Monday, August 31, 2020

Page 2566

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
The tense silence lasted long enough for the non-servants in the survey team to begin catching up. They seemed to sense that something was amiss and gradually slowed their pace even further as they approached.

At length, Ravi seized the opening. "I am sure Mr. Rondel meant no offense, Lord Goffe. He is merely eager to hear what your ultimate decision will be with regard to this historic offer that has been made to you."

Carl and Ravi exchanged looks but not words.

Garovel chose to chime in publicly. 'And we meant no offense, either. We appreciate that the Vanguard is in a difficult position, at the moment, and we sympathize.'

That seemed to smooth things over well enough for Mr. Rondel to stop glaring at them, but the expression on the man's face was still far from warm.

The survey continued on foot for a while longer until they reached a main road. A group of vehicles were already there for them. They had left these behind earlier in order to get a closer look at what Jagwa's wilderness had to offer, and the drivers had been following them in the distance all the while, waiting for the chance to link back up with them.

Naturally, there was still plenty more land left to explore. They used the cars to go a bit farther before setting out on foot again. Hector tried telling the non-servants to hang back, but they were adamant about accompanying him.

This pattern of walking, then driving, then walking again repeated a couple more times before Hanton's voice arrived in Hector's head once more.

'I sense something peculiar,' the Sparrow said.

That was enough for Hector to ask Hanton for directions. The Sparrow rendered himself visible in order to do so, and Hector was briefly concerned that others would notice him, but apparently, Hanton was able to pick and choose who could actually see him. So for everyone but Hector, the Lord Gaolanet remained invisible.

Page 2565

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
Hector would hardly call this place "empty," as Hanton had, when so many were living in this region. But then again, compared to the forty million or so people who were crammed into Atreya, he could kind of understand what the Sparrow had meant.

He just hoped that Hanton would actually tell him if he sensed anything strange in this region.

"Lord Goffe," arrived the voice of Carl Rondel, making Hector turn to see him approaching. "What is your opinion on the war?"

Hector blinked, unsure what to even say to that.

The man's reaper, Joviza, hovered nearer. 'Excuse our bluntness,' she said. 'We did not meant to blindside you with such a heavy question, but we are curious. And we find it best not to dance around the subjects we are interested in discussing.'

Ravi and his reaper were observing, seemingly also interested how he would answer.

Well, shit.

'Remain non-committal,' advised Garovel privately. 'But try to also sound strong, if you can.'

Hector could agree with those sentiments. He had a question of his own first, though. "Why are you asking?"

"Because it is relevant," said Carl flatly. "If the war comes to this part of the continent, do you intend to get involved?"

Did this guy even know the meaning of the word tact? "...I would defend Atreya from invaders, if that's what you're asking," said Hector.

"And what about Lorent?" pushed Carl.

No. Hector was pretty sure he didn't.

And Hector didn't feel particularly compelled to answer that question.

So he decided to just leave the guy hanging without a response and began to descend the cliff, taking the slow route by simply walking.

Mr. Rondel put himself in the way, however. "I asked you a question."

Hector stopped and met his gaze evenly.

"Would you defend Lorent from invaders?" he repeated.

"Would the Vanguard?" asked Hector.

Carl's dark eyes narrowed.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Page 2564

Hector, for his part, was still a bit torn about this whole deal. He certainly didn't want to upset the Queen, but from the sound of things, he'd also be upsetting the Lorentians if he refused. And he could see Hanton's point, too. If Lorent really was just doing this in order to manipulate him, then this wasn't exactly the start of a healthy relationship, he felt.

But it was free land. And lot of it, too.

The Jagwa territory alone spanned over three hundred thousand square kilometers--almost double the size of Atreya in its entirety. And the deal currently on the table would grant Hector ownership of about a third of Jagwa, including the areas nearest Warrenhold around the Atreyan border.

A hundred thousand square kilometers...

That was pretty generous. It was no small wonder why Garovel didn't want to make a hasty decision here. Hector doubted that they would be able to make up their minds even after conducting this little survey out here. He very much wanted to hear Amelia Carthrace's opinion about this whole thing.

He was thinking about calling her right now, in fact, but he knew how busy she was. And if this expedition turned up anything crazy, Garovel might just tell him to take the deal immediately.

Thus far, it all looked fairly normal, though. The land was quite easy on the eyes, too. The morning sun made for quite a picture over the windswept grasslands below. He could see the occasional stone formation dotting the plains as the land stretched closer toward Atreya to the south. He even spotted a couple mobs of wild horses grazing in the distance.

He also knew that there were four towns that would technically be falling under his "ownership" as a result of this deal. That wasn't very many, considering how huge the section of land in question was, but one of those towns had a population of around two hundred thousand people.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Page 2563

As for Prince David, he had already gone back to Intar, which was a shame. Hector had enjoyed his company, even if their meeting with President Dance had gotten a little awkward.

Lord Hanton had technically departed as well, supposedly back to Atreya, but he was actually still following Hector while invisible. He wasn't trying to hide his presence from Hector himself, however.

'It's rather barren,' said Hanton, presumably from somewhere up in the sky.

'I'm sure we could find a use for it,' said Garovel, who was hanging on his shoulder. The reaper still didn't seem to be terribly comfortable in the presence of Sparrows, and Hector couldn't really blame him much.

'I still can't believe you're considering their offer,' said Hanton. 'The only reason they are interested in granting you this land is because it will compel you to defend Lorent for them in the event of another crisis.'

'So you've mentioned. Multiple times now.'

'You must realize that if Lorent gets dragged into the war, you will have a serious dilemma on your hands.'

'And passing up this opportunity without first giving it appropriate consideration would be incredibly stupid.'

'There is nothing in this empty land that could possibly be valuable enough to counterbalance the level of risk that you would be taking by accepting it.'

'Dunno about that,' said Garovel. 'I seem to recall hearing something about a point of "geographic resonance" in this country, which sounded like it could possess all sorts of value.'

'Hmph. Yes, well, that location was further north, and moreover, it was destroyed in the battle.'

'I'm just saying that if we happened to find another one in this Jagwa region here, then that might be valuable enough to take the risk, wouldn't you say?'

Hanton gave a psychic grumble, one that seemed to harbor begrudging agreement.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Page 2562 -- CCXXXVI.

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
Chapter Two Hundred Thirty-Six: 'The land's attention...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Hector stepped up to the edge of the cliff for a better look. It was even taller than he'd expected. He could see the edge of the Imara Forest to the north, as well as the road that led to Atreya to the south. There was a clear gradient among the foliage as it slowly changed from the lush green north to a thinned out grassland and finally to the barren gray south.

It was a little strange to realize that his home was down south, in the mildly evil-looking region.

He could hear the ever present footsteps of Matteo Delaguna behind him, along with the much more distant ones of the survey team farther down the slope. The Lorentian Secretary of Agriculture and Land Development, Jonathan Nash, had insisted on sending them with him in order to answer any questions that he may have. Mostly, Hector had just been talking to them through his radio from a thousand or more feet away, because actually waiting up for them was pretty painful.

They weren't the only other members of the party, though. Ravi Zaman and Carl Rondel and both their reapers had decided to come along as well. The presidential advisors from Abolish and the Vanguard, respectively.

Precisely what their goal here was, Hector really couldn't say, though Garovel seemed to think that it was to ingratiate themselves with the new hero of Lorent. With the war going, Hector would've thought they were too busy for something so trivial, but he was having a hard time imagining a different reason.

They actually weren't even talking to him much, though. Mr. Rondel in particular had barely said five words to him so far, and from what Hector had seen, both men were constantly on their phones.

Page 2561

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
'Hmph.' Bool's twisted clockface became abruptly even more so. 'What are you trying to say?'

"Eheh, only that the term 'servant' is misleading," said Morgunov.

'Just because you don't do my bidding anymore doesn't mean that most servants are the same way.'

"I am quite exceptional, aren't I?"

'Oh, be quiet.'

"Hey, which of the Primordials do you think would actually make for the best pet, by the way? I've been thinking about it for a while now, and I can't quite decide."

'What does it matter? We both know that you'll go after whichever one you can find first.'

"Eheh. True. But say that we had to choose, for some reason. Who would you pick?"

The reaper sighed. 'Hada.'

"Ooh, the God of Storms and Wrath, huh? Are you just saying that in the hopes that it will make my job harder?"

'...Frankly, yes.'

"Eheheh."

'An avatar of destruction that supposedly hates humanity sounds like a useful "pet" for Abolish to have, wouldn't you say?'

"Hmm. Guess so. There would definitely be plenty of ego there to break down. But I don't know. Hada just doesn't seem like a real mushroom to me. And I'd kinda like one that's a mushroom."

'What? You want a mushroom?'

"Yeah, y'know. A fun-guy."

Bool fell dead silent.

Morgunov had to pop his head out of the vending machine again to check on him. Yeah, he was still floating there alright. He just wasn't saying anything. "That was a joke, Boolie. I want a pet god that's a fun guy. And a fungi. They sound the same."

