Stoker met Karkash’s stare evenly. In truth, he was afraid of the man, but there was no room for fear now. And he wasn’t weak, either. He could fight. If he played smart, he might even win. So that’s what he did.
Stoker slowly put both arms up as if to surrender.
Karkash did not take the bait. Electricity gathered in his fist, and Stoker only had a moment to shield Nize from the attack.
The current ripped through his body, explosions of pain everywhere, but Stoker was no stranger to such agony. He used transfiguration, after all, arguably the most painful class of servant abilities.
Transfiguration was a power for the thinking man. It required practice, precision, and chemistry. Its true strength was lost on the simple-minded.
Stoker could replace any part of his body with hydrogen–not so threatening a power as Karkash’s, to be sure, but like most transfiguration abilities, it was prone to being underestimated, as others had learned to their cost.
Stoker’s back and arms sizzled beneath his clothes. Hydrogen bonded with the oxygen in his blood and skin to create water en masse, which vaporized immediately; and when it hit the cool air, the result was a sudden fog, expanding quickly out from Stoker’s flesh. He retreated into its pure white cover and added his soul to the cloud in order to prevent Hoyohté from sensing him.
Nize, on the other hand, could still sense Karkash and Hoyohté perfectly. Stoker’s soul permeated the mist in a confused mass, but their souls remained clear beacons.
Stoker’s missing flesh left a lingering burn, like being set on fire, but it did not last. Nize initiated the regeneration and enhanced his strength, then attached herself to his back to conceal her soul within his.
He needed an answer from her. ‘It’s only Karkash here, right? No other servants?’
‘Yes,’ she said privately.
Fleeing was perhaps still an option, he realized. He merely needed to leave Karkash’s range, preferably with a new car. It would have been nice if letting Nize go deep underground were an option, but he knew that even if she managed to escape Karkash’s reach, Abolish’s subterranean net had already been completed. Just as Stoker and Karkash provided aerial defenses, another team specialized in below ground tactics. A gigantic, soul-empowered net was often used to prevent enemy reapers from infiltrating cities and regenerating their servants from scratch. Of course, it also prevented friendly reapers from leaving cities by the same means.
‘Karkash is lashing out,’ said Nize. ‘Careful on your right.’
A car flew toward him, and Stoker ducked under it. The cracking boom of lightning made the fog shudder and swirl. Magnetic waves shifted the air and flipped more vehicles, making traffic in both directions come screeching to a halt.
Stoker ran left, widening and deepening the fog. Sparks flew through the cloud, stirring the air, brewing up a storm. This was, after all, why Stoker and Karkash were anti-air specialists. Given time, their combined abilities could create weather more ferocious than any conventional aircraft could withstand.
A silver pickup truck appeared through the fog much too suddenly. It slammed into Stoker, knocking him clear off the road and through the wall of a grocery store. Debris and produce left people fleeing in all directions.
Stoker’s fog subsided as his concentration did, as he was more concerned with struggling back to his feet while half the bones in his body shifted back into place and repaired themselves. He shoved the truck out of the way, its bearded driver either dead or unconscious at the wheel. He made his way outside again.
The violent changes in air pressure had already kicked up a small wind, and he knew that his cloud would soon be pushed away. He decided it would be wiser to attack before making more.
The miniscule amount of acid in his stomach would be of no great use alone, but he could tunnel through his own body with hydrogen in order to reach the extra chlorine in his kidneys and the oxygen in his blood and lungs; and when strengthened with imaginary power, his acid would be both strong enough and voluminous enough to eat through even concrete within seconds.
‘Where is he?’ Stoker asked.
‘Straight ahead five meters, left two more, and you will be behind him.’
The acid swelled up as he ran, eating him from the inside, and as soon as he saw Karkash, he spat out a sizzling, bloody glob.
Hoyohté must have warned him, because Karkash was able to avoid the brunt of the acid. It splashed the side of his face only, and when Stoker threw a punch with all his strength, Karkash simply caught it. With his one unmelted eye, Karkash turned to look at Stoker.
He spat more acid. A bolt of electricity cut through it, igniting the hydrogen. Both men’s clothes caught fire, but Stoker took the worst of it as the flames relished the chance to spread throughout the hydrogen in his body. He dropped and rolled until the fire extinguished. He climbed to one knee as flesh all over his body was returning.
‘Nize,’ he said, running again, ‘are you alright?’
‘She’s staying in front of him where he can protect her. I’m sure she’s also watching his back for him.’
