Saturday, February 29, 2020

Page 2100

"I see," said Hector. There was something else he wanted to ask the King about, but not with everyone around like this.

"Truth be told," said Gina, "we're still not entirely sure how these goggles work--or how they're made. We know that they're infused with ardor, but the process by which we might accomplish that feat for ourselves is still mysterious to us."

"And even if it wasn't mysterious to us," said Roman, "there could be more to it than just the infusion process. The Hun'Kui are a pretty interesting bunch. I've made a few solo trips back down to the Undercrust, trying to get to know them and their culture better. In theory, it seems like ardor-infused earbuds or headphones should allow you to hear a reaper's voice, but so far, I haven't been able to find anything like that. I'm also not yet sure why these goggles have become so widely used among the Hun'Kui."

"What do you mean?" said the King, still wearing his pair. "Are they not being used for precisely this same purpose? To see reapers?"

"That's what I thought at first, too," said Roman, "but the more time I spend down there, the less sense that makes to me. I haven't really seen that many reapers down there. They seem to be just as rare in the Undercrust as they are on the surface."

Gina chuckled. "You say they're rare, but we have three in this very room. And how many more are hanging around Warrenhold, right now?"

Roman put up his hands with a shrug. "Yeah, okay, this castle is a bit of a reaper hot spot, but as far I've been told, there are less than a million reapers in the entire world. Maybe that seems like a lot, but it's really not, especially when compared to the billions of living people that they're supposedly watching over."

'Shit,' said Voreese, 'you're making me feel guilty for not getting much reaping done, lately.'

Friday, February 28, 2020

Page 2099

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
Gina took a pair for herself as well and donned it immediately. Her gaze fell instantly upon Mehlsanz. "Unfortunately, this doesn't let us talk to them, but at least we're able to confirm with our own eyes that Hector and Roman here haven't been lying to us all this time."

Lynnette's lone eye widened briefly, and then she put her goggles on, too. "Oh my goodness...!" A curt laugh escaped her lips as she stared at Garovel.

Garovel gave her a small wave.

"You didn't tell me they would be so horrifying-looking," said Lynn, "but I guess they are reapers, so..."

"Oh," said Hector. "Ah. What do they look like for you?"

"Umm... wait. What do you mean 'for you?'"

"They don't always look the same for everyone," said Roman.

"Oh..." Lynnette still seemed a bit awestruck, and she turned to find both Mehlsanz and Voreese present as well. "Well, I see skeletons in armor. With flaming skulls and long... dripping tongues."

Voreese cackled inaudibly. 'That sounds pretty fuckin' gnarly!'

For a while, the conversation remained there as they all traded descriptions of what they saw. Gina saw reapers as hooded swordsmen, and the King saw them as spectral ghouls with glowing, bulbous eyes--and even Mara joined in as well, at Roman and Hector's insistence. She also saw reapers as skeletons, though hers were covered in blood and strips of rotting flesh.

Mara did not wish to put the goggles on again.

"Where did you get these things?" said Lynnette.

"The Undercrust," said Roman.

When that did not answer the woman's question satisfactorily, everyone seemed to realize at once that this was going to turn into a long conversation. They decided to get breakfast together before going into it.

Even though she'd heard about it back at the Gala, Lynnette still looked mildly confused by the notion that there existed an entire civilization beneath the planet's surface, and she used this opportunity to ask more questions. The King also looked surprised, though perhaps less than Hector expected, which made him curious.

"...Did you already have some knowledge of the Undercrust, Your Highness?" he asked.

"I wouldn't go so far as to call it knowledge," said the King, "but I have read of such things in mythic tales."

Page 2098

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
Regardless, it was nice to show the three of them around. It was bit weird to see Mehlsanz traveling with two people who couldn't even see her, but the reaper didn't seem terribly upset about it.

'We have a fix for that, though,' Garovel told her. 'In part, at least.'

'A fix for what?' said Mehlsanz.

Garovel's skeletal grin seemed to widen. 'Hector, let's go talk to Roman.'

Roman and Gina had their own rooms in the Tower of Night, just below the master bedroom. They'd been coming and going from Warrenhold as they pleased, but lately, they'd been spending more time here than not. Roman had become fast friends with several prominent Rainlords, especially Diego Redwater.

Somehow, Hector wasn't surprised by that friendship.

Gina, by comparison, was more reserved around the Rainlords, Hector noticed. As soon as it became clear that she and Roman would be spending considerable time here, it had become her priority to ensure that Warrenhold had internet access--which was no small feat, since Warrenhold didn't have cable lines that she could create ethernet ports out of.

Hector wasn't too clear on the details of what she was working on, but apparently, she wanted to install some kind of super-extra high-speed fiber-thing. It sounded pretty difficult and expensive, but Hector decided to just leave it to her and the handful of like-minded young Rainlords she'd teamed up with.

Roman, Gina, Lynnette, and the King were all quite pleased to see each other again. For Hector, it felt like a lifetime ago that they had all been together in that underground bunker full of cars.

It was nice to see them all smiling and enjoying themselves.

Gina retrieved a box from beneath her corner desk and set it down in front of Lynnette. "Here," she said. "Take one. We've been collecting them."

Lynn pulled out a pair of Hun'Kui-made goggles, obviously not sure what she was looking at.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Page 2097

The reaper let him go to sleep soon after that.

The next day was rather special, because Warrenhold would be hosting royalty. King William was visiting, unfortunately without the Queen, as she was still too busy and also believed that her attendance would turn the whole affair into a media circus.

So instead, Lynnette and Mehlsanz accompanied the King. The man's several other attendants were only allowed as far as the castle's main gate.

This would technically be Lynnette's second visit--the first being when she'd asked him at the Queen's behest to accompany her and Prince Meriwether to Sair all those months ago.

There was considerably more to see now, however, and her surprise was apparent even while they were still aboveground. The surface buildings of Warrenhold had been receiving a moderate degree of reconstruction as well, and now they all at least had four walls, a roof, electricity, and running water. They were nowhere near as impressive as the eight towers underground, though, and probably never would be, so when they started descending through the Entry Tower, the heightened amazement on all of his guests' faces put Hector in quite a good mood.

They of course made sure to provide everyone with an explanation of Warrenhold's anti-pest mechanism and its corresponding psychological effects. Ms. Rogers proved very helpful in that regard, since Hector still had a bit of trouble talking to Lynnette.

He wanted to get past that problem of his and soon, but it just wasn't that easy, apparently. Every rational thought in his brain was telling him that he didn't need to be afraid of talking to Lynn, that he'd already spoken normally to her before, that he'd been through way more difficult conversations with way more difficult people. Logically, it made no sense why he should still be struggling with her.

And yet he was, goddammit.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Page 2096

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
"Ms. Rogers," said Hector aloud.

She stopped in front of the door and looked at him again.

"...Seeing as the Madame Carthrace has essentially handed off all of her duties as the Stewardess of Warrenhold to you," he said, "I would like to officially grant the position to you."

Mara stared. "I... sir, I'm not..."

Hector waited for her.

Still, she was faltering. "I don't know what to say, Lord..."

"So... you want the job, then?" said Hector.

She held her clipboard close to her chest and nodded fervently.

That made Hector smile. "Good. I'll tell Madame Carthrace in the morning."

"Ah... you have not already discussed this decision with her, sir?"

"No," said Hector flatly.

"I see..."

"Why? Think she'll be upset?"

"Well, you are giving her job and title to someone else without consulting her first, sir..."

Hector gave an admissive nod. "True. But she already has another job and title to spare, so I'm pretty sure she'll understand." He lay back on the bed and closed his eyes. "But if you're that worried about it, you could always just turn my offer down."

"No, sir. I will gladly take it." And there was a pause. "It does come with a pay increase, doesn't it?"

"Yeah."

"In that case, I am suddenly also certain that she will understand," said Mara.

That made Hector laugh a little, but his eyes remained shut, and he didn't move.

"I suppose I will let you rest, Lord. And thank you."

"Keep up the good work, Ms. Rogers."

"Yes, Lord."

And with that, he heard her leave and close the door behind her.

Hector wedged himself beneath his bed sheets and was already half-asleep when Garovel decided to continue the conversation.

'Well, aren't you Mr. Cool?' the reaper said.

Hector rolled over. 'I don't know what that means, and I'm too tired to figure it out.'

'You're really taking to this whole "Lord of Warrenhold" thing.'

'Mm...'

'It's good. Weird, but good.'

Page 2095

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
Mara shifted some papers on her clipboard. "I have some candidates in mind who I think would be a good fit for the position. And not to worry, I have only considered lowborn individuals. Anyone with ties to the aristocracy would be riskier regarding information leaks, which I know you are quite concerned about. And regarding money, I believe--"

"Ms. Rogers," said Hector. "I... appreciate your diligence, but I have no plans to get married."

