In their own strange way, the next few days were surprisingly restful. Stephanie and Thomas required near constant attention, leaving Hector little time to actually sleep, but he didn’t find it so terrible. Certainly, compared to fighting for his life, it was a much welcomed change of pace. And whenever he did manage to get some sleep, Garovel was there to watch over the children for him.
Colt’s death made the news. They didn’t show him actually getting shot and killed, of course, but it wasn’t long before Bohwanox briefly returned to the bunker to confirm that nothing had gone wrong–which was incredibly nice to hear, for once. These days, it seemed like everything and everyone was out to either kill them or get in their way. It was good news, or at least,halfway decent news.
So he had three days with the kids, which meant following the directions that the doctor had originally meant for Colt. Stimulating their minds was the idea. At first, Hector just tried to turn anything and everything into a game, but that didn’t go over so well. The kids would just kind of stare at him, apparently unaware that he wanted them to participate.
He found a box of reading material in one of the bunker’s closets, but there wasn’t anything suited for toddlers. There was barely even anything suited for him. Almost every book seemed to require a very high reading level, which only served to remind him that he would probably never finish high school. He wasn’t sure it made much difference, though. He’d never been especially comfortable in any of his language classes.
Hector did, however, manage to get his hands on some music. Scrounging through all the cars in the garage paid off quite handsomely. He seemed to recall hearing somewhere that classical music was best for child development, so he tried to stick with that as much as possible. And in the meantime, he worked on getting the kids on their feet, which was easier than he expected.
Stephanie and Thomas were quite ready to walk, as long as Hector held their hands. They stumbled all the time, but usually got right back up or just resorted to crawling for a little while. He could hardly believe how adorable the whole thing was. It was entirely too easy to understand why people wanted to film stuff like this. He tried to give the kids the opportunity to walk on their own, but they weren’t quite there yet. They were happy enough to crawl toward him, though.
The other big thing was conversation. Also not Hector’s strongest area, but with a bit of encouragement from Garovel, he did his best. He talked to them pretty much nonstop, using their names, trying to listen and respond whenever they babbled back at him. It didn’t seem to be doing much, but he supposed it was too soon to expect any kind of result.
The twins seemed to enjoy watching him make and unmake iron. It held their attention, the way the metal suddenly accumulated and then disappeared again. It got them to look at him with those wondrous little expressions of curiosity, which as Garovel reminded him, was immensely important.
Hector practiced making metallic toys for them. Small and intricate, was how he began, but when Thomas started gnawing on the dorsal fin of an iron shark, Hector decided to retry with larger, more rounded figures. Probably not the most efficient method of training for combat, but at the very least, it gave him the opportunity to work on his precision.
When Colt showed up again, he looked like hell. His clothes were a complete mess, caked with dirt and mud where they weren’t already riddled with bullet holes and bloodstains.
‘Welcome back,’ said Garovel. ‘How’d it go? Did you have a nice vacation?’
“Would’ve been a lot easier if they’d just cremated me,” said Colt.
‘Yeah,’ agreed Bohwanox. ‘I would have been able to come back here and remake him from scratch. But on the plus side, I did get to witness Colt rising from the grave like some kind of unholy abomination. That was quite enjoyable.’
‘Be thankful they didn’t need to preserve your body for a funeral,’ said Garovel. ‘It’d take days to get the embalming chemicals out of your system. They would’ve oozed out of your face, mostly.’
‘I want to see that.’
Colt ignored them, more concerned with Hector and the twins. “How were they?”
“Amazing,” said Hector, and he helped them walk over to their father.
Colt bent down, smiling but keeping them at arm’s length. “Guess I should get cleaned up first.”
Colt ventured off to shower and change.
Bohwanox turned to Garovel. ‘So tell me more about embalming chemicals.’
‘Oh, well, there are all sorts. Some are dyes meant to maintain tissue color. Some are pumped into the body arterially. They have all sorts of different effects.’
‘Would they have oozed out of anywhere other than his face?’
