Hector let Garovel do the explaining. He stared vacantly past Colt and Bohwanox, not really listening to the conversation. They’d met up north of Brighton, just off the main road. Colt leaned against his car as he listened, his kids lying right behind him in the backseat.
“So you really killed Geoffrey?” said Colt.
Hector just looked at him. Ice cold.
Colt cocked an eyebrow but seemed to get the hint. He turned back to Garovel. “What do you plan on doing now, then?”
‘I think we should travel together,’ said Garovel.
‘Agreed,’ said Bohwanox. ‘We’ll be safer in a group.’
Hector decided to speak up. “Bohwanox.”
“I thought you said… that you didn’t like to get involved.”
“So why did you revive Colt, then?”
Bohwanox gave a small nod. ‘I suppose you changed my mind about taking on servants. After you protected me–after I realized that there were beings like Geoffrey out there, I started to come around to the idea.’
Hector folded his arms. “So you’re not interested in helping people, then. You just wanted someone to protect you.”
Bohwanox blinked at him. ‘Well, yes. I guess you could say that.’
Garovel eyed Hector. ‘There’s nothing wrong with that.’
“Fine, sure,” said Hector. “But why did it have to be him?”
Colt furrowed his brow. “Excuse me?”
He returned the man’s gaze evenly. “Did you think I’d forgotten about Melissa Mallory? And those three cops?” He could feel his irritation steadily growing, becoming genuine anger. He looked at Bohwanox. “Did you know that this guy murdered innocent people? Hell, you were there at the hospital that night. Did you not realize that Colt was the one who killed them?”
Colt’s expression darkened. “You know I had no choice in that.”
Bohwanox looked between the two servants. ‘I was not aware that Colt had killed innocents. But even so, it hardly matters now.’
“What?” said Hector.
‘Colt will not be killing anyone without my permission. As far as I am concerned, his past deeds are of no consequence.’
Hector ground his teeth. “That’s not the point!” he said. “You should have revived someone more deserving of it than him! Someone who wasn’t a murderer!”
‘It makes little difference to me,’ said Bohwanox.
“What the fuck is your problem?” said Colt.
‘I think Hector has a point,’ said Garovel. ‘There is no shortage of potential servants. While I don’t think you should be too judgmental of how people lived their lives, you really shouldn’t resurrect murderers.’
It was Bohwanox’s turn to look annoyed. ‘Colt is a skilled fighter. He is a very practical choice as a servant. And what of his children? Does depriving them of their father mean nothing to you?’
‘Maybe. But then again, they might be better off in someone else’s care.’
“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” said Colt.
“Oh no?” said Hector. “How much danger have they been put in because of you, huh? And then you went and… y-you fucking… dragged me into your shit… and now…”
Everyone fell quiet for a time.
“So that’s what this is,” said Colt. “You blame me for the deaths of your friends and your father. Is that about right?”
Hector just glared at him.
“Fine.” Colt removed his coat and tossed it on the hood of the car. “Blame me. Get mad at me all you like. I can take it.” He walked up a grassy hill, motioning for Hector to follow. “So come on. Come beat the shit out of me. If you can.”
‘Hold on now,’ said Garovel. ‘Colt, you don’t even have an ability yet, do you? Hector would destroy you.’
“So what?” the man said. “It’s not like he can kill me, right? If it makes him feel better, then bring it on.”
‘Even so… what do you think, Hector?’
The thought was admittedly tempting. But he sighed and shook his head. “It wouldn’t change anything… and violence doesn’t really make me feel better…”
Colt folded his arms. “Come on. Don’t be a bitch.”
Hector rolled his eyes and turned the man into a statue. “Happy now, jackass?”
Bohwanox floated over and reached through the metal. After a moment, Colt broke out, tearing the iron from his body.
“Just stop,” said Hector. “Fighting won’t make a difference.”
Bohwanox drifted higher. ‘Actually, it might. Why don’t you let Colt teach you about basic combat?’
Hector lowered his brow, blinking.
‘That’s not a bad idea,’ said Garovel. ‘Hector might be able to show Colt a few things, too. Fighting with enhanced strength is quite different, y’know.’
Colt stretched his arms. “Sounds good to me. You up for it?”
He looked between everyone for a moment. “Alright…”
‘You have to refrain from using your metal powers,’ said Bohwanox. ‘At least until Colt develops his own ability.’
