Saturday, November 30, 2013

Page 381

Gina’s brow furrowed. “Sir, how much danger are you in?”

<“Oh, not much. Don’t worry.”>

“Stop telling me not to worry. I know you’re lying. Just tell me the truth.”

<“Sorry, I can’t hear you very well. I’m going into a tunnel.”>

“Your plane is going into a tunnel?”

<“It’s a very tunnel-like cloud. You’re--kerrghh--breaking up--kerrghh. Sorry--kerrghh.”>

“You’re pathetic, Master Roman.”

<“Kerrghh--talk to you later--kerrghh.”> He hung up.

She shook her head and set her phone down. After a few moments, however, it started ringing again, and she picked it back up.

<“How did you find out so much about Abolish’s plan?”>

It was her turn to hesitate. “I inferred it from watching the news.”

<“Bullshit! You named names and gave me a timeline!”>

“The reporters were very thorough.”

<“Fuck! You went to Sescoria to spy on them, didn’t you?! Don’t you know how dangerous that is?!”>

“Don’t worry, sir. Hector is here with me.”

<“Oh yeah? Let me talk to him, then.”>

“He’s busy with something. I don’t want to bother him.”

<“Gina, you--!”>

“Oh, look at that. I seem to be going into a tunnel now, too. Bye.” She hung up.

Roman called back immediately, and Gina just let it ring. Then it fell quiet for a minute, and just when she was getting back into her work, it started beeping. She checked the text messages.
i forgot to tell u sumthing important
She called him back. “Now what?”

<“It’s about Lynnette. She’s probably headed back to Atreya.”>

“Huh? By herself?”

<“She got separated from us. We don’t know where she is, and she doesn’t know where we’re going, so the Queen figures that Lynnette will go back to Atreya. Which sounds about right.”>

“You want me to track her down?”

<“No need. I gave her your contact details a while back as a precaution. I’m betting you’ll get a call from her as soon she gets hold of a phone. Help her out if you can.”>

“Yes, sir.”

Friday, November 29, 2013

Page 380

“Everyone in Atreya thinks he’s a mass murderer,” said Gina. “He’s gotten pretty infamous. And Abolish may or may not be trying to kill him now.”

Again, there came a pause. <“Huh,”> was all Roman said.

“He got into a fight with them just yesterday.”

<“Is he okay?”>

“I think so. He’s not alone, anyway. There’s another servant with him.”

<“Oh? Who?”>

“A man named Colt. He has two young children with him.”

<“Hmm. Does he seem trustworthy?”>

“Hard to say. Hector seems to trust him, though. I’ve been trying to help them as best I can.”

<“Good. Don’t let them do anything crazy. They could be valuable allies.”>

“Also, more importantly, I’ve learned that Abolish intends to destroy a small town called Harold and blame the attack on Rendon.”

<“Mm. That’s about what Mehlsanz predicted.”>

“They’re going to do it thirteen days from now. I thought the events from yesterday might’ve changed their minds, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Desmond’s been yelling at Karkash but not to much effect.”

<“Who are Desmond and Karkash?”>

“Two of the Abolish guys. I believe there are now seven Abolish servants in Sescoria.”

<“Ugh. Seven. That will be problematic.”>

“Where are you heading next? Do you have a plan?”

<“We’re flying to Intar right now. We’re hoping to find a more reasonable faction of the Vanguard there.”>

“One which won’t mind that you stole a plane from their allies?”

<“We might have to leave that part out of the discussion.”>

“Then you’ll have to ditch the plane or hide it somehow.”

<“Yeah, I know.”>

“How is the Queen doing?”

<“Good, as far as I can tell. She was the first one to see through the Vanguard’s bullshit. Would’ve been nice if she warned me a little earlier about her plan to have Lynnette rip them off, but I suppose it would’ve turned into a clusterfuck either way.”>

“They attacked you?”

<“No.”>

“Master Roman...”

<“Okay, maybe a little.”>

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Page 379 -- XLIV.

Chapter Forty-Four: ‘Hark! Thy distant troubles...!’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Gina sat up in her chair. “Master Roman! Where are you? You haven’t contacted me for weeks.”

<“Yeah, my phone kind of blew up. It’s no big deal. I’ve got a new one now.”>

“How did your phone get destroyed?”

<“Oh, um. I dropped it.”>

Gina squinted. “You dropped your phone, and it exploded.”

<“Yeah. That’s a thing that can happen. I don’t see what’s weird about it.”>

“Master Roman, why are you lying to me? And moreover, why are you sucking at it?”

<“I have other things on my mind right now, okay? Dammit, Voreese! Shut up! I’m trying to talk to Gina! Agh--she can’t hear you! You know she can’t hear you, so you’re just being annoying for no fucking reason! Stop already or--”> There was a pause, then a sigh of exasperation. <“Voreese says hi.”>

“Hi, Voreese.”

<“Gina says hi. Yeah. Great. Now shut up. Yes, I know you can’t let go of me right now! Just be quiet!”> Another pause, and Roman cleared his throat. <“Sorry about that. It’s been a stressful week.”>

“Did something happen?”

<“We met up with some more Vanguard forces, but they weren’t very forthcoming. They were giving us the run around and just generally being unhelpful pricks.”>

“And?”

<“And Lynnette stole something from them, and they got all pissed. Then I stole a bigger something. An airplane-shaped something.”>

“You stole a plane from the Vanguard?!”

<“Yeah!”> laughed Roman. <“Stole the pilot, too. Pretty nice guy. Bit jumpy, but nice.”>

“Wait.” Gina’s brow lowered. “What happened to your private jet?”

<“Oh, um. Yeah, don’t worry about the private jet. It’s fine.”>

“It’s not fine at all, is it?”

<“It’s at the bottom of a swamp.”>

“How did that happen?!”

<“That’s not important.”>

“I think it is!”

<“Everything is under control. I only called to let you know that we haven’t died horribly yet.”>

“Fantastic. In that case, I have news for you, too. You remember Hector, yes?”

<“Yeah?”>

Page 378

Garovel had to wake Hector up in order to eat and get changed. Colt watched the young black man shuffle stiltedly into the bathroom as if his limbs were made of wood.

Soon, they were in the car again. Hector went right back to sleep, and Colt stared at an open road as they headed for Walton. At length, Bohwanox had a few private words for him.

When I asked you before about how you intend to raise Stephanie and Thomas, you said you’d figure something out.

I remember.

We both know that’s not much of an answer. We have time, so I didn’t press you on it. But if this child doctor doesn’t have good news, then we might have to answer that question a lot sooner than we expected. You understand?

Colt glanced at Hector and the twins in the mirror. ‘...Yeah. I understand.

-+-+-+-+-

It was a snug fit, to be sure. There was barely room to move around, but Gina had everything she needed in this modest basement. She had a checker-print bed, a bathroom with a shower, a mini-fridge, an air conditioner, a heater, and even a kitchenette. Computer equipment took up most of the available floor space, and everywhere else lay scores of boxes, all filled with food that would last a very long time, if she needed it to. Hopefully, she wouldn’t need it to.

She figured that most people would hate having to live in a place like this for very long, but for her, it mostly just brought back memories. Nowadays, she preferred more fresh air and physical activity in her life, but she didn’t mind falling back into old habits. As long as she had internet access, she could survive just fine down here.

She gnawed on a stick of beef jerky with her hair in a half-combed tangle when, abruptly, her phone rang. She checked the number, but it wasn’t one she’d seen before. She answered it. “Hello?”

<“Hey, Gina,”> came Roman’s voice.

Page 377

By now, Colt was dead tired as well, but he couldn’t allow himself to pass out just yet. He changed the twins’ diapers, then laid a plastic sheet down before feeding them. As expected, they made a mess of their simple juice and hash meal. He cleaned up after them and left the television on for the reapers while he finally drifted off to sleep.

Bohwanox woke him up in the middle of the night.

“Ugh--what is it?” Colt rubbed his face and sat up. “Are we about to be attacked or something?”

Nah, we just wanted you to change the channel,’ said Garovel.

His face flattened. “What.”

We’re really sick of watching the news,’ said Bohwanox.

“Don’t--you--” It took him a moment of deliberation, but Colt decided against killing them. “What the hell did you do before television was invented?”

Follow people around,’ said Garovel. ‘Or read. If you’ve got any interesting books on you, then feel free to stay up all night and turn the pages for us.

“Pass. Why don’t you do some scouting? Make sure we’re safe here?”

We did,’ said Bohwanox. ‘Five times. There’s nothing around here. This town is way too peaceful.

“Share your life stories with each other, then.”

Shut up and change the channel,’ said Bohwanox.

“I’m tempted to refuse on principle alone.”

Bohwanox bobbed his head at him. ‘Okay. Then no sleep for you.

You can stay up and entertain us.

Colt grabbed the remote control and flipped through channels until the reapers stopped complaining. It took a while. There wasn’t much on at two in the morning. They settled on a program about the kilometers of underground caves near Gray Rock.

He checked on the kids again, but they were asleep as well, so he drifted off again.

In the morning, Colt was the first to wake. Still feeling yesterday’s soreness, he fetched some breakfast for everyone from the nearby gas station.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Page 376

“I have two,” said Colt. “Twins. Little over a year old.”

<“You didn’t... kidnap them, did you?”>

“What? No! They’re my children!”

<“That was going to be my second guess.”>

Colt shook his head. “Kidnap... what kind of people do you think we are?”

<“Well, y’know. Kidnap, rescue--who can tell the differences these days?”>

“I’m pretty sure I can.”

