Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Page 2163

Hector looked over to Jessup, whom he'd shielded from the wind with a quick wall of curved iron. He dematerialized his work, and the man was standing there, hands out in front of his face but eyes wide open.

"...You okay?" said Hector.

The butler required another moment to find his composure again. "Ah--yes, sir. Th-thank you for... whatever you just did."

"Sure thing."

There wasn't much point in sticking around, so Hector moved to leave, and Jessup offered to guide him back to the entrance. Hector didn't really think he needed the help, but he accepted, anyway. A part of him wanted to wander around the Gaolanet's estate and see if he could find any other Sparrows to talk to, but he figured he should get back to Warrenhold.

His small army of iron-clad human statues followed close behind, and he could tell that they unsettled Jessup. He tried to reassure the poor guy, but he wasn't sure how much it helped. The butler kept asking--rather shakily--if there was anything else he could do before Hector left, such as providing refreshments, but Hector politely declined.

By the time he made it all the way back to the car, everyone was still frozen. Since he still didn't actually have a driver's license, he decided to wait. It wouldn't be long now.

Hopefully.

He pulled out his phone to check the news, but there wasn't much to go on yet.

The more he thought about it, the more easily he could believe that Calthos had attacked Sair. As he recalled, the Abolishers who attacked Dunehall had, supposedly, been biding their time in Calthos beforehand; and he remembered the Sandlords being concerned about tensions with that country, too.

He'd also gotten a brief update from Asad about two weeks ago regarding the state of things over there. The Sandlords had been working hard to keep the peace, and the Vanguard showed no signs of leaving anytime soon, apparently trying to court Abbas Saqqaf.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Page 2162

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
Jessup flinched suddenly. "Ah! Lord, I nearly forgot! I apologize, but there was something else! With everything happening so quickly, I--'

'What is it, Jessup?'

"It is Lady Pauline, Lord! As soon as she saw this report, she disappeared!"

Hanton's massive wings flapped suddenly, and his avian body popped up off the ground briefly. 'What?!'

"O-of course, it is not so unusual for her venture out on her own without warning, but given the circumstances, I thought--"

A low rumble escaped from Hanton's huge form, creating a sound unlike anything Hector had ever heard before. Was that a growl? Could birds growl?

Hanton settled himself. 'Thank you for telling me, Jessup. I shall retrieve her. Lord Goffe, I am afraid I really must insist that we conclude this meeting here. There is more I would discuss with you, but my daughter takes priority.'

"I'll help you look for her," said Hector.

The Sparrow's head reared back a little. 'A kind offer, but an unnecessary one. My children and I are psychically bound. Even if I do not know her exact location, I will always know in which direction I must go in order to find her.'

"Uh... I see," was all Hector could think to say.

Hanton gave a mental sigh. 'On the matter of secrecy, I ask that you tell no one of us, but I also understand that I may be placing you in a difficult position by doing so. For now, please do what you think best. I shall visit your Gray Warren soon so that we may speak again.'

And without waiting for Hector's answer, the Sparrow shifted his posture and then launched himself off the ground, creating a wind so furious that it pushed Hector in his full armor back a step and caused all the decorations in the room to tremble in place.

Hector watched as Hanton flew up through the half-open ceiling and then disappeared entirely. He couldn't tell if that was because of Hanton's invisibility or if he'd simply been flying that fast.

Page 2161

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
It had been well over a hundred years since the great war that had spanned the entire Eloan continent. Hector may not have been a very good student, but with how much schools had focused on that subject and how much the war had influenced books and movies and television, it was impossible to be completely ignorant of it.

His understanding was that the First Continental War had been the result of several decades of build up, wherein many countries formed military alliances due to a pervasive fear of being attacked by one or more of their neighbors. And when one of them finally did get attacked, it created a chain reaction of war declarations that consumed all of Eloa.

The first aggressor had infamously been the nation of Dozer--though, it might've been called something else at the time. Hector wasn't too sure on that part.

Knowing what he did now of Abolish, Hector might've expected Dozer to be one of the aggressors this time as well, but according to the news report, that wasn't the case.

The five invading nations were Ostra, Corrico, Kavia, Calthos, and Vantalay. There were currently only four nations on the defense, because Ostra and Corrico were attacking Melmoore in unison from the north and south, respectively. The other three defending nations were Hoss, Sair, and Czacoa.

The one that stuck out the most to him, of course, was Sair.

The Rainlords were not going to be happy about that. It was still way too soon for them to head back there, and he felt like they knew that, but...

They were going to be super fucking pissed off when he got back to Warrenhold, weren't they?

"Hanton," said Hector, only half-conscious of what he was saying, "please tell me this news report isn't real. That's it's just another one of your illusions..."

'If only that were so,' the Sparrow said grimly. 'I could never have come up with an illusion like this. And if I had, I would not have considered it believable.'

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 22

<<Page 21 || [Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] || Page 23>>

The density of the trees in this part of the forest meant that the night sky was completely blocked from view, rendering it so dark here that the beam of Colt's flashlight was an almost perfectly solid cone. Anywhere the light didn't touch was pitch black.

He needed to move quickly while he still retained the benefits of his undead vigor. If he took too long and allowed it to wear off, then this whole thing would become about a hundred times more difficult. Transporting the bodies was the most laborious part, so he was all but running through underbrush in order to get to the exact spot he had in mind.

When he arrived, he dropped the unconscious thug like a sack of a bricks and sprinted back to the car to retrieve the other one.

This guy was wriggling in his bindings and growling through his gag, but it was all in vain. Colt yanked him out of the backseat and threw him over his shoulder, then started jogging back toward their final destination.

Colt tossed the guy down next to his buddy and took a moment to breathe and collect his thoughts.

He knew what he was doing. What he was about to do. And by now, the conscious thug had to know, too, but if he was scared, the guy still wasn't letting it show on his face.

Hmph.

Colt crouched down and removed the gag from the man's mouth. "If you have any last words, I'll hear them now," he said.

"Fuck you! I'll fucking kill you, you motherf--!" The gag was returned to him.

Colt, however, took no further action just yet. He remained crouching, his expression as blank as stone. "I'll give you a minute to think of something," he said. "Make it good, because you'll be speaking for your friend here, too."

The actual method of killing was somewhat difficult to choose. On the one hand, anything would do, really. The concealment of the bodies was more important than the method. But on the other hand, an unnecessarily messy method might jeopardize that concealment in an unexpected way. Forensic scientists were clever bastards. When they were available, at least.

He decided to go with suffocation. Nice and simple. No blood splatter. And perhaps most importantly, it didn't rely on his undead vigor. He would not leave evidence of a killer with uncommon physical strength. All it required was pinching the guy's nose and covering his mouth.

It wasn't the most intimidating or "satisfying" way to kill someone, and it probably wasn't as slow or painful as these assholes deserved, but this wasn't a crime of a passion here. Colt wasn't a serial killer. He didn't give two shits about the "ritual" of it.

He was calm. Detached. Unfeeling. All that mattered was getting it done as efficiently as possible.

Or so he kept telling himself.

The unconscious one was no longer so. He was just dead, now. And Colt had made sure that the conscious thug could see it happen.

He ungagged the guy one last time. "Well? Think of anything?"

"Yeah, I fucking thought of something. I thought of how much I can't wait see you in hell, motherfucker."

Colt barked a laugh. "You believe in Hell? You religious?"

"The fuck're you talking about? Eat shit."

Colt sat down cross-legged. "Actually... since I've got you here like this, there's something else I'd like to know. You're looking for some money that went missing, right? Where did that money come from? And how much is it?"

"I ain't telling you shit."

"Oh, come on. If you tell me, I'll let you live."

"Bullshit."

"Maybe. But what've you got to lose?"

"I tell you anything, I'm as good as dead, anyway."

"Okay, but you can run away from your boss. You can't run away from me. Not unless I decide to let you go."

The thug just stared at him, then at his dead friend a few feet away, then back at Colt.

"Come on," said Colt. "Give me a reason to let you go."

"...What did you want to know again?"

"First, this money that you were searching for--where did it come from?"

"Your mother's pussy."

"Okay, then." Colt grabbed him by the collar and dragged him closer to begin suffocating him.

"Wait, wait, wait! I'll tell you! I'll tell you!"

Colt shoved him back into the leafy undergrowth. He said nothing, just waited with ice in his eyes.

The thug was still trying to look tough, it seemed, but the charade was over. "The m-money... it belongs to my boss. Antonio Muett."

"Yeah, I figured that much. Where did it come from, though? What type of business? Drugs? Guns?"

"Nah, man. It wasn't anything like that. The Muett family is legit."

Colt just gave him a look.

"I'm serious. That money belongs to Mr. Muett. He found it, fair and square."

"'Found it?' What does that mean?"

"It was, like, buried treasure or something. Look, I don't know the full story. I just know it's important to him. And not just 'cause it's money. Has sentimental value to him, I think."

A sentimental gang lord? Colt found that hard to believe, but whatever. "Okay, so how much money are we talking about here?"

