Chapter 90
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“Grandfather. This has to be him,” Sofie said, voicing the thoughts of everybody in the room.

“What does it mean by bubble?” Gabby wondered.

“The blister that swallowed the stone, probably,” Blake said, pointing at the translucent pocket of crimson liquid poking out about an inch from the rest of the fleshy arm wrapping.

“But how do you follow it?” Gabby asked.

“I think it’s the stone,” Blake explained, indicating the stone floating inside the blister. As he spoke, it could be seen pressed against the blister’s membrane on one side, about a third of the way up the hemisphere. Carefully grabbing the dead child’s hand, he lifted the arm up and turned it this way and that. “Yeah, look. See how it points in the same direction no matter which way you orient it?”

“How strange,” Sofie commented.

“Which direction is it pointing?” Sam inquired.

Blake called forth his mental map of the fortress. The room in which they stood was located on the 4th floor, near the center of the fortress. Given the direction of the door, and the way they were standing in the room-

“North,” Arlette said easily. “It points north.”

“Haaaahhhhh,” Sofie sighed with exhaustion. “Well, time to go pack for the trip...”

“Trip?” Gabby asked, confused. “You want to follow some creepy instructions made out of blood vessels from somebody you’ve never met? Even with how worn down you are?”

“Yes?”

“Let’s at least wait until we’ve rested and leave tomorrow morning,” Arlette suggested.

“No, I can’t rest without some sort of closure. I’ve been trying, but I just can’t. Let’s just go now. Besides, I want to meet the mythical man who shaped Pari’s life so much. He deserves to know what happened.” Sofie turned to Blake, her eyes daring him to oppose this sudden new itinerary. “Unless you still want to try to experiment on her?”

Blake couldn’t help but scoff. “You think I’m going to pass up a chance to meet the man who made this?!” he asked in disbelief, waving his hand towards the pulsating covering. “This is living technology! This is science fiction story stuff! What’s the point of studying Pari when this person could surely explain it all to me in under five minutes?

“Besides, anybody who can definitely create other powerful and dangerous things, like poison gas or maybe even viral agents. I don’t like the idea of somebody hiding in the shadows when they might be able to make weapons of mass destruction. Why has nobody heard of anything like this before? Why hasn’t ‘grandfather’ conquered the world already? I need answers to this shit, pronto.”

“Oh. Well then...”

“Everyone get ready,” Blake declared. “We’re leaving as soon as possible.”

“Hey Blake, stay here for a second, would you?” Sofie asked as everybody else, including Blake, made to leave the room.

Blake paused for a moment, thought about it, and decided to stick around for a moment to see what she wanted.

Sofie turned to face him with an angry scowl, her hands at her hips, causing Blake to immediately regret his choice. He knew this look and this pose, having seen it far too many times. He’d done something wrong, or at least something she viewed as wrong, and how he was going to get scolded for it like he was an elementary school student sent to the principal's office. The only question was what had gotten her so irate this time.

“Did you really laugh at Samanta while she was grieving?” she inquired, though her tone made it sound far more like an accusation than a question.

“Oh, here we go,” Blake groused back. “Does she have you on speed dial or something? It’s like she tells you every single thing I do.”

“Blake, I’m too tired to deal with your crap today!”

He rolled his eyes in annoyance. “‘Blake, you’re such an uncaring jerk! Have some empathy for once!’ ‘Blake, how dare you try to be empathetic!’ Make up your goddamned mind, Sofie!”

“You don’t laugh at a crying child, Blake!”

“I wasn’t laughing at her, I was laughing at her idea!” he shot back. “She seriously thought she caused the deaths of both Pari and her family like she was cursed or some shit. I was right to laugh! You can’t coddle that sort of stupidity; you have to stomp it into the ground as brutally as you can. The sooner she realizes how stupid such thoughts are, the better off she will be.”

Though no longer glaring daggers at him, Sofie still did not appear entirely swayed by his brilliant argument. “You’re just saying that now to justify it after the fact.”

Blake folded his arms in front of his chest in defiance. She was mostly right, though he would never admit it. At the time, he’d just found her bizarre assertion hilarious and the next thing he knew, he’d found himself cackling at the thought. But his argument just now was true, and he was going to stick to it.

“She stopped crying, so it worked,” he stated factually. “I helped. Admit it.”

Sofie sighed. “I appreciate that you actually tried for once. Just... think about what you’re saying a little more first.”

“Sorry, I couldn’t hear you. Speak louder,” he prodded her.

Now it was Sofie’s turn to roll her eyes. “Fine, you helped! A bit! You also made her really confused and kinda lost.”

“But I helped.”

