At two hours and fifty-eight minutes, a technician walked up the commanders. Lucretia appraised him quickly. He was a competent man, but one vastly out of his depth here. He had a greying mustache that was dripping with his sweat after the tense hours of examination.
It ate away at the psyche when missing a single thing could mean the end of the world as you knew it.
When the technician stopped in front of the leaders, he twitched at the waist as though he wanted to bow, but then thought better of it. Instead, he simply brought his hand to his chest. “Reporting. We’ve thoroughly investigated the machinery. Everything checks out against the manifests we were given. It’s good to go on through.”
Lucretia didn’t look at Alta. But she was still acutely aware of the other woman’s lack of reaction.
She’s becoming so good at hiding herself… Lucretia thought sadly. They had come so far over the past sixty years, hadn’t they?
The Monster Prince coughed and looked at the Weaver and then at his bodyguard. “Intriguing. So, no tricks, Alta? Well, that will certainly make things easier. Open up the gates.”
“What need is there for tricks?” Alta asked. “Aren’t we all working toward the same thing? To escape this failing world?”
As if to give weight to her words, the sky rumbled with the crack of thunder. Everyone shifted uneasily. Storms on this lowest Land meant only one thing; the Sea of Annihilation on which this Land floated would grow rough. If rain actually fell on top of them… it would be beyond dangerous. The waters of the sea of annihilation could eat through metal better than acid could.
“You fool no one with your lies, child.” The Weaver hissed.
The Monster Prince gave the Weaver a meaningful glance to silence it and then gestured above his head. “The gates! Open them. What we look for is not an escape, Alta; it is salvation. But I’m glad to see you have come around to a more agreeable stance.”
That caused Alta to twitch in disgust, which brought the first completely genuine smile of the day to Lucretia’s lips; it was good to see that Alta still couldn’t stand the insufferable twat that was wearing Randidly’s face. It had been an awkward explanation when Alta had believed the Monster Prince to be that same individual that Creta brought around for a visit.
But the Monster Prince’s continued ineptitude eventually knocked the point home.
With a grinding that was almost an answer to the carts’ rumbling when they rolled down the hill, the gates slid open. Typically, the huge slab of metal moved at a glacial pace. The technicians gathered up and trooped back through the opening, followed by the opposing leadership. Meanwhile, Alta and Lucretia stood with the carts and waited while the gates opened enough for them to pass.
Even once the gates were open all the way, it was slow going. The passage to the canyon only allowed one cart to proceed at a time, and the track through the winding stone walls was rough. Lucretia pressed her lips together. The least the fuckers could have done was pave the road.
But what truly dragged Lucretia’s mood down into the dumps was that after ten minutes of rolling through the canyon was to reach an open area. At the other end of which was a smaller, but equally imposing metal gate.
They were trapped.
“What is this?” Alta asked evenly, calling out to the Monster Prince who stood on top of the gate.
“This? Oh, we will be transferring your machinery to our own carts. Their wheels were designed for these rough tracks. It seems… yours haven’t been faring so well?” The Monster Prince responded in a sing-song voice. “Is that a problem? It shouldn’t be, unless… have you hidden something from us? I thought we were past this, Alta.”
Neither Alta or Lucretia bothered to respond. They simply descended from the cart as a swarm of technicians and mechs came out to switch the equipment from Alta’s carts to their own.
“A neat trap,” Alta said lightly. “They likely made preparation to transport the equipment we disclosed safely so we cannot reasonably complain as to their handling. They would have made preparations...”
“Fools,” Lucretia replied quietly. “They seek to bind us with social decorum?”
Alta nodded. “This farce is based on the premise we don’t wish to force the issue. But this is all just to penetrate as deeply as possible before being discovered so that the eventual slaughter is that much easier. There is no rush.”
There was enough volume to Alta’s voice that a nearby technician froze as she spoke. The man spun slowly, saw that Alta was watching him, and then hurried away.
Lucretia clucked. “Unnecessary. That warning will make them waste more time on this.”
Alta shrugged. “I’m tired of all this, Creta. I’ve waited so long. My family is waiting. Danz is waiting. I’m just ready for our…”
Alta trailed off as the technicians finished transferring the equipment to their own cart and the newly loaded cart continued. Alta and Lucretia waited for the next cart to arrive. Following the lead cart was pointless; there was nothing on it of use.
Better to just wait here for the inevitable.
The discovery of their hidden cart was likely an accident. The mech handling the larger piece was clumsy and a corner brushed up against one of Alta’s prior carts that had already been cleared of machinery. Perhaps the Monster Prince thought he was being extraordinarily clever by this plan, but his good cheer had quickly fled when Alta and Lucretia had remained stone-faced while the machinery was moved.
And yet, such was the Monster Prince’s luck that he hadn’t thought through what would happen if neither Alta nor Lucretia responded to this change. So he hadn’t figured out what to do with the carts. They were soon stacked, and the open area was wide, but there was a lot of carts. Space filled up.
Alta had insisted that they bring a wall of machinery. So that the opposition was aware how out of depth technologically they were.
But the lifter mech bumped the turbine with the secret compartment up against another cart. By some weird coincidence, the mechanism triggered and the thing popped open. The small, blocky cart rolled out and clunked against the ground.
“AHA!” The Monster Prince bellowed. He opened his mouth once more, likely to continue gloating, but the blast of Cruel Indignation of Yggdrasil that radiated out from Lyra was enough for the fool to choke on his own glee.
The shimmery silver mech exploded out from the block cart with an EMP wave that fried all the mechs of the opposition. As they fizzled and shut down, the silver mech landed. On its back were two brutally stylized wings that Lyra had insisted on, that were disturbingly reminiscent of Lucretia’s own. In her one hand, she held a black scimitar. In her right, a gatling gun.
The thing looked like the angel of death, incarnate.
“About damn time,” Alta muttered. She pressed a button on her wrist communicator. “All teams, move in: bring the ash.”
As the silvery mech exploded out of the cart, Cailm’s hands tightened into fists. He felt the wave of mental agony that spread out from that thing and endured it with pure stubbornness. His body quivered, but he didn’t look away from the monster that had stopped his glorious rise short.
Then, as the silver mech began to spray bullets amongst the technicians, Cailm released a breath and forced his body to relax. For all that he wanted to destroy that thing, that was not his fight. With a light step, he dropped off of the plateau and descended into the canyon below.
Already, the individuals brought by the Metal queen produced their insulated mechs and began to launch attacks on the gate. Blasts of fire and ash crisscrossed the chaos the small area. Metal bubbled and melted. Cailm could hear the approach of a larger force from the Metal Queens camp, ready to force the issue.
With a crash, he smashed into the ground just as the Queen of Talons spun out of the way.
Already the Weaver and White Hunter had arrived, the three together surrounding Creta and boxing in her movements. Alta had already escaped, but once the Queen of Talons was no more Alta could be easily dealt with.
With relish, Creta ripped open her cloak and revealed the two long and sinewy appendages that ended in talons. She spun slowly on her heel, eyeing the three. “So, I am the target am I? And you will let the silver golem run rampant…?”
There was an explosion by the gate as the silver golem crashed into it. The hinges screamed and groaned beneath the force. Very quickly, smoke billowed upward to obscure the vision of what was really happening.
Creta’s eyes settled on Cailm. “I am surprised. You don’t seek revenge?”
Cailm simply hefted his saber.
Laughing, Creta spun around. Her talons rose above her head to point at them. “Fine then. The first dance is mine. Come quickly. I have somewhere else to be.”