Still, though, the reaper said nothing.

Yep. Morgunov knew he wouldn't, but that still never stopped him from trying. "One of these days, I'm going to discover that sense of humor of yours. It's gotta be in there somewhere."

'No, it truly doesn't. After half a millenium, you should know that by now.'

"Nah."

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Page 2560

That made Morgunov chortle. For quite a while, in fact. By the time he settled again, everyone was staring at him. "Only a madman would not fear Iceheart," he said.

And no one responded.

Which made him laugh again. Harder, this time. The more uncomfortable his audience looked, the funnier it became.

There were so many things he could say here, so many demeaning or even infantilizing remarks that popped into his head. It was clear to him that Learxia just wanted him to hold Crowe's hand while they confronted the Vanguardian Field Marshal. To ensure the lad's safety. And hers, of course.

But pointing that fact out might just embarrass the two of them enough to go out and try to prove him wrong, to try to take down Iceheart on their own.

And yeah, that might've been amusing. Hell, imagine if they even pulled it off. The Man of Crows was a strong, growing boy. The possibility was non-zero.

But the risk was needless, all the same. Crowe was one of the two most powerful servants that Morgunov had at his disposal here. Bool would throw a fit if he allowed him to die so stupidly.

Especially when Morgunov was already planning to take to the field soon, anyway.

"I hope you aren't getting too eager for your own good," the Mad Demon said. "You two are supposed to set an example for the young ones, and they've already got eagerness to spare, I'm sure."

Still, no one said anything.

Well, that was fine.

"Anyway, good work so far," said Morgunov. "Keep me apprised of further developments."

"Of course, boss."

And they departed without another word.

Bool lingered, of course. 'Sometimes I forget how skilled you used to be in leadership,' the reaper said privately.

Morgunov smiled as he returned to his vending machine. "Y'know, there was once a time when I thought it was the reaper's job to lead and the servant's to follow."

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Page 2559

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
"That's not an answer, boss," said Crowe.

Morgunov ignored the question. "Is that all you had to report?"

"Yes, sir."

"Alright, you can go now."

But the Man of Crows' footsteps did not arrive, and Morgunov could sense him lingering.

"...Was there something else?" said Morgunov.

Crowe tilted his head slightly as he looked around the workshop. "I suppose I'm just wondering the same thing that everyone who knows you're here is wondering, boss."

"And what's that?"

"Whether or not you've got some special trick up your sleeve. With regard to our battle plan, specifically."

"Ah. Eheh. Hmm."

Bool, who had thus far only been listening, decided to chime in. 'You can always bet that he has something up his sleeve', the reaper said. 'What's less certain is whether or not he will actually decide to use it.'

'Hmph,' huffed Learxia, Crowe's reaper. 'Well, I hope he decides sooner rather than later. I'm sure it would save us all a lot of trouble.'

To Morgunov's eyes, the reapers were a pair of old, mangled clocks. Their faces were bent, their hands twisted out of position and pointing the wrong way, and gears and springs were visible brains through cracked open skulls.

"Maybe if you behave yourselves, I'll let you see something truly extraordinary," said Morguonov with a slight laugh.

Eheh. Wasn't often that a reaper other than Bool ever gave him any kind of attitude. And Learxia didn't used to do that. Perhaps she'd grown confident in Crowe's abilities over the years and thought he could protect her from him.

Ooh. A tempting thought. Morgunov decided to keep his back turned to them, just in the off chance that it might motivate them to try something.

'Don't tease them,' said Bool. 'This battle is still in its early stages. The importance of it cannot be overstated. The result of this battle will affect the entire war. Rushing in haphazardly, as fun as that might be for some of us, would hardly be a sound strategy.'

'Hmph. Do you fear Iceheart?'

Page 2558

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
Albert was eyeing the vending machine up and down, but he didn't ask about it. "I was just coming to report in, boss. The last of our scouts have been routed from Kuros. Seems the Sandies came up with a way to track the movements of our invisible units, unfortunately."

"Surprised it took 'em this long," said Morgunov. "Know how they did it?"

"Our running theory is some kind of specialized listening technology," said Crowe. "It's difficult to tell for sure. It seems they were able to spot them even in crowded areas, where they should have been impossible to hear."

Morgunov stopped and leveled a stare at the other man.

And Albert Crowe did something he rarely did. He hesitated. "Ah... where they should have been difficult to hear, boss. Is what I meant to say."

Morgunov allowed his gaze to linger a moment more. A part of him was simply curious about how uncomfortable he could make him. But then he relented with a smile and went back to assessing his tools.

"There are any number of ways it could've been done," said Morgunov. "Echolocation. Aerolocation. Stupiditylocation. Etcetera."

"...What is 'aerolocation,' sir?"

"The tracking of air currents within a given space for the purpose of determining the precise shape of said space and any objects therein."

"You can do that, sir?"

"Eheheh."

That almost sounded like a challenge. Now there was a thought. The urge to drop everything and build a device that could do exactly that reared up on him.

Eh, but would that even be useful?

Well, sure, of course it would.

But, eh. It wasn't really necessary. The enemy wasn't employing invisibility like they were.

Yet.

Eheh.

Well, the real trick wouldn't be building it. The real trick would be making it compact enough for easy use. Talk about a pain. He'd need rare materials from all over the world to pull that off. And maybe a few from outside the world. Hmm.

Neat thought, though. Dang.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Page 2557

As for this current campaign against Sair, Morgunov had the distinct feeling that he would, as usual, have to be the first one to move. Everyone else was so scared of everything. Dozer, Sermung, Sai-hee.

Cowards, all.

It sure would've been a breath of fresh air if one of the others would actually try to enact some type of meaningful change in the world, try to genuinely tip the centuries-long balance of power that had been established between them.

But no. It was always him. He shouldn't get his hopes up again.

And to think, there had once been a time when he thought himself too meek and introspective to ever do anything with his life. He'd just been another boy who'd learned to be quiet the hard way from a world that didn't want to listen to anything he had to say.

Eheheheheh.

It sure listened to him now, though, didn't it?

"Something funny, boss?" came a familiar voice.

Morgunov popped his head out of the vending machine to see the angular face of Albert Crowe.

The black birds on the man's shoulder followed him around wherever he went, and even Morgunov wasn't quite sure why. There'd once been a joke going around that they did it because they mistook Albert's giant, pointy nose for a beak and therefore thought he was their mother.

That time was long gone, though. Morgunov didn't hear anyone laughing at the Man of Crows like that, anymore.

"Oh, I was just reminiscing to myself." Morgunov wiped his hands and headed over to the rocky chamber's corner table, where an assortment of tools lay. The impromptu workshop that the boys had created for him was lacking in many ways, of course, but he wasn't feeling especially picky, at the moment. He'd made do with worse. "Need something from me?"

Monday, August 24, 2020

Page 2556

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
He was particularly skeptical of any intel he received regarding the current whereabouts of Jackson. After slaying both Gunther and Dunhouser and apparently achieving emergence in the process, that one was obviously the Vanguard's new golden boy.

It therefore struck Morgunov as rather strange that Jackson would be in Melmoore, of all places. Sure, the fighting currently going on there was said to be quite grisly, but none of Abolish's top figures were there, right now.

It seemed much more likely that, instead, Jackson was doing the very same thing that Sermung, Dozer, and Morgunov were doing.

Waiting.

When one of them made the first move, the others would then make theirs.

He might've also included Sai-hee on that list, but frankly, she was always waiting for someone else to make a move. And Morgunov had deliberately left her territory out of this. If she intended to involve herself in the war, then she would have to take action without direct provocation, which she almost never did.

Eheh. It sure would've been neat if she decided to do something, though. He hadn't seen the old bat in well over a hundred years now. He had to wonder how different she was these days, if at all.

And Dozer. That curmudgeon was his own brand of unpredictable. People liked to say that about Morgunov, that no one could ever tell what the Mad Demon would do next, but no one ever mentioned that Dozer was just as bad. Heck, maybe Dozer preferred it that way.

Over the many long years, Morgunov had often wondered with a smile on his face why Dozer bothered to put up with him. Yeah, strength and manpower were the main reasons, of course, but still. Was that really all there was to it? Morgunov enjoyed pressing ol' Wrinkle Brow's buttons more than just about anyone else in the entire world.

Maybe, on some level, Dozer kinda liked it, too.

Hmm, yeah, he should ask him about that the next time they saw each other.

Page 2555

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
Oh, and he supposed he should try to free Ivan while he was at it. If he could be bothered. In a way, Ivan's capture was also somewhat fortunate, because the Vanguard and the Sandlords no doubt believed that he was Abolish's true objective in this campaign.

Plus, there were plenty of eager youngins who were hoping to be the one who found Ivan's head. It would be a pretty good way to earn some reputation, after all.

