I booted up Nayaga with my good arm. The stoic COMP/CON spun to life, rapidly integrating with the Maliyya’s onboard systems after Two-Four faked my retinal scan.
“Greetings, dain-ghabat,” a feminine voice greeted in elegant Khagatai.
“Sedatives, if you have them,” I replied, triple-checking gauges and meters for any faults. “I’m smearing blood everywhere and I have several new bones in my ribs.”
“No first aid kit detected. Unable to comply.”
“Of course not,” I sighed, exasperated, then flinched as my side twitched in pain. “Field scan.”
“By your will.” Nayaga stoically replied.
“Scanning. Twenty-two chassis detected.” My systems briefly highlighted each titan in green. “Six active, one in critical condition. Sixteen inactive.”
“The five online and in working order are allies. Reset all identification protocols and create a new one with only those parameters.”
“Requesting signals. Signals received. Tortuga FRAME, Luisa Baptista, confirmed. Black Witch FRAME, Caelestis, confirmed. Swallowtail FRAME, Stargazer, confirmed. Sherman FRAME, Trident, confirmed. Metalmark FRAME, Little Rascal, confirmed. Reset complete.”
“Make sure your weapons are accounted for,” I spoke through comms as our frames exchanged data. “Once you’re done, let’s move out.”
“I sorted through their belongings. Here's a few extras too, just in case.” Looter rasped as he tossed me several magazines of heavy caliber ammo, his mech’s back covered in an assortment of stolen grenades and explosive charges. “The Caelestis, eh?”
Nayaga deftly caught the magazines in my stead and loaded the rifle mounted on its left arm. Looter’s Black Witch reached towards a stack of metal crates with a graceful, clawed hand. The Caelestis fired a buzzing metallic solution from its forearm that expanded mid-arc and painted the boxes silver. He pulled the arm back, harmlessly flinging the pseudo-liquid and the crates towards a defenseless Luisa Baptista.
“Looter!” Four-Four shouted, the Luisa fruitlessly attempting to shield itself from the assault.
“Magnificent!” Looter happily replied, gel slithering back into his titan’s arms. “Had a good feeling about this one!”
“Good,” I shifted my weight away from my bad arm. “If you’ve got time to play around, lead the way.”
“As you command, my good lady!” the Caelestis bowed.
Looter strode forward, his frame’s gait mimicking his own. Only someone so truly distasteful could make a Shimano-made chassis skulk.
“Come on then, slowpoke!” rasped the Caelestis as it flung a stepladder and three consoles at the Trident. I raised an eyebrow as Two-Eight made a strange gesture with his chassis’ hands, both middle fingers pointing upwards.
“Nayaga, follow them. I’m handing you controls.” The onboard blinked to life, awaiting further input. “Disconnect neural link but keep it on standby. Hold the rear. I’m going to rest my eyes.”
“Affirmative. Rest easy, dain-ghabat.”
I shut my eyes, thoughts growing hazy as we set off for the freight elevator.
I emptied my mind of distractions. Of worries and wants. The shape of my spirit took a more comfortable form. I became dust riding gale, landscape shifting to reflect my mental state. The once empty, azure dunes and clear, iridescent skies were instead replaced with timeworn ash and raining soot. Great mountains spewing plumes of fire and terror scarred the landscape, and it was all I could do to not get burned.
A gaping chasm split the world asunder, devouring me alongside the shifting ash.
My systems’ beeps brought me back, half a bell passing during my trance. We were on a colossal platform hidden behind shipping containers, I realized with a renewed and razor focus, traveling up a long, vertical tunnel leading upwards. Still. Volcanoes, huh? That’s a first, as far as I could recall.
“Warning. Bogeys. Warning. Eight unknown signatures. Warning.” Nayaga calmly announced, interrupting my contemplation. “Establishing neural link. Entering combat mode.”
My chassis hummed as its reactor kicked into high gear.
“Rates! They know,” hissed Four-Four. “Everyone ready?”
“We better be,” nervously added the Stargazer. “We’re about to make contact in thirty.”
