Clutching her chest, Alta did her best not to glare at her head scientist while she spoke. The woman was jumpy enough as it is. “Are you sure? It has been armored? If in the approach we are attacked-”
“As best we can,” The short woman said with a bow. Several drops of sweat ran down off of her nose and gathered at the tip of her nose to drip off. “Any further and it will require a larger cart. And you stated-”
“I remember the orders I gave,” Alta hissed. The numbness of her metal body was remarkably inconvenient sometimes. There were occasions when she felt lost. Adrift in her own body. Sometimes, Alta wondered if she even existed anymore. For a while, she had taken solace in her existence by proving it through harassment of her lackeys. Which was why she was currently on her third head scientist in three weeks. And this woman didn’t seem like she would last long. “Leave.”
Part of those sudden changes were also related to the important Alta placed on her device’s plans. But if Creta found out, she would be quite disapproving.
Alta cursed the foolish woman and wondered what insightful solution to the that Danz would have come up with. Another one in a long line of individuals that left her unsatisfied and mildly frantic in comparison to his understated efficiency.
Shaking her head, Alta regarded the short and lumpy cart. It was of the size that it could be a hand cart drawn by a human. Which was the point. The grand caravan carrying her “portal apparatus” was already prepared. But the vast fleet of flatbed carts carrying hulking metal gizmos and transistors were only a decoy. The key to open the door was all contained in this small cart. Her most brilliant and streamlined work.
...and it was stubby and lumpy. Alta limped up to it. Honestly, it reminded her of herself. It was strangely infuriating.
With a grimace, Alta turned away and check the horizon. Almost sunset. Creta should be returning soon.
At the very least, Alta reflected as she returned to her tent, the world ending will mean I won’t need to see Danz’ sister’s accusing eyes any longer. Maybe I should have just had her killed months ago.
Thunder cracked above as Alta continued through the twisted badlands they now called home. Alta wished that all of this wasn’t necessary, but she had been betrayed. About two months ago, when they had arrived at the lowest Land, her faction was already losing momentum rapidly. She was sitting at the top of the Procession, but she was losing control.
Part of it was the edge of madness as food began to run low and everything depended on foraging; there were no more easy cities to raid. Another part was the influx of desperate people into the Procession as all the other lands realized the damage their passage had caused wouldn’t heal easily. And perhaps worst of all, the neutral faction led by the Monster Prince became increasingly antagonistic to her goals.
Worst of all, that very same Monster Prince seemed to have a fucking Land full of farmland from which he was drawing resources. Vegetables and fruits, nuts and mushrooms. Very quickly, her power base was eroded to a fraction of what it once was as they were drawn away by the siren song of food. All she had left was the scientists. The hardliners. The Spriggit supremacists.
And Creta of course.
Alta felt no relief when she arrived at her tent. It was a lonely place; no one was around. She didn’t bother with guards anymore, not when her appearance usually disturbed the fools that were assigned to her enough that they would willingly switch factions to get away from her and her grinding and screeching metal body. It was infuriating. After all the terrible things she had done throughout her life, it turned out that it was the innocuous decision to improve her physical body that the rest of the World Tree would see her damned for.
Sometimes she caught her followers pining for how pretty she was before the “operations”.
Truly, sexism was not dead.
Moving as fast as she could, Alta hobbled into the tent and found her little blue pills. Although the doctor had warned her against it, she took four at once. The pain in her chest didn’t hurt any longer, it was just… constantly warm. And her insides felt wet and sticky, although Alta chided herself that sweating with her new body was impossible.
Part of her considered opening herself up and looking at the problem at her core one more time, but another warned against it. She was meeting Creta later, and the other woman would be able to smell the pungent residue of her insides if she exposed it to air. That wasn’t a talk she wanted to have again.
Besides, it would end soon, either way.
Panting softly, Alta turned and considered the map on the table. The Soulless Land was a hellscape, but not nearly as bad as they had expected. There was resistance, but it wasn’t nearly to the point Creta had feared. In fact, the Soulless tended to avoid the expedition. Marauders were sometimes a problem, but not a serious one.
Even now, Alta’s hands clenched into fists as she studied the map. Under the advisement of Creta, Alta had been cautious in her descent in this Land. Which was why the other two factions were able to move in the dead of night and rush toward the ruins ahead of her.
For this, Alta didn’t blame Creta. But it did birth in her a vicious fury she had nursed ever since. It was some small consolation that thousands had died on that night run, but it wasn’t enough.
