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Whispers - an Alchemical Romance

Chapter Text

Xandra tucked the stem of straw between her lips. Idly she began chewing the end of it as she sat on the parapet staring off into the distance.

“You do realize that makes you look like a hayseed, right?”

Her large red eyes turned away from the horizon to contemplate the shaggy, orange and black striped charr sitting across from her on the top of one of the many parapets in the Eternal Battlegrounds. The four eared, horned catlike creature looked as though he were greatly enjoying the look of ire she was bestowing upon him. “Asura,” she said with a voice full of wounded dignity, “never look like hayseeds.”

The heavily armored cat reached up to scratch at the base of a large, Ibix-like horn, both of his left ears twitching in clear pleasure. “You’re leaning back half asleep, hands plopped happily on your belly, you’re wearing baggy, oversized clothes, and you have a piece of straw sticking out of your mouth. If you had a hat it’d be pulled down over your eyes and you’d be asleep.” The enormous charr male’s snout crinkled in a close-lipped smile. “Hayseed.”

“I refuse to dignify your absurd aspersions any further through a continuance of this conversation,” Xandra replied. She turned her head back to the horizon. “Besides, you shouldn’t be casting stones.  I can’t help but notice that, leaned back like you are, you look as though you desire belly rubs, Rikbore Warstone. Do you purr like a kitten when your belly is rubbed?”

“Only if the company is pleasurable,” Rikbore replied. He gave a wink, then jabbed a finger towards her. “I’m fairly certain you don’t count as pleasurable, Asura.”

Xandra handwaved the comment away, casually tugging at one of the long, floppy ears that were a hallmark of her short, stubby species with a three fingered hand. She adjusted one of the buns she tied her long black hair into, then turned, looking out over the parapet and attempting to maintain her interest in watching for rampaging enemies looking to overrun the small keep they both called home.

“Speaking of pleasurable company, I noticed a new Asura joined up last night.” Rikbore rumbled, a sly grin on his feline face. “You should check him out.”

“Her,” Xandra replied idly.

“Her?” Rikbore sat up, surprised. He swung his bowed legs out to dangle in the air beyond the wall with a creak of leather and steel. “I could have sworn that was a he.”

Xandra snorted. “It’s as plain as day that she’s a she.”

“You have long black hair. She is bald.”

“Like that makes a difference.” Xandra sat up and poked Rikbore in the side. “You hirsute tabies may be covered in hair, but we Asura have no particular need for hair. Having hair or not having hair on the crowns of our glorious melons is no more a factor of sex than eye color.Our females can be just as bald as our males”

“But humans…”

“We are no more human than you are, bookah.” Xandra waggled a finger at Rikbore. “Do I look like one of those scrawny beanpoles to you?”

“Don’t make me eat you,” Rikbore rumbled.

A companionable silence fell between the pair as they stared out over the swamplands below the  tower they were keeping watch from. The sky began to shift in color from the darks of night to the warmer tones of dawn. Eventually, Rickbore shifted awkwardly.

“Fine,” he grumbled. “How do you tell the difference between male and female Asura?”

“Facial features mostly,” Xandra replied. “Female faces are far less rhytidal and possess less of a tendency towards periorbital and buccal puffiness. Additionally we tend to have superior orbital expansion.”

“What?”

“We don’t look like prunes with little eyes.”

Rikbore chuckled. “That being the case, you definitely need to hook up with that new asura girl. It sounds like you find girls more attractive.”

Xandra shook her head. “I find that males and females each have their virtues and values in both appearance and coital experiences. I do not tend to differentiate between male and female in terms of having a  particular preference.” She paused, then looked sidelong at her watch companion as he dug a clawed finger into the larger of his two left ears. “So would you care to explain your sudden interest in my sexual proclivities?”

“You were less subtle than you might have thought you were when it came to where you were putting your fingers last night. The hazards of living in a group barracks.” Rikbore grinned, this time with a small amount of sharp predator tooth showing. “May I state that you actually have an adorable little squeak when you get excited?”

Xandra leaned far, far over and punched him in the bicep, an act about as effective as trying to destroy a large stone using a feather duster. “Where my fingers go is none of your business, bookah.”

Rikbore snorted. “Listen, Xandra. You may be an annoying midget with an excessive ego and tendency to use big words when small ones will do, but we’ve been fighting side by side in the Mists for a while now. I’ve grown to actually like you. So take this as coming from a friend.” A clawed finger forcefully poked Xandra in the chest. “To use the human vernacular, you need to get laid.”

Xandra blinked large red eyes, idly rubbing her chest. “Vernacular? You just used a big word.”

“Don’t change the subject,” Rikbore growled. “You’ve been tetchy, squirmy, and an all around git lately. You are highly distractible, even in combat, and that is making you a liability.”

“I don’t see how that means I need to engage in recreational procreative pleasure.”

Rikbore leaned in toward Xandra, looming over her. “Charr also have a very good sense of smell. You’ve been ruining your undergarments of late with your desire, ever since we caught those two Norn in the armory two weeks ago. In fact,” he inhaled deeply, “you’re rather in need of a change right now. You have a serious itch, and it needs scratching before you get yourself killed.”

With a squeak, Xandra slammed her thighs tightly together, a hand protectively clamped between them. She glared at Rikbore. “Alright, so perhaps it has been a while.”

Rikbore sat back, hairy arms crossed over his armored chest in satisfaction. “So go down there, introduce yourself, and do whatever it is Asuran girls do to one another.”

Xandra shook her head. “It doesn’t work like that. Relationships between Asura usually result from a mutual fascination on a conjoined project leading to a mutual respect and competitiveness that expresses itself in all aspects of life, including the enjoyable exercise of trying to outdo one another sexually during the duration of the project. I haven’t brought anyone in on my project to create a hyperspacial thaumospectral self motivating large siege golem utilizing the disharmonious ectothermal energies of the Mists.” Xandra’s eyes lit up as she spoke of the pet project Rikbore had yet to make sense of. But then her eyes dulled again and she slumped down to rest her chin on her knees. “Besides, she wouldn’t be interested anyway.”

Rikbore snorted again. “And what makes you so sure of that? You haven’t even talked to her, I bet.”

Xandra turned her back to Rikbore, her head bouncing up and down on her knees as they pushed her around. “Just trust me,” she grumped. “She wouldn’t.”

“Uh huh. Did Captain Ego, lady of the excessively verbose boastage and overconfident engineer with courage bordering on a death wish in battle suddenly become bashful? I’m not buying it.” He sniffed again. “The idea definitely interests you or my nose has gone wonky.”

“Bastard,” Xandra muttered.

“So what’s holding you back?” the charr pressed.

Xandra hunched over her knees. “I’m homely.”

“What?” Rikbore’s voice was startled. He cocked his head a bit to the side as he contemplated the back of the little Asura woman in front of him.

“Homely. Plain. Unatractive. Has no luck.”

“I know what homely means,” Rikbore growled. “I just don’t get it. You look pretty cute to me, at least for a hairless cave dwelling monkey.  I mean, sure, you have no dugs, but those only matter to humans and norn anyway, right? Isn’t that what they mean by ‘luck’?”

“Asura do too have breasts. We just don’t waste energy filling our mammaries with fatty deposits until we actually have progeny, and then only until they get teeth. Then we repurpose all that flesh to more important things.”

“You’re changing the subject again.”

Xandra curled her chin against her chest, hiding her eyes in her knees, her back still to the giant charr. “Ears,” she muttered.

“Ears?”

“I have pathetic ears.”

“Well, aside from only having two of them, they seem fine to me.”

Xandra spun around to pierce Rikbore with intense red eyes, a glare on her broad, almost mouse-like face. “What is the general length and girth of your penis?”

Rikbore rocked back, jaw slack in shock. “My… what?”

“How big is your dick?”

“Uh… it’s uh…” he shook his head. “That’s none of your… um… What’s this got to do with your ears?”

“Everything.”

Rikbore shifted uncomfortably.

“Are you trying to tell me that Asura view their ears the way we view muscles and the humans view their dugs?”

“That’s exactly what I am saying.”

Rikbore raised clawed fingers to his chin, contemplating Xandra. “So even though you have very cute, large eyes…”

“I suppose.”

“And pretty, moist lips…”

“They’ve been described as pouty before.”

“And soft, grey-white skin with almost no blemishes…”

“Only on my face. I’m spotted where it counts.”

“And the sort of brain that guarantees I will be terrified of letting any cubs you whelp near a chemistry set…”

“Flatterer.”

“You think that your ears will pretty much shut down any chance to get any Asuran’s between your legs?”

“Well, when you put it like that it does seem to be a relatively minor statistical aberration, but you have no idea how much store we put into ear size. I used to get teased about them in the creche. Then, as I got old enough to be procreatively needy I’d ask my female progenitor how long until they got bigger. She stated that statistically the odds were that I’d always be of rather diminutive lobic endowment and I’d just have to accept that. I’m just plain not very visually stimulating to other asura, much to the dismay of my rather difficult to control hormonal expression.”

“So are you telling me that, because of your cute little ears you’ve never knocked boots with another Asuran?”

“Well, no…”

“So you have.”

Xandra squirmed. “Yes.”

“How many?”

