Thursday, April 30, 2020

Page 2236

Hector took precautions. He instantly made soul-empowered iron suits for everyone, and pulled Garovel close to him in an iron orb, informing the reaper of the situation privately.

Everyone else was surprised as well, especially as some of them were still eating, and a sudden iron helmet didn't make that task easier. But thankfully, Hector didn't have to explain what was going on, because the cause revealed himself.

'There is no need for that,' arrived Hanton's voice. His avian visage melted out of thin air--or appeared to, at least--as his enormous talons touched down on a large gray boulder mere meters away from Hector and Lynn. 'I assure you, I come in peace.'

"Happy to hear it," said Hector. "But peace isn't maintained through goodwill alone."

That left a momentary silence in its wake.

Hanton's beady eyes moved to the group of onlookers farther away. 'King William. I assume that the Lord Goffe already informed you of my true nature the other day. I hope my appearance does not come as too much of a shock to you.'

The King was already stepping closer, apparently unafraid. "I would be lying if I said it set my heart at ease, but nonetheless, I am glad to see you here now."

'Alas, I fear we have much more to discuss now than me and my family.'

"You're right." The King pulled back the faceguard of his helmet. "Come. Join us while we finish eating."

'I will. Thank you.'

From there, the meeting became a bit less tense than the first one with Hanton, but Hector remained on edge. Clearly, the King wanted to be diplomatic here, and that was great, but Hector still didn't know the full limit of what Hanton might be capable of. If Sparrows could pause people in their tracks and wipe their memories, there was no telling what other ways they could manipulate minds.

He earnestly hoped that Hanton could be trusted, but he intended to remain vigilant as he listened to their conversation.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 28

So Alice stayed.

And as he predicted, she was a distraction. He tried to sit in silence and just mull the case over, but her mere presence was making it difficult. She played with the kids, which was nice, but in the back of his mind, his fatherly paranoia was still constantly urging him to pay attention everything she was doing with them.

He certainly still remembered his initial distrust of her. Sure, he hadn't discovered any evidence that she was in any way involved in the sheriff's murder; and sure, the time that he'd spent getting to know her had made him fairly confident that she was just a normal woman who was a bit too nice and a bit too religious for her own good.

But instincts were a difficult thing to ignore.

And he'd only met her a few days ago.

And beautiful women couldn't be trusted.

Generally speaking.

Agh.

He was overreacting. He knew he was. And he couldn't help feeling like a fool. Even if he'd only technically met her a few days ago, he'd been observing Orden for months and hadn't noticed any suspicious behavior from her. By all accounts, she was just a regular person. A bit of a nutjob, maybe, but a regular person.

He hadn't known about her animal shelter, though.

Hmm.

That was right, wasn't it?

It would be moronic to think that he knew everything about her. That she couldn't still be hiding any dark secrets of her own. Everyone had their skeletons.

But then again... perhaps she'd already told him about hers. That fire where all those kids had died. That wasn't exactly a living, breathing, and happy memory of hers, obviously.

AGH.

Why was he going in circles when it came to this woman?

Why?

...Well.

He knew why. Of course he did. It was the simplest thing in the world.

He was attracted to her. And it was clouding his judgment. He wasn't a fucking teenager. He knew this about himself perfectly well. It wasn't the first time he'd experience this type of thing.

He needed to ignore it.

What did his stupid brain think would happen here? That he could actually have a romantic relationship with this woman?

There was no fucking way that was going to happen. Literally zero chance. For a million reasons. Not the least of which was because he lived in the fucking woods. No electricity. No plumbing. No money.

No woman in her right mind was going to put up with that shit.

And the kids came first.

What, did he think she could be a mother to them?

What a fucking moron he was.

It was a pipe dream. Utterly nonsensical. And letting that idea fester in his mind, allowing himself to get his hopes up--that was the absolute worst thing that he could do, right now. Because it would doubtless begin to affect the twins, if he did. If he allowed himself to even humor that notion, then it was inevitable that the kids would eventually take it to heart as well. Not right away, of course. They were still too young. But they were growing every day. Absorbing information all the time. They would pick up on it if he wasn't careful.

He hated himself for even harboring such an idea. It was probably a natural thing to think, but that didn't matter. He wasn't a natural creature. He knew that only too well by now. He was an abnormality of human nature. Cold and monstrous.

The only thing he was good for was killing.

It was pure fantasy to believe otherwise.

As he watched her playing with the twins, watched her smile and giggle with them, watched her stack blocks with them and even read to them for a while--that fact somehow became increasingly clearer to Colt.

The disparity.

Between him and normal people.

It was so natural for her. Doing all this. For him, it was a constant effort. A grind. Against his inner nature. He'd needed a fucking pediatrician to tell him how to be a decent parent, for fuck's sake.

Alice didn't belong here. With him.

If not for the twins, he would've told her to leave by now. If not for the idea that they might be able to benefit from her presence...

Ugh. He rubbed his forehead and allowed his eyes to ease shut for a moment. This mentality wasn't doing him any favors. It was a rabbit hole into total darkness. He knew because he'd spiraled down it a few times before. If he didn't keep himself in check, he would start thinking about how unsuited to being a father he really was. About how, despite all his past protestations, maybe the the twins really would have been better off in someone else's care.

He couldn't let himself think like that. Even if it was true. That was the one thing he absolutely had to ignore.

Without Stephanie and Thomas...

There was nothing.

They were the only things keeping him sane, now.

Perhaps it was unfair to place that much responsibility on their little shoulders. Goddess knew he would probably come to regret it when they were older.

But that was the way it was. That was reality.

"Mr. Thompson?" said Alice.

He perked back up with a start. He'd drifted. Had he fallen asleep? He honestly didn't know.

"Are you okay?" She was staring at him, still sitting on the floor with the twins, but now with mild concern on his face.

What must his own face haven been looking like. He took a breath and straightened in his chair. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just a little tired, I guess."

She nodded but looked like she had more to say.

He just waited.

"...What exactly is it that you do for a living?" she said.

Ah. This question. He'd been wondering if she was going to ask it. He'd been flirting with the idea of lying to her in some way, but with her seeing where he was living, that seemed like a pretty tall order. And the truth might actually serve to drive her off.

He remembered thinking that she would make a great babysitter for the kids while he pursued the murder investigation, but now the only thing he could think of was getting Alice to leave.

It wasn't rational. And yet it seemed like the right thing to do, nonetheless.

"I'm unemployed," he said bluntly.

"Oh," she said. Her reaction didn't reveal much. A bit surprised, perhaps, but not obviously judgmental.

Fuck.

"Then... how do you survive out here on your own?" she asked.

"I'm living off the land," he said.

Page 2235

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
Hector was at a loss. He couldn't tell if she was genuinely upset or just playing around. Or maybe a little of both? He'd never seen her act this way before.

"It's very discomforting," said Lynn as she looked around another time, "thinking that one of them might be watching us, right now without our knowledge."

"Yeah... but I think the underground portions of Warrenhold are pretty safe from them. The entrance alone would be a tight fit for their huge bodies. Plus, they'd have to make it through the entirety of the Entry Tower."

"Hmm. But they could still be above ground with us, right now, couldn't they?"

Hector nodded. "I'm actually expecting Hanton to show up any time now. He said he would visit Warrenhold."

"Oh yeah..." Lynn scratched her cheek. "But you can sense them somehow, can't you? How close do they have to be for you to pick up on their presence?"

Hector frowned at her, knowing that he couldn't tell her that.

Lynn smacked her lips. "Right. Details."

In the end, they decided to keep sparring for a while longer, though it was a bit more relaxed this time. They resorted to basic swordplay, with Lynn providing instruction more than competition. She was even gracious enough not to cut any of his limbs off--which honestly surprised him a little.

The observers pulled up some chairs and fetched lunch for everyone, and it wasn't long before they were paying more attention to their own conversation than they were to Hector and Lynn.

At length, however, an interruption arrived.

The wind picked up briefly, and the spare thought process that Hector was using to monitor the Scarf's intel suddenly noticed a distant fluctuation in the air.

A large, blurry shape was gliding toward them on the northerly wind. When Hector looked toward it, he saw nothing with his eyes, so even though he hadn't been able to sense it with perfect clarity, he knew at once that it was a Sparrow.

Page 2234

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
Lynn put her goggles on to look at Garovel directly. "Does he not trust me with sensitive information?"

"He said it's not about trust, but just minimizing risk," said Hector.

"Hmph." She returned her gaze to Hector.

He noticed her lone eye fall upon the Scarf of Amordiin.

She squinted at him. "Is this item--?"

Hector's own eyes bulged as he realized what she was about to say, and he clapped an iron muzzle around her mouth. "No, no," he said, shaking his head urgently. "No guessing. Never know who might overhear."

She touched the muzzle with her hand, perhaps in disbelief that Hector would've actually done such a thing to her, but before she could get too mad, Hector annihilated it again.

Then she just stared at him. She was free to talk now, but for whatever reason, she was choosing not to.

