A few days later, while Ryal and Alta went pear picking to make centerpieces for their wedding, Lucretia sat in the workshop below the old Bounty Estate and considered the problem of the sap of the World Tree.
It was extremely alarming to Lucretia that the power in the tree sap suddenly had such duality, even if Alta took it in stride. The burning heat that annihilated all else was one sort of eventuality that Lucretia could understand; Randidly always had a fascination with fire. But this desolate cold that was filling the world tree was more worrisome.
Not just for the effect it might have on the ecosystems in the seven lands, but also… honestly, Lucretia had some concern in her heart with Randidly. After all, she had been in here for almost 40 years. Time was different in here than outside, but not to a ridiculous degree. Some time must have passed. Why had he not checked in on his Soulskilll?
Or had he, and she missed it?
Either way, this rather recent development wasn’t widely known to the world, because no others had developed the technology to harvest the sap of the World Tree, as of yet. The wider populace only experienced the cold spells. But it was best that they found out what was going on before it became a problem.
So Lucretia was going to spend the day in the lab running diagnostics.
From across the silent laboratory, Lucretia looked sharply up. But seeing that the figure walking into the room was only Danz, Lucretia relaxed. Danz was one of the two assistants that had started out helping Alta build the mechs, all those years ago.
For… differences in philosophy, Lucretia had been forced to terminate Cierce’s employment, but Danz remained. It wasn’t because he needed the money, although the salary he received had grown increasingly lucrative over the years. No, the reason he had followed Lucretia and Alta was much simpler.
He was in love with Alta.
As Lucretia had expected, Danz walked calmly toward her. And when he arrived, he bowed to her and spoke with his face toward the floor. “I… Miss Creta, I believe that I won’t be able to attend Miss Bounty’s wedding. My sister is sick.”
Lucretia arced an eyebrow. It wasn’t necessary, but Lucretia believed it was for the best that she push him a bit, just to confirm his emotions. “You know… She will be Miss Kuln. Missus Kuln, I suppose. Isn’t that strange?”
Danz flinched but stayed in his bowed posture. “I suppose that’s true. I… well. I suppose that’s true.”
Lucretia continued to rub salt in the wound. “At least she’s happy, yes?”
Finally, Danz straightened. Lucretia had to applaud him, however. His face was studiously blank, and his eyes were clear. Danz was not one to let himself be overwhelmed by emotion. “Yes, that appears to be true. You know, I just always found it surprising that he was the type of man that Alta was attracted to.”
Lucretia couldn’t help but smile. Ryal Huln was the child of a well to do second son of a fashion mogul who had married a seamstress for love. Although his family played at being just average folk, Ryal had grown up in a household that received a heavy stipend from his grandfather. It was an idyllic and artificial environment of the type that would only be chosen by dreamers and afforded only by the filthy rich.
After achieving glowing results during his schooling, Ryal had become a brand consultant. Ultimately, it was a job application to the exploding Bounty Mechanicals two years ago that allowed Ryal and Alta to meet. Initially, Alta had been extremely cold toward Ryal’s immediate and arduous advances. But at some point, it seemed like she had found a place in her life for the handsome young man.
“Perhaps,” Lucretia finally replied. “But who can know how love manifests itself? That’s the joy of life. If we could predict everything, life wouldn’t be living.”
“I suppose…” Danz said slowly. Then he looked up at Lucretia. “I am… honestly surprised. Are you not worried about your own position? It seems pretty obvious he doesn’t… ah… believe your services are so vital, in a lot of parts of Alta’s life.”
Lucretia just smiled.
Knowing he had crossed an invisible line, Danz bowed without saying anything and left. To the empty room, Lucretia showed her empty teeth. Alta was the first child she truly had. Perhaps she wasn’t her blood daughter, but… she was present for her entire life. To Lucretia, that bond meant everything.
It was times like these that Lucretia wondered what she truly wanted anymore. She came to Alta’s side due to the karma the girl was developing with Randidly. But even as that karma flourished and became increasingly horrifying, Lucretia knew her priorities were changing. She would take the chance to contact Randidly, yes, but…
Lucretia closed her eyes. Then she forced them open. After all, she had a lot of work to do.
And the wedding was three days away.
Alta hated dragging the long wedding train behind her, but there certainly was something imposing about being so ostentatious that you wore a garment too cumbersome for you alone to control. The thought made her giggle.
