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.”
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.
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.”
“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!”
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.
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 have been killed. He buries them. It is more than most who have died today receive.
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.
‘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.’
‘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?’
‘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…”
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.
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…’
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.
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.