“Ugh, you’re like a student being smug about getting a D on a test because you didn’t fail.”

“Because-”

“I swear, Blake, if you say ‘I-”

“-I helped!”

“You know what? I don’t have the energy for this. I’m going to go pack.”

“You want me to... help you with that?”

Sofie threw double middle fingers his way as she plodded from the room, leaving Blake all alone with a victorious smirk on his face. He headed for his quarters a few moments later after preparing Pari’s pod for transport, that smug grin still there behind his mask. Sometimes, one had to revel in small victories.

*     *     *

The Flying Toaster’s engines hummed powerfully as the craft pushed north through the winds of northern Eterium. Standing by a window and looking down at the scenery below, Blake felt a sense of peace that he hadn’t felt in a while. He missed riding in his prized zeppelin. He’d built it for his own use, but then his involvement in the invasion had stolen any opportunities to enjoy his creation. Now that things were less busy, he took every chance he could to enjoy the fruits of his labor, even in strange circumstances such as these. He never knew when he would suddenly be needed again, which was why Bernards and a Many were back in the cabin section, just in case Leo needed him for an emergency.

Luckily, they’d been traveling for most of a full day and no such disaster had popped up yet. He, Arlette, Sofie, Sam, and Gabriela were taking turns monitoring the bubble on Pari’s arm covering, switching every few hours. This was now more difficult than before. After creating the pod several days ago as a base to keep Pari’s body from shifting and letting her remaining blood leak out, these new circumstances had forced Blake to create a base for the base to keep the entire thing from tipping too far one way or another. The resulting gimbal ring and gyroscopic design took up about seven feet of space in all directions, meaning it was now harder to see Pari’s arm sleeve and the guiding bubble inside than before, even with the mirrors he’d added.

So far, the biotech continued to point in the same direction as before, leading to a very dull, event-free ride. That suited Blake just fine. After the last few days, it felt nice to have a few moments of stillness. It let him let his guard down just a little and unwind.

He wasn’t the only person to benefit from this, either. Perhaps because a resolution of sorts seemed nigh, Sofie had finally fallen asleep perhaps six hours prior. Her slumber was so deep that not even falling off her seat had woken her up. They’d moved her to a cabin where she was probably still snoring away. Sam had gone off to rest as well, leaving Gabriela to watch the bubble while Blake and Arlette just chilled.

The Scyrian stood nearby, one hand tightly holding a drink and the other noticeably clutching at the fabric of her pants. Blake found it strange. She hadn’t acted so high-strung during the many hours they’d been up in the sky so far, so it was unlikely this was some sort of fear of heights suddenly manifesting.

Should he inquire about it? Blake waffled between curiosity and respect for privacy for a moment, but his boredom quickly joined curiosity’s side and ended the contest. After so many hours just standing around, he needed to talk to somebody about something for a little while. Anything would do.

“Something wrong?”

Arlette stiffened in surprise as if he’d suddenly and violently pulled her from her thoughts. He hadn’t realized she had been so deep in her own thoughts and winced mentally.

“It’s fine, I don’t mean to pry too hard,” he assured her as she shuffled uncomfortably.

“No, it’s alright,” Arlette replied. “I was just caught up in some bad memories. If Pari’s guidance doesn’t change soon, we’ll be heading into Kutrad. I have many memories of that place, the vast majority of them I would rather forget entirely.”

“Ah, I’m sorry to hear that,” Blake said, looking down at the world far below. Several small points of light marked a small village to their west. “At least you can take solace in the fact that they are all the way down there and we are all the way up here. There is nothing Kutrad or anybody in it can do to harm us now.”

“Hmm...” she grunted in reply. “That is how you see the world, is it? I think I better understand now why you are how you are.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s so easy to reduce everybody else to little more than a speck in your mind from up here. Just a speck in a sea of other specks. Nameless, storyless, and without merit. As you said, they cannot touch you. So why even acknowledge their individual existence? The collective is all that matters.”

“Do you have a problem with how I view things?” Blake asked irritably.

“I think that your refusal to interact with those under your rule on a person-to-person basis could be considered a weakness of sorts. It leaves you blind to certain things.”

“Getting too close is what leaves you blind,” Blake argued. “If you get too caught up in peoples’ individual stories, you will become unable to see the larger picture.”

“Some would say that the larger picture is nothing more than those individual stories combined into a whole.”

“Some would, but I’m not one of them,” Blake stated matter-of-factly. “My goal has always been change, and accomplishing change means breaking things as much as it means building things. Get too invested in the individual and you risk losing the will to do what needs to be done.”

