The Techne’s Apprentice Ch.3

The door hissed quietly as it opened. A dark room sat beyond, illuminated by only the pathetic flickering of the overhead lights. They made the shadows dance like water, ripples hiding all manner of terrible things within their depths. Watching. Waiting.

With a steadying breath Nicholas activated his weapon, the staff in his hands beginning to crackle with arching bolts of electricity. Using their harsh blue glow as a makeshift torch, Nicholas stepped deeper into the room, eyes sweeping over every corner. He saw nothing through the thick shadows, but Nicholas knew better than to trust that. They were in here somewhere. They had to be.

Sweeping his weapon deeper into the corners, Nicholas barely spotted the first. He spotted it at the last possible second, just as it leapt from cover to strike. By some stroke of blind, stupid luck he managed to raise the lance in time and drive the tip deep into his attacker. Instantly the bot erupted in a shower of sparks, thrashing like a stuck fish as it died, leaving behind nothing but scrap and the horrible smell of burnt metal.

Nicholas had no time to celebrate his victory as a second bot leapt from hiding, aimed squarely at his heart. Unable to block it, Nicholas threw himself backwards, praying he would get lucky a second time. A prayer that went unanswered as its blade bit into his side, missing a lethal blow by inches.

Pushing through the pain, Nicholas swept the lance around like a club, knocking the bot to the ground. A downward stab finished it off, but that left him wide open for a third bot to pounce from behind. Its spiked tail dug deep into Nicholas’ back, slicing indiscriminately, shredding both flesh and bone. Powerless to stop it, Nicholas could only gape in horror as he gasped his last, falling to the ground in a pool of his own blood.

-GAME OVER-

Nicholas resisted the urge to throw his controller at screen as blood dribbled down over the menu asking if he’d like to try again. This level was unfair to the point of being broken. Even after dozens of tries, Nicholas just could not see any way to get to that third bot before it made mince meat out of his spine. It didn’t help that the last save point was almost ten minutes back, meaning he went into every attempt pre-annoyed. 

Objectively he should probably just switch to another game. This one had stopped being fun about five tries ago, but it was a matter of principle now. This stupid thing was not going to beat him if it was the last thing he ever did.

As he was preparing to make another attempt, something caught Nicholas’ attention. A sound, so quiet that it had been almost completely drowned out by the game audio. He muted the screen and listened, wondering if he was imagining things when he heard it again. A hollow banging that seemed to be coming from every direction at once. And getting louder.

Putting his controller down, Nicholas walked out into the hall, quickly realizing that the sound was coming from the ceiling. Glancing up at the panels, he saw nothing amiss with them on the surface. Still the noise continued clanging it way down the hall, louder than ever before. It had to be the air ducts. Or something in them. 

Cautiously Nicholas followed, wracking his brain trying to figure out what it could be and how much he should care. One’s tolerance for weirdness tended to be higher when you lived in a techne’s workshop. Frankly, this barely even registered as a curiosity compared to some of the things Nicholas had seen during his apprenticeship. Just last month they had been playing host to a dragon. Strange noises were barely worth mentioning compared to that. He had just about dismissed it as nothing when a panel blew off the wall next to him. 

Crying out in surprise, Nicholas all but threw himself out of the way, covering his head as something whizzed past him at blinding speed. For a moment he stood hunched over, waiting for a follow up attack. When one didn’t come, Nicholas looked up to check what it was that had almost taken his head off.

“Zephyr!?”

The little sprite buzzed around the hall, moving erratically. He seemed oddly energized, which usually meant something bad.

“What are you doing?!” Nicholas snapped, annoyed.

“Running,” the sprite responded, unhelpful.

“Running from what?!”

Another bang answered, drawing Nicholas’ attention back to the wall. Another panel, several down from the one that had flown off, had a fist sized bulge in it, doubling in size with another bang. Nicholas began to slowly back away as three more blows followed in quick succession, each one enlarging the dent further. The panel did an admirable job of holding its attacker at bay, the material never buckling despite the relentless assault. 

A short-lived victory as the roar of a revving motor sounded and something burst through the metal. It burned with a spinning halo of sparks; the surrounding metal turning cherry red as it was rent apart. In seconds the panel was split in half, both pieces clattering to the floor.

“From that,” Zephyr said.

Nicholas didn’t reply, his eyes instead fixed on the Kaori bot climbing out of the wall. Or at least, he was fairly certain that’s what it was. The whirring saw blade mounted on its tail made it difficult to tell.