“Of my recreational procreative entertainment partners asuran males have formed twenty five percent, females forty-two percent, human males…”

“Any charr?”

“No. I’ve never attempted such a…” Xandra blinked. “Wait… Are you coming on to me?”

Rikbore laughed. “Maybe a little.”

“Biologically speaking I estimate that any attempts to accommodate the typical charr male reproductive organ within my vaginal capacity would exceed its comfortable expansion capabilities by a factor of…”

“I get the idea,” Rikbore chuckled. “Female asura and male charr are pretty much always just going to be the subjects of drawings sold under the counter in Lion’s Gate because you people are so tiny.”

“Well, there are certain esoteric practices discussed by certain rarely talked about members of the School of Synergetics that, at least theoretically, can train biological systems to exceed usual constraints, including the elasticity of… Uh…” Xandra blinked. “Yes. It’s pretty much just going to be illicit pictures.”

Rikbore chuckled and settled back against the crenelation. “Color me disappointed,” he said with a close-lipped smile.

Xandra fixed him with a quizzical look. “I wouldn’t think a charr would be interested in an asura anyway. Isn’t sex all about producing more warriors for you?”

Rikbore snorted. “Now who’s the bookah? We enjoy recreational sex just as much as any other species. In fact, it can often be a way to further tighten the bonds between members of a warband. When it may well be the last night you have on this world, spending some time in a nice hot and heavy furball with people you trust intimately can be one of the best ways to spend it.”

“But non-charr?”

“What, do you think we can’t trust a warrior we’ve fought side by side with for a while with enough to want to further bond with her?”

Xandra gaped, open mouthed. “You’re serious.”

Rikbore shrugged. “The attempts to fit my male charr member into your asuran vaginal cavity would exceed the…”

“Oh, shut it, bookah” Xandra snapped. But then she smiled. “There are other things that can be done.”

“Uh, Xandra, I’m pretty sure that if I’m too big to fit in the usual way, your backside would be even worse.”

“No no no,” Xandra shook her head. “That does not even bear contemplating. But tell me, is it true that charr tongues are rough like a cat’s?”

Rikbore looked down at the tiny asura with surprise, then threw his head back and guffawed. “Want to find out?” he held out his hand to Xandra.

“I’m Asura,” Xandra replied, placing her own hand in Rikbore’s. “I always want to find things out.”

Rikbore grinned. “What about the bad guys?”

“As the humans say, fuck’em.”

“I told you that you’ve been distractible.”

“Bite me.”

“With pleasure.”

Chapter Text

Rikbore Warstone’s black and orange furred snout crinkled at the smell of grease, alchemical energy, and metal. It wasn’t a particularly unpleasant smell. In fact, as a Charr warrior of the Iron Legion, the world’s foremost engineers and metalworkers, he found the smell to be rather reassuring. It was simply that the workshop was buried deeply underground, and as such it tended build up to the point he couldn’t smell anything else. Including the half-mad owner of all the gear and equipment emitting the smells.

“Xandra!” he bellowed, his deep voice booming off the walls and creating echoes nearly as powerful.

A sudden blue flash, smell of burning ozone, and long string of creative curses cued him into the location of the little Asuran woman he’d come looking for. She had evidently buried herself deep in the guts of her latest attempt to create a “hyperspacial thaumosomething or other golem.” He ambled over in time to watch her buttocks wiggle out of the back end of the machine. Her stubby, three toed legs flailed around for a bit before she gracelessly fell out and sprawled on the ground.

Rikbore gave a rumbling chuckle. He quickly attempted to bite it off at Xandra’s expression.

The little Asuran sat up, rubbing her large, round head, and glowered. “What, it is not enough that you interrupted a delicate instillation procedure, but now you are going to laugh at my misfortune? I suspect you are the reason my step ladder was not properly in place.”

The giant Charr held up his hands. “I didn’t touch your ladder. It’s over there.” He pointed to the front of the machine and the open hatch above it.

Xandra snorted, staring up at him through red eyes. “Then what did you find so humorous, oh mighty colossus of misfortune?” She hoisted herself onto her feet and gave her backside a rueful rub.

“Watching you back out like that was strangely similar to watching a Harathi Centaur give birth.”

“And you have seen such a biological miracle take place in the past?” Xandra looked dubious.

“No, but I imagine that’s what it looks like.” Rikbore grinned, keeping his teeth carefully concealed, then checked out the odd device. Asurans were well known for the automated machines they built, powered by what they called the Eternal Alchemy, and labeled simply “golems”. But golems always followed the same basic pattern, even if there were variants on the theme. Two arms. Two legs. And a solid torso that floated between them. The centaur-like form Xandra had just been birthed from was a definite departure from the usual form. “So, why the extra legs?”

Xandra gave the four legged contraption a fond pat. “Centaurs are actually very stable creatures. I may have borrowed the concept of their motivational system as well as the upper-torso’s additional viewing advantages for my current design.”

“It also has the effect of making it look like you just got shoved out of a horses ass.”

Xandra tutted, giving him a cross look. “I did not have to show you the hidden passageway leading to my inner sanctum.”

“Nope.” Rikbore grinned again. “We could have stayed up in the barracks when the patrol returned and let them catch you writhing under my tongue.”

It continued to amaze Rikbore how red Xandra’s grey skin could turn when the blood rushed to her face. It made her head look alarmingly similar to a beet with hair and floppy ears. It was, to be honest, endearing. Not that he would ever affront her dignity by admitting that out loud.

Affronted anyway, Xandra turned away and began sorting tools and parts. “What did you come down here for anyway?” she grumped.

Reminded that he had come on business and not pleasure, Rikbore straightened himself. “You got a message. You parents want to see you in Rata Sum.”

“My progenitors?” Xandra looked surprised.

“Yes.”

“Both of them?” Now she looked suspicious.

“I do believe that would be why I used the plural ‘parents’ as opposed to the singular ‘mother’ or ‘father’.” Rikbore rumbled in reply.

Looking both cross and alarmed, Xandra began rushing about, throwing off grease stained clothing and exchanging the stained bits of leather and cloth for more reputable garments. “No doubt they plan to appeal once more for my return to Rata Sum to work on something far more worthy of a brilliant asura than wasting my life attempting to create devices of war in a whole other dimension.” She paused long enough to give Rikbore a half-naked eye roll. “Like a new ear canal cleaning golem or a flying bread delivery system.”

He snorted at the wry tone of her voice. “Maybe they want grandcubs.”

She slid to a halt, seeming frozen for a moment, then turned to look back at him over her shoulder. Her face was surprisingly serious when she replied to his banter. “Do not even attempt to contrive humor about that. I do not have the time to be pregnant.”

Refusing to let the seriousness of it last, Rikbore snorted. “Good thing I can’t get you pregnant then.”

She planted both hands on her hips, leaving her shirt unbuttoned, a nipple peeking out from her flat chest. “You can not even get it in me,” Xandra snorted.

“I got it in once,” Rikbore grinned.

The Asuran woman jabbed his belly with an upthrust finger. “And I perambulated awkwardly for a week after. We will not be trying that again unless I can locate a better elasticizing lubricant.” She turned to buttoning herself up.

“Good thing you’re headed to Rata Sum then.” If any place had some weird or strange substance meant to violate the confines of nature, the capital city of the Asuran lands would be it. Asurans were an extremely creative, and incautious, species, and as a result they experimented with just about anything possible. The fact that the city literally floated above the ground was one of the least remarkable things about the place.

Xandra shook her head. “You are incorrigible.” She reached over and patted his thigh, being too short to reach his shoulder unassisted.

“And you’re late. You’d best run along shorty.”

She gave him a darkening look. “What did you say?”

“Shortly. You’d best run along shortly.”

“That is what I thought.” Quickly, Xandra turned and began jumping up the stairs, hopping up three steps at a time. “Lock up when you leave!”

Rikbore chuckled. He glanced around the workshop, assessing the place, then began scooping up Xandra’s discarded clothes and tossing them into a bin she kept for the purpose.

A cough behind him caused him to spin around, grasping for the rifle he always kept slung on his back. He whipped it over his shoulder and sighted down the barrel at the unexpected intruder.

The woman before him had dark brown skin, which was amply displayed by the slit in her ankle length skirt and the open fronted vest that were her concessions to modesty. Long, delicate fingers rested on the hip jutting out of the slit, allowing the slender and very human leg to part it, revealing a matching slipper. Creamy white bands covered her eyes, disguising their color from him as she took in his guarded reaction, her full lips quirked in a smirk. Tucked into her long, black, braided hair a pair of lilies peaked over an ear, freshly plucked from the Bloodtide Coast. The flowers were proof of how quickly the woman could travel.

After a second he lowered the rifle to point at the ground. “Sara…”

An alto voice dipped in the spicy accent of the Bloodtide Coast’s pirates responded to his dropping of the woman’s name. “So this is where the two of you slip off to.” Sara lifted her hand from her hip to caress one of Xandra’s early model golems, a traditional thing not very far from the extremely popular Mark I model that was the mainstay of Asuran life. She withdrew her hand and shook the dust from it before parking it back on her purple clad hip.

Glaring, Rikbore slung his rifle back over his shoulder. “How did you get down here, Sara?”