"The fuck? You attacked us, went through all this trouble, and you didn't even know how much money it is? What're you, braindead?"

"Not as much as your friend over there."

"You motherfucker! I'll kill you!"

"Doubt it."

"I'll rip your fucking guts out and eat them! I don't give a shit! Let me go, and I'll show you what a sackless fool you really are! I'll fucking murder you and your--!"

Colt smacked his lips with disappointment as he listened to the man ranting. Didn't seem like he'd be getting that last bit of information out of him after all. He'd gotten careless with his taunting, and now this dude was too enraged to be negotiated with anymore.

Oh well.

He grabbed the guy and started suffocating him. The idiot tried to bite him, so Colt gagged him again before covering his mouth and pinching his nose.

Soon enough, the thrashing stopped, but Colt made sure to keep suffocating him for much longer than was necessary. Just to be safe.

The guy had been right, though. No matter what information he gave up, Colt wouldn't have let him go. That had indeed been bullshit.


Part Three
~The Debt~


Colt meditated with his eyes open, trying to keep his mind clear.

The cabin was pitch dark and quiet, the only sound being the tiny breaths of the twins who were still sleeping soundly. They'd barely stirred at all, even after he'd picked them up and carried them inside.

That was good. He'd rather not see their big, innocent eyes staring at him, right now.

It had all gone smoothly. Too smoothly, perhaps. His paranoia was kicking in. He couldn't sleep. He hadn't even tried. The fatigue made him almost entirely immobile, and his shoulder ached something fierce from when he'd tackled that guy through part of a wall, but it didn't matter.

He would get no rest, tonight.

It had always been like this. Whenever he killed someone, he didn't sleep. For whatever reason, his mind wouldn't allow it.

Instead, he just kept going over everything in his head. Reminding himself of every detail. Reliving it.

At this point, perhaps it was just an instinctual thing, a means of ensuring he hadn't forgotten anything important, hadn't made any obvious mistakes. If he did, it wasn't too late to try and fix them. There was time.

He'd buried both bodies at that spot in the woods. With his destruction ability, digging the hole had been trivial. He made it extra deep, probably twenty or even thirty feet. Filling it back in had been a chore, especially fatigued as he was toward the end of it, but he'd managed. He'd concealed the hole with dead underbrush and fallen leaves. Plus, he'd chosen a spot just beneath a natural rock overhang, snugly nestled in a point out of view. He was confident that no one would happen upon it, and even if they did somehow, they'd never dig deep enough to find the bodies.

Those wastes of human skin were gone.

And so was their car. He'd used the path of destruction on it, too, and reduced it to pieces. Then he'd buried them as well, in a similarly well-hidden location.

That had been the biggest pain in the ass of the night, by far. With how tired he'd been, he'd been immensely tempted to go easy on the second hole, to half-ass it a little in the interest of time, but no. He hadn't done that. If anything, the second hole was even better concealed than the first. It needed to be. The bodies would decompose. Those metal scraps wouldn't.

By the time it was done, he'd been so exhausted that he barely had enough energy left to walk--but of course, that was exactly what he had to do. Since he'd destroyed the car that he'd driven to the crime scene, that obviously meant that he had to make the trek all the way back to Bohwanox and the twins on foot.

He wasn't sure he'd ever felt so physically destroyed in his entire life. Boot camp drills might've been worse. Maybe. At least he hadn't puked tonight. Oh, thank the goddess for that. He certainly didn't need another mess to clean up.

Once he'd made it back to Boh, however, things had proceeded more quickly. With his fatigue temporarily extinguished, he was able to go into the house and finally untie the hostages. They were sore--perhaps even to the point of injury--after having been tied up and left on their stomachs for so long, but they at least expressed their gratitude, albeit reluctantly.

Colt said nothing to them, of course. He just returned their phones to them after having hidden them and then left. Bohwanox helped him make sure that he wasn't being followed, and then he told the reaper where the bodies were buried so that he could reap the bastards' souls.

Colt almost decided to sit on that information for a while longer. Letting their wandering souls degrade into a prison of raw agony didn't seem like the worst thing in the world.

But whatever. He didn't care that much, but Bohwanox sure seemed to.

He wanted to think about what he should do next, but he just didn't have the energy for constructive thought, right now. Reassessing the night's events in a dull-eyed haze was about all he could manage.

By the time morning rolled around, he wasn't feeling much different, but when he saw the kids beginning to stir, he felt a sudden and rather unwelcome degree of motivation. They needed to be fed. He needed to feed them.

It was dad time, whether he liked it or not.

So, somehow, he got up, went outside, and hunted down a snake and a rabbit for breakfast. Honestly, he had no idea how he managed to catch a fucking rabbit, of all things. Unless they were already in one of his traps, he never bothered with them, but today, on mindless autopilot, he suddenly found himself returning to the cabin with one in hand, skinning it, and roasting it over an open campfire.

Apparently, he'd grabbed some berries while he was at it, too. He double checked to make sure they were safe to eat. Yeah. Good.

Was this what people meant when they talked about parental instincts? He doubted it.

Eh, whatever.

He ate. The kids ate. He bathed them and gave them fresh diapers.

Things returned to normal.

The kids wanted to play, but he nestled up with them and finally began to fall asleep. They didn't seem to appreciate that much and kept hitting him as if to wake him up. Eventually, he let them down so that they could run around and play on their own. The cabin door was locked, so they wouldn't be able to get out while he napped.

<<Page 21 || [Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] || Page 23>>

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 2160 -- CCIV.

The butler who had showed everyone into the building earlier appeared. This time, he had very little of his prior composure, eyes wide with urgency. "Lord, I--!"

The man stopped moving entirely at the sight of so many suits of armor standing there--one being Hector with iron orbiting around him. For a moment, the man stood so still that Hector thought Hanton might have frozen him, too.

Hanton, however, did not seem fazed by the new arrival. 'I do not wish to be disturbed, Jessup. Can this wait?'

Jessup twitched back to attention, then cleared his throat and steadied himself. "I do not think so, Lord." He didn't seem particularly surprised that his master was a giant bird who could speak directly into his mind. "It is the news, sir. There has been... an unthinkable development abroad. I am honestly at a bit of a loss how to explain..."

'If it is so important, then speak, man. Quickly now.'

"Five different wars have just broken out within the last hour, Lord."

Hector wasn't sure what he'd just heard.

And neither was Hanton, apparently. 'What did you say?'

"Five nations," said Jessup, walking over to the corner of the room where a large television was sitting. "Without warning, they each began invading one of their neighbors."

What the hell?

Jessup wasn't done, though, even as he was presumably searching for the remote control. "They are calling it a coordinated assault, Lord. They are calling it the outbreak of a second Continental War."


Chapter Two Hundred Fourteen: 'The encroaching Storm...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Even as he was staring at the screen and listening to the report, Hector could hardly believe his eyes or his ears.

Could this really be happening? Maybe the reports were exaggerated. Maybe everyone was just freaking out. Overstating things.

A second Continental War? Now, of all times? Why? How?

Everyone knew about the Continental War. Or, the first one, at least. How strange it was, to think that they might have to start making that distinction now. It wouldn't just be the Continental War, anymore. It would be the First Continental War.

Insanity.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Page 2159

The more he learned about this bird lady, the more Hector was curious to meet her.

Hanton was not yet finished. 'However, in the interest of full disclosure, she also... may have been spurred to action by another factor.'

"Oh?" said Hector.

'I had recently been dismissed from my position as the Director of the Agency of Foreign Affairs,' said Hanton. 'She was incensed by this decision and was perhaps looking for some manner of retribution.'

Hector was confused. "How did that qualify as retribution?" A thought occurred to him, and he blinked. "Are you saying that the Vanguard was involved in the AFA?"

'No, but it was trying to acquire influence in our government. I had long been an obstacle to that endeavor. And not just me, in fact. That has been House Gaolanet's mission for centuries. The preservation of this kingdom's sovereignty in the face of overwhelming foreign power.'

It sure sounded noble when Hanton described it like that. Hector had to wonder if it was really so simple, though.

But it did make a degree of sense. After all he'd seen and done during his time outside the country, Hector had thought it was a bit strange that Atreya and the nations around it could be so insulated from what was going on in the world. The Vanguard had clearly played a part in that to some extent, but it seemed evident now that House Gaolanet had been a factor as well.

Hector was still full of questions. There was so much more he wanted to ask Hanton, especially about how the Sparrows conducted themselves--if they abided by any kind of rules or "code" regarding the usage of their abilities.

But it was at this time when a knock arrived on the double doors behind him, and without even waiting for a response from Hanton, they opened.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Page 2158

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
'I suppose your silence is answer enough,' said Hanton. 'I hope that you continue to maintain a healthy skepticism of the Vanguard going forward.'

"...You really don't like them, do you?" said Hector.

'They are an invasive species. They pretend they are not, but they are. Once they have you in their clutches, they will never let you go.'