"I was not under the impression that you did, Lord, but it is still good to be mindful of the future."

He had to admire her determination. "...You really want me to hire a chamberlain that badly, huh?"

Mara adjusted her glasses. "I do, Lord."

Hector took a deliberate breath. "Will doing so make your job easier?"

"Ah--" She hesitated for the first time that Hector had seen. "Perhaps, yes, but I assure you, that was not my--"

"Fine. Show me your candidates."

For a moment, she just stood there, staring at him.

Hector glanced at Garovel, who had been chuckling beneath their conversation the whole time.

It took a while, but they went through the résumés of Mara's candidates and eventually chose three to interview. As they were wrapping up, Garovel decided to chime in.

'I like this woman,' he said. 'You should give her a promotion.'

Hector paused, for two reasons--the first being because he wasn't sure if Garovel was serious, and the second being because he'd actually been considering doing that himself. 'Do you really think so? Or are you just saying that?'

'When have I ever said something just to say it?'

'Only in every conversation we've ever had.'

'Promote her, dammit.'

Hector was watching her excuse herself and turn for the door. 'Are you sure? Because I will.'

'I bet you won't, you wimp.'

Hector gave the reaper a scrunched up expression, though accompanied by a smile. 'I'll do it right now.'

'Oho. Go on, then.'

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Page 2094

Hector sat down on his bed. "It's not that I don't want a chamberlain," he said, "but it would be an unnecessary expense. I can take care of my own room. I'm not even here all that often, so it doesn't even get that messy to begin with."

"Your frugality is admirable, Lord, but a chamberlain would be able to provide you with many more services than just the cleaning of your bedchamber," said Mara.

That was news to Hector. It was true that he had only given the subject of castle staff a quick bit of research. "...Like what?" he decided to ask.

"A competent chamberlain could run your entire household for you," she said.

Hector cocked an eyebrow.

"I do not mean all of Warrenhold," she clarified. "I mean only you and your immediate family."

"...That's just me and my mother, then," said Hector. "I still don't really think it would be worth the expense, right now. Maybe in the future, when money is less of a concern."

"Begging your pardon, Lord, but in the future, you may have a wife and children to factor into the equation as well."

Hector did his best to not be taken aback by that statement, but it was hard. He didn't want to appear flustered in front of a staff member, but at the same time, what she'd just said struck him as so utterly inconceivable that he was struggling not to let it show on his face.

"And in such a case," Mara went on, "it would be ideal if your own chamberlain were already a long-serving and well-trusted person. They could have a significant impact on the lives of your children. And of course, if your wife happens to be a woman of means, then she may have personal retainers of her own who would be moving in and tending to your family as well. You might be a bit overwhelmed by them all, if you do not have any of your own. And forgive me if I am overstepping here, but I believe that such an imbalance between you and your wife could invite problems into your relationship that might otherwise have been avoided."

Hector just kind of sat there, blinking.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Page 2093

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
Hector had no idea what the future had in store for him, but in the back of his mind, he was immensely disturbed by the current level of comfort that he was enjoying. He was able to eat quite luxurious meals every day thanks to the passionate Rainlord chefs, and the supply team was able to get its hands on increasingly higher quality goods for everyone.

Technically, the job of managing supplies belonged to the castle's "steward," which was the official title of Amelia Carthrace, but as she was often busy managing financial and legal matters with the Bank, the task of overseeing the supply team had largely fallen upon her recently-appointed secretary, a bespectacled Atreyan woman with dark hair and a face that fit in quite well with all these stern Rainlords around.

Her name was Mara Rogers, and while Hector hadn't interacted with her directly very much yet, he saw her around quite frequently. She only looked to be in her mid-twenties, but she didn't seem to be struggling much with her position, which he found impressive, considering she was basically managing the entirety of Warrenhold's day-to-day operations now.

So when a knock arrived at his door as he was preparing for bed after another long day, he couldn't be all that surprised when it turned out to be her.

"Lord?" came Mara's voice from beyond the door. "I know the hour is late, but might I have a few minutes of your time?"

Hector, already in his pajamas, looked at Garovel hovering there next to him.

'Well? Invite the lady in. I can't do it.'

Hector's expression flattened. Sometimes, he wondered why he bothered consulting the reaper at all. "...Sure. Come in."

She entered, still sharply dressed as usual and carrying a pen and clipboard. She remained near the open doorway. "I wanted to speak to you on the matter of your chamberlain--or rather, your persistent lack thereof."

Page 2092

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
And besides all that, it was just good to have more domestic investors. The whole point of the Bank was to prevent foreign influence from taking over the nation, so any help that Hector could get from fellow Atreyans was a step closer to that goal.

For their part, though, the other lords often seemed a bit uncomfortable with the whole thing--in some cases, even when they agreed to invest millions of troa.

Hector couldn't be entirely certain what the source of their collective discomfort was, especially with how guarded many of them were in his presence, but he could imagine why they might be feeling a bit trapped by him.

With the current state of the economy and the very public commotion that the Bank was stirring up, there seemed to be a fast-growing cultural sentiment that helping Darksteel National Bank meant helping Atreya itself--and by logical extension, not helping Darksteel National Bank meant borderline treason. If the public found out about a lord's refusal to invest any troa at all, it wouldn't look good for them.

Hector felt kinda bad about that development. He hadn't intended to bully anyone into joining hands with him, but with the way some of these meetings went, it sometimes felt like that.

He didn't want to apologize unnecessarily, though. The purpose of the Bank really was to help Atreya, after all. It wasn't like he'd done anything wrong. And hopefully, all these lords eventually be seeing huge returns on their investments.

On a more pleasant note, however, the Bank was also getting quite a few offers of investment on its own, without Hector having to go and meet with anyone personally. Business owners and lesser-known lords were apparently calling in every day, asking to get in on the action.

It was all just so very, very strange.

A few months ago, Hector would never have imagined that he might become a banker, of all things. And at the age of seventeen, too? What the hell kind of life of he living, exactly?

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 17

<<Page 16 || All Side Story #1 pages

That was a little surprising, Colt thought. It wasn't like destruction was physically exhausting to use, so why was he feeling so tired so early in the day?

Granted, he'd never really used it this much or concentrated this hard while doing so.

Perhaps there was more to this "simple" power of his than he'd realized.

After making lunch, Colt decided to package it up and head to the park again to make another picnic out of it. The kids deserved a bit of reward, he felt, after being stuck in that playpen for so long. Plus, a part of him wanted to see if Janet Beaumont would show up at the park again.

And to his surprise, she actually did.

Apparently, two days after the death of her uncle Rex was enough time for her to be walking her dog, Brick, in the park again.

Eh. Colt supposed it wasn't all that suspicious, really. People coped with death in different ways, he knew. The normalcy of dog walking might've been exactly what she needed, right now.

She noticed him there with the twins and gave him a small wave, which he returned.

He would've liked to ask her some questions about Rex's death, of course, but what pretext would he have for doing so? He'd only met her one time before.

He would've especially liked to ask her why she had lied to him about being related to Rex. Unless, somehow, she hadn't, and Bohwanox was simply mistaken about her being Rex's niece.

Bah.

What a messy investigation. If only he could just go up to her, flash a badge, and get her talking.

Thomas tried to scuttle off to go pet Janet's dog, but Colt held him fast, and they watched as a family as the pair ambled slowly across the park.

It wasn't quite as crowded today as it had been before. From this shaded spot by the main pond, Colt had a pretty good view of the whole area, like sitting at the bottom of a giant bowl. The edges of the park sloped gently upward, and he could see a variety of people standing all along the rim, especially near the parking lot. That vantage point was probably even better than his.

A good location for scouting, if he had been so inclined.

And that thought gave him pause when he noticed that two of the people currently standing in that spot were large men in dark coats, hats, and sunglasses.

At this distance, judging from the subtle movements of their heads, they were looking for something--or someone, more likely. Areas where the general public gathered were typically good places to search if you didn't have much to go on. Like just a face, for example.

Part of him, insanely, wondered if they might actually be here for him. There was no way in hell that could be the case, but still, the thought wouldn't leave his head.

Until, that was, they settled on Janet Beaumont, who was nearing the edge of the park.

The man on the left tapped the other on the arm, and their collective body language changed. They'd found their target, apparently.

They could've been cops who were trying to be discreet, Colt supposed. It seemed evident now that Janet had a few secrets of her own. She could've been mixed in something that required a delicate touch on the police department's part. Hell, depending on the specifics of Sniderian law, those two men could've even been assigned to protect Janet without her knowledge. Colt hadn't read the legal code quite that deeply yet.

But what if that wasn't what this was?

What if they were a couple of thugs looking to squeeze her for information? Or worse?

Colt growled under his breath. Much as he might've liked to, he couldn't ignore what he'd just seen. He gathered the twins up and started back to his car.

