Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Page 2622

When Hector and Garovel had explained their strange encounter with Rasalased to him and Qorvass, that was the thing that Asad found the most curious.

Rasalased was apparently able to gaze deeply into their souls and judge their character. To measure their worthiness. And most importantly, he said that he had "learned his lesson after the three."

There was little doubt in Asad's mind that the Dry God had been referring to the War of the Three Sands. If Rasalased was able to perceive the greater world beyond the Shards, then it would only make sense that a time in which the Sandlords had tried to annihilate each other left a lasting impression on him.

Perhaps before that conflict, the Shards worked just as Qorvass said. Any sufficiently skilled Lion would be able to unlock their power. And after seeing the destruction wrought by such indiscriminate strength, Rasalased decided to take a more cautious approach.

If that was the case, then Asad had to wonder what hope there was for him. What did it even mean to be worthy of the Dry God's power? He had a feeling that only Rasalased himself could answer that question.

And he had another feeling that perhaps his own inability to access the Shards, to even speak to Rasalased, was itself an answer. Maybe Rasalased had already judged him and found him lacking.

He certainly wasn't perfect. It seemed like every day, he discovered some new way in which he was a failure. As a friend. Or a warrior. A lord. A father. A husband.

What was left for him to be worthy of? From the sound of it, Rasalased would see right through him. There was no point in putting on airs.

His golden eyes eased shut as he rubbed his forehead, trying not to dwell on those thoughts again. Trying not to imagine how many people he'd let down, how many he would in the future.

Trying not to let the weight of the world crush him.

Page 2621

Now more than ever, the potential that lay dormant in the Shards was constantly on Asad's mind. If he could just unlock their power, he could ascend to a level of strength that the Sandlords had not wielded in centuries.

That would change things, of course. Abbas Saqqaf would no longer be the undisputed powerhouse among them, but Asad was confident that they would be able to work through any political challenges that might arise. The safety that the Shards would be able to provide would far outweigh any drama between the Hahls, he felt.

But there was a reason why the last seven Lions had all failed to accomplish this feat.

No one knew how to do it, anymore.

Qorvass believed that it was simply a matter of growing old enough, of allowing their soul synchronization to reach a certain threshold; but the reaper had also admitted to him privately that he didn't actually know what that threshold was or when they would pass it. Despite him being even older than the Shards themselves, the reaper could provide no definitive historical evidence that this theory was actually true.

Certainly, it was comforting to imagine that all Asad had to do was survive, to live long enough to obtain some godlike power that would solve all their problems. It was no wonder why Qorvass wanted to believe that.

It was much better than the alternative explanation, where it is simply impossible for Asad to unlock the Shards' potential in the first place.

Better to keep hope alive, right?

Soon. Just a little longer. Someday. Eventually.

Those all sounded nicer in one's mind than simply "never," didn't they?

Frankly, Asad didn't know what he believed, anymore. On the one hand, he'd gotten confirmation that Rasalased really did still exist within the Shards; but on the other, the Dry God had apparently mentioned something that seriously challenged Qorvass' theory of eventuality.


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Page 2620

'Even so, it's obvious that many of them aren't handling the heat very well,' said Qorvass.

'Well, it's winter, so maybe they are enjoying the freezing nights,' said Asad, unable to conceal his amusement.

'They aren't.'

Asad couldn't say he was surprised. Extreme temperatures were something of a weakness for servants, especially those lacking experience or training in such environments. The effects of very high or low temperatures on the brain were big factors. Overheating obviously impaired one's cognitive ability, and regenerating could only do so much against that. And freezing, of course, was arguably even more debilitating.

While it was true that passive soul defenses could neutralize those problems, the younger servants wouldn't have that luxury. And hell, even a lot of the older ones might still be uncomfortable--and therefore irritable--if they weren't accustomed to working in places like this.

'Abolish will be in the same boat,' said Asad. 'In fact, they'll probably be worse off. This is where having soldiers who lack discipline can become a major problem.'

'I appreciate your optimism,' said Qorvass. 'By the way, have you forgotten anything today?'

Asad almost resented that question. 'I don't think so.'

Lately, the reaper had gotten into the habit of asking him that every day. Asad had found it annoying at first, but after a couple of instances where it helped him to remember something, he decided that maybe there was some utility in it, after all.

'You're sure?' said Qorvass. 'You didn't leave the Shards behind again, did you?'

'They're right here.' Asad touched the breast pocket concealed beneath his bulky robe.

Qorvass seemed to be especially wary of where the Shards were, these days. Which wasn't so surprising, really. There were only four of them in total, and two of them were no longer in Sair.

Page 2619

Asad finally sat down and breathed a heavy sigh. He'd decided to take a rest in the final bunker that he'd checked for the evening. Asho Duxan, son of the Lord Hasan Duxan, had taken over Asad's shift in making the rounds.

Asad wondered if he would even able to sleep tonight. His body felt weary enough for it, but pre-battle tension had a way of ignoring that. And nighttime, of course, was a favored opportunity for launching attacks.

For a while, he just kept staring out the long, horizontal hole in the bunker. This modest structure was almost entirely buried in the Uego sands, and the nightly wind occasionally whipped a dry spray into the domed chamber.

Glass could've kept the sand out, of course, but any glare from the sun or moon would hinder visibility, which was much more important than any discomfort that Asad was feeling from getting splashed in the face with sand every now and then.

Plus, this wasn't bad. Bad was when the sand swept in and covered his whole body in a matter of seconds. Bad was when the winds had been strong enough to make the sand grains draw blood after pelting him in his youth. Bad required goggles and body armor.

This was just fine.

The pair of silent sentries sitting next to him were wearing goggles and armor, however. And judging from the amount of sand on the floor, still waiting to be removed, maybe these fellows had gotten a taste of bad earlier.

With all that gear on, there was no telling which Hahl they belonged to, but they must've been young if they were stationed here. They might even be non-servants, since he didn't see either of their reapers hanging around.

His own reaper, Qorvass, phased through the wall and hovered over to him. 'I don't think the Vanguardians like our desert very much,' he said in Valgan.

'I'm not sure WE like our desert very much,' said Asad.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Page 2618

He wondered what his father would make of the current situation. Was this war just another burden to be borne?

Maybe it was.

His mother certainly wouldn't have been quiet about it, though.

Asad didn't think that he had ever seen two more different people than Salim and Yasmin Najir. How they'd ended up married--much less, happily so--he still struggled to wrap his head around.

He'd heard from the reapers that their union had been arranged, then called off, then rearranged, then called off again, before finally going through. Apparently, the drama had arisen from the uncertainty between the two Hahls, rather than between the bride and groom. No doubt, the families had seen their opposite natures and been concerned.

But for whatever reason, it had worked out. His mother never seemed to mind his father's stoicism, and his father never seemed to mind his mother's temper. In fact, his father was perhaps the only person who was ever spared from her biting wit.

While it might've been an exaggeration to say that their marriage had been openly "affectionate," Asad did remember the occasional moment of tenderness between them.

He wished that he'd realized sooner how special their relationship was. They'd made it look easy, never arguing--at least, not in front of him.

Compared to his own marriage, the memory of theirs felt like some far off dream.

He didn't want to think about that right now, though.

They were expecting another major offensive from the Calthosi any day now. The last few attacks had only been harassments, probably scouting for weaknesses in their defenses. They weren't likely to find any, though. Asad had been walking the lines, checking the comms, and assessing the troops and ordnance all day long--and he wasn't the only one doing that, either.

The Uego Desert was a death trap, just waiting for the enemy to try and cross it.

Page 2617

Really, he'd just wanted someone to treat him like a normal person again, even if that meant getting them to punch him in the face.

And when his father had learned of what he was doing, that was the one and only time that Asad recalled him ever growing frighteningly angry. But it was not because of the fights that he'd picked, precisely. His father seemed to understand that part well enough.

No, what truly bothered Salim Najir was when Asad kept complaining.

Many times over the course of his life, Asad had remembered that moment for how strange it was. Of all the things that could have possibly set the man off, why had it been that? There were so many worse things that he and Haqq had done in their youth. Setting off fireworks in his office, for example. Or giving each other black eyes. Or eating so many sweets that they both vomited in the middle of a prestigious dining event with Hahl Saqqaf.

It hadn't been any of those. His father had been cool as a cucumber in each and every instance. Never yelling. Always gentle.

Aside from this one instance in which he apparently could not abide Asad's childish whining.

For many years, the oddness of that memory had continued to puzzle him. Maybe his father had just been having a bad day. Maybe his father had just gotten fed up after listening to him for too long. Or maybe it was some other thing.

But somewhere along his maturation into a man, Asad felt like he understood, because he remembered what his father had said afterwards, once he'd calmed down.

"Every man has his own burdens to bear. His own misery. But not every man has to let those burdens belittle him. Not every man has to become pathetic."

And if that didn't sum up his father's entire philosophy for life, then he didn't know what else would.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Page 2616

There was no sense in whining about it now, he told himself. What was done was done, and allowing resentment to build up in his heart would do nothing to improve the situation--not for his people and not for himself.

His father had taught him that.

The Lord Salim Najir had been a man of few words. Asad's mother had typically been the one to raise her voice or decide punishment--and between him and his brother Haqq, there'd been plenty of that to go around.

In fact, there was only a single instance in Asad's memory of his father ever sounding angry. Perhaps the rarity of it was precisely why he remembered it so vividly.