Hector tried to hold eye contact, though it was difficult. He remembered Garovel telling him that a lord shouldn't apologize carelessly, so he was hesitating to do so now, but the more seconds transpired and the more time he had to reflect on what he'd just done... the more he came to realize that, yeah, that was kind of a fucked up thing to do someone.

"Ah... sorry about that," he eventually said.

Lynn's stern expression didn't change, but she averted her eye from him, at least, looking around again.

What he wouldn't give to know what was going through her head, right now.

Thankfully, the two of them were far enough away from their observers that they most likely couldn't be overheard, especially with this much wind, but he still had to wonder what they were all making of this situation.

"...Who, exactly, were you worried might overhear my 'guess?'" said Lynn.

That was a good fucking question, considering what he'd just been thinking about. He did have a good answer to it, though. "A giant, invisible bird," said Hector.

Lynn blinked at him. After a moment, she seemed to understand and nodded. However, the frustration in her face did not completely diminish. "Hmph. Out of context, that would be one of the dumbest answers I've ever heard."

It was Hector's turn to blink. Was she...? Was she pouting?

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Page 2233

'It's not about trust, Hector. Telling her would just be an unnecessary risk. How would it help anything, if she knew?'

'Because... then she'd... I don't know...'

'Exactly.'

'She wants to get stronger, Garovel. And items like this could help her.'

'You are NOT about to give the Scarf to her.'

'What? No, I mean... if she's just... if she becomes aware that items like this exist in the world, then maybe she'll...'

'Maybe she'll what? Go hunt them down? She's rather busy protecting the Queen and her husband.'

'Sure, but still...'

The reaper gave a silent sigh. 'If you want to tell her about magical artifacts, then fine. Just don't go into detail about the Scarf specifically.'

He could be satisfied with that. 'Okay.'

Lynn was staring at him expectantly, perhaps already guessing that he was conversing with Garovel.

He dematerialized his armor and rubbed his bare neck. "I can't really... go into detail, but let's just say... there are certain objects in the world which are similar in nature to that aberration gauntlet of yours."

She blinked. "Similar in what way?"

"As in, they harbor supernatural powers," said Hector. "You were there when I told the Queen about the Undercrust--and Himmekel, too. There was a lot of crazy treasure there, and I suspect there's even more, elsewhere in the world."

"H-hold on," said Lynn with furrowed eyebrows and a raised gauntlet. "On top of everything else, you're telling me that you've also gained an item of power comparable to this thing?"

Hector gave her a shrug. "Pretty much."

She looked incredulous.

His mind went to the Shard and also the Tuning Orb of Karugetti. "More than one, actually." Then his mind went to the Moon's Wrath, and he frowned. "I lost one to a giant worm, though. That... sucked."

"Hector, I need more details."

He shook his head. "Can't."

"Why not?"

Impulsively, he wanted to panic, but then he realized there was a perfectly acceptable scapegoat standing right over there, and he pointed. "Garovel won't let me. Blame him."

'Argh, great!' said Garovel privately. 'Thanks for that, O brave Lord Darksteel!'

'No problem.'

Monday, April 27, 2020

Page 2232

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
Lynn's expression flattened. "Be more specific. This is serious. I want to know if there's anything else I can do to grow stronger, too. I don't know if you've noticed, but the world just got a whole lot more dangerous, and the kingdom could come under attack again at any time."

"Okay, well... do you know what emergence is?" said Hector.

She thought for a second. "Roman mentioned that, once. In Korgum. It's how servants can increase their ability by leaps and bounds, right?"

"Yeah."

"You're saying you achieved emergence in Sair?"

"Well, in the Undercrust, actually. On the way back from Sair." On second thought, had he achieved emergence in Sair, too? With all the fighting he'd gotten involved in, it was a bit difficult to remember, but he didn't think so.

"And that's it?" said Lynn. "Emergence has created this much a gap between us? Roman's power grew in Korgum, but still... this seems like too much of a jump compared to that. Because you were holding back on me, weren't you?"

"Ah... well, I also achieved emergence when I fought Harper. And you and I haven't sparred since before that, so..."

"Hmm," was all she said.

"And there's my training with Lord Elroy, too," said Hector. "That's been... unbelievable helpful, honestly. He's taught me tons of things about how to use materialization more intelligently."

"I see..."

"And then, there's also, um..." He stopped himself. This was Lynn he was talking to, but would it really be okay to just tell her? He glanced toward Garovel, who was still observing with the King and the others. 'Can I tell Lynn about the Scarf?' he asked.

The reaper took a moment to respond. 'No,' he said privately. 'It's better if no one knows.'

'But we can trust her, can't we?'

Page 2231

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
He raised another iron platform beneath Lynn, just as fast as before but the size of a small house by itself. She and her shadow went flying, and Hector followed up again, too. Giant blocks in midair, ping ponging her back and forth. The shadow struggled and flailed, trying to grab on to each block, but they were too large to catch.

He heard Lynn scream in frustration, which was almost enough to make Hector stop, until he saw her shadow flex and focus into a dozen different blades.

Still toppling through the air, Lynn started slicing the through the blocks of iron instead of trying to catch them. The irons slabs parted around her, allowing her to right herself again amid a storm of swirling purple blades.

Lynn was taking angry breaths. "That. Was. Extremely annoying, Hector."

"Good job breaking through," he offered her.

She scowled. "Don't condescend to me."

Hector tilted his head. "I wasn't."

She steadied her breath, then reeled her shadow in as she walked closer. "Hector... I don't understand. I've been training like mad since you've been gone. I've sparred with Harper Norez dozens of times now. I'm sure he was taking it easy on me, but I'm far stronger than I was before we went to Sair. But you... you're able to just toy with me like that..."

Ah.

Suddenly, Hector felt a little bad. He hadn't really considered things from her perspective. And he should've. Agh.

Too self-absorbed, as usual. Shit. What an idiot, he was. And he still didn't even know what to say to her.

"How did you improve this much?" asked Lynn. "No offense, but I'm confident that I could've whooped your ass before."

In spite of the previous tension, Hector couldn't help chortling at her bluntness. "Yeah, you probably could've..."

"Right? So what the hell changed so much?"

He wondered how to explain. "Well, uh... lots of things, I guess."

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 27

At length, Alice's examination reverted to merely petting the dog up and down his torso, and she raised her voice back up above a whisper.

"Well, nothing seems to be broken," she said, "which is good. The bump on his leg is fairly bad, though, and it's clearly causing him quite a bit of pain. I could give him something for it, but in this case, I'd say the pain is actually helping prevent him from moving around too much and exacerbating his condition. I'll keep checking in on him periodically if you don't mind, but right now, there's no reason that I can see why he won't make a full recovery in two or three weeks. In a few days, I suspect he will hardly even be limping, anymore."

"That's good," said Colt. He was glad that his own assessment of Brick's health had been somewhat accurate.

"Yep. He seems bit exhausted as well, but I think that's from overexertion. For now, just make sure he's eating, drinking, sleeping, and pooping as normal. His body will take care of the rest."

"Okay." Colt paused. Now for the real questions. "Do you have any idea what happened to him?"

Alice turned to look at him and bobbed her head a little. "I think he got into a fight. The bruise on his leg is the only serious wound he has, but there are a few other signs that he was involved in some kind of struggle."

She'd piqued his curiosity. "Like what?" said Colt.

"Well, I noticed that one of his claws is bent and that there are a few small tufts of fur missing from his coat. Also, one of his front teeth appears to be slightly chipped. And of course, he's quite dirty, which suggests that he was running around outside a lot. His paws are especially so. There's even dried mud in between his toes."

"Can you tell who or what he got into a fight with?"

She took another moment to think. "Difficult to say. All the dirt and mud might imply that the struggle took place out here in the woods, and the missing fur might suggest that another animal was trying to bite or swipe at him and just didn't land any clean hits." And she shut her mouth, but it looked like she still had more to say.

Colt had to urge her on. "...But?"

"But... fights between animals--particularly ones where a wild animal is involved--usually leave larger traces behind. Blood. Bite marks. Claw marks. Or things like quills, in the case of porcupines. Maybe a bit of torn fur caught between the teeth. Yet I found none of these things. It could just be that this big fella here is quite the slippery fighter, but I don't know..."

"Hmm."

"And the bruise on his leg is a little strange, too," she continued. "Animals don't typically create that kind of localized blunt force impact. With them, it tends to be more widely dispersed. If they do cause blunt force trauma, it's usually via secondary means. Like when they're wrestling for control and then one of them throws the other to the ground--or against a wall or tree, maybe. This impact looks more like it was caused by a single, relatively small but heavy object."

Holy shit. Truthfully, Colt had been a bit skeptical about Alice's actual expertise here, but she was beginning to impress him. Maybe there was more to her than just her religion, after all. "So it might've been a person who attacked him, is what you're telling me."

Alice expression became strained. "I hate to jump to that kind of conclusion. Committing violence against any animal is a serious crime, excepting only in the case of self-defense. But this guy here seems pretty docile. I highly doubt he would attack anyone without provocation."