“Such an approach comes with its own downsides. As you are now, you will always be the invader no matter how long you rule. The underground rebellion manifesting now is just one facet of this.”

“I tried that before,” he reminded her irritably. “That’s how I ended up in the shape I am today. I’m an Elseling. They will never accept me on their own.”

“The same could be said for Sofie, or even myself. And yet, I don’t see anybody up in arms over her.”

“Sofie doesn’t count,” Blake scoffed. “She’s so unthreatening that even Otharians don’t feel fear when they meet her. One look at her and you immediately know she’s so pathetic that she could never be a danger to anybody. That part of why I keep her around. That harmlessness can come in handy sometimes.”

Arlette chuckled. “You wouldn’t say that if you were there with me when we confronted King Morgan. I have seen few people more vindictive and ruthless than she was then.”

“The ruler of Kutrad?” Blake inquired, puzzled.

“Did she not tell you about it?”

“Well, she said that you and she escaped from the Xoginia’s dungeons, but didn’t really go into detail beyond that,” Blake explained. “Why, what happened?”

“Well, escaping from the dungeon was a far more complicated escapade than she likely made it sound...”

She went on to describe how she’d escaped and the variety of events that ended up with her, Pari, and Sofie alone in a room with the monarch of an entire nation. With every new step in the story, Blake’s respect for the woman increased even more. He congratulated himself on his hire. Her ordeal showed just how determined and resourceful she was and highlighted her ability to make the best of a bad situation. He needed more subordinates like her.

“...and I just kept pounding away at his face, over and over. I think I broke every bone in his face. Or I hope I did, at least.”

“Wait, wait, are you the reason he still has most of his face wrapped in bandages?” Blake interrupted in disbelief.

“What?”

“I just saw him by many like a week ago and he still has those bandages wrapped around his face and he never talks. He just writes something down and this other guy talks for him.”

“How strange. I did a lot of damage but he should have been able to heal in maybe twenty days or so. If he’s still like that, then it must be for some other reason.”

Blake shrugged. “So what does this have to do with Sofie again?”

“Oh, right. I was just getting to that. So, once I had vented my emotions on King Morgan’s head, Sofie vented her own on his second head.”

Blake froze, a deep foreboding dread suddenly building inside of him. “Wait, you don’t mean-”

“With her foot,” Arlette clarified, a strangely proud smile on her face. “Repeatedly. Until his balls were little more than paste.”

Blake couldn’t even feel his equipment anymore and the thought still sent shivers of horror coursing down his spine. Never before had he ever been glad to have been punched in the face.

“Sofie is gentle, to a fault even,” Arlette continued. “But I am glad that she is the way she is, because I shudder to consider what she might be capable of without that to hold her back. People who are convinced of their own righteousness as strongly as she is are often the most dangerous people of all.”

“Hey, don’t look at me that way when you say that,” Blake grumbled in protest.

Arlette merely raised her eyebrows without comment and took a drink.

*     *     *

“What do you mean, it still points north?!” Blake complained as he stared in consternation at the mountains standing in the way of the Flying Toaster. The mid-morning sunlight shining off their towering peaks, they presented a significant and unexpected problem. “Isn’t this the end of Kutrad?”

Arlette cleared her throat. “Technically, Kutrad claims the mountains and all land beyond it as their territory as well, but they have never been able to develop the mountain range. All they’ve been able to do is mine some of the closer mountains. I’ve heard rumors that anybody who tried to explore deeper into the mountains would just disappear, but that’s probably just a rumor caused by the violent winds and snow.”

“Maybe we misunderstood how to read the bubble?” Gabriela offered.

Blake shook his head. “We already tried going laterally and it shifted. It’s definitely pointing somewhere in these mountains or past them.”

“Doesn’t this make sense, though?” Sofie pointed out. “You were wondering how nobody knew about the organic technology on Pari’s arm. What if there’s a secret society of people hidden in these mountains or beyond?”

“That’s... actually a good point,” Blake allowed. He turned to face all the rest of the group. “Is there anybody who objects to continuing forward?”

Nobody objected, leaving Blake nodding in satisfaction. This whole unplanned adventure was getting more intriguing by the minute!

Looking at the peaks rising even higher than the Flying Toaster’s maximum altitude, Blake imagined the thin spaces and strong winds lurking within the range and decided that it would be better to proceed on the ground from this point forward. Thankfully, he had a whole bay full of battle skitters for protection, as well as two transport skitters, loaded in the back of the airship because of course he did. This was the first time he’d left the confines of Otharia. There was no way his paranoia would let him leave without maximum protection. There was no telling what they would find, after all.