By the time he reached it, Janet was already pulling out of the parking lot, and the two guys were getting into their car as well. A generic blue sedan. Surprise, surprise.

It had been some time since he'd had to follow someone in a car, but he remembered the basics. Not too close. Not too far. Bohwanox would've been a huge help here, and Colt tried reaching out to him, but unsurprisingly, the reaper wasn't responding.

Luckily, he had the layout of this tiny town memorized. It wasn't difficult to take a different turn and then catch back up with them on another street.

At length, they reached their apparent destination. Janet's house, seemingly. The car with the two guys in it was far enough away that Colt couldn't even make them out with the naked eye.

But he had binoculars for that.

Yep. There they were. Just sitting in front of her house in the middle of the day. Their car didn't even have tinted windows.

Not the brightest bulbs in the box, were they?

In a way, that made more dangerous, though. Smart criminals were more difficult to catch, sure, but they generally avoided creating mayhem. Dumb criminals, though?

Unless these motherfuckers really were cops, of course. He was almost hoping that they weren't, at this point. On a professional level, it would just make him feel secondhand embarrassment.

He waited. He watched.

He sure had been doing a lot of that lately.

After about twenty minutes or so, the two guys seemed to be growing impatient. They looked like they were arguing about something. Colt had to wonder if they were about to get out of the car and go try to break down Janet's door, but they didn't do that. They kept waiting. And waiting.

And waiting.

Until it was getting close to dinner time, unfortunately. They kids would be getting hungry, and Colt wanted to feed them again. He'd already had their diapers during this little stakeout, and there was no obvious place to dump the trash, so he'd put in a plastic bag, tied a double knot, and shoved it in the glove box.

He could still smell it a little.

When the other car finally pulled away from Janet's house, Colt almost wanted to go thank them.

He kept following, though. They ended up stopping at a local bar. Perhaps they were hungry, too.

Well, there was a diner across the street. That would have to do. He caught sight of a small trash can outside its door and didn't hesitate to fill it.

He entered the diner and took a spot by the window in order to keep an eye out.

As he and the twins were eating, he decided to try Bohwanox another time.

Surprisingly enough, the reaper answered. 'What is it?' he said with the echo of privacy.

'Might have a lead on Janet,' said Colt. 'Could use your help.'

'Hmm. How urgent?'

'Couple of guys are following her. Don't know why, exactly. Could technically still be harmless, but I doubt it.'

'Ah, so you want me to eavesdrop on them? See what their intentions are?'

'Pretty much, yeah.'

'Alright, tell me where you are.'

He relayed the information to the reaper, and about fifteen minutes later, Bohwanox arrived. The reaper floated across the street to go listen in on their conversation.

Colt was about halfway done with his meal, but the twins both still had a ways to go. With any luck, they would have plenty of time to finish eating.

'Okay, so these guys are talking about baseball,' said Bohwanox. 'You're sure they're dangerous, right?'

'No, I'm not sure at all. That's why I asked you for help.'

'Mm. Well. Color me disappointed.'

'Just keep listening.'

'Yeah, yeah.'

There was more waiting. And more complaining from Bohwanox.

After a while, however, the reaper's tone suddenly changed.

'Oh? Seems like they ARE planning something tonight.'

'Planning what?'

'Shh-shh, I'm listening.'

And again, Colt had to wait.

'...Okay, they're being vague, but I think I've got the gist,' said Boh. 'They're looking for something, and they think that Janet might know where it is.'

'Hmm.'

'Seems like they're trying to impress their boss. No word yet on who that is, but just off the top of my head, there a couple candidates from Lagoroc who come to mind.'

Colt closed his eyes. In the back of his mind, he'd figured it would be something like this, but hearing it all now felt like his worst fears being realized.

Organized crime.

The absolute last thing he wanted to do was get mixed up in that shit again. The risk to his kids was simply too great. There was no sense in involving himself in other people's affairs if it was going to pose that kind of danger.

Bohwanox was silent for a long while, and so was Colt.

The sun was beginning to set.

'...We don't have to intervene here,' the reaper said. 'We're neutral.'

'Yeah,' was all Colt said.

'But I still intend to continue observing,' said Boh. 'It sounds like Janet is going to be interrogated, so they probably don't intend to kill her.'

That was no guarantee at all, Colt knew. Once they got what they wanted from her, she'd just be a loose end. And if they didn't bother to wear masks, then she will have seen their faces at that point. They'd have no reason to keep her alive then.

He didn't tell that to Bohwanox, though. Hell, maybe the reaper already knew and was just trying to make excuses for their inaction.

Colt didn't need any other excuses, though. The only ones needed were the two sitting in front of him.

Maybe they wouldn't appreciate that sentiment when they were older. Maybe they would even hate him for it if they ever found out about it.

But how would they? And even if they did, well... at least they'd still be alive.

Colt finished his meal in silence, and then he watched the twins finish theirs.

Then he paid for the meal, gathered the kids up again, and returned to his car.

Where he sat.

In the driver seat.

With his hands on the wheel.

And just stared through the windshield.

He didn't start the car. He didn't move at all. He just sat there. Waiting. Thinking.

It was dark out when he noticed the two men in his rearview mirror, finally leaving the bar.

'I have a proposal,' said Bohwanox. 'But I need to ask you something first. Something rather... horrible.'

Colt saw the reaper still following them. 'What?'

'Do you think... that it would be possible for you to simply... make these two men... disappear? Completely, I mean?'

Colt was watching them get into their car. 'Excuse me?'

'Can you do it, Colt?' Boh didn't sound like he was joking, but Colt could still hardly believe what he was hearing.

'Are you really asking me to kill them?'

'...Yes. And no. Just killing them would be too sloppy. For the safety of your children, you would need to make them vanish entirely. You would need to make it so that no one could possibly ever find out what happened to them.'

Colt's face hardened as he absorbed the reaper's words. 'And you'd be okay with that? You don't even know who they are.'

'Oh, but I do,' said Bohwanox. 'You didn't hear the end of their conversation just now, Colt. I did.'

He was almost reluctant to ask. '...What did they say?'

'I don't even want to repeat it.'

'Boh. If it made you angry enough to want them wiped off the face of Eleg, then I'm gonna need you to repeat it to me.'

The reaper sighed. 'They are planning to lie in wait, until Janet's little brother comes home. And then they are planning to first, kill their dog. Then, take Janet and the brother captive. Interrogate them. Then, they said... that they are going to rape her, while forcing him to watch. After which, they intend to slit his throat and make her watch him die. And then, well, they didn't actually mention this bit, but presumably, they will then kill her as well.'

Colt did not have the words to respond with.


<<Page 16 || All Side Story #1 pages

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 2091

Overall, things were looking up, but funding for the Bank was still a concern. It would take time to process all of the new customers and begin earning revenue from them. Hector fully intended to reinvest everything back into the Bank itself in order to keep growing operations, but in the meantime, he wanted to do everything he could to secure more immediate funding as well.

Which was where the other Atreyan lords came in. Prior to the Bank's official opening, he had already completed all of the postponed Gala meetings, so now he was working on an entirely fresh batch of lordly meetings.

Some meetings, he pursued himself--at the recommendation of his newly-formed Board of Advisors, which currently included Amelia and everyone whom she had handpicked. Now that the Bank was officially operating and getting tons of free publicity on the news, their hope with this new round of meetings was to appeal to the other Atreyan lords as potential investors.

And it was still very early to be getting too optimistic, but the Board seemed to be in good spirits. The more reserve funding the Bank had at its disposal, the more new customers they could accept. As Hector understood it, according to state regulations, any new bank had to possess enough reserve funding to cover the potential loss of every single customer's assets--up to two hundred thousand troa each.

Therefore, taking on too many customers too quickly was tantamount to fraud--which would probably cause the Bank to collapse before it even got off the ground. These regulations would only begin to relax if the Bank continued to operate for several years with consistently proven "solvency"--meaning, never failing to repay its debts or meet its other financial obligations.

That was part of the reason why they were having to put so many applicants on a waiting list. So every time Hector was able to secure new investment from a fellow lord, that waiting list could have a huge chunk removed from it.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Page 2090

All of those developments, however, paled in comparison to what happened with the banking project during these three weeks. The final name of it was the Darksteel National Bank, and it was now officially open for business.

That first week of operation had been especially insane.

As the Madame Carthrace had predicted, new customers came pouring in. Much of it could be handled online, but they'd also leased an office building in downtown Gray Rock specifically for the purpose of receiving new customers. And every time Hector visited that place, it was absolutely packed with people, oftentimes with waiting lines that extended all the way out the door and around the corner of the building.

His appearances there always turned into a bit of a circus as well, since basically everyone in the country knew his face at this point. All the attention was certainly overwhelming and uncomfortable, but he found himself being less concerned about his own feelings and more so about all the people waiting in line. According to the news, many of them didn't even leave once the Bank closed. They simply camped out overnight, waiting for the doors to reopen.