"A small but heavy object sounds like a weapon to me," said Colt, "so unless he was attacked by a chimp or something, then I don't see how it could've been anything other than a person."

"I... don't disagree, necessarily. But it's also possible that the object in question was simply a rock and that he fell on it during the struggle."

Colt was doubtful, but he didn't say so. She didn't have the full context of what else had happened last night like he did. She might've been able to help him puzzle this out better if she did, but there was no way in hell he was going to tell her about it. Even if he was somehow able to leave out the part where he'd killed two men and buried them in the woods, it would be rather difficult to explain how he'd come to learn of the home invasion.

This was fine. He supposed he'd gotten all the help he could from her. In fact, perhaps this was better. If she had obtained proof of animal abuse, Alice would probably feel obligated to report it, and that would undoubtedly complicate things for him.

"Alright." Colt stood up. "I guess the only the only thing that matter is that he's okay. Thanks for taking a look at him."

"Oh, of course. It was my pleasure."

He moved toward the kids to start gathering them up again. "Give me a minute to get ready, and I'll take you back to your church."

"Ah--that's not--actually, I'd kind of like to stay and keep observing him for a while longer. If you don't mind, of course."

He'd just picked Thomas up, and now he stopped and turned.

She wanted to stay? Seriously?

He didn't really want her to, quite frankly. She was just going to distract him from the investigation. But he couldn't think of a good excuse to refuse her after she'd been so nice as to come all the way here.

Dammit.

"...Are you sure?" said Colt. "There's not much to do around here, you know. It'll be pretty boring."

She gave him one of her perfect smiles and stepped closer to tickle Thomas' nose. "I highly doubt that."

Well, shit.

Page 2230

Just as he'd done before, Hector launched Lynn up on an iron platform--but he didn't stop there, this time. He materialized more blocks of iron in midair and added velocity states to them. He knocked her to and fro, ping ponging her back and forth with increasing speed. Over and over and over again, not letting up.

The shadow would protect her from injury, he knew, but it wouldn't prevent knockback--or at least, not by much. He could neutralize her completely so long as he kept her pinned down and disoriented.

Unsurprisingly, however, she seemed to grow quickly irritated with this strategy, and the purple shadow exploded out of her in all directions, catching the iron blocks before they could hit her and reorienting herself into an upright position.

Hector exhaled heavily and dematerialized the last of his blocks. He supposed he should've known that it wouldn't be that easy. And judging by the look on her face, he'd only served to piss her off.

With the shadow surging around her, she seemed almost as if she were stuck in a massive purple tree. But of course, she was in control of it, and she wasn't allowing the shadow to dissipate this time, either. She kept it out, bubbling and swirling around her, as she dove headlong toward him again.

Weirdly enough, though, this was now reminiscent of that fight with a worm. Lynn's shadow wasn't quite so large, of course, and she wasn't trying to kill him--at least, in theory--but this sight of a hulking, amorphous body lunging toward him was certainly familiar.

A flurry of purple tentacles shot out in advance, trying to flank Hector from both sides.

That would be a lot of shit to dodge. He could try, and with the Scarf, he might even be able to do it. But he had an idea he liked better.

He'd do the exact same thing again. But bigger.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Page 2229

"What's with the silent treatment?" said Lynn. "This is supposed to be a friendly bout, you know."

What the hell was she saying now? She really didn't understand what an awkward situation she was putting him in, did she? And had she forgotten that the King was watching this, as well? That just compounded things.

In a parallel thought process, he was focusing only on what the Scarf was telling him. Since they were outside, the wind played a bit of havoc with Scarf--in both a good and bad way. It "blurred" things a little in his mind, but it also extended the range of what he could sense by quite a bit. The treeline in the distance was fairly clear to him, at least in terms of general shape, whereas Lynn's figure was faintly "smeared."

He could still sense her movements with immense precision, however. He noticed her posture shift suddenly, her arm raise, and the aberration shadow extend from her hand. She was about to attack him again.

So he materialized an iron platform beneath her feet, taller than himself and with enough force to pop her high up into the air like a bouncy ball.

It took her a second to get her bearings, but she caught herself on a swirling bed of violet shadow, landing in front of him. Hector had been prepared to catch her with an iron slide, but he could tell with the Scarf and with his own eyes that it wouldn't be necessary.

"Ho ho!" said Lynnette with a smile as the purple dissipated around her. "That was fast! Good job."

Hector frowned, though she wouldn't be able to see it through his helmet. "Lynn, this is a bad idea..."

"Why?"

"I tried to tell you--"

"Well, there's your problem," said Lynn. "Don't tell me. Show me." And she lunged toward him again, her white cloak wreathed in smoldering purple.

Y'know what? Fine, he decided. Maybe there was a safe way that he could show her.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Page 2228

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
It was an obvious strike, far more obvious and flashy than Hector remembered her attacks being. She probably intended for him to block it, as a kind of warning attack.

So he did. A suit of iron armor clapped around his whole body instantaneously, and he caught the blow with Haqq's shield.

"See?" she said. "I'm holding back. I didn't coat my blade in my shadow."

She wasn't aware of the properties of Haqq's shield and probably thought it would be as easy for her shadow to cut through as his iron was.

Hector didn't feel like correcting her.

Lynn pulled her sword back and relaxed a little. "Nice armor, though. You couldn't make that so quickly before, could you?"

"Er. Yeah. Listen, just--hold out your shadow for a bit. Away from your body."

"Like this?" Lynn launched a long string of purple out from her hand and let it hover there.

Hector "loaded" up an iron bullet in a parallel thought process. "Yeah, that'll--"

Her shadow twitched and leapt toward him at a right angle.

He stepped out of the way, having expected her to try something again. The shadow bent in midair and tried to skewer him another time, but it splashed against his shield.

Lynn had gotten behind him. "Don't you think this scarf of yours is a liability? I could just grab it, you know."

Thanks to said Scarf, however, Hector had sensed her there beforehand. He'd been able to tell from her movements and posture that she wasn't trying to attack him, so he hadn't done anything to repel her, instead wanting to know what her intentions were. It seemed like she'd just wanted to spook him, though.

He didn't turn around to face her. "Do you really want to spar?" he said through the metallic tinge of his helmet. "Or do you just wanna keep trying to sucker punch me?"

"Heh, I'm just testing your reactions. You don't think our enemies will take it so easy on you, do you? It's important to keep your guard up, Hector."

Ugh, she was reminding him of Zeff all of a sudden.

Page 2227

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
Above ground and in the middle of a rocky clearing, Hector and Lynn stood by themselves, a good distance away from the recently constructed buildings. They had a handful of spectators, including Garovel, the King, Matteo and his reaper, as well as Roman and Gina.

Hector scratched the back of his head. "...Is this really necessary?" he whispered.

"Yes!" Lynn exclaimed.

He should've known that it was already too late to back out, he supposed.

Lynn drew her sword and pointed it at him. "How's your swordsmanship? Have you honed it at all?"

"As a matter of fact... no, I haven't." Hector just gave her a flat look.

Lynn seemed briefly disappointed. "Well, that's okay. I can give you a few more pointers later. First, show me your most powerful stuff."

"...I don't think that's a good idea. "

"Oho. Big words, Lord Goffe."

"That's not what I--"

"C'mon. I can take it." She began closing the distance between them. "Show me before I get mad."

He sighed. "Alright, fine, but before this goes any further, let's do a test. I don't want to risk--"

The violet shadow lashed out at him, and he narrowly sidestepped it, ending up with a scratch across his chest instead of a hole through it.

"Good dodge," said Lynn. "Little slow, though."

Hector's expression hardened. "Aren't you being a bit too aggressive for just a sparring match?"

"Yeah, well, maybe I'm working out some frustration." She twirled her sword in her hand. "Besides, you can heal, so what difference does it make?"

He could tell for certain, now. She was definitely annoyed.

But increasingly, so was he.

"Let's do a test, first," Hector said again. "We can see how well your shadow--"

"Mm, don't feel like it." She bolted toward him and swung her sword wide.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Page 2225

The prospect of training with Lynn again had certainly crossed his mind, but there were multiple reasons why he wasn't eager to give that a go. And frankly, he was a bit surprised by her apparent enthusiasm. "Ah... you really want to fight?" he'd asked.

"Of course! It'll be fun to gauge each other's progress."

Hector had nodded at that point. It did seem fun. In theory. "But, uh... the problem with that is... well, most of my 'progress' has been in the usage of killing techniques."

Lynn had just kind of stared at him for a time, her expression as unreadable as always. "So... you're saying that you think you can pierce this purple shield of mine, is that it?" And she summoned the violet shadow, making it bubble up from her gauntlet and hover in front of his face.

He hadn't seen her make that kind of shape with it before. It was like bubbles connected together by a blanket, constantly rolling over one another. Boiling, perhaps. It was a little gross-looking, honestly, but kinda cool, too, in its own way.

He hadn't been sure how to respond to her question, though. Would it have been too cocky to say that he was confident that he could pierce it? He hadn't thought so, but he hadn't wanted to upset her, either.