<“Anyways, why do you want a doctor? Is something wrong with them?”>

“I’m not sure. And that’s the problem.”

<“I see. Hmm. Admittedly, I don’t have a child doctor on standby. Not exactly the kind of personnel I was expecting to need. And I can’t imagine that black market pediatrics is a booming industry, either. I’ll look into it for you, though. Give me a couple days.”>

“Alright. Thanks.”

The conversation soon ended, and Colt hung up the phone. He abruptly realized that Hector hadn’t even said goodbye to Gina, and when he looked in the mirror again, he saw Hector sleeping while the twins prodded his face.

Colt was starting to feel his own enhancements wearing off as well, muscles growing stiff with sharp and aching pains alike. He could only imagine how bad it was for Hector. The kid had already been exhausted even before fighting Karkash.

Bohwanox hovered outside the driver’s side window, keeping pace with the car as it sped across the highway. ‘What makes you think something might be wrong with the twins?

“I don’t know. They’re just very... calm, I guess.”

Hmm.

“Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe they’re just little weirdoes and it’s perfectly normal. I just want to consult someone who knows about this sort of thing.” He glanced between the two reapers. “Do either of you know anything about child development?”

Not really,’ said Garovel.

Sorry,’ said Bohwanox.

“Figures.”

After a few more minutes, they arrived back at the motel. Garovel offered to wake Hector up, but Colt just made a second trip and carried him into the room, too.

Page 375

<“Ah, well, if he was a traitor, then I’ll probably be hearing more about it. I know Desmond wasn’t happy to see Karkash on the news.”>

“Let us know if you find anything out,” said Colt.

<“Of course. But what are you guys going to do in the meantime?”>

Colt eyed the reapers briefly. “We’ll probably just lay low for a while.”

<“Hmm. You sure I can’t help with that? I know what you said before, but I don’t mind making a few calls.”>

“No offense, but I’d rather not trust some random friend of yours unless I have to.”

<“Fair enough.”> There was a pause, and then she said, <“Well, if that’s all, then I’ll leave you to it.”>

Ask her about a new motorcycle,’ said Garovel.

“Can you help us find some new transportation? Hector could do with a new bike, and a car with fresh license plates wouldn’t hurt, either.”

<“Aha. That, I can do. Master Roman has a few different garages you can use.”>

Colt raised an eyebrow. “Just how rich is this Roman guy, anyway?”

<“I’m not sure he would want me to answer that.”>

“Right. Where’s the closest one, then?”

<“Let’s see, um. You’re somewhere around Maxwell, right?”>

“Yeah.”

<“Then go to Walton. There are three there, but you probably want the one that’s just east of the city limits. Let me know when you get close and I’ll give you the exact coordinates.”>

“Will do. Thanks.”

<“Sure. Anything else you need?”>

Colt stared at the winding road ahead as he thought, watching the frequent curves among the grassy foothills. “There’s one other thing,” he said, “but it might be difficult to find.”

<“What is it?”>

“I’d like to consult a doctor. And obviously, I can’t go to a hospital.”

<“I can find you a very discreet doctor easily enough, but why would you need to see one? You don’t get hurt, right?”>

“Not that kind of doctor,” said Colt. “I wanna see one who specializes in child care.”

There came another pause, longer this time. <“...You have a child with you?”>

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Page 374

“Uh, well... a lot happened, so, uh... I’m not sure what you wanna know...”

<“You got into a fight, didn’t you? Is everyone okay? What was the fight even about?”>

And suddenly, Colt found himself listening to Hector stumble his way through an explanation of events. To say that it took longer than necessary would be an understatement, but after several agonizing minutes, Gina was up to speed. More or less.

<“Okay. So. The guy who was fighting Karkash is dead, and you don’t know who he was?”>

“Y-yeah. But we think that, um... that he, uh... was, ah... er, well, uh--”

“Hector, I swear by the goddess’s tits, if you don’t finish that sentence in the next five seconds, I’m gonna drive this car into a fucking tree.”

Shockingly, that didn’t seem to do much for Hector’s composure. He merely flushed red and fell painfully silent.

Colt instantly felt like a piece of shit. That was decidedly not the reaction from Hector he had been going for.

Garovel floated in front of the windshield and glared at him. The reaper’s face wasn’t visible, but somehow, that didn’t seem to matter.

Great,’ said Bohwanox privately. ‘Amazingly helpful, Colt. Not like the kid’s been through anything traumatic lately. Not like he’s helped us out at all or could use any kind of encouragement from perhaps his only living friend in the entire world right now. I’m sure there’s nothing you could--

I get it! Fuck!’ He looked at Hector in the mirror, who was nowhere close to making eye contact again. “Look, um. I didn’t mean to, um. Uh. I’m--mm. S-sorry, I wasn’t...”

You’re killing me with this irony right now,’ said Bohwanox.

Aw, fuck! I’m an asshole!

At least you acknowledge it.

<“Hello?”> said Gina. <“Uh. You still there?”>

Colt decided to just fill in for Hector. “Yeah, we’re here. The guy from earlier, we suspect he was a member of Abolish. A traitor.”

Page 373

“That’s good, but, uh... er, we might still be able to help a little, right?”

Garovel floated back down. ‘I know your heart’s in the right place, but we’re a little too famous right now. With all the police around, we’d probably just create chaos if we tried to get involved any further.

“Agreed,” said Colt. He opened the driver’s side door and stuck one foot inside. “C’mon, Hector. We’ve done all we can.”

Hector glanced over everyone, then gave a nod and took a seat in the back with the twins. The car’s seatbelts didn’t fit the kids properly, so Hector had gotten into the habit of keeping his arms around them. They didn’t seem to mind terribly, though Stephanie occasionally tried to pick his nose for him.

It wouldn’t be a very long trip back to the motel in Maxwell, but Colt saw Hector pull out his phone. It only had to ring once, and Hector put it on speaker for everyone.

<“So you’re on the news again,”> said Gina. <“They’re already blaming the Darksteel Soldier for what happened.”>

Hector took a heavy breath. “Seriously? How did they even... I mean, so soon?”

<“Eye witnesses, so far. I saw one guy defending you, but the reporter just kinda dismissed him. They’re also saying they’ve got footage of you from someone’s camera phone, but they haven’t shown it yet.”>

“No mention of Karkash?” Hector asked.

<“Oh, they’re talking about him, too. I’m assuming he’s the ‘flying lightning man’ they’re referring to, yeah?”>

“Yeah.”

<“He’s gotten some attention, but they don’t know who he is, so they’re focusing on you. In fact, they’re speculating right now that he was trying to stop you from hurting people.”>

Hector shut his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “You gotta be kidding me...”

Colt just kind of snickered, and when he saw Hector giving him a look in the rearview mirror, he returned a blithe shrug.

That might be to our advantage, actually,’ said Garovel.

Gina interrupted before anyone could ask what he meant. <“So what really happened?”>

Monday, November 25, 2013

Page 372

That’s what makes me think they were traitors,’ said Garovel. ‘That fight wasn’t about trying to eliminate all opposition. If it was, then Karkash definitely would have stayed to continue fighting us. But he didn’t. And given his advantageous position at the time, the only way that decision makes sense is if he had already achieved his goal. Or, I suppose, if he received new orders that instructed him to leave, but I didn’t see any evidence of that.

“But still... I mean... not that I’m complaining, but... it was kinda sloppy to leave without killing us, too, wasn’t it? Somehow, I doubt he was just being merciful...”

Actually, leaving was tactically the wisest decision.

“H-how do you mean?” said Hector.

There was no guarantee that he would’ve been able to win against you. Continuing the fight meant running the risk of allowing you to achieve emergence as well--or otherwise turning the tide of battle back in your favor. So unless the objective was specifically to kill us, then fighting you was an unnecessary risk. Karkash understood that. Or his reaper did.

“Hmm...”

Clearly, they don’t have the same bloodlust as some of our previous enemies. Which might sound like a good thing, but in a way, it’s worse, because it means they’ll make more intelligent decisions. They’re less likely to go on random killing sprees, but at the same time, they’ll be smarter when it comes to real strategy. Against us, that is.

“Ugh... but I guess that’s... kinda good. I’d prefer that to the other way around, at least.”

Colt sensed the opportunity to interject. “We should probably leave now.”

Hector looked at him. “Oh! What about the civilians? Is there anyone who still needs help?”

They’re receiving it,’ said Bohwanox. ‘We saw an entourage of emergency vehicles arriving from the north of town. Sescoria sent lots of people.

Garovel flew up a few meters to look over the town. ‘Ah. I see flashing lights all over the place.

Page 371

Hector joined Colt by his side, and they both lingered on the sight of Stoker’s headless body.

“He’s really dead, right?” asked Colt as the reapers floated over to them. “I never can tell anymore.”

Yeah,’ said Garovel. ‘You can tell because the body has stopped regenerating.

Colt stood up from his messy work, wiping the blood on his pants. “Who was this guy, even?” He started for the nearby alley where he’d parked the car.

Hector followed, annihilating his helmet and frowning at Garovel. “Ah... we never learned his name...”

We only know he was fighting with Karkash.

“He did say he was Vanguard,” Hector added.

He was probably lying,’ said Garovel.

Hector raised an eyebrow. “What makes you think that?”

When Abolish and the Vanguard clash, it’s a big deal. One-on-one fights are extremely rare. I’m guessing he told us that because he figured we’d be more likely to help him.