They ended up renting another building a few blocks away to help alleviate the problem, but it still persisted--now in two locations instead of one. Amelia was now considering upgrading the second building from a rent to a lease. As Hector understood it, a lease here in Atreya required at least a three-year commitment, which was why she was reluctant to go through with it. This initial surge of customers was obviously not going to last for three years, and Amelia was doubtful that they would need two buildings in such close proximity to one another.

But then again, people were traveling to Gray Rock from all over Atreya just to open an account at the Darksteel National Bank, so maybe it would be worth it. Or maybe they needed to open a branch in another city.

It was all a bit too complicated for Hector's inexperienced mind, and he was glad to have the Madame Carthrace in his corner.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Page 2089

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
The relationship between those two had quickly become a popular subject of discussion around Warrenhld. According to Garovel, they were quite the passionate couple--to the shock of basically everyone who knew Dimas. "Passionate" was one word that Hector did not think of when trying to describe that man.

Reportedly, most of the "passion" seemed to be originating from Madison's end, but the fact that Dimas never rebuffed her open displays of affection was still a bombshell in its own right to the other Rainlords.

Diego Redwater appeared to be taking this development especially hard, though Hector wasn't entirely sure why.

Hector kind of wanted to ask Dimas about the whole thing directly, but he didn't really have the time, and it seemed a bit rude, besides.

On the matter of treasure hunting, there had also been considerable progress. Three teams had been formed and deployed to different locations across the world. As the head Rainlords had discussed, they each consisted of servants with little or no renown, and three support teams had also been formed to help them, consisting entirely of non-servants who were multilingual and knowledgeable in both telecommunications and cartography.

Roman had been generous enough to provide transportation and false documentation for all of them, but they were still expected to operate stealthily whenever feasible.

Despite the whole thing being his and Garovel's idea, Hector had been rather nervous about sending them all out on their own like that, but after speaking with the chosen team members and getting to know them a little better, his concerns abated somewhat. They all understood their objectives and were taking their roles very seriously--as one might expect from Rainlords.

Thus far, none of the teams had reported back with especially good news, but with only the general location and artifact description to go on, it was expected that these missions would take quite a long time to find anything--assuming there even was anything left to be found. Hector just hoped that Emiliana's intel was solid.

Page 2088

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
Roman had of course told him about Madison's circumstances already, about how she was in hiding from a group called "Andalero," but Hector hadn't really spared it much thought. As far as he was concerned, she fit right in with all these fugitive Rainlords, and if Roman wanted her to be protected, then Hector was more than happy to have her stay here.

It was only very recently, however, that she had introduced herself to Hector directly.

And boy, could that woman talk.

She was quite nice as well, expressing her gratitude for her accommodations repeatedly and enthusiastically. But she also had some suggestions, apparently, regarding the overall decor of Warrenhold. She even went so far as to ask if she might be granted some funding in order to help pursue her passion for interior design.

Hector had been at a loss for what to say to that.

"I'm thinking some nice rugs would go a long way to making a lot of these rooms more welcoming and, just, 'homely,' y'know? And goddess knows this place could do with a bit more light. I'm thinking some lamps to hang along the top of each tower. Help brighten up the ceiling in particular, which I think will improve the already-gorgeous view from the main plaza. Oh, maybe some nice banners to drape down the side of each tower would be good, too, but I imagine you would want those to be custom made, eh? Do you have an insignia or crest? I could look into--"

And she had just kept going. If not for the Lord Dimas Sebolt's timely arrival, Hector wasn't sure what would have happened.

"Perhaps you should give him some time to think about your proposals," Dimas had said.

"Oh! Um, sure!" Her eyes had seemed to light up even more when she'd noticed Dimas there. "You're probably right! I'll do that! And you'll keep me company while I await his response, won't you?"

"...Not the entire time, but yes. I would be happy to."

And the way she had wrapped herself around Dimas' arm--that was perhaps the most surprising thing Hector had seen in a while.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Page 2087

He created a long iron tube and snaked it all the way up the side of the cave, through the bathhouse doors, and down the tunnel to the waterfall. He would capture the lake water at the opening of the tube and then push it all the way to exit with a moving inner wall of iron.

It wasn't terribly difficult, but Hector still found it to be a somewhat interesting form of training--both because of the sheer volume of iron and water involved and because so much of his work had to be done without visual reference. He had to rely almost entirely on his imagination. Moreover, the total travel distance of the tube was greater than his sphere of influence with materialization, so he had to keep walking back and forth as well.

Tedious was certainly one word for it, though.

It no doubt would've been much faster to drill down below the lake and simply let the water drain out on its own, but the big concern there was that, with so much water in need of removal, the amount of drilling required would be too dangerous. The structural stability of the cave itself might become compromised--not to the mention the possibility of encountering volcanic gases. Reapers could phase through the rock and locate lava, since it emitted light, but gases remained invisible to them.

It was a shame, too, because one or two destruction users probably could've taken care of that job in a few days.

This did, however, get Hector thinking about the local environment a bit more. He was starting to wonder if he should try to recruit a geologist. Maybe not right now but eventually, perhaps.

On the subject of recruitment, however, one other person had recently gained Hector's attention: a woman named Madison Reach.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Page 2086

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
The reconstruction effort overall was progressing in new directions as well. After completing work on the Entry Tower and moving most of their attention to the Bell Tower, some of the Rainlords began expressing an interest in the problematic lake that sat below Warrenhold. Specifically, they wanted to start draining it so that they could get a better look at the ancient buildings therein.

Hector was more than happy to give his approval, but it apparently wasn't going to be a quick process. There was simply too much water down there and too few people to work on it. Theoretically, a materialization user could just push the water up and out with gigantic buckets, but where were they supposed to move all that water? The surface? That was a hell of a climb up the cave's winding staircase--and then also through the Entry Tower's dozens of flights of stairs as well.

And if they tried to cut corners or get reckless with their handling of so much water in one trip, then there was a very good chance that it would spill and flood Warrenhold itself. There were far too many non-servants around to risk something like that.

Instead, they'd decided that the better location to deposit all the water was the underground river. They still had to trek up those winding stairs, but rather than going through the Entry Tower, they had to go through the bathhouses and into a long tunnel that eventually led out to the waterfall--the same one that could be faintly heard from Warrenhold's main plaza.

It was still a considerable distance to transport so much water, so they tried rigging up a high-powered pumping system in order to at least automate the process, but in the end, they figured like acquiring all the parts for a large enough contraption of that kind would be a needless expense. They resorted to simply using a materializer for the pumping job instead, and occasionally, that materializer was Hector.

Page 2085

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
Regardless, Hector had a feeling that it was going to take some time to get Ericoros talking. He just wondered how long. Given the longevity of reapers, this shit could take years.

But oh well. There was no rushing something like this. For now, all they could do was try to show Ericoros the kind of people they were and what kind of operation they were running.

At this rate, though, they would soon need to come up with a more long-term solution for the reaper's captivity. They couldn't just keep handing him off between servants forever. Trapping Ericoros in a soul-empowered box seemed rather inhumane and counterproductive to the task of trying to win him over, but it might be necessary.

A few of the Rainlords had suggested that they shift some of the reconstruction effort to building a prison that could hold reapers, and Hector was considering it. Even if they didn't intend to use it for Ericoros, such a facility could certainly prove useful in the future.

In fact, he was a bit surprised that Warrenhold didn't already possess such a place, but after consulting Garovel and Voreese about it, he learned that it used to.

According to Voreese, the half-destroyed Star Tower was where the prison had been located.

Which brought up all sorts of questions to Hector's mind regarding Warrenhold's history. Was it merely a coincidence that, of all eight towers, the one with the prison in it had been the only one to incur such heavy damage? When had that tower been destroyed? And who had caused it?

Voreese didn't have any answers for him, unfortunately. She may have been the reaper of the original builder of Warrenhold, but until recently, she hadn't even visited in over a thousand years.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Page 2084 -- CCIX.

Hector deliberated on what Leo had just said for a bit. And then, despite how much he was trying to maintain his composure, he couldn't help allowing a smile to creep onto his face, and a small laugh escaped his lips. "You know," said Hector, "I was a bit worried about offering you a position like this. Granting you responsibility over civilians. But now, after hearing that... I think you might just be perfect for it."

Leo seemed confused again and blinked a few more times.

"It sounds like you really will have their best interests at heart," said Hector. "That's exactly what I'm looking for."


Chapter Two Hundred Nine: 'O, expanding venture...!'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

The next three weeks were blessedly peaceful. Busy, perhaps, but peaceful. Hector became more accustomed to his routine as Lord of Warrenhold, and remarkably, many of his worries seemed to be lessening--if only a little.