Hector immediately thought of Garovel, who used to work for the Vanguard and managed to leave it just fine. But then he thought of Mehlsanz. And the Rainlords. He didn't think he could just dismiss Hanton's perspective as wholly wrong.

Hector mulled over his next question carefully. While he was more inclined to believe Hanton now, he still wasn't prepared to let the Goalanets off the hook yet entirely. "How did you finally convince the Vanguard to leave Atreya?"

'I am... reluctant to say, but I suppose there is no sense hiding it. Once we were able to locate where the Vanguard was operating out of, my daughter, being her usual self, decided to take rather drastic action. She walked right into their base and told them all to leave.'

Hmm. Well, that tracked with what he'd found in that abandoned house. It had been Pauline's name there, not Hanton's. "It was just that easy, huh?"

'We can be very persuasive.'

"Mm. Then why'd you wait so long to do it? The Vanguard had been monitoring Atreya for ages, hadn't they?"

'Up until that point, we believed the Vanguard were content with merely monitoring the country. When we discovered that they intended to increase their presence here... well. My daughter made a dramatic decision. I am merely grateful that it did not bring ruin down upon us.'

"Did she erase all their memories?"

'She replaced them with ones of utter frustration and futility in their work here. Which was not far from the truth, frankly. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that she "exaggerated" their memories, instead.'

Page 2157

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
'What made you think that this trail of poisonings led to my family?' said Hanton.

Hector considered whether to answer that or not. He couldn't see much harm in it, but he was still reluctant, perhaps because he'd already been fairly forthcoming and didn't wish to overplay his hand. "Why does that matter?" he asked.

'I want to know if you might simply be mistaken or if someone is attempting to frame us.'

Hmm. Were those the only two possible options? Off the top of his head, Hector could think of at least one more in which Hanton was guilty and lying about it. But he didn't want to say that. All he had was a name in a ledger. That was evidence of a connection but not proof of wrongdoing.

'...Does this have something to do with the Vanguard?' said Hanton. 'Is that why you asked about our relationship with them?'

Actually. Wait just a second here.

Hanton could actually be telling the truth here, couldn't he? Hector suddenly felt like a bit of a dumbass, because those two questions just now had caused him to think of a good reason why the Gaolanets were very unlikely to be responsible for the poisonings.

The Vanguard had been run out of Atreya almost a decade ago, right? So, essentially, the basic theory was that the Gaolanets had been poisoning the Vanguard's informants in order to cripple their information network.

But there had been a poisoning only about a month ago. In fact, that case was what had put Hector and Garovel onto this trail in the first place. So if the Gaolanets were responsible for that poisoning, too, then what the hell had their motive been? The Vanguard wasn't even here, anymore.

He supposed that line of reasoning still didn't exonerate Hanton and his family entirely, but it was a decent strike in their favor, he felt.

Agh, so then who else could be behind these goddamn poisonings? Could they really be unrelated?

Man, Hector felt like kind of an asshole all of a sudden, like he should've thought of all this before even coming here.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Page 2156

Hector could feel a sudden heaviness in the air. It wasn't quite the same as that of oppressive soul pressure from an extremely powerful servant, but there was a similarity there, nonetheless. This felt somehow more concentrated on his mind, like the weight didn't extended to the rest of his body.

It also felt different from earlier, when Hanton had been attempting to freeze his thoughts like everyone else. This seemed less deliberate. More emotionally charged, perhaps.

Whatever this was, it made Hector curious. "I thought you said that you weren't warriors."

The weight in the air promptly vanished, and the Sparrow's posture appeared more relaxed again. 'We are not,' said Hanton. 'But so long as I still draw breath, my children will never be enslaved by the Vanguard or anyone else. All who would seek to harm my family will come to know firsthand why my ancestors were so feared in their time. And though I would prefer to avoid it, you are no exception, Lord Goffe. I do not care how powerful you are.'

Unlike some of the other things Hanton had said, Hector could actually believe that. And he could respect it, too. "I understand," he said steadily.

Hanton said nothing.

And in the ensuing silence, Hector felt as if there was one question that he could hold back no longer. Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe he should keep his mouth shut. But he just had to ask it now. "...Have you been poisoning people in Gray Rock in order to keep your secret from getting out?"

The giant bird shifted his feathers again. 'No. Why would you ask such a thing?'

"Because a case of serial poisonings is what led me to you," said Hector.

'Hmm.' Hanton paused, perhaps simply to think. 'That is very strange. But you have witnessed my abilities. What need would I have to poison anyone?'

Hector had to admit, that was a fair point.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Page 2155

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
"Did you learn anything useful about Abolish while you were gathering intel?" said Hector.

'Nothing that you do not already know, I imagine. They intended to lead the nation into war with Rendon and were actively suppressing the media.'

"I can't help thinking that you could have simply made yourself invisible and frozen all their minds without them ever realizing you were there."

A long breath escaped from the nostrils on the Sparrow's beak. 'You sound like my daughter.'

"She wanted to intervene?"

'Indeed. I fear she soon would have, had you not resolved the matter when you did.'

"...So why'd you stop her?"

'It was simply too risky. I will admit that, yes, that plan might very well have worked. But if, for whatever reason, it did not, then it would instantly spell the end of my House. If the Abolishers noticed us--or goddess forbid, took one of us captive--then the revelation that independent Sparrows are nesting here on Atreyan soil would bring far more attention and trouble to this country than a handful of psychotic murderers in the palace could ever create.'

Hector was doubtful. "More trouble than a war?"

'Yes! You may not believe me, but yes. A war would not be the end of the world, Lord Goffe. Wars can be very short--and even bloodless. If Abolish left after starting one, I am confident that I could have ensured a swift peace thereafter.' Hanton paused. 'Unless, I suppose, the Vanguard decided to stick their noses in our business again. That would have complicated matters.'

"So let me get this straight. You think... that if word got out about your presence here, then... a bunch of people would show up to capture you?"

'Or kill us, yes. While relatively few know of my kind, those who do are generally very powerful.' Hanton's huge body shifted a little, and he leveled a beady-eyed stare at Hector. 'And I tell you now: if they do ever come for us, we will not go quietly.'

Page 2154

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
'Indeed,' said Hanton. 'If left unchecked, they would have sunken their claws into Atreya as they have done countless times before in other nations.'

With the evidence of what happened in Sair still quite fresh in his mind, Hector found it hard to argue with what Hanton was saying here. But he mistrusted the Sparrow's words, nonetheless. He decided to play devil's advocate a little. "If the Vanguard had been here, then I doubt Abolish would've been able to take over the country the way it did."

'Ah, yes, Abolish. The catch-all excuse that the Vanguard likes to bandy about at every conceivable opportunity. Perhaps what you say is true, but first and foremost, we should consider what actually happened, no? Abolish was driven out of Atreya, and peace was restored.'

Hector kept his expression still, but he didn't much care for how Hanton was portraying those past events. "Are you aware of the contributions made by a man named Harper Norez?"

'I am, of course. I understand that his role was pivotal, but let us not fool ourselves. That man is an outlier. He is hardly even a member of the Vanguard at all. As I have heard it, he aided us in spite of the Vanguard, not because of it.'

"...What were you doing during the Abolish occupation, by the way?"

Hanton fell quiet again.

"Abilities like yours would have been a big help," said Hector.

'I am no warrior,' said Hanton. 'I was working to drive Abolish out of Atreya in less direct ways. Ultimately, however, my efforts proved fruitless when you accomplished the task long before I could.'

"What 'less direct ways' are you referring to?" said Hector.

'Gathering intelligence,' said Hanton. 'Especially with regard to their funding and planning.'

"And once you had finished gathering all of this intelligence, what would you have done with it?"

'Sabotage their operational support behind the scene. A direct confrontation was impossible, but weakening them until they had no choice but to leave was still a viable pursuit. Until you came along and crushed them all, of course.'

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Page 2153

That was not the response Hector had been expecting, and he exhaled half a laugh. "If that's what you're worried about, then don't be. I'm... fairly skeptical of the Vanguard."

Hanton blinked a few times, and his posture shifted, as did that of the invisible bird. Then, after a moment, Hanton's human form disappeared again, the Sparrow's true body became visible once more. 'You... you are?'

"Yeah," said Hector.

'I must say... I am quite relieved to hear that, Lord Goffe.'

Hector cocked an eyebrow beneath his helm, not sure what to make of Hanton's sudden change in tone. "I take it that Sparrows aren't on very good terms with the Vanguard, then."

'Oh, on the contrary, many of my kind work with them.'

It was Hector's turn to blink. "Really?"

'Indeed. It is quite the symbiotic relationship. We are very capable assistants in a variety of fields, especially regarding propaganda and intelligence work.'

Hector could certainly believe that. "And what do you get out of it?"

'Ah. I do not get anything. To be clear, I do not work for the Vanguard and never have. My brethren, however, get the Vanguard's brand of "protection" for their efforts.'

"And what brand is that, exactly?"

