Chapter 34 - In Sleep it Waits
Disguised as members of the Galden Security Force, One and Mikaen had scarcely reached the post previously occupied by the now-recumbent Biggs and Wedge when a voice called out, "Ah, there you are! See, I told you they wouldn't run off."
"Good timing." Mikaen muttered as he turned to see two Galden soldiers walking toward him. The HUD in his helmet identified them as Sergeant Kevin Jures and Lieutenant Dobbs Jelson.
Sergeant Kevin saluted, his lieutenant following suite a few moments later. "Go ahead and get some rest, you two; we'll take the rest of your shift."
"Are you sure, sir?" Mikaen asked, secretly impressed. The illusionary guards Jeronem and Rydiana had cobbled together with their respective magicks were apparently holding up.
"Yeah, go on. I can't sleep anyway; too much noise."
Glancing at Mikaen, One said, "Can do, Sarge!"
They barely made it ten yards before the Lieutenant called out, "Oy! Wedge!"
Mikaen and One froze instantly, fearing the worst.
The guard ran over to One and fished a handful of shards. "Twenty three, twenty four, twenty five shards. Still can't believe you actually asked her out."
"What can I say," said One said as he pocketed the money, "She's adorable."
"She's no stick in the eye, I give you that, but the way they talk … I mean, just listening to her gave me a headache."
One shrugged. "Each to his own, dude."
The soldier gave him an odd look. "Dude?"
"Yeah, dude. Y'know: pal, buddy, hombre, partner."
"Uh, right. You're a strange guy, Wedge, you know that?" Still shaking his head, the guard returned to his post.
As they walked into the camp, Mikaen whispered, "Nice improv."
"Thanks. Helps to have a quick mind in my line of work. Now come on!"
Most of the camp was asleep. This was fine with One and Mikaen; the last thing they needed was more attention.
"So," One said out of the corner of his mouth, "What do you think this thing is?"
"Not sure. I'd bet Truth that it has something to do with those drones that attacked Tirinia and me before you showed up at the cathedral yesterday."
Mikaen nodded. "Draconian-looking machines, very fast and decently armored. We managed to take them down, but it was easily the hardest fight I've had lately." After a moment, he amended, "Well, except when I met Tirinia."
"Well, she was one of the finalist in last year's Longshore Melee. Those fights can get pretty int-"
"This is getting old." One muttered beneath his breath. As a robed figure hurried toward them. The monk wasn't wearing the same robes as the monks who had attacked Mikaen and Jeronem on the road to Muonsol, but something about the blue trim on the robes tugged at Mikaen's mind. As man drew near, Mikaen remembered: one of the monks he had encountered in Homestead had worn the same robes.
"Private Biggs! Private Wedge!" The monk snapped, "What is your current assignment?"
One saluted instantly. "We're just turning in for the night, sir."
"Belay that. Our excavation team needs a hand for about an hour. Report to the target site on the double."
Mistaking his hesitation for lack of direction, the monk sighed, and gestured impatiently to the far end of the Ravine. "Straight down the ravine and into the cave … and for the love of the Creator, don't go poking around with anything you don't understand!"
The monk brushed by Mikaen, calling out, "Private Aryan!"
"Well, that was easy." One muttered to Mikaen as they headed in the direction the monk had indicated.
"Indeed. After you, Wedge."
It didn't take them long to reach the end of the ravine. It didn't dip into the ground as Mikaen had expected; rather, it seemed to keep going down at the same incline as the rest of the ravine.
As they entered the cave, One commented, "You know, I don't think this is a natural formation."
"What do you mean?"
He pointed to the edges of the cave. "The walls are smooth. Even in really old caves, there are a few jagged spots here and there, right?"
Mikaen looked at the rock wall. It was smooth, but he didn't think anything of it. "Maybe it was carved out by magic or by hand."
"Spell-shaping stone is different from shaping wood; a tunnel this big magic would leave crystallic formations in the rock. If it were mined out conventionally, stone would still show lesions." One rested a hand against the wall. "The surface is almost glassy … no stalactites or stalagmites either. If I didn't know any better, I'd say that the rock was melted."