Hector pursed his mouth to one side and figured that was a good place to stop listening. He turned his attention back to the children.
After all the time Hector had spent with Stephanie and Thomas, especially these past few days, it was a bit strange to think they wouldn’t be around anymore. In truth, he hadn’t given the matter much thought, which was perhaps a good thing in its own way, but now the reality of it was beginning to hit him.
He was going to miss them.
And he frowned, but not in his usual way. He frowned in a way that was almost a smile. Because while he was sad to see them go, he was also glad that they could go, that they’d be away from him, where it was safer. It was a strange mixture of emotions, one he’d felt before but never this ardently. He didn’t hate the feeling. There was a welcome sense of relief in there somewhere.
‘Oh, and before I forget,’ Garovel was saying, ‘how much do you know about Sai-hee?’
Bohwanox bobbed his head to the side. ‘The name sounds familiar. Who is that again?’
‘Sai-hee is one of the four servant emperors. She stays out of the fight between Abolish and the Vanguard–or at least, that’s how it was the last time I checked, which admittedly, was many years ago.’
‘I see. Why do you bring her up?’
‘I know that you don’t want to get involved in major conflicts. If Sai-hee’s reputation is to be believed, then neither does she.’
‘You are suggesting Colt and I go to her for refuge?’
‘No, no. I just mean, it might be something you’d wanna look into. I’d definitely suggest gathering more information before deciding anything.’
‘Mm. I’d rather keep a wide berth of any emperors. I’m sure Colt would feel similarly.’
Garovel offered a shrug. ‘Still, if worse comes to worst, you should know your options.’
‘I’ll keep it in mind.’
The wait wasn’t much longer. Colt returned to the garage with luggage in hand.
Hector helped load the bags into Colt’s chosen vehicle, a midnight blue Pontiac. Afterwards, they shared one last meal together. It was a rather quiet repast, like all the others, but after a while, Colt broke the silence.
“Don’t die,” he said.
Hector looked up. “What?”
“When you’re out there,” said Colt. “Don’t die.”
Hector just tilted his brow at him.
Colt nodded toward the twins. “I want them to meet Uncle Hector when they’re actually old enough to remember him.”
His eyes widened at that. His mouth opened, but he didn’t know what to say. He glanced at the reapers, who both started laughing, which only made Hector flush red.
‘We’ll do our best,’ Garovel said in Hector’s stead.
Colt reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. “I’ll get myself a new one to use for other things, and I’ll keep this one in reserve just for you guys. If you ever want to come find us, just give me a call.”
“Don’t lose the number. I’m guessing your phone will get destroyed one way or another, so keep my number some other way.”
‘I’ll remember it.’
Colt cocked an eyebrow at the reaper. “You’ll remember? Even if it’s five years from now?”
‘Oh yeah. Don’t worry.’
‘We have very good memories,’ said Bohwanox.
Colt gave a nod.
“W-we should, ah… we should have a code.”
Everyone looked at Hector.
“I mean, uh, y’know… just in case… because… I don’t want a repeat of… before.”
There was a brief silence, and then Colt said, “That’s a good idea. We’ll keep it simple. I won’t contact you at all from now on. You’ll call me if you want to talk. No texting. Speak directly to me or leave a voice mail. If there’s something wrong, but you can’t tell me what it is, for whatever reason, then use my first name. Jeremiah. That’ll be our code.”
‘Jeremiah,’ confirmed Garovel. ‘Got it.’
“Are you sure you understand?” said Colt. “This is important. If you call me Jeremiah, OR if you text me, then I’ll know you’re contacting me under duress. And moreover, I’ll know to expect some type of trap.”
‘We understand,’ said Garovel.
“But, uh… what if, uh… if you’re the one under duress?”
“That wouldn’t happen, since you’d be the one calling and not me. But I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to have a plan for that, too. If I’m in trouble but can’t say so, then I’ll do the opposite. I’ll call you Mr. Goffe.”