'Our abilities are deemed too volatile to go unmonitored. My kin, therefore, rarely enjoy the same level of privacy and freedom that my family does. Unlike us, they are "caged birds," one might say. Little better than pets.'

Hmm. Hector sympathized, but he could also understand where the Vanguard was coming from on this one. The ability to manipulate people's minds was no fucking joke. The potential for abuse there was just ridiculous. "I can see why you wouldn't want the Vanguard sniffing around Atreya, then."

'Yes. However, if "sniffing" was all that they had been doing, we could have dealt with that easily enough--as we had been, for generations.'

"You're saying they escalated their work here?"

Monday, March 23, 2020

Page 2152 -- CXIII.

~~((The National Puppy Day Special -- page 14 of 14))~~
Chapter Two Hundred Thirteen: 'The Lords of Gray Rock...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Hanton lowered his gaze. "I apologize for the omission."

Hector could sense the shape of the invisible bird making a similar gesture.

There was a decision to make now, Hector knew. If he didn't need Hanton to release them anymore, then the power dynamic of their conversation had suddenly shifted. No doubt, that was why Hanton had been holding back that little piece of information this whole time.

Hector didn't want to get too confident, though. Hanton could still be--and probably was--hiding other things from him, things that could potentially shift things back in the Sparrow's favor. Hector wanted to be careful, but at the very least, he now felt that he was in a position to ask the question that he'd been wanting answered since the beginning.

"...Did you run the Vanguard out of Atreya?" said Hector.

Hanton's human illusion looked up at Hector and then remained perfectly still. His true body, however, was shifting beneath its shroud of invisibility.

The Lord Gaolanet was taking a while to answer, but Hector just waited.

"Yes," Hanton finally said.

"Why?" said Hector.

"That is a rather long story."

Hector materialized an iron chair for himself and sat down. "I don't mind."

"I... do not currently have time for this, Lord Goffe. I have other matters to attend to. Perhaps you can return at a later date, and we can finish this conversation then."

"And what if I return, only to find that you're no longer here?" said Hector.

"I would not flee over something so trivial," said Hanton.

"I wonder about that."

For the first time, anger flashed across Hanton's illusory face. "Why are you so interested in the Vanguard, Lord Goffe? Please do not tell me that you have been taken in by their lies."

Page 2151

~~((The National Puppy Day Special -- page 13 of 14))~~
"You're already replacing their memories, right?" said Hector. "Just include the metal in there, too."

Hanton stared at him for a long moment. "...And how would I justify such an inclusion?"

Hector shrugged. "Feel free to get creative."

Hanton's illusory face tightened. "I told you that their new memories are supposed to be uneventful."

"That sounds like your problem," said Hector. "And one of your own making, as well."

"You are being unreasonable."

"I don't think I am."

There was more silence, and the air was noticeably tenser this time.

Hector knew he was pushing it, but frankly, he didn't trust Hanton very much. And most of all, he wanted to know if Hanton could affect the others' minds even through the soul-empowered iron. Acquiring that knowledge was crucial.

The Lord Gaolanet sighed and cast his eyes down to floor. "...I cannot release them while you are shielding them with your aura."

Aha. And his 'aura', huh? Hmm.

"But you already knew that, didn't you?" said Hanton, frowning at him.

Hector elected to say nothing.

"If you truly wish for me to release them, then you must allow me to," said Hanton.

And again, Hector found himself doubting the Sparrow's words. "Is that so? It seems to me... that if you aren't able to access their minds anymore, then whatever you've done to them should eventually just wear off on its own."

Hanton was quiet.

"Well?" pushed Hector. "Are you going to tell me I'm wrong?"

"If I did tell you that, what would you do?"

"Why do you ask?"

Hanton scowled. "You are not wrong. The effects will wear off in about an hour. Perhaps less, considering how long we have been talking."

"You know, if you really want me as your ally, then continually trying to deceive me is not a good strategy." Yeah. That was pretty hypocritical of him, Hector knew. But then again, it wasn't technically wrong, either. He didn't consider his own strategy to be 'good.' Sure, it hadn't blown up in his face quite yet, but he certainly wouldn't recommend it to others.

Page 2150

~~((The National Puppy Day Special -- page 12 of 14))~~
Well, whatever. Right now, the only thing Hector really cared about was making sure everyone made it out of this place alive. He could figure out how to deal with Hanton later.

"In any case, I'd like you to release my friends now," said Hector.

'Very well,' said Hanton. The giant bird disappeared again, and the human illusion reappeared and began speaking with a seemingly real voice again. "However, I still do not wish for them to see my true form. Nor do I intend to reexplain everything that I have already told you. As far as they will remember, we all enjoyed a perfectly pleasant and uneventful meeting."

Hector furrowed his brow. "So I have to tell them the truth myself, is what you're saying."

'That choice will be up to you, of course. Tell them whatever you like. I cannot stop you.'

Yeah. Nevermind how difficult it'll be to explain that they all have false memories. It seemed clear that Hanton was hoping Hector would decide to just keep this entire encounter to himself.

Hector was not pleased. "If you're just going to replace all of their memories, then what was the point of asking me to vouch for any of them?"

"I never claimed that there was any great reason. I was merely curious as to what you truly thought of them."

Hector had stop himself from scowling. Even if Hanton couldn't manipulate Hector's thought directly, the Sparrow could obviously still play mind games.

But again, Hector held his tongue. He just waited for everyone to be freed.

And kept waiting.

An awkward silence arrived before Hanton broke it.

"...If you would not mind removing their armor, then I shall release them all in unison."

As a matter of fact, Hector did mind removing their armor. "Why?"

"They were not wearing it when they arrived. They will notice that something is amiss if they are suddenly wearing it when they return to consciousness."

Hector's eyes narrowed slightly. Currently, Garovel was the only one not covered in soul-empowered iron. So instead of dematerializing everyone else's protection, he remade Garovel's orb and brought the reaper back into orbit around him with the other three.

"What are you doing?" said Hanton.

Page 2149

~~((The National Puppy Day Special -- page 11 of 14))~~
"Okay, so after gaining their trust, how did he 'swindle' your ancestors?" said Hector.

'He used their abilities to help him gain political power--and even to help create this very nation. And during that time, he promised them that, once he was crowned king, he would appoint them to various influential positions, thereby ensuring the continued protection of our kind in this newly established kingdom.'

Charles had wanted to become king himself? That hadn't been part of the story. "But the Gaolanets were already nobles back then, weren't they?"

'Yes, but the Mohssian Empire was faltering, and so too was our influence within it.'

"Hmm. You still haven't told me how he swindled you."

'With my ancestors' support, he intended to become the very first King of Atreya. But as I am sure you know, that never came to pass, now did it? And the reason for that, if the tale is to be believed, was absolutely absurd.'

Hector just listened.

'He had a change of heart,' said Hanton. 'Charles simply stopped pursuing his ambition. After years of supporting him, he gave up halfway and helped Domitrus Lumenbel to be crowned king, instead. Complete madness.'

That didn't sound that crazy to Hector, honestly.

'Supposedly, he became convinced that Domitrus would be a better king. And all of his promises to us went unfulfilled and forgotten.'

Hector supposed he could understand why that would upset them, but at the same time, he couldn't help thinking that it was rather petty on the Gaolanets' part, especially considering that they obviously did gain political power later on. He remembered King William telling him about how the Gaolanets were a big part of the AFA.

With the way this whole conversation was going, Hector's opinion of these Sparrows wasn't improving much. Or at all, really. While he appreciated Hanton's willingness to talk, pretty much everything the guy said made Hector's doubts increase in one way or another.

At this point, Hector almost would've preferred it if Hanton attacked him. At least that would've simplified things.

Page 2148

~~((The National Puppy Day Special -- page 10 of 14))~~
"...It sounds like you're harboring some resentment for the Belgrants," said Hector.

'Resentment, no. It is is more akin to a general wariness.'

"And why is that?"

'It is a rather long and old story,' said Hanton.

"...It wouldn't have anything to do with a man named Charles, would it?"

The Sparrow shifted his body a little and bristled his feathers. 'How much do you know about Charles Belgrant?'

Hector didn't feel like answering that. "How much do you?"

'Hmph. He swindled my ancestors.'

Wait, seriously? Charles managed to trick a group of psychics? Or were they just telepaths? Or were those the same thing? Hector wasn't too sure.

"How did he pull that off?" Hector asked.

'First, he gained our trust. He aided us during a time when we were having difficulty maintaining our concealment.'

"Hmm." The conversation was getting off track again, but Hector also felt that if he didn't inquire further now, he might never get another chance. "What kind of aid did he provide?"

'He was in possession of an artifact that could, supposedly, predict the future.'

Hector blinked. "Are you serious?"

'That is how the tale goes. Do not ask me if it is true. I have no idea.'

Holy shit. Could there really be an artifact like that? Even Rasalased had only "kind of" been able to predict the future. But then again, perhaps that just meant that it was actually possible.

The more he learned about this Charles character, though, the more Hector felt like he shouldn't take the stories about him at face value. Charles could've had some other kind of ace up his sleeve and just been lying about the artifact to make himself seem more powerful than he really was.