She'd ended up a little upset with him, anyway, though. "Well? You were implying that you were worried about killing me, weren't you? That means that you think you can pierce this thing, doesn't it?"

"Ah... well, er..." Agh, why had she looked at him like that? Was she actually mad? Or just messing with him? What should he have said?

They were interrupted when Ms. Rogers arrived to inform him of some rather mundane but necessary banking paperwork that the Madame Carthrace was in need of.

And now, on the last day of the King's visit, Hector had nearly forgotten that conversation, but Lynn apparently had not.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Page 2225

~~((The National Jelly Bean Day Special -- page 10 of 10))~~
He hadn't intended to think about her so much, of course, but when she was within such close proximity all the time, he could sense her presence with the Scarf of Amordiin even when he wasn't looking directly at her.

That had to be a new level of creepy. Staring at someone without actually staring at them. He hated himself for being so preoccupied when there were so many other things going on, but it was all but impossible to stop.

He supposed he should just be grateful that he could concentrate on multiple things at once. Though, he did wonder if the ease of his multitasking was actually making it worse. It gave him an excuse. He wasn't really letting himself be distracted, right? He had attention to spare, right?

Nevermind the fact that Zeff noticed a drop in his combat performance during their sparring sessions.

Thankfully, the Lord Elroy didn't seem to pick up on the cause. Instead, he attributed the drop in ability to the fact that Hector had missed a few training sessions due to the King's visit. Zeff didn't appreciate that much, but he also seemed to understand the importance of the King's time here.

That first meeting between Zeff and King William had been an interesting one. Zeff had been his usual stern self as he tried to express his gratitude for allowing his kin to stay in Atreya during this difficult time, while King William mainly just seemed interested in asking questions about Rainlord history. The King had a lot of questions about trees, for some reason.

Admittedly, Hector had been a bit distracted at that time, himself. Lynn had been talking to him directly--which somehow required more than just one parallel thought process from him.

"So when are we going to spar?" she'd asked, poking him in the shoulder.

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 26

Colt wasn't sure what to say now. If he couldn't make her laugh, then perhaps there was simply no salvaging this situation. Shit, what would a normal person do in this situation?

Uh.

Uhhh.

Maybe ask her if she was okay? No, wait, he'd already asked her that. Fuck.

"...It's not the graffiti itself that is troubles me," said Alice. "As you said, it can be taken care of easily enough. The problem is that this... just keeps happening."

"How many times has it been?" said Colt.

"I'm not even sure, anymore," she said. "Enough that I've run out of paint multiple times now."

Now that he was thinking about it, Colt recalled her buying a fresh can of the stuff just the other day. "That much?" He craned his neck in order to eye the purple demon another time. "It shouldn't take much paint to fix something this."

"Oh, this one--yes, this one isn't that bad. Vulgar, perhaps, but I already have everything I need in order to fix it."

"Ah. And there have been instances in the past where that wasn't the case?"

She met his gaze briefly, as if ashamed for some reason. "Yes. The entire building has been covered with obscenities and insults before. On several occasions."

Damn. That sounded like a lot of work. And not just for her, either. For the vandals, too. Covering an entire building? Granted, it wasn't that large, but still. That required some real motivation.

In Colt's experience, most vandals were just shitty little kids or teenagers with too much free time on their hands. Which, he supposed, fit the bill for what he'd see when he was driving up earlier. But the whole church? Multiple times? This was beginning to sound more like a concerted effort to harass her, not just the work of a few punkass brats.

"How long has this been going on for?" he asked.

"About two years or so," said Alice.

Mm. So it was as he'd thought, then. The deadly fire that the townspeople blamed her for had occurred two and a half years ago.

He didn't bring it up. Nor did she, though she must've known the vandals' motivation even better than he did by now.

It still amazed him how she could stay in a place where she was clearly unwanted like this. And for no other reason than because Cocora told her to?

"Anyway," said Alice. "I'm sorry for complaining. You're very kind to have listened so patiently."

Kind? Him? Fucking laughable. If she really believed that, then must've had one fucked up perception of what kindness was.

Maybe that made sense, though.

They went back to his car and then drove to the cabin. Alice didn't even try to keep up the conversation, and Colt didn't particularly feel like trying to get her talking. He did wonder if he might still be able to learn more about this tragic fire from her, but that obviously a sensitive subject and probably not worth the risk.

Truthfully, though, he was mainly just glad that she didn't look intensely uncomfortable in his presence. She barely knew him, and she was already coming back to his place of residence with him. Maybe she was just too distracted by her current melancholy to realize what a weird thing situation she'd agreed to.

Or maybe she was just nuts.

He really had a difficult time trying to read this woman.

At the cabin, he parked in his usual spot along the building's western side, then gathered the kids up.

"Wow," came Alice's voice while he was still busy rifling through the backseat. "This is quite cozy, isn't it?"

That was one word for it, he supposed. Primitive and cramped were two more.

Alice was already peering through the cabin's front window by the time Colt managed to get both kids out of the car. "Ah, I see him!" she said. "Oh, what a beautiful animal! And attentive, too! He's looking right at me! I bet he's fantastic guard dog."

Not for Janet Beaumont, he wasn't. Colt kept that thought to himself, though. He set the kids down so that he could unlock the front door.

Thomas waltzed right in and went straight over to the dog, who hadn't budged at all since they left.

Colt followed closely and watched Brick like a hawk. Stephanie approached more slowly, though she was obviously interested in petting him, too.

Brick, for his part, just let it happen. The twins patted him on the head and neck, and he didn't budge at all. He barely ever removed his gaze from Colt, and when Colt got closer, the bastard growled at him again.

That frightened the kids enough that they backed away, and Colt ushered them over to their toys in the main room.

"He's a spirited one, isn't he?" said Alice from the open doorway.

She sure had a way of describing things in the nicest possible way, didn't she?

"I should probably keep my distance," Colt told her.

"Yes, that might be for the best." She hunkered down as she stepped closer to Brick, circling around so that she could approach him from the side. "How are we doing, boy? Not feeling well? What's the matter?"

"I felt a bump on his right hind leg," said Colt.

"Oh, so he let you touch him?" she said.

"Right before he tried to bite my face off, yeah."

"Ah. Well, he seems quite calm now, thankfully. Ears are up. Body language looks good. He doesn't feel threatened by me."

"If he tries to bite you, I'll knock some sense into him."

She turned toward Colt with wide eyes. "Please don't do that!"

"...It was a joke." It wasn't, really.

Her concerned expression lingered on him before returning to Brick. She kept talking to the dog under her breath, quietly enough that Colt couldn't make out what she was saying.

He decided to just relax and let her work. He still sat relatively close and kept an eye on them, just in case Brick did decide to do something, but after a while, it seemed clear that Brick was perfectly fine with her touch.

Which was fucking horseshit, by the way. What, did he have a bias against men or something? Or did he just hate Colt specifically?

The furry son of a bitch.

Page 2224 -- CCXIX.

~~((The National Jelly Bean Day Special -- page 9 of 10))~~
If Miro was sending crops or some other product to Ridgemark, then shouldn't it be in trucks with some kind of company logo on them? It was important for branding--and free advertising, besides.

Who would use an unmarked truck and why?

Bah.

He was overthinking it. The truck probably just belonged to an independent contractor. Or to a company that valued discretion for some reason. It could've been empty, for all he knew.

He shifted in his seat and tried to relax. All this waiting was getting to him. He'd never been the most patient person. He and his brothers were all like that. Human interaction was their bread and butter, and whenever they had to go without it for very long, they got antsy.

But he wasn't a child, anymore. He couldn't keep using that as an excuse. Professionalism had to come before his whims and wishes.

His phone dinged.

Finally, another text. From Adan this time. Hmm? It was only one word.

slaves
Raul's eyes held on that word for a long moment, widening slowly at the dreaded realization. Slaves?

He awaited clarification, but he had a feeling that he already knew everything that he needed to.

It was a group text, so Esai had seen it, too. His response was not comforting. It, too, was only one word.
yes
A rare scowl formed on Raul's face as he began texting back.


Chapter Two Hundred Nineteen: 'A lord's decision...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Hector was going to be sad to see the King leave. After multiple extensions to the man's stay here at Warrenhold, it seemed that he was finally going to return to Sescoria today.

He would miss Lynn, too, of course, though that parting would also be accompanied by a sense of relief. As much as he enjoyed being around her, it was a bit exhausting to have his attention constantly split on her. These last few days, he couldn't help devoting an entire parallel thought process to just her.

Page 2223

~~((The National Jelly Bean Day Special -- page 8 of 10))~~
His brothers were certainly taking their time. That meant, at least, that there was nothing as obvious as smoke or annihilated buildings. A part of Raul had been worried about that.

Before the next text could arrive, however, Raul spotted another vehicle on the road, approaching from the direction of Miro.

It was a large truck, an eighteen wheeler, but it bore no markings that Raul could see. No company logo, even.

He caught a glimpse of the driver as it passed.

Maybe Vantalay was just different, but that didn't look like a typical truck driver to Raul. Skinny, harsh facial features and piercing eyes. No sunglasses or hat, despite the sunny day today.