“Very well, then!” he said as he clapped his hands together. “We’re going to have to get off and continue on the ground. Everybody take a shit now while you still can.”

Three hours later, as the group’s skitter convoy wound its way deeper and deeper into the mountain range, Blake felt glad he’d decided to anchor the Flying Toaster at the range’s edge instead of trying to take the zeppelin further north. Given how heavily the winds swirled and whipped about as they battered his face with snow-chilled gusts, his beloved aircraft would have been blown into a mountainside within the first half-hour.

Not everybody was as happy about it as he was, however.

“Ahhhhhh, why does it have to be so COLD!?” Sofie hollered impotently into the wind as she huddled in the back of the skitter’s cabin, trying to avoid the brunt of the cold with little success.

“Well, maybe you should have packed cold weather clothes?” Blake returned with a shrug. “You knew we were going north.”

“Not this far north!” she shot back.

Blake silently admitted that she had a point. Nobody had expected them to be where they were now, not even Blake. He’d expected their destination to be hidden, yes, but hidden somewhere in known territory, not the little of Scyria that remained uncharted lands. Hadn’t Sofie said that they’d found her in a rocky desert? There were no rocky deserts here.

“Arlette and Sam brought warm clothes,” he pointed out with barely disguised amusement, leaving out the fact that Gabriela had not. Unlike Blake’s gadfly, she seemed intent on just weathering the cold as silently as she could.

“Always be prepared,” Arlette remarked with a shrug, ignoring Sofie’s glare.

Blake understood Sofie’s mistake. The weather in Scyria was far less extreme than that on Earth, with far milder winters and summers than those found on the equivalent latitudes. What was really making it so cold here, cold enough that there was still snow covering large patches of the ground, was the elevation. Blake hadn’t expected to be climbing through mountain passes any more than Sofie had. It was just that, unlike her, he could cheat and quickly add in a heating function to his suit. Not that he was going to tell her that. If she asked him to, he’d consider putting up a metal covering around her to block the wind chill, but he knew that she wasn’t miserable enough to beg him for help. Not yet, at least; give it another hour and her tune would probably change.

Unlike the zeppelin ride, Blake had found the last few hours tedious in the worst way—which was another reason to get what jollies he could from Sofie’s discomfort. Blake’s skitters were not especially nimble on the treacherous and unstable mountain, so the convoy had to proceed slowly. Even then, he still had to manage the ten autonomous battle skitters and make sure none of them got stuck or fell down an incline. Most of all, though, he had to take care with the second transport skitter, the one filled by Pari’s pod and the contraptions keeping it stable in this uneven terrain. The last thing they needed right now was to have super acid dripping through his skitters in the middle of nowhere.

They were still making much faster progress than they would have on foot, but he was getting sick of the constant bumps, the stops and starts, the blustering winds, and the brown, gray, and white landscape. At this point, his only source of amusement was trying to spot the rare speck of green poking through the snow. Perhaps these mountains were beautiful in the summer, but they were simply ugly now.

“We’ve gone so far that I haven’t been able to see the end of the mountains for more than an hour,” Gabriela observed after a while. “What did you say the name of these mountains was? How far north do they go?”

“The Krekard Mountains,” Arlette replied stiffly, staring out at the featureless peaks, her eyes darting about. “And nobody knows how far they go.”

“Is something the matter?” Sofie inquired anxiously. “You’ve been extra tense ever since we got off the ship.”

Arlette opened her mouth to answer, but something else answered first: a low, rumbling roar off in the distance, loud enough to echo across mountains. Blake immediately felt the hairs on his skin stand on end and his heartbeat quicken, as if ancient instincts were suddenly manifesting for the first time.

“T-that sound! We need to leave! Now!” Arlette cried immediately, clutching the side of the transport skitter with white-knuckled panic.

“Why?! What the fuck was that?!” he asked, looking around for the source of the noise.

“Oh, no no no! Not another one!” Sofie shouted, backing further into the corner.

“What?! Another what?!” Blake hollered back as another roar sounded out, this one loud enough that it seemed to shake the very rock beneath them.

“A god!” Arlette cried out.

“A dragon!” Sofie answered at the same time.

“Run! Turn around now, while we still can!” Arlette shouted, her eyes wide with terror.

Blake couldn’t believe what he was hearing. A god? A dragon? A real live dragon? Sure, he knew all about Othar the so-called “Dragon Slayer”, and Sofie had told him some story about how a dragon had shown up out of nowhere and turned a Kutrad city into rubble, but he’d never been able to fully believe any of it. If dragons existed, where had they been since Othar’s time? And then they just suddenly appeared again thousands of years later, ruined a city, and then vanished once more into thin air for no reason? It didn’t make any sense and had led him to doubt that any of it was truly real.

