Lucretia made sure she was holding Alta’s gaze before she spoke. “There are other ways, you know. Other paths forward.”
Not that Lucretia wasn’t willing to see this version of Alta through to the end. But Lucretia dearly wished that Alta would find happiness. And this journey would not end in happiness.
“Those paths aren’t mine,” Alta said, looking away and toward the blockade waiting ahead of them. As she had often of late, Alta brought her gaze upward back to meet Lucretia’s eyes. And in Alta’s eyes, there was only darkness. “And I intend to bring the entire world around to my way of thinking before this ends.”
She doubts me, Lucretia thought sadly as she looked at Alta. Where there was once smooth skin and bright eyes, there was now cloth and steam release valves. Metal ventricles and a rubber skin substitute. Alta’s entire body was covered in a thick cloak that did its best to muffle the screech of metal against metal as she moved, with only mild success. Here, toward the end, she doubts even me.
“Bold,” Lucretia said with a soft smile. She dare not examine the karma in Alta’s chest, lest her resolve waver. Although she wasn’t her child, Lucretia would not let this girl-child walk alone in the dark. “There are so many minds and so little time now. Then let’s continue.”
There was a sound of a tent flap opening and both women looked sharply up. When she saw who it was, Lucretia relaxed marginally. It was the blonde specter of Lyra, waltzing around inside Randidly’s Soulskill. Lyra’s violet eyes flashed with a reciprocal recognition of the larger role that Lucretia served outside of the Soulskill, but very quickly her gaze dropped to the ground.
For this, at least, there was an unspoken agreement; neither would mention who they truly were to Alta, lest they distract from her mission. It was enough that both were here to support Alta.
Perhaps Lucretia should have been more protective of Randidly’s inner secrets and ejected such an interloper, but Lucretia had sworn to herself to follow this girl’s steps to the end. Randidly would understand. And if he didn’t, Lucretia supposed that this experience being there for a child surrogate was what she had always been looking for anyway.
Maybe peace wouldn’t be so bad.
“We are ready,” Lyra announced.
Alta nodded. “Then let’s begin.”
Very quickly the orders were issued and the horde of industrial carts rolled down the hill toward the blockade. Along the path, thousands of hungry scavengers watched their passage with hungry eyes. They were the minor figures that weren’t deemed critical by any of the factions. Therefore, in the strenuous lead up to this inspection, they were given barely enough rations to eke out a living.
Besides, no one could miss the tension in the air. The watchers piled themselves up like spectating hyenas, waiting for the true powerhouses of the savannah to pull out their knives and begin the fight.
Then they would move. Even if they would just lick blood off the stained ground, that was better than what they had now.
Alta stood at the front, riding the largest of the carts. Lucretia and Lyra stood by her side, staring down the opposition.
The runes of the Progenitor were located in a canyon. But in order to enter the canyon, there was only one entrance, which the other factions had used as the spot for a vast metal gate. Geometric spikes spiraled off the top of the thirty-meter high sheet of metal. Honestly, Lucretia had no idea where they had managed to obtain the materials for it.
Secretly, she suspected that the opposition had someone who understood one of Randidly’s Skills that could manipulate metal. Otherwise, such a swift construction would have been impossible.
Lucretia and Alta had run heavy simulations where they brought the carts up onto the plateau, circumvented the gate, and then lowered themselves into the canyon. Unfortunately, if they were discovered at all, the loss of life during the counterattack would have been catastrophic.
Lucretia tried to avoid admitting that Alta had axed that plan not because of the loss of life, but because fewer followers meant less chaos for covering what Alta truly wished to accomplish. For all that Lucretia was determined to follow this through to the end, sometimes Alta made it difficult.
Lucretia calmly closed and opened her eyes. She would not look away. Not here at the end of things.
The rumbling of the wheels of the carts as they funneled to the gate seemed like the only sound in the world. Underneath her cloak, Lucretia’s talons twitched and undulated down her back. They slowly unraveled from being twisted around her waist, ready at even the slightest sign of violence to lash out at the defenders of the gate.
Standing on top of the gate were four individuals. The Monster Prince stood with his arms folded behind his back, looking disturbingly like a greasy, self-satisfied Randidly. Inwardly, Lucretia hoped that the talks would break down so she would be able to punch the smug look off of his face. For all that she and Randidly had been forced to make their peace due to their symbiotic relationship, working with Randidly was not a stressless job.