The Kaori turned, sweeping its single eye over the hall, absorbing every detail with detached, mechanical efficiency. Briefly it stopped on Nicholas, making the young techne instinctively take a step back. He was being scanned, assessed for relevance to the bot’s core programming. The dead glass bore into him, holding just a spark of the elemental consciousness to create a contrast as stark as it was unsettling.

It was a palpable relief when that gaze moved on, the bot apparently dismissing Nicholas as irrelevant. He had little time to enjoy the feeling as the bot quickly settled on Zephyr. The little sprite clearly held much more relevance to the bot, none of it good based on how it revved its chainsaw with a menacing growl. Zephyr did the hovering equivalent of a nervous swallow nervously, drifting back several inches as the Kaori wound up, preparing to attack.

“Command, stop,” Nicholas called.

He immediately knew something was wrong when the bot didn’t so much as pause. Instead, it revved its chainsaw louder, priming its servos for a leap.

“Command, stop!” Nicholas called with more force. 

The bot was no more convinced than it had been the first time. Like a coiled spring it leapt, flying towards its hovering prey. Zephyr, free of the vents, was easily able to dodge, leaving the Karoi sliding across the floor. It was already preparing for another strike before it had even come to a full stop.

“Command, STOP!” Nicholas cried. 

The bot didn’t even acknowledge the words, focused entirely on its efforts to scrap Zephyr. A fresh swing came within inches of finding its mark, the metal teeth skipping across Zephyr’s spherical body with a small shower of sparks. While the blow itself was harmless, it did manage to knock the sprite off course. Not much, but enough that the Kaori now had Zephyr dead to rights.

Before he could talk himself out of it, Nicholas dove for the intact wall panel, the one Zephyr had emerged from, and scooped it up in his hands. Hefting it like an unwieldy sword, Nichols swung into the side of the Kaori’s tail. The blow threw it just far enough off course that it missed Zephyr, leaving the saw to skip harmlessly off the floor.

On the one hand this was a good thing as it succeeded in the goal of sparing Zephyr’s from being bisected. On the other, much worse hand, it firmly placed Nicholas in the murderous bot’s ‘relevant’ category. The Kaori turned to fix Nicholas with its unsettling glare, rearing back its tail to resume attacking. Nicholas started to back away but managed to trip over his own feet and fall, landing hard on his back. 

By sheer, dumb luck, he fell in such a way that the chainsaw still missed, even if it did land uncomfortably close to a very delicate area. Without pause, the bot pressed its attack, striking again and again with its tail like a mechanical scorpion. Moving on pure instinct, Nicholas scooted back along the floor, managing to stay ahead by mere inches. 

Sadly, inevitably, Nicholas ran out of floor and his back slammed against the wall, leaving him nowhere to go. All he could do was throw up his hands in a futile attempt to protect his head as the saw roared down in triumph.

A roar that was suddenly cut short by a screech. Looking through the cracks in his fingers, Nicholas discovered the saw blade had somehow been cleanly severed from the tail. The now inert blade fell to the ground, the rest of the Kaori clicking and twitching in confusion as it tried to parse what had just happened.

Before it could recover, Zephyr zipped back into view. His spherical body now sported a glowing blue ring that spun so rapidly it appeared to vibrate. Nicholas recognized it as Zephyr’s preferred form of attack, a blade of howling, thin air, containing all the fury of a hurricane, compressed down to a space no larger than a dinner plate. Formless, ethereal, nearly impossible to block and able to cut through almost anything. 

The disk screeched, bulging slightly as Zephyr rushed forward towards the Kaori. The bot tried to react but could barely even move before Zephyr had neatly sliced in two. Both halves fell away from each other, suspended momentarily until something critical failed and the whole thing exploded. 

What the blast lacked in fire it more than made up for in punch, producing a shockwave that slammed Nicholas back against the wall. The wind flew from his lungs, leaving his ears ringing and eyes swimming as he gasped for breath.  It took a full minute for him to recover enough to stand and dazedly survey the carnage.

The Kaori was totaled. Barely anything had survived aside from lumps of melted plastic and scrap metal. Where it had been there was now a crater, punched a solid foot deep in the floor with a web of cracks radiating out from the edges. Nicholas counted himself lucky it hadn’t hit a power line. The overload from that would have caused some fireworks, to say the least.

Zephyr drifted back into view, wavering to make sure he had Nicholas’ attention before speaking. 

“Told you this was a bad idea.”

*

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