Eheh. The Void only knew how many young Abolishers were aiming to take advantage of this war in order to boost their fragile, piddling egos.

Good on them. The world needed more passion like that. And besides, Jercash always seemed to enjoy promoting the little dumplings.

Ah, Jercash. He hadn't been too pleased when he found out what Morgunov had done, but as much as that guy liked to protest, he'd been adapting to the war just fine. Better than fine, from the sound of it. He already had Hoss on the ropes, and the Vanguard had been forced to divert quite a significant chunk of their manpower just to keep him at bay. Kane, Grant, and Carson had all supposedly been dispatched to that region.

This would be the first real test for the sly boy in quite some time. Even for Morgunov, fending off three marshals at once wouldn't be easy.

But if Jercash really intended to lead Abolish on his own, one day, then he'd have to step up sooner or later.

Might as well be sooner.

Eheh.

As for the remaining marshals, that still left Sanko, Lamont, Jackson, and Graves. Lamont was here. Jackson was supposedly in Melmoore. Graves was supposedly in Vantalay. And Sanko was supposedly still in Korgum.

Morgunov was of course keenly aware that any of those could change at any time, especially once he revealed himself on the battlefield. And he probably wouldn't get much warning, either.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 51

"...He saved me," said Fred. "Literally, he pulled me from a fire. Would've died if not for him."

Aha. That explained the message on Rex's painting. Colt was happy to have his suspicion confirmed. And he doubted he would find a much better occasion to ask, so he said, "That the fire that gave you those scars?"

"That's right." Fred turned to look at him again, not saying anything. Perhaps he wanted to observe Colt's reaction, but Colt didn't intend to give one.

Unfortunately, this also tracked with the evidence that Fred had lost a son in that same fire. Colt didn't quite know how to broach that subject yet--or even if he should bother trying. It probably wasn't relevant to the case.

It was relevant to Fred's character, though, Colt felt. If Fred really did lose a child in the blaze-- the same one over which the townsfolk were still holding a grudge against Alice Ridgemont--then this motherfucker right here was a goddamn saint in comparison to the rest of them. Colt had seen him not only interacting with her, but being fairly kind to her, too.

Unless that had been act, of course. Which Colt wasn't ruling out.

"...But it wasn't just the fire that Rex saved me from," Fred went on. "I... struggled during my recovery." He gestured toward the sickly pale and bloated skin on his face. "Mentally, I mean. I never thought myself to be such a vain person before, but my appearance... Well, they say you never appreciate something until it's gone, and I could not have agreed more."

Hmm. Still no mention of the death of his son, Jason? If ever there was time to bring it up, it would be now, wouldn't it? Surely, recovering from that devastating loss had taken priority over an ugly scar. Was Fred still trying to keep that a secret? Or was Colt just missing something here?

Could the Jason Millerman from the newspaper have actually not been Fred's son? Or related to him at all, for that matter? In such a small town, that would be too much of a coincidence, surely. Plus, Alice had even confirmed it. Had she been mistaken, too?

Hmm. Colt need more information, but he was reluctant to ask too blunt a question about the possible death of the man's son. He decide to try a different approach, first. "I've heard about this fire. It happened a little over two years ago, right?"

The other man gave a solemn nod. "Ten children, gone. Worst tragedy Orden has ever seen. Even today, folk are still reeling from it. Myself included, truth be told. And now, we've already got another terrible incident on our hands. This keeps up, I might start to wonder if this town is cursed."

That, or the two incidents were linked. The more Colt considered that possibility, the more likely it seemed. "...Can you tell me what was happening when the fire broke out?"

"Ah, you mean a firsthand account? No. I was not there. When I arrived, the house was already up in flames."

"And yet you rushed in, anyway?"

Fred took a breath and bobbed his head to the side. "Not the wisest thing I've ever done, but yes."

"Maybe not wise, but very brave, at least."

"So I have been told..."

Hmm. "What was the context of your arrival in the first place?"

"What do you mean?"

"Were you the first on scene?" said Colt. "Why were you there?"

"Ah. I was the first one there, yes. But, um..." The man hesitated. "I'm sorry, what does any of this have to do with Rex's murder? I feel we have drifted rather far from what we were supposed to be talking about."

"Well, I'm still pretty new to Orden," said Colt. "It would help if I had a better understanding of the town's history, and as you mentioned, the fire is a large part of that. Even if it's not directly related to Rex's case, it may help me in other ways."

Fred held his gaze for a long moment before relinquishing a nod. "Well... let me think. To be honest, the fire was so... all-encompassing in my mind that it is a bit difficult to remember why I had gone there that night. I must have had a reason, but..."

Hmm. A little suspicious, but it looked like the man was genuinely trying to recall as he closed his eyes and placed a hand to his forehead.

Colt gave him a minute, but he had a sneaking suspicion that Fred wasn't going to say that he had gone there to pick up his now deceased son. Something told him that the guy would remember a thing like that.

Or Fred was gonna try to lie to his fucking face, believing naively that Colt wouldn't check his information against public records.

"...Ah. I remember now. I had gone there to deliver a meal to the youth group. My store was catering the event for them."

Colt had to consciously prevent his eyes from narrowing. "You catered it personally? And by yourself?"

"Yes. It wasn't a large gathering. And it was for children. I brought mostly snacks and candy."

"Did you know any of the kids?"

The man averted his gaze. "Of course. I knew them all. I was friends with all of their parents." And he frowned.

Colt had had just about enough of this dancing around the subject. "...So you knew Jason Millerman, then."

Fred snapped back to attention. His eyes were wide, and his face, even more paled than usual.

What the fuck was with this guy's reactions?

Page 2554

To compensate, the Vanguard's presence here was now stronger than most other regions, but Morgunov was reasonably sure that they weren't expecting him to show up.

Benefits of being regarded as a madman.

Even if they had spies informing them of his movements, he had enough double agents on his side to run interference. They wouldn't know who to trust--or even if the misinformation being provided was intentional or not.

Psyops were a fun hobby. He was glad he'd gotten into it at such a young age. There weren't many thrills greater than that of swaying an entire country into doing his bidding without realizing it.

Historically, though, that was one of the big reasons why Sair was always such a problem. The Sairi were more difficult to manipulate than most, doubtless because their servant population was also their ruling class. It afforded them a level of cultural rigidity that was virtually unmatched.

Eheh. What a weird little experiment of a country. Even today, he still recalled how surprised he'd been when he heard that a bunch of Rainlords and Sandlords were getting together in order to jointly rule a newly formed nation. No one thought it would last, including him. Maybe even including them.

Yet here it was, two hundred years later.

Morgunov admired the accomplishment.

Wasn't looking too good for them at the moment, of course, but even so, Morgunov had to admit that a small part of him hoped that Sair would survive this whole thing.

Ehehe. If they pulled that off, then they would certainly deserve it.

Ooh, or maybe their little god buddy would rustle up a miracle for them. Wouldn't that be something?

Rasalased, the so-called Dry God, was of course not one of the Primordial gods that Morgunov was chiefly interested in, but he still felt like he would've been a fool to let this opportunity pass him by. Wasn't often that this region of the continent became this unstable. And heck, maybe the ol' Raw Salad would be able to help him capture one of those slippery little buggers.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Page 2553

It wouldn't be easy going forward, though. Kicking the hornet's nest wasn't the hard part. Getting away with it was.

He felt like this plan was pretty good, especially considering he'd only come up with it in about a day, but there was no telling what the future might hold.

At least, in the long-term.

The Vannies had obviously gotten all hot and bothered over all these fights breaking out simultaneously, but heck, they probably enjoyed having some real problems to deal with for a change. No doubt, they would've protested until the sun went down if someone were to say that to their faces, but there was no doubt in Morgunov's mind that they were just as sick as his boys were of this endless staring contest between the two of them.

Someone had to make something happen. Just a quaint little push.

And bam. Second Continental War.

It was a bit more than he'd bargained for, honestly. Old as he was, the actual depth of cultural strife between nations still managed to surprise him, sometimes. This one seemed like it might last for a good while.

His real objective, though, wasn't the war. That was just a useful distraction. Unfortunately, these days, he was far too famous to be traipsing around wherever he pleased. Sure, he had various means of stealthily entering or exiting countries--even ones hostile to him--but at the end of the day, this wasn't just about touring the world for funsies. If he was going to find his pet "god," then he would have to ruffle more than a few feathers in the process.

Which was why he was here in Calthos.

The recent events in this place were quite convenient for him. Apparently, the Rainlords of Sair had been run out by the Vanguard, and his own boys had already been harassing the Sandlords for a while, weakening them.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Page 2552

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 24 of 24))~~
'You realize that you're holding back our entire operation while you waste time fiddling with this thing, don't you?' said Bool.

"Eh, it's just another day of sieging," said Morgunov, rubbing his chin. A fresh shave always made him feel like a million sparks. Hmm, was that still a modern currency? Didn't matter. "The boys can handle it, I'm sure."