They sparred. Even Colt’s hand-to-hand techniques were brutal. He broke Hector’s bones numerous times, even killing him once by jamming a thumb through the eye socket and reaching all the way to the brain. Hector, on the other hand, was able to demonstrate what new openings could be found when he could ignore body shots and broken limbs. It did not take Colt long to adapt and develop the advantage. After half an hour, however, the enhancements began to wear off, and Colt took the wave of pain and exhaustion much harder than Hector did.
“What the hell?” said Colt, panting. “I beat the crap out of you, so why am I the only one about to collapse here?”
Hector wiped the blood from under his eye. “I’ve had a lot worse than this.”
‘You should both rest,’ said Garovel. ‘And get something to eat. Hector, you must be starving by now.’
“Ah… yeah…” He looked at Colt another time. Hector had calmed down, but he didn’t feel like apologizing for what he said–not when Colt had never apologized for killing Melissa. But for now at least, he decided he would just try not to think about it. “The kids… probably need to be fed, too, right?”
Colt hoisted himself up. “Yeah.”
They took to the road together, Colt’s car out front with Hector’s motorcycle following close behind. It wasn’t long before Garovel struck up another conversation.
‘How’re you holding up?’ There was a weak echo to his voice, and Hector recalled that being indicative of the reaper speaking privately.
‘I don’t know,’ said Hector. ‘I just… it feels like I’m… like I’m angry at… just… everything.’ He squinted hard at the road ahead. ‘Am I losing my mind…?’
‘On the contrary, I think that makes you quite sane.’
He frowned. ‘How did all this happen, Garovel…? Could I have… done something different? Was I careless?’
‘Hector. You can’t blame yourself.’
‘Maybe… those text messages… if I hadn’t been so trusting–if I’d been more suspicious of the possibilities–’
‘We couldn’t have known. We had every reason to think those messages were from Colt.’
‘If we’d thought to… work out some sort of… texting code with Colt beforehand… or something…’
Garovel opened his mouth but stopped himself. After a moment, he gave a small sigh. ‘Maybe you’re right. Maybe we could have been more cautious.’
‘We respond… by becoming better.’
‘Heh. You remember.’
‘I’m glad you’re able to keep a clear head about things,’ said Garovel.
Hector took a long breath and listened to the motorcycle’s clanging engine. After a few minutes, a new question occurred to him. ‘Garovel…’
‘My iron ability, um… will it always be able to grow stronger when I’m under stress? Because when I confronted Geoffrey, I was… I was in a really bad spot, and for a minute there, it felt like… like my power wasn’t going to grow… like I was just fucked… and everyone was gonna die and…’
‘That’s precisely the heart of the problem,’ said Garovel. ‘Your power can grow by leaps and bounds during a moment of extremely high stress. But such moments become increasingly difficult to achieve–and not because the amount of stress needs to increase. Rather, it’s because of your own mind. Over time, you become complacent–you begin to expect your power to suddenly grow and save you at the last moment. And guess what happens, then? Those very expectations reduce your level of stress, which in turn means that your power doesn’t grow when it otherwise would.’
‘Oh, what the–my expectations? What do I even do about that?’
‘That is the question, isn’t it? It’s a nasty psychological cycle, and I’ve known a lot of servants and reapers who’ve struggled with it. There’s been all sorts of research and experimentation with it, trying to figure out concrete ways around it. Some even believe that such growth can be instigated artificially if a scientific solution is found.’
‘Oh yeah. Imagine it. If you could force a servant’s ability to grow whenever you wanted, then the possibilities are–well. Personally, I find that prospect terrifying. If it could be done on a large scale, then the war between Abolish and the Vanguard would either finally come to an end, or escalate worse than ever before.’
‘I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching the growth process,’ said Garovel. ‘The study of “emergence,” they call it. There was a time when the prevailing theory was that emergence could be achieved via a strong enough outpouring of emotion, but that’s only part of it. The real key stems from a sense of need–a powerful rejection of the immediate circumstances, as well as a strong desire to change them. The confusion about it being completely dependent on emotion comes from how the initial manifestation of the ability can be hastened by a sudden outburst, but that doesn’t extend to the growth cycle. Which, of course, caused all sorts of essential problems with experimentation, delaying our understanding of emergence for quite–’
‘You’ve lost me, Garovel…’
‘Oh. Ah. Sorry. But it is pretty fascinating, y’know.’
‘Yeah, okay, uh… what can I actually do about it, though? Is there anything?’