Luisa Baptista drew a shotgun from its back, loading its breech with colossal slugs. Caelestis readied its staff and buckler as its entire frame thrummed with an invisible energy. Stargazer launched a dozen drones that rapidly disappeared as they mimicked the background. Trident took cover, priming its guns, cooling vents hissing orange, as the Little Rascal blurred into nothingness, nearly invisible to my sensors. I followed their lead, warpike unwrapped and rifle aimed high.
Two-Four fired first, launching a volley of curious kinetics that changed trajectories mid-air, winding and chasing something. It plinked off the side of a translucent target, indiscernible save for the occasional light refracting wrongly from the glancing shots or from a sudden movement. Sands. Of course they had to be invisible. I joined Two-Four, my own shots harmlessly grazing hidden targets. The Caelestis fired its mysterious, metal compound that wrapped around one. It swung a clawed hand down, pulling and pinning a stealthed flyer into the ground with an earthshaking thud. The Luisa lurched over and fired its shotgun, knocking out the invisible enemy’s propulsion.
It briefly revealed itself. A half-chassis of sorts, little more than a cockpit with a gun, a jump-jet system, and four legs.
“Shit!” Four-Four cursed. “Watch their guns, it messes with your onboard!”
It fired at the Luisa in a panic. Three-Six-Six attempted to shoot it again, only for the Luisa’s aim, now awkward and sloppy, to fall seconds behind the half-chassis’ movement. The half-chassis skittered behind a cargo container, only to be caught by an invisible Two-Nine, the Little Rascal’s heat knife shearing off a leg and disabling its disruptor. Two-Nine disappeared once more after throwing what’s left off the elevator.
A shot glanced off my frame’s torso from above, hardly scratching my hull, though my sensors distorted and blurred moments later. Nayaga wordlessly attempted to fight the static back. The faithful COMP/CON succeeded, only for my entire chassis to get thrown aside by a grenade.
“Miss! You okay?!” yelled Four-Four.
“Just a scratch!” I replied. “Cover for Looter and the Twos instead!”
The elevator shook and halted, the entire platform creaking from the sudden stop.
“Gonna attempt to override the platform,” Two-Four announced. “Miss, cover me!”
I dashed atop a crate and skidded next to him, jumping over containers, blue cloth of my spear trailing behind. I strafed as I ran, shooting one of the half-chassis out of the sky. Two-Eight followed up, firing short-lived bursts of orange that forced another to retreat.
The elevator restarted soon after, groaning and lurching upwards, though significantly slowed. The Stargazer began feeding its sensor data to us, layering its drones’ sight over ours. What powerful processing power its systems must have, able to fight for the elevator’s controls while giving us sight and prediction of our foes’ locations. All while seamlessly transmitting that data to four other frames at the same time.
I took a moment and shifted power to my systems, stabilizing and clearing off the last of the static and distortion, Three-Six-Six doing the same. Two-Four fired off digital markers visible only to us, marking our quarries and allowing us to see even further up.
“More incoming. Actual mechs!” He retreated, as three more frames rappelled down. Bulky and angular, though nowhere as huge as the Luisa Baptista. Niyel-pattern frames, according to Nayaga’s preliminary scans. Shock troops wielding shotguns and savage, broad axes with spinning teeth.
They dropped a set of grenades. Mostly smokes, with a few fragmentaries mixed in. The Luisa jumped in front of the Caelestis and the Trident right as my optics went gray.
“All of you! Cover! Now! Two-Four, mark them!” I barked out.
“Got it. Locking on!” he answered.
I engaged one in the smoke, Nayaga filling in for my broken arm and Two-Four’s locks filling in for my eyes, and attempted to skewer its leg with my pike. It sidestepped carefully and charged forward, axe drawn, in an attempt to shove me off the elevator. Two-Eight, the wonderful soul, fired at its exposed back even as he wrestled with one of the enemy frames, forcing my opponent to pull away and seek cover behind a cargo container. In the confusion, I shoved Maliyya’s left fist into its hip and fired a short barrage, sending it fleeing in a limp. Three-Six-Six assisted the Caelestis, covering its flank from another Niyel and from the half-chassis harrying from above the smoke.