By all accounts, Leo appeared to be quite comfortable in his new role. Roman and a couple others had volunteered to work with Leo temporarily to help him get acclimated, and incredibly, the plan to gain informants around Gray Rock was already bearing fruit. Hector was starting to receive miscellaneous reports about various things happening around the city. They weren't especially helpful yet, mostly just mundane rumors, but it was something.

Ericoros had thus far proved completely uncooperative. The reaper hadn't said a single word to Hector at all, although he'd apparently spoken briefly to Melchor when it was the man's turn to hold onto him. Ericoros had asked Melchor about Hector, wanting to know why someone as famous as Darktide was following him.

And Darktide, team player that he was, had apparently talked Hector up as being some kind of great man, worthy of trust and respect.

When Garovel had privately relayed that information to him, Hector felt more uncertain than ever about this whole thing. Getting Melchor to lie for him like that was absolutely ridiculous, but considering how deep into this they were now, what other option was there?

Monday, February 17, 2020

Page 2083

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
Hector watched him closely. A lot depended on how Leo felt about this job offer.

Leo's nose twitched, and he gave an audible sniff. "Maybe I'm just bein' paranoid here, but y'know... to me, it sounds a bit like you plan on exploitin' the underprivileged for your own political gain." And he stared at Hector straight on.

Hector didn't look away. "Why would you think that?"

"Well. Mainly just a gut feeling. A worry, I guess. I may not know all that much about this little country of yours, but I know that it's had some political trouble recently, no?"

"That's putting it mildly," said Hector with a bob of his head.

"Mmhmm. Then I guess I'm just concerned that you--a guy who seems to have come out on top after that whole mess--might be lookin' to exploit some less fortunate folks with your newfound influence. Know what I'm sayin'?"

"Sure, but how would a network of homeless informants be considered exploitation?" said Hector.

"Depends on the nature of the 'informing' being done," said Leo. "Seen this type o' thing before, daddy-o. Sometimes, when you invest so much effort into buildin' something, you end up forgettin' the human cost. You end up trappin' your own builders inside, ya feel me?"

Hector squinted at him and took a moment to consider his words. He felt like he understood what the man was getting at, but he wasn't sure. "Are you worried that... such a network would make the problem of homelessness worse?"

"Mm, pretty much, yeah. When you've got power, you can throw someone who's drowning a lifeline, right? Seems like a good and noble thing to do, yeah? But then, if you feel like it, you can decide not to reel 'em into safety. 'Cuz maybe, for whatever reason, it's more beneficial for you if they stay out there in the brutal sea, while relying on you forever, unable to escape."

Page 2082

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
"It is good to finally make your acquaintance," said Hector.

Ericoros merely held his gaze and said nothing.

Well, that was fine. "I look forward to getting to know you." Hector went back to Leo. "In the meantime, you wanted me to give you a job, no?"

Leo perked up a little. "Er--yeah, dude! You already have something in mind for me?!"

"How does working for a homeless shelter sound?" said Hector.

Leo blinked a couple times. "Uh..."

It seemed like the man was giving him a window to elaborate, but Hector just waited for his full reaction.

"That's, er... not exactly what I was expecting," said Leo. "It's not really 'servant' work, is it?"

"It's 'human' work," said Hector. "And important, too."

"Yeah, man, I mean, sure. I'm just kind of wondering what you are getting out of it. Do you own this homeless shelter?"

"No, I don't. And it wouldn't just be one shelter. It would be multiple shelters, all over Gray Rock. We've made arrangements for you." Hector nodded toward Roman. "Or rather, he has."

Roman gave a small wave and a flat smile. Oddly enough, he was actually dressed like a normal businessman today.

"Ah..." Leo still seemed confused, though. "But, er, how does me working at a homeless shelter contribute to your overall plans for the future?"

Hector found that question somewhat surprising. He'd expected Leo to only care about whether the job sounded enjoyable to him personally, but after a moment, he supposed this response made sense, too. Leo seemed to be a rather skeptical guy by nature.

"For now," said Hector, "it probably won't contribute much at all. Placing you somewhere you appreciate is all that matters."

"Huh..."

Hector felt like he should give the man a bit more. "However... it's my hope that you might be able to foster a network of reliable contacts during your time in these places."

Leo's expression shifted with sudden understanding. "I see..."

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 16

<<Page 15 || All Side Story #1 pages || Page 17>>

Colt still wasn't really interested, but out of impulse, he asked, 'How late last night did you overhear this?'

'Maybe about three in the morning or so,' said Bohwanox. 'I could be mistaken, though. I'm not great with time.'

'Who the hell did you overhear at three in the morning?'

'Some old guy who was out walking his dog. He wasn't gracious enough to say his name out loud for me, the random invisible being whom he didn't know was following him.'

'Was he by himself? Who was he talking to?'

'I just told you he was with his dog.'

Colt's expression flattened. 'He was talking to his dog?'

'Yeah. Is that so weird?'

'When it's some kind of historical lesson about an old ship, yeah, it's pretty fuckin' weird.'

'Maybe we just have different definitions of weird.'

'Maybe we do.' Colt stopped to think for a moment. 'This dog wouldn't happen to have been a Dantean Sherpherd, would it have?'

'No, it was a beagle.'

'Mm. Did you overhear anything else from this old guy?'

'Yeah. Apparently, the story goes, this giant ship just showed up here in Orden one day out of thin air. Shocked the townsfolk beyond belief. Then they worshiped it for a while as some sort of godly artifact.'

Colt squinted as he watched the kids. 'It just appeared out of nowhere, huh?'

'So they say. Spooky, right?'

'Says the fuckin' ghost.'

'Excuse me, but I happen to consider that term a racial slur, and I'll thank you not to use it from now on.'

'Go to hell.'

'No thanks. Anyway, I'd say that story implies some kind of supernatural involvement. Which is in our wheelhouse, eh?'

'Not necessarily,' said Colt.

'Oh no? Then how did that ship end up there?'

'An elaborate stunt.'

'What?'

'As long as you had enough personnel and made the right preparations, I could imagine that ship being built in a single night. Then, in the morning, it would look like it had just appeared there out of thin air.'

'Building an entire ship in one night? Are you serious?'

'Yes. And for all we know, it might not even be an entire ship. It's half-buried, remember? And it's not like the builders would have had to make it seaworthy.'

'If it was some kind of hoax like that, then someone would've noticed by now, surely.'

'I'm just saying, you shouldn't take things at face value. I doubt it would be that difficult to fool a bunch of unsuspecting townsfolk two hundred years ago.'

'Fine, but why would anyone do all that?'

Colt shrugged to himself and drew looks from the twins. 'I don't know. To make history? Why would some supernatural explanation be more plausible?'

'That's a fair point, I suppose.'

'Did you learn anything actually useful last night? Or were you too busy following old men and their dogs around?'

'As it so happens, I visited all of our current suspects last night. Even Keith Hopper again.'

'Oh. That was surprisingly smart of you.'

'Wow. You want to conduct this investigation on your own from now on? Because I've got other things I can be doing.'

'Do you really? Weren't you just complaining about how bored you were these last couple nights?'

'Yeah, but complaining about being bored and genuinely not having anything to do are two completely different things.'

Colt didn't even want to understand what the reaper was talking about. 'Whatever. You learn anything good or not?'

'Not.'

'Shit, really?'

'Yeah. Janet Beaumont, Keith Hopper, Leonard Pink. All asleep. Would've visited Robert Plenty, if we knew who that was. You should really get crackin' on that, by the way.'

'C'mon, you had to have noticed something of use. What were their homes like? Describe them.'

'It was dark. I couldn't see much.'

'Did any of them seem extra wealthy? Expensive cars in the driveway? New furniture or appliances?'

'I really wasn't paying attention to that sort of thing, Colt.'

'You're useless.'

'And yet without me, you'd be dead.'

'If you didn't find out anything useful, then why did you even bother to tell me that you visited all of them?'

'Because I wanted you to know how hardworking I am.'

Colt just sighed to himself.

'Anyway,' said Bohwanox, sounding not at all bothered by any of the insults that he'd just received, 'since there doesn't appear to be much movement on the case at the moment, I'm going to be spending most of the day reaping souls in Lagoroc.'

'Now? Why didn't you do that last night when you were bored?'

'I did, but there are still lots more souls to get to.'

Colt found that somewhat surprising. 'Are there normally that many?'

'In a big city like Lagoroc? Yeah, there's typically a few dozen deaths a day. And souls can wander aimlessly, which sometimes makes them a bit tricky to find among all of the still-living souls.'

'You're not the only reaper in the city, though, are you?'

'No. I've seen one more, and there are probably at least a couple others hanging around somewhere.'

'Hmm.'

'Last night, though, I found a rather large group of souls that had been passed over. Given the horrible condition they were in, they'd probably been dead for months. I expect that it'll take me a few days to reap them all.'