From there, the meal and conversation both drew toward their conclusions. There was no more putting it off.
Everyone said their farewells, and Hector and Colt shared a firm handshake. On foot, Hector followed the Pontiac up the ramp and out into the early afternoon sun. He offered a last, sweeping wave goodbye as he watched Colt drive west toward Walton. A cloud of yellow-brown dust followed in the car’s wake, lingering for a while after it was gone.
‘Welp,’ said Garovel after a spell. ‘Looks like it’s just you and me again.’
‘It’s okay. They were cramping our style, anyway.’
Hector smirked and started back down into the bunker. “So what do we do now?”
‘Still waiting on a call from Gina. Hopefully, she’ll have some information for us soon. In the meantime, you should sleep. We’ll get back to training in a few hours.’
These past couple days had been hellishly dull. Listening to the audio recordings out of the castle was more than a full-time job, yet somehow still mind-numbingly tedious. Whenever Gina slept, that meant she would be several hours behind upon waking up, and even with fast forward, trying to listen to every recording from every room she’d tagged was an organizational nightmare. A solid ninety percent of the recordings were either complete silence or just normal people talking to each other.
Fortunately, Gina had a variety of underlings to help her sift through everything. Less fortunately, everyone involved had gotten a lot more from this job than they bargained for. After a while, a few of them outright refused to help her, and she couldn’t really blame them, either.
The problem was what some of those normal people in the recordings were talking about. Oftentimes, there would be long conversations of trembling voices trying to console one another, if not merely bemoaning their wretched fortune. All of these people were trapped in that place with at least a half dozen psychotic murderers. Horrifically, one audio log had even captured the agonized screams of someone who was probably being killed.
Listening to all of these things, interspersed between gigantic bouts of nothing important whatsoever, was more than some of her employees could bear.
As for herself, Gina had mainly been listening to the King’s chamber, but there hadn’t been anything noteworthy since mention of Karkash being able to control magnetic fields. Abolish clearly didn’t care to tell the King anything of importance.
Apparently, they weren’t really after Hector, either. They didn’t seem to count him as a credible threat, since he was so greatly outnumbered. A few of the servants had expressed interest in hunting him down, but none of them had any idea where to look and causing trouble just to bait him out of hiding would hinder their greater warmongering efforts.
None of this information was worth a phone call to Hector, she felt. She was waiting on more valuable details regarding their abilities or their movements.
Having more or less given up on the King’s chamber, she spent most of her time browsing through all the different available audio feeds.
Abruptly, Karkash’s voice came over the wire. <“What is it?”>
Gina perked up in her chair.
“Turn that frown upside down,” said Nola. “You get to go with us to Harold! Aren’t you excited? I know I’m excited.”
Karkash was not wholly pleased by the woman’s manic smile. “How many must go?”
“Five,” she said. “You, me, Conall, Tessa, and Hanjir. Andres is staying behind with Desmond, who is stuck babysitting the King as usual. Poor guy. I offered to fill in for him, but nobody seems to trust me. I don’t know why.”
‘Why do you need Karkash?’ said Hoyohté. To Karkash’s eyes, the reaper was an orca. Her huge, black-and-white body loomed to the right above his head, casting no shadow whatsoever, and her giant mouth did not move at all when she spoke.
Nola’s reaper floated down to answer, but her dorsal fin still stuck through the ceiling. As Karkash recalled, this one’s name was Vennek. ‘It’s not just about destroying the town,’ she said. ‘If it was, just one servant could do the job. We have to stage things carefully and make sure Rendon is blamed for the attack, which means controlling the flow of information afterwards. Karkash can make that a lot easier for us by knocking out electronics around the town. It’d be annoying if some random bystander captured footage of our activities on a camera phone or something. All the footage that gets leaked has to be of our making.’
Hoyohté gave a nod. ‘I see. Very well. We will accompany you.’
“Great,” said Nola, grinning again. She wrapped an arm around Karkash’s shoulder. “How about we grab something to eat, huh? Get to know each other a little better, yeah?”
