Gina sat up in her chair. “Master Roman! Where are you? You haven’t contacted me for weeks.”
<“Yeah, my phone kind of blew up. It’s no big deal. I’ve got a new one now.”>
“How did your phone get destroyed?”
<“Oh, um. I dropped it.”>
Gina squinted. “You dropped your phone, and it exploded.”
<“Yeah. That’s a thing that can happen. I don’t see what’s weird about it.”>
“Master Roman, why are you lying to me? And moreover, why are you sucking at it?”
<“I have other things on my mind right now, okay? Dammit, Voreese! Shut up! I’m trying to talk to Gina! Agh–she can’t hear you! You know she can’t hear you, so you’re just being annoying for no fucking reason! Stop already or–”> There was a pause, then a sigh of exasperation. <“Voreese says hi.”>
<“Gina says hi. Yeah. Great. Now shut up. Yes, I know you can’t let go of me right now! Just be quiet!”> Another pause, and Roman cleared his throat. <“Sorry about that. It’s been a stressful week.”>
“Did something happen?”
<“We met up with some more Vanguard forces, but they weren’t very forthcoming. They were giving us the run around and just generally being unhelpful pricks.”>
<“And Lynnette stole something from them, and they got all pissed. Then I stole a bigger something. An airplane-shaped something.”>
“You stole a plane from the Vanguard?!”
<“Yeah!”> laughed Roman. <“Stole the pilot, too. Pretty nice guy. Bit jumpy, but nice.”>
“Wait.” Gina’s brow lowered. “What happened to your private jet?”
<“Oh, um. Yeah, don’t worry about the private jet. It’s fine.”>
“It’s not fine at all, is it?”
<“It’s at the bottom of a swamp.”>
“How did that happen?!”
<“That’s not important.”>
“I think it is!”
<“Everything is under control. I only called to let you know that we haven’t died horribly yet.”>
“Fantastic. In that case, I have news for you, too. You remember Hector, yes?”
“Everyone in Atreya thinks he’s a mass murderer,” said Gina. “He’s gotten pretty infamous. And Abolish may or may not be trying to kill him now.”
Again, there came a pause. <“Huh,”> was all Roman said.
“He got into a fight with them just yesterday.”
<“Is he okay?”>
“I think so. He’s not alone, anyway. There’s another servant with him.”
“A man named Colt. He has two young children with him.”
<“Hmm. Does he seem trustworthy?”>
“Hard to say. Hector seems to trust him, though. I’ve been trying to help them as best I can.”
<“Good. Don’t let them do anything crazy. They could be valuable allies.”>
“Also, more importantly, I’ve learned that Abolish intends to destroy a small town called Harold and blame the attack on Rendon.”
<“Mm. That’s about what Mehlsanz predicted.”>
“They’re going to do it thirteen days from now. I thought the events from yesterday might’ve changed their minds, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Desmond’s been yelling at Karkash but not to much effect.”
<“Who are Desmond and Karkash?”>
“Two of the Abolish guys. I believe there are now seven Abolish servants in Sescoria.”
<“Ugh. Seven. That will be problematic.”>
“Where are you heading next? Do you have a plan?”
<“We’re flying to Intar right now. We’re hoping to find a more reasonable faction of the Vanguard there.”>
“One which won’t mind that you stole a plane from their allies?”
<“We might have to leave that part out of the discussion.”>
“Then you’ll have to ditch the plane or hide it somehow.”
<“Yeah, I know.”>
“How is the Queen doing?”
<“Good, as far as I can tell. She was the first one to see through the Vanguard’s bullshit. Would’ve been nice if she warned me a little earlier about her plan to have Lynnette rip them off, but I suppose it would’ve turned into a clusterfuck either way.”>
“They attacked you?”
<“Okay, maybe a little.”>
Gina’s brow furrowed. “Sir, how much danger are you in?”
<“Oh, not much. Don’t worry.”>
“Stop telling me not to worry. I know you’re lying. Just tell me the truth.”
<“Sorry, I can’t hear you very well. I’m going into a tunnel.”>
“Your plane is going into a tunnel?”
<“It’s a very tunnel-like cloud. You’re–kerrghh–breaking up–kerrghh. Sorry–kerrghh.”>
“You’re pathetic, Master Roman.”
<“Kerrghh–talk to you later–kerrghh.”> He hung up.
She shook her head and set her phone down. After a few moments, however, it started ringing again, and she picked it back up.
<“How did you find out so much about Abolish’s plan?”>
It was her turn to hesitate. “I inferred it from watching the news.”
<“Bullshit! You named names and gave me a timeline!”>
“The reporters were very thorough.”
<“Fuck! You went to Sescoria to spy on them, didn’t you?! Don’t you know how dangerous that is?!”>
“Don’t worry, sir. Hector is here with me.”