Colt hesitated at that news. 'So I won't be able to contact you for multiple days, then? That could seriously hamper the investigation. I don't have an entire police department backing me up, you know. You're the only real support I've got.'

There arrived a long pause. 'Why, Colt... I never expected to hear such warm words from you.'

Colt's expression soured. 'That is not what I meant, and you know it.'

'I know no such thing. And I'm incredibly flattered. Thank you, my friend.'

'Get bent, you son of a bitch.'

'My angry, angry friend.'

'You gonna answer me or not? I thought you considered this investigation important.'

'I won't be out of contact for multiple days. Just for much of today. I'll be working on that one group of souls intermittently for the next week or two. And I'll check in on the police station in between reapings, too. If anything significant happens, I should still be able to tell you about it.'

Colt wanted to argue with him. He wanted to tell him to just hold off on reaping until after the investigation was over, but that wouldn't be very reasonable, and Bohwanox might've already known as much. Depending on how things continued to develop, this investigation could drag on for a very long time, and given how little information the reaper had been able to uncover yesterday, Boh was probably feeling pretty antsy about just sitting around and watching a bunch of cops read files and do paperwork.

'Check on Keith Hopper again, too,' said Colt, 'not just the police.'

'Yeah, alright. I'm pretty sure he's not our guy, though.'

'Maybe, but it's too early to be thinking that.'

'Mmhmm. Anyway, I'm gonna get to work now. Try not to do anything too stupid while I'm gone.'

'Same to you.'

Colt relaxed with the kids for a while, then decided to go chop some more wood. He didn't need to. He had plenty still stockpiled up from the other day, but the simple rhythm of it helped him think. He needed to constantly reevaluate the case, as well as his approach to it.

This was so different to a normal investigation. Again, he found himself wanting to resort to conventional methods, even though he knew he couldn't. Now more than ever, he had to be careful. Taking the wrong action could expose him to any number of previously unforeseen problems.

He was starting to wonder if this whole thing was just a horrible idea.

Well. Of course it was. He'd known that from the beginning.

But it wasn't too late to stop. To just let the issue drop. Sure, a murderer might go free, but what responsibility of that was his? And Boh hadn't noticed anything yet about capital cops suspecting him as the culprit, so...

Oh, who was he kidding? Even if he were to "give up" on the investigation, he would still be thinking about it constantly. If nothing else, he wanted to know who the killer was. Even if he didn't bother to take action afterwards, he wanted to know who to be wary of.

And to that end, preparation was key. As always.

He stopped chopping and set his axe down.

He looked at his bare hand, making a fist, then opening it again.

His destruction ability was convenient for a few different things, but thus far, chopping wood hadn't been one of them. It was great for bringing trees down, sure, but trying to cut logs with it? He'd tried that a few times previously and only succeeded in reducing the logs into sharp chunks and splinters--which had been a pain in the ass to clean up. He couldn't very well let the kids play outside with so many sharp objects all over the ground. Using an axe, while a bit more work, was much cleaner and safer.

But Colt had the impression that, if he just honed his ability more, he could overcome that problem.

Exerting fine control with destruction was harder than it seemed, though. He would've expected it to be a simple matter, considering his ability started so weak in the first place. Why couldn't he just achieve that same level of weakness again? What was so difficult about doing something he'd already done before?

It was the path of destruction itself that was the problem. It was stubborn. It always wanted to adhere to the same shape and size. And when it grew more powerful, it wanted to remain grown.

With practice, he could at least tell that it was possible to shrink the path back down.

Colt supposed that this was the point when most servants would consult their reapers for advice regarding the development of their powers, but that wasn't an option for him. He'd learned early on that Bohwanox didn't know much about servant abilities.

Colt would just have to figure it out on his own.

He decided to give it another go, here and now. He grabbed the log and moved it farther away from the house, next to a small stream that babbled down a long row of large rocks. Typically, he used this place to handwash his clothes and dishes. He usually carried the twins over here with him while worked on those chores, but at this distance from the cabin, he could still see the makeshift playpen that they were in.

He set hunk of wood down in the front of the water and concentrated. On his power. On his intent. Then he put his hand forward and summoned the path of destruction.

The log exploded into pieces.

The stream caught the splinters for him, though, at least, and he watched the debris float away in the water. He dropped his hands to his sides and frowned.

It was discouraging, but he knew that he needed to keep practicing. He glanced back at the kids, then eyed the stream another time.

He had actually worked on this stream a bit previously, rearranging rocks and altering its path to make it flow as close to the cabin as it currently did. Practicing his destruction on wood was just a waste of resources at this point, so he decided to grab a few of the larger rocks that weren't affecting the stream's flow and use them, instead.

He spent the rest of the morning smashing rocks apart, trying to minimize the damage he was doing to them. He got it into his head that he would accomplish his goal if he managed to carve his initials into a rock that was a small enough to fit into the palm of his hand.

By the time lunch was rolling around, he had not succeeded, and he was even beginning to feel fatigued.


<<Page 15 || All Side Story #1 pages || Page 17>>

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 2081

Hector and Garovel had discussed the problem of Ericoros at length in private. Without a doubt, this was the most difficult obstacle for achieving any kind of long-term solution with Leo here in Atreya. Ideally, they would be able to win the reaper's loyalty, but they both doubted that would be easy. In fact, if it was easy, then that would be ridiculously suspicious. How were they to ever arrive at a point where they could trust Ericoros?

Baby steps, was what they'd decided on. It would be very slow going, and the first thing to do was simply get to know the reaper better. Any attempt at convincing a reaper to change allegiances was bound to fail without first acquiring knowledge about them.

And of course, it could all still be for naught. The notion that Ericoros simply could not be convinced to join them, no matter what they said or did--that concerned Hector and Garovel greatly.

What would they do in that case? Keep the reaper prisoner indefinitely?

Or, of course... they could just let Ericoros release Leo.

That was far from the ideal outcome, certainly, but it would at least neutralize the threat that Leo might pose to them.

And there was still the matter of Sai-hee's hatred of the Rainlords. If they simply let Ericoros go free, who knows what he might tell her? What if Ericoros' freedom somehow ended up causing Sai-hee to attack Warrenhold?

Perhaps that was unlikely, but given their current knowledge of the situation, they weren't yet prepared to take that chance.

As Hector eyed the helpless reaper in his grasp, he knew how careful he had to be with everything that he said now. Impulsively, he wanted to apologize to Ericoros for the circumstances, but Garovel had warned him against doing that.

If he was supposed to be playing the part of an emperor-class servant, then he should not act so apologetic or accommodating. He should do as he had done with Leo himself. He should project both power and understanding.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Page 2080

Part of Hector's plan here today was minimizing how much he spoke--if at all possible. He didn't want to be needlessly rude or obtuse, but at the same time, he wanted to avoid saying anything that might accidentally give away his true age or lack of leadership qualities.

So even though he wanted to prod Leo about where his reaper, Ericoros, was, Hector chose to hold his tongue for the time being. Ideally, the man would realize what Hector was waiting for on his own, as meeting Ericoros was one of the primary purposes of this rendezvous.

And it required a bit more staring, but Leo did indeed figure it out.

"Oh! Um!" Leo reached behind him toward the bench that he'd been sitting on and retrieved a black box, about the size of house cat. "Here you go! As requested!"

Hector received the box with both hands.

"Just, er, be careful with that," Leo added, taking a few steps back and raising his hands a bit. "I'm sure you wanna check to make sure he's really in there, so... eh, you ready?"

Hector understood what he was getting at. He glanced at the others, then gave Leo a nod.

Leo flicked his wrist, and the box of solid boron annihilated itself from the top down.

Immediately, the reaper within bolted out of it, but Hector was ready with a soul-empowered hand and caught Ericoros in his grip.

The reaper struggled, wriggling like an eel, but without a physical body to work with, there was really no hope of getting away.

Ericoros remained quiet, though, which Hector found surprising. Given all prior experience with reapers, he fully expected this one to complain loudly and often about his current circumstances, but that didn't appear to be the case.

Hector looked to Leo again. "Have you already explained the situation to Ericoros?"

"Ah--yeah. More or less."

Friday, February 14, 2020

Page 2079

~~The Valentine's Days Special -- (page 13 of 12, because I miscounted, realized it too late, and now I don't feel like going back and rescheduling 100 pages)~~
"Listen," said Leo, "about before, I'm real sorry about attackin' you like I did."

"You sucker punched me," said Melchor.

"Well, yeah, I kinda had to, dude. Knew you'd be a big problem if I didn't take you out first. I was outnumbered like a hundred to one 'r somethin', y'know."

"In that case, I suppose I can just consider myself flattered," said Melchor. "And you should consider yourself lucky that the Lord Goffe here wasn't present at that time." He flashed Hector a quick smile.