The guy was flighty and distractible to a fault. Beating up this look-a-like would be a harmless stress relief.
Beside him was his bodyguard, a hulking Monster that was part dinosaur and part werewolf. Most of his body was covered by dark blue scales, but there were tufts of matted fur at his elbows, shoulders, and hips. They represented the leadership and muscle of the Monster Factions.
The Weaver faction was represented by a rather young looking weaver, still the size of a gocart, and an ancient White Hunter. Even from this distance, it was clear that the White Hunter had already gone blind. But still, Lucretia felt those rheumy eyes fix on her.
So, this is the answer you had for the Queen of Talons? Lucretia thought with a small smile. Let’s see how deeply independence has allowed you to grow, Mr. Hunter.
As if following Lucretia’s train of thought exactly, Alta whispered. “They underestimate you Creta. They underestimate us both. Let us teach them regret.”
Lucretia’s grin widened. “Let us teach them providence. A Path shaped by our own hands, without relying on a godling for succor.”
Nodding shortly, Lyra took a step back away from the other two women’s knowing glance.. “I’ll assume my position.”
“Ah, good,” Alta grunted, a metal finger scratching the seat of the cart as she methodically drew it back and forth. “Don’t move unless you have to. And when you move… well, make them bleed.”
After Lyra left, Lucretia flexed her hands. “I’m going to be sad when this is all over. It has… well, I wouldn’t trade our time together for anything else.”
Alta snorted. “Don’t get soft on me now. We have some idiots to fool.”
Alta stood straight for three hours while the inspectors scurried across her carts like ants. Besides her was Creta, as well as the four leaders of the opposition faction.
Everyone watched stiffly as the investigations were carried out.
While they looked over her decoys, Alta looked at those four leaders. Of them all, the Monster Prince stunk of fear sweat. Her new mechanical sensors likely weren’t even necessary; the boy was so green with fear that even Creta wrinkled her nose in distaste. For all that he had led, he was still withering before the impressive auras of Creta and herself.
Much more troublesome were the other three. The Monster Prince’s bodyguard was renowned for his ferocity. It was with relish that Alta saw the Monster kept his eyes fixed on Creta. The White Hunter panting feebly while they waited, but Alta wasn’t fooled for a second; those fuckers only seemed to grow more wily with age. She would know. For perhaps a dozen years, she had worked closely with a White Hunter of some renown.
His plans were the most insidious she had ever seen. It was a tragedy that he eventually grew disillusioned to her goals and called her mad and a liability. Then she had to silence him, which Alta knew had angered Creta. Not because of the loss of life, but because of how useful he was. Although Creta was becoming increasingly cold in regards to the plan, Alta knew the other woman would still see it through to the end.
Then why did she say that, about valuing our time? Alta wondered. Her scanners flicked to Creta, whose heart rate was sitting at a mind-boggling forty beats per minute. That woman’s iron nerve was impossible to understand. Was she testing me? Making sure my resolve hasn’t weakened…?
Of the two of them, Creta was the one who behaved more like a robot. These days, Alta felt out of control, full of outbursts and barely controlled fury. All the while, Creta kept her eyes on the prize. Alta’s eyes narrowed. There was no need. I’ll burn this all to hell, Creta. I’ll get you the vengeance that we have waited so long for.
And of them all standing there, Alta hated the Weaver the most. After her prior run-in with the Weaver leader, Alta would never be comfortable around them. They were so still it was disturbing.
Still her eyes scanned. Alta looked for traps, for hidden ambushes, and most of all, for the man who had been High King of the Earth Golems. Of all those who possessed a significant amount of power, he was the only unaccounted for force.
That she was aware of, at least.
Well, him and the entire population of Carthak, Alta thought as the steel appendages of her hand tightened in a grinding hunk of metal. It won’t be as satisfying to burn them all down without seeing that look of fear on their faces. Their loss of hope. Perhaps that is why we were so confidently received? Are they working together with this group? Hiding from me?
Alta’s fury mounted as her piercing scanners turned their attention back to the four individuals in front of her. Food was dangerously close to running out; even the Monster Prince’s deep pockets were emptied. Although the other side had attempted some experiments with the ruins, they didn’t have the know-how or the oomph to actually open a passage. Then needed Alta.
So even if they hated it…
Alta’s mouth stretched into a grin. Soon, they would let her in. The door would open. And then everything would end.