“I’m a Mesmer with the Order of Whispers. This is what I do.”

Rikbore stepped closer to the dark hued woman, his shoulders back and his spine straightened as far as he could get it to. “I don’t care for or about your little secretive spy guild, or its ways. I care that you are down here, in a very, very secret spot.” He curled his lip, showing teeth. “Why are you down here in this very, very secret spot, human?”

He put all the vitriol he could behind the term. Charr and Humans had been mortal enemies for over 1,500 years, ever since they had taken the Charr homeland for their own. Even after the Charr had finally won that land back the fighting had continued, and only recently had a tenativ, and very fragile peace treaty brought an end to the fighting..

Sara acted as though none of that bad blood had ever existed, ignoring the bared teeth. Rather than stepping back as he’d hoped she would, Sara simply stepped to the side and began walking past him forcing him to turn. “Curiosity, really.”

“A voyeur, are you?” Rikbore’s rumble was dangerously low.

At that Sara frowned, turning towards Rikbore once again. “I could care less who you’re sticking it in. Or not, as the case may be. Sex bores me.” She began tracing her hand over Xandra’s latest experiment, though her face remained turned towards him. “They probably will be asking her about grandchildren, by the way.”

The non-sequitur jolted Rikbore out of his irritation. “Excuse me?”

Sara shrugged, her face a carefully neutral thing. “Her parents. They are both meeting her at the same time. That means it’s not about her work. If it was about her experiments,” she picked up an arm off a table and stared inside it, “each would be meeting her singularly and attempting to convince her to join their krewe, and not that of the other parent.”

Rikbore blinked in surprise. “They’re not on the same krewe?”

Sara laughed, a rich sound welling up from deep within. “You don’t know much about Asuran family structures, do you?” she set down the arm she’d been examining and began eyeballing various flasks of unnatural looking fluids.

Rikbore found himself tugging at one of his backwards curled horns in mild embarrassment. “It hasn’t seemed important.”

Sara turned and bestowed a smirk on him, clearly too aware of what had been more important to the pair. She turned straight towards him, folding her fingers together like a lecturer giving out a lesson to a truculent student. “Then let me enlighten you. Asuran relationships typically only last a couple of years. They find themselves mutually attracted as a result of working on a project together and becoming fascinated by one another’s brains. This leads them to form a partnership contract for a couple of years. Most children are the result of such a relationship.” Sara turned sideways then, and sat sidesaddle-like on the low table Xandra used for a workbench. “Doubtless Xandra is the result of one of those. But, after the end of the contract the pair usually splits up. There are rare exceptions, of course, but mostly Asuran relationships are simply too exhausting to maintain, you see.”

Rikbore pulled a chair built more to his size and sank into it, fascinated in spite of himself. “How so?”

“It’s all about competition, do you see?” Sara stared at him, contemplating something, then leaned forward. “Surely you’ve felt at times like Xandra was attempting to take things to ever greater heights?”

“You mean sexually?” Rikbore frowned. Charr weren’t nearly the prudes humans usually were, but it still felt a bit personal to be talking about Xandra’s sexual appetite when she wasn’t around to grant permission.

Sara let him off the hook in that moment. “I mean in everything.” She leaned back, bracing her arms on the table behind her. “Every time an Asuran does anything, she‘s trying to top the last time.” She nodded her chin towards a row of golems that got bigger and more elaborate as the line stretched. “Faster medicines, smarter equations, bigger golems… Imagine when there are two of them, each trying to outdo the other when cooking for two, or while getting gifts, or together in bed. They have limited contracts just to keep them from outdoing one another to death.”

“I haven’t noticed any of that with me,” he admitted, answering her earlier question.

Sara contemplated him quietly for a moment. “No, I suppose not. You must be a ‘safe’ relationship for her. You aren’t playing any brinksmanship games she has to continually top. She can relax around you, at least as much as Asurans can relax, and simply make love without piled up expectations and demands.”

Rikbore scowled. “You make it sound like I’m her only hope to escape that sort of trap.”

She laughed, the sound a touch mocking. “Oh, don’t get full of yourself. She seems to genuinely like you, but never doubt that she wants to fall into just such a trap with some Asuran boy, get knocked up, and have progeny of her own. She simply wishes to do it on her own terms, not on her parent’s terms.”

“Oh?” Rikbore twitched both of his right ears. “Are you sure of that? She said she didn’t have time to be pregnant.”

Sara waved her hand languidly, dismissing his argument. “Asurans never have time to be pregnant. But Asuran women get pregnant anyway. They want to. Progeny are very important to them.”

“Isn’t that true of every race, though?”

“Not like this.” Sara slipped off the table and walked over to where Rikbore sat. She popped a hip onto a crate near his chair and settled in, leaning forward towards him. “So tell me, Rikbore Warstone, why do Charr have cubs?”

He rattled off the answer immediately. “To create a future generation of soldiers for the glory of the warband.”

“For the group then? Not simply for the sheer joy of being a parent?”

Rikbore thought back to his own past, his relationship with his own parents, and frowned. “For the Charr.”

Sara snorted. “Lie back and think of Iron Legion? How terribly plebeian.” She shook her head, then sat back. “I suspect there is more to it than that, but even so… For Asurans, children are about ego. Asurans consider themselves to be the most brilliant thing in Tyria. And each Asuran considers herself to be the smartest of the Asurans. So for them, having children is all about breeding the smartest kids in the world. Few Asura will choose to let the next generation be dumbed down by letting stupider Asurans be the only ones breeding. It is their obligation, and their privilege, to birth the most brilliant thing on the planet.”

“That’s warped.”

“That’s Asurans for you.”

“So why would she not want to be asked about it by her parents?”

Sara laughed. “Weren’t you listening? If the parents are the smartest Asurans there are, and by breeding they create children even smarter than they are, then who is smarter, Xandra, or Xandra’s parents?” She grinned. “Would you want to be lectured by old idiots about how best to use your genitals?”

Rikbore chuckled. “That sounds like Xandra, alright.” Then he grew somber once more. “If Xandra ever did have a cub, what would happen to it? Asuran cubs get raised in crèches, right?”

Sara beamed. “Ah, so you know a bit about Asuran family structure after all.” She nodded. “Yes, her children would be raised in a crèche with others of their age. It ensures they get good educations while at the same time preparing them for the social structure that is a krewe. Xandra and the father both would work hard at making sure any children wound up in the best crèche they could. In Xandra’s case, it would be a very good crèche indeed.”

“You make it sound like she’s well connected.” Rikbore snorted.

“Because she is. In fact, the most likely reason her parents are meeting her now is to convince her to return to Rata Sum permanently so she could re-establish those connections, using them to get the best crèche Rata Sum could provide.”

Rikbore narrowed his eyes and leaned forward. “The best? Just what kind of connections are we talking about here?”

“Xandra’s intellect was noticed very early on, leading to her getting a plum assignment right out of theCollege of Synergetics. She was part of Zojja’s krewe.”

“The Zojja?” Rikbore felt his eyes widen, and he sat back. Every race had their own famous icons living or dead. Most of them were beacons solely for their own race, whether as examples to follow or leaders to look to for protection, such as the Human’s own Queen Jenna.

Zojja was, perhaps, the most famous of the Asuran race to still be living. While most people tended to stick to their own kind, Zojja had famously been part of Destiny’s Edge. That band had come together to attempt to fight the Elder Dragons that were an imminent threat to all life in Kryta, overcoming the barriers of race to be a truly inter-species team.

Of course, they had failed, and Zojja’s own mentor, Snaff, had died tragically, along with another member, Glint. Destiny’s Edge had shattered, bitterness deep in the hearts of all of its surviving members. Some had become relatively quiet figures, almost forgotten outside of their own species since returning home. Zojja, however, had done no such thing. Few hadn’t heard of Zojja or her continued focus on creating some weapon that could be used to defeat the Elder Dragons at last.

“The one and only. Xandra was drawn by Zojja’s reputation as one of the best golem inventors in all Kryta. She left it fairly early on, but the rumor is that she left quite an impression. Zojja wants her back so she can be pushed towards fighting the dragons instead of wasting away out here in the Mists.”

“So why’d Xandra leave in the first place?”

Sara shrugged. “You’d have to ask her. Even I don’t know that one.”

Rikbore’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Funny, you seem to know everything else.”

Sara gave a mysterious smile, saying nothing.

“Fine, be that way,” he sighed. “So why are you telling me this?”

“I’m part of the Order of Whispers. Information is what I do.”

Rikbore snorted. “What good is it if it’s all cryptic and annoying?”

Sara stood up, smoothing her skirts and knocking the dust from her backside. “Tell me, Rikbore Warstone, are you a loyal member of the Legion?”

He rose swiftly from his seated position. “Loyal enough that asking me a second time won’t end well for you, human,” Rikbore rumbled, eyes narrow and teeth bared.

Sara looked towards him casually, as if he were no threat to her. “If Xandra could help keep the dragons from destroying the Black Citadel and scattering the legion, would you want her to remain here fighting a meaningless war in a phantom realm?” She contemplated him a moment, then stepped forward, taking the larger of his two right ears between delicate fingers to rub it sensually. “Don’t worry. She’d probably let you come along.”