Heh.

What kind of idiot would do a thing like that, though?

Oh, man...

"...If he really had something like that, then why didn't your ancestors just take it from him and wipe his memory?"

'My noble brethren would never resort to thievery,' said Hanton.

Mm, Hector wasn't so sure he believed that, especially if the Gaolanets were still bitter about it all these years later. Maybe they couldn't take it from him for some reason. Maybe Charles had been able to resist their weird mind powers, too.

Page 2147

~~((The National Puppy Day Special -- page 9 of 14))~~
"...Actually, no," said Hector. He brought forth Garovel's orb and dematerialized it to reveal the reaper. "This is the only one I can honestly vouch for. The others... while I do trust them, I still don't really know them that well yet."

'...I see,' said Hanton. 'And what of the other humans? Would you vouch for any of them as well?'

Hector didn't take quite as long to deliberate about that. Sorry, Diego. Sorry, Matteo. "Lynnette and King William," he said, bringing their suits of armor forward.

'I find that somewhat surprising,' said Hanton, ruffling his feathers for a moment. 'Do you truly believe that you can trust royalty, of all people? They can be treacherous in a manner of their own. As a fellow student of history, I am sure you are aware of that as well.'

Hector wondered how they had gotten onto this subject, but it was something he had actually thought about before. "I understand why you would say that," said Hector. "The most famous royals throughout history--or the most infamous ones, I guess--typically had a reputation for... treachery, like you said. But you're talking about outliers. Exception case."

'Oh? Are you saying that royals are deserving of our trust by default, then?'

"...Of course not. But I don't think they're inherently untrustworthy, either. I think that... almost any ruler's success or failure can be determined by how much support they have. Not from the general public, necessarily, but from those close to them. Those who really do support them. Real cooperation beats fear every time."

'Mm. I agree to an extent. There is some truth in what you say. Royalty will not be royalty for very long if it must constantly worry over daggers in the back.'

"...Exactly."

'But what makes you think a Belgrant is worthy of your trust?'

The way Hanton said that caught Hector's attention. A Belgrant? Not "the King" or "His Highness?" Just a Belgrant?

Hector was suddenly reminded of the tale that King William had told him at the Gala. The tale of his ancestor, Charles Belgrant.

Page 2146

~~((The National Puppy Day Special -- page 8 of 14))~~
"Well, Atreya doesn't know much about servants and reapers, either," said Hector.

'Yes, but if that were to change, no one would come to hunt you down,' said Hanton.

Hector wasn't quite so sure of that, but saying as much didn't seem like it would be very useful at the moment. "Who do you think would come to hunt you down?"

'There are several groups who might appear. The Morgunovs, the Andanatt, the Bloodmen, the Potrzask, the Andalero--and certainly the Old Wardens, if they still exist. And perhaps others, as well.'

Wow, that was a lot. "Why would they all want to hunt you?"

'Some would want to study our biology via dissection. Some would wish to sell our biology, instead. And others might simply harbor old grudges.'

Agh. Hector wanted to ask exactly how long ago these "old grudges" were, but that would probably give away too much information about his age, wouldn't it? But then again, maybe he already knew all he needed to about that. Hanton had called their attempt at conquest "ancient history," so it was a fairly safe bet that it was at least a thousand years ago, Hector figured.

"...You really think anyone has been holding a grudge against your kind for that long?" asked Hector.

'Hmph. Reapers have long memories.'

"That, they do. But the world moves on, and so do reapers."

'Do they really? That is what they may claim, but I do not trust their words--nor should you, even if you are their thrall.'

"...I won't try and argue that," said Hector. "They can certainly be deceptive. But these reapers with me are worthy of your trust."

'Ah. You vouch for them, do you?'

Impulsively, Hector almost just said yes right away. But the way Hanton had said that... and the way Hanton was looking at him now...

He reconsidered his response. Vouching for Garovel was one thing. But the other three reapers? Could he honestly say that they were all so trustworthy?

Hmm.

Page 2145

~~((The National Puppy Day Special -- page 7 of 14))~~
After that, however, a lull arrived in the conversation.

Hanton thus far seemed largely agreeable, and Hector felt like they could probably come to terms here.

But the more he thought about it, the less certain he became.

No matter how well they managed to get along, the well-being of Garovel and Lynn and everyone else was paramount here. And there was still the matter of the poisonings, of course. As long as Hanton was holding hostages, it didn't seem like a good idea to broach that subject.

"...I want you to release your hold over my companions now," said Hector.

'And I want you to keep my family's secret,' said Hanton.

"I can agree to that," said Hector.

'The question is: can I trust you to keep your word?'

Hector leveled a stare right into Hanton's beady eyes. "Yes. You can."

'You are a national hero. I would like to believe you.'

Hector could hear a contradictory point coming.

'...But I hardly know you. I require more convincing.'

Hector sighed. "Even if I tried to tell someone, who would believe me?"

'Hmm, I fear many people would. If you were truly of a mind to do so, with your credibility, you could convince all of Atreya of our existence.'

"What would be the point? You could just go wipe all their memories, anyway."

Hanton was quiet again for a time. 'Perhaps I should not tell you this, but... in the interest of building trust between us, I will.'

Hector just tilted his head, waiting for elaboration.

'Given the current state of your associates, I am sure that my abilities seem rather impressive to you. And frankly, they are. You are right to fear me.'

Hector's expression flattened a little.

'However, I am not without my limits. Manipulating minds and souls, projecting illusions, concealing myself. These things all have their tolls. Wiping so many memories would be an impossible feat. News of our existence would doubtlessly spread far faster than we could ever hope to contain it.'

Page 2144

~~((The National Puppy Day Special -- page 6 of 14))~~
Hector was reluctant to say anything more now. If he picked the wrong thing or phrased it the wrong way, then Hanton might realize his mistake.

'I assure you,' said Hanton, 'the only thing we care about now is maintaining the peace of this small haven that we have created for ourselves.'

"...How many of you are here?" Hector asked.

'Five.'

"So few?" Hector cocked an eyebrow. "My reaper sensed many souls earlier."

'Ah, yes, well... we employ numerous humans here. And my children often make multiple avatars for themselves to play around with.'

Avatars, huh? So that's how they thought of their human illusions. "Do your employees know the truth about you?"

'Some, not all. Those who have been with us the longest, who have gained our trust.'

"And I guess you just wipe their memory if they ever find out accidentally, eh?"

Hanton made no response.

Another thought occurred to Hector, and even though it didn't seem immediately relevant to the situation, he just had to bring it up. "The King mentioned... that he once had a marriage interview with a girl named Pauline Gaolanet some years ago."

'Ah. Yes...'

"...What was the plan there? I'm assuming she's a Sparrow, too, right? Why would you try to have her marry a normal human?"

'That was... a delicate situation.'

"How so?"

'In her youth, Pauline was quite the little troublemaker. She created an avatar identical to my own and visited Joseph Belgrant to organize a marriage interview with his son, William.'

Hector's eyes widened, and he glanced at the still-frozen King in his suit of iron armor. "She really wanted to marry him?"

'It was a game to her. A childish one. She did not understand the full implications of her actions.'

"But she understood well enough to fool Joseph Belgrant?"

'What can I say? She has always been a bit too clever for her own good.'

Somehow, Hector couldn't help snickering a little. "You must've been relieved when it didn't work out."

'Oh, you have no idea.' Surprisingly enough, Hanton actually seemed to share a bit of Hector's amusement.

Page 2143

~~((The National Puppy Day Special -- page 5 of 14))~~
"...Would you care to share a bit of your origin story with me, then?" said Hector.

'Do you know the origin story of servants?' said Hanton. His tone wasn't one of genuine curiosity, but rather one of a counter argument. 'Or how about that of the entire human race?'

"Alright, no need to get so defensive. I was just curious."

'I was not being defensive. I was enlightening you about your own biases.'

That rubbed Hector the wrong way, and he wanted to make a retort, but he focused on maintaining his composure, instead. Allowing himself to get pissed off wasn't going to be productive.

But what was?

Now that he was standing here in front of this giant and surly bird, what was he supposed to say? For whatever reason, Hanton wasn't saying anything now, so how was this conversation supposed to progress?

From the sound of it, Hanton didn't actually know for sure that his race wasn't descended from an ancient mutation user, but bringing that up again would obviously be unwise.

He wanted some kind of context, though.

"What can you tell me about your race's history?" he asked.

'That we are peaceful.'

"Yeah, you already said that."

'We were once persecuted and hunted to the brink of extinction.'

Hector wasn't exactly surprised to hear that, but it did make him curious. "With powers like yours, it seems to me that you could take over half the world, if you wanted."

'...I suppose I should have assumed that you would know of that,' said Hanton. 'No doubt, you have long been a student of ancient history.'

Wait, what?

'I was not attempting to deceive you again,' the Sparrow said, sounding suddenly more conciliatory. 'That is a period of our history which we have grown to regret. It is a thing we would prefer not to think about.'