'It would go a lot faster if you lent a handle yourself.'

"How will they ever learn to stand on their own two feet, then?"

'They won't. That's the point. We WANT them to remain reliant on us.'

"Hmm, that seems a little selfish of us."

'Could you please stop talking aloud? Someone will overhear.'

It was true that there were many in their encampment now. When Morgunov had sent the call out to gather his forces, he hadn't quite expected this many to respond. How much had Abolish grown while he wasn't looking? Was this Jercash's doing? Probably.

All the attention had been rather nice, at first. It had felt like years since he'd been out in public and interacted with anyone.

Wait. Had it been years? Oh, maybe it had.

In any case, he'd been able to enjoy himself for a time. Meeting all the eager young folks, seeing that starry look in their eyes as so many of them laid eyes on him for the first time. It was no wonder why so many of his peers had gotten such a big ego over the years. So many of these youngins treated him like some sort of messiah, come to cleanse the land and show them a rollicking good time in the process.

Which wasn't inaccurate, he supposed. But still. No sense in getting a big head about it. Anyone could've orchestrated this war. In this political climate? And all the resources at his disposal? All the eager participants?

Child's play, as far as war games went.

Page 2551 -- CCXXXV.

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 23 of 24))~~
Chapter Two Hundred Thirty-Five: 'O, twisted Mover...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

'Please tell me you are done with this nonsense,' said Bool privately.

"It's not nonsense," said Morgunov. "It's a great humanitarian effort. This could change the world for the better if I decide to mass produce it."

'Setting aside the first absurdity you uttered--how, pray tell, would a vending machine be able to change the world?'

"Because! It'll feed people! While also imparting a valuable life lesson that everyone should understand!"

'Which is?'

"That pain is incredibly valuable."

The truth was, he was nearly done. When it came to machinery, he didn't usually need very long unless it was something truly cutting edge. It had only taken him a couple hours to jury-rig the thing to his liking. He'd actually spent most of his time trying to decide on what the appropriate prices for each product should be.

A slap to the face for a pack of gum seemed fair, as did a boxing of the ears for a bag of chips and a purple nurple for a candy bar. He wondered if anyone would go for the bag of mini-donuts, though. Maybe a needle in the eye was too much to ask.

Eh, oh well.

The real problem was that servants with strong enough passive soul defenses would be able to just shrug all this stuff off. The longer he'd spent on this thing, the more he'd realized that he really wanted to make a version that could assess the buyer's soul power and adapt accordingly in order to ensure that they experienced the optimal degree of pain.

But that would obviously be a much more involving project. He'd have to invent a mechanism that could analyze soul power, and as far as he was aware, there was no modern technology that could accomplish that.

Dang, that sounded like fun.

Page 2550

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 22 of 24))~~
The shorter man scowled at the sight of what had just happened, and he holstered his gun again. His posture straightened, and he looked like he was about to say something until the ground began to shake.

Trails of dust shook loose from the basement's ceiling. The old building groaned and cracked. Raul's breathing paused as he waited for the trembling to subside, and thankfully, it did.

He was reasonably certain that the fighting elsewhere in the town had caused that just now. Faint popping sounds arrived as well, probably from explosions in the distance. They must have been pretty loud if they were making it all the way down here.

But Arumoro wasn't informing him that anyone needed his help just yet, so Raul tried not to worry. He still had one more opponent to focus on.

And the other man was taking his time, too, perhaps to consult with his reaper and assess the situation.

Raul took the opening not to attack but instead to undo the invisibility-inducing shadow from the ring. The blood that had been splattered across it suddenly had nothing to hold onto and dropped in midair, splashing around him. Some of it got on his clothes, but that was fine, because he immediately resummoned the shadow. He made sure to engulf the severed head under his arm as well, carrying it like a football.

The remaining Abolisher sighed and muttered something in Valgan.

Then he drew his weapon again and blew his own brains out.

Raul just blinked and stared.

It took more than one bullet. The undead man had to unload the rest of the magazine into his head before his body finally went limp, and he dropped to the ground in a bloody heap.

Wide-eyed, Raul needed a few moments to process what had just happened.

Page 2549

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 21 of 24))~~
With his attention divided between guarding himself against the materialized flurry and trying to take off the enemy's head, Raul struggled to maintain his focus. His fingers were still stuck in the tall man's neck. He just had force them the rest of the way through.

He could feel the bone in the way. Blood was gushing everywhere now, splattering over the aberration "shadow" that granted him his invisibility. If it wasn't already obvious to the other Abolisher what was happening, it would be soon.

Raul forced his left hand deeper, and he felt the bone give. Whether that was the result of his ability or simply brute force, even he wasn't quite sure, but the head came off all the same, and then Raul was scrambling to get back on his feet. It didn't help that the floor was slick with blood.

So he fixed that. And he got his footing back instantly.

He was still covered in blood himself, though, and therefore not particularly invisible anymore. The other Abolisher had already drawn his sidearm.

Aberration shadows were supposed to be quite good at blocking purely physical attacks, but Raul didn't have the luxury of mulling his decision over, nor would there have been any logic in taking that risk.

His right hand became a fist, and he reached for the absolute limit of that which he was capable. He needed to maximize the air resistance in front of him if he was going to have any hope of stopping bullets.

The piercing crack of the gun firing came so quickly and repeatedly that, at first, Raul couldn't even tell if he'd been fast enough. But when the bullets started pelting his chest harmlessly, having been slowed down to the speed of spitballs, he was able to exhale a relieved breath.

Page 2548

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 20 of 24))~~
The fingers dug into the man's flesh but caught halfway. And though that might've been enough to kill a normal person, it was barely enough to even slow a servant down.

The tall man growled in agony and gurgled blood up from his mouth, but his reaction was still quick. Silver metal coated the majority of his body in an instant, making it immediately more difficult for Raul to complete his intended task.

They both hit the ground in a messy heap. The shorter man was alerted, but with Raul still being invisible, he must not have been able to tell what exactly was happening or how to attack, because he just sort of stood there, watching with apparent confusion.

The silvery metal lashed out haphazardly with materialization, searching for Raul's hidden flesh, and Raul knew that he couldn't afford to let it him, even by accident. So he resorted to one of his most favored tactics.

A massive increase in air resistance all around his body, like an invisible cocoon.

The reason it was one of his most favored was because he had been able to hone it enough to stop even bullets in midair.

Unfortunately, it wasn't yet perfected. At his current skill level, the caliber of the firearm and travel speed of the bullet still mattered greatly, but here and now, he wasn't dealing with high-powered rifles. The wild flailing of blind materialization was no trouble by comparison. Scraps of metal appeared all around the two of them on the ground, scratching the floor and wall, toppling boxes and furniture, and flying through the air--until they came within Raul's range. Then they got stuck like pins in an invisible cushion.

Page 2547

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 19 of 24))~~
Raul closed the gap between him and the taller Abolisher, but he didn't want to get too close just yet. While he now had a fair amount of faith in the invisibility power of this bone ring on his finger, a part of him still worried that perhaps the man would be able to sense his presence in some other, subtler way.

Smell, for one. Raul hadn't bathed in days. It would be pretty goddamn embarrassing if he botched the mission because of his body odor.

And maybe he was just being superstitious, but he felt like there might be something that he didn't quite understand about presence detection. He'd heard the rumors among the Rainlords back in Warrenhold. The ones about Lord Goffe. They said it was like he had eyes in the back of his head, even when his reaper wasn't around.

Raul remembered asking Melchor about it, too, and the man had just smiled at him like he knew something but couldn't tell him.

So Raul wanted to be careful here, as ever. He didn't have Arumoro to heal his wounds or grant him superhuman strength, but he was confident that he could take both of these Abolishers if he just made the right decisions. Tall one first, short one second.

And he bided his time, waiting for word from Arumoro that the others were in position. It took a long time. The two Abolishers alternated between sitting in a corner chair and pacing across the room, observing the hostages. They were probably waiting on word from their reapers, too, Raul figured.

Then it came. Confirmation.

'On zero,' said Arumoro. 'Five... Four... Three...'

Raul's heart was racing, and his palms were clammy. He tried not to shift his feet in anticipation, because the sound of his shoes scraping against the stony basement floor would be too loud at this range.

'Two... One...'

The taller Abolisher's head perked up suddenly. He didn't look at Raul, but it was enough to cause confusion.

'Zero! Go!'

From a crouched position and still invisible, Raul bounded on the guy, going straight for the neck with his left hand.

Page 2546

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 18 of 24))~~
Raul's power over friction allowed for quite a large amount of versatility, and the elder servants in his family had frequently told him and his brothers that it might just become one of the strongest abilities in the world, one day.

For the longest time, he didn't believe them in the slightest, but recently, he'd begun to see what they were talking about. Just a little.