Rikbore jerked his head away with a scowl. “You really think she’s that good?”

Sara shrugged, her hand dropping to her side. “Zojja thinks she is. And so does the Order. So yes, as a member of the Order, I do.” She turned and began walking up the stairs, turning her head back towards him as she climbed. “Ask her about the time she helped prove that the Dragons were slowly eating the arcane energy of Tyria.”

Rikbore froze. “Wait. They what?”

Sara smiled and took several steps up the stair before pausing. “Oh, and next time try this.” She pulled a flask from a hidden pocket in her skirt and tossed it to Rikbore. “I’ve never tried the stuff personally, but I’ve an apple addicted friend who swears it’ll loosen anything up.”

Rikbore glanced at the flask he’d caught with catlike reflexes, watching the almost clear substance inside slowly ooze around the interior. “What do apples have to do with…” He looked up to discover he was alone.

“Damn Mesmers and their sneaky disappearing tricks anyway...”

Chapter Text

When Xandra returned to the hidden laboratory beneath the keep, Rikbore Warstone was not even remotely surprised to see she was in a bit of a snit. He had hoped that a full day of travel time would have given her time to unloose whatever tensions the meeting had been built up within her by her meeting, but it proved to be otherwise. It had been suggested to him that she was not in the mood for the conversation she had been summoned to Rata Sum to engage in, and that the conversation in question was as much part of a conspiracy as anything else. If it had been him, that alone would likely have kept him stewing for well more than a day, and knowing the diminutive Asuran engineer as he did, she was likely to take any such attempts twice as badly.

Xandra galumphed down the stairs in a distinctly crabby fashion, then pinned him with large red eyes. “Had I not instructed you when first I revealed this location that you were not to interact with anything that you might find with you?” she growled.

Rikbore had to stifle an urge to chuckle. Asurans could be quite fierce, and packed rather a surprising amount of danger in their little bodies. But growling was not something they could manage to do without sounding more like an overeager puppy than something to be threatened by. He carefully pushed the mirth away, not wanting to anger his lover any further. “Your clothes were dirty, and unlikely to be either a hazard or a delicate experiment. So I put them in the hamper.”

“That is not what I am referring to.” Xandra moved one of the hands she’d perched on her hips so that she could point at a golem arm resting on a dusty table. “The prototype XArm-14 manipulative armature has been moved.”

“That wasn’t me,” Rikbore rumbled. He crossed his arms across his chest and leaned back in the chair he’d moved down from the barracks above after his evening visitor had departed. “After you left, Sara paid this place a little visit.”

“Sara.” Xandra’s red eyes narrowed suspiciously, though they were no longer aimed at Rikbore’s black and orange face. Instead, they were now glaring up the stairs she had just descended. “The human.”

“Or I’m not a charr.”

“With the burnt umber toned derma?”

“If by that you mean that hairless skin she shows so much of, yes.”

“By which you refer to the fact it is displayed excessively by the open fronted orchid hued vest and cut up the hip layered pencil skirt?”

“I never realized you knew so much about fashion,” Rikbore chuckled.

“The blind Whisper’s mesmer.”

“Yes, the Whisper’s…” Rikbore sat up. “Did you say ‘blind’?”

Xandra, looking no less cross than she had started out being, waggled a finger at Rikbore. “Yes. Her ocular orbs are completely impaired, leaving her sightless. That is why she so often covers them up with those peculiar bandages of hers.”

Rikbore gaped at Xandra. “I had no idea. She doesn’t act blind.”

“She can manipulate the aether to create multiple temporary doubles of herself,” Xandra explained. “She then has to control them directly by reaching out her senses through the aether. Her ability to extend that control also covers her ability to sense her environment. She can not only hear everything around her, she can use psychokinetic extensions to feel out the lay of what is about her.”

“She uses mental braille to read the world.” Rikbore shook his head. “You learn something new every day.”

Xandra finally crooked one of the cute, sharp toothed grins that managed to make her look appealing even without proper fur and tail. “I shall make a proper asuran scholar out of you yet, bookah.”

“I’m Iron Legion,” Rikbore rumbled. “We’re required to have some degree of intelligence.”

“I suppose I can grant you that,” Xandra agreed. But then she scowled again. “What did she want?”

Rikbore settled back again. “Well, she wanted to tell me a bit about the meeting you just went to.”

Xandra muttered something under her breath. The only thing Rikbore could be certain of was that it involved entirely too many syllables and sounded extremely offensive. “That meeting was…” She trailed off.

“That meeting wasn’t just your parents, was it? Zojja was involved as well.”

A sharp look revealed to him that his conjecture was on the mark. Xandra inhaled, then growled. “She told you that?”

“She conjectured. But given the storm you brought in with you, it seemed reasonable to assume she was correct.” Furred fingers propped up Rikbore’s chin as he contemplated Xandra. “Your parents most certainly had called for you to come back and have cubs. What’s more, they had convinced Zojja to offer a rather nice position on her krewe again. In fact...” He leaned forward, sharp eyes narrow as they watched Xandra’s reactions give away the truth of what he was guessing. “I bet they even introduced the very smart, large eared and very male lab partner that would be working with you.”

“And all I would have to do is ship all of my work from here to Zojja’s labs,” Xandra barked.

“Xandra…”

“Of course, that completely disregards the fundamental fact that my research is completely locked into the unique and peculiar energies of this particular plain of existence.”

“Xandra.”

“Uprooting all of my work and bringing it back to the Tarnished Coast would remove any possibility of continuing to engage in practical research owing to the utter absence of the very power that I am researching!”

“Xaaaaandra…”

“I would therefore be rendered incapable of doing anything other than the extension of theory which has yet to be established to a sufficient degree to support just such a purely theoretical approach! It might leave me adequate time for progeny, but only because I would be accomplishing absolutely

“XANDRA!”

The diminutive (even for an asuran) woman blinked and turned to stare at Rikbore. “Yes?”

“Stop pacing and sit down. My ears may be much smaller than yours, but I have four to your two and the shouting is giving me a headache.”

Xandra blinked twice, then turned and pulled a block that was casually defying gravity over. She plopped down onto it.

“So… Sara told you all of that?”

“She didn’t mention the lab position, but as a tactician it seemed to be a logical extension of their plan of attack.”

“Once a charr, always a charr,” Xandra snorted. “You speak as though they are waging a war over me.”

“They are. Your womb being the first battlefield they are looking to conquer.”

Xandra gave Rikbore a dark look. “I would take it very kindly if you didn’t refer to my uterus as some sort of territory to be made a conquest of.”

“Even if it’s true?”

“Listen, you hirsute, overgrown, alley dwelling mouse hunter…” Xandra’s voice rose with each adjective, heading towards a painful fanfare of abuse.

Rikbore put a stop to it. “No, you listen.” His tone was 100% legion at this point, his voice pitched to rattle his orders through the bones of warriors trapped in battle lust. The effect, apparently, worked on arrogant scientists just as effectively, as Xandra stopped and simply stared at him.

He coughed softly, and eased his voice to something more conversational. “Zojja, as I understand it, wants nothing less than your total devotion to the cause of ridding Kryta of dragons, right?”

“Well, this is true, but…”

“No buts.” Rikbore leaned back and crossed his arms over his massive chest. “Your parents want you to produce cubs for them to gloat over.”

“Yes, but how does that…”

“I’m not finished,” Rikbore held up an admonishing finger. “So, in order for each of them to get what they want, they need to apply enough concerted pressure on you for you to capitulate. So, Zojja promises your parents that you will be given the perfect setting to have those cubs with a hand picked sperm donor, in exchange for them adding their voice to hers in getting you back in her krewe. Zojja then promises you that any cubs to result will end up in the sort of crèche that only someone with her kind of power, connections, and reputation can provide. That means your biological clock is now adding pressure from inside. Your parents get their grandcubs, Zojja gets you back under her thumb, and you get cubs and the best schooling Zojja’s name can arrange. Win, Win, Win.”

The Asuran woman sighed. “I suppose your argument does make sense when looked at from that perspective. But even with all of those benefits, it still is insufficient for the task of convincing me to abandon my life’s work.”

“Which is why a mesmer from the Order of Whispers, who also just happen to want the dragons exterminated, tried to get me in on the act as well.”

“WHAT?” Xandra shot off the floating cube, her body held as stiff and tall as her miniature form would permit.

Rikbore shrugged. “Sara pulled the ‘as a loyal soldier of the Legions, you would want to see the Black Citadel protected from the dragon threat’ act on me.” Rikbore chuckled. “She even thought you’d be willing to let me tag along. Like I would listen to some insignificant human.”

“She is not insignificant,” Xandra muttered.

“What?”

Xandra sighed and sat back down. She leaned back, staring at the ceiling. “Do you remember when the Pact took down Zhaitan?”

Rikbore nodded, reflecting back on the news of that day. Zhaitan was the first of the Great Dragons that had successfully been defeated. A group known as the Pact, inspired by the example of Destiny’s Edge, had formed a multi-species organization with hundreds, if not thousands of members solely for the purpose of killing the Great Dragons. Headed by a member of the plant-like Sylvari, the youngest of Kryta’s races, they had succeeded, though the casualties had been horrendous.