It had happened not long after he'd become a servant at the age of fourteen and manifested his "divine" materialization ability. At first, he'd been ecstatic with the discovery. He had the most esteemed power among the Sandlords at his fingertips. What was there to dislike?

He soon found out, when all of his peers began treating him differently. It was like they suddenly thought he was above them--or that he thought he was, perhaps. At that tender age, he couldn't recognize the quiet resentment in their eyes. He couldn't understand why all of his friends suddenly seemed so different.

They weren't mean, of course. That was the confusing part. They were perfectly cordial. They were just... detached. They would still invite him to play with them, to hang out, but they couldn't laugh like they did before. They couldn't relax. It was like everyone was walking on eggshells around him.

If he'd been more emotionally mature, perhaps he would've been able to navigate those relationships better. Instead, he'd started picking fights. For no real reason, either--or at least, none that he could have articulated at the time.

Page 2615

His relationship with the other councilmen felt strained from both ends. They were displeased with how he had gone against them in order to aid the Rainlords and subsequently jeopardize their relationship with the Vanguard; and he was displeased with how they didn't seem to realize that they would be in a much better position to fight this war now if they had just done as he had requested and supported the Rainlords against the Vanguard, at least politically if not militarily.

The Vanguard was not supposed to be a political organization. Even if some of the Rainlords were members, the Vanguard simply didn't have the right to remove them from their own territory--not without the support of the rest of the government. If the Sandlords had made clear their opposition to the Vanguard's actions, this whole thing might have been resolved peacefully.

At least, that was Asad's opinion. The rest of the Council clearly did not share it.

They seemed to be the under the impression that the Vanguard would have pulled out of Sair entirely--or worse, attacked the Drylands, too.

Which was an absurd notion to Asad; but of course, explaining as much had not proved easy.

The Vanguard wanted their alliance with the Sandlords to continue. Never was that more clear than now. Sair was far too important geographically, and the Sandlords knew this land better than anyone. And with the Sunsmith finally stepping onto the world stage as a powerful enough figure to truly oppose the other juggernauts, the Vanguard would have even less reason to pick a fight with them.

How he wished Zeff had accepted his proposal a year and a half ago. Perhaps a very public marriage between Emiliana Elroy and Midhat Najir would have been enough to prevent all of these problems from growing so out of control.

Or maybe he was just deluding himself.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Page 2614

Asad had gazed upon this desert many times over the course of his life--and not always for good or peaceful reasons.

And unfortunately, this was another such occasion.

The Abolish-backed invasion of the Calthosi Armed Forces into his homeland of Sair had thus far proven to be largely a stalemate, but according to the scouts, Abolish did seem to be very slowly gaining ground. It wasn't yet enough to cause real concern, but it wasn't encouraging news, either.

Asad had been involved in a few wars already in his lifetime but never one of this scale--and never one that threatened the very existence of Sair.

That was what was really weighing on everyone's mind, he felt. The idea that, if they failed, everything they had built here over the last two centuries would be reduced to ruin.

The reapers of his Hahl had always told him that if a day like this ever came, it would come quickly. And he'd nodded along like a good student and son.

However, only now did he feel as though he truly understood. And even that was debatable.

He still occasionally found himself wondering how they'd ended up in this position. Their entire purpose in joining with the Rainlords all those years ago was precisely to prevent circumstances such as these. And later, when half of the Hahls partnered with the Vanguard, the same reasoning had been used.

True, that was all before he was born, but he knew the history well. His parents would've surely been rolling in their graves if he didn't.

And yet here the Sandlords now were, relying on the already-strained Vanguard. Any other allies that they had made over the years were either busy with their own war, in hiding, or simply long dead.

The isolationism that his brethren on the Golden Council so loved to speak about--well, it wasn't looking so wise now, was it?

It was hard not to be bitter during their meetings, these days.

Page 2613 -- CCXXXIX.

'I'm not concerned about her misunderstanding the Forge's value,' said Garovel. 'I'm concerned about what she'll think regarding our apparent division of loyalties between the two countries.'

'True,' said Voreese. 'I'm sure she'll play it off gracefully, like always, but there's no way she'll be happy about having to share Hector with Lorent. He's the pride and joy of Atreya, right now.'

Hector's brow tilted upon hearing that last part. She was exaggerating, obviously, but he knew what she was getting at.

Weirdly enough, though, a part of him also felt like the Queen would be upset with him if he didn't take the deal, too. Like, she would be disappointed if he passed up something this valuable, even if it was for her own sake.

Hmm. Maybe it was just one of those situations where neither option was perfect.

As usual.

"Well, in any case, it sounds like you have already made your decision," said Hanton. "Let us finish up here and return before the Lorentians begin to worry too much."

Chapter Two Hundred Thirty-Nine: 'Amid the churning sand...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

The Uego Desert was quite a sight in the evening. The enormous dunes had a way of catching the sunlight with their slopes and curves that made them shine, and the heat that still lingered from earlier in the day made that gentle shimmer tremble and waver.

The uncommon purity of the sands themselves might've also factored into the scene. More than perhaps any other desert in the world, the Uego had a large percentage of translucent or even transparent grains of sand.

That was said to be the work of Asad's earliest predecessors, the arasaba, the mythological creatures from which his moniker--the Lion of the Desert--originated. They were said to have gifted their ability to create sand upon those who gained their favor, before ultimately departing from this world.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Page 2612

'Know anybody who might fit the bill?' said Voreese.

'Maybe,' said Garovel. 'We should be extra careful who we ask, though. I think trustworthiness is an even more important qualifying factor than skillfulness. Something like this could attract the wrong sort of attention, if word gets out.'

'You're right about that.'

"Would you mind telling us what a Fusion Forge is?" said Hanton.

'Oh yeah, sorry,' said Garovel. 'Put simply, a Fusion Forge is something that, historically, can only be created by an extremely powerful integration user. It's a kind of super-advanced tool for them, used to combine materials--even soul-infused ones.'

'We're talkin' like emperor-level strength requirements here,' said Voreese. 'Less powerful integrators might still be able to make use of a Forge, but they can't create one.'

'And even then, it can still be dangerous,' said Garovel. 'If you don't know what you're doing with this thing, then you're liable to kill not only yourself but also your reaper, too.'

"Oh, good," said Roman dryly.

'This is a fantastic find,' said Garovel, 'but it won't be easy to actually get any use out of it. Especially if it's broken, which I suspect it is.'

"I see," said Hanton, eyeing the glass Forge anew. "So then... not to put too fine a point on it, but what would you say is the bottom line here? Do you believe this object is worth accepting Lorent's offer and possibly irritating the Queen?"

Everyone looked to Garovel, who fell quiet for a time, deliberating.

'...Yes, I do believe that,' the reaper said. 'This thing is so valuable that, even if it doesn't work, it's STILL worth it. Just the idea that we might be able to fix it SOMEDAY would be enough.'

Hanton nodded. "In that case, I'm sure the Queen will understand."

Page 2611

'Same,' said Voreese. 'Plus, I don't think I'd trust any new tech that could supposedly help us like that. You're gettin' into the territory of miracles there, and historically, those are pretty fuckin' few and far between. And I definitely don't wanna be some technological guinea pig, either.'

The reapers kept talking, but Hector returned the majority of his attention back to the book in his hands. He had to interrupt Garovel privately in order to ask what language it was.

Garovel gave it a look while Hector held it up and turned the pages for him. 'Ah, I see two languages, actually. Old Mohssian and Nykeirian.' Then publicly, he said, 'Hey, Voreese. You're Nykeirian, aren't you?'

'Sure am. Why? Got something for me?'

'Come have a look.'

She floated over and spent a few minutes directing Hector to flip past certain pages before ultimately landing on what seemed to be a later chapter. And while she kept reading, Garovel went over to help Roman out.

'Holy fucking shit balls,' Voreese eventually said. 'Garovel, this thing's a Fusion Forge.'

'Oh, please, tell me you're not just messing with me.'

'Nope. Says it right here, clear as day.'

The reapers both started laughing.

Hector, Roman, and Hanton all merely exchanged looks with one another as they waited for an explanation.

'That is some magnificent luck,' said Voreese.

'Assuming we can get it working again, that is,' said Garovel.

'Oh, yeah. It must still work, though, right? I mean, it doesn't look damaged at all.'

'Sure, but Forges tend to all look different, so we don't really know what damage would look like for this one, either. And given how valuable these things are, there's probably a reason it's just sitting here, seemingly abandoned.'

'Aw, don't say that. You're really bringing down my mood.'

'Just trying to temper our expectations here.'

'Yeah, yeah. We need a skilled integrator to inspect this fucking thing.'

'More than just one, probably.'

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Page 2610

Hanton's illusory form looked over at him with a raised eyebrow. "You are not familiar with telekinesis, Lord Goffe?"

"Can't say I have," said Hector.

Hanton dropped his hands, but the book remained floating in front of him. "Strange. I was under the impression that you could do it yourself--in some form, at least."

It took Hector a second to register what he meant. He was talking about Hector's orbiting technique. Yeah. Even if Hanton was familiar with materialization--and perhaps he wasn't--the Sparrow probably didn't know much about that particular technique, did he?


Hector wanted to inquire further, to ask about how powerful this telekinesis actually was. But he held back. There was no way Hanton would share that information.

And in a background thought process, he was recalling Rasalased's words about Wrobels being much more powerful in the past. Or concealing their strength in the modern day.