Karkash silently removed her arm and walked away.
Hector awoke to Garovel’s insistence that he answer the phone. Gina’s call didn’t have a whole lot of information for him, but there was only one thing that he needed to know.
Five of them were going to be in Harold.
His heart sank as he heard that number. There was no way he could fight five servants by himself. He knew this, and by the look on the reaper’s skeletal face, so did Garovel.
<“I’ve also learned all of the servant’s names now,”> Gina was saying. <“There’s Desmond and Karkash, of course. The others are named Conall, Tessa, Nola, Andres, and Hanjir.”>
“Th-thanks. That’s helpful.”
<“Eh. I know it’s not much. There were really long periods of silence where I guess reapers were talking.”>
“Don’t worry about it. You’ve been, uh… you’re, ah… very, um… I mean–”
Gina chuckled. <“Stop. I get the idea.”>
<“Oh, and I learned earlier that the one who was killed was named Stoker. Thought you might like to know.”>
“Ah… I see.” If nothing else, it was nice to be able to put a name to the man’s face. Even if he’d been a member of Abolish, Hector couldn’t help pitying him. It was clear enough, at least, that Stoker had been trying to escape from them, and while Hector didn’t know the reason, it was easy to think of a few good ones.
<“But, um, anyway.”> There came a long pause. <“I hope you’re not planning on going to Harold, still. You understand that there’s nothing you can do there, right?”>
He exchanged looks with Garovel.
<“Even if Master Roman and the Queen were here, the three of you still wouldn’t really stand a chance. And there’s barely a week before the attack, so… I know it sucks, but you just. Um. You can’t. Please don’t go there.”>
“Uh. Y-yeah. I know. Don’t worry.”
Gina sighed. <“Good. We really need you to stay alive right now.”> She’d already been disappointed to learn that Colt wasn’t going to help them fight. She didn’t need more bad news, Hector felt.
“Well, um. C-call me if you learn anything else.”
<“Of course. Talk to you later, then.”>
“Bye.” After he hung up, Hector eyed Garovel again. “So?”
Garovel folded his arms, holding his scythe over his shoulder as he floated. ‘You still want to go, don’t you?’
Hector bobbed his head to the side. “I don’t know about want to, but… I mean…”
‘I won’t allow it,’ said Garovel. ‘Gina’s right. We can’t go to Harold.’
“But, Garovel… we can’t just let Abolish destroy an entire town full of people.”
‘Hector, we’re not “letting” them do anything. They’ll do it whether we’re there or not. Either we don’t go, and they destroy the town, or we do go, get killed, and then they destroy the town, anyway. That’s the reason we’re not going–because our presence won’t make a difference.’
“But… maybe we could… help some people escape, at least?”
‘At the cost of our own lives?’
His expression weakened. “You want me to just… sit this one out?”
‘I’m sorry, but yes. We could try to come up with something that’ll make the town evacuate, but even if we succeed and get away before Abolish shows up, they’d just pick some other town to destroy.’
He sighed and ran a hand over his head. His hair had grown out a little, as he hadn’t cut it since fleeing Brighton.
‘Listen. I know you don’t place much value on your own life. And to be honest, we’re oddly similar in that way. I don’t place much value on mine, either. I’ve lived for a very long time already, and while I don’t want to die, I won’t mind terribly when I do, especially if it’s for a good cause. And at times, it’s helpful that we feel this way. Makes us a bit fearless. But now is not one of those times, because our lives can still help save many others. We don’t have the best options in the world right now, but we have to choose the one that has the potential to do the most good.’
‘However,’ Garovel said slowly, ‘we do have an opportunity here to do something else. It’ll be dangerous, and it won’t save Harold, but if we succeed, it’ll definitely throw a motherfucking wrench into Abolish’s plans.’
Hector’s gaze hardened. “Sounds good so far. What do you want me to do?”
‘It’s gonna sound crazy.’
‘I want you to kidnap the goddamn King.’