<“Oh yeah? Let me talk to him, then.”>
“He’s busy with something. I don’t want to bother him.”
“Oh, look at that. I seem to be going into a tunnel now, too. Bye.” She hung up.
Roman called back immediately, and Gina just let it ring. Then it fell quiet for a minute, and just when she was getting back into her work, it started beeping. She checked the text messages.
i forgot to tell u sumthing important
She called him back. “Now what?”
<“It’s about Lynnette. She’s probably headed back to Atreya.”>
“Huh? By herself?”
<“She got separated from us. We don’t know where she is, and she doesn’t know where we’re going, so the Queen figures that Lynnette will go back to Atreya. Which sounds about right.”>
“You want me to track her down?”
<“No need. I gave her your contact details a while back as a precaution. I’m betting you’ll get a call from her as soon she gets hold of a phone. Help her out if you can.”>
<“And look, I understand why you went to Sescoria. And I’m grateful for your information. But you’ve accomplished your goal now, so go back to Walton.”>
“I’m sorry, sir. I can’t do that.”
<“Gina, that’s an order. Go back to Walton.”>
“What, are you going to fire me?”
“Master Roman, the information I’ve gathered isn’t enough. We need the names and powers of all the enemy servants, along with any kind of actionable details about their plans. Just knowing that they intend to destroy Harold doesn’t help us. As things stand, we can’t beat them in a straight fight, especially without knowing what they’re capable of.”
There was a long pause. <“You’re not wrong,”> he admitted. <“And we probably won’t find reinforcements in time to save that town, either.”>
“By the way, I recorded yesterday’s news footage of Karkash. It’s not much, but it might help you convince the Vanguard of Abolish’s presence in Atreya.”
<“You only now remembered?”>
“I would have sent it to you later.”
<“You’ll have to hold off. This phone can’t play video, much less receive it from another country.”>
“Let me know when you get your hands on a better device, then.”
<“Right.”> Roman gave a sigh. <“You’re really not going to leave Sescoria, are you?”>
<“Bah. You’re at least being careful, aren’t you?”>
“Actually, sir, I intend to let them kill me for no reason.”
<“That’s not funny.”>
‘Wake up,’ said Garovel.
Hector’s eyes popped open, and he looked around. The twins were with him in the backseat, and when he locked eyes with Stephanie, he saw her face scrunch up and knew she would start crying if he lingered. He decided to exit the vehicle.
He met a harsh sun and a barren landscape. Not a single tree could be seen in any direction, though the waves of heat over the horizon made him wonder if his eyes could be trusted.
“Over here,” said Colt.
Hector turned to see Colt reach into the dirt and pull. A huge door rose out of the ground. Dust kicked up all around the man as he revealed a manmade hole in the ground. They both looked down at the ramp leading into the darkness.
Still groggy and aching all over his body, Hector scratched under his eye. “W-where are we, exactly?”
Colt thumbed behind himself. “East of Walton.”
Hector squinted, only then noticing the buildings in the distance. They fluctuated on the horizon, seeming almost a mirage against the heat.
Colt fetched the children from the car, along with a flashlight, the latter of which he handed off to Hector. And all together, they ventured underground, Hector leading the way while the reapers brought up the rear.
The ramp curved gradually right as they descended, and soon, they discovered an even floor. Hector found a switch on the wall and flipped it. Incrementally, flood lights in the ceiling illuminated a much larger chamber than Hector had expected.
There had to be upwards of fifty vehicles in this place.
“Damn,” said Colt. “Some friend you got here.”
The reapers began browsing.
Hector looked at Colt again. “So I guess… you talked to Gina while I was asleep?”
“Not for very long. Only to get the coordinates to this place. She did say to call her back when you were awake, though.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Why didn’t you just wake me up, then?”
“She said it wasn’t urgent.”
Bohwanox floated up behind Colt. ‘He’s lying. He told Gina all about how you needed your rest.’
Colt’s glare only seemed to make the reaper happier.
‘It was very touching,’ said Bohwanox. ‘He cried.’
The man rolled his eyes and walked away.
Bohwanox lingered with Hector. ‘Alright, so maybe he didn’t cry.’
Hector tried to reply but found no words available. He wasn’t sure he understood Colt and Bohwanox’s relationship. He wasn’t sure they did, either.
As he wandered toward Garovel, Hector pulled out his cellphone, but he was interrupted before he could find Gina’s number.
‘Hector, look,’ said Garovel, pointing. ‘A Revenant cruiser. And look! A wall you can crash it into!’
Hector shook his head, fighting a grin and losing. “Hey, I didn’t wreck the last bike. Um. Much.”