Because in one form or another, friction was in everything. Air resistance was a type of friction. Even the internal structure of many physical objects was held together by friction. That was why he could dig his fingers into a solid rock wall as easily as if it were a bowl of pudding and pull out a baseball-sized chunk. That was why he could shear off the side of a hill as cleanly as a hot knife through butter.

But friction could also be finicky and weird. Moving objects--like living bodies, for instance--were always fluctuating and oftentimes had a fluidity to them that made them surprisingly difficult to manipulate. Not impossible, perhaps, but difficult nonetheless. And he was still trying to hone that aspect of his power.

The idea that he might one day be able to simply separate a servant's head from their neck at range, with little more than a snap of his fingers... certainly, that seemed quite potent, indeed. However, that particular use of his power was still out of reach, and he had a suspicion that it always would remain so. Even if he could figure that trick out, there was still the matter of passive soul defenses to overcome, and sufficiently aged servants would have that in spades.

Separating their head from their neck up close, however, was still doable. He had discovered quite young that, like most servant abilities, his power was significantly more potent when harnessed nearer to his own body--at the tips of his fingers, for example.

Page 2545

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 17 of 24))~~
He informed Arumoro immediately. With this, the operation could truly begin. The others had been waiting on word from him for quite a while, and now they could finally move into the town and get into position.

It was his turn to wait. Arumoro kept him apprised of their progress.

He used the time to reevaluate his situation. This basement floor was comprised of one large room with three smaller ones attached to it. Two storage rooms and one small office.

He would've liked to lure one of the Abolishers into one of those smaller rooms in order to isolate and ambush him without alerting the other, but that might've been too much to ask for.

The hostages, for their part, were utterly silent. They were not gagged, but their dirty faces, ragged clothes, and downcast eyes all painted a clear enough picture for Raul of what these people had been through.

Were these all of them, though? No. By his count, there should have been twenty or so more.

And these two Abolishers. He may not have known their names, but after that first battle, he certainly recognized their faces. They wore matching uniforms, both about as dirtied and torn as Raul's more casual clothing. They both carried a sidearm, though he only recalled the short one using his. The taller one was a materializer of a silvery metal. The reapers suspected it was zinc, but they acknowledged that there were simply too many other elements that fit that description to be sure.

Not that the element mattered too much for Raul. Being an alteration user, he thankfully didn't have to be terribly concerned about unexpected chemical reactions suddenly turning the tide of battle for or against him.

Most of the time, anyway.

Judging from the skill that the man had displayed previously, he was probably at least twenty years old as a servant. Which was a problem, of course, so Raul wanted to take him out first, though he was still going over options for potentially eliminating them both at once.

Page 2544

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 16 of 24))~~
With the third floor confirmed to be clear, Raul made his way all the way back down. The basement was his next destination, and it took him a little while to find. The entrance to it was squirreled away behind the kitchen, probably for ease of retrieving food from storage.

The stairs leading down into it were even creakier than the previous ones had been, and Raul again found himself moving at a snail's pace. His foot had to flirt with each step before actually taking it, testing out the wood with light taps, trying to discern if it was going to squeal. The favored tactic was to step near the corners of each step, where the wooden boards intersected and were therefore strongest, but he still wanted to be exceptionally careful here.

If his presence was discovered, there was no telling how many of the hostages might end up dead--either now or later.

The basement was dark but thankfully not pitch black.

Nor was it empty.

The hostages were gathered in the middle of the chamber, tied up and sitting together in apparent silence.

And Raul counted two Abolish guardsmen for them, both fairly close to his position. The basement only had the one entrance, so it made sense that they wouldn't want to stray too far from it.

Neither one of them was Croll, thank god. They weren't looking in his direction, so it was little difficult to tell if they genuinely couldn't see him or if they just hadn't seen him yet.

It was boding well, though. The staircase was rather well lit compared to the rest of the basement, so they most likely should have seen him as he'd descended it.

He moved directly into their lines of sight, just to be sure.

Yes.

They looked straight through him, unfazed.

The invisibility was working just as hoped.

Page 2543

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 15 of 24))~~
'What do you mean when you say it's a "unique" form of psychosis?' asked Ezura.

'Specifically, I am referring to the potentially supernatural aspect of it,' said Orric. 'Psychosis is a rather broad term that covers many different conditions, but many psychoses are characterized by delusions and/or hallucinations. Czort-jasnosc--or czorja, as some call it--is distinct in that the things it causes the person to experience... are always incredibly violent and gruesome. Those inflicted with it often believe that they are literally living in Hell--or something like it.'

'Wow,' said Ezura. 'That sounds... horrible. But not exactly supernatural.'

'Ah. Yes, well. The reason for that is because there are many disputed accounts of some of the "sufferers" having seen hallucinations that turned out to be real or surprisingly close to real. Some reports have even mentioned "predictive capabilities that occasionally made it seem like the patient could see into the future."'

Needless to say, no one had been pleased to hear that.

Certainly, Raul did not want to believe that the Killer of Krohin was capable of such a thing, but the more he thought back to that fight from the other day--and to that penetrating stare--the more he thought it might just be true.

And if it was, then this surprise attack strategy was even more important. While it might be tempting to get discouraged and say that there was no point in attempting an ambush if the enemy could see into the bloody future, Raul was convinced that it might still work.

Especially if they didn't attack Croll first. If they could ambush his subordinates while he wasn't around, then they could isolate him. And from there, they could overwhelm and possibly even capture him or his reaper.

That was the hope, anyway.

Page 2542

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 14 of 24))~~
Perhaps the most ridiculous thing, however, was the fact that even after twenty-four hours of fighting the man, Croll's other abilities aside from his swordsmanship were still somehow unclear. He didn't appear to be a materialization, destruction, or alteration user, as the wielding of those powers should have been obvious.

That left transfiguration, integration, and mutation, but even after debating the matter for sometime, the reapers couldn't puzzle it out. If it was transfiguration, then he wasn't using it in the normal manner of creating explosive compounds and corrosive acids. If it was integration, that would make sense as to why he was relying so heavily upon his weapon, but there were still minor ways that he could have used integration in combat--theoretically, at least.

And mutation, well. That was usually obvious just by looking at someone, and Croll had the appearance of a very normal human man.

Well... mostly normal.

Those dark eyes were something else. The weight behind the man's gaze felt almost like another blade of its own. Raul never heard him utter a single word, yet Thaddeus Croll's murderous determination still seemed obvious from those eyes alone.

'That is no accident,' Orric had observed. 'I believe that man has something called czort-jasnosc. It has been a very long time since I have seen it.'

"What in the world are you talking about?" said the Lady Stroud.

'It is a unique form of psychosis' the reaper said, 'and quite possibly supernatural, as well. It's rare, and I can't claim to know exactly what causes it--or if anything does, for that matter. I have heard speculation that it is simply a natural phenomenon attributed to genetics. But I have also heard that it is something that only happens after someone has murdered countless innocent people.'

Page 2541

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 13 of 24))~~
Raul had never seen such a thing. The way that Croll's blade had cut through Melchor's liquid body and Leo's flurry of materialized boron--it didn't seem physically possible, quite frankly.

Naturally, Croll's soul must have played a significant role in strengthening his weapon in such a way, but still. That couldn't have been all there was to it, right? Swordsmanship would've been much more common among servants, if that were case.

And of course, Raul had not forgotten the reason why he and his brothers had been sent all the way here to Vantalay in the first place.

To search for a treasure called the Sword of Unso.

It had therefore occurred to him that the Killer of Krohin might have been wielding it. That might've explained the seemingly supernatural nature of the man's swordsmanship.

Cousin Melchor and Leo didn't seem to think so, however. When Raul had voiced that idea after the battle, they both said that such skill was achievable without the aid of a magical artifact.

"You youngins would be surprised what some people can accomplish with raw talent, the right teacher, and a hundred years of practice," Leo had said.

It seemed like Leo had meant for that to be encouraging, but after hearing that, Raul had been anything but.

"It does strike me as strange, though," Melchor had added, "that a swordsman of such caliber would be in this region at the same time that we were searching for the Sword of Unso. Somehow, I doubt that's a coincidence."

On that point, Raul was at least able to agree. If Croll wasn't wielding the Sword, then perhaps he was looking for it.

And after seeing what the man was already capable of, it was terrifying to imagine what he would be able to do if he ever managed to get his hands on it.

Page 2540

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 12 of 24))~~
Raul had seen Abolish patrolling the town last night through his binoculars, but he supposed that he didn't have confirmation that they were still using this town hall as their headquarters. It would make sense if they had decided to move it.

As far as he knew, there were currently eight Abolishers in Miro. Over the course of their first battle, Raul had been able to commit all of their faces to memory, but the only one whose name he knew was Thaddeus Croll, the so-called Killer of Krohin. That man was clearly the most dangerous, but the others had held their own during the fight, too.

That day had been absolutely insane. The Rainlords and Leo had come into town with full force, not holding anything back. Everyone who could use a hyper-state had been doing so. And at first, it seemed as if Croll's team would be quickly overwhelmed, until Croll himself entered pan-rozum and began repelling both Leo and Cousin Melchor simultaneously.