And what was that truck transporting?

Right now, Vantalay was at war with four different countries. Lyste, Czacoa, Naos, and Yena Maria. According to the news and various people Raul had talked to over course of their stay in Ridgemark, battles had broken out all across Vantalay's borders. The only reason that the region around Ridgemark had thus far been spared was because the terrain rendered the city quite easily defensible from an assault by sea. The high cliffs on which Ridgemark was perched allowed only two paths for incoming ships to approach, and even then, they would still have to deal with the massive amount of artillery that the city had defending it as well.

Taking Ridgemark wouldn't be impossible, Raul thought--Uncle Melchor would've told him that only a fool would consider any location to be truly impregnable. But at the very least, it would require either an enormous commitment of resources on the attacker's part or saboteurs on the inside. The Triplets had been lucky enough to get into the country before the borders were shut down, but Vantalay's enemies obviously wouldn't have it so easy. It therefore made sense that Ridgemark would want to ship in as many resources from domestic locations as possible, rather than relying on its ports too heavily. Foreign agents were much more likely to arrive by sea or air.

But even despite all that, Raul still couldn't help being suspicious of that truck. Something about it bothered him.

Page 2222

~~((The National Jelly Bean Day Special -- page 7 of 10))~~
Raul wished that he'd understood that about his father sooner. He might not have been so bitter towards the man all throughout his teenage years.

And now, it was too late. Lucio Blackburn was dead, killed by falling debris, apparently. Raul hadn't even seen it happen. The Triplets had only been informed of it by Horatio, who'd led one of the teams that sifted through the rubble for missing people.

He was sad, of course.

But not sad enough, he thought.

Perhaps that was a strange thing to chastise himself for. What was the appropriate level of sadness that he should feel at the death of his father? Trying to quantify emotions was a foolish endeavor, surely.

But... it wasn't that simple, was it? He couldn't ignore the fact that he was more broken up about Ismael's death. The proof was self-evident.

He was a bad son.

Maybe if he'd loved his father more, been more attentive, he would've been there when it happened. Maybe he would've even saved him.

He rubbed his forehead, then his eyes, trying to clear his mind. The mission. Focus on the mission. Just because there was downtime didn't mean he should allow himself to get distracted.

He waited, keeping eye on the narrow road. It remained empty the whole time. He hadn't seen a single vehicle this entire time, he realized.

Sure, this wasn't exactly a main road or anything, but it was still the primary means of reaching Miro from Ridgemark, one of the largest cities in Vantalay. Shouldn't there have been more traffic?

Hmm. Didn't bode well, did it?

The first text finally arrived. Esai was in position. Shortly thereafter, a text arrived from Adan as well. They were both ready.

Raul still had to wait, though, for them to observe the town and give him the go ahead. If there was anything obviously wrong with Miro, they would be able to give him a heads up.

Page 2221

~~((The National Jelly Bean Day Special -- page 6 of 10))~~
For this reason, Raul was about ten months older than his brothers as a servant. Considerable time had been needed for him to not only manifest his ability, but also to develop it to a perceptible and manipulable degree, because for quite a while, Raul's ability to alter friction had been extremely weak and difficult to use.

And living a life of relative isolation in Luzo, not venturing out into the world very often at all, Raul had thus far found no opportunities to achieve emergence. He couldn't even imagine what that might feel like.

But in the end, the elders of House Blackburn agreed that this could one day become a remarkable power. It was an alteration-type, after all.

Unfortunately, even now, Raul wasn't sure when that day would be. The rarity of this power meant that no one in the House could instruct them in its usage. Alteration-types were usually like that, apparently. Unless you had a teacher with the same or very similar ability, learning to hone it was quite a slow process. In fact, for those first few years, some debate persisted among the House's reapers about whether their ability truly was friction and not something else, like particle vibrations or pressure manipulation or even gravity control.

This was also why the Triplets had been able to go on that camping trip with Ismael. Raul hadn't realized until relatively recently just how much special treatment he and his brothers had been given over the years. Even this very mission, dangerous though it was, might qualify as an example.

It seemed clear to him now why there had been tension between Ismael and his father Lucio--as well as between Lucio and some of the House's other non-servant parents. The man had been sandwiched between abnormally high expectations from his elders and quiet resentment from his peers.

No doubt, that turmoil had influenced how Lucio had treated his sons.

Page 2220

~~((The National Jelly Bean Day Special -- page 5 of 10))~~
Of course, it was debatable whether servitude truly was a privilege. In many ways, the Rainlords regarded it more as a responsibility. A duty. It certainly had its perks, but did those outweigh the downsides?

There was a reason why there weren't very many truly old reapers left within the family. It was widely known that Rainlord reapers had a higher mortality rate than others who took servants. That was one of the great obstacles to recruiting new reapers to their side, in fact.

So perhaps it was understandable that those of lower status in the House's hierarchy weren't clamoring for that privilege. Loyalty to their kin was one thing, but it was quite another to allow their children to be "killed" and then subjected to the will of beings whom they couldn't even see or talk to directly.

And additionally, it was arguably better to further narrow down which parents would have to take on the difficult task of raising children who would eventually be granted superpowers. Their education, training, and moral conscientiousness were that much more important when so much strength might one day be at their fingertips.

So it was highly irregular for the Triplets to have been chosen. Normally, the reapers themselves would take their pick from the higher status children, of which there were many, but the identical nature of the Triplets had apparently sparked an immense curiosity among the reapers.

After all, the most famous Rainlords who had ever lived were the Redwater Twins. Identical brothers with identical abilities. Perhaps the reapers had been hoping for the three of them to manifest the divine Water Dragon ability as well.

Raul had actually been chosen first, as a kind of trial run. Sacrificing three reapers was an enormous commitment of the family's resources. Adan and Esal would only receive reapers of their own if Raul manifested a powerful enough ability.

And lo and behold, he did.

Page 2219

~~((The National Jelly Bean Day Special -- page 4 of 10))~~
He'd been thinking about that little camping trip a lot, lately. The lessons learned during it hadn't been especially relevant so far in Vantalay, thanks to the many luxuries of Ridgemark, but this was still the first time that he and his brothers had gone anywhere for this long without constant supervision.

That, and he just missed Ismael and Ibai.

Ismael had been like a father to the entire House, in many ways. Despite House Blackburn's rather large head count, that man had always tried to make time for everyone--even to a fault, perhaps. Raul remembered trying to compete for his attention with children from the other branch families.

However, in an odd way, Raul also felt a little guilty about missing Ismael so much.

House Blackburn hadn't suffered nearly as many casualties during the Abolish attack on Dunehall as some of the other Rainlord families, but among those few had been the Triplets' own father, Lucio Blackburn.

The Triplets were something of a special case within the House. Their parents, Lucio and Aria, were non-servants. In terms of the overall family hierarchy, they were fairly low. "Uncle" Ismael hadn't actually been their uncle directly, but rather their "uncle's uncle."

Normally, that wasn't an issue. Those with higher "status" within the family like Melchor or Horatio never treated those with lower status differently, and in the everyday life, the disparity was all but nonexistent.

But when it came to choosing servants for reapers... well, that was another story.

With so many members of the family and so few loyal reapers to go around, Raul could appreciate that it would not be an easy decision to make, choosing which child among the many can become an immortal, superpowered warrior. Rather than trying to work out some vague, supposedly "meritocratic" system for deciding, it was simpler to just give that "privilege" to the branch families with higher status.

Page 2218

~~((The National Jelly Bean Day Special -- page 3 of 10))~~
That had been the first time in which Raul and his brothers had really gotten to know Ibai. Right away, they could tell how different he was. Raul knew now that Ibai must have already been in his twenties by that point, but it didn't feel like a memory with someone eleven years their elder at all. Ibai had always treated them like peers. Like equals.

But he wasn't. Without even realizing it, they'd learned so many new things from him by the end of that trip.

And Ismael.

Agh.

Thinking about him hurt. Raul had loved him as much as he'd loved his own father--maybe even more, terrible as that was to admit.

The Triplets had loved to play pranks, and that trip had certainly been no different. But Ismael had never gotten upset at them for it. In fact, he actually seemed to enjoy them.

One time, they filled his water bottle with coyote urine. The look on the man's face when he drank from it--Raul could hardly remember anything funnier than that.

They'd expected to get punished severely for that one. Time out. An ass whooping, maybe. But no. Ismael just laughed. And hard, too. And then he cried, for some reason.

Raul hadn't understood why at the time, but in retrospect, he wondered if that didn't have something to do with Ibai, also. As he understood it, Ibai had been even more of a little hellion in his day than the Triplets had. Perhaps to Uncle Ismael, that prank was tame by comparison.

But when they saw him crying like that, their attitudes toward the man shifted dramatically. They'd never seen a grown man break down in such a way. It was confusing and saddening. Esai tried to comfort him.

Then Ismael shoved the bottle in Esai's mouth and made him drink, too.

Even to this day, Raul had never laughed so hard in his life.