Still, it was interesting to know. The ability to move objects with his mind was no small thing. Hector's imagination was already running wild with how potent such a thing could be, especially if it could achieve anywhere near the same level of speed as the velocity states of materializers.

'I'm envious,' said Garovel from Hector's peripheral vision. 'If reapers could use telekinesis, a lot of our problems would be solved.'

Hanton breathed half a laugh. "Would you use it for anything other than annoying us corporeal beings?"

'Heh, well, it would be nice if I could at least turn the pages of a book without requiring someone else's help,' said Garovel.

"Ah, yes, I imagine that must make learning quite a tedious affair for you, at times."

'Yep. It's also why so many of us are such blabbermouths. Talking is pretty much the only way we can accomplish anything. I keep wondering if technology will ever progress to a point where that'll change for us, but I'm not exactly optimistic.'

Page 2609

Roman's expression spoiled into a twisted frown. He pulled a flashlight out of his pocket and switched it on, adding another much needed light source to the dim chamber.

Hector looked at Garovel. "You didn't mention that when I touched the Moon's Wrath."

'Oh yeah, well, you'd already touched it before I realized that it was a soul vacuum, so I didn't see much point in telling you after the fact.'

Hector's mouth just remained open a little.

'In any event,' Garovel went on, 'there are plenty of different things that this orb could be. Given its size and transparency, it's unlikely to have much in common with the Moon's Wrath.'

"How do we figure out what it does?" said Roman.

'Try touching it,' said Voreese.

"Garovel literally just told me not to," said Roman.

'Yeah, and now that you know what you'd be getting yourself into, it'll be funny.'

"Shut up, Voreese."

'She's actually not entirely wrong,' said Garovel. 'The direct approach could work, but before we give that a try, how about we look through some of these bookshelves, first? There might be some relevant writing on what this thing does.'

'Yeah, yeah, if you wanna be all "smart" about it,' said Voreese.

And the group split up, Hanton included, in order to do as Garovel suggested. The first book that Hector looked through was written in a language that he didn't understand, and as he was about to ask Garovel about it, he glanced over and noticed Hanton holding a book as well.

Literally holding it. Then putting it back on the shelf. And grabbing another.

The man might've been an illusion, but those books were definitely real. He could sense their shape with the Scarf.

And so he had to ask. "How are you able to pick those books up?"

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Page 2608

'Oh yeah,' said Voreese. 'Why are you guys fuckin' around with this weird tree, anyway?'

'Look closely,' said Garovel. 'You can sense that there's something off about this place, can't you?'

'Hmm.' Voreese floated over to Hector, not waiting for Roman. Her hollow gaze lingered on the orb. 'Ah. Yeah. It's suspiciously "empty," isn't it? No soul power here at all. Interesting. Haven't seen a soul vacuum in ages.'

'Hector and I actually saw one while were in the Undercrust. We didn't know what it was at first, but it turned out to be a powerful artifact known as the Moon's Wrath. It could absorb ardor and then shoot it back out as a destructive beam of light.'

'Oh yeah? That sounds awesome. How come you never showed us?'

'It got eaten by a worm.'

'Baha! Nice job, losers!'

Hector was too busy connecting the dots in his head to worry about her cackling. He remembered the Moon's Wrath quite clearly, but Garovel hadn't referred to it as a "soul vacuum" before.

So he was saying that this giant orb was like the Moon's Wrath, then?

"Are you saying that this thing can shoot out lasers, too?" said Roman, reaching a hand toward the glass.

'Ah-ah, I wouldn't do that if I were you,' said Garovel.

Roman retracted the hand. "Why?"

Voreese was the one to explain. 'Soul vacuums are rare, but they can have all sorts of weird effects. Like, if you're unlucky, sucking your soul right out of your body.'

Hector and Roman both blinked.

'It wouldn't kill you, since I've already got a handle on your soul, but it wouldn't exactly tickle, either, said Voreese. 'Existential pain is difficult to describe, and sometimes, the brain has a way of manifesting it into physical pain as well, just as a cherry on top.'

Page 2607

'Perhaps he and Big Bird over here can race, one day,' said Voreese, addressing his humanoid illusion.

"Racing would be an utterly pointless and wasteful use of my energies," said Hanton.

'Spoken like a grumpy old man. Hey, what's your guys' average lifespan, anyway?'

"None of your business, is what it is."

'What, was that too rude? Here, let me try again. Ahem. Please, m'lord, could you spare a morsel of information regarding the average lifespan of your glorious and noble kin?'

Hanton made no reaction.

Voreese just kept going, though. 'Oh, please, please, please, m'lord. Don't you see? Us pathetic commoners are so lacking in worldly knowledge that it is only by the grace of one as benevolent and generous as yourself that we might be able to gain anything of true intellectual value.'

Hanton allowed another beat to pass. "...About 150 years," he said flatly.

And there was more silence, perhaps caused by how stunned everyone was.

'...I can't believe you actually gave me an answer,' said Voreese.

'Neither can I,' said Garovel.

Hanton, however, just turned away to observe the giant orb, walking around to the other side of it.

'Yo, am I crazy or did he actually LIKE it when I did that?' said Voreese.

'Nah,' said Garovel. 'There's no way. You were clearly trying to mock him by being as obnoxious as possible.'

'Yeah, I thought he would pick up on that, too! It was super obvious, right?'

'Of course. He must've just decided it was easier to answer you than keep listening.'

'Hmm, I don't know. I feel like I saw him smile a little. In like a "I'm so superior" kind of way, y'know?'

'That can't be,' said Garovel. 'He's probably just--'

"Hey, could we focus a little?" said Roman. "Like, what the hell is this place, even? And what's up with the giant orb? You guys know anything about that? Anybody?"

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Page 2606

The sound of footsteps behind him arrived, and Hector turned to see Hanton there--or the illusory human form of him, at least. That would explain why the Scarf didn't sense him approaching.

Hanton's illusion looked around the chamber as if actually surveying it. And maybe he was. Hector didn't fully understand how the Sparrow's senses worked. Perhaps their illusions could also serve as conduits through which they perceived their environment. That idea sounded a little ridiculous to Hector, but then, so did telepathic birds and skeletal phantoms. Plus, Hanton's body was too big to fit through the door--as it probably was for most man-made buildings, so maybe sending in his avatar as a kind of a "sensory probe" was how the Sparrow usually handled things.

More sounds arrived, this time from outside the tree, and Hector could sense the physical form of someone with the Scarf there. He hadn't yet reached a point where he could recognize people by the aerial outlines that the Scarf described to him, but the shape was definitely familiar, at least.

"Hey, in there!" came the voice of Roman Fullister.

Ah. So this was why Garovel hadn't wanted to warn him. The reaper always seemed to like allowing Roman to get the jump on Hector out of nowhere.

"Hey," Hector responded, though he did have his questions as he saw Roman and Voreese enter together. "You said you were going back to Atreya."

"I did." Roman's smile was big and familiar. "Then I came back."

'We got to wondering what was taking you so damn long,' said Voreese. 'The Lorentians offered some kind of a sweet deal, didn't they?'

'You could've just called and asked about it,' said Garovel.

'Eh, Roman needed the flight practice, anyway.'

"I feel like I'm really starting to get the hang of it."

Page 2605

A group of iron platforms materialized from below to push beams off the door. Two of them wouldn't budge, however, so he increased the upward growth force of his iron. Still, they refused to move, so he increased it again. And then again. And, growing frustrated, one more time.

Instead of being lifted out like the others, however, the two stubborn beams yanked their metal rests out of the door and went sailing into the unexplored room.

'What was that noise?' said Garovel from over Hector's shoulder.

The sound of heavy wood clattering against a stone floor arrived, and Hector avoided looking at the reaper. He pressed his hand against the door, and this time, it all but opened itself.

'I thought you were trying not to break anything,' said Garovel.

He took a curious step inside. "I did try. I just... didn't entirely succeed."

The room was pitch dark, as expected, but the shape was still quite clear to him thanks to the Scarf. It had been clear even from the other side of the door, but nothing in particular had stuck out to him.

Apart from the giant orb in the middle of the chamber, that was.

Along the walls, he could sense cabinets, tables, and bookshelves--most of which were empty or barely standing. And there seemed to be a bed, as well, nestled in the far corner. Perhaps someone lived here, once upon a time.

He materialized a hovering iron cube above his hand as a glowing light source. It didn't provide much light, but he was reluctant to go bigger. This was a tree, after all, and he was still worried about accidentally setting something on fire.

It seemed fairly clear, at least, that the giant orb was the mysterious thing that had lured them here, so Hector approached it for a better look. The Scarf surprisingly couldn't tell him much about it, but with a bit of light, he was able to see that it was apparently made of glass.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Page 2604

'I agree in sentiment. Problem is, like I said, I've seen servants change dramatically before. And they're not always as receptive to a calm discussion about these types of things as you are.' And a beat passed. 'Plus, it was an opportunity to mess with you a little bit. Can't very well pass that up, now can I?'

'I don't know, Garovel. They say the key to any healthy relationship is communication.'

'Oh, shut up,' laughed Garovel.

Which made Hector snicker, too. 'But if I shut up, how will we healthily communicate?'

'I'll just tell you what to do, and then you'll do it. How about that? Nice and simple.'


Finally, the bark cracked enough, and a sizable chunk of it came free. From there, Hector was able to use his gauntleted hands to gain leverage over the rest and pull it off with only his normal strength.