I dashed forward, air intakes screeching with fury. I skidded around cover, legs scraping and scattering sparks, Nayaga locking on the Niyel-pattern and scanning for structural weaknesses. Its damaged leg was exploited as a quick sweep of my spear forced it on a knee. I emptied the rest of my magazine, the enemy mech’s arms ruined by their attempt to block. Two-Nine appeared from behind and shoved his knife through an armored shoulder. Unable to lift its weapon, I stabbed into the Niyel’s optics as it crumpled to the ground. The smoke cleared. The Luisa’s right arm was warped and bent out of shape, likely from the earlier salvo of grenades, though its pilot duo seemed to have figured out how to start emergency repairs.
Two-Four went invisible this time, projector-drones laying false images over his frame. Ours, too. A trickster, this Stargazer, and a versatile one besides. The four-legged mech sent out a stream of malicious data and false comms that sent the remaining mechs in disarray. Their shots got sloppy, completely missing marks. One of the Niyels’ exhaust vents opened, cooling fins burning bright and spewing jets of hissing steam, no doubt at the receiving end of the brunt Two-Four’s systemic onslaught. Looter, Three-Six-Six, and Four-Four followed up by relaying enemy system locks to me, Two-Eight, and Two-Nine. Gun freshly loaded, I fired, strafing around Two-Eight as he burned through the Niyel in front of him with a barrage of laserfire from both his heavy rifle and shoulder cannon. Within seconds it was unrecognizable, its frightened pilot ejecting to safety and scrambling behind a container.
At some point during the exchange, Little Rascal moved up and away from us, reappearing next to one of the invisible flyers, silhouette now clear to our sensors thanks to the Stargazer’s drones. Two-Nine grabbed onto the flyer’s leg with hooked fingers and quickly tore off a jet with his knife, the half-chassis plummeting to the ground as his frame jumped off and caught the wall with a free arm. He was showing off, now.
I clicked off my warpike’s safeties, blade glowing white hot at the sudden provocation, and hurled it at the final Niyel. Maliyya’s pneumatic gauges and meters redlined from the overwhelming force behind the throw. It was a clean hit, with Two-Four and Nayaga’s assistance, the entire blade burying into the Niyel’s shoulder. It detonated inside, tearing an entire arm off its socket, knocking the frame off its feet, and sending my spear spinning upwards. I rushed forward to catch it and immediately attached a new charge.
The skirmish swung our way, half-chassis attempting to retreat only to be met with kinetics and beams from the Stargazer and the Trident. For rookie pilots, our squadron does not want for firepower. Two managed to escape but it was our win by the time we reached the highest level.
The mouth of the elevator opened. Burning Gods. We were still indoors. Instead of sunlight and greenery I was greeted by a steel sky, several kilometers high, dimly lit save for the occasional passing of a cargo train on airborne tracks in the distance. Over the murky horizon was a sprawling city, jagged buildings of gray and brown concrete jutting out towards artificial night, tall chimneys and edifices billowing plumes of smoke and fog. We were still underground, I realized with a tinge of fear, though a quick scan of the surrounding area brought me back to reality. We were on a rocky bluff. Behind us was the research facility, and in front was a colossal bridge above a manmade lake.
There were a dozen mechs and battle tanks in formation, guns trained on our frames.
They fired first. Two-Four lowered the elevator slightly, allowing us to use the edge of the platform as cover. Two-Eight followed up with a barrage of laserfire, providing a distraction for the Luisa to make its way closer, guns blazing. The Little Rascal was right behind it, safe from fire and barely noticeable, knife and rifle at the ready. Three-Six-Six’s mech rammed into one of the vehicles, knocking it over and using it as cover. Two-Nine peeked behind their frame, firing off several silent rounds from a long mass driver. Looter bravely strode forward, creating a nearly invisible barrier that caught the enemy’s bullets and swatted them aside as Two-Four supported the rest by scanning and bolstering our lock on subsystems with its own.