But this was all too real. He could feel it in his bones. Something was coming. Something huge.

Blake turned the convoy around as quickly as he could, reorganizing the battle skitters to better cover them with three on each flank and four at their rear, with the two transport skitters in the center. They only made it a few steps before Gabriela pointed up into the sky.

“I see it!” she called out. “It’s coming this way!”

Blake risked a look back and paled at the sight. A real, honest-to-god dragon of the western fantasy variety, with massive reptilian wings, four legs, a long tail, and an extended neck ending in a large head featuring a mouth large enough to swallow a battle skitter whole. Tan scales covered the behemoth, the mid-day light reflecting off them all across its more than eighty-foot-long body as it soared through the skies far up above them, growing larger and larger by the second as it descended rapidly. A beast of pure fury and teeth and claws and death, its giant eyes shone with malevolence as it opened its gaping maw, a foreboding glow gleaming from behind those deadly oversized teeth.

“Shit shit shit!” Blake swore to himself as he directed every battle skitter to open fire upon the incoming monstrosity. A hail of metal shot up into the sky, streaking towards the dragon, but it paid the barrage no mind. The glow within its mouth intensified, and then the beast let loose a beam of blinding light which swept across the right side of their battle formation faster than he could react in real-time. A blast of scorching wind and debris followed just a split second later, rocking the transport skitters and eliciting a cry of fear from somebody behind him.

The dragon released another deafening roar, this one of pain and anger, as the rounds fired by Blake’s skitters hit home, the metal digging into its flesh, but it kept coming all the same. The bullets seemed to cause it pain but little else. So far, they were doing little more than making it angrier.

Blake was barely paying attention to the dragon at that moment. He was too busy looking at the burning, melted line in the ground and the bisected remains of the three skitters on their right flank, his brain trying to keep up with what he’d just witnessed. A third of his fighting strength had vanished in less than a second.

They were so fucked.

The dragon’s dive towards them continued unabated, the distance between them shrinking at an alarming rate. The seven remaining battle skitters kept firing as the beast closed in, the decreased distance meaning less time for gravity and air drag to weaken their shots. The bullets left lines of wounds in the great animal’s body, but even now they seemed to do little more than superficial damage.

BOOM!

Then it was upon them, its many-ton body slamming down onto the three skitters on their left flank and crushing them into scrap with a mighty crash. The land shook from the massive impact, the transport skitters swaying wildly as they tried to keep from tipping over. Blake thanked his own skill as they managed to stay on their feet, but that was about the only good development. They were down to four battle skitters now, though given their lack of punch, they might as well have had none.

“Move! Run!” shouted a voice behind him, but it barely even registered in Blake’s mind. He was too preoccupied with the hulking menace of rage and malice in front of him to process anything else.

The dragon turned its head to look at him with a single giant eye larger than Blake’s entire body just as a shape zipped past him and shot towards the gargantuan beast at great speed. Gabriela had decided to enter the fight, a half-skitter clutched by the leg in her hands. The dragon roared out a challenge as she streaked for its face, then roared louder in pain as she slammed the improvised blunt weapon against the side of its skull with her great strength. The monster’s head and neck were flung to the side by the strike, causing the mammoth creature to list to the side for a moment.

The dragon struck back hard and swift, its long tail whipping around and battering the final battle skitters aside like a bowling ball plowing through pins. Blake’s blood went cold as he realized that the tail wasn’t stopping there. With a mighty crash, it smashed into Blake’s skitter, buckling the legs and sending him sailing uncontrollably through the air. As he tumbled, he caught a glimpse of Sofie, Sam, and Arlette hightailing it away perhaps two hundred feet from the transport skitter. He’d been so caught up with the dragon that he hadn’t noticed them jumping ship behind him. Well, that was good. They would probably live a few minutes longer than the rest of them.

Entering Hyper Mode, Blake puffed out his armor to create a crumple zone in the hopes of absorbing as much of the landing impact as possible, as he’d done before when fighting Gabriela. This go around, however, he had more than a few milliseconds to work with, and the force was far less than a full-force strike from an absurdly amped superpowered madwoman. It still hurt as he landed in a heap against the rocky ground, just nowhere near as much as the last time. He was fairly certain nothing had broken, though he’d have some wicked bruises should he somehow survive.