Colt checked on the twins in the backseat of the car. Stephanie was standing at the window with her little hands pressed to the glass, and he opened the door to meet her. Thomas was sat contentedly on the other side, and they both looked at Colt, just as calm as earlier. He patted their heads and bellies, tickling them while he double-checked for anything to be worried about. They giggled at him, babbling a few half-words but nothing more.

Hector and Garovel were still occupied with their conversation. “I wish we could have helped him... Because that was just... agh...”

Yeah. Assuming he was being hunted down because he and his reaper were traitors to Abolish, then I’m sure he would’ve been able to provide us with valuable information.

“I don’t understand why, um... well, I mean... if they really were Abolish, then I get why Karkash was after them, but... I don’t get why Karkash just kinda... left. Why didn’t he come after us, too?”

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Page 370

Colt wanted to ask who this guy was, or perhaps what, but it didn’t seem like the best time. Stoker’s eyes were quick to regenerate, and they fell upon Bohwanox next. The creature’s body was still in tatters, but that didn’t stop it from pressing after the reaper. Bohwanox flew back as Colt and Hector both intercepted.

Hector swung an iron fist, which was of course avoided, and Colt just tried to grab hold of the monster, but Stoker simply rocketed away from his grip at the last moment.

“Slow him down for me,” said Colt, “and I’ll kill him.”

Hector nodded. A flurry of metal gathered around Stoker’s regenerating skin. Iron dust left a trailing path as it zagged across the open road, slowing him hardly at all, but then the metal walls started shooting up all around it. The sudden obstacle course forced Stoker to adjust and gave the metal coating precious time to accumulate. The coating broke almost as soon as it formed, but Hector just kept at it, and Colt was able to close the distance.

He just needed one punch. One good, concentrated punch. To land it, though, Colt knew he would have to suppress the opponent’s movement, so he tackled Stoker to the ground first. Stoker thrashed, nearly throwing him off, but Hector’s metal clapped around the thing’s head and arms. And that was the moment he needed.

Colt focused the ability into his hand, the spatial destruction power adding to his already enhanced muscle strength. And when his fist hit the metal around Stoker’s head, it went right through the iron and obliterated everything. Blood, bone, and brain matter all splattered across the road.

His eyes widened, and he blinked at his red-soaked knuckles. He hadn’t expected it to be quite so effective as that.

He could see a deep impression in the bloody asphalt and, after a moment, realized that it had a particular shape to it. A clear rhombus, it was. And a very strange sight, he felt, but he supposed now he knew what the shape of his path was.

Page 369 -- XLIII.

Chapter Forty-Three: ‘O, creator and destroyer...!’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Through the scope of his rifle, Colt saw the creature turn to look directly at him, as if the distance made no difference. He didn’t hesitate to continue firing, but Stoker was moving far too quickly to track with the zoom on the lens, so Colt stood up from his rooftop perch and prepared for its arrival.

It didn’t take long.

Colt unloaded his handgun, and even at close range, Stoker dodged every last bullet and tackled Colt through a brick chimney. They rolled off the roof together, Stoker biting bloodily into Colt’s arm. The pain was non-existent of course, so he tried to bash the thing’s skull in with the butt of his gun, but that too proved fruitless. Stoker’s head bobbed out of the way of each strike, returning only to rip another chunk of flesh out of Colt’s neck or shoulder or chin. And Colt soon grew irritated enough to change tactics.

He resorted to a grapple hold, repositioning himself to its side and wrapping his half-eaten arm around its neck. The enhanced strength coursed through his body, and Colt yanked. But Stoker’s neck resisted and, in fact, turned the other direction to look at Colt. It gnashed at him, perhaps trying to bite his nose off. Colt buried a thumb into Stoker’s eye socket, jamming and twisting enough to make blood spurt out.

Liquid hydrogen replaced the creature’s face, and Colt’s hand froze instantly. Stoker bit into the icy flesh and shattered it, and Colt could see Stoker’s skull through missing flesh and eyes. No doubt, it had blinded itself, but its hand still found Colt’s cranium. He could feel the force of its grip beginning to crack his own skull.

Metal gathered over Stoker’s face and body, courtesy of a still-distant Hector. Stoker thrashed free of the iron, but it had been slowed enough for Colt to land a quick punch, throwing the beast off of him.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Page 368

Hector filled in his cylinder with a platform and was soon atop the slab. Fog roiled violently around the edges of the metal, but for the moment, he had a perfectly clear view of the sky and Garovel.

It fled on your right,’ said the reaper. ‘Oh joy. It’s coming after me now.

From outside the fog, Stoker came rocketing up toward Garovel. The reaper started back down toward Hector, and when Stoker’s swiping hands caught up with him, Garovel smoothly dodged a string of attacks. Then the creature had to back off when a javelin sailed between them.

Hector pressed his hands to the slab, and a curving wall leapt out of it. Garovel phased through the metal half-dome, and Hector expected Stoker to come flying over the top. He was proved correct and threw another javelin as soon as he saw the man. But even still, Stoker jetted out of its path, zigzagging to safety.

Hector growled. ‘How do I hit this damn thing?!

You need to trap it,’ said Garovel. ‘If it can avoid your attack, then it almost certainly will. So come up with something unavoidable.

He only had a moment to consider his options before Stoker barreled into him, carrying him away from the slab and fog both. Stoker bit into his arm, and Hector just ignored it, instead taking the opportunity to encase the man in metal.

They hit the dirt together, and Hector rolled away from the iron statue. And for a moment, when he saw Stoker again, he thought that might have been enough. But the coating didn’t last. Stoker broke out with brute force. Chunks of busted metal scattered around the creature as it returned to its feet.

Once again, Hector met its hollow gaze.

Then, without warning, there came a distant crack, and the creature’s body jerked backward as something tiny whizzed past its head.

Hector blinked. ‘What was that?

A gunshot?’ said Garovel. ‘I think it came from the town.

That was--? But it--wait. So this thing just dodged a fucking bullet?!

Another gunshot, again avoided. Stoker looked in the direction of the town and then promptly sped off toward it.

What the--?’ And Hector realized. ‘Colt!’ He bolted after Stoker.

Page 367

Hector staggered back before regaining his footing and saw Stoker gunning for him again. He created another wall for the creature to leap over, but this time added a platform beneath himself and rose up to meet the man with his fist.

It saw him at the last moment, however, and jetted to the side. Hector’s punch missed completely, and Stoker zigzagged through the air, coming back around toward him. But before it could even reach Hector again, a hydrogen jet from its shoulder misfired, exploding and sending the creature spiraling into the dirt.

Hector watched from atop his platform. ‘What the hell?

Transfiguration is difficult to control,’ said Garovel. ‘It’s running purely on reflexive memories now, so it won’t be able to make adjustments like a conscious mind can.

Ugh... this is just... horrible...

I know.

It was back on its feet. It looked up at Hector, the expression on its face still half-asleep.

Don’t underestimate its reflexes. They’re much faster now that it doesn’t have any normal thought processes slowing it down.

Then came the fog. White clouds erupted from Stoker’s back, expanding quickly across the battlefield.

Uh-oh,’ said Garovel.

Keep your distance,’ said Hector, deciding to finish his breastplate instead of remaking his gauntlet.

The reaper flew up even higher. ‘I can’t sense it at all. It shouldn’t be able to sense you either, but just. Uh. Be careful, Hector.

You don’t have to keep telling me...’ Hector let the fog envelop him as well. He looked around, barely able to see arm’s length in front of him, so he tried listening for the sound of footsteps, but the churning fog muffled everything.

Still don’t see it,’ said Garovel. ‘Can you flush it out?

Hector clasped his hands together--one gauntleted, one bare--and created a metal slab above the fog. Two meters thick, fifteen meters both wide and long. It fell, pressing into the fog like bread on a sandwich, and Hector made just enough of a gap for himself--a cylindrical hole where he could stand safely. The metal slammed down and made the ground shake.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Page 366

I’m not sure how strong it is,’ said Garovel. ‘You should armor up while you can.

Right.’ Hector held both fists in front of him and concentrated. He had yet to recreate his helm from scratch, but he was sure it was possible--he’d designed the thing himself, after all. It was just a matter of imagining it precisely enough in his mind.

The metal accumulated around his head, fitting a bit more snugly than he anticipated. He forewent the movable jaw entirely, letting the metal cover his mouth and extend partway down his neck. The rest was roughly correct: smooth, dark metal with one large slit for both eyes, allowing himself a wide field of view. Next, he began crafting his gauntlets.

Try to keep your distance, if you can,’ said Garovel. ‘It will be fast and unpredictable. Be wary of the hydrogen, especially. Consider every part of its body dangerous and go for the brain.

As the gauntlets completed themselves, he went to work on an iron breastplate, but by now, he had piqued Stoker’s curiosity. He saw the man moving closer, shambling toward him.

But only at first.

Stoker shot forward, accelerating with hydrogen jets. Hector made a wall. Stoker leapt cleanly over it, then rocketed back down to the ground.

He tried to coat it in metal, but the creature was much too fast. And just like that, there it was, right in Hector’s face. It lunged for his neck, biting and drooling. Its teeth hit metal and chewed ineffectually.

He pulled back, and Stoker grabbed him by the gauntlet, trying to bite through that, too. He could feel its beastly strength, but as he looked at the man, Hector couldn’t help frowning. “Please don’t make me hurt you...”

Stop hesitating.

Stoker looked up at the reaper and made to swat at him, but Hector caught the man’s wrist.

Garovel backed off and flew up to observe from above. ‘This isn’t a game, Hector. You have to kill it. Letting it live on like this is not a mercy.

