Was there any goodness left in the world? Not for her, surely. She readily acknowledged that. She had no future now. But what about everyone else? Was there any goodness left for them, at least?

She wanted to think so. In the few times she had actually gone outside and seen the other Rainlords bustling about this underground fortress, this Warrenhold, she had seen the light of hope in their eyes. In their postures. In their intent.

They saw it. They saw goodness in the world. Somewhere.

Were they wrong? Were they just fooling themselves until the inevitable found them, as it had found her?

She honestly did not know.

What was the point anymore? Everything was so meaningless now.

But.

But perhaps...

Perhaps if everything was meaningless, then... perhaps she could do something that had never dared do before.

Perhaps she could tell someone the truth. Perhaps she could just... confess.

Could it really be that simple? All these years, that had seemed like a thing so utterly impossible that it hardly even bore thinking about.

But now...?

Maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe nothing did.

And she was beginning to wonder what might come of it.

Page 2017

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
She must have been mad to have not thought anything was strange about him, but even all these years later, her memory of that night was still so clear. He had been so warm. So understanding. So ready to listen and admire and be the most wonderful human being she had ever met in her life.

He was everything she could have ever wanted in a man and more. That secret tryst in overgrown wilds of Steccat had been one of the best experiences she’d ever had.

And now it was the worst. Her most enduring nightmare.

The day she had first seen Morgunov’s face listed among the others of the Vanguard’s most wanted, everything had begun to crumble. Like the ground itself had somehow been ripped out from under her.

It should have come as no surprise to her then that “Bas” never contacted her again, but for some reason, being the stupid girl that she was, she hadn’t expected that, either.

And then, of course, she discovered the pregnancy.

Ismael had been so happy. Seeing him that way broke her heart in ways she never thought possible. Such a betrayal of such a perfect man.

She nearly lost her mind completely then. If not for Sentsia, she would have. It was all a fog, but she felt certain, nonetheless. Sentsia was the only thing that had gotten her through that pregnancy.

And Ibai. Sweet, darling Ibai.

She’d thought him a monster for so long, but even he proved to be a better person than her in the end. Far, far better.

She didn’t know how it was possible to be so proud and so sad at the same time.

If there was any sliver of hope or salvation to be found through all of this, it was him. It was Ibai.