Page 2217

~~((The National Jelly Bean Day Special -- page 2 of 10))~~
En route to Miro, the three brothers were uncharacteristically quiet.

Despite their typically jovial dispositions, Raul could tell that his brothers were a little on edge, today. The sudden change in their orders was abnormal enough on its own, but it had also been accompanied by a rather vague warning to be wary of traps.

They decided not to approach Miro in the same way that they had approached Ridgemark. If there was any chance at all that they were heading into an ambush, then trying to hide in plain sight was not the right strategy. An ambush implied that the enemy might possess intel on them, so they might just be recognized on sight and attacked immediately.

That didn't seem likely, of course, given House Blackburn's reclusion over the last thirty years, but they wanted to exercise extra caution, nonetheless.

But they couldn't just sneak into the town, either. If there were any reapers around, three unfamiliar souls skulking in the shadows would arouse immediate suspicion.

Raul pulled the car over in order to let Adan and Esai out. Miro was still a few miles away, but they weren't heading directly toward it. Their task was to find good vantage points from which to observe the town at a distance.

He bumped fists with each of them before they left. They both had a pair of binoculars in the survival kits they took with them, and their wilderness training from when they were younger would surely be helpful if things got bad, so Raul wasn't worried about them.

He took a breath as he watched them disappear into the thick forest that flanked both sides of the road.

He didn't start the car back up yet. His task now was to wait for them to get into position. They would text him when they were ready.

So Raul was left with considerable time to himself, waiting in the driver's seat of the rental car with nothing but his thoughts.

That old wilderness training kept popping into his head for some reason. Perhaps it was the sight of all these trees. Various elders of the Blackburn household had served as their instructors, but the trip with Uncle Ismael and Cousin Ibai was, without a doubt, the most memorable one.

Page 2216

~~((The National Jelly Bean Day Special -- page 1 of 10))~~
Esai had gone diving in search of the "sunken cave" several times over the last two weeks, but he'd all but given up on it by now, because he'd simply found too many. There was an enormous network of underwater caverns up and down the coast. Esai seemed to think that many of them were manmade, though he wasn't sure what their intended purpose had been.

Theoretically, the Tuning Orb of Karugetti should have been immensely useful here, but that damn thing only ever seemed to work whenever it felt like working. That, and they still weren't even sure what the different colors meant. Sometimes the little orb between the two metal prongs would glow blue, sometimes red, sometimes green, sometimes nothing. If only it had come with an instruction manual.

One time, however, the Tuning Orb led the Triplets to an ardor-infused rifle that someone had stashed inside a storage locker in the Ruby 88 Hotel & Casino. They left the weapon where they'd found it, of course, as they didn't have much use for it, nor did they wish to alert whoever it belonged to; but that did at least confirm that the Tuning Orb really could work.

They'd also kept an eye on that rifle for a few days, even going so far as to set up a tiny camera to observe the locker. They'd discovered that it belonged to one of the casino's dealers, a bald man with black-rimmed glasses, and they'd since removed the camera and shifted some of their observational focus to him. They'd found out his name easily enough from the tag on his uniform, but the reapers back in Warrenhold hadn't been able to do anything with that information.

Raul wasn't terribly surprised. In all likelihood, the guy was an undercover servant using an alias. They'd found several other such suspicious people all over the city, but the Ruby 88 and the hotels immediately around it seemed to be something of a hot spot.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Page 2215

Now that the decision was made, there was no point in wasting time. They wolfed down the rest of their breakfast and headed out immediately. Raul had plugged Miro's location into his phone last night, and they could go straight there in the cherry red sedan they were renting.

With any luck, they would be back in Ridgemark before nightfall. That was where the really good intel probably was. As much as he was enjoying his time in the lap of luxury, he was also beginning to feel a little impatient. They'd been in Vantalay for two weeks now, and yet they hadn't even been able to confirm if all those reapers haunting Ridgemark were with the Vanguard.

And that was more important to Raul than some magical artifact of dubious existence. He might've been more excited about that part of the mission if they knew what the damn thing was capable of--or even a physical description of it for that matter--but all they had to go on was a name.

The Sword of Unso.

Oh, and supposedly, it could be found in "a sunken cave near the two-toned rock."

That little detail had somehow proved even less helpful than it sounded. Prior to their arrival in Ridgemark, the Triplets hadn't even been sure what a two-toned rock was, but now they knew. Oh, boy, did they know.

Half the bloody rocks in this region were of two colors. Because they'd been painted. It was a cultural thing. The locals did it to honor the "eternal dichotomy of Order and Chaos." That was a big aspect of one of the religions around here, apparently.

Thankfully, the locals at least didn't bother to paint every tiny pebble in the country. It was only for sufficiently large boulders, at least the size of a grown man. And yes, they even painted those underwater. The diving industry here was booming, thanks to all the casinos and tourism.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Page 2214

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
"Not me," said Adan, leaning back in his seat. "Been rejected more times than I can count, bro. I did meet a few uggos, though. More than a few, actually."

"Bro, that's pretty rude," said Raul. "All women are beautiful."

"Yeah, yeah. You know what I mean, though."

In fact, he did. Adan was talking about servants now, not just women specifically. He must've clocked a few more of them since yesterday. Oftentimes, servants were difficult to identify, but there were a few telltale signs here and there. Most obviously, the reapers. They tended to spend the most time around their servants, so if you just kept an eye on them, the servant could eventually be deduced via process of elimination.

Some reapers were smarter about that than others, though, so it was no guarantee. The Triplets' own reapers had warned them about that tactic. If a reaper suspected they were being observed by their enemies, they could deliberately hang around a normal person in order to throw off any spies.

Which was what they were now, Raul knew. Spies.

"Hmm." He took a sip of his orange juice. "Maybe we should try searching for some small town honeys, instead."

"Oh, bro, I would be so down for that," said Adan. "A nice, wholesome girl might be just what my wounded heart needs, right now."

Esai chuckled. "Maybe you could take her back to meet Ma."

"That's the dream," said Adan.

"Sounds like a plan, then," said Raul.

That was confirmation, as expected. They'd all received orders to check out the town of Miro. Their objectives were merely to observe the place and report back on the status of the town, but Miro wasn't all that far from Ridgemark. It was possible that they might find clues about this mysterious artifact there.

Page 2213

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
When he was on his own, Esai was almost always at the pool. Supposedly, it was because he loved swimming so much, but they all knew the real reason.

Not that Raul could blame him. It was a beautiful day outside, and beautiful days attracted beautiful women.

Ridgemark was a far cry from the perpetually cloudy skies of Luzo, to be sure. In his twenty-four years of life, rarely had Raul Blackburn even seen bikini-clad women in person like this.

He liked the view so much that, somehow, his feelings almost looped back around to disliking it. Was this really part of the mission?

Eh, of course it was.

Blending in was a vital part of gathering information. En route to Esai, Raul recognized a few gorgeous faces and had to stop and say hello. Adan didn't seem to mind.

Eventually, however, he and Adan did make their way over to Esai and pulled him away from the pool. Together, the three went to have breakfast in one of the casino's several restaurants. They ate well, as usual. Their funds for this mission had been rather generous. Sentsia told them to spare no expense and do whatever it took to get the job done. She was the one who made it clear to Raul how important this mission and the futures ones like it would be toward the goal of reclaiming House Blackburn's lost honor.

Something had changed about that reaper, Raul thought.

But she wasn't the only one.

After all they'd been through, the whole House was in a strange mindset, right now. A feeling of quiet danger permeated everything, a feeling like standing at the precipice of a cliff. They could fall. They could jump. They could flee. They could fly. What would it be?

"So," Esai was saying with a mouthful of blueberry pancakes, "either of you guys managed to bag any hot babes, lately?"

In this instance, a "hot babe" was part of their code. Esai was asking if they'd found any new leads on the artifact that they were searching for.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 25

When he arrived, Colt spotted a group of kids watching his car approach. They scampered off before he got too close, and by the time he finished parking and stepping out of his vehicle, they were just specks running down the narrow road that he'd just used.

He didn't have long to wonder what they were doing here. After grabbing the kids and walking up to the church, he noticed a bright purple mark on the church's otherwise pale white exterior. It was only a small thing, though, on the western corner of the building's front side. It almost looked like a little tail.

Hmm.

Instead of ignoring it, Colt walked around to the western side of the building for a better look.

Ah.

It was a tail. And it a belonged to a giant, poorly spray-painted demon-like creature with squiggly wings, long horns, and a raging erection. All purple.

Wow.

Colt didn't stick around to admire the artwork. He went inside the church.

The main chamber was empty, just like the last time, but he didn't have the luxury of being able to sit in one of the pews and wait for Alice to show up. He walked past the seating arrangements and over to the rear doorway. He shifted the kids over in his arms and rapped on the wooden frame with his knuckles. "Ms. Ridgemont?" he called with a raised voice. "Are you back there?"

The sound of shuffling books and papers arrived, followed by the light thumping of hurried footsteps. Alice soon appeared in the doorway, looking mildly disheveled but still just as gorgeous as he remembered.

