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.
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.
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.
“Just shut up and take my help,” said Colt. “I already owe you way too much, as it is.”
‘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?’
‘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.
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.’
“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.”
“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.
‘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.
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.”
“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.
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.
His form was far from perfect, but the throw had more than enough power to compensate.
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.
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.
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.’