Huh?

Hold on just a minute here.

Hector kept his poker face, but what the fuck kind of assumptions had Hanton just made about him, exactly? How old did Hanton think he was?

And more importantly... the Sparrows really did try to take over half the world at some point? When the hell did that happen? Sure, he hadn't paid much attention during history class in school, but he was fairly certain that he would've remembered it if one of his teachers had ever told him that a race of gigantic super-birds had once attempted to conquer humanity.

Page 2142

~~((The National Puppy Day Special -- page 4 of 14))~~
"I am a Wrobel," said Hanton, still speaking from the illusion's mouth while the bird merely observed him. "The few of you who already know of my kind also call us Sparrows. I find that term acceptable, if you prefer it."

"...You're not a servant," Hector surmised.

"No. I am not."

"Are you a descendant of one, though? An ancient mutation user, maybe?"

The bird's giant head twitched at that question. Its darkly red-and-brown plumage bristled slightly, and it stood up fully, briefly revealing talons the size of Hector's entire body.

'A common and very crude question,' came another voice.

And Hector was bewildered, because that had definitely been in his mind, and Hanton's mouth hadn't moved at all.

But then, Hanton's human body wasn't actually real, was it? Therefore, the "voice" that Hector thought he had been hearing with his ears--that hadn't been real, either.

That huge Sparrow there was the real Hanton Gaolanet. Hector understood that, and yet it was still somehow difficult to come to terms with.

Perhaps Hanton could tell that Hector was confused even through his armor, because the human illusion vanished into thin air, and only the Sparrow remained.

'Why is it that servants always wish to trace the origins of our noble race back to themselves?' said Hanton.

Sounded like he'd touched a sore spot. "That wasn't my intention," said Hector. "I'm just trying to understand why there's a giant, talking bird in front of me."

'Hmph.' Hanton's plumage flared up again, and he looked away from Hector.

Was he... pouting?

Maybe it was just a result of the Sparrow's head shape. A trick of the eyes, in some sense. Despite being so large and probably having a wingspan comparable to that of a commercial airplane, Hanton didn't actually look like a bird of prey.

Rather, he really did look like a plump, little sparrow that had just been scaled up to gargantuan proportions. His beady eyes, short beak, and fat head made him look... oddly cute, honestly.

Hector didn't let that distract him, however, from the fact that this guy was dangerous as shit.

Page 2141

~~((The National Puppy Day Special -- page 3 of 14))~~
Hector wondered briefly what the point of such subtle deception was, but it wasn't hard to think of a reason. This place would be a hellish maze for any normal person to navigate. For any invaders, in other words.

They walked for a long while, and Hector wanted to ask Hanton where they were going. Where were all the people that Garovel had sensed earlier? Had they been illusions, too? He supposed that wouldn't be surprising.

At length, he finally sensed something that wasn't just another empty room or corridor.

In a distant chamber at the limit of the Scarf's range, Hector sensed a hulking shape, something not immediately recognizable to his imagination. It was the size of a truck. And it was breathing. He could sense the flow of air in and out of its mouth.

No.

Its beak. Yeah. And the way the air moved around its body--those were feathers, weren't they?

A giant bird.

Hector didn't know what to think.

Hanton led him to the room that the bird was waiting in, and sure enough, the man showed him inside.

To his eyes, the enormous bird was invisible, but Hector knew exactly where it was. And this room. It looked like any other, but he could sense that the ceiling was fake. It was actually one big window, currently sitting half-open--perhaps in case the bird wanted to fly away.

"As a show of good faith," said Hanton, "I will now show you my true form."

Hector held his tongue.

The way in which the bird became suddenly visible to his eyes was as if a paper veil were being quickly burned away.

There arrived a briefly silent intermission.

"...You are not surprised?" said Hanton--or the human projection of him, rather.

"No, I am," said Hector. Sure, he'd sensed it coming at the last minute, but that didn't change the fact that he still had about a billion questions. "What are you, exactly?"

Page 2140

~~((The National Puppy Day Special -- page 2 of 14))~~
"Do you understand me?" said Hanton.

"...Yeah, I understand you," said Hector.

"Good." Hanton turned, and the doors behind him flung open on their own. "Then follow me."

"And my companions?"

"I say again: no harm will come to them. But if you are still so concerned, then bring them with you. I am sure you are capable of that without my help, no?"

He certainly was.

In an instant, Hector clapped full suits of iron armor around everyone and added his soul to them. He didn't know if his soul would help protect them from whatever telepathic horseshit Hanton was capable of, but he figured it wouldn't hurt.

Hector pulled them all closer on mobile platforms beneath their feet, and for the four reapers, he made soul-empowered iron orbs to capture them and put them in orbit around himself. The orbiting was probably unnecessary, but at this point, it was a force of habit.

Hanton was waiting for him in the hall--and staring with wide eyes.

For good measure, Hector decided to add a few decorative flourishes to everyone's armor, helping to distinguish them at a glance. Diego's helmet got stubby horns; the King's helmet got a crown; Matteo's pauldrons got spikes; and Lynn's faceguard was given a T-shaped eye slit. And he may've added a few embossed swirls for everyone's breastplate, gauntlets, cuisses, and greaves.

Yeah, that looked a little better.

As he moved to catch up with Hanton, Hector decided to armor himself up as well, making sure to let the Scarf flow freely as always.

"There is no need for this intimidation," said Hanton. "We will not attack you."

"I wasn't trying to intimidate you," said Hector, the metal of his helmet accenting his voice. "But it never hurts to be prepared."

"Indeed..." Hanton frowned and started walking again.

Hector and his armored entourage followed. He concentrated as much as he could on what the Scarf could tell him. He pushed for its limit, trying to sense as far away as he possibly could--around corners in the intersection ahead and even through the cracks beneath the doors in the hallway.

Some of those doors weren't even real, he realized. And that intersection ahead? There were only two other paths, not three.

More illusions.

Page 2139

~~((The National Puppy Day Special -- page 1 of 14))~~
Again, Hanton fell briefly quiet. "I am not seeking a fight here, Lord Goffe."

"Neither am I. You're the one taking hostages."

"I told you that I do not intend to harm them."

"And you've already lied to me once."

"You misunderstand. I am only concerned with keeping the presence of my family a secret. We have no quarrel with you. We are a peaceful flock. We merely wish to be left alone."

Hector took his time considering his next words. If that was really true, then what about the trail of poisonings that had led him here? Should he bring that up now?

He felt like he'd gained ground in the conversation, but he also didn't want to push his luck while everyone was still locked in some sort of... mind prison or whatever the hell it was.

"Okay," Hector said slowly, "but if secrecy is so important to you... then why are you one of the most famous families in the country?"

"The degree of privacy we require is not something that can be obtained without considerable wealth. And wealth, unfortunately, is accompanied by notoriety--and in the case of my ancestors, noble lineage as well."

Ancestors, huh? Hector didn't know if he could trust that new sliver of information, but he took note of it nonetheless. "...And what is the reason you require that much privacy?"

Hanton deliberated for another moment. Then he exhaled a long breath. "It seems that if we are to resolve this situation without violence, then I must show you the truth." His expression darkened. "But I warn you, Hector Goffe: if word of what you are about to see ever reaches the outside world, then I will hunt you down and extract my toll--if not from you, then from those you care about. There will be no place in this world that is safe from me. Any pain that I suffer as a result of your indiscretion in this matter, I will visit upon you tenfold. This, I vow."

Well, goddamn. Hector wasn't sure what to say to that.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 21

<<Page 20 || All Side Story #1 pages

When it came down to it, that was Colt's biggest concern as well.

Could he get away with killing these two fucks?

His gut was telling him that... yes, he could. It would be a risk--and perhaps an unnecessary one--but he probably could. Despite not having planned this all out tonight specifically, he was fairly confident that he wouldn't get caught.

But that was a criminal's hubris, wasn't it? He'd seen it countless times before. They never thought anyone would find out. They were also so confident. Sure, he might've had a few advantages over the average criminal. He wasn't a fucking idiot, for one thing. But that still didn't change the dangerously similar thinking that was going on here.

It might just be better to let the capital cops handle it from here and see where the chips fell. He didn't know if he could trust those cops to actually do their fucking jobs, but maybe that was the lesser gamble to take in this situation. Making someone disappear, much less two someones, would be no simple feat.

The conscious thug was still glaring at him. Colt didn't much care for the look in the guy's eyes, but it did make him a bit curious. Did he have something to say?

Colt pulled the gag out of the dude's mouth.

"You're so dead, motherfucker," the thug said, almost laughing despite his face still being full of rage. "Do you have any idea whose business you've just interfered with, you fucking moron?"

No, but he was very much interested in knowing. Colt just waited in silence, hoping the guy would tell him on his own.

"You've just made an enemy of the Muett family."

Colt nodded, more to himself than to the idiot in front of him. Sometimes, he had to admit, he actually kind of loved criminals. Their widespread dumbassery, while dangerous, could also prove very helpful on occasion.