Speaking of which, the battle between Gabriela and the dragon was in full swing. Gabriela leaped for the beast’s face once more, ready to deliver another heavy whack, but this time her opponent was ready. With a speed Blake didn’t expect, it opened its mouth wide and chomped down onto her with teeth larger than most swords, catching her around the torso and sending her improvised weapon flying out of reach. Yet, in that way that he’d always found so infuriating before but now delighted in, that woman refused to die. Crimson smoke flowed into the beast’s mouth, and suddenly, the shocked animal found its own jaw being forced open from within. It tried its best to clench down, but Gabriela was having none of it.

Bigger and bigger the gap grew as the two titans of strength strained against one another. Slowly, Gabriela pushed herself up, first to her knees and then to her feet, her hands wrapped around one of the giant’s oversized teeth. Apparently having had enough, the dragon reached out with a claw-clad hand several times Gabriela’s full size and wrenched her from its maw. Gabriela ripped the tooth she’d been gripping from its socket as it pulled her free, but her hard-won gains soon proved useless.

Wrapping its crushing claws around her, it squeezed with its immense might. Gabriela pushed back, slowly prying away one finger, then the next, but it was too late. In the time it took for her to even partially free herself, the dragon had taken a single massive breath. It wasn’t a laser beam that emerged from the dragon’s throat this time, but rather fire, a blast of scorching blue flame ten feet wide that washed over the dragon’s entire hand, cooking the surroundings so intensely that Blake felt his armor heating to dangerous levels even dozens of feet away.

Gabriela shrieked in agony and then went silent as her body burned alive under the beast’s incinerating assault. But the dragon did not relent. No, it kept going, pouring more and more power into the inferno until it had exhausted every last bit of its breath. When it had finished, all that was left in its palm was a small pile of ashes and an undamaged sword-sized tooth.

Letting the tooth and ashes fall to the ground, the dragon sat back for a moment and surveyed the scene. The area around it had turned into a wasteland after the sudden baking, with the half-melted skitter wreckage littering the area really completing the look. Only one robot that remained functional, funnily enough, was the transport skitter that held the pod with Pari’s corpse inside. Given the lack of instructions from Blake, it was just idling not far from Blake, completely untouched.

The dragon’s eye fell upon Blake as he climbed to his feet, causing a shiver of dread to run down Blake’s spine. Blake looked about for something he could use as a weapon but found little to work with. Everything was too far away.

The dragon took a long step towards him, the action covering multiple yards with ease. Then it took another, and another, and suddenly it was nearly on top of him, staring down at him like a bird stares at a worm. Within that eye, he saw only his demise.

Until the eye burst open.

Both hands gripping the dislodged tooth, Gabriela flashed into the picture and plunged the dragon’s dislodged tooth deep into the beast’s eye.

Blake scrambled back as the dragon thrashed about in suffering. The roar it unleashed this time shook him down to his very soul, and he found it amazing that his eardrums didn’t pop from the sonic abuse. He stumbled about and fell back to the ground as the dragon managed to viciously bat Gabriela into a nearby boulder, smashing her head and body into pulp.

Smoke the color of blood flowed from the aether, reconstructing the destroyed flesh, but the dragon was already prepared. A bright light formed in its mouth and a laser several feet in diameter lanced out, burning a large hole in the woman, the boulder behind her, and the mountainside behind that. But Blake knew that wouldn’t be enough. The smoke reconvened and began to fill in the missing flesh once more.

Seeing this, the dragon let out another bone-shaking cry, one a frustration perhaps. Now half-blind, it stumbled about for a moment before spreading its wings wide. With a mighty gust, it leaped into the air, and in just moments disappeared behind a nearby peak.

Blake let out a breath and let himself just lay on the ground for a few moments as his armor slowly reverted to its normal form. He felt utterly exhausted, and he’d barely done anything. So instead, he just stared up at the cloudless sky until the sounds of footfalls approached. Soon enough, the three others entered his vision, all looking some variation of shell shocked. Arlette, especially, had become extremely fidgety, constantly checking every last inch of the sky for threats.

“Hey, Sam. If I ever say anything disrespectful about Othar again, you have my permission to give me a smack, alright?” he joked as he finally pushed himself up into a seated position. Narrowly escaping death had left him feeling strangely giddy. “To think that he was fighting those things all the time... Jesus H. Christ on a cracker.”

“Can you rebuild any of this?” Arlette inquired of him. “We need to get out of this place as fast as we can before it decides to come back.”

“Well, we can always just squeeze into the hearse,” he replied.

Sofie let out a shocked gasp. “It’s gone!” she cried out.

“Huh? What’s gone?” Blake asked, climbing to his feet, only to realize immediately what she meant. The transport skitter, coffin pod and all, was nowhere to be seen.

“What happened?!” Arlette wondered. “It was here just a moment ago.”