“She was one of Trahearne’s commanders that day. In fact, she was his second in command. Even Efut followed her orders.”

Rikbore shifted awkwardly in his seat. Warmaster Efut may have been an asura rather than a charr, but even the Black Citadel respected her prowess as both a warrior and as a leader in battle. One of the top commanders of the military organization known as the Vigil, there were few who had the sort of authority to give marching orders to her. For Sara to be one such person... “So that means it’s not just a faction of the Whispers that are interested in you, it’s the Pact. Back by the Whisper’s. Maybe the Vigil as well since they’ve also thrown in with the Pact.”

“And that is a lot of pressure,” Xandra acknowledged. She kicked forward, looking back towards Rikbore. “If she is attempting to suborn your motives into serving this little scheme, she’s doing so with the backing of both the Master of Whispers, whoever he is, and Pact Leader Trahearne himself.”

“So what happens if you capitulate?”

“I get a very prestigious position high in the hierarchy of Zojja’s labs, as well as practically my choice of breeding stock amongst some of the best asuran males around. I will be permitted time to produce progeny for the next generation before I get pushed into hunting dragons, and said progeny will become some of the best educated and well placed asurans of their generation. My genetic stock will be assured for so long as there is an asuran race.”

“And that’s how they would get you fighting the dragons. Once cubs were no longer merely a mental exercise they would have the ultimate incentive to get you to exterminate dragons. The protection of your own descendent line.”

“Yes,” Xandra mused. “And it would work, too. I could almost admire this plan if it was not aimed at my own ovaries.”

“Is that why you’ve never taken the time to have cubs?”

“And why I have dedicated my life’s work to projects that have kept me isolated in the Mists.”

Rikbore snorted. “I thought you were here because you and she had a disagreement when you were younger.”

“We did. I helped Professor Gorr prove his theory that dragons were consuming the magic of Kryta. She decided that this meant I had to fight the dragons by joining the Priory.”

“And you?”

“Disagreed.” Xandra sighed, leaning forward, then gazing up at him from her slumped over position. “I never wanted to be a hero, Rikbore. I just wanted to be the best golemancer of all time.”

Rikbore looked around the lab Xandra had hidden beneath a nondescript keep in a little known part of a forgotten war on an alien plain of existence. “Picked a funny place for it.”

Xandra shrugged. “Nonsense. There are no dragons here. No Orders. No pressures to push fledgling intellectuals out of my birth canal. No calls for heroism. Just my golems. And people to test my golems on.”

“So what will you do?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I just… don’t know.”

Rikbore grunted, and rose from his chair. He stepped over to Xandra and scooped her up in his powerful arms and held her to his chest. She always seemed so fragile to him, even when driving off enemy raids with explosives no self-preserving charr would touch. Her recklessness knew no bounds, but in that moment all he could see was how tiny she was, how worried, and how vulnerable. He cradled her to himself, saying nothing as she wrapped her tiny arms around his neck in response, clinging tightly.

After a moment, though, she stiffened. “Rikbore, what is that flask over on the desk?”

He turned, eyeing the table and recognizing the bottle Xandra had spotted from her elevated position. “Oh, that? It’s a little something Sara left behind for both of us.”

“For both…”

“For a blind woman she sees entirely too much for my sense of comfort.” Rikbore frowned.

“But enough for mine, I take it?” Xandra’s voice practically purred, something he’d sworn only Charr could do.

Rikbore chuckled. “There’s only one way to find out.”

There was a moment of silence, and then…

“Grab the bottle.”

Chapter Text

To Rikbore’s amusement, Xandra was moving a bit awkwardly as she puttered about the workshop. It wasn’t that she was walking bow-legged. The diminutive Asura, originally aquat underground cave dwellers, always walked bow-legged, though Xandra may have been a bit more so than usual. No, in her case the awkward that had Rikbore so entertained was in what her movements were doing.

“Xandra,” Rikbore rumbled, laughter in his voice. “That’s the fourth time you have picked up that whatchamacallit, walked around the room, then set it back on the table where it started from.”

The diminutive asuran female attempted to blast him with a case of the evil eye, but the effect melted away before it could even reach half strength. Instead, her large red eyes softened and she did something no proper, self respecting asuran should ever do. She giggled.

“I must admit it. I may be a bit distracted.”

“That good huh?” Rikbore purred.

“Ordinarily such large objects would not only risk injury but they would also provide for a very painful amount of friction leading to distinctly uncomfortable long term side effects.”

“Huh?”

“I should be chafed from the inside.”

Rikbore winced. “That does not bear thinking of.”

“No. That cream was indubitably one of the better inventions from the entire catalog of asuran inventions.”

“You’re pleased, then.”

The Asuran beamed in a manner that completely contrasted with her usual grumpy and superior scowl. “I do believe my vaginal wall is still trembling in awe at the exertions it was brought to. My pulse may even have exceeded 180 beats per minute, a new record during recreational procreative activities and something that brought me perilously close to a delightful expiration.”

Rikbore grinned and settled back on his seat. He grabbed an apple he’d retrieved earlier and took a crunching bite out of it. “You could have simply said you just about died happy.”

“I believe that I just did.”

The two shared a grin, and then enjoyed a companionable silence. Rikbore casually finished off the apple, then grabbed a sausage to snack on. Xandra continued with her puttering, though she had ceased picking things up and forgetting what to do with them and instead actually made progress in whatever it was she was attempting to accomplish. In time, though, Rikbore finished licking cold grease from his fingers. He rose with a sigh.

“Ready?”

“What?” The short woman pulled her head from the etheric guts of a golem. “Oh, the patrol.” She plopped to the ground and hurried over to pick up her backpack of explosives and her rifle.

“Shall we proceed?”

“Let’s.” Rikbore snagged his rifle and followed Xandra up the winding stairs that would lead to the secret entryway above.

The nameless keep they lived on bordered a marsh, but just past that the land took on a distinctly different character. Canyonlands twisted and turned, a bewildering maze that could easily hide an army, and just as easily get it turned around and confused. Rikbore had come to know the many passageways well over the months he’d been spending in this plane, and so had no fear of getting lost. However, there frequently would be new soldiers from other planes of existence who would get lost in their ones and twos, so the patrols were rarely boring.

For once he didn’t feel like he was the most obvious thing on the field. He was not particularly large for a Charr, but since going out into the world he’d found that there was seldom anything bigger to be found. The giant Norn race, human appearing but built on a far larger scale, would sometimes overtop him, but even the largest Norn lacked his bulk. Traveling with Xandra made him feel like he was living in a world of midgets.

Today, however, Xandra had turned the tables on him. She’d brought out one of her latest toys. It was the offspring of an unholy marriage between a centaur and a golem, delivered by a clumsy and demented midwife, and raised on a diet of tears and rage. It’s torso looked fairly standard for Asuran technology. The half ovoid shape that typified most Asuran golems rose high, topping out at a height slightly greater than Rikbore’s own head. Floating alongside that torso and jointed where shoulders would be were the thing a living creature, two arms swung back and forth as the golem moved alongside of him. A glowing stone sat centered on its chest just above the axis of the arms, giving a vague sense of a face as lights glowed lightly in stripes here and there on the thing. In this it was textbook, though individual details Xandra had added gave it some personal flourishes that served as a signature to any who knew to look.

Things went distinctly strange down south on the bizarre invention, however. Where an ordinary golem would have had a simple pair of legs sticking down beneath the torso, on this one an entire assemblage could be found. Though it was much broader and lower slung, the metallic monster’s lower half resembled that of a horse. Four legs were churning up and down as it kept pace with Rikbore, mounted alongside of the body rather than beneath in the way most golems carried themselves on two legs.The body itself extended slightly forward of the torso’s “hips”, where Xandra’s head poked out of a hatch just in front of it. The markings of the body and legs were similar to those on the turret, distinctly marking the whole work as being of Asuran make, even if it was a particularly unorthodox design.

Rikbore turned and looked at his companion’s head as he walked alongside of the weird contraption. “I have to wonder why you didn’t make it wheeled like a sensible charr vehicle. Much less complicated.”

Xandra turned towards Rikbore. Her shoulders briefly shrugged upward into view before disappearing back into the device. “There are inherent flaws in a wheeled motive system that can be overcome with a well designed set of legs. For example, a wheeled vehicle would be unable to negotiate any terrain filled with a sizable field of stone debris. Nor can a wheeled vehicle resist being knocked back as capably as a properly braced quadrupedal system. You may have observed that centaurs can utilize terrain that Charr war vehicles cannot?”

“I suppose that is true. However, the wheels have advantages as well.”

Xandra nodded in agreement. “Certainly.”

Rikbore smiled and indulged himself. Most of the others who lived in the keep were not engineers and did not speak the same ‘language’ as the practitioners of that esoteric field. Xandra, however, could more than carry her own when things got technical in conversation, and Rikbore enjoyed being able to let his inner mechanic run wild. “The system used in Charr war vehicles can have a far larger contact with the ground than the feet on your vehicle,” he pointed out. “Combined with the shallow angle where the break with the ground is it would be far better at going across soft ground.”

Xandra gave Rikbore an evaluating look. “You are referring to the impact of weight dispersal through ground contact?”