"What're you nodding for?" the guy said. "Tryin' to tell me you already knew that? The fuck you did!"

Colt hadn't meant it in that way at all, but he saw no reason to correct him now.

"If you really knew who you were fuckin' with here, then you never woulda set foot in this house!" The thug had been quite calm with this threats before, but now he was raising his voice. "Who the fuck are you, anyway, huh?! Think you can just come in here and do whatever the fuck you want?!"

This loudmouth was starting to make too much noise, but Colt didn't want to shut him up just yet, in case the guy decided to share any other valuable information of his own volition.

"When the bosses find out about this, you're dead! I hope you know that, shitwad! And not just you, either! Your whole family, too! Anyone you ever loved! Or liked! Or even thought about liking! They're all fuckin' dead now! You understand?! Fuckin' dumbass, of course you don't! If you did, you'd be shittin' yourself, right now! I honestly can't believe how much--"

Colt stuffed the gag back in his mouth. That was enough. Tough talk and empty threats weren't valuable information.

And yes, in all likelihood, those threats were empty. Organized crime wasn't typically in the habit of wiping out entire families for the actions of a single person, even if they knew that person's identity. The mess that would make and the attention it would draw from the authorities--they wouldn't want that. The higher ups were usually smart enough to avoid that kind of heat, unlike the brainless thugs like this guy who did their dirty work.

However.

Colt was in a unique position. His family was very small. These thugs obviously didn't know his identity, but if they somehow ever found it out, their bosses might just decide that killing him and his two kids wouldn't be making too much of a splash.

We couldn't have that.

'You ever heard of this Muett family?' Colt asked.

'Yes,' said Bohwanox. 'They're one of the bigger players in the capital, but as I understand it, they haven't been taking any big actions, lately. Right now, the cops are focusing on the Rindols, who are kind of like the Muetts' rivals.'

The Rindols again. Colt hadn't informed Bohwanox of his distant relation to that family, nor did he intend to. Even the Rindols themselves wouldn't be aware of it, so there was no point. It was still unpleasant to keep hearing that fucking name, though. He could see why his grandparents had wanted to get away from this country.

At this rate, maybe he would, too. He didn't want to throw away months of work, trying to build a stable home for the twins to grow up in, but if the situation kept escalating like this, that might just be exactly what he needed to do.

For now, though, things were still manageable.

'Do you know if Keith Hopper is linked to the Muetts?' said Colt.

'Oh, yeah, he is. I'm not too clear on the exact structure of their organization, but I believe they're actually comprised of multiple smaller families with the Muetts being the top dogs. Almost like a "gang royalty," even.'

'Mm.' Colt had to admit, that did make them sound rather powerful. And if they were rivals with the Rindols, then that would mean that the Rindols were pretty fucking dangerous, too.

All the more reason to not leave any loose ends.

'Give me some strength again,' said Colt.

'What are you going to do?' said Bohwanox.

'Exactly what you wanted.'

The reaper paused. 'You sure?'

'What, you changing your mind again?'

'Not in the slightest. But are you sure you can get away with it?'

'Only an arrogant fool would say he was sure of that.'

'Okay, well, do you at least have a plan?'

'Yeah.'

'Wanna share it with me, then?'

'Clock's ticking, Boh.'

'The cops aren't on their way, yet.'

'Even so, the longer I stay here, the riskier this becomes.'

'Fine.' The reaper grabbed his shoulder with a phantasmal hand.

Colt felt the vigor pump through him anew, wiping away his fatigue completely. He breathed deep, and then immediately went to the garage. He opened it, then walked across the street to the thugs' car. He got in, turned it on, then backed it up through the driveway and into the garage. Then he closed the garage door again.

He returned to the thugs and hoisted the unconscious one up over his shoulder first. They were pretty big guys, so he'd have to make two trips to the car, and they both wouldn't be able to fit in the trunk. He decided to stuff the unconscious one in the backseat and the conscious one in the trunk. He made sure to recheck their bindings as well, just in case. They looked fine.

Unfortunately, the hostages would have to remain tied up at least until he got back, so he checked their bindings as well. The homeowner chick had actually managed to wriggle partially out of hers, so he fixed that. She was not pleased.

He decided to be courteous, though, and typed up a text message on Janet's phone--not to send to anyone, but just to show her so that he didn't have to speak and risk her recognizing his voice. The text informed her that he would return shortly and release them all, unharmed. He showed it to the other two hostages as well, and then gathered their phones and put them in a cabinet in the kitchen. He didn't want to risk any of the hostages somehow managing to dial the police while tied up.

After that, he opened the garage door back up, got in the thugs' car, and headed out.

Boh moved to join him, but Colt disliked that idea.

'I need you to stay here and keep an eye on the kids for me,' he told him. 'And the hostages.'

'They'll be fine. I need to go with you so that I can ferry the souls after you're done.'

'I'll tell you where they are after I get back. It's more important that you warn me in case anything goes wrong here while I'm gone.'

And reluctantly, Bohwanox agreed.

Colt backed the car out onto the driveway, got out, closed the garage door again from the inside, then exited the house from the front door to get back into the car. It would've been simpler if he'd had a garage door opener, but he did not. And taking an opener with him would've been a bad idea, anyway, considering he was about to go create another crime scene and didn't intend to bring this car back.

He had a destination in mind. Even though Colt hadn't been planning to kill anyone tonight, the truth of the matter was a little more complicated than just that. These last few months that he'd spent fixing up his little cabin in the woods and raising his kids, he had also had plenty of time to consider the various worst-case scenarios for his eventual visit to Orden and return to civilization.

And one of those worst-case scenarios had looked not entirely unlike this one. He hadn't imagined these exact circumstances, of course, but the idea that he might need to kill someone and hide the body... well, of course he'd thought of that.

Which was why he'd gone out of his way to find a good spot in the woods.

Unfortunately, Snider was such a small country that there were no major bodies of water that he could make use of. Rivers with strong undercurrents, particularly those that led out into the ocean, were often used for these sorts of terrible purposes, but densely forested areas could also serve quite well. It would require a lot of digging, though. Colt didn't have a shovel on hand, but that would be no problem, of course.

The lights of Orden faded from his rearview mirror. He began to run out of paved road, replaced by a bumpier dirt one, and then that, too, disappeared. Soon, he was driving through tall grass and into the forest.

Technically, this was the same forest where his cabin was located, but it was on the opposite side of Orden. The forest circled most of the way around the town, breaking only in the direction of Lagoroc and for a few small roads that led out of the country.

Eventually, the forest grew so thick that he could no longer proceed with the car, so it truly was the end of the road.

The car would be even more difficult to dispose of than the bodies, Colt knew. He'd have to reduce it scraps. He could deal with that last, though.

He exited the car and checked the backseat again. The guy there was still unconscious, apparently, having not budged at all. For some reason, Colt decided to check his pulse. It didn't matter much now, but yeah, he was still alive. Colt yanked him out of the car and onto the uneven ground, then lugged him up over his shoulder again to start carrying him deeper into the forest.

The prime location was still a short trek away.

He'd picked it for three reasons.

The first was the soft ground. While his destruction ability didn't care how tough or rocky the area was, all the mud and loose dirt would make the hole much easier to fill back in and conceal. It would be rather suspicious if he left a big patch of dirt and leaves in the middle of otherwise solid rock.

The second reason was the formation of the ground in the surrounding area. It jutted up in some places, creating some sneaky little coves that wouldn't even be noticed unless you were observing them from the right angle. Perfect for an extra layer of concealment.

And the third, final, and most gruesome reason was the insects. There were several enormous ant hills in this area, hidden amongst the trees and underbrush. Insects were one of nature's best tools for hastening decomposition. True, they might not be necessary if he just dug a deep enough hole, but hey, the added help wouldn't hurt.


<<Page 20 || 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 2138

This was a lot to take in. Hector knew he had to remain calm and think carefully. He had no idea what this man was capable of. Attacking him seemed unwise, especially since the guy's "body" wasn't even real.

This didn't seem like the power of a servant, but he didn't want to just assume that Hanton Gaolanet was another god, either. He needed information.

Hector recalled what Hanton had said just before everyone else had stopped moving. "Are you trying to erase our memories?"

"That was the plan, yes," said Hanton. "I chose to spare you, however, because I wanted to talk first."

Hector squinted at him, anger rising. He could still feel the oppression of his frontmost thought process. "Don't lie to me, Hanton. You're already on thin ice, and I'm not in a very forgiving mood, right now."

Immediately, Hector felt the oppression in his mind vanish, and he watched Hanton take a single step backward, though the expression on the man's face was unchanged.

The others all remained frozen where they were, however.

"So you really are that dangerous," said the Lord Gaolanet. "I thought it was perhaps some fluke that you were able to resist me--that you might not be aware of my attempt to penetrate your mind. But I see now that I was wrong. I apologize for underestimating you, Lord Goffe."

Hector made no response. He merely kept staring at him.