Stoker’s hand converted to hydrogen and exploded, tearing through the gauntlet and taking most of Hector’s arm with it.

Page 365

He killed the other reaper,’ said Garovel. ‘You’d better get up, Hector. Karkash may be gone, but this fight isn’t over yet.

Hector stood. ‘What do you mean?

But Garovel didn’t have to answer. Through the settling dust, Hector saw the other man appear. It was Stoker, and yet, perhaps not so.

Stoker was on his feet again and fully regenerated, but his shoulders were slumped forward, his arms hanging limp in front of him. His mouth was half-open, his eyes half-drawn, and his head twitched from moment to moment, looking one direction, then another, as if searching for something.

Hector edged in front of Garovel. ‘What the fuck is wrong with him?

This is what happens when the reaper dies while the servant still lives. His body works just fine, but his consciousness is broken.

Agh...

Be extremely careful. It will die on its own within the next hour, but if we just let it go, then it will seek out people to kill.

But... why? If he’s mindless, then why would he...?

It’s only driven by a sense of self-preservation now. Its soul is destroyed, so it will try to take someone else’s in order to repair it. Which won’t work. But that won’t stop it from trying.

Isn’t there, uh... I mean, there’s no way to help him?

No. Listen to me, Hector. It’s not even “him” anymore. That thing is a monster now. And if you don’t destroy its brain, it’s going to go over to that town and slaughter dozens of people.

Hector gave a painful frown as he watched the man. ‘But he’s just... standing there... I can’t just kill him.

Then watch it closely, and you’ll see.

Stoker’s breathing was increasingly erratic. His body flexed, small chunks converting into hydrogen gas and leaving bloody gashes behind, which soon regenerated. He looked toward the town, then toward Hector and Garovel.

Oh right,’ said Garovel. ‘We’re a lot closer to it than the town is, aren’t we? It’ll want to kill us first.

Hector’s brow lowered. ‘Exactly how dangerous is this thing?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Page 364

Abolish is rather light on the training regimen and rather heavy on the propaganda. Only now does he realize just how important old man Dozer is. The name is never uttered without reverence, and yet, when he mentions having met Dozer personally, almost no one believes him.

Apparently, the country of the same name was founded by Dozer.

300 years ago.

The old man was its original dictator, and though the public believes he died more than two centuries ago, he has continued to rule in secret all this time. His great grandson serves as the country’s public face.

From there, the legends surrounding the old man grow even more ridiculous. Tales of his invincibility, of his masterful strategies, of his cataclysmic clashes with someone named Sermung. It is all rather difficult to buy into, he feels, but this is not a common sentiment. Some of these people even seem to think the old man is not of this world, that he is a god of the Void made flesh.

And this “Void” is also puzzling. It is supposedly a realm of nothingness, yet everyone speaks of its “will” or of its “consciousness.” He does not understand how nothingness could “be” anything, let alone sentient. But they take it very seriously. There are numerous ceremonies he has to endure in order to be accepted. He would sooner not bother, but Nize seems adamant about the whole endeavor, and he is not about to argue with her.

After nine months with Abolish, he meets Karkash. They work many missions together, but they do not speak much, which is fine by him. He does learn, however, that Karkash is four years his elder and a native of Vaeland’s northern isles. And after seeing the scars on the other man’s chest, he understands that Karkash has lived no easy life, either. In this way, at least, he comes to know a small sense of camaraderie...
-+-+-+-+-

Hector sat up and waved at the cloud of dust. His ears were still ringing and his eyes still burning from that last flash of lightning, but he could feel his senses repairing themselves.

Karkash is gone,’ said Garovel, appearing out of the ground next to him.

What?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Page 363

Kaul, Trill, and the young man are treated as guests, unlike the people kept in the underbelly of the ship.

In the next few days, he sees more of Vaeland than he has seen in all of his life. Long stretches of sea. Lush tropical islands. Open blue skies. And smoldering wreckage. Ruined towns. Bodies in the water.

Northern Vaeland is in chaos. Thrice, the ship is attacked, but there is an immortal warrior aboard who annihilates the enemy each time. She is the captain, and though she is ferocious to the slaves and even to her own crew, she takes a shine to the young bandits--to him in particular. He decides not to resist her advances, fearing the consequences. She marks his face with a tattoo much like the several she has herself. She tells him not to forget her. When they reach Rohit, he is not sad to see her go.

Rohit is a fortress town, half-destroyed and in the midst of rebuilding. Within hours of their arrival, it comes under attack. He witnesses much of the battle, but it makes little sense to his eyes.

Bombs fall from the sky, as do a few planes. Buildings catch fire, then immediately go out. Water rises up from the middle of the forest, only to evaporate before reaching the town’s walls.

Then comes the explosion that kills him. He is caught in its blast radius but does not die right away. Scorched and in agony, he must spend his last hours trapped under debris.

Nize finds him. She wants him to join Abolish. He wants to live again.

He awakes and pulls himself from the rubble. He finds himself in a crater where twenty buildings used to be. Soon, he learns that Kaul and Trill have both perished. He expects them to revive, but they never do. It seems the reapers meant for them were killed. He buries them. It is more than most who have died today receive.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Page 362

“There are only two spare reapers here,” says Gohvis.

Dozer is silent. He and Gohvis both look at nothing.

At length, Loren stands back up. They each stare at him, and he returns a similar expression of disbelief. They are not given long to understand what has happened.

“Now, your first test,” says Dozer. He allows Mira to return to the others and then motions to Loren’s four companions. “Kill one of them.”

Loren’s eyes widen, and he looks at the old man.

“They will not remain dead,” Dozer clarifies. “Just as you have been resurrected, so will they be. You have my word.”

That is not enough to convince Loren. He does not move.

“Test not my patience, boy. If you refuse, then I will choose for you. And I will not have them return. They will remain dead forever.”

Loren grows angry. “Why?! What is the point in making me do this?!”

“As I said, it is your first test.”

“How is this a test?!”

“A test of faith. Have faith in me--in my word--and all will be well. No harm will come to your friends.” Dozer folds his arms. “It is a very simple task, unless you make it otherwise.”

Loren looks between them all again. Pain crosses his face as he deliberates.

Dozer takes a step forward.

“Stop!” says Loren. He moves toward Mira. “I’ll do it!”

Dozer waits.

And the young man sees their exchange.

Loren apologizes to her. She tells him that it is okay, that he is right to choose her, that she does not mind. And Loren kills her. He is quick and precise. She falls into his arms.

The following silence is agony. He watches Loren’s frantic stare, locked on something invisible.

And Mira revives. Her return is met with relief and confusion.

Dozer divides their group now. The forest bandits are no more. Mira and Loren remain behind, and the other three leave on a boat to the northern town of Rohit.

The boat is a slaver ship, but they are not slaves.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Page 361

The encampment is filled with hulking machinery. He does not know their exact functions with their varied sizes and shapes, but the large wheels and long cannons are common enough fixtures that he can guess their general purpose.

The largest tent in the encampment belongs to Dozer. It is spacious and furnished like a rather plain bedroom, excepting the far corner, which is littered with metal and computer parts.

“Tell me why you are alive,” says Dozer. The way he presents himself is suddenly very different. His attire is featureless and unassuming, but his expression is sharp and clear. He seems somehow larger than before, more imposing. The air in the room is heavier. Breathing is harder. It felt strange before, why a monster like Gohvis should be subservient to this person. It does not feel that way now.

Mira speaks for their group, though her voice shakes. “What do you mean?”

“Why do you want to live?” says Dozer.

Everyone hesitates.

“Answer me.”

It is Loren who speaks this time. “Why do we need a reason?”

Dozer stares at him again. “Because only insects do not have a reason.”

“Then maybe we are insects,” says Loren.

The old man smiles faintly. “Insects do not have your willpower, boy.” He steps closer.

Loren pulls back, but Gohvis is suddenly there behind him, holding him in place.

Dozer places a hand on Loren’s shoulder. “You have a reason. A very simple one.” He reaches back. “You want to live only because you fear death. There is no shame in this. In fact, you are very wise to think so.” His arm flashes and cuts into Loren’s chest. Blood splatters against the old man.

Loren crumples to the ground. Dead.

The four of them stare at the body. Then at one another. The young man sees horror on all of their faces, but after a moment, their expressions slowly change. Silent agreement runs between everyone. Collectively, they leap to attack the old man.

Dozer catches Mira by the throat. Gohvis pins the other three down instantly, a limb for each.

“Calm yourselves,” says Dozer. “Your friend will be reborn.”

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Page 360 -- XLII.

They acquire a few comforts of their previous lives. Food, clothing, books and baubles. And a few weapons. Knives, mainly, not much better than the wood and stone shanks Loren has already fashioned for them, but they are appreciated.

Another year passes. They occasionally loot newspapers. Vaeland has been at war all these years. No longer civil. Now the country is caught in a different fight. It is the battleground for Intar and Dozer. Warnings of immortal soldiers afoot. People of terrifying strength. The young forest bandits soon see for themselves.

The young man is eighteen when they try to rob the wrong vehicle.

It is only an old man, they think. All by himself. Easy.

Mira feigns injuries and waves him down. When he stops, the rest of them descend upon him. Loren goes in for the kill. He is stopped by a monstrous creature, appearing as if from nowhere. It is humanoid, perhaps, yet still a thing like nothing they have ever seen. Black scales cover its body instead of flesh.

They make to turn and flee, but four more people arrive, blocking their paths and pinning them down.

“It is okay,” says the old man. “They are but children. Not the prey we were looking for.”