Even now, Raul wasn't entirely sure how he had done that. Croll's subordinates had assisted him and utilized hyper-states of their own, but even so. He may have witnessed it with his own two eyes, but the whole thing had been confusing beyond belief. A total madhouse.

In pan-rozum, Cousin Melchor's power of mercury transfiguration was like that of a monster. An amorphous beast that splashed down on its opponents and smothered them into submission. That was why they called him Darktide.

And Leo, while he couldn't use a hyper-state and was no doubt trying not to destroy the town he loved, had still been materializing so many things in such rapid succession that it was like watching a storm moving across the battlefield.

And yet somehow, Croll had endured all of that.

With a sword, no less.

Page 2539

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 11 of 24))~~
As Raul made his way upstairs, he began to feel sweat gathering on his brow. And it was not the temperature's fault. Vantalay may have had a tropical climate, but today, the weather was actually quite cool.

No, this was field density. Heightening his discomfort. Testing his nerves.

The enemy was here somewhere.

In all likelihood, his two brothers, Esai and Adan, were currently nothing more than frozen heads, so naturally, Raul was hoping that he would be able to locate them and destroy them so that their reapers might be able to regrow them from scratch back at Warrenhold. And of course, freeing the civilians would be even more of a boon, if he could somehow accomplish that. Perhaps with this ring, it would be possible, though he doubted it.

However, his real objective at the moment was nothing so grandiose as being the heroic rescuer. As much as he might have preferred otherwise, his task now was far more simple and mundane than that. He needed only to confirm that these rings were actually working, that Abolish truly could not sense his presence while he was invisible.

That was the reason he was here alone, after all. Once he accomplished that small feat, it would be safe to alert the others and have everyone else join him here so that they could mount a surprise attack with full force.

And that was why it was such a problem that he couldn't find anyone. The second floor appeared to be just as empty as the first, and he continued up the stairs again, he had a dreadful feeling that the third wasn't going to be any different.

The notion that they might also be using invisibility crossed his mind. This power did originate from their aberrations. But it still seemed unlikely to him. If they had that tool at their disposal, then surely, they would've used it by now instead of enduring this stalemate over the last few days.

Page 2538

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 10 of 24))~~
Fortunately, there weren't that many barricades, and Raul was able to slip past them easily enough. The only thing he had to worry about was not making any noise. The invisibility couldn't conceal the sound of his footsteps on this wildly uneven ground, so he needed to move very slowly and carefully.

He informed his reaper, Arumoro, of his position. Arumoro was still all the way back in Warrenhold, but he was in communication with the reapers of his two cousins who were here, Dino and Rafael Blackburn. It was bit of a lengthy relay--and somewhat slow, besides--but it worked. Cousin Melchor and the others would be kept apprised of the situation as it developed.

He knew they were all on high alert while they waited for him. He had to check in with Arumoro every two minutes, at least to confirm that he was not dead yet.

Slowly, he made his way toward the largest building in Miro. That was where Abolish seemed to be operating out of, the last time he was here.

He still hadn't seen a single person, though, which was putting him even more on edge than he already was. The streets were empty, and he began taking the opportunity to peer through windows as as he passed by each building, yet still he found nothing. Without a doubt, all the non-servants had been rounded up and herded somewhere like cattle.

At length, he reached his destination, the apparent town hall. The building's old wooden beams groaned against the early afternoon wind, and the floorboards made Raul question every single step he took. His pace slowed to even more of a crawl than before.

The first floor appeared to be empty, but there were two more to check and possibly a basement as well.

Page 2537

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 9 of 24))~~
The town was still in shambles from their first battle here, the one that had lasted a full twenty-four hours ended in a stalemate. He tried to take note of any new developments, though.

Several buildings were now completely gone, leveled to the ground. That seemed a bit odd, considering the fact that one of the reasons that fight had lasted so long and been such a problem for the Rainlords was because they had deliberately tried to avoid obliterating any buildings. The reapers had been able to sense innocent bystanders within many of them, and the whole point of this operation was to rescue those poor people.

As far as Raul was aware, they had thus far been successful in that aspect of their mission, at least. While some of these squat, little buildings may have gotten punctured a few times accidentally, none of the civilians had actually been killed.

Raul had been proud of that, if not much else here.

But now, looking at these piles of rubble where houses used to stand, he found himself wondering if even that accomplishment had been undone. These civilians might have survived the fight, but they had still been forced to endure the tyranny of those Abolish maniacs for a few more days.

Raul had wanted to believe that these Abolishers wouldn't kill their hostages, their most valuable bargaining chips, but now he wasn't so sure. He hadn't seen any bodies yet, but a part of him was expecting to.

The streets were torn up, missing giant chunks of pavement or simply replaced by craters that made it more difficult to get around. No doubt, that was the point. And as Raul slowly made his way deeper toward the town center, he began to notice tall barricades that had not been there before, either.

Hmm. Perhaps that was where some of the materials from those destroyed homes had gone. To erecting defenses.

Page 2536

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 8 of 24))~~
The plan, therefore, was to have only one person infiltrate the town of Miro before attempting to send everyone. In the event that it turned out to be some sort of trap, they didn't want to risk them all getting captured at once.

It probably wasn't a trap, though, in all honesty. If it was, then that would mean those Vantalayans had been in on it, and Raul Blackburn really didn't think that they were.

Nonetheless, the reapers wanted to be extra careful. And if it wasn't a trap, then this plan would work out just fine, too.

That was part of the reason why Raul had volunteered for it. The other part was because he still felt responsible for this whole mess in the first place. If he had been more vigilant, then his two brothers wouldn't have been captured. He very much wanted to be the one to go in and free them. Perhaps that would make up for his previous failure, if only slightly.

The others had required some convincing before eventually agreeing to it. The Lady Stroud in particular had seemed quite against letting him shoulder this responsibility, and Raul hadn't been able to tell if it was because she was worried about him or if she just didn't think he was capable of pulling it off. Maybe both.

The reapers ended up overruling her, though. They reasoned that it would be better not to risk one of their strongest warriors on this task.

A bit insulting, perhaps, but not inaccurate, he supposed.

So here he now was, all on his own, sneaking into town behind an invisible shroud. In broad daylight, no less. There was no point in waiting until nightfall again. The cover of darkness didn't really matter if the enemy wouldn't be able to see him, anyway. In fact, it would just make it more difficult for him to find his way around.

Page 2535

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 7 of 24))~~
"It is not our intention for this gift to feel like a burden in any way," said the President. "Ultimately, that is all that I had hoped to achieve with this meeting here today. If there are any larger questions concerning the nature of the reward, I would happy to answer them."

"Thank you," said David. "As it so happens, I have many more that come to mind."

"As do I," said Hanton.

And Hector, for his part, merely continued listening. And as the meeting drew out, Hector had to wonder if the two men sitting next to him were actually on his side in this particular conversation.

-+-+-+-+-

Just as the Vantalayans had said, these rings were surprisingly easy to use. The Rainlords still took precautions and decided to practice with them anyway, but Raul felt like he'd gotten the hang of it pretty quick.

Once he understood the way the invisibility functioned, the ring just seemed to respond to his intent. If he wanted to become invisible, he became invisible. If he wanted to see his companions who were also invisible, the ring revealed them.

It was unfortunately still unclear whether or not these rings could reveal the locations of all other invisibility users in the vicinity. If so, then these items could very well prove to be supremely valuable tools in the fight against Abolish, both now and in the foreseeable future. But the reapers all seemed to be concerned that this function might be limited.

They felt there was a high probability that these rings would only work on other, similar rings. As in, perhaps they would only be able to penetrate the invisibility of rings that had been "harvested" from the same aberration.

And with that possibility in mind, caution was still the order of the day. At first, this mission had seemed like it might well become trivial with the power of these rings now in their hands, but the Rainlords had suffered too many losses too recently. They were not going to let overconfidence be their downfall here.

Page 2534

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 6 of 24))~~
"So he will still be subject to Lorentian law," said Prince David.

"When it applies to him, yes," said the President.

"And I assume you intend to grant him full citizenship as well?" said David.

"Of course," said Dance. "That is a prerequisite for owning land in this country. The process has already been fast-tracked for him and is ready to completed whenever Lord Goffe wishes to sign the accompanying paperwork."

"I see," said David. "And would he also have a responsibility to protect any other Lorentian citizens that happen to live on his land?"

The President stared at the Prince for another long moment. "No. That would be a matter for law enforcement."

"Mm." David nodded again and scratched his chin. "But I suppose you would not have a problem with it if he took such a responsibility upon himself voluntarily, eh?"

"It would be his land. He can do with it is as he likes, as long it is within the confines of the law."

"Right. And is it only land that you are offering? Or is there also a specific homestead you have in mind? A base of operations, perhaps?"