‘I’m convinced that was only because it wasn’t a Revenant.’
“Then by that logic, I shouldn’t choose this one.”
‘No, by that logic, you definitely should.’
He just laughed.
‘You have to pick it. It’s so shiny and silver. And it’s got knives painted on the gas tank.’
He had to admit, it was an attractive machine. It seemed more beastly than the previous bikes, both wider and longer to his eyes. Twin exhaust pipes curved smoothly out from below the engine and reached all the way past the rear tire, and judging from the digital instruments below the handlebars, the bike was a newer model.
He nodded at the reaper and turned away to call Gina, putting her on speaker again as soon as she picked up.
<“Hello,”> she said cheerfully.
“H-hi.” He glanced at the others as they gathered around to listen. “We, uh. W-we found the garage.”
<“Oh, good. Before that, though, I wanted to tell you that I spoke with Master Roman.”>
Hector’s brow perked up. “Oh, what’d he say?”
<“I told him about the attack on Harold, but he isn’t very hopeful that he and the Queen will make it back to Atreya in time with reinforcements.”>
He frowned. “Hmm.”
<“So if you intend to save that town, then you should expect to be on your own.”>
<“Give me time to find out more details before you commit to anything. I can’t have you going off and getting yourselves killed.”>
“Yeah, we’d, uh… we’d like to avoid that as well…”
<“Anyway, that garage is part of a bunker. There should be some rooms in the back with beds, along with a bathroom and a stocked kitchen.”>
“Why, um… ah… why is this place, uh… um…?”
Blushing again, Hector looked to the others, partly for help, partly to see if they were annoyed with him. Their faces seemed more pitying than irritated. He wasn’t sure that was any better, honestly.
Colt intervened. “I think Hector’s wondering why your boss has a bunker full of cars way out here.”
Hector breathed deep and nodded thankfully.
<“Ah.”> Gina paused. <“I suppose if Master Roman doesn’t mind you using the facility, then he won’t mind me telling you what it’s for. My understanding is that these bunkers were Voreese’s idea. She wanted places to go in the event of an attack on the mansion in Walton.”>
“Voreese is…?” Colt shifted his grip on Stephanie, trying to prevent her from grabbing onto his lower lip. He succeeded, and she tugged on his beard instead.
“Voreese is Roman’s reaper,” said Hector.
<“Voreese was also planning to use the bunkers for certain business ventures.”>
“Business ventures?” said Hector.
<“Underground delivery and rebranding services, I believe.”>
Colt snorted. “So a black market, basically.”
<“I wouldn’t know anything about that.”>
“Hector never told you that I used to be a cop, did he?”
Gina was quiet a moment. <“So like I was saying, those bunkers are for emergency shelter only.”>
“Nice. You know, it’s not like I’m in any position to arrest you.”
<“Right, so. Anyway, you can stay there, if you like. In fact, please do stay there, even if it’s only for the next few days. It’ll be easier for me if I know where you are.”>
Colt raised an eyebrow. “Easier for you, how?”
<“I’m expecting a call from Lynnette. She’s apparently on her way back to Atreya, and I’m thinking it would be good to have her meet up with you.”>
“Oh!” said Hector. “Lynn, you mean? She’s–wait a minute. She’s coming back on her own?”
<“That’s what Master Roman said. She might need a ride, or she might already have her own. I have no idea how she’ll be getting back into the country.”>
“Uhh. W-why is Lynn on her own?”
<“I’m not too clear on the details. You should probably just ask her yourself.”>
“I, uh… mgh…”
<“Or have Colt ask her. Whatever works.”>
“Any progress with that child doctor?” said Colt.
<“Sorry, not yet. I should get back to that, actually. Give me a ring if I can help with anything else.”>
“Roger that,” said Colt.
The conversation ended there. Colt and Bohwanox went off to explore the rest of the bunker. Hector, on the other hand, wanted to get some training in. He was sure he’d fall back asleep if he did practically anything else. He went up above ground again with Garovel, and the first thing he did was make a giant half-dome to shield himself from the sun. Then he began some simple sword practice.
As his thoughts drifted back to his battle with Karkash, Hector soon began thinking about his own ability, about some of the things he still wasn’t sure he fully understood.
“I’ve got a question…”
“If, um… well, for instance, if I make a metal box or something–” He paused to do just that, materializing a large iron cube directly in front of him. “–what happens to it if I just… like… leave it there?”
Garovel tilted his head. ‘What do you mean?’
“Ah, like… if I don’t destroy this cube here, and then I just go somewhere else, um… somewhere really far away, I mean… then will the cube, um… stay? Or will it destroy itself when I get too far away?”
‘Oh. It’ll stay. You didn’t know that, already? Even after all those criminals you left coated in metal for the police?’