“Sure,” Rikbore grinned. “The feet on your vehicle present a small footprint to distribute that monster’s weight. On soft ground it’s quite possible that this will result in the legs pushing into the ground rather than being braced across the surface. With a much larger footprint a well designed wheel will spread that weight across a broader area so it won’t sink.” He paused a second, thinking. “It’s like with snow. If I tried to walk across deep snow I’ll sink into it and have trouble getting my booted feet back up out of the hole. But if I had a sled I’d glide right across the surface because the sled is too long and wide to put the same pressure on an area of snow the size of my foot.”

“Well, naturally.” Xandra turned back to watching in front of them as they made a gradual turn in the canyon they were following. “The question is which I am more likely to encounter. If I were building for soft ground such as a marsh it would behoove me to provide for a motive system that provides for a wide distribution of weight across broad surface areas in order to avoid entrapment by infirm surfaces. But here,” she gestured at the canyon walls, “I am far more likely to have to cross fields of heavy scree from the collapse of local geological features.”

“Point,” Rikbore agreed. “I certainly see the point in that.”

“What would be ideal would be a system by which both types of terrain could be overcome. One that provides the ability to climb over tall obstacles as a leg does while also widely distributing the vehicle weight.”

“A pity there isn’t one,” Rikbore snorted.

“Yet,” Xandra disagreed.

Rikbore tossed Xandra a sidelong glance, then shook his head. Xandra had a faith in her own abilities that far exceeded her tiny body’s ability to contain it. It amused him, frankly. But then he wasn’t exactly the most modest Charr, either, so perhaps that explained his tolerance for her behavior.

Contemplating wheels, legs, cogs and gears, the pair continued on in companionable silence.

The silence only lasted until they rounded the next corner. Upon taking in the view around the rocks piled at the base of a cliff, Rikbore tensed, and Xandra slid her contraption to a halt beside him.

“That’s a lot of Fergs,” Rikbore muttered.

The canyon beyond held a large number of strangers just a short distance down. They bore the red patina that marked them as belonging to an entirely different plane than Rikbore and Xandra hailed from. Like their own plane, these people had discovered a way into the strange, interdimensional place that was the Mists. And like their own, these people, hailing from a plane they referred to as “Ferguson”, had a violent need to control it.

“By my calculations I estimate that there are 27 of them,” Xandra replied. She seemed unflappable, but Rikbore could smell the sudden odor of sweat breaking out on her spotted grey skin.

“Five of them is too many,” he rumbled. “Unless they have no ranged weapons. Then ten is about right.”

Despite the sweat, the diminutive asuran encased in her metallic monster grinned. “I would guess that means it is time for a field test of the weapon system.” She dropped out of view inside the machine and slid a metallic plate in place over the hole.

“Cheater,” Rikbore accused.

“Says the giant wearing heavy metal plates all over his body and armed with a small canon,” came the metal dimmed reply.

“You’re just jealous.” Rikbore grinned and pulled his rifle off his back. He set it to his shoulder and fired just as the foes began to charge towards the pair.

Beside him, the machine made a few burbling bleeping blats of sound, then lifted it’s arms. They began surging back and forth like a boxer throwing rapid jabs into his opponents guts and blasts of alchemic energy began impacting on the onrushing foes.

Rikbore watched as the one he’d shot staggered back, while several others faltered as Xandra’s fire struck them. “Cheater,” he rumbled again.

“You are simply jealous,” Xandra echoed. “I will manufacture one for you once the design is proven.”

“Have to live long enough first,” Rikbore replied. He then ducked behind Xandra’s machine, using its back as both a shooting block and a shield and began firing in earnest.

“Now who is cheating?”

The charge faltered in the face of an unexpected volume of fire. The group didn’t retreat, however, and rounds from rifles similar to Rikbore’s began to bounce off of the metallic beast Rikbore sheltered behind. Rikbore paused his own shooting, watching for where the shots were coming from. Identifying the sources of ranged fire, he could specifically focus on taking out the most immediate threats. He spotted one rifleman, aiming carefully and taking the shot. A grin crossed his face, full of teeth, as one fell, but then frowned as he saw another figure immediately dart over and begin ministering to the wounds. Even the most basic of warriors knew simple healing techniques sufficient to return all but the dead back to the fight in moments, rendering most combatants nearly impossible to straight up stop in a fight. The key to defeating a group was to knock them back faster than they could be restored to the fight, and even with Xandra’s machine there simply wasn’t enough firepower for them to overwhelm the Fergs.

“Xandra,” he warned.

“I know,” she shot back, her voice acerbic. “We need to fall back. Let me just turn this thing around and”

Her sentence was cut off. A giant dagger of burning stone formed above the machine and smashed down. Rikbore threw himself aside at the last second, grunting as the shattering stone rained rock splinters on him.

Xandra’s golem smashed downward under the blow and the lights decorating the surface of the machine dimmed. As the dust of the hammer blow cleared, Rikbore could see plates smashed away, exposing the inner workings of the machine. Some of the exposed innards looked distinctly wrong.

“They have an elementalist!” Rikbore shouted unnecessarily. The ability to manipulate base elements into powerful weapons was a skill unique to those arcane users of aether. “We have to go!”

No reply to his shout came.

“Xandra?”

Further down the canyon heads popped up to get a look at the results of the elementalist’s strike. Rikbore fired at one, and the heads ducked away again.

He banged on the side of the golem with a gauntleted fist. “Xandra!”

A high pitched groan emerged from inside the metal beast. Rikbore scrambled around, ignoring the sting from the cuts and bruises the rocks had given him. He reached down to the hatch and tried to slide it aside. It didn’t budge.

“Xandra. You need to unlock the hatch.”

“No lock,” Xandra muttered, her words slow and a bit slurred. “Frame warped. Can not get the hatch to move.”

Shots rang out, and Rikbore felt one bounce off his shoulder plate, a fortunate glancing blow. He ignored it and braced his feet, heaving at the hatch with his whole body. The effort was fruitless.

“It’s not working!”

“Stop trying!” Xandra replied. Her voice sounded a bit sharper, though still a bit slurred. “I need to restart the golem, but it keeps throwing an emergency safety break. Something is channeling the alchemic energy down the wrong paths.”

Rikbore let go of the hatch. “I saw some damage on the back. Hold on.”

He scrambled around and glared inside the hole in the skin that broken panels had left behind. He could see pulses of energy sparking and coursing in errant ways they were clearly not intended to.

“Stop trying to start it!” he bellowed.

The pulsing stopped. He waited a moment to be sure, then thrust his hands inside the beast as he heard the roar of charging warriors. Ignoring what was doubtless his doom, he felt around, then grasped two cables he had spotted earlier. He thrust their ends together and held them in place.

“NOW!”

He felt all of his hair stand up as a weird vibrating sensation rolled through his body. He felt like everything in his body was going strange as an odd taste filled his mouth. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to hold on even though every instinct was screaming at him to let go.

Beneath him the machine gave a lurch. Lights came on, and the upper torso turned, pointing itself toward the warriors coming perilously close. Arms began to surge and bolts flung themselves outward, knocking warriors over left and right. He could hear Xandra give an ebullient scream as the charge staggered.

Against his will, Rikbore let go. He felt himself fling backwards and grunted as he slammed into a rock, driving the breath from his body. He tried to sit up, to crawl to his discarded rifle, but his body refused to cooperate. He felt rage surge inside of himself, more at his own body than at the enemy, as he was forced to simply watch as things unfolded.

Lights on the back of the machine went out with a sharp crackle of energy, but the torso remained lit and the arms continued to fling out blasts of energy. The center of the charge towards them folded, individual warriors diving for cover, but the edges of the attack continued to rush in, having come close enough that they knew the golem wouldn’t be able to swing fast enough to strike either flank, let alone both. Xandra continued her banshee wail of outrage, continued firing, tumbling attackers ass over teakettle, but it was too late. Several leaped onto the machine’s back, raising swords, axes, and clubs, prepared to begin physically dismantling the device. Two more kept going, rushing towards Rikbore as he struggled to push himself upright.

A sudden blast of wind threw the attackers backwards. The pair coming for him tumbled into those mounted atop the contraption, knocking them all askew. Rikbore blinked, uncertain what had just happened, then noticed feet rushing past his head, some of them the dainty sticks of Sylvari or the thin chicken legs of humans, others the large hams of Norn or the haired clubs of other Charr. They rushed past him and engaged the attackers, a general melee suddenly sweeping the site in a wave of chaos.

“Hold still,” a voice grumped at Rikbore. He felt hands begin fluttering across his torso, examining him. He turned to stare at the wrinkled and distinctly grouchy face of an Asuran. A male, he was certain, as this one had small eyes and a distinct lack of smooth skin.

“mfine,” Rikbore gasped.

“You are not fine, you great oaf,” the Asuran disagreed. “You have a number of broken ribs, one of which has punctured a lung. You have ruptured any number of blood vessels in your abdominal region. And even if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I would know you just had a significant amount of aetheric energy channeled through you just by the smell alone. I find it to be a bit of a defiance of statistical certainties that a giant felinoid bovine like you are even cogitating, let alone attempting to rise.”