"That would depend on which region is chosen, but it is negotiable. I am sure that there are many historical buildings that might serve such a function, but if Lord Goffe would prefer an entirely new construction, that could be arranged as well. And I would ask that any further questions regarding the minute details of this reward be saved for a discussion with our Secretary of Agriculture and Land Development. He can provide you with more specific information."

"Very well." The Prince looked around the room at the remaining observers. "He wouldn't happen to be present, would he?"

"He would not," said the President. "However, his office is only a few doors down from mine, and he should be expecting a visit from you after this one, unless you prefer to reschedule."

"How accommodating of you," said David.

Page 2533

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 5 of 24))~~
"Well, seeing as Warrenhold is already so close," said President Dance, "we were thinking that the southern Jagwa territory would be the best suited to you, but there is some room for negotiation if you would prefer a different region."

"Oh, like the central Nyani territory, perhaps?" said Prince David.

The President's eyes shifted to David, and his face remained like stone. "There is some room for negotiation, I said. I should hope it is obvious that certain areas cannot be offered."

"Don't want to grant him sovereignty of your capital city, huh?" said David with another laugh. "And here I thought you were trying to be generous."

As seemed usual, the President did not look amused.

Hector gave the Prince a look of mild pleading. "Prince David..."

"My apologies." He took a deep breath and nodded. "Perhaps I have let this situation tickle my fancy just a bit too much. In all seriousness, however, I must say that I am quite curious about how you intend for this whole situation to work, precisely. Lorent is not a monarchy, and you are not a king. As far as I understand your system, you do not have the power to grant lordship over land in the same way that our Queen can."

"Yes," said Dance. "In legal terms, it would not be a 'lordship.' He would not hold the same degree of power over Lorentian citizens as he does over those in Atreya."

He had power over Atreyan citizens? Come to think of it, Hector had never really bothered to look into the legal definition of 'lordship' in Atreya. Hmm. Maybe he should do that sometime.

"It would simply be 'ownership,'" the President went on. "We will of course provide the full legal details to you in writing of your rights as a Lorentian land owner. Additionally, since the land in question is so large, there will likely be other regulations that apply to you--and others that may not."

Page 2532

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 4 of 24))~~
Hector didn't know what to say here, and it didn't particularly help that Garovel was just laughing his ass off at the moment.

"We have no such designs on your Lord of Warrenhold," said President Dance, "but even if we did, 'poaching' would be an incorrect and needlessly inflammatory term, Prince David. We are not forcing anything on him, and Lord Goffe can make his own decisions, no?"

The Prince's big belly trembled as he broke for a chuckle. "So if he were to return the Root, that would be no problem, then? The Lorentian government and general public wouldn't see that as an incredible insult?"

The President folded his arms. "What cause would there be for him to return it? Other than the Atreyan government putting an inordinate amount of pressure on him to do so?"

"As I said, our Queen will not find this amusing," said Hanton.

"And so she will do him an injustice by depriving him of a well-deserved reward?" said the President. "If that is the case, then perhaps your government's relationship with Lord Goffe is not as healthy as it should be."

A tense silence arrived.

'Yikes.' Garovel wasn't laughing, anymore.

Hector felt a bit like the rope in a tug-of-war contest. He should probably say something here, but what?

The President was the one to pick the conversation back up. "Lord Goffe, if the matter of land ownership is too uncomfortable for you to talk about in this present meeting, might I suggest we postpone and discuss it another time?"

Oh fuck. Lord Hanton and Prince David were both looking at him like they had something they wanted to say but couldn't.

Uhh.

Uhhhhh.

'Ask where this land in question even is,' said Garovel privately.

And Hector hesitated. Should he really do that? Well, it was Garovel saying it, so it probably wasn't a horrible idea, even though it kinda seemed like one...

Agh.

"...What land are you offering me, exactly?" said Hector.

Page 2531

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 3 of 24))~~
The whole room went quiet, and Hector waited for elaboration on what Hanton was talking about. Just from the Sparrow's tone alone, it seemed that this was more serious than Hector realized.

The President leaned back in his chair a little. "I think perhaps you are reading too much into our actions, Lord Hanton. The Root is simply a means of expressing the depth of our gratitude. What you call 'historical precedence,' I would merely refer to as 'historical significance.' I hope it is clear--to you, Lord Goffe, especially--that we did not gift you this cherished item lightly."

'Okay, Garovel, what the hell are they talking about?' said Hector.

'I honestly don't know,' the reaper said privately from over his shoulder. 'But I'm sure Hanton will explain if you ask him.'

As it turned out, there was no need for that.

"The Roots of the Farakano Tree have rarely ever been gifted to anyone," said the Lord Gaolanet, "but on those occasions, they always doubled as a symbol of land ownership." He shot Hector a look. "Lord Goffe, President Dance has just granted you sovereignty over some unknown portion of Lorentian territory."

Hector's eyes widened, and he looked at the engraved box in his hands again.

'Oooh,' was all Garovel had to say.

"Obviously, this is extremely generous," said Hanton. "My issue is not with the stinginess of the Lorentian government, as the President seemed to be implying. Rather, my issue is that he has granted this land to you, not Atreya. And I do not think the Queen will find this little stunt very amusing."

"Ah," said Prince David. "I see now. How cunning. And you made a show of the gift on national television, no less. That is quite the bold strategy, Mr. Dance."

"It was no strategy," said the President. "The reward was suited to the accomplishment. Anything less would have been an insult, we felt."

David snorted a laugh. "I do not think my sister will see it that way. In fact, I am quite certain that she will see it as you attempting to poach our dear Lord Goffe from us."

Page 2530 -- CCXXXIV.

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 2 of 24))~~
Chapter Two Hundred Thirty-Four: 'When compeers doth vie...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

The rest of the ceremony proceeded normally enough, and thankfully, Hector didn't have to actually talk during it. There were more opportunities for him to do so, of course, but he was able to remain silent through them all without drawing more unwanted attention than he already had.

Afterwards, the camera crews were ushered out of the office by the President's black-suited security guards, and from there, the actual meeting could begin.

Surprisingly, the Lord Gaolanet was the first to speak up once everyone was seated. "President Dance," he said with a stern expression on his illusory face, "is it your intention to insult the Queen of Atreya with this gift?"

Dance's own expression was just as steely, however. "Not at all. There will of course be a monetary reward rendered for Lord Goffe's services as well. However, we did not feel that we should present it before the cameras, especially since we did not know who, exactly, would be the recipient."

"What do you mean by that?" said Prince David. "Lord Goffe is obviously the recipient."

"Ah." Dance eyed Hector for a moment. "We thought, perhaps, the Atreyan government would be accepting payment in your stead. Forgive the confusion. We certainly meant no insult."

Hmm. This guy wasn't easy to read. But Hector was a little more familiar with Prince David, and with the help of the Scarf, he was able to notice the ever so slight narrowing of the man's eyes before that easy smile returned to his face.

Hanton was the one who spoke up again, though. "That is not what I was getting at, President Dance. And I think you know that. The Roots of The Farakano Tree are part of an obscure Lorentian tradition that few in Atreya are likely to be aware of, but I highly doubt that you and the people advising you are ignorant of the historical precedence behind what you have just done."

Page 2529

~~((National Senior Citizens Day -- page 1 of 24))~~
Hector didn't know what to expect here. He hadn't been told what the exact reward for killing the Beast of Lorent would be--which seemed a little odd, considering this ceremony was being broadcast live across the country. Prince David had expressed some concern when he'd learned about that fact last night, but there wasn't much to be done about it. Ultimately, they were still just guests here.

So when President Dance pulled back the lid of the box and revealed its contents, Hector did his best to look pleasantly surprised despite having zero idea what he was looking at.

Inside the box, on a faintly blue cushion, lay an object about the size of a dagger. An object that, to Hector's eyes, looked... like a big noodle. It was a pale brown color, nearly white and mildly translucent.

And it was... fuzzy.

Was it some kind of plant?

"Please accept this symbol of our esteem," said the President, and he held the box closer.

Hector didn't see much choice but to accept it, but he sure hoped the man was about to explain what the hell this thing was, because asking directly seemed like it might be pretty rude.

"This Root of the Farakano Tree is one of our most sacred items," said Dance. "Few in our nation's history have been given, and of those, you are only the second foreigner to have ever received one. We hope you will cherish it as we will cherish your remarkable service to Lorent."

Well, when he put it like that, it sure sounded important. Hector nodded another time and tried not to look as lost for words as he felt again.

A sudden round of applause filled the chamber as all the Lorentians began clapping for some reason, including the two servant advisors.

Garovel was peering over Hector's shoulder at the Root. 'Hmm,' he hummed privately. 'I gottta say, I wasn't expecting a big white hairy turd as a gift.'

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Page 2528

"I hope the amicable relationship between our two countries will continue indefinitely into the future," said President Dance. It wasn't quite a smile that crossed his face, but it might've been an attempt at one.

And.