'Someone is approaching,' said Hanton. 'From the sky. A servant and reaper.'

Hector tensed and focused on the Scarf, but whoever it was hadn't entered its range yet.

After a few more moments of uncertainty, Garovel clicked his nonexistent tongue. 'I wish you hadn't warned him about that.'

'What?' said Hanton. 'Why?'

'Nevermind,' said Garovel. 'The ones approaching aren't a threat. We can relax.'

A servant approaching from the air? And not a threat? There were a number of people Hector knew who fit that description, but if Garovel wanted it to be another surprise or whatever, then that was fine. He focused on the door in front of him.

The cylindrical doorknob didn't turn at all, at first he thought it might be broken, but then he realized that no, it wasn't designed to turn. It was really just a handle. He pulled, but it still resisted. With the Scarf, he was able to sense multiple beams pressed lengthwise against the other side of the door.

Page 2603

Hector felt compelled to say something now. 'Garovel, I...' It was still difficult to find the words, though. 'I don't know what you want me to say. I mean... a lot's happened in this past year...'

'That, it has.'

'I don't... feel like I've changed that much, myself. Like, deep down, I mean. But... yeah, I do understand where you're coming from, I guess...'

'Really? You don't think you've changed deep down?'

'Uh... well, yeah. I feel like I've gotten better at hiding my, er, uncertainty, maybe... but that's about it.' He paused to think. 'Now that you're bringing all this up, though, maybe I'm just fooling myself...'

'What the hell?' The reaper paused for a silent laugh. 'I'm not telling you this in order to make you feel self-conscious. I just want to make sure you're aware of the changes you're going through.'

'Er, right...'

'Listen, Hector. I...' It was Garovel's turn to hesitate, which made Hector eye him curiously. 'I've grown very attached to you. Not just as my servant. But as my friend. And I've seen servants change dramatically in the past. Never quite this quickly or absurdly, but yes. So... I just...'

As the realization dawned on him, Hector took a long breath and nodded. 'You don't want me to snap and turn into some kind of gigantic asshole.'

The reaper chortled again. 'I wasn't going to phrase it quite like that, but yes, that is my concern in a nutshell, more or less.'

'That makes sense. I mean, I don't want to turn into a gigantic asshole, either.'

'Good. Glad to hear it.'

Hector returned to trying to gently pry the bark of the door in the tree. 'But Garovel, you don't need to "test" me. You can just tell me what you're worried about, and then we can discuss it.'

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 54

Fred excused himself and proceeded on with the game on his own, and Davinworth waited until he was well out of earshot before grinning and speaking up.

"So you crack the case yet, detective?" he said.

"Workin' on it," said Colt.

Davinworth let Colt tee up first and take his shot. Somehow, it went even worse than the last few holes. The other man gave him a pitying look but didn't address it. Perhaps he felt as thought his own skill would do the talking for him, because it certainly did. The guy's technique seemed even better than Fred's, though Colt was hardly a qualified judge.

"So I must say, I'm curious to know where you're living," said Davinworth as they chased after their balls in the cart together.

Colt was not surprised to hear that at all. "Curiosity is the spice of life, ain't it? Wouldn't want to deprive you of it with mundane trivia."

"Oho. Such courtesy. However, I assure you that I will not be disappointed. I have something of an obsession when it comes to land and housing. Ah, but you've already done your research on our little cabal, so you probably knew that already, didn't you?"

"Had an inkling."

"Tell you what. How's about we make a game of this conversation?"

"Aren't we already playing a game?"

"A wager, then."

Colt gave him a flat look.

Davinworth returned an apologetic expression and a chuckle. "I could give you a generous handicap, if you like."

"Already playing with one."

"An even more generous handicap, then?"


He laughed again. "Fair enough. Then how about we just take turns asking each other questions? I assume you have several for me, so this will work out for both us. For every one that you answer, I'll answer one of yours. If you refuse, then I refuse."

"You realize that it was you who hired me, right? Hindering my investigation is a waste of your own time and money."

"Heh. Stubborn, aren't you? Do you really despise the idea of me asking you questions so greatly?"

Shit. If Colt didn't give ground here, then that would probably just serve to stoke this guy's interest in him even further, and that was the last fucking thing he wanted.

"Fine," he said. "Let's play, then."

"That's the spirit! Very sporting of you, my boy."


"And as a courtesy, I'll let you take the first question," said Davinworth.

Alright, no point in beating around the bush, then. "How well did you know Sheriff Margot?"

"Pretty well, I'd say. Watched him grow up, just like a lot of people here. Really makes a man feel his age, thinking back to when they were all children. Doubly so for Rex, now that he's gone."

Colt couldn't quite get a read on this guy's tone. Davinworth had a casual way of speaking that made it difficult to tell if he was taking the subject seriously. Given the severity of a murder investigation, it should've been obvious to even a total idiot that this wasn't something to speak about lightly, so Colt was inclined to think that Davinworth was just trying a little too hard to sound unbothered.

Or he was a total fucking sociopath.

"My turn to ask now, right?" said Davinworth. "Unless you found that answer unsatisfactory."

Colt considered trying to sneak a second question in by asking for elaboration, but eh. Whatever. "Go ahead."

"Great! Is there a Mrs. Thompson?"

An easy enough answer. "No."

"Then where's the mother of your children?"

"That was your question. It's my turn again."

"Tch, stingy. Fire away, then."

"Is there anyone you know of who might have wished harm upon the Sheriff?"

"Oh, no, no, of course not. Rex was well-liked by everyone in the town."

Mm, that sounded like bullshit. There had to have been someone. But it might've been bullshit that Davinworth genuinely believed.

Colt had to wonder how much he should actually say to these guys. He already knew Philip Richardson had talked to Malcolm Beaumont about him, so it seemed a safe bet that Davinworth had his own informants, too.

Or just friends in town to share gossip with. "Informants" might be an overly grandiose word for it. This was a town of less than a thousand people. If there really was some kind of dark conspiracy at play here, it could only be so big. Hell, Lagoroc's criminal population alone probably outnumbered all of Orden.

Colt debated bringing up the Muett Family. He had a feeling that they were one of the "interested parties" that had been mentioned earlier, but he didn't want to rely on just a hunch for something like this. As long as he was unsure of Davinworth's allegiances, then even just bringing up their name was a fairly large risk. It could spook him and prevent him from saying anything more, or worse, he could just be straight up working with them.

Nah, not worth it, he decided.

"So?" said Davinworth. "Where is the mother of your children?"


"Ah... I'm sorry for your loss."

"Thanks." He tried to give an appropriately weight pause before launching into the next question. Why did it have to be so difficult to feign affection for that damn woman? Maybe he should just concoct a new mother for them in his imagination and use that. It would probably be easier. "What can you tell me about Sheriff Margot's family?"

"Ah, now there, I'm sure you'll run into a spot of trouble," said Davinworth. "I don't mean to speak ill of the dead, but the man had a penchant for finding problems in that particular area."

"You just said he was well-liked by the whole town."

"Yes, well, I suppose his own family was a bit of an exception. His divorce was unfortunately quite messy. Talk of the town for a long while, too, which I'm sure didn't help."

Page 2602

'I guess if I were to put all my observations and concerns into one, cohesive thought, it would be that I feel like your two blessings have begun to affect your personality,' said Garovel.

Hector blinked.

'And that worries me a little, because I liked you exactly how you were, shyness and all. A rather strong part of me doesn't WANT to see you change, Hector.'

Holy shit. 'Garovel...'

'But on the other hand, I have to acknowledge that you've kinda been killin' it, lately. And I don't just mean in growth as a warrior, either, although that's incredible, too. Your decision-making has been pretty on point. Seeing you talk to all these high-ranking people like it's no big deal for you... frankly, it still boggles my mind.'

Wow. Uh.

Hector still didn't know what to say. He hadn't expected Garovel's concerns to be nestled between this barrage of compliments.

'So yeah, I might've been kinda... pushing the recklessness a bit, as a way of testing you. I wanted to see how much I could influence you, or if you would actually resist my ideas.'

'I... uh... hmm.'

'And look, you've always been surprisingly sassy with me, so don't get it confused. I'm talking about the big ideas. When it comes to important matters, you've usually followed my lead. And that was fine, though I suspected it was primarily because you were terrified of making any kind of heavy decision yourself and bearing the accompanying weight of its consequences. I was perfectly content to be the one carrying that responsibility for you while you just concentrated on not letting people die.

'But lately, that doesn't seem to be the case for you, anymore. Which is rather surprising, to say the least. You've only been a servant for a little over a year now, and yet the change I've witnessed in you is... well, to be blunt with you, it's unlike anything I've ever seen in a servant.'

Page 2601

'Ah. Hmm. Well, that's an interesting theory, Hector. But have you considered that possibility that you might be crazy?'

'I'm considering the possibility that YOU might be.'

'Hey, now, let's not start throwing those kinds of insults around.'

'I literally just said what you said first.'

'And that was very low of you, Hector. You're not supposed to stoop to my level. You need to be more gracious and understanding. And to let me abuse you verbally without fighting back. It's only fair.'

'Garovel, are you sure you're feeling okay? And not, like, EXTRA stupid or anything?'

'I'll have you know that I feel just fine, thank you very much. But your concern is noted.'

And it seemed like the reaper intended for the conversation to end there, but Hector wasn't yet satisfied. 'That's... not good enough, Garovel. If we weren't in the presence of a telepathic bird that can fuck with people's minds, then I might feel differently. But since we are, you've gotta give me something more. I need to know you're okay.'