Rikbore stared at his medic. “You sound just like her,” Rikbore growled, spastically jerking a thumb towards the golem and wincing as the limb the thumb was attached to wobbled like jelly.

“Xandra?” the wizened runt replied, his hands continuing to apply salves and crystals to numb the pain and put things back where they belonged inside Rikbore’s battered body.

“You know her?” Rikbore sat up, ignoring the protests of both his body and the Asuran’s hands.

“Of course I know her, you moron,” his healer replied. “I’m her prospective mate.”

“Lovely,” Rikbore grumbled, laying back down as the sounds of combat began moving away. “Just lovely.”

Chapter Text

It had taken considerable effort to get Xandra extracted from her golem. It had ultimately proven impossible to remove the hatch trapping her inside while out in the field. Instead she had coached the male assuran through a few needed repairs enabling the entire device to function again. At the same time, ended up having to dig the golem’s legs out of the ground. The stone smash it had suffered had driven the feet a good foot deep into the soil.

The entire process had taken over an hour, and another hour had been needed to get the golem back to the lab. Rikbore had refused to let anyone accompany them, including her ‘beau’, preserving the secret of how Xandra got her golems into and out of her hidden lab. This had further meant that he, and he alone, had spent a further 45 minutes attempting to use a crowbar and various cutters to release Xandra from her ersatz prison.

Three hours after the fight she had finally become free to deal with the sudden appearance of an unexpected suitor. Given the expression she was shooting toward the bald, shriveled runt Rikbore was pretty certain that three hours trapped in a metal coffin had not improved her temper. She stomped over to where he was sitting in the feasting hall of the keep and, hands on hips, loomed over him in a way that would have been amusing under other circumstances.

“Znap,” she snarled, leaning in intimidatingly. “So you are the bait dangling from Zojja’s hook.”

“A crude, if accurate description.” Znap glanced over to where Rikbore was watching from a different table. “Is that your current diversion?”

Rikbore felt himself bristle. Before he could do more then narrow his eyes, however, Xandra recaptured his attention away from Znap. The diminutive woman leaned back, crossing her arms across her chest, a harsh smile occupying much of her face. “He is. I have chosen him as my partner in battle, my collaborator in research, and yes, a rather good sexual partner as well.”

The room, filled with dining warriors and combatants grew rather quiet. Rikbore found himself shooting dirty looks around the room, causing a large number of people to suddenly grow utterly fascinated with their food.

Neither Xandra or Znap seemed to care.

Znap shrugged, looking up at Xandra. “Well,” hep muttered, “I hope he is willing to share.”

Rikbore felt all four of his ears perk up in surprise. He shoved away from the table he had been sitting at and abandoned any pretense at being uninvolved in the conversation. He stalked his way over to where Xandra and Znap were holding their confrontation, then leaned down, bracing one hand on the tabletop. He stared down at Znap. “Excuse me? Share?”

“Rikbore,” Xandra warned.

“No,” Znap held up a hand, shaking his head. Znap turned rudy eyes up to the large cat. “He has a right to be in this conversation. Sit down. You are a part of this, after all.”

Rikbore tossed Xandra a look daring her to argue as he settled onto the bench beside where she stood. She replied with a dark look of her own, but said nothing, choosing instead to sit down as well. Znap steepled his fingers in front of his face and leaned across the table towards them, elbows on the table, as he waited for them to settle in.

Once they were all seated, Znap lowered his fingers from before his face. “Very well. None of us are under any illusions here.” He turned to look directly at Rikbore. “I am told you are a very intelligent member of felis sapiens. Xandra is willing to refer to you as a collaborator in her work. I have no excuse to doubt any of this that stand up to reason.”

“Meaning you have unreasonable excuses,” Rikbore rumbled.

“You are a complication,” Znap acknowledged with a nod of his head. “Obviously I am here specifically at Zojja’s request. My job is to assist Xandra with her research in such a way that my merits as a  fellow procreator

“Sperm donor,” Rikbore interrupted. Zandra elbowed him in the ribs.

Znap looked Rikbore directly in the eyes, without so much as a flinch at either the hostility or the interuption. “That my merits as a sperm donor become obvious. Having you assisting her gives me less opportunity to do that.”

“You could always go away.”

“He can not do that,” Xandra disagreed, her voice making plain her irritation over the direction the conversation was going.

Rikbore sighed, forcing himself to back down a moment and think about the situation from a tactical mindset, rather than that of a threatened cat. “Yeah, yeah,” he acknowledged. “He stands gain just as much from this as you do if it all works. A position in a really good krewe, connections with powerful people, and cubs with very good prospects.”

Znap tapped his forehead in a salute. “All of those and more. Further, I also have things to lose if this doesn’t work. In the interest of full disclosure, I need Xandra’s project as much as she does in order to further my own goals.”

At this Xandra leaned forward. “Explain.”

Znap leaned back, his eyes drifting upward as he clearly organized his thoughts. “Two years ago I read your proofs about dragons eating the magic of Kryta.  I took a great interest in what you had to say. Your process of discovery was brilliant, your conclusions beyond reproach. It was clear to me that you had proven the case beyond any disputation. I followed your research after that point and I think your approach to solving the problem is also correct.”

“Her golems you mean?” Rikbore cocked his head slightly, not clear as to why oversized war automatons would somehow eliminate the threat the Elder Dragons represented to all of Kryta.

Znap shook his head, eyes locking onto Rikbore. “Not the golems themselves, no. My particular interest is specifically in how she powers them.”

“‘Alternative Aetheric Sources and Their Application to Golemancy.’” Xandra said, her eyes squeezed shut, the bridge of her nose pinched between two fingers in exasperation.

“That was the last lecture you gave before you left for the Mists.” Znap replied. “I attended it personally, and have read and reread transcriptions multiple times. I found the idea ingenious. The idea that the energies here can be used to specifically counter the magical drain of the dragons is simply brilliant. So I have been testing that specifically.”

Rikbore grunted, crossing his arms and leaning forward. “Okay, so let me stop you there and cut to the chase here. You’re part of Zojja’s krewe because of the strength of your belief that the dragons’ ability to eat aetheric energy can be countered with energies from the Mists. Zojja gave you a place and access to equipment to be able to test this. And now you have come here to move from early testing to a more advanced application, with the aid of Xandra. Oh, and to play hide the wrinkled sausage with her on the side.”

Znap nodded. “Setting aside any procreative activities that take place in this keep, we fight people from other planes of existence in order to control the Mists because part of its aether leaks over into Kryta. By controlling the Mists we can go from passively letting it simply leak to actively pushing it towards our plain and not the others. We can then utilize the leaking aether over in Kryta. This, of course, works because the same aether that exists in Kryta exists here.”

Xandra nodded. “Aetheric users here such as Mesmers and Elementalists tap into that aether to fight here. After all, since it’s the same type of power the same type of techniques obtain the same results. That is basic alchemics. So many people come here specifically to try to slow, if not outright outpace the dragon’s absorbtion of aether by pumping Kryta full of aether blown in from the Mists.”

“Precisely.” Znap nodded enthusiastically. He leaned forward on his elbows towards Xandra. “But you did not simply prove that Dragons are eating the Aether. You also fixed the rate at which they are doing so, and we are failing to keep up. Even with the Mists, we will eventually run out of aether. As that happens, Mesmers, Elementalists, and yes, Golemancers such as yourself will find their talents weakening, and then dying out completely. So you decided to research alternate aetheric sources and capabilities in the thought they could replace the aether of Kryta in a pinch. You’ve been building golems here that use this power source, and making them larger, stronger, and more power-greedy to test how far you can push it, publishing your results for avid watchers such as myself to study.”

Rikbore sat back and thought about all that had just been laid out before him. Going back, he reflected on the monstrosity that Xandra had been driving earlier day. In hindsight he realized that, even taking into account the substantial differences in design, that machine was substantially larger than any golem he’d seen before, including Xandra’s own previous efforts. Suddenly Xandra’s “Aetheric watchamacallit” project began making considerably more sense to him. Intrigued, he, too, leaned forward. “Hold on. Something isn’t adding up here. If the aether of Kryta is the same as the aether here, then what is this alternate aether she’s been powering things with? Why is she researching it here? Isn’t it also available in Kryta? Shouldn’t it also be leaking?”

“No,” Xandra sighed. “The type of aether I have been using here doesn’t leak over into Kryta for whatever reason, and is not natively produced there either. Part of why I’ve been pushing so hard is because I have concluded that, without this additional aether type present in Kryta, eventually the dragons will drain Kryta dry. I said as much during the presentation Znap referred to a moment ago. What I did not mention is what I concluded must be done about this.”

Xandra crossed her arms, her expression sour. “So far we have, barely, succeeded in destroying two of the dragons. Each time we did so the dragon in question nearly destroyed everything we committed to the fight. We have had to rebuild each time. Bodies to do the fighting, materials to supply them with, and aether to power aetheric users and equipment, all of these are finite in their availability, and we are losing ground. There are fewer bodies, materials, and less aether available to rebuild with every time it becomes necessary. I posit that we will, eventually, reach a point where we no longer have the resources to rebuild. And the first thing to go will be the aether.”

