“How’s that? Any kinks in the joint?”
The suit twisted its new wrist a full half turn. It moved without major issue, save a slight creaking.
“Try the whole arm,” Nic said. “Just to make sure.”
The suit did as asked, flexing and twisting the rebuilt limb in all directions. Two good strong lengths of steel for the bone, reinforced with metal plates, all capped with a collection of pipes and springs for a hand. Functional, though it screeched sharply from time to time, the inevitable result of being built from literal junk.
Still an improvement from the previous version. Part of that had been Nic’s assistance in searching for and assembling the parts but the young techne was under no illusions he had been anything more than a useful assistant. It was the suit’s strange powers that were the real star of the show here. Even now the noise was beginning to fade as the material reshaped itself, settling into smoother positions.
Nic still marveled at the fascinating ability, the chance to observe it up close only raising more questions. He still didn’t fully understand how it even worked, the process by which solid metal was near instantly fused to the suit’s body. He’d thought it had been some kind of arcane welding, liquefying and fusing the metal together but he’d observed no such process. So far as he could tell the metal simply attached itself to the whole and became the suits to reshape as it saw fit. Magic was involved, that much was obvious, and how Nic wished he had the gear to investigate further. Even just one scan would yield a treasure trove of data the likes of which even a master techne would kill for.
But this was neither the time nor place. Though they seemed safe for the moment, Nic didn’t doubt those creatures would be trying to find other ways to get to them. Better to spend this moment of peace getting the suit back into fighting shape. Besides, his tablet was almost dead and wouldn’t last long enough to try a scan anyway.
A sudden noise rang out as the suit continued flexing, a sharp squeal like nails on a chalkboard. Nic winced, reaching to halt the motion.
“Stop, stop,” he said. “There’s something catching in there, pull back the plating.”
The suit complied, the material surrounding the join between old and new retracting as if motorized. Examining the internals Nic was quickly able to identify the issue, a stray burr that had broken free to scrape against the wrist. A simple fix, as easy as bending it back into position and letting the suit handle the rest.
What dominated far more of his attention was the old arm stump. Far from the unbroken solid it had looked like from a distance, Nic realized it was in fact an aged version of the amalgamation. Old bits of metal pressed together, crushed and crumpled down into the illusion of a single smooth-ish surface.
Also obvious was the damage. Cracks and rents from strong impacts, tipped with narrow, corroded edges where chunks had been sheared off. Old injuries, themselves sitting over even older ones. The longer Nic looked the more he found, some running long and burrowing deep. It was like a tapestry, a long history of strife and struggle, woven of wounds and scars to which the rat’s were only the latest contributors.
“Not the first time you’ve had to rebuild this, is it?”
The suit held its silence, eyeless gaze scanning their surroundings, alert for anything trying to creep up on them in the dark. A consummate professional, through and through. Nic chuckled quietly before voicing another thought.
“Thank you by the way.”
The suit turned to look at him, Nic shirking back from the piercing intensity of his non-expression.
“You know, for saving me back there. If you hadn’t been there- well, thanks, is my point.”
Silence returned for a moment, Nic remaining focused on his task, only occasionally glancing up to see if the suit had looked away, always finding it watching him straight back. Eventually Nic worked up the courage to meet its gaze head on.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to- just thought I should-.”
Any further rambling was cut off when the Knight nodded. A small gesture, gone almost as soon as it appeared, but which might as well have been operatic. Two quick motions and the suit had said everything it needed to. Nic couldn’t help but smile as he finished his work.
“Right, how’s that?”
The suit withdrew its arm, holding it aloft as components swiftly knit themselves together until they were once again a tarnished whole. No sound came from the joints as they moved this time.
“Good, hopefully that will hold until we can find you something better.”
The suit stood and walked over to a nearby scrap pile. Nic watched as it began to dig, pulling out handfuls of detritus, pressing random scraps to itself seemingly at random. Nic watched, curious, as the suit worked away at itself, quickly growing as more and more material settled into place.
After a moment it had finished and turned around to reveal what it had done. Tall to begin with, the suit was now a hulking giant, having added significant mass from the pile. It had expanded itself, its armor now covering its body in large, solid plates rather than a broken hodgepodge. Even it’s helmet had been reformed, the large dent in the side vanished behind a thick plate of iron.
In its right hand the suit held a new sword, its long blade sharp and gleaming, trailing a tassel of colourful wires from its pommel. In its left, the remains of a car door, bulked up with a few extra parts to form a crude but nonetheless effective shield.
“Eager to get back into trouble?” Nic asked with a smile.
The Knight paused just long enough to be notable before setting off down the passage.
“Well then,” he said, following. “Lead on Sir Knight.”
For some minutes they walked in silence. The Knight led the way, following the largest passage as it cut ever deeper into the mountain. With every step forward the tingle at the back of Nic’s neck became stronger and he realized it had been there for a while. Since even before he’d found that active rig. He recalled Zephyr’s drunken comments, about the air being full of “pretty lights”. Perhaps there had been more to that than Nic had given the little sprite credit for.
Question of the hour though: what was it? And relatedly, how powerful was said thing that it could be detected under all this metal?
Nic suspected they were approaching the answer to both when a strange glow appeared in the tunnel ahead. He didn’t fully notice it at first, the soft light overpowered by the glare of his cantrip, but it soon became impossible to ignore as they drew closer. A harsh blue that rippled over the tunnel walls like water in a strange dance of curves and shadows. Looking at it unnerved Nic, enough to make him hesitant to continue.