“The dragon took it! Maybe because it was shiny?” Sofie supposed. She twirled back around to face the rest of them, a desperate determination in her eyes. “We have to go get her back.”

“Are you out of your MIND?!” Arlette exploded at her. “Did you somehow forget what just happened here?!”

“So we came all this way only to give up at the end and let some ravenous beast eat her? Is that it? We just run home in defeat?” Sofie demanded to know, tears forming in her eyes.

“I’m not running. Not yet,” another voice chimed in. Gabriela stood nearby, naked as a jaybird, her clothes now nothing more than ashes on the ground.

“Gabby!” an appreciative Sofie called out, rushing over to embrace the older woman in solidarity. “Aren’t you cold?! Here, we can share our clothes-”

“No, you’re under-dressed enough as it is,” Gabriela replied firmly.

“But you’ll freeze!” Sofie protested.

“Then I’ll unfreeze myself. I can do that, you can’t.”

“At least... Blake, make her some clothes out of metal or something!”

“Fine, fine, follow me,” he told Gabriela as he turned towards the nearest destroyed skitter.

Together, the two of them walked over to the pile of metal. As the metal began to flow across the ground towards her, Blake turned back to study the woman who had been his nemesis for months.

“You look... tired,” he remarked as the liquid metal began climbing up her feet and ankles.

“I am tired,” she told him. “Do you know how hard it is to bring yourself back from the dead?”

“I can’t imagine.”

“It’s like trying to lift the entire world. It takes everything I have inside to do it, and these days it leaves me... feeling empty afterward.”

“You didn’t seem too empty that day we fought,” he reminded her bitterly as the metal continued past her torso. He still felt pain sometimes from the wounds she’d given him that day.

“I had drive back then. Back then, I would have been able to rip that thing’s jaw right off. It wouldn’t even have been that hard. But now... now I can’t seem to get more than a fraction of what I used to have. It’s just not there anymore.”

“Are you sure you want to fight the dragon again in that case?”

The metal now fully encasing her arms, legs, and torso, Blake focused and willed the liquefied metal to form into tiny microscopic chains, forming an incredibly fine chain mail of a sort, much like what he wore underneath his armor.

“We don’t need to fight it again, we just need to steal Pari back, right? I can manage that,” she stated assuredly. Touching the ‘fabric’ she now wore, her eyes widened in surprise. “How strange. This actually feels rather nice. I didn’t know you could make something like this.”

“I can do a lot of things,” Blake replied.

“You have no idea how often I wished I had your power instead of mine,” Gabriela told him.

“If we could trade, I would do it in a heartbeat,” Blake returned. “I would give anything to get my body back.”

“You all done over there?” Sofie called impatiently, pulling them from their conversation.

“So, what’s the plan?” Arlette prompted them impatiently. She was ready to leave and making no effort to hide it.

“Well, give me a minute and I’ll have our transport repaired. I think you three should take it and head back to the airship. You’ll just get in the way,” Blake began. He paused, expecting some sort of retort or argument from Sofie, but she didn’t even glare at him. She knew the truth as well as he did. “Then, I’m going to build a new transport, one far faster and more agile than anything I’ve ever built before. After that, we’re going to track down that dragon, steal Pari’s body back, and run. Gabriela may or may not end up having to ‘distract’ it for a while so I can get away.”

Gabriela nodded solemnly in understanding and agreement. Seeing her conseny, Blake began to repair the remaining transport’s smashed legs. Luckily, the body of the skitter had avoided major damage, so there wasn’t too much he needed to fix before it could work again. Soon enough, it was finished.

“Why not just have her go alone?” Arlette asked, climbing into the newly repaired transport with Sam. “And how are you even going to find it? It could have flown anywhere.”

“Because I can track it,” he said, answering both questions at once.

“You can? How?” came Sofie’s bewildered reply.

“A few days ago, when I realized you all might try to take Pari’s body somewhere when I wasn’t looking, I put a tracking beacon on the pod,” Blake answered with a hint of pride.

“You did wh-” Sofie began.

“Sounds good,” Arlette interrupted, pulling Sofie into the transport and shutting the door behind her. “I think you’re crazy for even trying this, but good luck.”

With that said, she turned the skitter around and left as fast as she could make the skitter go.

“Let’s get going before the daylight runs out,” Gabriela said.

Blake nodded and headed back to the wrecked skitters to create his new speedy transport. Luckily for him, Sofie had been too outraged and Arlette too scared to bother to think about what he’d said, while Gabriela didn’t seem to care. There was another reason he wanted to stick around, a thought that he couldn’t banish from his mind, but one so strange that he didn’t dare voice it to the others. He’d know for certain soon enough.