Uh.

Hector was supposed to say something here. He knew that. He and Garovel had discussed how to handle this meeting at length before going to bed and again while getting ready this morning.

Words. Were needed. Really simple ones, too. So what the fuck were they again?

Uhhh.

Shit.

The cameras were all looking at him.

Standing calmly in front of them was one thing, but actually talking in front of them was another. Now that he was thinking about it, the only time that he'd ever actually spoken in front of a camera was when he had recorded that fake threat video in order to prevent Abolish from destroying the town of Harold. And he was suddenly recalling with perfect clarity how many fucking takes that recording had required.

Agh. Right now, it was all he could do to maintain his composure. He had to do something, though. Quick. Before the moment got too awkward. Or was it already too awkward? With all these parallel thought processes freaking out simultaneously, it was somehow difficult to tell how much time was actually passing here. A few seconds? A few minutes? Definitely not the second one, right? Oh god.

Would a nod suffice? Could he even manage that much? He could, right? He wasn't a fucking baby.

Yeah.

A nod.

He nodded.

And he breathed.

Agh.

Why did that have to be so difficult? Was talking in front of a camera really that different to talking to a person?

He felt like such a dumbass.

The President turned around to his desk, and for a terrible second, Hector thought that he'd fucked everything up, but then the man turned back around again, holding a finely engraved box in both hands.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Page 2527

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
As a member of the Riverton Hall staff guided them toward the President's office, it gradually became clear to Hector that was going to be an even bigger occasion than he'd expected. There were more people around than ever, and he occasionally caught glimpses of camera crews through windows or among the crowd.

He'd known that this was going to be televised, of course, but that did little to settle his discomfort now, especially without his armor. He so badly wanted to materialize it again and hide behind it, but there was really no good justification for that.

Or at least, that was what Garovel kept telling him. Maybe the reaper didn't know what he was talking about, though. It's not like Garovel was always right about everything, right?

Agh. He just had to focus. He'd done this sort of thing before. He was more experienced now. He could handle it. Probably.

The President's office was actually quite huge, but it didn't feel that way with all these people crammed into it. Hector immediately spotted Ravi Zaman and Carl Rondel among the onlookers, as their accompanying reapers made them rather easy to notice. Aside from them, he also recognized the faces of Secretary Karr, Ambassador Stoutamire, and several other officials that he had met briefly over the course of his stay here.

Which included the President himself, actually. Allen Dance was a tall man with a black-and-gray beard. His expression had a natural severity to it, not entirely unlike several Rainlords whom Hector could think of.

"On behalf of the Free Nation of Lorent, allow me to thank you for all that you have done for this country, Lord Hector Goffe of Atreya." And the President offered him a handshake.

Hector took it, of course, but it hardly felt like a normal handshake with all this pomp and circumstance going on around them.

Page 2526

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
Hector bobbed his head to the side. "You're probably right, but... you never know. I've seen a lot of weird stuff over the last few months. Lord Duxan having some other kind of motive for his visit would hardly even make the list."

"I shall try to keep that in mind," said the Prince with a mild laugh.

The conversation didn't last much longer before they finally turned in for the night. They'd scheduled their meeting with the President for tomorrow morning, since Prince David wanted to be back in Intar before nightfall.

It would be a shame to see him off so soon, but Hector had no doubt the man's work there was important, if for no other reason than to keep an eye on what was happening in that country. Intar was one of the three great superpowers of the Eloan continent, the other two being Steccat and Melmoore. If the situation changed there, the consequences would surely be far-reaching.

In the morning, Hector had breakfast together with David and Hanton. They were both exceptionally polite while in each other's company--even more so than when either of them spoke to him individually.

It was kind of uncomfortable, Hector thought. While their words were nice, he got the impression that they were actually quite wary of one another, like they were being careful not to say anything too revealing. Perhaps Hanton was worried about how much Hector had told Prince David about him, and the Prince probably knew of Hanton's reputation as a political enigma.

Hector felt like he should serve as some kind of icebreaker for the two of them, but he honestly had no idea how to go about it.

Which annoyed him. A proper lord would've known what to do. And worse, by the time he thought to consult Garovel for help, everyone was nearly done eating--or nearly done appearing to eat, in Hanton's case.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Page 2525

"If Hasan Duxan went to Intar himself," said Hector, "then he must have had a really good reason. The Sandlords have their hands full with the war. I don't think they would want to spare one of their most powerful warriors for a diplomatic mission unless they thought it was extremely important."

"I see..." The Prince touched his bare chin as he eyed Hector intently for a moment. "You seem surprisingly familiar with the Sandlords' thinking."

"Ah... well, I've been keeping in contact with Lord Asad Najir. And I did spend several days sitting in on the meetings of the Golden Council."

David blinked at him. "The Golden Council..."

He'd just kind of blurted that out, but now that he thought about it more, that had sounded like a bigger deal than he'd meant for it to. "Uh. In Moaban. After the attack on Dunehall. It was actually pretty informal. The Sandlords just requested that I show up to the meetings. I didn't participate. Much. Uh..."

Technically, that last meeting had been when he and Garovel invited the Rainlords to Warrenhold. Without asking the Queen's permission.

Okay, maybe it was kind of a big deal. He'd been so busy during those days with trying to help civilians evacuate the city that he hadn't given the matter much thought. Hell, he hadn't even known that the collective group of Sandlord heads was referred to as the Golden Council until Garovel mentioned it.

The Prince was still just sort of staring at him, though.

"...Er, a-anyway, if you get a chance to talk to Lord Duxan when you return, you might wanna take it. That's... all I was trying to say."

"Very well..." More gears seemed to be turning in the man's head. "If your assessment is correct, however, then it sounds like Lord Duxan would only have been there to request military assistance from Intar. Nothing else would strike me as important enough, given the timing."

Monday, August 17, 2020

Page 2524

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 2 of 2))
What a tough situation, Hector thought. He didn't envy the leaders of Intar right now, nor Prince David here. A new question occurred to him, though. "Do you know what the Intarian Rainlords are up to?"

Vito and his reaper perked up a little, as did Matteo in Hector's peripheral vision.

"Yes, I was curious about them, too, so I have been trying to keep eye on their movements," said the Prince. "But it has not been easy. Unlike in Sair, their presence in the government is quite small. They appear to be keeping to themselves. I would have expected their representatives to voice more concern regarding the Calthosi invasion of Sair, but they were noticeably quiet on that front. The issue might not have been brought up at all if the ambassador from Sair had not done so himself."

A briefly awkward silence gripped the room.

David glanced at his bodyguard. "Vito explained to me that... certain relations with the Intarian Rainlords are rather complicated, at the moment, so I did not think it wise to make contact with them."

Vito merely gave a grim nod.

"...Who was the ambassador from Sair?" said Hector.

"I believe it was Lord Hasan Duxan," said Prince David.

Hector blinked. "Did you meet him?"

"I did not." David turned his head slightly. "Should I have?"

Hector shrugged. "I don't know. But I met him while I was in Sair. He's the head of Hahl Duxan and one of the most powerful figures in the country, right now."

"Ah. I must admit, my knowledge of Sairi politicians is comparatively lacking. My brother Meriwether would know them better. Perhaps I will call him soon."

Hector hadn't forgotten. Prince Meriwether was the entire reason he'd gone to Sair in the first place. The man was married to one of the Saqqaf women. Hector remembered their reunion at the airport not feeling particularly warm despite the desert's blistering heat.

Page 2523

((The Mon/Wen/Fri Double -- page 1 of 2))
Hector scratched his chin as he thought about that. "I guess it's understandable that the public wouldn't be in favor of war... but, uh..."

Prince David tilted his head. "Hmm?"

Man, he really felt out of his depth here, but he figured that this was a pretty safe environment to be asking potentially stupid questions. Hopefully. "Er. Do the Intarian people think that the war is unjust?"

"Ah," said David with an air of realization. "That... particular point does not often get discussed, perhaps because it would conflict with the prevailing narrative of Intarian neutrality. Not that I blame them. I may not have been back to Atreya since the war broke out, but I highly doubt that our people are any different in this regard."

Hector nodded.

"The Grands, I suspect, want to intervene more forcefully," said David, "but I think they understand that admitting as much to the general public would be political suicide. The Moons are already arguing--and loudly--that Intar's current contributions to the war effort are too great. They say that even sending aid to allies is unacceptable. Though, I am sure they would choose different words than mine. They argue that the Grands are just trying to 'profiteer off of all the death and destruction.' Which, quite frankly, may hold truth to it, also. War is big business."

Damn. Now Hector wasn't sure what to think.

"But it is true that the justness of the war is difficult to dispute," said David. "Fighting in defense of so many sovereign lands that have been violently invaded--that's a slam dunk legally and morally, if not politically. Perhaps if the Grands were able to highlight that aspect of the situation more, they could spin the public narrative back in their favor. I don't know how feasible that is in the middle of all this chaos, though."