'Ugh. What, are you planning to put me back in an iron jar again?'

'Technically, they're orbs, not jars.'

'Whatever. I don't like confined spaces, Hector.'

'I didn't think you did, Garovel. But I don't want the Sparrows screwing with your head.'

'They're not screwing with my head.'

'Are you sure? Would you even be able to tell if they were? I mean, they can mess with memories, you know?'

'Alright, alright, geez. Okay. You got me. It's not Hanton making me act weird. I've been acting weird deliberately.'

Hector paused his materialization work to glance at Garovel. 'Say what?'

'Listen. Hector. I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm not the only one who's been acting differently lately. You have, too.'

'I have?'

'Yes. And just like how you've become concerned with my behavior, I was becoming... well, slightly concerned with yours. Overall, I think you're doing great. But that in itself is also worrying.'

Hector just remained quiet, not sure what to say.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Page 2600

Alas, after quite a while of searching, he found no other way in. So he set to work, trying to gingerly peel the bark from the doorway. He chose not to rely on the vigor, because he didn't want to deal with after effects of exhaustion.

It was a slow process. Garovel seemed to be getting antsy, even offering to stick his head through the doorway to take a look inside first. But since there was no telling what was waiting for them, that seemed a little too dangerous. Plus, it was most likely pitch black in there, anyway.

But the reaper's offer did get Hector thinking.

About how reckless Garovel was being.

Sure, in some ways, maybe that wasn't so abnormal, but it still struck Hector as strange. Garovel always at least TRIED to appear level-headed, even when proposing one of his batshit crazy plans--hell, especially when proposing one of them.

But these past few days, it almost felt like Garovel just didn't give a flying fuck, anymore.


So, as Hector tried to gain leverage over the bark without destroying the door with his materialization, he decided to just be direct and ask about it.

'Hey, Garovel, why're you being such a reckless jackass, lately?'

The reaper gave an echoing snort. 'What do you mean?'

'I mean, it's like you're trying to prove a point or something. And you don't care who or what might get trampled in the process. Even if it's you.'

'Alright, Mr. Judgmental. Just because I've suggested a few ideas recently that you didn't like, doesn't mean you need to start psychoanalyzing me.'


'And what does that mean? What kind of a response is "hmm," hmm?'

'I think you're lying to me, Garovel.'

'Excuse me? Why would I be lying? And what about, exactly?'

'Something's different with you, and you don't want to tell me what it is.'

Page 2599 -- CCXXXVIII.

Well, Loren couldn't really complain. He'd been looking for a way back to Eloa, and here it was, staring him in the face.

And yet.

Now that there was this new wrinkle in this regiment's mission, he had to admit, a part of him would be disappointed to leave. He felt now more than ever that Dozer had sent their sect to these Gettira Plains for a good reason. Surely, it was no coincidence that these Mendocava just happened to be here. Were they protecting something, perhaps?

It seemed he would not be among those who found out.

Chapter Two Hundred Thirty-Eight: 'A candle in the Dark...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Hector approached the tree again, this time with only Garovel and Hanton behind him. It was the dead of night, and the rest of the expedition was staying at a luxurious hotel in the nearest town. Sneaking out had been rather easy with Hanton's help, though Carl and Ravi's reapers might've been wondering where his soul had inexplicably disappeared to.

He'd left them a handwritten note on his bed, just in case. If they grew too worried about him and stormed into his bedroom, then hopefully they would relax knowing that he would be back by morning.

Probably. Inspecting a single tree shouldn't take all night, right?

He tried to be as gentle with the tree as he could, even going so far as to inspect the whole thing top to bottom, to discover an alternate entrance to the bark-covered door that he'd found before. The sparse moonlight didn't provide much help on that front, and unfortunately, he hadn't brought a flashlight, either. He'd figured that he wouldn't need one, seeing as he could just materialize a glowing hot cube of iron for light, but standing in this giant canopy of leaves, he suddenly became too worried about accidentally setting this poor tree on fire.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Page 2598

Loren almost pitied the little Freeman. He'd seen Zahi get like this before. The man wouldn't stop talking until his listeners either ran away or caved to his implied demands.

In both cases, Loren's role in this conversation was pretty much over, so he decided to speak privately with Rezolo instead. 'What are you thinking?' he asked.

'Do you wish to join this Fellowship?' said the reaper, echoing.

'It has me curious, at least.'

'Fine. Then you have my permission, on the condition that you use it as leverage to get us transferred out of this sect.'

Loren had to stop himself from reacting visibly to that. 'You want out? You never mentioned that before.'

'I didn't have a problem with it until today.'

It took him a second to put those clues together. 'You're afraid of the Riders...'

'I am. And if you are not, then you are a fool. The Mendocava are far beyond our ability to deal with--beyond anyone in this camp.'

'They didn't attack us, though. Only the aberration.'

'Yes, and they rent him to dust. Even his bones cannot be harvested now.'

Loren threw another look around the encampment. Everyone else seemed to have already settled back down after the encounter with the Riders, but that wasn't terribly strange, he supposed. These were soldiers and madmen of Abolish. Flexibility under stress was arguably their greatest strength as a unit.

And yet here was Rezolo. The reaper might have sounded as calm as ever, but these weren't the words of someone confident or comfortable. In fact, this might've been the most scared that Loren had ever heard him.

'And as it will likely prove relevant to the mission,' the reaper went on, 'Kareem will keep prodding them. I would rather not be here the next time they appear.'

Page 2597

"Well, to get the full picture of that, you would have to ask Germal," said Wally, "but my understanding is that Lighteyes has been invited because of his reputation as a principled warrior who does not use excessive force to complete his missions."

"You mean because he's not a bloodthirsty psycho," said Zahi. "But hey, I'm not bloodthirsty, either."

"Ah--y-yes, well, as I mentioned, the invitations are delivered at our leader's sole discretion..."

"Oh, but if it were up to you, then you'd give me an invite, right?"

"Er, well, I barely know you, so..."

He stuck his hand out. "Zahi Rambata. Great to meet you. They call me the Bard of the Modern Era."

"No, they don't," said Loren.

"Don't listen to him; he's just jealous. I'm a real man out of time, you see. Tell me, have you ever felt like you were born in the wrong period of history? Because that's me in a nutshell, my friend. Very relatable, right? Oh, and I can play twenty instruments, you know. And I'll talk your ear off if you'll let me, aha! And I'm also very much what you would call a joiner! It's why I'm with Abolish, in fact! Someone just offered me a membership, so I said okay! I didn't even have a reaper yet! Boy, was I in for a surprise later!"

"Th-that's all very nice, Mr. Rambata, but--"

"I'm all about maintaining morale, see. I think that's very important. You need cheering up, I'm your guy. You need a wingman when you go pick up chicks, I'm your guy. You need someone to carry something heavy up a hill for you, well, that's why I keep this killjoy around. But for anything else, I'm probably your guy. Just give me a chance, and you'll see how multi-talented I am."

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Page 2596

Rezolo, however, merely remained quiet, which Loren did not find surprising.

The little Freeman seemed to take that as a bad sign. "A-ah, well, like I said, the matter is open to discussion if it interests you. Lighteyes has been invited by our leader, so we would be happy to work with you toward an acceptable compromise in becoming a member. You would not have to leave your current sect if you do not wish to."

"Who is this leader of yours, anyway?" said Zahi.

"That would be Germal, the Gentleman of Palei."

Loren blinked. That guy was the leader of the Freeman Fellowship? Loren had met him a few times while studying under Gohvis; and while he was aware that Germal was rather famous in his own right, it was still difficult to bridge the mental gap in his mind between that one-horned weirdo and the increasingly talked about Freeman Fellowship.

Really, it had only been a few months since he first started hearing about the Fellowship, whereas it had been years since he'd last seen Germal. And at the rate they were growing, Germal had probably just made a list of servants he barely even knew and gave it to subordinates for this apparent recruitment drive of theirs.

Yeah. He decided that he shouldn't read too much into this whole "invite" thing being a big deal.

Perhaps Rezolo was thinking something similarly, because he chose that moment to finally speak up and say, 'What has Loren done to earn the honor of an invitation from your leader?'

"Hey, before that, tell us your name already, short stuff," said Zahi.

"Oh, my apologies. My name is Wallace Chandler. And the two behind me--"

"Can I call you Wally?"

"I... I suppose."

"Cool. But yeah, anyway, Wally, how come Lighteyes here gets an invite, and I don't, hmm?"

Page 2595

Honestly, it probably caused more confusion to Abolish's own members than to any enemy spies that might have infiltrated their ranks, but there was no use complaining about it at this point. Especially when so many of his bosses had reputations for their total madness.

The shorter Freeman seemed hesitant. "But is it true that you are happy with your current position?" Wow, maybe he really was the boss of their little trio.

"Ooh, so I was right, then?!" said Zahi. "You really are trying to poach him?!"

"Membership within our Fellowship is flexible," said the same one. "We would not necessarily be 'poaching' him, as you suggest."

"Hmm, that ain't how I've heard it," said Zahi. "I hear you guys're pretty fanatical about your rules 'n such."

"Well, we're all fanatical in one way or another, aren't we?"

"Hah! True! Hey, then maybe I could join, too, eh?!"

"If you pass the entrance test, then sure."

"Say what? Wait, does Lighteyes have to take a test, too?"