And the monster speaks. “What shall we do with them?” Its voice is low and vibrating.

The old man looks over the young bandits. “You are homeless, no?”

No one dares answer.

“They can come with us,” the old man says.

Loren is braver than anyone else when he asks, “Who are you?”

The old man eyes him. “My name is Dozer.”

Chapter Forty-Two: ‘Thy forgotten history...’
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The Abolish encampment is full of frightening people. The monster’s name, they soon learn, is Gohvis. And he is not a monster, but a man. All the same, even the scary people seem scared of him.

“There is no need to do this yourself,” says Gohvis. “This is why we have initiators.”

“Yes, but I want to,” says Dozer. “I find these children amusing.”

Page 359

The children are all panicking. The boy is no exception. The only adult is too injured to move and bleeding profusely, but she tries to direct them. She tells them to find help but to also stay hidden. The boy is the oldest of the group. She appoints him to look after everyone. He is to lead a search. He is more terrified than he has ever been. She tells him to be strong for the others.

They set out. Hours pass without results. The others are complaining. They are tired and hungry. He leads them back. When they return, they find the woman dead. The children who remained with her are now missing. The others are losing it.

Four more children appear. They had been hiding. Soldiers came and took everyone else, they say. After killing the woman.

Including himself, there are eleven children. They look to him for guidance. He has no idea what to do. The fear does not go away. But neither does the hunger. He has everyone split up and look for food. When they reconvene, there are only ten. They look for the eleventh and find his body.

A week later, there are nine. A month later, there are eight. That one was not lost to the wilderness. That one was killed by a stranger. They had found the edge of the forest, found a ransacked town, thought the lone man there would help them. That was not the case.

They flee back into the forest.

Four years pass.

There are five of them now. Mira, Loren, Kaul, Trill, and the boy. Sickness took the others, but these five have survived. The boy has taught them to fish. Loren has taught them to hunt. Mira has taught them to climb. Together, they have learned to build shelters. Together, they have also learned to steal. And to kill.

There is a road along the western edge of the forest. Asking travelers for help has never gone well. They have learned not to trust outsiders. They are bandits now.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Page 358

Life is hard here. But not for the boy. He is lucky to belong to one of the wealthiest fisher families in the city. And he knows his fortune. He sees his schoolmates. He sees their patched clothes, their skinny arms and legs. Childishly, he thinks fortune makes him better than them. It is difficult to make friends. He is not sure he even wants them.

The boy is eight years old when his parents remove him from school. He has a private tutor now. It is rather boring. He wants to go outside, but he is rarely allowed to. Only in the company of his parents.

The boy is ten years old when the riots start. He sees them through the window. People in masks, burning cars, looting buildings. More than once, they break into his house. They steal. They destroy. They terrify him. But they do not hurt him.

His parents consider leaving. This city is dangerous and frightening. But there is nowhere to go. And the military is here now. He likes the soldiers. They keep him safe. They make the scary people go away.

His parents say the riots will stop soon, that it will be safe to go outside again. And they are right. He gets to go play outside again. But the soldiers stay. He does not mind.

The boy is twelve when civil war breaks out. The soldiers force them to leave the city. They have nothing now. His parents do not know where to go. They spend a long time talking about it.

They find a refugee camp. Everyone here looks sad, save the very young children. But that is only because they do not understand anything. They annoy him.

The boy is thirteen when the camp is attacked. It is utter chaos. Gunfire. People running everywhere. Blood and dead bodies. He is told to flee, and he does.

He makes it to the forest. There are many children with him. He does not know where his parents are. There is only one adult here. And she is wounded.

Page 357

He couldn’t tell if Karkash had purposely avoided his brain or if it was purely coincidence, but with his body in tatters, Stoker plummeted back to the ground. He could see Hector struggling on his own now, but the kid could barely protect himself. The lightning ripped the metal apart on impact.

Stoker put a ruined arm forward, scratching at the dirt and trying to crawl toward Nize.

But it was too late.

The last of Hector’s defense was stripped away from her, and Karkash thrust two fingers toward Nize.

Stoker watched the lightning tear into her.

She vaporized.

He just stared, wide-eyed. His hearing was already shot, eardrums in the midst of repairing themselves, so it was all a numb sight, making it somehow harder to believe.

He’d failed. She was dead. His body was still regenerating, but he could already feel the shift taking place in his mind. Stoker blinked, eyes blurring and then refocusing. And he saw Karkash and Hoyohté there, both looking back at him.

He wondered if they would even bother to finish him off. It would make little difference, so he doubted it. For all this chaos, Stoker knew that Karkash took no pleasure in killing him. This had all been Karkash’s duty, nothing more.

Sure enough, after a few moments of their silent deliberation, Karkash leapt into the sky with booming force, and they flew off together. They soon vanished beyond the horizon.

Stoker climbed onto his knees and elbows. The reverberations in his chest were growing stronger, stealing his breath away in increments, and his whole body flashed between sweltering warmth and shivering cold.

His muscles convulsed. Everything went dark. And he saw a life.

-+-+-+-+-
A boy. Growing up in Vaeland. A country of water. More sea than land. The city of his birth floats more than it stands. He learns to swim. He learns to fish.

It was once a prosperous nation, he hears, back when his parents were young.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Page 356

He barreled toward Karkash at rocket-speed, giving up on running to simply flying across the ground. But it was not exactly a surprise attack. Karkash dodged smoothly and flew away. And Stoker followed.

He leapt up and made the soles of his feet explode. Bone and flesh blew apart, and the force carried him higher, as if he’d jumped a second time in mid-air. And he did it again, destroying the rest of his feet. And after climbing all the way up to Karkash, everything below Stoker’s knees was gone.

He sacrificed a forearm next, converting it entirely to liquid hydrogen and reaching out. Karkash jolted left, losing an arm of his own to the freezing temperature, and swung an electric fist, detonating Stoker’s hydrogen and sending them both reeling in opposite directions.

Stoker fell back toward the ground in a bloody heap. He needed time to regenerate, and Hector was busy trying to provide it. Karkash couldn’t yet use the left side of his body, but even without it, he could still tear Hector’s metal apart before it even finished forming.

Stoker could see Hector struggling to maintain the protection on Nize, but it wasn’t long before Karkash regained enough use of his arm that Hector had to withstand two-handed lightning. Another dirt explosion, and Hector went flying. But most of Stoker’s flesh had returned now. That would have to do.

With jets of hydrogen exploding out of his shoulder blades, Stoker accelerated back into the fight. Karkash soared up. Stoker kept pace with him, zigzagging as each explosion corrected Stoker’s course. Karkash spun and knocked him back, and Stoker regained his momentum with an explosion from his elbow. And before he could start falling again, Stoker sacrificed the rest of his legs and launched himself the remaining distance. He caught both of Karkash’s forearms and squeezed, snapping bones.

“Enough!” Karkash roared. Sparks gathered around his eyes, then flashed across his skin, and lightning shot out, everywhere at once.

Electricity cut through Stoker’s body like a dozen blades, leaving holes in his chest and arms, even his face.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Page 355

Hector looked up immediately, expecting another attack from Karkash, one he wouldn’t be able to mitigate at all, but that was not what he saw.

Instead, Karkash was going for Nize, yanking away the spires that protected her. And he saw Stoker, charred and battered, but standing in front of her, ready to take more lightning.

-+-+-+-+-

Stoker knew he was outmatched--if not from the start, then certainly now.

He had the idea in his head, a chance at how to improve his odds. And he knew his power was lacking. He had never accomplished this particular feat with his hydrogen before. He’d never had enough control.

It began with selfishness. The instinct to survive. A kind of personal and glorious greed. He knew it well, even before becoming a servant. And of course, he knew how easily that instinct could fail. Before meeting Nize for the first time, he remembered being so determined to go on living, to make it through that battle--only to be killed anyway. Terrible luck, it had been. An ill stroke of fate, as his supposed comrades might say.

So he knew this desperation, this helplessness. And likewise, he knew the desire to do more, to be more.

Emergence was no complicated thing in itself. It was at once acceptance and rejection: acceptance of one’s helplessness, and rejection of the notion that this helplessness should warrant quitting. It was a perfect concoction in one’s mind, to know an imminent demise and to still refuse to go quietly.

And that was what he had now. That was how he achieved counter-emergence.

Controlled combustion was the idea. Stoker set his back ablaze, hydrogen mixing violently with the oxygen in his cells, heated with precision. And his flesh exploded, just as desired--not enough to destroy anything unwanted, but just enough to propel him forward. It gave him speed, and he did it again, more this time, and he kept doing it, until he was hurtling over the ground so quickly that his legs couldn’t keep up.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Page 354 -- XLI.

Chapter Forty-One: ‘When the Thunder doth roll...’
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Hector watched his metal break apart. Truck-sized chunks of iron circulated around Karkash, all connected by a web of lightning, crackling with emergent energy.

They went spiraling toward Stoker’s fog.

Hector rushed to annihilate everything, but he couldn’t get to it all fast enough, and Stoker was forced out of his cloud by a tumbling iron boulder.

Stoker kept making more fog, but it was an obvious stream behind him now, no longer obscuring his position. Everyone knew what was coming next. Hector raised two spires in Stoker’s defense, and when the lightning struck through the air, it was undoubtedly more powerful in every way--brighter, thicker, certainly louder. It crashed into the spires, making the dirt around them explode into dust, and the ensuing sonic boom nearly ruptured Hector’s eardrums.