I leaned low and charged, thrusters at maximum output, past the Luisa. The enemy mechs fired, but I danced and weaved around their sights, bullets grazing my frame. I steered behind cover and rammed the first Niyel into a wall, using its chassis as a shield. I ducked and shoved my warpike deep into its cockpit, though my side was quickly punished by a barrage of shotgun fire. Warnings flared from my onboard as my chassis’ left arm fell limp. I twisted the spearhead inside the mech in response, spraying oil and sparks as I hefted the ruined mech over my head and in front of the enemy.
I stepped forward and pushed the destroyed chassis against the tide of kinetics. It gave my mech time to deal with battlefield repairs and get my left arm back in working condition, though my cover eventually broke apart from the assault. Soon as it was ruined, I dashed once more, a strafing volley added alongside the Luisa Baptista and the Trident’s own barrage. The Rascal disappeared elsewhere, waiting for an opportunity to land a devastating blow. Looter would sometimes drag an enemy out of cover, weaving that strange, metallic substance into snake-like ropes that clung to enemies and responded to his Caelestis. We alternated fire and destroyed two more, allowing the whole squadron to move forward in relative safety. Unfortunately, piloting titans for the first time took its toll on my allies; they were looking more battleworn with each passing minute. Where their hull was once pristine paint and livery, it became gouged and dented and scarred by gunfire, all within less than a bell. We weren’t going to last, at this rate.
We managed to break through, a dozen and a half meters into their ranks, but their gunfire intensified as more reinforcements joined the fray. In the distance was a slender, cyan mech, much like the Rascal’s silhouette, though modernized and with a raptor-like helm. It accompanied four mechs and an obscenely large cannon on tracks, all of them marching towards the bridge. The mechs opened their reactors and fed cables to its core, bringing the cannon to life as the raptor chassis disappeared. The cannon sparked, sending tendrils of blistering energy that forked outwards, its whine audible from even from ten score meters away. I shivered in fear, instinctively diving to the side.
It roared, firing a large canister at absurd speeds that shattered in mid-air and scattered ignited strips of razor-sharp metal and pellets over our half of the bridge. The impact of the shattering missile alone knocked me off my feet, causing my mech to roll uncontrollably to the side. I managed to dodge the worst of it, leg and arm servos already undergoing emergency repairs and reactivations from the sudden barrage. The cannon hissed, cooling down as one of the four mechs surrounding it loaded a new charge. I looked at my allies. The Luisa received the worst of the volley, right arm completely torn off alongside most of the paint on his mech’s torso. It managed to protect the Rascal and the Caelestis thanks to his titan’s bulk, the two receiving no more than dents and slagged scratches. I smirked, both at the hulking chassis and its pilots’ tenacity.
I grunted in pain as my mech repositioned. Gods, I was exhausted. I’ve cracked no less than three ribs, shattered an arm, got showered in splinters, and got tossed around several times like a garibh ball in the span of less than a day’s heartbeat. For once in Existence, couldn’t I catch a break?
The Gods heard my plea and laughed.
The raptor-like mech unexpectedly dove from above, a thin, pointed knife wreathed in blue flame aimed directly at my cockpit. His chassis was invisible save for a slight shimmer, a faraway heat haze brought close. I managed to sidestep the blow and react with a swipe of my spear. He attempted to parry, though I feinted into a quick stab from below. He was much faster, his parry smoothly transitioning to a thrown knife that skewered my shoulder as his mech backed out of reach. His allied Niyels opened fire as well, to salt the wound, though I turned and blocked the worst of it with my rifle arm. I retreated and attempted to fire, my mounted rifle unresponsive from damage.
My right arm ached something fierce, twitching in discomfort at Maliyya’s slightest movements. My good hand thumbed through my mech’s controls, grabbing the impaled knife and tossing it aside. There was no clean way out. Several of the flying half-chassis from earlier joined in and hovered around us.
“You are skilled, without a doubt, but you overestimate yourself,” a deep, male voice mused through the cyan mech, invisible yet again, using that rough language that I shouldn’t understand over open channels.