"No, he has received a formal invite from our leader."

"Tch. Now that is some unfair bullshit right there..."

The little Freeman tilted both his head and his brow at Zahi with seeming sympathy. "You are not genuinely disappointed, are you?"

"Hmph. That so hard to believe?"

"Well, yes. I'm sure the Fellowship's reputation precedes us. Do you truly think that you would be happy within it?"

"Maybe. I'm a complex guy. Full of nuance 'n stuff."

The little Freeman chortled. "Well, then take the test."

"Maybe I will!"

Loren had had just about enough of listening to this shit. "Our feelings don't matter. The real decision is up to our reapers, anyway."

The little Freeman nodded. "There is certainly truth in that, yes. But if you feel very strongly on the matter, I think you'll find that our group can be quite persuasive." His beady eyes went to Rezolo. "Though, of course, we would be interested in hearing your opinion as well."

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 53

That earned a faint smile from Fred as he stepped up to the tee. His form, comparatively, seemed immaculate, and the ball went sailing cleanly through the air. "What was all that about being interested in golfing, then?"

Colt supposed he could come up with some bullshit about still being interested in the sport despite being so bad at it, but eh. He scratched his nose absently and shrugged. "I needed an excuse to talk to you for the investigation."

Fred's nearly hairless brow tilted. "That's very honest of you. How exactly were you planning to get any information out of me through golf?"

"Well, it was supposed to be a gradual thing," said Colt. "Maybe I would've learned something here or there over the course of several conversations. Didn't expect you and your friends to be so like-minded."

"I see..."

A suddenly awkward silence arrived.

Colt had one more question that he very much wanted to ask, but it was perhaps the bluntest thing he could possibly imagine, right now. He probably shouldn't gamble on it, he figured. Probably.

Eh, fuck it. Fred had earned a morsel of trust of him. It'd be fine.

"...So do you think any of your golf buddies here had Rex killed?" said Colt.

Fred's eyes bulged, and the shock on his face seemed genuine.

Colt just watched and waited, though.

"No, I--" Fred shook his head. "Why would you even ask that?"

"Just a feeling I got. Kinda seemed like you were all suspicious of one another."

"Don' be ridiculous. Those men love this town. And Rex was as much a part of it as anyone. I have more reason to suspect you than them."

Colt wanted to say that Fred would think differently if he knew him better, but that would be a fucking lie. "Fair enough. Just wanted to get your opinion."

Fred's irate gaze lingered on him, though.

Hmm. If the man was acting, then he was doing a damn good job of it. Maybe that was deserving of another morsel of trust, Colt thought.

After a tense silence, they got in the cart in order to go track down where their balls landed.

"...Do you have any more questions for me?" said Fred as they rode down the fairway.

Colt had to mull that over. He felt like he'd learned more than enough from Fred already, and given how upset his last question had made the guy, he was hesitant to push his luck again. He tried to be more diplomatic this time. "Well, if you don't think your friends could have killed him, then does anyone else come to mind?"

Fred sighed. "Oh, I... I don't know. Matters like this are so... unbelievably horrible. I find it hard to imagine anyone in Orden could have done it. This place has always been so peaceful. Sure, we have our squabbles, but this? Murder? It's too awful to even fathom."

Colt had to wonder if this guy was bullshitting him or just incredibly naive.

But whatever. He hadn't expected Fred to be able to provide him with a list of suspects or anything like that. He would be surprised if any of these wealthy fucks could. If any of them already had some clue as to who did it, they probably wouldn't have offered him ten thousand marcks for this job.

And perhaps Fred had been thinking something along those lines, too, because as the cart eased to a stop, the man pulled out a checkbook and scribbled on it before tearing a check out and handing it to Colt.

Slightly wide-eyed, Colt took it. The check was for five hundred marcks, and Colt couldn't help blinking. "Generous of you," he said.

"Necessary of me," said Fred in a corrective tone. "The others may not do this for you, but the last thing I want is for you to get the impression that we won't hold up our end of the bargain. I believe a small upfront sum should clarify the importance of this case to us."

If he was a cynical man, Colt might've felt like Fred was trying to buy his loyalty.

And he was a cynical man, so that was exactly what he felt--a feeling which clashed against his overall impression of Fred Millerman from only moments ago.

But hey, he also wasn't about to turn down five hundred marcks, either.

After that, Colt felt more or less satisfied with his questioning of Fred, so he tried to concentrate on getting the damn ball in the hole so that they could move on and catch up with the others.

It didn't go great. After the fifth stroke over par, Fred told him to just forfeit the hole and accept a handicap. Colt wasn't entirely sure what that meant, but it sounded like a good idea to him.

Even after progressing to the second hole, however, they did not find the others there waiting for them. At this point, there was no telling how far behind they'd gotten. Colt was prepared to just start skipping holes entirely, but apparently Fred still wanted to play, and he even forced Colt to keep going until he at least went over par.

It was pretty obnoxious, but given all the generosity he was being shown today, Colt didn't feel like he was in any position to complain.

He was beginning to think that he would simply have to talk to the others another day, until they reached the fifth hole and found John Davinworth. He was just sitting there in his cart, scrolling through his phone with one hand while he tapped his club against his leg absently. He must've been engrossed in whatever he was reading, because he didn't notice them approaching until they were practically on top of him.

Page 2594

At length, Loren began to have trouble finding witnesses whom he had not already talked to. He was nearing the end of his mission, it seemed. He could probably stop here, because he already had a pretty good sense of the trajectory that Kareem was looking for. Northeasterly was most likely the way to go.

Before he was fully satisfied with his results, however, the members of the Freeman Fellowship approached him. They looked like they had something they wanted to say to him, but he decided to ask them what they had seen first. Nothing new, as expected. He tried to turn and move on, but the shorter one called out to him.

"Lighteyes, sir, one minute, please." It was a young guy. Very young, in fact. Scarcely more than a boy, if his voice and physical appearance were to be trusted.

But of course, they weren't, really. For all Loren knew, the two older-looking ones were actually subordinate to the boy. Not likely, sure, but certainly still possible.

He waited.

The boy's gaze fell to Zahi, however, as if reluctant to say anything in his presence.

Not one to be deterred by things like awkward tension, Zahi just blurted out whatever he wanted, as usual. "Oh, are you hoping to poach him from our sect? Because I don't think we'd appreciate that very much. We're a tightly knit bunch, you see. Like brothers. We share everything with each other. Clothes. Secrets. Beds. Toothbrushes. Even women."

Loren couldn't let that go by. "He's joking. Badly."

"See that? We banter just like brothers, too. Everyone in our sect is the same. Loren is perfectly happy in the Rambata Rangers."

"That's not our name," Loren had to say. "We're the 331st Ranging Regiment." And while he spoke the truth, he also knew that their official name wasn't all that much better. There were most certainly not 331 ranging regiments in Abolish. It was just a stupid naming scheme to make their numbers seem larger than they actually were.

Page 2593

"Why would you say something so utterly untrue and hurtful?" said Zahi. "I know I put on a brave face, but I do have feelings, you know."

"Feelings like anger and jealousy, maybe."

"What, those don't count?"

Zahi kept pestering him, apparently having acquired enough of an interest in what he was doing for some reason. Loren mostly just tried to ignore him.

He consulted the other reapers around the camp, wanting to see if any of them could tell him anything more than what Rezolo had been able to, but he found no such luck. Despite there being more than fifty servants in this group, there were only about fifteen reapers.

No doubt, most of them were at some base somewhere, playing it extra safe and operating as communicators. Or simply doing something else. Loren was a little surprised to see how many reapers and servants rarely traveled together. While there were certainly benefits to splitting up--such as the servant being able to more easily go undercover as a normal human--Loren still felt that he would never be comfortable if he didn't stay with Rezolo all the time.

Their relationship was obviously a little odd, though. Especially in Abolish.

While Loren didn't feel like Rezolo was his "friend," exactly, it would be a lie to say that he only cared about the reaper in terms of preserving his own life. True, he would've preferred it if Rezolo wasn't so quiet and mysterious, but after all this time together, Loren was beginning to feel like maybe words were a little overrated.

They'd had numerous close calls in the past, times when either Rezolo or him would have died or been captured if the other hadn't done or said something. Shielding the reaper with his body. Killing an enemy just before they could strike. Or a simple warning at just the right moment.

These things added up.

They had their own kind of understanding.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Page 2592

What did Kareem hope to learn by discerning the riders' "trajectory?" Did he think they were headed somewhere else and wanted to follow? As far as Loren or anyone else could tell, they'd simply vanished into thin air. How were you supposed to follow that?

Hmm. On second thought, maybe that was exactly what Kareem intended to do. If they weren't going to pack up camp and leave, then they were going to stay, which probably meant that they would continue to deploy scouting parties.

Well, in any event, he had his orders. It wasn't his place to question them.

And it wasn't Zahi's, either, but that didn't stop the big-haired man from waltzing up to him and doing so.

"Who expected that, huh?! Not me, that's for sure!" He had a habit of speaking Mohssian quite often, and he was one of the most fluent in their camp. Some found that obnoxious, but it wasn't a problem for Loren, since he was quite fluent himself. "Hey, do you think they'll come back?"

"I have no idea," said Loren absently. He was more focused on surveying the soldiers around him, looking for ones he hadn't yet talked to.

"But if you did, you'd tell me, right? You wouldn't leave a brother hanging, would you?"

Loren ignored that question and kept walking.