The force of the impact sent Stoker toppling head over foot through the dirt, away from the supposed safety of the spires. So Hector made more, and he made them larger, sturdier. They took a half-second longer, which was precious time in this fight, but they absorbed the electricity better.

Karkash shot up into the air and rained lightning down from above. The sparking branches were so numerous that they formed a kind of cage around the spires, and Karkash increased the voltage even further. Stoker was trapped, and the electricity closed in, lashing against his body, making him convulse and sending him to his knees as his flesh began to smolder and burn.

Hector made to increase the size of the spires even more, but Karkash apparently predicted as much and abruptly ceased his attack on Stoker in order to focus on Hector instead.

He barely made half a spire before the lightning smashed through it, making the ground explode directly in front of him. He went flying. His hearing was gone, ears bleeding from the deafening boom, and he hit the dirt again with a numb thud.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Page 353

Stoker reached Nize, as well as the momentary safety of Hector’s spires. He spat at the ground, making a large ring with his acid, and then jammed his hands into the melted cracks. He yanked a mound of rock and dirt out, bigger than his own torso. He broke it into two piece, then three, then four, and Hector kept him covered as he started firing them off.

Karkash avoided the rocks simply enough, but it bought Hector the time he needed.

The iron asteroid took form, quicker now, and Karkash was not pleased to see it again, forcing him to stop what he was doing.

Stoker moved below, creating a stream of fog as he ran, readying its white grasp for Karkash.

Hector tried to maintain the shape. He could see giant ripples washing through the metal--waves from Karkash’s magnetism, attempting to tear it apart. It was a competition, Hector trying to fill in the cracks faster than Karkash could make them.

And Hector was winning. It was all Karkash could do to keep the mass afloat.

A rock flew up from the fog, and Karkash had to move. The mass shifted, pushing him down a dozen meters before he could stop it again. Then another rock. Even closer to the fog now, which was also rising up to meet him.

“No!” came Karkash’s hoarse yell. It was the first time Hector had heard the man say a single word, and it cut across the entire battlefield--not with desperation, but with authority. With refusal.

And then, after a terrible moment, it happened.

Sparks flew out of Karkash’s arms in huge clusters, climbing up the metal orb and spreading all the way across it.

Oh no!’ said Garovel.

And the asteroid moved up. Cracks formed all along its iron body, shifting the metal, breaking it. Lightning tore across the surface, rending the metal and then leaping off into the sky, making the very air shudder with each thunderous boom.

Hector stared, horrified. ‘What the fuck is happening?!

Emergence,’ Garovel said gravely. ‘Karkash’s ability has grown stronger.

Page 352

The magnetic force that kept the orb aloft required two hands from Karkash. Hector and Stoker both saw the opportunity and jumped at him. Karkash was forced to bring one hand down to make lightning.

He correctly chose to zap Stoker down first, giving Hector the time to get close. And for an instant, they met one another’s gaze.

The man’s face was an angry wall--stern and attentive with gritted teeth.

Karkash reeled back, avoiding a cranial blow, and took Hector’s punch square in the chest. He went flying backwards and bounced off the orb. Karkash spun toward the ground before stabilizing himself in the air, and when he saw the orb falling down again, instead of trying to stop it, he merely flew out of its path.

Hector was the only one in its way. It was so large that he couldn’t annihilate it all instantly. Instead, the mass disintegrated in giant swathes, swirling around its body, taking a few seconds to finally destroy the last bit at the center.

After that, the three combatants were all on the ground together, and a silent intermission passed. Battle conditions were reset, each servant fully regenerated.

Karkash returned to the air, no doubt thinking he had the advantage at a distance, and Stoker took the opportunity to make his way toward Hector.

“Can you not trap his reaper with your metal?” Stoker asked.

“I’d have to get close to her,” said Hector.

“That’s not going to happen.”

Lightning interrupted them, but Hector had a spire waiting to absorb it.

“Do it again,” Stoker told him. “The giant sphere.”

You have a plan?’ said Garovel.

Stoker gave a nod. “Force him into my fog, and I will take him down.”

Karkash gave them no more time to discuss the matter, deciding to seize the two spires that had been protecting Nize. Stoker immediately bolted toward her. Hector first had to construct new spires to absorb the imminent lightning, which left Stoker alone to deal with the two flying at him. And to the man’s credit, he did so admirably, somersaulting over the first one and melting the second with a glob of acid.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Page 351

The spear pierced the fog and came out the other side. The magnetic field made it careen away from Karkash completely. The next javelin came closer, and the third, Karkash had to stop before it reached him.

Stoker chose that moment to leap out of the fog and attack, but Karkash merely launched the javelin at him. Stoker caught the spear with both hands just before it cut through his face. And the magnetic force was still there, carrying him all the way back down to the ground until a lightning bolt sent Stoker toppling through the dirt and grass.

Hector threw one more javelin according to Garovel’s direction and then launched himself with a platform. But Karkash was prepared this time, and when Hector broke through the fog, he was greeted with a fist wreathed in electricity. Hector barely avoided taking the hit with his skull, and it instead pummeled into his chest. Several bones snapped at once, and Hector flew straight into the ground, leaving a crater.

He was exposed and didn’t have time to worry about recovering, so he immediately constructed a dome over himself. Before it was even half-done, it absorbed the lightning strike that had surely been intended for his head.

Karkash lost interest in him, more concerned with going after Stoker.

Make as much metal as you can,’ said Garovel. ‘And drop it on him.

I’m not sure how much I can make,’ said Hector.

Then it’s a good time to find out.

He hesitated no further. Hector’s hands crashed together, demanding all the concentration he could muster. He constructed his largest object ever, placing it as high up as he could force it.

The sky above Karkash darkened.

Metal accumulated and grew quickly, shooting outward. Mass was all it was--all Hector could make it be. A rough orb at best, fifty meters deep of solid metal.

And Karkash caught it. Strained, weighing him down--but all the same, the man stopped its freefall in mid-air.

Page 350

Colt paused, exchanging looks with Bohwanox, and for a moment they both merely listened to the plea.

“Anyone!” it said, faint and muffled, as if through a distant wall. “Help me!”

Colt growled and put his gun back in the trunk. “This better not take as long as the last one.”

-+-+-+-+-

The fight was not going very well. Out here on the open ground, away from the buildings and civilians, Karkash’s superior mobility was a much greater threat. Just providing cover from lightning strikes was enough to keep Hector completely occupied.

It soon became a game of feints. Karkash was clearly no fool and began to make the hand motions for his lightning, only to produce none, throwing Hector off and choosing instead to fling the metal into Stoker. Hector was constantly creating and destroying his iron while Stoker tried to close the distance and attack, but Karkash’s unimpeded flight made that task nearly impossible. Twice already, Stoker’s hydrogen had been detonated by a spark that Hector couldn’t catch in time, leaving Stoker to regenerate huge chunks of his body.

Of course, Nize also required Hector’s constant protection. She was unable to move, and Stoker couldn’t carry her around with as much fire as he was drawing.

We have to shift this momentum,’ said Garovel.

Hector couldn’t even spare the reaper a glance. ‘Great! How?!

Circle around and use the fog.’

What about the hydrogen guy?!

He’s a servant. He can take a beating.

Stoker kept his fog away from Hector and Garovel, no doubt to avoid hindering their view. Nize would be safe for the moment with two lightning rods protecting her, so Hector moved across the battlefield, putting the fog between himself and Karkash.

Stop here,’ said Garovel. ‘Straight ahead of you, aim slightly upward. Wait for my word.

Hector made a javelin, two-and-a-half meters of sharpened iron.

Now.

His form was far from perfect, but the throw had more than enough power to compensate.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Page 349

Colt waited for the house to settle, for the sound of breaking wood to cease. He cleared the dust away with his free hand and tried to assess the damage.

The bottom half of the stairs was gone. Oddly enough, the upside-down car had made a path through the rubble. He could hear the little girl yelling outside.

“Oh no!” she said. “Grandma!”

Colt took the grandmother in both arms again. With a few smooth hops, he made it out through the gaping hole in the front of the house.

The girl came running.

Colt rested the woman on the ground.

“I saw an ambulance down the street!” said the girl. “We gotta take her to it!”

“No,” said Colt. “We shouldn’t move her any more than necessary. Listen, I’ve gotta go help someone else now, so you have to run over there and tell the people in uniforms about your grandma.”

“Ah--okay!”

“Make sure they hear you. Bite their ankles, if you have to. Got that?”

“Got it!” She ran off toward the flashing lights.

I’m not so sure about that last piece of advice.’

“Eh, she’ll do fine.”

He returned to his car and checked on the twins. They both stared at him quietly from their rear-facing car seats when he poked his head through the back door. He squinted at them, uncertain. He was glad they didn’t seem terribly stressed by the situation, but at the same time, he was beginning to wonder why they looked so calm. They hadn’t made much of a fuss about getting into the car, either.

We don’t have time to linger,’ said Bohwanox.

Colt popped the trunk and grabbed the new rifle there. The man at the gun store hadn’t been so keen about letting him leave with it immediately, but Colt had been rather insistent. He needed something with more range and a scope.

Before he could even take a step, however, another cry for help caught his ear.

Page 348

You’ll have to unbuckle her seatbelt before you can get her out of there,’ said Bohwanox.

Colt made his way over to the driver’s side door, careful with each step as he maintained his grip on the vehicle. Whenever he felt a floor board give too much under his foot, he retreated and tried to step farther.

He reached the door. With one hand placed firmly above the front tire, he pressed the other hand to the side window and began breaking it. He pulled the glass out instead of letting it fall against her.