"Tell me," said Hanton. "How were you able to see through this illusion? I am certain that I covered all of your senses completely. Even your reaper should not have been able to tell the difference."

"...If you're still hoping to talk this out," said Hector, "then I suggest you release my companions. Now."

"Ah..." Hanton deliberated silently for a moment. "You are quite intimidating. I will grant you that. But I am not convinced that you can truly harm me. You do not even know where my real body is."

"...Do you want me to come looking for it?" said Hector.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Page 2137

Hector wanted to say something, but each question that popped into his head felt like it might betray something about himself--some critical lack of information or understanding. And with whatever was happening right now, Hector thought he should keep his cards close to his chest for the moment.

The King was apparently less reserved, however. "What is happening here? Hanton?"

"My apologies, Your Highness," said the Lord Gaolanet, still not bothering to move away from Hector. "This is not how I envisioned this conversation going."

"Hanton, please explain this situation," said the King.

"I am afraid I must refuse," said Hanton. "In fact, I believe it would be for the best if everyone here simply forgot that this ever happened."

"What do you--?" The King did not finish.

An overwhelming sensation washed over Hector, heavy and unlike anything he had ever felt. An invisible blanket, perhaps. Smothering him. Weighing him down. Slowing him down. His thought processes. Suffocating him. Shutting down his mind.

Or at least, that was what it felt like for his frontmost thought process. Because of the others, in the back of his mind, Hector was still perfectly aware that nothing was happening to him. His body was fine. The room was unchanged. Nothing was truly altered, except perhaps for the way that Hanton was staring at him.

Hector looked around at the others in the room, suddenly worrying for them. They were all still there, seemingly unharmed, but none of them were moving even the slightest bit. The King's mouth was still half-open, stopped in the middle of a word.

Lynnette, Diego, Matteo--even the four reapers were frozen in midair. Garovel, Melhsanz, Yangéra, and Ernivoc. All stuck there. Silent. Unmoving.

Hector tried to stay calm, but it was difficult. If anything happened to them--

"Do not be alarmed," came Hanton's voice again. He had finally moved away from Hector's immediate grasp and was walking toward the same door through which he'd entered earlier. He stopped and turned to face Hector again. "I have no intention of hurting them. It would be no end of trouble if such famous individuals were to disappear."

Friday, March 20, 2020

Page 2136

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
"The reason I'm asking," said Hector, "is because it is relevant to the security of the nation."

"I see," said Hanton. He turned to William. "This hardly seems like the subject matter that one would encounter during a 'purely social' visit as you claimed earlier, Your Highness."

"I said I was here for purely social reasons," said the King. "I said nothing about the young Lord Goffe's reasons."

Hanton did not look pleased. "A distinction without a difference. This hardly seems appropriate, given the hospitality that I have--"

The man kept talking, and the King kept responding, but Hector was only partially listening.

In a background thought process, he was still trying to pinpoint the source of this persistent unease that he was feeling. There was something about Hanton's presence...

There was some kind of... emptiness to it.

And then, thanks to the Scarf of Amordiin, Hector realized what the problem was.

He'd been thinking metaphorically about the feeling of emptiness. It was actually literal.

While Hanton was still talking to the King, Hector stepped forward and placed his hand on the man's chest. And he felt it there, too. The texture of his suit's cloth was as clear as day.

But Hector pushed forward anyway, and his hand went through Hanton's body.

Everyone stopped.

Hector swished his hand back and forth like there was no resistance. Like it was just thin air.

Because it was.

That was what had been bothering him. Even though he could see Hanton with his eyes, even though he could feel the man's hand when he shook it, Hector hadn't been able to sense the shape of Hanton's body with the Scarf of Amordiin. The air in the room flowed right through Hanton like he wasn't even there.

With half of Hector's arm stuck through his chest, Hanton looked around at his speechless audience before settling on the Lord Darksteel again. "My, my... this is rather awkward, now isn't it?"

Page 2135

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
"It was a bit of a surprise on my end, as well," said Hector. "But I hope it's not too much of an inconvenience. There are a few things that I'd like to talk to you about."

"Ah." Hanton's smile diminished somewhat. "Looking for more investors for that bank of yours, perhaps?"

Hector wasn't surprised that this man knew about all the visits he'd been paying to the other Atreyan nobles. "No," he said plainly.

"Oh?" said Hanton, looking around at the others before settling back on Hector again. "Then perhaps you could enlighten me as to the motive behind your visit."

Hector glanced toward the King, who was just observing with a raised brow. Perhaps it was a bit soon to just launch right into the heart of the conversation, but Hector didn't want to waste the opportunity, either. "I was wondering... if House Gaolanet has ever had any relationship with an organization called the Vanguard."

For a time, it was quiet enough to hear a pin drop. It seemed as if even the fire in the fireplace stopped crackling.

Hector observed the man closely, and still, he was feeling uncomfortable for some reason.

Hanton's expression remained exactly the same. "Why do you ask?"

Hector tilted his head. "Why don't you answer?"

"Several reasons," said the Lord Gaolanet. "I am not in the habit of simply giving out information about my family. Confirming or denying anything, without reason, is typically unwise, I feel. I hope you will not think my caution suspicious."

"I am certain Lord Goffe did not mean to offend," said the King.

"Offense was not taken, Your Highness," said Hanton, eyes still on Hector. "I only wished to clarify my position."

Hector thought carefully. On the one hand, he didn't want to just come right out and start talking about reapers and servants. If this guy genuinely didn't have prior knowledge of them, then Hector would just be carelessly spreading some rather sensitive information.

But on the other hand... this guy had to know about them already, didn't he?

Agh, what was this weird feeling about? Why wasn't it going away?

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Page 2134

While the two men were exchanging pleasantries, Hector had to consult Garovel again. 'What do you think? Sense anything weird about him?'

'Not in the slightest,' the reaper said privately. 'But I didn't sense anything strange about Malast, either, and we both know how that turned out.'

'You're not seriously suggesting that this guy is another fucking god, are you?'

'Of course not. I'm just telling you to stay on your toes.'

Hector appreciated that reassurance, but he also couldn't completely put that concern out of his mind, either. There was just something about Hanton. As he observed the man, Hector kept trying to figure out what this strange feeling was in the back of his mind. It wasn't soul pressure. It was just... unease. A feeling like something obvious was being missed.

He hated it.

The King began making introductions. "This is my bodyguard for the evening," he said, motioning to Lynn, who was standing by his side now. "The White Sword of Atreya, Lynnette Edith."

"I have heard of you, of course," said the Lord Gaoalanet, shaking her hand. "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, young lady."

"Thank you, sir. It is good to meet you as well."

"And over here," said the King, motioning to Diego, "this is my new manservant, Dietro."

Diego stepped forward without missing a beat and shook Hanton's hand. "It is an honor, sir."

Hanton's gaze lingered on him. "Quite."

Hector was a bit surprised by how easily the King and Diego had pulled off that lie. Had they discussed it beforehand?

"And finally," said the King, "we have the young Lord Darksteel of Warrenhold, Hector Goffe, and his man, Matteo."

Hector stepped up for his turn to shake Hanton's hand, as did Matteo immediately thereafter. He returned his gaze to Hector with another smile. "What good fortune. When the King sent word of his arrival, I had no idea that you would be accompanying him, Lord Goffe."

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Page 2133

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
'Our appearance is based on what we looked like when we were alive,' said Garovel.

And Hector waited, but when Garovel said nothing more, he had to say, 'Um... so what? That's exactly as boring as I imagined.'

'No, but if you think about it, isn't it curious how reapers are able to perceive a physical likeness that we have no personal frame of reference from?'

'...I guess so.'

'Your lack of enthusiasm for this ancient mystery is very disappointing, Hector.'

'I mean, what's so mysterious about it? You can apparently see light even though you don't have eyeballs, so... this shit seems pretty easy to believe compared to that. Maybe your physical likeness, as you imagine it, is just preserved in your soul or whatever. And then that gets projected onto what other reapers see.'

'Alright, Mr. Fun-Killer. Geez. Just rip my heart and stomp on it. That's fine.'

Hector exhaled a laugh under his breath. Then he heard the door behind him open, and everyone in the room turned to look.

"Good evening, all. I am Hanton Gaolanet." The man's voice was a wondrous thing, deep and smooth as butter. There were a few silver streaks in his otherwise brown and feathery hair, and his white suit with dark red stripes was certainly eye-catching. "Welcome to my home. You, especially, Your Highness."

The King was already standing to greet him. "Thank you for having me, Hanton. And I do apologize for the short notice."

"Not at all. It is a pleasure to host royalty." The man glanced in Hector's direction before returning to the King. "But you have made me curious? Is this purely a social visit? Or is there some matter in particular that you wish to discuss?"

"Purely social," said the King with a smile. "I know how irregular this is, but I have to come to think that, now more than ever, it is important for the nobility of this country to spend time together. Strengthen our bonds, if you will."

"I see." Hanton returned a smile of his own as his pitch black eyes lingered on the King for a long moment.