"What could possibly-"
Mikaen stopped speaking abruptly as they entered a large cavern. There were soldiers everywhere, with the occasional monk here and there, but that wasn't what caught his eye. No, that would be the dragon partially submerged in rock.
Mikaen remembered the first time he had seen a dragon. He had rushed into the forest near the Rip in Bridges to avoid a detachment of Revs. The Knights were still in their infancy, so he was completely on his own.
While Mikaen was trying to figure out what to do, a huge claw lowered a giant hunk of ice right in front of him with the three Revs were frozen solid inside. Mikaen soon found himself face to face with a creature he thought only existed in legend. As though that had not been enough, the dragon introduced itself as 'Alfred', and invited Mikaen to his lair for a cup of tea and a chat.
The dragons had been sealed away with much of the rest of Earth's magic, and were all too keen to lend the Knights a hand in the fight against the Revs. They took the Revs assault on the non-human races very personally, and were likely the only reason the west coast settlements were as untouched as they were.
The creature half-buried in stone in the center of the chamber bore a strong resemblance to Alfred; it was easily five times his height, a dozen times as long, and had enormous wings that looked to be more than enough to propel the creature into the air. Its muscular arms and legs each ended in a five huge talons.
The only difference seemed to be the scales. Alfred had oval scales colored like the tip of a peacock's tail feather. This Dragon had diamond-shaped scales that were gun-metal black, much like the drones Mikaen had fought earlier.
It appeared to be asleep, despite the constant sound of mining filling the chamber. Mikaen was certain it must be either dead or in deep hibernation until a large panel on the dragon's back retracted to reveal a mess of wiring and circuitry.
"It's a machine." Mikaen breathed. His suspicions were confirmed when he spotted several of the drones partially deconstructed against the cave wall, robed figures examining the parts with much intensity.
"One, those are the drones that attacked us." When One didn't reply, Mikaen glanced over to see the Dreamer clutching his head as though he had a bad headache.
"You okay, One … er, Wedge?" asked Mikaen, a little alarmed.
"Yeah, I'm good. I haven't had my caffeine today." Shaking his head, he said, "We need a closer look."
An old man wearing the same blue and green robe motioned them over. He had a kind face and a small bald spot on the back of his head. "Ah, Private Biggs and Private Wedge. Nice to see you again so soon. I say, are you all right, Wedge? That drone hit you awfully hard yesterday."
"I'll be fine just as soon as the cavern stops spinning around." One flashed the monk a grin. "Divine intervention would be fantastic, by the way."
The man chuckled, "I'll ask the Creator to see what he can do. In the meantime, would you mind giving your degree in ancient technologies a bit of exercise and help our engineers figure out how to start this ruddy thing? It would be nice to be able to move it once it's free of the rock."
Eyeing the metal dragon's sturdy construction, Mikaen asked, "Can't it break free itself?"
The robed man chuckled, saying, "Patience, my son. It is very old, and we aren't sure how much stress it can safely take. If you've the time, would you go help remove the last of the debris?"
"Of course, sir."
The old man chuckled. "None of that sir stuff. Jonathon is just fine, but you can call me Brother Joven if you insist."
Grasping One's arm, Brother Joven said, "I'll show you the way. You might need my support."
Chuckling, One waved at Mikaen, saying, "See you later, bro!"
Now alone, Mikaen headed toward the base of the creature, where a group of soldiers were already at work removing chunks of stone from the dragon's legs.
"Private Biggs, reporting for duty!" said Mikaen, snapping to attention.
The robed man looked at him with obvious respect. "I'd about given up finding a competent military man in this outfit. Assist the others in freeing the final leg of the machine."
The robed man tossed a small gun to Mikaen. "It's already set, so start whenever you're ready."
Mikaen caught the gun and looked at it uncertainly. It seemed a similar make to the stasis gun, right down to the stylized 'OZ' engraving on the grip.