“My thanks,” I attempted a graceful reply from behind a smoldering tank, voice quivering and unable to fully mask my irritation. “If you’d like, we could settle this one-on-one?”
“A kind offer, but I must refuse, for posterity’s sake,” the cyan frame chuckled. “I will know your name.”
“When asking for someone’s name, isn’t it polite to introduce yourself first?” I mocked under gunfire.
He suddenly lunged for my flank, nearly translucent, though I managed to meet his blade with spear.
“Cloned savages deserve no courtesy!” he jeered, cold and fierce, unleashing a flurry of blows.
We clashed. He stabbed and I parried. I swiped in riposte, though he swiftly retreated and threw a knife into an unguarded leg. I lunged forward, pike honed and thrusters alight, only for the raptor to dodge with the barest of efforts. I kept the momentum anyway, extending an arm into a hook, grabbing his waist and sending my chassis crashing into a wall alongside his own with an earthshaking crash. He gouged my arm, loosening my grip, though he was headbutted for his troubles. One of his knives managed to skewer my knee in response, temporarily disabling its servos. I was shoved forward into his allies’ gunfire as he swiftly scaled the walls and disappeared from sight once more.
“Hahaha! Excellent!” the raptor sneered. “Very well! You handle your chassis like nobility. You shall remember me from beyond the grave!"
“I am Prince Hubert von Vianden, third in line to House Vianden, wielder of the Blade of Peril. I am oath-sworn to House Aseter, Her Majesty naming me Needle Saint,” he hissed. “You are a worthy foe. You will fail, though not for lack of trying. I commend your efforts, wraith!”
“Honor begets Honor,” I replied in Khagatai, then spoke in the alien tongue. “I am Jegu Chormakhan Nthakhachur Chaghai, dain-ghabat and captain of the Fourth Spear of the Sapphire Sands. You are but a trial from the Burning Gods, to be stepped on and cast aside on my way to Ascension! Come!”
Both mechs howled. We met in a deafening clash of blade and spear. Our furious duel continued amidst the firefight between his group and mine. Hubert pushed me off and jumped, high in the air, skillfully weaving through Four-Four and Two-Eight’s fire.
The giant cannon answered, scattering white hot projectiles that tore out pieces of asphalt and allied chassis. I ducked low and dashed aside, flechettes tearing off slivers of my mech’s head and left arm. I was reluctantly impressed by the weapon; it was easily deployed and supported the enemy’s formation by indiscriminately firing devastating volleys of burning steel from a distance, turning tight choke points into grinders while keeping its allies from the worst of the blow.
The Blade of Peril clung to a pillar on the sides of the bridge and threw a burning knife aimed at my optics, interrupting my thoughts. My focus was wearing thin, each close call drawing deep from a thoroughly exhausted reserve. I parried, only to find him charging after. I lunged, one-handed, though I was moments too slow as he jumped off the ground and rounded with a frame-shattering kick. I blocked with an arm, stress gauges blinking red in protest, and grabbed his foot with the other arm. His cloak faded slightly. I whirled around and tossed him in the air, Two-Eight firing a well-placed beam that tore through his flank. He landed, unperturbed, invisibility kicking in once more.
Loathe as I am to admit it, we were done for. Though the Luisa Baptista and the Trident had a significant advantage in firepower, especially when supported by the Stargazer’s powerful systems, the opposition had superior numbers and the colossal cannon that stopped us from moving forward. Our raging duel continued, Prince Hubert’s Blade of Peril and my own Maliyya wearing each other down in the midst of gunfire from friend and foe both. My side was worn out, certain defeat looming ever steady with each swing of my pike.
“We’re ready. Move towards the cannon.” calmly whispered Two-Nine from Gods know where. I looked around. There wasn’t a single sign of the Rascal from anywhere. Looter was quiet, too, the Caelestis having fled elsewhere.
“What?! Why?” I yelled over comms. “That’s Godsdamned stupid!”
“Just do it,” Two-Nine continued. “Loots and I are done. Try to fool Hubert and pretend it’s a desperate suicide attack.”