The trip took far less time than he’d expected. Following the signal from the casket, Blake and Gabriela headed north over two more mountains. As they crossed the second mountain, the signal changed and they encountered a massive cave opening on the northern side, one large enough for even a beast of the dragon’s size to enter with ease.

“I think this is it,” Blake said, peering into the murky darkness. The ground inside seemed smooth and solid as it strangely rose slightly instead of going down the deeper in it went. It was almost like the cave was man-made.

Slowly, Blake steered the skitter into the cavern. There was no point in hopping off; his footfalls would make just as much noise, if not more. At least while in the skitter, they’d be able to skedaddle immediately if they needed to.

The wide tunnel curved left, the area slowly darkening as they moved deeper. Just as Blake was about to modify the skitter to add a light to the front, he saw a soft glow in the distance. The tunnel curved right again, and he could see light reflecting off the tunnel’s side.

As they slowly drew closer and rounded the bend, they came to a stop beneath a fleshy sac hanging from the tunnel’s ceiling. The liquid in the membrane glowed a warm blue light. Looking closer, Blake could see several small spherical objects floating around inside the sac, and realized these were the actual sources of the light, which then diffused through the liquid.

“Is it just me, or does that remind you of...” Gabriela whispered.

“Yeah...” Blake whispered back, his mind whirling. There was no way that his wild thought was... He shook his head. No, it was too early to say.

They continued onward, the tunnel winding deeper into the mountain. Each section had its own set of bioluminescent growths to light the way in a rainbow of colors. Some sacs dangled from the ceiling, some more blister-like protrusions provided light from membranes growing along the walls. Then suddenly, the tunnel opened into its final destination, and Blake’s jaw dropped to the floor.

A magnificent cavern stood before them, its contents illuminated by hundreds of glowing installations littering the walls and ceiling. All the way at the far end, Blake could spy a flat area covered in various pelts—a sleeping area, perhaps. To the left, he found several large translucent tanks growing out from the walls, almost like giant see-through stomachs or bladders. The liquid inside of the tanks swirled about in an ever-changing rainbow of color as he watched.

To the right, Blake found more tanks, but ones that were much smaller than those on the left, with the largest being perhaps ten or twelve feet tall. These did not glow or shine like the others but were filled instead with a clear liquid of unknown origin. And within those tanks floated... parts. Body parts. One held the hind legs of some sort of large herbivore, judging by the shape and the hooves, while another held what looked to be a jaglioth head. The tank that stood out the most, however, was the one containing a mostly-intact humanoid, a male in his late thirties if Blake had to guess. He was too far away to be able to make out more detail.

But one thing dominated the cavern more than anything else. Near the center of the massive chamber stood one equally massive ivory table, seemingly grown from massive bones larger than Blake’s entire body. Like much of the objects in the cave, the table itself seemed almost alive, with what looked like blood vessels winding in and around the bone like ivy on a stone column. Atop that table, bathed in the glow of a dozen bioluminescent sacs mounted with reflectors to focus the light downward, laid Pari. And above her...

Leaning over a massive series of oversized lenses and tilting its head to use its one good eye, the dragon looked intently at the corpse below as it manipulated a series of large levers and dials, its movements seeming to manipulate an array of fleshy human-sized arms with small ivory implements and instruments attached to their ends. These implements were currently busy slowly cutting into the tiny corpse below.

So intent was the beast on its actions that it didn’t seem to notice Blake and Gabriela, nor the drops of multi-hued blood slowly dripping from the multitude of small holes inflicted by Blake’s robots during their battle. Only one thing seemed on its mind, and that was the beastgirl on the table over which it towered.

“No way... this is...” Blake whispered to himself in disbelief, looking around at the vast collection of objects—some alive, others made from metal or stone—that filled the cavern. He didn’t know the function of any of the equipment he could see, but he could tell just from experience that they were, in fact, equipment of some sort. This was a laboratory. One of the mad scientist variety, if he could be so bold.

Somehow, even from hundreds of yards away, the dragon heard his whisper loud and clear. Its head whipped around to face them, its mouth opening wide to reveal those vicious, terrifying teeth.

Blake threw the skitter into reverse and they retreated into the tunnel at full speed as the dragon let out another deafening roar, but this roar was different. Unlike the ones before, this one contained meaning, meaning so powerful that it slammed into Blake’s mind like a cudgel. Unlike the gentle understanding that came from normal conversation, the roar battered at his brain as it conveyed one very simple, furious question that confirmed Blake’s suspicions in their entirety: “WHAT DID CRAWLER DO TO PARI-CHILD?!”

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