Stoker growled. He was hoping they would have split up, but they apparently knew better. Their formation was ideal for low-visibility combat, because if Hoyohté had gone above the fog or below, she wouldn’t have been able to eliminate Karkash’s blind spots, which would have meant the advantage for Stoker. Wishful thinking, it seemed.
Another car came reeling through the fog, and Stoker had to sidestep it. He ran south, making more fog behind him. He knew that he could take Karkash down with a simple bath of hydrogen gas, as the sparks in the air would make it explode immediately; but the problem was avoiding the explosion himself. A double-down scenario was certainly not ideal. He decided it was time to flee again.
He passed an overturned police car, and for a mad moment, considered stealing the officer’s firearm before remembering the reason he hadn’t brought his own to this fight.
Finally, he reached a part of the road where none of the vehicles were tumbling through the air. He picked a big blue truck and yanked the hapless civilian out.
Before he could jump in the driver’s seat, however, a lightning bolt pierced his chest. His entire body spasmed violently, and he looked back to see Karkash in the distance, risen above the fog, hovering toward them.
It was no great surprise to see the man flying. Karkash always kept enough metal under his clothes to support his own weight, and from there, it was merely a matter of manipulating magnetic fields around himself. Stoker spared it no thought, just like the hole in his chest.
In the driver’s seat, he backed the truck up against oncoming traffic. He cut over the median and spun the wheel around until the truck was facing the open road. He floored it.
Karkash dwindled in the mirror. But he didn’t disappear. And after a moment, Stoker saw lightning leap toward the truck and crash just behind it.
He stuck his arm out the window and left a trail of fog. It wasn’t much, but at least it would make his giant metal deathtrap more difficult to hit.
‘Nize?’ he thought while his ribcage filled back in.
He couldn’t exactly look back to check on her. ‘Talk to me, Nize. Are you wounded?’
‘Losing consciousness… just keep going…’
A wall of white filled the rearview mirror, but from what Stoker knew of Karkash’s flying prowess, this truck probably wouldn’t be enough to lose him.
Hector had to wait in the trunk while Colt booked a room at the Sunny Days Motel–a name which, by the look of the place, was perhaps more fitting ten years ago. No longer planning to go to Walton, they’d stayed on the outskirts of Maxwell, in want of a better destination.
Hector knew that he must have looked like hell, because there was only one bed in the room, and Colt conceded it to him straight away.
He managed to get some more sleep, letting the aches and fatigue wash over him again, but he was soon awoken by his phone. It was Gina.
<“Are you watching this?”> she said. <“Or are you already there?”>
Hector glanced across the others. “What are you talking about?”
<“Are you near a television?”>
“Yeah. Hold on…”
Colt switched the TV on and found the live news broadcast almost immediately.
Hector stood. “What the hell is this…?”
Freak weather moving south of Sescoria, it said. Reports of deadly, ground-level thunderstorms. And of a flying man. And of numerous casualties.
‘It’s them,’ said Garovel. ‘No doubt.’
‘Are they already making their move?’ said Bohwanox. ‘Your friend said we had two weeks.’
“Gina?” said Hector. “What do you know about this?”
<“Nothing. Sorry. If they planned this attack, then they did it somewhere I couldn’t overhear them.”>
He watched the helicopter footage. A giant trail of fog followed the highway, cutting through suburban towns south of Sescoria. He could see overturned vehicles on the side of the road, even lodged into the sides of buildings. The reporters were warning people in the vicinity to remain in their homes.
“That’s not very far from here,” said Hector.
‘You still need rest,’ said Garovel.
“Garovel, we both know I’m going. Let’s not waste time arguing.” He looked at Colt. “Let me borrow your car.”
‘You don’t even know how to drive,’ said Garovel.
“I’ll figure it out.”
Colt stood as well. “I’ll drive you.”
“Are you kidding? The kids–”
“We’ll keep our distance,” he said, gathering them in his arms. “But if it comes down to it, I will abandon you. Understood?”
The small town traffic made the highway easier to navigate until he felt the truck start to slow. There was plenty of gas. His foot was all the way down. It wasn’t a problem with the vehicle. Karkash had finally gotten within range again. Soon, the truck was barely even moving forward, tires smoking against the pavement.
Then the flash of lightning came. Stoker was only partway out the door before the electricity ignited the gas tank, and the truck exploded. He went flying in one direction; his legs went in another.
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.
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.
He could feel her presence there. He concentrated and flexed his soul–an imaginary muscle, pressing against her.
‘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.
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.
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.”