‘Well, in theory, the trick is to find a way to manage your expectations so that emergence can occur when you need it to. Ideally, you would have no expectations at all, but that’s easier said than done. Merely acknowledging the possibility of emergence will create some degree of expectation, even if it’s very small. Which might make you think that me even bringing this up in the first place is a bad idea, but on the other hand, NOT acknowledging emergence will definitely build up a subconscious expectation naturally, which is far more–’
‘You’re losing me again…’
The reaper sighed. ‘Well. Okay. In simplest terms, you just can’t rely on your ability to suddenly grow more powerful and save you all the time, because the minute you start relying on it is the minute it stops working.’
‘Yeah, I understood that part. I wanna know how I can manage my expectations or whatever.’
‘Fuck, I don’t know! It’s a subtle art of individual psychology! You have to figure it out for yourself!’
‘What the–?’ Hector blinked. ‘Why didn’t you just say that from the beginning?’
‘And pass up an opportunity to impress you with my wealth of knowledge? No way.’
‘…That was supposed to impress me?’
‘Oh, fuck right off.’
For a moment, Hector was able to crack a meager smile.
Damian Rofal picked his nose as he watched the coroner pull back the sheet, revealing Geoffrey’s pallid face.
‘Must you do that right now?’ said Feromas.
‘Do what?’ To Damian’s eyes, the reaper looked like a sour-faced jester. The colorful, motley attire had never matched Feromas’ personality very well.
“Yeah, that’s him,” Damian told the coroner. “Except, it’s not him, is it?”
Feromas floated over the body. ‘Hmm. Did we ever learn what Geoffrey’s power was?’
“It was Domination,” said Damian, thoughtless of the other person in the room. “Don’t you remember all the puppets he left behind?”
‘Right, of course. So he really could have body jumped, then.’
Damian tilted his head. “How many other bodies arrived yesterday?”
“Oh, um–” The coroner stiffened and adjusted his glasses. “There were quite a few, actually. Would you care to see them, Mr. Rofal?”
They entered a much larger room. A good three dozen tables stood from wall to wall, and upon each was a body. Damian and Feromas took separate aisles, searching.
“Most of them appear to have died via suffocation,” said the coroner. “But there were also a few cases of dismemberment and disembowelment. Are you, perhaps, looking for one in particular, sir?”
Damian ignored the man. “Ah! Found him!”
Feromas floated over. ‘So he really is dead after all.’
“Shame,” said Damian. “I had high hopes for him.”
‘This changes things,’ said Feromas.
“Ah, that one is–umm–” The man flipped the card by the foot to read. “–Samuel Goffe.”
“I don’t care,” said Damian. “Please be quiet.”
The coroner backed away without another word.
‘Well now,’ said Feromas, ‘do you intend on avenging our grandson?’
Damian scratched his jowly cheek and shrugged. “Eh. I’d rather not. Unless you feel strongly about it.”
‘Doesn’t matter to me. But without Geoffrey, there is not much reason to stay in Brighton–or in Atreya, for that matter.’
“Perhaps it’s a good time to leave the country,” he said.
‘Abolish has started moving here, too. It’d be annoying if they found us. And at that point, we’d have to leave anyway, as well as cover our tracks.’
‘What are you thinking?’
“This whole family business thing hasn’t really worked out for us, has it?”
‘That’s because you have trouble sticking to plans. You let your family run wild and do whatever they want. You could have fostered greatness in them, but now they are just normal people whom you barely ever see.’
“You’re right. Of course, you’re right. And I got a bit too comfortable in that community home, didn’t I?”
‘Ugh, don’t remind me. I almost released your soul because of that fucking place.’
“I’m gonna miss that pudding. And the board games. Oh, and that Nurse Beatrix.” He thought a moment. “Hey, you wanna go back there?”
‘No, goddammit! I’ll kill you!’
“Fine…” He stretched his neck. “I guess I’ll go gather the kids up, then.”
‘Really? They are not going to just abandon their lives and leave with you.’
“Who said I’d give them a choice?”
And abruptly, a broad grin split the reaper’s face. ‘Now that is more like it.’ He eyed Samuel Goffe’s body. ‘Don’t forget to scrap Geoffrey for parts, too.’
“Right.” Damian turned to the coroner. “I need a body bag for this one.”
The man blinked at him. “E-excuse me?”
“I’m taking–what was it, Mr. Goffe? I’m taking him with me.”