She was a stout woman, not likely to fit through the unobstructed half of the window. Colt checked her pulse. She was alive, at least.

His arm could just barely reach the belt buckle. It clicked free, and he slowly removed the belt from around her body.

“Now what?” he said. “The wall’s still blocking the door.”

You’re going to have to break the wall in order to open it, and then get her out as fast as you can.

“That could bring down the roof,” said Colt, “which could make the floor go, as well.”

That’s why you’ll have to be quick.

He deliberated for a few moments but saw no better options. He took a deep breath and prepared himself, tensing up, feeling the strength course though his body.

He hit the wall. It crumbled. The ceiling began to give way, and he ripped the car door clean off. He could feel the floor shaking as he wrapped his arms around the old woman and pulled her out. He leapt away as the roof caved in, wood and plaster clattering against the car’s hood.

They’d made it to the staircase. The car was going through the floor now, kicking up a storm of rubble. Colt hoisted the woman under one arm and caught a busted plank with the other, immediately crushing it in his hand. From everything else, he just shielded her with his body.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Page 347

“It’s okay,” said Colt. “I’ve got you.”

The girl hesitated. “No, but--what was that just now?”

“Not important. I’ll tell you later if you want. Now come on.”

“Wh-what about my grandma?”

“I’ll get her out, too,” he said. “But I’m gonna have to go in after her, so I need you to come out of there first.”

She gave a shaky nod but did not seem ready to move.

“Anytime now,” said Colt.

“I-ah... are you really trying to help me?”

Colt’s face tightened. “Yes. I am.”

“But--”

“Look, I can’t be waiting out here all day for you. I’ve got shit to do.”

Colt, what the hell? You’re a father. What if that was your daughter in there?

My daughter wouldn’t be taking this long.

But what if she was? What if that was Stephanie and she was too scared to move?

Colt looked at the girl again. No more than eleven years old, surely. And that look on her face--about ready to cry. He took a silent breath. “I gotta get you outta there, kiddo. And to do that, I need you to trust me. Okay?”

She nodded again and started moving.

“That’s it. You’re almost there.”

And she was out, sliding along the hood and grabbing onto his arm.

He lowered her down. “Now. I need you to go downstairs and outside. You’ll see a black car in front of the house. Go stand next to it. You’ll be safe there, so go and wait for me while I get your grandma out. And shout to me when you get there. Understand?”

“Yeah,” she said, nodding and scurrying off.

“Careful down the steps!” he called after her. He waited for her to get clear, exchanging looks with Bohwanox in the meantime.

You’re really just a big softie, aren’t you?

Colt returned a flat stare. He couldn’t see the reaper’s face through the dark hood, but he could practically feel the smug grin hidden there. “Make yourself useful and tell me how to get the old lady out.”

Use your love for all mankind.

“I fuckin’ hate you.”

“I’m by the car!” came the girl’s yell.

Page 346

From inside the building, Colt approached the vehicle slowly. It was wedged nose-first through the wall, and as he stepped closer, he could hear the floor boards groaning under its weight.

The girl yelled out as soon as she saw him. “Help! Please!”

Colt held both hands up in front of him. “Quit moving around,” he said, perhaps a bit too firmly, because she immediately froze up.

Bohwanox circled around. ‘Nice one. Try to be a bit more reassuring, will you? The poor girl’s terrified.

The doors wouldn’t be able to open unless he broke through the wall to make more room, but given how precarious the car’s position already seemed, Colt didn’t know if that would be the best method. A shock like that could make the floor collapse.

Use your ability to break the windshield,’ said Bohwanox. ‘You won’t jostle the car that way.

Colt pressed his hand to the shatterproof glass. He concentrated, and a moment later, a small crack appeared. He kept it going, tracing all along the edge of the windshield, as far as his arm would reach, until the glass sunk inward. Then he pushed on it lightly, and it gave way, falling against the dashboard and then into the passenger seat.

He reached through, extending his hand to the girl. “Alright, now,” he said, trying to be gentler than before. “Slowly, take my hand and come over the front seat.”

“How did you--?!” She broke herself off and grabbed his hand with both of hers. Gingerly, she started to climb over.

The car dipped forward against the floor, making the wood moan, and Colt grabbed the car’s front bumper with his free hand. Bohwanox gave him the strength to support it. And as his life force was converted into raw strength, his dark beard began to turn gray and bristly. His flesh started eating away at itself, skin peeling off and blood drying up in his non-essential muscles.

The girl saw him and went even paler than before. “What’s wrong with your face?!”

Colt raised a deteriorating eyebrow. “What?”

Oh, whoops.’ Bohwanox invoked the regeneration as well, and Colt’s face quickly restored itself. ‘Sorry. I’m still a little new to this.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Page 345

Colt will look after the people here until emergency services arrive,’ said Bohwanox. ‘Then I’ll have him provide long range support.

Long range support?’ said Garovel.

“Found a gun store while you were busy,” said Colt. “Owner wasn’t very cooperative, but I got my hands on something nice.”

Bullets won’t be much use against Karkash.

“Even if all they provide is a distraction, you’ll be better off.” Colt looked at Hector. “Remember our sparring. Fight smart. Dirty, if you have to. Make him think you’re doing one thing, and then do something else.”

I don’t think he’s forgotten,’ said Garovel. ‘Let’s go, Hector.

They left Colt and Bohwanox behind in order to find Stoker. It was not a long search; Stoker found them first, holding his half-destroyed reaper in his hands.

You can’t stir her awake?’ said Garovel.

“Won’t matter,” said Stoker. “She’s too wounded to move on her own, anyway.”

Why were you fighting Karkash?’ said Garovel.

Stoker was reluctant to answer that.

“Are you Vanguard?” Hector asked. And he noticed Garovel frown.

“Yes,” said Stoker. “Are you?”

No.’ And then privately to Hector, the reaper added, ‘Please let me ask the questions.

Hector didn’t bother replying. He had no problem remaining quiet.

I can sense Karkash approaching,’ said Garovel, pointing north. ‘Let’s move west. We need an open area, away from civilians.

They started running.

“An open area will leave us exposed,” said Stoker.

Hector will provide you with cover. What’s your ability?

“Hydrogen transfiguration.”

Try not to blow us up, please.

“I’ll do my best.”

-+-+-+-+-

Colt could hear the crack of thunder again. No more than a kilometer away, he figured. Sirens were close by as well, but this town was tiny. He was sure it wouldn’t have more than a handful of emergency personnel.

Bohwanox had found him a house with a car sticking through the second floor wall. An elderly woman was either dead or unconscious at the wheel, while a young girl, perhaps her granddaughter, screamed for help from the backseat.

Colt wasn’t entirely sure how to get them out safely. He was starting to regret his earlier confidence. Surely this would be no trouble for Hector. The kid would’ve just made a metal staircase or something.

Page 344

It was a strange sight. Stoker’s head had been removed from his body, and Stoker was clearly still conscious. He didn’t seem capable of speech quite yet, but his body was regenerating--which was the oddest thing, Hector felt. Stoker’s body wasn’t growing a new head. His head was growing a new body. After a moment, Hector figured that it only made sense that the regeneration should work that way, considering how important the brain was to servants, but even so--it was almost like there would be two Stokers now. Except one was dead. And headless.

“Someone help!” came a sudden plea from the rubble of a nearby ice cream parlor.

“Help!” came another.

And still another. Several more. All around him.

There were too many. Hector knew he didn’t have time to help all of them before Karkash showed up again. But he could at least get to a few.

First was a little girl trapped under a staircase. Then a man in an overturned delivery truck.

“What are you doing?!” came a man’s voice. It was Stoker, fully regenerated and clothed. “Just leave them! We have to go kill Karkash!”

Hector ignored him.

Garovel spoke up in his place. ‘Where is your reaper?

At that, Stoker ran off toward the restaurant from before.

Garovel remained close to Hector. ‘He does have a point, though. Rescue crews should be here soon. The priority is still Karkash.

An iron dome formed over a couple of battered teenagers, shielding them from a collapsing roof. Enough space was left for them to escape safely.

“I know,” said Hector, “but if I can just--”

Colt rolled up in his car, the twins in the backseat and Bohwanox on his tail. “Need some help?”

“What’re you doing?” said Hector. “You said you’d keep your distance!”

You just worry about keeping that electric asshole occupied,’ said Bohwanox.

“But--!”

“Just shut up and take my help,” said Colt. “I already owe you way too much, as it is.”

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Page 343

Hector ducked under the electric fist and pulled up a bed of iron spikes. The metal distorted away from Karkash, bending around an invisible bubble. So Hector just added more--spikes upon spikes, all branching out, each one bending against the magnetic field. They quickly formed a metal sphere, and rather than becoming trapped, Karkash merely tore open a hole to continue attacking.

Hector expected as much, however; he caught the man’s arm and tore it off.

Karkash burst backward and shoved the metal sphere into Hector, knocking him off the roof along with a slew of shingles.

Hector hit the pavement of the adjacent road--which meant Stoker and Karkash were alone. He launched himself up with a sudden metal platform, up and over the building, and sure enough, he saw Karkash already tearing into the other man with lightning.

As he fell, Hector tried to coat Karkash in iron, but the metal dust wouldn’t accumulate against the man’s skin. It was little more than a nuisance as he decapitated Stoker.

A metal box was Hector’s next choice. Four walls shot up around Karkash, far enough from him that they didn’t immediately distort, but Karkash just shoved them into the surrounding buildings, crashing through windows and doors.