Now, the Monster Prince and Weaver Factions had held the Progenitor ruins for two months. They excavated the ruins as Alta demanded, but they wouldn’t allow her to install her own equipment to open the portal. Instead, they ask that the equipment be delivered so they could take it apart and inspect it for “technical oversights”.
“TECHNICAL OVERSIGHTS!” Alta bellowed. Her voice was hollow and metallic, but still, the tent shook with the force of her shout.
That was another reason she no longer had guards. Increasingly, her outburst grew unavoidable. Perhaps it was this body. Some things simply could not be endured without comment.
The fools were less foolish than she had anticipated. Perhaps from some of the rumors she had planted, they understood that her goals were not just the stated opening a door to the Progenitor and attracting his attention.
Which was strange. For all that most people were developing a nihilistic streak, they balked at the prospect of death. Honestly, Alta was surprised more people weren’t on her side. The world was ending; that much was clear.
And yet food continued to appear in the Monster Princes hands. The Weavers assembled grand tents that gave the illusion of civility even in this wild place. It was hard to gather firm population numbers about the procession, but an impromptu city the size of any one Land’s capital had sprung up at the edge of the ruins.
But even the Monster Prince’s magic food source couldn’t hold off the inevitable.
Hunger was rampant. So even as the other factions didn’t want Alta technology, they needed it; despite everything else she had lost, she was still the greatest technical mind that this world had ever seen.
“This world will burn. One way or another…” Alta muttered. Her hands moved to the small models on top of the map and moved the small carts toward the ruins. Tomorrow was the agreed upon date. They would allow her through, or she would force their hand.
On her side, there were herself, Creta, and the enigmatic and beautiful pilot of the silver mech. Honestly, Alta was so irritated by how pretty the pilot was that she had many times considering assassinating her as well. But she was useful. And always willing to support Alta. Even to a metal Alta, loyalty meant something.
“Soon,” Alta whispered. She lay on her bed and stared up at the rough cotton roof to her tent. Creta’s mission tonight was delicate. It wouldn’t change the outcome, but it would certainly make tomorrow easier.
“You are sure?” Lucretia said, her expression behind her mask twisted into a frown.
He nodded. “I don’t believe your mistress and I have anything to talk about.”
Lucretia leaned forward. “Cailm-”
“That is no longer my name,” The Earth Golem who had been High King boomed. Like clockwork, his good arm reached up to touch the stump of his shoulder. Even now, the limb felt so close moving. Like it was still there. “I am no longer the boy filled with hope for this world. I have learned much.”
“If you believe the rumors, that dark attitude will put you right on Alta’s side,” Lucretia pointed out. “She seeks an eternal answer if you take my meaning.”
Cailm’s smile was sharp and bitter. “I am surprised you haven’t urged her from such a path. She wins no favors from the populace with her extreme stance. No, the opposite of hope is not hopelessness.”
Lucretia just stared at him for a few seconds. “That is exactly what it is.”
“Bah! I will not engage in battles of words. That was never my strength.” Cailm turned and regarded the cracked and rugged land around the two of them. They were meeting on a low mountain to the South of the ruins. From their position, the cheery torchlights of the night watch were visible. “Let us speak no more of this. Instead, I have a question before you go crowing back to your Iron Queen: Why was the Great Emperor of the Earth Golems different from me?”
Lucretia thought about a dozen ways to twist the answer she gave to urge her to join Alta, but somehow she knew it wouldn’t work. Everyone was aware of the madness in Alta now. Despite persuasive arguments, people were spooked by that. Hell, Lucretia was spooked by it. In Alta’s chest, the karmic flowers had begun to rot. Petals fell away and gathered in a bubbling cesspool at her core.
Instead, Lucretia dropped those thoughts and simply considered. Then she said, “Perhaps because he was not trying to be his ancestors. But simply trying to protect his people.”
“Mmmm…” Cailm said slowly. Then he stretched. “Recently, I’ve begun to suspect… it is because he never existed. And yet… even now, every time the young Earth Golem speak of him, their eyes fill with light. Something that doesn’t exist, yet still it ignites a spark? That is precious. That is magic.”
Cailm began to walk down the mountain. “Something that precious… even if it does not exist, it must be protected. The young must have Paths toward the summit to walk. Goodbye, Creta, Queen of Thorns.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Lucretia whispered, pain in her heart. One last dance.
She looked up at the sky, searching for an answer.