"Oh! Hello again, Mr. Thompson! How are you?" Her cheerful smile told Colt that she had no idea what was waiting for her on that wall outside.

"I've been better, actually," he told her. "I was wondering if I could get your help on something."

She tilted her head, curious. "My help? What do you need?"

"I heard in town that you run an animal shelter. Is that true?"

"Ah! Yes, it is. Technically."

Colt got stuck on that last word. "Technically? What do you mean?"

Alice averted her gaze. "Oh, it's, ah, nothing to trouble you with."

He cocked an eyebrow but remained silent.

"Anyway, what can I help you with?" she asked.

"There's an injured dog at my cabin. He's not mine, though. He just showed up out of the blue."

"Oh, I see. And you want me to take a look at him?"

Colt gave a single nod. He was a bit reluctant to ask his next question, but he felt he had to. "Do you have training as a veterinarian?"

Her own nod was more hesitant than Colt's. "I do... but..."

He waited for her.

"I am not, currently, in possession of certification," she said. "The regulations here in Snider are different than they are in Richland where I studied. And... er..."

Was there more she wanted to say? Colt was growing impatient. "I don't really care if you mess up treating him. Like I said, he's not my dog."

She looked appalled. "That's a rather horrible thing to say, don't you think?"

Colt's natural frown didn't budge. "He tried to bite me."

"Ah..."

"Also, he doesn't seem that badly injured. I just want you to examine him. Maybe tell me what happened to him, if you could."

"Well, I suppose I can give him a look. He is at your cabin, you said?"

"Yeah. Do you mind going back there with me? I would've brought him along, but he's a Dantean Shepherd. A big one. And he doesn't like it when I touch him, so moving him is pretty impossible."

She looked at him for a moment, perhaps thinking.

Shit, was she about to say no? Of course she was. A normal woman would never agree to go with him back to his creepy little cabin in the woods. Well, he supposed he should've seen this coming. Maybe someone in Lagoroc would--

"Okay," said Alice, big blue eyes staring straight at him. "Let's go."

Stupidly, he almost asked her why she'd agreed. He certainly didn't understand her decision, but there was no point in questioning it and risking her changing her mind. So he just said, "Thanks."

"You're welcome."

They began walking to the exit together. "As payment, how about I help you clean up that purple penis-demon on the side of your church?"

She stopped. "The what?"

Colt just nodded his head toward the building's western side.

She rushed outside ahead of him and immediately turned the corner.

Colt followed at a more leisurely pace, and when he caught up to her in front of the artistic masterpiece, he found her just standing there with her head in her hands.

He leaned against corner of the building, not wanting to subject the kids to that image a second time. They wouldn't know what they were looking at, of course, but all things being equal, he could do without that extra bit of fuckery.

Alice wasn't moving, though. Was she crying? Didn't sound like it. Hard to tell, though.

"...You okay?" Colt asked.

She sighed more deeply than Colt had yet heard from her, then put her hands down at her sides and looked at him again. "I'm fine." The cheer was completely gone from her face, however.

Hmm.

"Like I said, I'll help you clean it up," said Colt. "Sound like a fair trade?"

"Yes..." Her voice was completely lifeless. "Thank you..."

Damn. She was actually making him feel a little bad. "It's just graffiti," he said. "It'll be easy to take care of."

She made no response.

Well, shit.

"...Could be worse," said Colt, trying to give her a smile. "Imagine if the artist had been more skilled. You could have a hyper-realistic demon dong on your wall, right now."

For some reason, she didn't smile back.

Page 2212

Among the Rainlords, rumors about Lord Goffe only seemed to be growing, and honestly, Raul had a hard time believing a lot of them. Apparently, he'd slain a fifty foot worm single-handedly and won the loyalty of the Bull Leech.

They hadn't known the man's moniker before that disastrous fight in Capaporo went down, but they certainly knew it now. That was one of the first things that the Rainlords had done upon arriving at Warrenhold: find out who the hell Leo was. According to the intel Raul had heard on the subject, the nickname was a result of Leo's reputation for incredible stubbornness and parasitism.

Not the most comforting bit of information Raul had ever heard.

But if Lord Goffe had truly managed to acquire the aid of someone like that... well...

Raul wasn't the only one impressed, that was for sure.

Carla's sudden winnings must have reordered her priorities, because she soon excused herself to go cash out. Adan tried to get her number before she left, but she turned him down.

Adan's shoulders slumped a little as they picked their way through the crowded casino floor. "Damn, dude, I really thought she was into me."

"You came on too strong, bro. It's good to go after what you want, but sometimes, you've gotta just leave things to fate. Now, even if you're lucky enough to run into her again, you've probably ruined your chances."

"Hmph."

"If you'd played it cooler, like me, you could've at least maintained an air of maturity and mystery."

"Yeah, yeah..."

They didn't need to discuss their next destination. They both knew where they would find Esai. Being keenly aware of one another's whereabouts at all times was critical to the mission, and they would always text each other first if they were venturing somewhere else solo. Sticking together didn't really help them blend in so well, but caution was often warranted in this place.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Page 2211

Carla's machine interrupted their conversation, lighting up and playing triumphant music. She'd barely even been paying attention to the thing, but she'd just won big, it seemed. Not the jackpot, perhaps, but certainly still cause for celebration. The excitement on her face was obvious, and the brothers were eager to congratulate her--though Adan's expression was noticeably relieved, probably because he'd been momentarily worried that she actually had scored the jackpot just now.

Adan was probably the least proficient gambler of the Triplets, despite spending the most time in the casino. He preferred the slots over things like blackjack or video poker, since he didn't have to concern himself with odds or strategy, and that disposition of his lent itself well to the task of information gathering. He could just plop down next to someone and start chatting them up without having to focus on the game he was playing.

Raul did notice, however, that Adan had been favoring this particular group of machines, lately. When he'd asked why, Adan had told him that the jackpot had caught his eye.

And indeed, the Revenant cruiser sitting on a glass-encased platform in the middle of all the slot machines was hard to miss. It was a handsome motorcycle, the latest model according to the information sticker on the side, but Raul knew that wasn't why Adan was interested in it. They'd all heard that rumor a while back about the Lord Goffe's affection for motorcycles. No doubt, Adan was hoping to win it and gift it to him in order to earn the Lord of Warrenhold's favor.

Thus far, none of the Triplets had had much interaction with the guy, but if they performed well on this mission, then who knows? Perhaps that would change. Earning reputation among their Rainlord brethren was important, too, of course, but right now, the real prestige came from working with the man who'd saved everyone not once, but twice. The mysterious hero of both Dunehall and Capaporo.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Page 2210

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
"Ah, yeah," said Raul, "the reason I was looking for you was because I thought we could get breakfast together--and maybe have some bro talk."

"Oh! Bro talk?"

"Bro talk."

"Hmm. Yeah. It has been a while since our last bro talk, hasn't it?"

"Yep."

Adan's easy smile didn't change, but Raul knew that look in his green eyes. He understood. Of course he did. They all knew what bro talk meant.

Raul had received new orders late last night from his reaper all the way back in Atreya. No doubt, Adan and Esai had received the same orders from their own reapers as well, but they had yet to discuss them among one another.

With so many reapers about--and potentially hostile servants--they had to be careful with what they said aloud. Thankfully, it was no difficult adaptation for the Blackburn Triplets to speak in code. They'd been doing it in various forms ever since they were little boys terrorizing Marshrock together.

Adan turned to Carla, his smile having become abruptly more apologetic. "I'm sorry, darling, but my less handsome brother here is right. Bro talk is a sacred tradition in on our family. I'm afraid our lovely conversation will have to end here."

Carla looked bewildered, yet also somewhat amused. "I see..."

Raul wasn't about to let that jab slide, however. "Bro, we have the same face. No matter how you slice it, we're equally handsome."

Adan shook his head. "Bro, bro, bro... truly spoken like the youngest and most naive of us. Handsomeness is about more than just the structure of your face, my dude. It's also about how you carry yourself. It's about having a deeper, inner dignity and projecting that outwardly in everything that you do."

"And do you suppose that your 'deeper, inner dignity' is negatively affected by all the bollocks you talk?" said Raul.

"I sure hope not," said Adan.

Page 2209

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
Surprisingly and frustratingly, it had thus far proven rather difficult to confirm which side all the servants in the city belonged to. Whoever they were, they were keeping a low profile while their reapers scoured the city.

That information alone, however, suggested that it probably wasn't Abolish, as they had a tendency to be rather loud and obnoxious wherever they went, but that was no guarantee. Raul had heard of certain Abolish sects with more self-control than the typical rabble.

But then again, given Ridgemark's reputation as a land of debauched excess, self-control seemed like a thing unlikely to be found here. Indeed, the triplets' strategy was to not employ that very much at all.

Mid-morning, Raul found his brother Adan sitting at yet another slot machine, chatting happily away with the rather buxom brunette in a sequined dress who was sitting at the adjacent machine.

The woman did a double take when she noticed Raul approaching, which made Adan turn to look at him.