He had the man’s attention again. Karkash soared toward him, and Hector made another wall, double his own height. He expected Karkash to seize control of it and was not disappointed. The wall moved straight back toward Hector, and he annihilated it, because he’d already gotten what he wanted: a moment where Karkash couldn’t see him. And when the iron wall turned to dust, Karkash was clearly surprised to see Hector already right there in his face.

Full strength, Hector landed a crushing punch, enough to shatter his own fist along with the man’s face.

Karkash rocketed through a line of buildings.

Hector’s arm was absolutely wrecked from the impact, even crackling with sparks from a last second electric surge. He could see Hoyohté fleeing toward Karkash but couldn’t do much to stop her. That wouldn’t be the end of this fight, he knew.

He glanced at Garovel, who was merely staring at him, eye sockets even wider than usual. Hector took a ragged breath and went to check on Stoker.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Page 342 -- XL.

Chapter Forty: ‘A treacherous clash...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Hector was not wearing his helm--or any metal for that matter. It was obvious enough that the dark-skinned man down there was the one Gina had warned him about. Wearing armor would only be to Karkash’s advantage.

It had certainly been a surprise to see the two men fighting. Hector had expected to find someone merely laying waste to the town for no other reason than enjoyment, but now, he wasn’t sure what to make of the situation. Garovel had wanted him to wait for an opening before intervening, but that idea had been sufficiently squashed as soon as he saw Karkash about to fry that restaurant full of people.

“Please help!” yelled Stoker.

Hector didn’t know who the man was, but he was surprised to hear such a plea. Was this guy really Abolish? Karkash certainly was, but maybe this other servant was Vanguard.

He didn’t have much time to think about it. He saw Karkash’s hand move toward Stoker, and Hector made another spire. Again, it caught the lightning and dispersed it.

The lightning itself was a mere flash--much too quick to react to. So instead, Garovel had advised him to watch Karkash’s hands. At the moment, Hector couldn’t imagine a more valuable piece of information.

Garovel had stayed close, floating just behind him. ‘Good. That man could be an ally.

He could also be an enemy,’ said Hector.

That he could. Be very cautious.

Abruptly, Karkash seized both of Hector’s spires and launched them at Stoker. Hector barely annihilated them in time.

As expected,’ said Garovel, ‘he can use your own metal against you.’

This fucking sucks...

Karkash glared at Hector now, granting his full attention.

He half-expected Karkash to stop and say something, to tell him how irritating he was being or ask him why he was here, maybe. But the man did no such thing.

Lightning came for Hector and was diverted with a rooftop spire. And once the electricity subsided, he could see Karkash already flying toward him.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Page 341

Stoker gathered strength in his legs and jumped, rocketing up toward Karkash.

He would bet it all on this. Not just his arms. His torso, too. Beneath his skin, there was an icy core, waiting to be released. It was so much hydrogen that if Karkash chose to detonate it with lightning at this range, the explosion would certainly blow both servants to pieces; and if Karkash chose otherwise, the freezing would take effect.

Karkash chose the latter. He caught Stoker with one arm, held by the neck. The arm froze immediately, and Stoker reached out, replacing his hand entirely with liquid hydrogen. Not even bone remained. The invisible hand scraped Karkash’s face, and Stoker saw it freeze instantly.

But that was as far as it went, because before the hydrogen could douse his skull completely, Karkash cut off his own arm--the arm which was holding Stoker in the air. And that decided everything.

Stoker fell. Both feet hit the pavement. He tried to flee, and a bolt of lightning cut through his right leg, lopping it clean off. Hydrogen escaped all around him, some of it liquid, some of it gas.

So much of his body was gone now. He lay on the road in a heap, half-bloody, half-frozen.

Karkash descended, peeling the icy flesh from his face and letting it regrow anew. The metal vortex slowed, and the objects therein all crashed into the ground and surrounding buildings, invoking civilian shrieks.

It was over, Stoker knew. He couldn’t even run anymore--not that it would have made much difference now that the fog had dissipated. And with so much of his body converted to hydrogen, Karkash could detonate him at any moment with a simple spark.

I found Nize,’ said Hoyohté.

Karkash deliberated a moment, and then forewent the explosive deathblow. Instead, he made his way toward the building Hoyohté pointed to. Through the large window, he saw Nize among the group of terrified people. He raised a hand.

Before the lightning could flash forth, however, a sudden spire appeared and drew the electricity to it, dispersing it harmlessly into the ground.

And Stoker saw the person responsible--a young black man staring down at them from the adjacent rooftop.

“If you two want to kill each other, that’s fine... but please leave other people out of it.”

Monday, November 4, 2013

Page 340

Stoker could see the chunks missing from Nize’s elongated body. She simply floated in place, her snake eyes looking at him briefly before easing shut.

He couldn’t dawdle. There was no telling how long the ruse would last. He had to be the one to engage. He ran back outside.

Liquid hydrogen required more concentration than any other aspect of his ability. He held his hands up in front of him and flexed both arms hard enough to make them tremble. After a moment, his skin disappeared, and even though the hydrogen was invisible to the naked eye, he knew he had succeeded. That combination of freezing heat was unique: warmth against his face while his bones felt like ice.

The flash freezing element was the trump card here. If he could bathe Karkash’s head in this liquid hydrogen, the man’s brain function would cease, and Stoker would be instantly victorious. He would keep Karkash’s brain frozen indefinitely--something no amount of regeneration would fix. If he wasn’t able to kill Hoyohté at that point, it would make no difference.

The problem, of course, was getting close enough. His best hope was to catch Karkash from behind. As he drew close to the location Nize had specified, Stoker crouched as low as he could.

He had to stop abruptly as the cement truck from before passed right in front of his face. Then a bank vault. Then a refrigerator. And more, he saw. Cars, lamp posts, pipes, mailboxes, they all swirled together with increasing speed, and Stoker understood what Karkash was doing. It was a metal tornado. The vortex was pulling Stoker’s fog in and dispersing it elsewhere. Soon, there would be no hiding.

He took his chance and leapt through the moving wall of objects, landing safely. He looked up and saw Karkash directly above the tornado.

And Karkash saw him, as well.

Not the confrontation he had wanted. But it was too late to complain. Every object in the tornado was already sailing toward him. The moment was now.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Page 339

Liquid hydrogen was a curious substance, Stoker had discovered. It was even colder than its more famous cousin, liquid nitrogen, and could likewise freeze objects in mere seconds, including his own flesh if he wasn’t careful; and yet despite its temperature, hydrogen in this state was still incredibly reactive to oxygen. As soon as it touched the air, it would ignite with a colorless flame--which, in other words, rendered the flame nearly invisible.

Before he could put it to use, however, there was something else he needed to do. His muscles were growing heavy again. He was slowing down, and he could feel faint pain throughout his body. ‘Nize, can you hear me?

There was no answer.

The enhancements are expiring,’ he said.

Still nothing.

He could feel her presence there. He concentrated and flexed his soul--an imaginary muscle, pressing against her.

Ah... Stoker?

I need you to renew the enhancements.’ She didn’t answer, but after a moment, Stoker felt the vigor resurge through him. All pain vanished again, and he took a deep breath. ‘Can you tell me where Karkash is?

...Other side of the building on your left...

Okay.’ He darted through the alley ahead of him. He could hear crashing booms nearby--perhaps a building being demolished. He tried the next door he found. It was a small restaurant with numerous people huddled together, all deathly silent as they stared at him. This would do fine, he decided, ceasing his fog production. ‘I need you to detach yourself from me now.

What? But I can’t move on my own...

My next attack will hurt you if you stay on my back.

But your fog only hides your soul from Hoyohté... It won’t hide mine if I’m not attached to you...

I know. But we’re low on options, and these people’s souls should hide yours for a little while. I’ll kill Karkash before he reaches you.

She hesitated, but then said, ‘I trust you.’ She removed herself from him.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Page 338

Stoker toppled through a fence, gaining a plank of wood through the neck, and crashed into a children’s playground, mangling the jungle gym’s metal frame with the force of his broken body.

Not looking so great, he had to admit. He could see Karkash in the distance, closing in for the kill.

His legs needed time to return, but he still had his arms. He removed the wooden spear from his esophagus and eyed it a moment. He grabbed the jungle gym’s blue frame and ripped out a long chunk, which he then broke into two pieces. Three objects now: one wood, two metal. He gathered all the strength he could muster into his throwing arm.

The two metal pieces went first, one after another, flying toward Karkash at cannonball speed. Each time, they slowed and stopped in the air, ineffectual before being ripped apart by the invisible magnetic field. The third piece, however, flew straight and true, and gored Karkash through the chest. Stoker had conditioned him to expect metal, and even though the attack was certainly not enough to stop the other servant, the surprise made the magnetic field falter, and Karkash dropped out of the sky, cracking the asphalt as he landed.

And that bought Stoker precious time.

He grabbed a handful of gravel. There was one aspect of his transfiguration ability which he had only recently developed: control over the physical state in which his hydrogen appeared. Specifically, temperature. Heated hydrogen easily melted the tiny rocks in his hand into a solid, flaming mass.

Hoyohté was simply impossible to hit at this distance, so he again launched at Karkash. And then another. And then continuously, several more times, until Karkash flung a cement truck at him.

Stoker’s legs were back, however, so he dove out of its path, leaving the jungle gym to be obliterated completely.

It was time for fog again, he decided. He had another trick up his sleeve, one that he hadn’t wanted to try earlier because it was perhaps too volatile. But now, circumstances seemed appropriately dire.