"You're pretty cold, Lighteyes. Anyone ever tell you that? Cold as an ice cube on a winter's evening."

"You're not exactly warm, either, Zahi."

"I know of plenty of people who would say otherwise, friend."

"Plenty of people who you've deceived, you mean."

"Hey, I'm just being true to myself. I can't help it if people get the wrong impression. I'm a friendly guy who likes to have friendly conversations with other friendly people. Where's the harm in that, I ask you?"

"I think the harm comes when you stab them in the back."

Page 2591

Kareem stopped and turned. "Ah. I might've guessed. Perfect, then. You already know where to start. Confirm their trajectory through the camp and talk to everyone who saw them, especially the last person before they disappeared."

"Do you know what those things were, sir?" said Loren.

"The Mendocava," said Kareem. "They aren't exactly the reason we're here, but they're close enough. Gather as much data as you can, Lighteyes. Take notes on everything. I don't care how irrelevant it seems. Put it in your report and bring it to me by morning."

"Will do, sir."

And they split up. Loren had to hunt down a notepad. A digital one would've been nice, but those things tended to break easily on long missions like this.

In the meantime, he tried consulting Rezolo again. 'So can you explain now? What the hell are these Mendocava?'

'That is just one of many names. Void Riders. The Undying Host. The Hunters of Ardora. They are ancient beings, often thought to have left this world for good or to have simply never existed to begin with. In some cultures, they are regarded as a force of nature.'

'But what are they? You said they weren't of this world "anymore," didn't you?'

'Yes. It's said that the Void claimed them from their reapers. And rather than turning to madness with broken psyches, they came under the Void's direct control. Which is, supposedly, why they have the appearance that they do. They no longer have reapers to regenerate their bodies, and the Void, perhaps, sees no reason to fill that role for them.'

'Why would they have killed our aberration but no one else?'

'I don't know,' said Rezolo.

Loren kept pushing, but the reaper kept claiming ignorance. He wasn't sure he was buying that, frankly. Rezolo had a tendency to keep things to himself.

He soon discovered that this new task that Kareem had given him would probably take all night. It seemed like almost everyone in the camp had seen these damned riders. Figuring out who had seen them last would not be easy. And worse, he wasn't sure it would be worth the trouble.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Page 2590

'It was our aberration,' said Rezolo. 'It's impossible to identify the body from these remains, but I can sense that the aberration's abnormal soul is no longer among us.'

Disquieted murmurs passed through the crowd.

Loren had only met the aberration briefly and couldn't even recall the man's name, but he was aware of how highly sought after they were by many different sects. Their potential for growth was well-known, as was their insanity--which was saying a lot, if they were being judged by Abolish's standards.

Kareem scowled, and he looked around. "Clean this up. Don't dispose of the remains. Seal them in an airtight container and bring it to my quarters." His gaze settled on Loren. "Lighteyes. You and your reaper are with me. Come." He turned and started walking briskly away.

Loren had to hop over the ashen body and push through the reconvening crowd in order to catch up.

Kareem's reaper was attached to his shoulder, perhaps worried that the riders would show back up again. Morix was particularly strange in that way. Most reapers weren't known for their bravery, but Morix had a reputation for his cowardice. It caused no end of loose talk among the lower ranked Abolishers, theorizing how someone like that could have ascended to such a position of influence.

No one would dare say that while Kareem was within earshot, though. And it was typically Morix's fellow reapers who were talking like that, not their servants. The corporeals were generally more concerned with Kareem himself, and he was more than capable of commanding respect on his own.

"I want you to go around the camp and track the path that these apparitions took," said Kareem. His Valgan was strong and clear, much like his voice. "Find the person who saw them first and go from there."

"That person was actually me, sir," said Loren.

Page 2589

Loren asked Rezolo the very same question that he could hear being uttered aimlessly by the other men around him. 'Where did they go?'

'No telling. Perhaps they achieved their objective.'

'Which was?'

'Let's search the camp.' And Rezolo didn't wait for him.

Loren followed. To his eyes, the reaper was an oversized gecko with glowing white eyes. The long toes and swollen tips of the reaper's large feet hung rigidly below him as he floated impossibly through the air. It almost looked like the reapers were all standing on some kind of invisible ball as they moved.

The rest of the camp was still intact, it seemed. The confusion among everyone was apparent, but he didn't see any injuries.

He spotted a commotion in the distance, however, and Rezolo was already heading toward it. As they got closer, the reaper wisely slowed in order to let Loren take point.

Loren pushed his way through a gathered crowd to see what they were all staring at.

The smell hit him first. Charred flesh. All too familiar. Not enough to make him recoil or wretch, but it was still far from pleasant.

And when he saw the body, it took him a moment to even recognize it as such. Blackened ashes were all that remained. If not for the small and the vaguely human shape left behind in the smote grass, Loren might not have been able to tell what he was looking at.

The low mutterings among the onlookers increased as someone else began to push through the opposite side of the circle.

It was Kareem, Loren realized. A tall man of dark complexion and chiseled features, Kareem was one of the few people in this camp who actually bothered to dress well for his job. His stiff black coat with its golden collar and buttons looked like it would have fit in at a much ritzier event than this.

"Who was it?" said Kareem, loud enough for all to hear. "Who was killed?"

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Page 2588

'It would be too difficult to explain,' said Rezolo. 'Just prepare yourself. Either they will leave us alone, or this will be one of the worst fights you ever experience.'

Loren gave a wide-eyed frown as he kept scanning the horizon. The half-rotted soldiers were close enough now for the other servants on patrol to begin noticing the abnormalities about them. The confusion in the air spiked to an almost palpable degree, and then--

The riders vanished.

Like smoke. They disappeared into swirling plumes of black.

Loren wanted to ask Rezolo for answers again, but he didn't get the chance before the riders reappeared.

Right next to him.

And in front of him. And already passing him by. They were mid-stride, running through the encampment--through tables and chairs and tents and walls. Even through people.

One passed right through Loren, too, and as it did, he felt a biting shiver across his entire body. And the smell. Rotten flesh mixed with ash. He might've vomited if he hadn't already smelled the like several times before in his life.

He didn't understand in the slightest. Were they incorporeal like reapers? They could phase through objects undeterred, but that feeling just now hadn't been the same as when a reaper passed through his body. Not at all.

Panicked shouts arose throughout the camp, and he could see his fellow servants lashing out at the riders, trying to attack them and failing. Nothing was landing. Like throwing rocks at smoke.

And there were so many of them. They just kept rushing past. Hundreds. Maybe thousands, even.

Until, just as quickly as they had arrived, they were gone.

Loren, along with everyone else, was left looking around, dumbstruck.

What the hell had just happened?

It was all the more confounding, because he couldn't see any obvious damage that had been done to the camp, either. The riders had surged through it like a crashing wave, the countless hooves creating almost that exact sound.

And yet, as Loren inspected his surroundings, nothing seemed disturbed. Everything was just the same as before the riders arrived.

Page 2587

Was it a mirage? As much he wanted to trust his eyes, they could still play tricks on him. Such a large force of decaying servants couldn't be real, could it? Clad like that? And on horseback, no less?

For a short time, Loren could only continue watching, blinking, and trying to process what he was seeing. But when the riders persisted, refusing to disappear as he hoped they might, he knew he had to speak up. He had to warn the rest of the camp.

"Unknown servants approaching!" he yelled in Valgan, drawing urgent looks from the patrols around him. "Inform Kareem! Send word! Unknown servants approaching from the west!"

More calls came out in response, echoing his warning, and without even moving, he could feel the camp coming to life with the sudden anticipation of battle. There was no telling if these ghoulish warriors in the distance actually intended to attack them, but they certainly didn't look friendly. Better to be prepared. Hopefully, none of the idiots around here would make him regret this decision.

'I cannot sense them yet,' said Rezolo privately. 'What do they look like?'

And Loren did his best to explain, expecting not to be believed.

Instead, however, the reaper was simply quiet for a time. Then he asked, 'What does their heraldry look like?'

'Their what?'

'Their war banners. Describe them to me.'

Still a bit confused, Loren looked toward the riders, searching for banners. It didn't take long to find them. There were plenty. 'They're just black.'

'Pure black? You're sure?'

'Yes. Is there supposed to be something on them?'

The reaper fell silent again, ignoring him.

'Rezolo, do you know who they are?'

'Those are not servants,' the reaper said. 'At least, not the kind you are familiar with. Those beings are not of this world. Not anymore.'

'What are you talking about?!'

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Page 2586

In any event, Loren understood how lucky he was, as a mutant, to have as normal of an appearance as he did. Few others of their kind had been able to maintain such visually subtle mutations. Perhaps that would change for him in the future, but for now at least, he was more or less content.

These eyes of his were enough.

They saw, before anyone else, how the horizon was shifting. How those distant shapes were appearing. Seemingly from nothing, as mirages might.

But these were no mirages.

They were figures. On horseback. And they were not small in number, either.

Right away, he became both wary and confused.

That group was certainly large enough to be considered an army, but not one from this century. Or even the last one, perhaps. Horseback? If it was the Vanguard coming to attack, they would not be riding horses.

The patrols were beginning to take notice now, too. They could probably see the abnormal movement, at least.

Loren strained for more, trying to further sharpen his vision. He wanted to see these figures in greater detail. Who the hell were they? If it was just a bunch of local villagers, aiming to make a sort of show out of their collective strength, then they were going to be in for a rude awakening. The men in this encampment were already restless as is, and even on good days, they were not known for their mercy or restraint.