Holy shit, Melchor, seriously?

Hector's face just tightened up. He couldn't really say anything, but he wanted to tell him to relax. That kind of heavy-handed praise wasn't necessary.

Leo laughed. "You're right, man! Things could be a lot worse for me, couldn't they?!"

"Indeed. But I look forward to working together with you as comrades-in-arms under Darksteel's guidance." Melchor gave another smile.

"Oh, ah, me too, dude!"

Wait a minute. Was Melchor enjoying this? What the hell was going through his head, right now?!

"Have you already heard about his encounter with the so-called 'God of the Underworld?'"

"Oh, yeah, Roman over there told me a bit about that, but he skimped on the details. You wouldn't--"

Hector felt compelled to intervene. "Ah--that's enough of that. Save the small talk for later, please."

"Look, he's getting embarrassed!" said Melchor.

"Oh, wow! I think you're right!"

The two men chortled in unison this time.

Hector just stared at them, wondering if this meeting was already spiraling out of his control. He half-expected Roman to jump in as well, but when he looked over at him, the man looked more flabbergasted than anything.

When their laughter settled, however, silence arrived and threatened to become awkward.

Hector maintained his focus, though. He didn't intend to let it get to him this time. If anything, he wanted to use this awkwardness to his advantage.

Page 2078

~~The Valentine's Days Special -- (page 12 of 12)~~
When Leo saw him approaching, the man smiled and stood up. He hardly even glanced at the four other men following closely behind Hector.

"Whew!" Leo shuffled quickly closer and offered Hector a handshake. "You're not late, but all the same, I was beginning to worry you wouldn't show!"

Hector saw no reason to be impolite. He took the handshake. "You clean up well, Leo."

"Oh! Aha! Yeah, thanks! Figured I should try 'n make myself presentable, y'know. Demonstrate my conviction 'n whatnot."

"I appreciate it," said Hector. He motioned to the men behind him. "I believe you've already encountered almost everyone here, but... I suppose introductions are in order. Matteo, Roman, Diego, and Melchor."

Melchor stepped up next to Hector but said nothing, only folded his arms. Orric clung to his back.

"Heh, yeah, uh." Leo offered Melchor a handshake now.

Melchor just looked at it, then at Hector.

Hector gave the man a small nod.

Thankfully, Melchor decided to take the handshake.

They had all discussed at length how they should conduct themselves in front of Leo. Everyone here had agreed to play along with the tale of Hector being the leader of the Rainlords.

Hector had been surprised when Melchor volunteered to join him for this meeting. He'd wanted to ask the man to come along anyway, but he hadn't expected such enthusiasm from him. It had worried Hector, at first, because he thought Melchor might be hoping to enact some manner of revenge on Leo, but as they'd discussed their plans more, it seemed like Melchor was mostly just concerned with ensuring Hector's safety.

Which was flattering, to say the least--not to mention comforting. Having Darktide, of all people, watching out for him? That was arguably the main reason why Hector was able to feel relatively calm, right now.

Page 2077

~~The Valentine's Days Special -- (page 11 of 12)~~
Loxeville was a quaint little town. Hector had researched it a bit online, just wanting to get a sense of the place. It had a population of about eight thousand, and it was quite a young community. Its founding mayor was even still alive. Its primary tourist attraction was the so-called "largest egg on the continent," which sounded quite weird to Hector's mind, though it did pique his curiosity a bit. Apparently, it was a fossilized "titanosaur" egg.

Hector didn't know much about dinosaurs, but he kind of wanted to go see it. Maybe some other time. When the fate of the nation wasn't hanging in the balance.

The agreed upon location was technically not in Loxeville itself, but rather on the outskirts of town. They were hoping to avoid a fight, of course, but Voreese and Garovel had thankfully still picked a place where they wouldn't have to worry about innocent bystanders.

If all went according to plan, however, they would not be staying here for long.

The vehicle came to a stop at a dead end in front of an empty lot. There was a warehouse on one side of the street, but on the other was just an endless landscape of tall, lush grass. It wasn't raining, but the scent in the air was that of recent showers, and the dark clouds hanging low in the sky certainly looked like they might start watering the ground again at any moment.

Hector saw the man sitting there on the bench by the road, but it took him a second to recognize that it was Leo. The guy looked almost like a different person.

Leo was cleanly shaven, wearing a black suit and tie, and his black hair was perfectly coiffed. Gone were the dreadlocks and scraggly beard.

Page 2076 -- CCVIII.

~~The Valentine's Days Special -- (page 10 of 12)~~
'Oh, and regarding Parson vs. Leo,' said Garovel, 'I think even if Leo is a bit older--which I'm only ASSUMING that is he is--Parson would no doubt have a huge advantage over him as long as Leo isn't able to work with his reaper.'

'Oh, right.'

'But then again, Leo WAS able to capture Melchor and everyone else single-handedly, so it could be that he's got a few tricks up his sleeve that would net him a victory over Parson. The context of this hypothetical fight would play an enormous role.'

'Hmm.'

'In any case, you'd better get some sleep. All our preparations for tomorrow will be for nothing if you're too tired to think straight.'

'Okay.'


Chapter Two Hundred Eight: 'Go forth, and preside...!'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

By most standards, the trip south to Loxeville from Gray Rock didn't take much time at all, but it was still long enough for Hector's feeling of dread to build up over the course of it. As he sat in the back of the black SUV with Roman Fullister, Diego Redwater, and Melchor Blackburn, Hector couldn't help imagining the variety of ways that this meeting with Leo could potentially go wrong.

Aside from the four of them, there was also Matteo Delaguna, their driver and Hector's recent shadow. The young man hadn't said two words to Hector, but whenever he left Warrenhold, Matteo followed him as the Rainlords' designated bodyguard.

The reapers were all present as well, but they soon wouldn't be, apart from Melchor's reaper, Orric. No one wanted them around if a fight ended up breaking out. Hector was trying to convince himself that it wouldn't, but as they got closer and closer to Loxeville, he found himself resisting those attempts.

Leo just wanted a meaningful job. He just needed guidance. From someone he could believe in. And Hector had to be that person.

Oh, god...

Page 2075

~~The Valentine's Days Special -- (page 9 of 12)~~
'And how old is Parson?' said Hector.

'From what I was able to tell, he was at least a hundred, and that was sixty-ish years ago, so... do the math.'

'I see...'

'Oh, wait, you're terrible at math, aren't you? Maybe that was I asking too much.'

'I can do simple addition!'

'You sure about that?'

'Yes! You're saying he's at least a hundred and sixty!'

'Wow, good job.' The reaper almost sounded genuinely impressed, no doubt trying to enhance the obnoxiousness. 'I'm really proud of you.'

'Shut up,' laughed Hector. 'I'm not THAT bad at math. Agh.'

'Mm, I dunno. I recall an instance several months ago where I was telling you about how many languages I knew. I said three hundred, and then you pointed out that it wasn't very impressive, because I was three thousand years old, so that worked out to "only like one new language every hundred years." Those were your exact words, by the way.'

Hector's brow lowered as he thought back. 'I don't remember this at all.'

'Mmhmm. Three thousand divided by three hundred is ten, not a hundred. You added a zero there, buddy.'

'I'm sure that never happened. You would've roasted me if it had, and then I would definitely remember it.'

'The reason I didn't say anything at the time was because we were still getting to know each other, and I didn't want to hurt your feelings. But that's not a concern anymore, as I've come to realize just how much doing that brings me joy.'

'Well, I don't even recall what you're talking about, so no hurt feelings for you.'

'Damn.'

'But anyway, if soul power doesn't grow as quickly for older servants, does that mean that Melchor could fight Parson on an even level?'

'That's a very good question. And one that I do not have the answer for.'

'Really? Not even a guess?'

'I can give you a hard maybe.'

'Hmm.'

Page 2074

~~The Valentine's Days Special -- (page 8 of 12)~~
Hector exhaled a small laugh and lay back down on his bed. 'So you're going to tell the Rainlords what you know, then?'

'Yeah, I guess so,' said Garovel.

'Good.'

'I think I'll leave out the part about having a method of contacting him, though.'

'Garovel...'

'I'll tell them about that when I feel the time is right. I don't want to run the risk of them trying to launch some half-cocked attack on Parson. In their current state, I'm quite sure he would obliterate them.'

'They'll be really mad if they find out later that you kept that information from them.'

'Yeah, well. I don't see how they would find that out, but even if they did, I'd rather they be angry at us than dead.'

Hector still didn't fully agree, but he could see where Garovel was coming from. 'Is he really powerful enough to take down Melchor and everyone else single-handedly?'

'Well, I doubt he would be alone, but even if he was, I'm not sure. Captain generals are nothing to fuck around with. They're among the most powerful servants in the world.'

Another question occurred to Hector, and he had to ask it. 'Do you think Leo could beat him?'