The robed man sighed. "Look, it's easy: point the gun at the rock, wait for the light to turn blue, then shoot."
Mikaen quickly moved beside the others and took aim with the strange pistol. A beam of red light hit the rock and began to spread. When it covered an area roughly a foot wide, the light changed from red to light blue.
As Mikaen depressed the trigger, the gun shuddered slightly in his hand and the light emanating from the barrel flashed white. When the light faded, the part of the rock that had been covered with red light was gone, revealing a single talon.
One of the other officers noticed, and called through his wrist-radio, "We've started uncovering the final claw."
"Excellent. Let me know the instant the machine is clear."
As the others continued, Mikaen frowned beneath his helmet. This was obviously some kind of weapon; what else could it be? Everything about the situation screamed trouble, and he still had far more questions than answers. Why were the Galden here? Why was the dragon-machine here? Just what the hell was going on?
His attention was suddenly jolted away from the monk as the piece of stone he uncovered revealed a mark that had been etched onto one of the talons. It was Crash's symbol.
"What the-" He said, lowering his gun.
One of the robed men hurried forward. "We should be able to get it out now. I'll inform the commander. The rest of you should clear out of this area immediately."
As the robed man walked away, a soldier Mikaen's helmet identified as Private Rael snorted, saying, "You're welcome!"
A somewhat thin soldier by the name of Jinne grabbed Rael's arm, whispering, "Ungrateful bastards. Tell me, why we're working with them again?"
"Cause Triumvate Fairchilde told us to, and he's a good man. Best general the security force has ever had." said Sergeant Jures, a muscular soldier with a cheery voice. "Come on, let's go get a few drinks before turning in."
"In a sec." Mikaen told them. "I need to go grab my brother." Mikaen started walking back to the machine but stumbled as his wings began to strain against his back.
Private Rael helped him up. "Yo, Biggs! You all right, man?"
"Yeah, I'm good. Back cramps."
Rael and Jinne helped him to a nearby crate. As Mikaen sat down, Jinne told him, "It's all right, man. You'll feel better when we get back to Ronisgald. Believe me, we never go out of our way this much."
"Yeah, unless our new friends send us on another wild fiona chase." Rael shook his head.
New friends? If the Galden weren't working alone, with whom were they working? As Mikaen waited his wings to settle down, he found himself wishing he had paid more attention to Elduran's lectures about Vintan world politics.
As the pain began to fade, Mikaen said, "I'll be fine. I just need to sit down for a minute."
Private Rael patted him on the arm, "Well, if you feel up to it, we'll be raiding the supply tent. I hear Charlie keeps some aged xemptarian wine hidden somewhere, and we aim to find it."
As the guards moved away, Mikaen slowly straightened his back. The pain wasn't completely gone this time. What was worse, Mikaen could feel his wings continuing to move beneath the skin, making his back feel unusually taut.
As much as he wanted to find out more about the Revs and the metal dragon, he could tell that it was time to head back to Muonsol. He had already gathered some information that Jyle would definitely find of interest.
As another group of soldiers passed by, some waving at Mikaen as they passed, one soldier broke off from the group and walked over. Bending close to Mikaen's ear, he whispered, "You aren't gonna believe what I've found out … dude, you okay?"
Mikaen nodded. "Gineros pains. I don't think I have much time."
"Okay then, back to Muonsol."
"But the dragon-" Mikaen began.
One waved him off. "It'll take these guys weeks to figure out how to pilot that thing, and by then we'll have Jyle here with a troop of knights to take the whole lot into custody."
As One tried to help Mikaen stand, the entire cavern shuddered ominously.
Steadying himself, One asked, "What the hell?"
Another shudder ran through the cavern, this one punctuated by the sound of cracking rocks. Mikaen and One slowly turned back toward the dragon.
With another tremor, the dragon rose from the floor and let out a roar that set every fiber in Mikaen's being on edge.
"Cyber-cripes." One muttered as it stared at them with two glowing red eyes.