Whoever these poor bastards riding this way were, they were going to be massacred if they didn't turn around soon. Loren could already imagine--


What the fuck?

The detail of the riders' faces came into focus, but Loren couldn't believe what he was seeing.

Those weren't normal people at all.

They were rotting corpses. He could see flesh peeling off their bones, dried blood all over their pale and torn skin, barely any hair on their bald heads. Some even looked like they were more skeleton than flesh.

And that armor. Not all of them were wearing it, but it didn't belong in this century, either.

An army of undead. But not like any Loren had ever seen.

Page 2585

But it was more than just that. Loren's eyesight was his most prized possession--and not coincidentally. He had been working on it from the beginning, ever since he discovered he was a mutation user.

And ever
 since Gohvis had helped him get a handle on his power.

He hadn't known back then how fortunate he was to have found an instructor so soon after his ability manifested itself. Since that time, he had heard and read many tales of the sad fate that had befallen many mutants throughout history.

He might've been nicer to Gohvis, had he known what a privilege and an honor it truly was to be taught by such a master and pioneer.

It was still a work-in-progress, of course, as all mutations were, but Loren could see farther, clearer, and in lower light than anyone else in this encampment. Or in the majority of Abolish, for that matter.

Now if only he could do something about these seven stubby little horns that crowned his head. He would've liked to not have to wear such bulky hats all time in order to conceal them. They made even other servants stare.

He'd heard from other mutants that it might simply be impossible to remove them, since it was supposedly impossible to "undo" any mutation, but Loren was highly skeptical of that claim. Gohvis didn't have horns on his head. Sure, he barely looked human anymore, but that was beside the point.

He wished he'd thought to ask Gohvis about it directly when he had the chance. Unfortunately, during his time under the Monster's tutelage, Loren had actually thought the horns were cool. It was only after returning to the world at large that his mind began to change on that matter.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Page 2584

They weren't expecting much in the way of resistance way out here, though. The war was on Eloa, right now, and this was Ardora, on the other side of the world.

The strangeness of the timing had not been lost on him. Anyone would've figured that the initiatives on Eloa should require all hands on deck, especially considering the Vanguard's supposed numerical advantage over Abolish, but apparently, the Old Man thought otherwise.

This had to be some kind of plan of his, Loren figured. While the Vanguard was distracted with the war, Dozer was sending out tendrils--like this sorry group--in order to... accomplish what, exactly?

Loren hadn't been able to piece that together yet. The encampment's leader--who also happened to be Zahi's much older brother, Kareem--had been keeping a tight lid on what their exact orders were.

They weren't conquering villages. They weren't fighting the Vanguard. They were just sending out scouting parties and marching--or driving, in the case of the lucky few sects who'd been able to requisition vehicles for themselves.

In any case, it was a shitty detail to be stuck on, Loren felt. Right now, all the glory and fame were back on Eloa. He hoped to get back that there as soon as possible.

But at least the view was nice. With the sun reaching low for the horizon, the Plains came alive with more colors than he'd ever seen on Eloa.

And the clouds. They twirled like snakes. Bumpy, gargantuan snakes. All across the sky, wreathed in all types of reds and oranges, yellows and green, blues and purples--as well as a few that were perhaps impossible to describe as anything other than ultraviolet.

Maybe there really was something special about this place.

He sure bloody hoped so, at least.

Movement in the distance acquired his attention before any of the patrols around him. His eyes narrowed as his vision sharpened.

Page 2583

"I say, if anyone should be worrying about their state of mind, it's all the idiots who think they're somehow normal," said the stage performer. "Seriously, how deluded must you be if you don't feel at least a little bit cracked in the noggin by all the stuff goin' on these days?"

Loren currently had the displeasure of being in the same sect as that tempestuous gasbag up there on stage. Zahi Rambata had a certain way with words that involved never shutting up.

"Just last week, while doing reconnaissance, I met a guy with a wife and kids. But that wasn't the strange part. No, the strange part was that he didn't even realize anything was wrong with him!"

A low chorus of laughs ran through the crowd at that "joke." It was difficult for Loren to find it very amusing when he'd heard some variation of it a dozen times already.

"It was like seeing someone going through chemotherapy who didn't realize they had cancer!"

Loren still did not laugh, but the drunken crowd did. He had to wonder if it was because they actually found it funny or because they would laugh at just about anything, right now. Tough to say. Even some of the reapers were laughing, though, so maybe Zahi was onto something.

Loren decided to get up from his table and go for a walk. He'd already finished eating, and he didn't see much point in wasting the rest of his break on Zahi, of all people.

The encampment wasn't very large, and he soon reached the edge of it while Rezolo followed after him, silent as usual. The Gettira Plains stretched out before him, as green and vast as anything he'd ever seen.

The place didn't offer much in the way of natural cover, which was why there were constant patrols around the small encampment's perimeter.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Page 2582

For his part, he wouldn't mind joining the Freeman Fellowship. They seemed a little crazy, sure, but this was Abolish. Everyone was crazy in one way or another. And they were at least not quite so violently crazy.

The Void knew that he'd seen more than enough violence in his life. Growing up in the middle of the Vaelish Civil War had granted him far too much experience with that.

It was a bit strange to think about now, frankly. How different his life would be if he had been born in a different time or place.

He wouldn't have met those other children in the forest and banded together. He wouldn't have seen so much death and misery before achieving any kind of stability in his young life again, however fragile. He wouldn't have resorted to banditry.

And he probably wouldn't have met Dozer and the Monster of the East.

He wouldn't have joined Abolish on that same fateful day, either. He wouldn't have made a name for himself so quickly and become mildly infamous.

They wouldn't be calling him Loren Lighteyes.

On some days, he was able to take pride in that. On others, he wanted to rethink every decision he ever made.

It was a mixed bag. Most lives were probably like that, he figured. Maybe one day, if he continued to excel, he would be able to feel like more than just a disposable cog in the great machine that was Abolish.

The way that the Old Man had talked to them on that first day, he'd made it sound like they would be able to achieve greatness through following him. Like they all had conqueror's spirits within them, just waiting to burst out.

But it was five years later, and here he still was among the rabble, watching what passed for a "stage show" in Abolish encampments.

Page 2581 -- CCXXXVII.

Chapter Two Hundred Thirty-Seven: 'O, lost comrade...'
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

"Y'know, I've often heard that having an overly dark sense of humor can be a sign of dementia or brain damage, but personally, I think that's just a bunch of anti-psychopath propaganda, bought and paid for by Big Pharma and the normies who run it."

As he listened to the wild-haired man on stage from an empty table in the back row of the outdoor theater, he began to wonder--and not for the first time--what he was doing here.

The rest of the crowd seemed to be enjoying themselves, though they also seemed pretty thoroughly sauced by this point.

"They're always trying to scaremonger and devalue our contributions to society, trying to convince people in various ways that we're the ones who are abnormal, not them. As if there was anything strange about us in the face of this ridiculous world we live in!"

As far as he could tell, the only other ones not drunkenly laughing or cheering were all sharing a table together a few meters away. And a couple were looking right at him.

He knew who they were. Members of the Freeman Fellowship.

He found himself paying more and more attention to them, lately. Their numbers seemed to have been growing, and if the expressions on their faces right now were an indicator, they were hoping to keep that trend going.

But of course, that wasn't really up to him, was it? He was just a servant, after all.

His reaper was right there next to him, being a silent enigma as always. Rezolo never laughed or cracked wise like most other reapers. It was rare to see him react with anything other than calm observance.

He doubted they would be able to convince Rezolo to join their faction, but who knows? Even after nearly five years with the reaper, he still didn't feel like he knew him very well at all.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Page 2580

Dennex must've noticed the change in Cisco's demeanor, because he also turned to look at the television.

The infographic next to the anchor's head read thus:

Beast of Lorent slain by Atreyan Hero

The accompanying image was that of an award ceremony. The anchor explained that the President of Lorent had granted one of the country's highest honors to someone two days ago, in recognition of an act of heroism that surprisingly had nothing to do with the continental war.

And then they showed actual footage of this ceremony.

Apparently, this hero was the young black guy standing there with a big scarf around his neck. They must've mentioned his name, but Cisco didn't catch it.

He was too busy staring with widening eyes at the person behind him.

That was Matteo Delaguna right there.

Cisco had met him many times. And sparred with him, too. Only to get his ass kicked.

Not that he'd been the only one.

Matteo was a wrestling prodigy, already distinguished among the Rainlords. Cisco distinctly remembered him from an interhouse tournament between the Sebolts, Delagunas, Garzas, Strouds, Zabats, and well, him, the lone Elroy. It had been almost two years ago now, but it had left a lasting impression on him.

On his ego, in particular.

He remembered feeling like he was pretty hot shit before that tournament. Struggling in the first round and losing in the second had corrected that problem.

Well, okay, maybe it hadn't.

But he'd certainly gained considerable respect for the finalists--and most of all the winner, Matteo.

Cisco also remembered hearing all the other boys talk about him, about how it was only a matter of time before the rest of the world began to take notice of him, too. The sound of resigned admiration in their voices had made Cisco indignant, like he wanted to disagree with them for no reason.

No. Not for no reason. Because he was jealous. And childish, perhaps.

But seeing him on television now... it looked like they were right.


The reaper didn't require elaboration. 'What in the world is he doing there?'

'That's what I'd like to know.'