“Well, I kinda figured that’s what happens, but I just… uh… wanted to be sure, ‘cuz… now I have a follow-up question.”
“So I can go like a hundred kilometers away from this cube, and it’ll stay here, but… what if I try to destroy it WHILE I’m that far away from it? Would that work?”
‘Ah! No, that wouldn’t work, but you bring up an important point.’
‘It’s a matter of proximity,’ said Garovel. ‘The distance over which you can create your iron is exactly the same as the distance over which you can destroy it. Obviously, you can’t create something from a hundred kilometers away, so you wouldn’t be able to destroy it from that distance, either.’
‘Think of it as if you’re always standing at the center of a giant bubble. That bubble is your “sphere of influence,” so to speak. Anywhere within that space, you can create and subsequently destroy your iron.’
“Okay…” Hector annihilated the crude sword he had been using and crossed his arms. “So then… if someone is standing within my range, could I create metal inside their body?”
‘Ah. You’re thinking if you could materialize iron directly into a servant’s brain, you could kill them instantly, right?’
“…Yeah, pretty much.”
‘As far as I know, that’s not possible. I definitely would’ve told you to do it earlier if I thought it was.’
“Why isn’t it possible? Er, why don’t you think it is?”
‘Because the mass that you’re creating has to accumulate before taking form. And it can’t do that within a space already occupied by a solid object. There’s too much physical resistance for the atoms and molecules to gather properly. Within a gas or a liquid, though, it’s fine. There’s not enough resistance there to cause a problem.’
“Mm…” He wiped his brow. Even in the shade, he’d been sweating for a while.
‘That’s the idea, anyway. Emergence is always a bit of a wild card, but I’ve never heard of a materialization user who could do that.’
“But, umm… haven’t I already done that, kind of?”
‘What’re you talking about?’
“I’ve cut into flesh with my metal before. I know I have. I mean, it didn’t start inside the body, but once the metal went through, it kept going and came out the other side. Doesn’t that sort of count? Or…?”
‘Cutting into flesh isn’t the same,’ said Garovel, ‘because I’m sure you were growing the metal from the back.’
“From the back?”
‘Yeah, you make the tip of a blade, for instance, and then add onto it from the back. Because the tip is already formed, it can cut through the body, and it can keep cutting through because you then keep adding to the metal from outside the person’s body, where it can form properly.’
“Eh… I’m still not sure I follow…”
‘You can test it on yourself, if you like. You won’t be able to make a blade grow OUT of, say, your brachioradialis muscle, but you WILL be able to grow a blade INTO the muscle.’
“Brachio… radialis muscle?”
‘It’s in your forearm. Primarily allows you to flex your elbow.’
“R-right. Uh…” He eyed his forearm. “Maybe I’ll test that out later. Or maybe I’ll just… trust you.”
‘You mean you don’t wanna stab yourself for the sake of science?’
He exhaled a curt laugh.
Garovel scratched his bare skull. ‘I don’t remember you ever doing that before, though. Growing your metal into someone’s flesh, that is.’
Hector’s eyes drew down, and he looked at his hand, closing it into a fist and then opening it again. “It’s how I killed Geoffrey.”
Hector lingered on the memory a moment before brushing it away and looking at Garovel again. “What about, um… what if I tried to flood a person’s blood vessels with metal? Blood’s a liquid, so it would work, right?”
‘Gruesome thought. It might be possible, but it would require a hell of a lot of precision on your part. And even if you could make such a complicated network of iron, I don’t think it would be very useful. It definitely wouldn’t be enough to stop a servant.’
“It wouldn’t? Even if I flooded the blood vessels in their brain?”
‘It’s good that you’re thinking creatively about how to use your ability, but remember, a servant’s brain doesn’t require blood to function. As long as the brain is more or less in one piece, it should work just fine.’ The reaper thought a moment and then added, ‘Unless you freeze it or something, I suppose.’
“Hmm. Then what else…?” Hector rubbed his face, trying not to focus on how tired he still was or how everything still ached. He took a deep breath and thought back. “I already know that there’s a limit to the amount of iron I can make, so… well, how does that work, exactly? I mean, I know the limit can increase as my, uh, as my proficiency does, but… uh…”
‘The volume limit is also reliant upon proximity. Anything you create is counted towards that volume limit as long as it’s within your range.’
Hector tilted his head. “So… if I’ve maxed out on the amount of iron I can create, then… to make more stuff, I have to either destroy something or… move away from what I already created?”
“Interesting…” He looked out across the wavering horizon. “Maybe I should figure out what my range is.”
‘Not a bad idea. Your range will grow over time, but it could still be useful to know what it is currently. And there’s plenty of space out here to work with.’
“Time for some tests, then…”