“It is a desperate suicide attack!” I hissed, dodging a stab from Prince Hubert by a hair’s breadth.
“Oh, what‘s the harm? Wouldn’t be the first time today!” Looter tittered.
I clicked my tongue.
“Two-Four! Two-Eight! Three-Six-Six!” I called out. “To me!”
I allowed the Peril to land a wound that disabled one of my optics, giving me an opening to grab its arm. I knocked Hubert into the ground, prone, then followed up with a stab. I detonated my warpike’s blade, hopefully clouding his vision. I winced in irritation. One explosive blade left. I stood and joined my allies, leaving the Peril in our dust.
The four of us dashed forward, Trident and Stargazer taking cover behind the Luisa Baptista. I led the charge, nimbly dodging the Niyels’ shots and ducking from cover to cover. Prince Hubert followed us, his progress hampered by Two-Eight firing burning salvos that blocked his path. Two-Four locked onto his chassis, feeding the Rat Princeling's possible movements into the Trident’s systems.
“Maliyya! Get behind us!”
With its only good arm, the Luisa Baptista drew its other gun. A large, single-barrelled monstrosity, bulky and glowing red-hot. Its heft alone forced me to flinch in panic. Three-Six-Six fired, launching a howling cone of pellets, embers, and flechettes; their reply to the colossal cannon. Two Niyels fell in an instant, the rest firing back once the death cloud cleared. The Luisa fired another as a deterrent, though our enemies were prepared this time and took less than negligible damage.
“Out of Daisy Cutters,” Four-Four gravelled in dismay. I raised an eyebrow at the name. He holstered the cannon in exchange for his shotgun, firing in lighter bursts as he moved forward. Hubert managed to close the gap and I circled back to engage him. The enemy cannon was at least unable to fire, its own allies caught in its blasting zone.
“Impressive! Hahaha!" the relentless Prince whooped in glee.
"What are you up to, little wraith?” he mockingly questioned, knife catching my shoulder. “Even without the cannon, numbers are on my side. Have you finally resolved yourself to a heroic death?”
“You caught me,” I answered, smug as I could muster, spearpoint grazing his head. “If I can’t win, then I shall take you down with me!”
“That’s the spirit!” he laughed, derisive. “It has been years since I have faced Wraiths with backbone! Go on, then! Resist!”
We clashed once more, the vicious clanging of our mechs’ struggle loud and ringing deep. We’ve tested each other's blade thrice over, figuring out each exact reach and speed. I was proud of my spearwork, though his skill in a melee was, at the very least, on par with mine. What I lacked in quickness, I made up for in reach and tenacity. What he lacked in both, he made up for in guile. Even without his allies’ assistance, it would’ve been an updune battle.
He’d forgotten that I had a lot of friends.
“Brace! Detonating in 3…” counted down Two-Nine, Looter cackling and breaking into a coughing fit over comms. Our sensors highlighted a red perimeter covering the third of the bridge closest to the flechette cannon, most of the Niyels as well as the gun trapped within. So were we. The other Wraiths that charged headlong into enemy fire argued over the increasingly reckless nature of our escape, too late and too slow to get out of danger.
I kicked the Blade of Peril’s leg in an attempt to break blade lock, throwing my mech’s weight straight into his own. He crumpled under my chassis, knives in a flurry and uncomfortably close to my seat. I held him close with an arm, the other stabbing a spear deep into the ground to act as a hold for the inevitable fall. The Peril noticed something amiss and unleashed a billowing cloud of chaff that smothered my optics. He blindly slammed a knife into the side of my chassis’ head, momentarily disabling my optics and forcing my arms to block. He managed to slither his way out of grasp, soon after.