'Again, that's hard to say. At these levels of strength, it all becomes a bit muddled. I think once soul-synchronization reaches a certain point, you start getting diminishing returns.'

'What do you mean?'

'Like, for example, a servant who's fifty years old will have WAY stronger soul power than a servant who's only one. But a servant who's a hundred and fifty years old won't have as large of a gap in soul power compared to someone who's a hundred.'

'Hmm.'

'There's still a gap, of course, but the bigger issue is how much you've honed your ability. And your overall combat competency, of course.'

Page 2073

~~The Valentine's Days Special -- (page 7 of 12)~~
'So do you still think I should tell the Rainlords what I know about Parson?' said Garovel.

'I don't know. Didn't you say you had a means of contacting him?'

'Heh, well, I'm not sure I should burden you with that knowledge, Hector.'

'Oh, but it's okay to burden me all this other shit?'

'Well, yeah. You're my servant. You're supposed to help me carry things. Physically and psychologically.'

Hector just shook his head and sighed.

'If I tell you how we might be able to contact Parson, then you could go behind my back and tell the Rainlords without my approval.'

'...I wouldn't do that, Garovel.'

'I believe you, but I still think it's better not to put you in that position in the first place.'

'I mean, I'm kind of in that position already, aren't I? I could still go to the Rainlords with what you've told me, and they'd be super pissed at you.'

'Yes, they would. They might even try to torture it out of me. Do you want them to torture me?'

'...How bad would this torture be, exactly?'

'Hector.'

'I'm kidding. Obviously, I don't want anyone to hurt you, Garovel. But I highly doubt that the Rainlords would do anything like that.'

'You really have a lot of faith in them, don't you?'

'You don't? I mean, we've... we've literally been through hell together.'

The reaper gave a mild laugh. 'You make a fair point.'

'And if they somehow end up finding out later that you had this information all along, they'll hate your fucking guts for it, Garovel. And mine, too, probably.'

'Tch, you might be right.'

Hector gave a fake gasp. 'Holy shit, are you actually listening to me for once?'

'Excuse me, but I listen to you all the time. In fact, that's probably why we keep getting mixed up in so much crazy shit.'

'No, that's definitely your fault.'

'Agree to disagree.'

Page 2072

~~The Valentine's Days Special -- (page 6 of 12)~~
'Good, I'm glad you agree,' said Garovel with false pleasantness. 'Anyway, do you have any more questions about Simon specifically? Because we've kinda gotten off track.'

Hector thought about it. 'What was his ability?'

'Oh, that's actually a good way segue back to Parson Miles, because Simon's ability was oxygen transfiguration.'

'How does that make for a good segue?'

'Because Parson had the exact same ability. It was actually why Parson first took an interest in Simon, even though he wasn't who we reported to directly. Our actual boss was a man named Dominique Rohdri.'

'What was his rank?'

'General.'

'Hmm. What was YOUR rank?'

'The members of the CID didn't have proper ranks, really. Once we left, though, Simon was a captain.'

'So like Zeff?'

'Yeah.'

'Was he as powerful as Zeff?'

'I don't know,' said Garovel with a tinge of exasperation. 'We're getting sidetracked again.'

'Sorry. So this Parson guy went out of his way to spend time with you two?'

'Yeah. We got to know him and Overra decently well, I think. They seemed to like Simon.'

'Did they like you?'

'Hard to say. Especially after what I've heard about them from the Rainlords. Seems like they were a bit two-faced. Parson, for his part, always acted like a bit of a goober.'

That hadn't been the word Hector was expecting. 'A... goober?'

'A goofball? A silly billy? He was a weirdo. Had a thing for ice cream. Didn't seem to take his job too seriously and drove a lot of people nuts, including Overra.'

'Huh...'

'And yet he always seemed to get the job done. Toward the end of our working relationship, I got the feeling that he was more cunning than he let on. I never thought he was an evil son of a bitch, though, which is what the Rainlords make him sound like. In fact, despite not liking the CID itself, I actually kind of enjoyed working for him.'

'Hmm.'

Page 2071

~~The Valentine's Days Special -- (page 5 of 12)~~
Hector scratched his cheek, thinking on all they'd been through together in about a year of servitude. It was crazy to imagine that Garovel had been doing this kind of thing for millennia.

And abruptly, he found himself wondering something anew.

'...How many servants have you had in total?' Hector asked.

'You are the twenty-second,' said Garovel.

Hector's gaze drifted away from the reaper as he tried to wrap his head around that number. On the one hand, that felt like a lot, but on the other, taking Garovel's three thousand years of life into consideration, maybe it wasn't at all. That was way less than one per century.

'Now you're wondering who they all were and why I released them,' said Garovel.

'Er. Well. Pretty much, yeah.'

'I'm sure I'll get around to it eventually, but to be very blunt with you, I don't generally like talking about them. It's painful.'

Hector frowned. 'Did ANY of them have a happy ending?'

'Happy endings are a myth. They don't exist.'

Hector's eyes bugged out a little. 'Fucking...! Wow, Garovel!'

'What?'

'That's... just... super fucked up. You really believe that?'

The reaper shrugged. 'I'm not trying to be a downer here. But what do you want from me? I'm a grim reaper, okay?'

'Emphasis on the "grim" part, I guess.'

'Hey, I can be plenty uplifting when I want to be.'

'Maybe you need religion, Garovel.'

'Oh, fuck you. We are NOT having this conversation, right now.'

'I'm just saying. If you really don't believe happy endings exist AT ALL, then there might be something wrong with you. I mean, fucking hell, man, that's dark as shit.'

'It's not like I don't believe goodness exists. I just think it's fleeting--and therefore, that much more in need of protection.'

'Uh-huh...'

'Whatever. I don't have to justify myself to you. I'm the boss in this relationship.'

'Yeah, okay.'

Page 2070

~~The Valentine's Days Special -- (page 4 of 12)~~
Hector could see the wisdom in not getting too attached to people, but he'd always considered it a complete impossibility. He'd never felt like he had any control over that sort of thing. Whether he grew to like or dislike someone--for him, that had always been something that just happened on its own.

And quite frankly, he had considered that to be a weakness within himself. An inability to control his emotions, to prevent himself from being vulnerable.

It was strange to imagine struggling with the complete opposite problem, but he supposed it made sense. Especially for a servant.

'It was a difficult decision to release him,' said Garovel. 'It always is, when it's a matter of mental instability. Even now, I wonder if perhaps I pulled the trigger too early, if perhaps I could have brought him back around.'

'W-was there a final straw?' asked Hector. 'Something unforgivable he did?'

Garovel's skeletal expression twisted a little. 'Not exactly. It was a combination of lots of little things. Overall callousness. The way he talked to me and his supposed comrades. I had seen it before, and I didn't want to wait until he went so far as to actually kill some innocent person.

'And I'll admit, releasing him without such obvious justification might've actually been too callous on MY part, not his. I had grown to hate him over the years.'

Hector didn't know what to say.

The reaper wasn't done, though. 'And while I'm being brutally honest here... My relationship with Simon--I do think it colored my decision to choose you as my next servant.'

That didn't exactly sound like a compliment, but Hector also felt like he kind of understood what the reaper meant.

'To say that you've exceeded all my expectations would be an understatement,' said Garovel, 'but I think you know that by now. Or at least, I hope you do.'

Page 2069

~~The Valentine's Days Special -- (page 3 of 12)~~
'If I'm being perfectly honest,' said Garovel, 'Simon was always a bit mysterious to me. He was such a remarkable actor that I could almost never be sure of how he truly felt about any given situation, but this was one of the few occasions when the facade dropped, and I think I was able to understand him.

'Simon liked to play it cool. Be aloof. Detached. For the good of the mission, seemingly. But when he lost his team that day, he was inconsolable. I'd never seen him so demoralized. I think, deep down, he really did care about them like they were his family.'

Hector wanted to say something, but he didn't have the words.

'Looking back on it all now,' the reaper went on, 'Simon really was a hero in the most "classic" sense of the term. He was strong, smart, adaptable, compassionate, and had a strong sense of justice. And he had no real weaknesses. He was kind of perfect. To an infuriating degree, sometimes.

'But that loss changed him. I think the worst part of it for him was the realization that... it didn't matter how perfect he was. He could do his job flawlessly. He could make the best possible decision every single time with the information at his disposal. And it still wouldn't guarantee success. Everything could still go to shit for reasons that were completely beyond his control.'

Hector knew a thing or two about feeling that way.

'When I finally convinced him to quit the spy life and return to normal duty, I thought things would be better for him, but they never were again. I think he just stopped seeing people as people. I think they just became "objectives" to him. Or "tools," even. Save this person. Cooperate with that person. It was all just mechanical to him. Where before he would only pretend not to get attached, now he genuinely never did.'