"Hey! Mornin', bro. Sleep well?" Adan's bright smile had charmed many a woman over these last few weeks.

But of course, Raul had the same smile, himself. "Oh, yeah, man. Like a log." He slapped his hand down on his brother's shoulder and turned his attention to the woman next to him. "And who is this gorgeous creature you're talking to? Introduce me, bro!"

"Bro, no way. I found her first."

Raul ignored him and put his hand forward. "I'm Raul. Great to meet'cha."

She still seemed a little awestruck by the sight of them both there, but after a moment, she smiled and shook his hand. "I'm Carla."

"Ooh, are you Intarian?" said Raul.

"You could tell?" she said.

His smile widened. "An educated guess, based on your name and that beautiful complexion of yours."

That earned a dainty blush from her.

Adan stood up and wrapped his arm around Raul's shoulder, still all smiles as usual, though. "So what brings you here, bro? Anything I can help with?"

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Page 2208

The seaside city of Ridgemark was a veritable metropolis of luxury. In many ways, it reminded Raul of Rheinhal, only much larger and with an oceanside view.

But then again, from what he'd heard, Rheinhal might well have been leveled by Sanko since his last visit, so perhaps that comparison wasn't even remotely accurate, anymore.

It was a bitter thought, that.

He knew that his family was partly to blame for the loss of Rheinhal. If they hadn't kidnapped the Elroy children and thereby divided the Rainlords' forces, that battle might have gone quite differently--especially if House Blackburn had joined the fight, as well.

It was a shame upon his family.

One that he and his brothers hoped to somehow rectify.

If they could discover more about the Vanguard's operations, if they could locate their captured brethren--the Houses Redwater, Garza, Merlo, Stroud, and Zabat--surely, then, their honor could be redeemed.

Surely, then, the Rainlords of Sair might truly be united as one again.

They just needed information.

And if anything, Ridgemark seemed like the place to find it. The city was absolutely awash with people from all over the world. Even the news of war seemed to have hardly put a dent in the city's feverish energy. If he hadn't been stationed here a couple weeks before the news arrived, he might not have even thought anything had changed.

But there were differences, to be sure. They were simply quieter, probably too subtle for the average tourist to notice. A few more guards here. Some back alley meetings there.

And the reapers. They were everywhere.

Without a doubt, there was a major force of servants operating somewhere in this city. Raul, Adan, and Esai had begun the arduous task of trying to identify as many servants as they possibly could--without being noticed, of course. Remaining hidden among the crowds was far more important than gaining intel on random enemies. In hindsight, it had certainly been the correct decision to leave their own reapers behind.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Page 2207 -- CCXVIII.

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
Madison smirked. "Ooh, you call him Hector, huh? I guess you really are close, then, aren't you?"

Lynnette gave a small shrug. "We've been through a lot together. He wouldn't want me to start addressing him as 'lord' anything."

"Hmm," mused Madison. "In that case, should I start calling him Hector, too?"

Lynnette and Gina exchanged looks again.

"I'm sure he wouldn't mind it," said Lynnette, "but I get the impression that the Rainlords probably would. And you're more concerned about not pissing them off, aren't you?"

"Ah..." Madison lost a bit of her enthusiasm. "Good point..."


Chapter Two Hundred Eighteen: 'The incendiaries of the dark stream...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Raul Blackburn was enjoying himself, as were his two brothers. They'd never even left Sair before, but in these last few months, their whole lives had changed.

Not entirely for the better, of course, but such things were inevitable.

The Blackburn Triplets had learned years ago from Cousin Ibai that one's outlook on life could make even the worst situation much more bearable. And similarly, they'd learned from Cousin Melchor that honoring their ancestors and their kin didn't mean that they had to display their sorrow and determination to the entire world.

It was enough to keep those things in their hearts.

They knew their mission. They knew the importance of it. The last thing they wanted was to neglect their task and let everyone down.

But that didn't mean they had to be all uptight and stuffy about it, either. Ridgemark was a remarkable place, and Vantalay, a remarkable country. Seeing the sights and taking in the local culture were valuable experiences, too--and part of their intelligence-gathering mission.

Just because they were spending much of their time gambling, shopping, talking to fine ladies, and sampling extravagant cuisine didn't mean that they weren't still on task.

Page 2206

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
"Yeah, I know I do," said Madison, like she was saying the most obvious thing in the world and didn't understand why they needed it explained to them.

Staying here over the last few days, meeting all these Rainlords, and seeing how they all treat Hector--it hadn't escaped Lynette's notice what was going on. Roman and Gina had provided a bit more context and detail to her in private, but by that point, she wasn't terribly shocked by it all.

Hector was not the same person she'd left in Sair a few months ago. She'd heard about some of his exploits, though even now, she wasn't sure how much she believed, and it seemed almost rude to ask him about it directly, especially with so many people and reapers around who could overhear.

She was under the impression now that the so-called Lord Darksteel of Warrenhold was in a bit of a difficult position. He was obviously being very careful in how he spoke and how he presented himself. He dressed more sharply and was often followed around by that Rainlord bodyguard of his.

Which was to say nothing of this whole banking situation. It wasn't just the Rainlords putting mountains of pressure on him, Lynnette knew. The people of Atreya and their economic crisis were arguably even worse, in that regard.

It was hard not to worry about him. At a glance, he seemed to be handling everything pretty well, but he'd never been one to wear his emotions on his sleeve. And within the last year, he'd skyrocketed to perhaps the second most famous person in the country. She didn't envy his position politically, right now--and she was certain that many other people did.

Gina seemed somewhat lost for words, so Lynnette picked the conversational slack.

"Well, how about we agree to talk to Hector about it, and you agree to talk to Lord Dimas?" she said.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Page 2205

"Now, that might just be a coincidence," said Gina, "but if I were to think up some reasons why someone might've been trying really hard to assassinate you after overhearing something so seemingly benign... well, a planned war doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility."

Madison's eyes hollowed, and her mind seemed to be elsewhere.

Lynnette was growing more confused by the minute. This famous actress was involved in the war?

"I've been trying to look into Andalero, too," said Gina, "but the internet is only so useful. It might be better to ask Lord Dimas about it. I'm not so good at in-the-field investigations, but if anything, the Rainlords seem to prefer that."

Madison regained herself and eyed the various Rainlords around the Grand Hall. "You might be right," she said. Then her gaze settled back on Gina. "But why are you asking me to talk to Dimas? You seem pretty close with the head honcho, yourself. Why don't you just ask him?"

Gina tilted her head. "The head honcho?"

"Yeah," said Madison. "Don't act like I'm more influential around here than you are. I've seen you talking to him a bunch of times." She glanced at Lynette as well. "You, too, actually."

Lynnette tried to think. "Are you referring to the King?"

"What? No. I... though, well, I guess he would work, too, if you wanted to talk to him. I was talking about Lord Goffe."

Lynnette watched Gina's mouth open, then close again.

"You two seem way closer to him than I am," said Madison.

Lynnette and Gina exchanged looks with one another. Somehow, they both wore knowing expressions on their face that were simultaneously mixed with utter uncertainty. In that silent moment between them, it felt like a thousand words were exchanged.

"Ah..." tried Gina.

What was she going to say? Lynnette had no clue.

Gina scratched her cheek. "I... I guess you have a point."

Monday, April 13, 2020

Page 2204

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
Lynnette found all of that rather hard to believe, but then again, after a few more moments of thinking about it, she supposed that sounded exactly like something Roman Fullister would get mixed up. He often played things off like they were unintended, like he had never planned to do anything crazy, but by now, Lynnette knew better. This was the same man who snuck into Belgrant Castle dressed as a guardsman and jumped into the middle of a fight with Abolish.

Which was to say nothing of the time that she and the Queen had spent with him in Korgum, searching for military aid. Looking back, it seemed insane to her now that she had gone into that war zone as a normal human person, without the enhancements that were now afforded to her by the aberration gauntlet on her arm.

Oh, how little she'd understood, back then.

"So you still have no clue why the Andalero group was trying to kill you?" said Gina.

"Not at all," said Madison.

Gina made a doubtful face. "You sure about that?"

Madison tilted her head. "Uh. Yeah. Why? You think I'm lying?"

"No," Gina laughed, "but I was thinking that, maybe, you'd talked to a certain tall Rainlord about it and learned something."

"Oh. Well, yeah, I told Dimas about it, but he didn't say anything. Should he have?"

Gina shrugged. "I don't know, but... how long ago did you tell him?"

"A few weeks ago now. Like as soon as we started dating."

"Maybe you should remind him," said Gina.

Madison squinted. "Why? Gina, are you trying to imply something here?"

"Mm, kinda. It's just a hunch, though. Andalero wanted you dead for overhearing them talk about something, right?"

"Yeah. Some kind of "black song" in a place called Ridgemark. I think it was a code for a meeting or something that was supposed to happen there, but beyond that, I have no idea."

"Ridgemark is a city in Vantalay," said Gina. "And Vantalay is one of the five countries that just started the Second Continental War."

Madison's face paled a little.