The Knight suffered no such misgivings, not even slowing as it marched towards the anomaly. Nic paused, watching as they rounded the last bend, his better judgement screaming that this was a bad idea. He knew nothing about what was going on down here, even less about how he might counter it. But then, he wasn’t about to figure it out standing back here. Swallowing his fear, Nic hurried to catch up.
Exiting the tunnel, he stepped into the largest chamber they’d yet encountered down here. A rough dome, spanning nearly two dozen feet across at its base and higher than Nic could see. Tunnels of all sizes converged here, their edges nibbled smooth by tooth and claw. The most horrendous smell hung in the air, a pungent blend of feces, musky fur and rot so thick that Nic could almost taste.
“Their nest you think?” Nic asked, trying not to breathe through his nose. The Knight stopped, raising its sword to point at something ahead of them.
In the very center of the room there sat yet another pile of junk. It was the source of the strange glow, ethereal light dancing across its surface like aggressive fireflies, flicking in and out of existence at random. With a wave of his hand, Nic moved the cantrip closer, hoping to shed some literal light over just what was happening here.
Answers he got. Understanding he did not.
Rigs. The entire pile was made up of dozens of rigs all jumbled together into a great chaotic mess. No two were exactly alike, makes and models of every kind and every shape. Most of them were damaged, some reduced to little more than clusters of wire and plastic, the journey through Gibson having smashed many of them beyond repair.
Repair but not function. Under the harsh light of his cantrip, Nic could clearly see there were sparks leaping between exposed circuits. Screens would flare to life with each jump, a brief snippet of static or broken interface appearing before falling dark once more. All in the span of a few seconds, repeating over and over as the rogue charge danced about in search of the path of least resistance.
Nic marveled at the sight, baffled, intrigued, and deeply concerned all at once. He had no idea how a thing like this could form, though his imagination was in full operation constructing the narrative. Rigs dropped in ones or twos, buried under whatever was piled atop them as they slowly sunk deeper into the mountain. Most of them would be inert junk but as he’d already seen, a few of them would still be live, holding just enough charge to be the barest semblance of functional. Give it enough time and you’d have dozens of them seeded all throughout the yard. Half broken magical machines all spitting out random streams of whatever spells hadn’t been wiped from the memory. Most of it would be meaningless garbage of course, suitable only to dazzle capricious familiars, but power was power. With enough gathered in one place there was no telling what it could do.
Such as, just to pull a random example, cause radical mutations in a local rat population.
“We need to shut that down,” Nic said.
The Knight turned to look at him, a sense of expectation coming from their featureless face.
“I think that’s what’s making them, that rats I mean,” he pointed at the mound, jumping as a particularly violent spark leapt across its surface. “It’s dangerous either way. We need to shut it down.”
After glancing back at the mound, the Knight held up their sword. Nic shook his head.
“Not unless you’re shock proof,” Nic paused, considering. “Are you shock proof?”
The Knight shrugged.
“Right. How about I have a look before you start smashing things?”
The Knight conceded, stepping aside to let Nic approach the mound. Nic could feel the charge in the air as he got closer, mingled with the burning tang of ozone. Up close it was obvious this thing had been active for some time, parts of it burnt and melted together from ambient heat. The result was disturbingly organic, looking like metallic flesh that had fused and scabbed over with old wounds. Some of it was even moving, twitching ever so slightly whenever a charge ran through. Almost certainly a trick of the light but Nic still did his best not to dwell on it.
Instead, he focused on the firmly mechanical bits of the construct. Those were at least more familiar in form even if they were a disaster in function. It was an utter rabbit warren of dead ends, short circuits and twisting wires that took entire feet to travel between points inches away. Following any one section quickly descended into a game of trying not to go cross-eyed.
“I take it back, maybe we will have to go your way,” Nic said. The Knight advanced several paces, weapon raised and ready. Nic held up a hand to stop him.
“I’m kidding, let me work.”
The Knight stopped, a sense of palpable disappointment radiating from their form. Nic chuckled and turned back, finding it just as confusing as when he looked away. Tentatively, he reached for one of the more isolated rigs, hoping to start at least eliminating pieces from this mess to make it a bit easier to puzzle out.
The second he touched it things went wrong. A sharp crack sounded, electricity arcing through some new connection Nic’s tinkering had created. Briefly the entire mound lit up like a supernova, every screen coming alive in a shotgun burst of static, every wire going red hot at sudden overcharge. An ear-splitting scream sliced through air, hitting Nic like a physical force that made his stagger back a step, dropping the rig in his haste.
That seemed to satisfy the mutant machine and the cacophony settled just as fast as it had arisen. The silence that followed was tense, the ringing in Nic’s ears the only sign it had even happened. The Knight appeared at his shoulder, a sense of concern radiating from their featureless helm.
“Yeah, didn’t mean to do that,” Nic said. “No idea what I did but I can’t imagine-”
The rest of his sentence was cut off as the silence was flooded by a familiar chittering sound. They both turned to watch as shadowy forms began to pour from the walls in a churning, roiling mass. They were quickly surrounded, the swarm cutting off all avenues of escape as they hissed violence at the interlopers.
“Aw, hells,” was all Nic got out before the attack began.
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