The foundations quaked first, my party’s steps unsteady, as fissures spread throughout the concrete. All of us knelt, Niyels included, unable to resist the tremors as eruptions broke the supporting pillars of the bridge. Chunks fell into the waters below. The surface crumbled and soon splintered. We dove alongside the bridge, though I managed to hop from falling boulder to falling boulder towards the side of the city. The Trident, Stargazer, and Luisa Baptista weren’t as lucky, falling alongside the Niyels, though considerably better off as they were at least heading down legs-first with flooding protocols readied. The flechette cannon—thank the Gods—was ruined beyond repair, its four accompanying mechs broken apart by the descent. Hubert and a few Niyels managed to escape towards the facility, the bastard Prince somehow skewering my chassis’ shoulder with a thrown knife without my notice during the chaos of our desperate climb. The dust and smoke cleared, him on one side and me on the other. Shit. The preening ratling stole my pike, his clawed manipulator languidly playing with the blade as his visibly damaged frame leaned on it like a walking staff. I attempted to detonate it, though the explosive charge embedded at the tip had been harmlessly subdued.
Below and away from the debris were an irritatingly pristine Caelestis and Little Rascal. Looter clung to the side of the bridge, claws and toes digging deep into concrete. The sniveling Two had a Godsdamned flight pack. Gunfire snatched my attention, though I sighed in relief as harmless rounds bounced off the crumbled asphalt. I admired the Niyels’ attempts at retaliation, futile and painful as they may be. Our troublesome duo fired below without consequence, quickly crushing their morale after two exchanges. The Caelestis climbed and landed next to me, kneeling on one leg. It spread its arms wide, firing large globs of that metallic substance that attached to the Baptista. Stargazer and Trident noticed his intent and held on as well, more of the chrome liquid securing its grip over their chassis. Looter’s mech buckled and cracked pavement against the weight as he attempted to pull the three out of water, Two-Nine keeping a railgun trained at the thankfully damaged though seemingly placated Peril. The Caelestis’ vents opened and roared, blasting gouts of heat and plumes of steam, part of its back swelling and creaking from the intense heat it generated. The Luisa’s heft alongside the others resisted its efforts, though not for long. I dropped to the side of the bridge, one arm holding the ledge and the other lowered for Two-Four and Two-Eight to grab. The Stargazer skittered over my shoulders and the Trident was dragged up with the Little Rascal’s assistance. Luisa Baptista was dredged out soon after, followed by a relieved thanks from Four-Four through comms.
Hubert’s optics scanned the Wraiths as they regrouped, then focused on me. The Peril wordlessly turned around and limped away. It disappeared partway through, chassis indiscernible from its surroundings, and we took that as a hint to go our own way.
The Caelestis and Little Rascal threw down smoke charges and spread chaff as we retreated deep into the city.
The Wraiths at least had an escape route in mind.
The lower layers of this city were apparently a labyrinthine maze of freight tunnels, some new and the rest derelict. My mech was in tatters, though I thanked the Gods that it still moved. My rifle was inoperable, my hull was more scar and slag than armor plate, and my warpike was stolen—Gods willing, that damned Prince will pay dearly for it. Four-Four and Three-Six-Six’s Luisa Baptista lost its entire right arm from the shoulder down and its Daisy Cutter is completely out of ammunition. The Trident and the Stargazer were both pockmarked with laserfire. They limped behind the group, servos in shreds from their unexpected visit to the lake, though their slapdash repairs mostly held together during our trip.
The trip took bells. Two-Four and Two-Eight took the lead, each turn leading to more branches and winding paths through rubble and debris. I nearly fell face-first into my console as my left hand lost strength and slipped. I wouldn’t be able to stay awake much longer. I quietly murmured orders for comfort, cockpit rearranging so I could fall. My vision blurred as fatigue took its due, then blackened as my tired voice ordered Nayaga to follow Four-Four’s command in my stead.
I dreamt of secrets amidst blackest night, of flitting between shadow and shade seeking blood to slake steel. Of a brighter tomorrow at the tip of my blade, twilight guided into fruition with each body thrown to vermin.
Yet the sun never rises. With each year my silhouette grows more crooked, my countenance more wrinkled.
My instincts dull while my steps grow heavier. My marks began hearing death’s approach, and with the passing of a year they began seeing.
I limped away from one such failure, side torn open and limbs going numb–