Opposite her, Ryal seemed to snap out of his delighted daze listing to the prattling of the priest to meet her gaze and smile warmly.
It certainly is a strange feeling. To be loved, that is, Alta thought to herself. Sure, Creta had always been devoted to her, but it wasn’t the same. Creta was bound by duty and deep loyalty. This lovely man road the waves of passion to this strange shore.
And I certainly know how to pick ‘em… Alta mused, her eyes tracing the chiseled line of Ryal’s jaw. She had engaged in sexual arrangements with many men over the years, most of them of seedier origins than Ryal. But of them all, Alta couldn’t deny that her fiance was the most handsome of them all. Had she had girlfriends to gossip with, they would have gushed over him, Alta didn’t doubt.
But she didn’t really have female friends. She didn’t really have male friends.
That wasn’t the life she picked. She had Creta. And she had a mission.
“..to hold in the shadow of the Progenitor, even as the World Tree withers?” The priest asked.
Ryal’s smile was brilliant. “I do.”
“And you, Alta Bounty, do you…”
The door to the chapel was blasted open in a spray of splintered wood and stone dust. Several bulky figures that were obviously Earth Golems burst in, waving machine crossbows. A figure tall even by Earth Golem standards, quite a bit over two meters in height, strode in behind his subordinates.
“For the glory of Cailm, we will have our vengeance!” He bellowed. Immediately, the machine crossbows began spewing their deadly ammunition among the watchers of the wedding. Immediately, everyone was moving back and forth, struggling to figure out what was going on.
Some of the influential figures from Ryal’s family had bodyguards, who protected their clients and moved to meet the shooters in the back, but the windows in the chapel burst in and more figures crawled in with raised weapons.
These, Alta couldn’t help but notice, were not Earth Golems. Her lips pressed into a deep frown. Opposite her, Ryal was watching slack-jawed as his distant family members were slaughtered by the tall Earth Golem.
“Done,” Alta’s maid of honor hissed in her ear, and Alta looked down to find that the bottom portion of her wedding dress had been hacked off, turning the white and lacy garment into a skirt. Alta’s eyebrows rose. The skirt stopped just about mid-thigh.
She turned and mouthed ‘a lot of leg’ to her bridesmaid, who rolled her eyes. Then, without missing a beat, the bridesmaid’s hand shot forward and pulled Alta back by the left shoulder. A crossbow bolt zipped past and knocked the little Spriggit preacher off his feet.
“Alta!” Ryal said, finally coming to himself. Alta’s bridesmaids took turns screaming and pulling Alta back away to the door in the back of the chapel.
“We have to run!” Ryal’s groomsman said with a pale face. Alta couldn’t help but notice his leg had been nipped by a bolt. Her respect for him rose several notches.
Masked warriors were cutting into the family and friends of the couple, even as their hired guards struggled into action. But they had been taken by surprise and quickly overwhelmed. Very soon, the machine crossbows were aimed at the fleeing wedding party as they ran deeper into the chapel.
Inside the chapel, the bridesmaids were already fleeing hysterically, seeming to proceed without even looking where they are going. The groomsmen bellowed for them to stop, but ultimately they gritted their teeth and followed when the women were so overwhelmed by fear that they didn’t hear.
The chapel was built into the mountain, so as they proceeded deeper, the hallways turned smaller and darker.
Two minutes of hard running had everyone out of breath and panting, tucked into a small antechamber. Deep in the tunneling series of rooms and connections, their voices seemed to echo very far. But no matter how Alta strained to hear, she couldn’t detect any signs of pursuit.
“Alta,” Ryal said raggedly, standing up next to her. He gripped her shoulder. “We didn’t finish the vows. No matter what happens… I want to be married to you. If we are together…. I would meet any sort of fate that awaits me with a smile.”
“Ryal… You always know just what to say.” Alta said, raising her hand and touching his cheek. And it was true. Ryal was one of the few people who stirred Alta’s heart. What had once been burning with hatred and fury had shifted to something much calmer once he came into her life.
“Heh, I’m sorry, but the celebration is over,” A deep voice rumbled. From the shadow of a nearby doorway, a huge hand reached forward and gripped Ryal by the neck. Like an adult plucking up a pet, the large Earth Golem man picked him up off the ground. “If you want your husband to live, Alta Bounty, you are going to surrender to me right now.”