She turned her eyes down toward the table top, staring at it with a baleful expression. “When we can no longer use aether to fight the dragons, we most likely will have to evacuate to the Mists with whatever resources and bodies remain to us. It is my intention to have learned to utilize the additional aetheric sources available here to such a degree that, should the dragons pursue, we will be able to overcome the substantial lack of bodies and materials through this additional aether, and throw up such a powerful defense they will remain trapped in aether starved Kryta for perpetuity.”

Rikbore lapsed silent in shock. He’d known that the dragons were a substantial threat to all of Kryta and its many races. But the thought of losing Kryta to them completely had never crossed his mind. It was simply unfathomable.

The Charr had never stood for such a thing in the past. Thousands of years before humans had come out of nowhere and driven the Charr from their homelands, forcing them to live in exile like rats hiding under rocks. But the Charr were nothing if not stubborn. It had taken a thousand years, but they had, ultimately, prevailed. It had come at a terrible cost that had left the land so blighted it still had not recovered even after another thousand years, but the Charr had recovered their homeland.

But what Xandra was suggesting made the two thousand years of struggle the Charr had experienced seem insignificant. The Charr could lose their homeland a second time and, if she was right, there would be no reclamation this time around.

It made him feel sick to his stomach.

Znap looked across the table sympathetically. “I do not believe that evacuation is going to be necessary,” he interjected, breaking Rikbore’s dark reverie. “If we find a way to use the aether unique to the Mists in Kryta, we can then offset the drain, and even get ahead of it. The dragons are Krytan, through and through, and so they are attuned to the aether of Kryta. If we start powering golems with a non-native aether, the dragons can try draining any golem they want of its aether. It will not do them any good. If it is not Krytan, they can not consume it.”

Xandra gasped, nearly coming clean across the table. She fixed Znap with an intense stare. “Have you proven that?”

“Thanks to Zojja’s patronage and placement on her krewe, yes. Her resources allowed me to prove it beyond any doubt.” Znap looked proud.

Rikbore snorted. He wasn’t fully recovered from the blow he’d been dealt by learning of Xandra’s theories, but Znap’s enthusiasm had gone a good way to at least giving him a chance to regain some equilibrium. “And thusly you proved to Zojja that you’re both bright enough to be a good reproducer to pair with Xandra, and dedicated enough to the goal of fighting dragons to want to further Zojja’s goal of getting Xandra safely on board with the crusade against them.” Rikbore felt a reluctant admiration for the details of the scheme. “Nifty.”

Znap smirked. “And I am honest enough to admit it completely while being brilliant enough to accomplish it anyway.”

“Modest, too,” Rikbore pointed out.

Xandra rolled her eyes. “Honesty and modesty tend to interfere with one another.”

Rikbore rolled his eyes right back.

Xandra turned back to Znap, her eyes intent. “Your theory that dragons cannot draw off the unique aether of this plane is academically interesting, but still does not overcome the fact that the aether of the Mists doesn’t slip into Kryta like Krytan native aetheric energy does. For your proposal to work, we would need a way to change that simple fact.”

Znap grinned. “Which, of course, is why I am here.”

“I thought you were here to get in Xandra’s pants.”

The two Asurans ignored Rikbore.

“I am here to help you build golems that store the aetheric power only found here in the Mist so that they can be used in Kryta.”

Xandra laughed, kicking back with a smirk. “Right. The problem is that you can not store aetheric power.”

Znap shook his head, his own smile challenging. “Incorrect. It is not that we can not, it is that we never tried. After all, it was everywhere, so anyone who needed it had it, any time, any place. Only this is not true any more, right? So we have gone from never needing to try, to a sudden urgent need to do precisely that.” Znap reached into his jacket pocket and pulled a crystal out of his pocket. He set it on the table. “This is the first aetheric energetic potential containment device.”

“It works?” Xandra asked, staring at the device in awe. Rikbore couldn’t blame her. Even though the Charr didn’t tend to use aetherics in their own machinery, he understood enough about it to be just as stunned by Znap’s boast as Xandra.

“How do you think I tested whether dragons can eat the aether from the Mists?” Znap grinned. “I tried to feed some to a dragon. He developed a case of dyspepsia significant enough to allow me to escape easily.”

“Dyspepsia?”

Xandra grinned at Rikbore. “It got a stomach ache.” She turned to Znap. “You have your documentation?”

Znap produced several small books from the same pocket the crystal had came from, holding them out toward Xandra. She swooped it all up in an instant and bolted upright. “I am heading to the lab. You two stay here.”

She began waddling away quickly, then paused and looked back. She waggled a finger at the two of them with a stern expression. “Play nice,” she ordered, then turned the corner and was gone.

Chapter Text

“‘Play nice’, she said.” Rikbore blew out a whuffling snort, feline eyes rolling in his head. “Sometimes I don’t know what to make of that woman.”

“Imagine being in my shoes,” Znap replied.

Rikbore looked downward towards the small Asuran male across the table. “I don’t think they’d fit.”

Znap gave Rikbore a bit of a dirty look. “Do try to take this seriously.”

Rikbore sat back, frowning, his arms crossed. “Which part? The part where dragons are eating the magic of Kryta? The part where a conspiracy thinks Xandra is somehow an important part of the fight to save Kryta? Or the part where you are here to basically push her into something she doesn’t want by impregnating her?”

“You make it sound like a manipulative scheme.”

“It’s not?”

“Not when she is fully aware of every element of it.” Znap sat back on the bench, giving Rikbore a stern look.. “Don’t underestimate her.”

“Don’t overestimate her,” Rikbore poked a claw on the table right in front of Znap. “Yes, she’s brilliant. Smarter than me by far, and I’m no slouch. But she is only one person. Arrayed against her are a large number of people who also happen to be quite smart. You wouldn’t have admitted to the entire scheme if you didn’t think it was going to work.”

“Unless I happen to be the sort that would rather people make well informed decisions without coercion.” The Asuran looked cross. “I realize that you probably know little of our species, and what you know is, quite likely, a bit off.”

Znap sighed tiredly, eyes closed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I admire her, you know. I am not here to force her into anything. I want her to choose, of her own free will. I want her to accept me as the father of her progeny. I want her to do this because she wants that. If she is coerced, how can I know that I was truly someone she felt worthy?”

Rikbore frowned, leaning his forehead against his fingers. “You have terrible timing. With all of the pressure on her, how could you know even now?”

Znap gave a wry smile, meeting Rikbore’s eyes. “I will know, because even if the rest of this so called trap succeeds, and she is lured back to help against the dragons, I will not consent to impregnating her unless she very specifically asks me to.” He sat back up. “And if she rejects the trap, I will still stay, and hope she says yes to me.”

The large feline warrior stared down at the diminutive creature across the table. “And where does that leave me?”

“Where does it not leave you?” Znap snorted. “You are her fighting companion, her friend, her collaborator, and her bedmate. She is no mere creature of fickle nature. There is no reason to believe that her desire for you will change.” Znap shrugged. I am not even jealous of that. But you can never father children with her. You can be her preferred partner in bed, the one she feels she can enjoy without pressure, but the one thing I want to provide her is the one thing you never could. I cannot take away from you what you have never had to begin with, Charr.”

“I thought you wanted to be her collaborator.”

“What, Char practice monogamous research?” Znap arched an eyebrow sarcastically. “Of course I want to. But that does not mean you are in any way out of the picture.”

“I suppose that’s for her to decide.”

“I suppose so.”

Irritated, Rikbore stood. He dumped his dinnerware into the appropriate tub for the kitchen crew to clean and stomped out onto the battlements, taking in the air.

“Problems, Legionnaire?”

Despite the hairs rising all along his spine, Rikbore refused to turn around. Doing so might reveal how disconcerting he found the ability of the Whisper’s agent sneaking up on him. He’d be damned if he gave her the satisfaction. Instead, he merely grunted. “Sara.”

Sara stepped up to the battlements, all lanky brown skin and purple silks. She rested her barely covered breasts on folded arms as she leaned over a crenulation and faced outward as though taking in the sights. “Worried about the competition?”

“What competition? He’s bait on a hook, nothing more.”

The tall human woman turned her face towards Rikbore, as though looking over him through the bandages covering her eyes. “He’s extremely intelligent. Smarter, perhaps, than even Xandra.”

“Hardly,” he snorted. “Oh, he’s bright. I’ll give you that. But smarter than her? No.”

“Don’t be so sure of that.” Sara stood upright and casually strolled over to Rikbore before leaning against the wall in a pose too casual to be accidental. “Make no mistake. Xandra is just as smart as you give her credit for. Zojja didn’t pick her name out of a hat, you know. But Xandra’s research and experimentation went down lines that, if not well trodden, were certainly not unprecedented. The Asurans have had to abandon their homelands before, after all. It is not a big leap to concluding they may have to again. Znap’s thoughts, however…"

The purple clad woman hoisted herself onto the wall, crossing her legs such that they slipped free of the split-sided skirt she wore. “Znap asked the question no one else even thought to ask. No one had ever thought to ask if it was possible to store the aether that powers asuran technology. Then he came along. He not only asked, he answered.” She examined the knuckles of one hand. “At the very least he is unconventional in his thoughts and smart enough to make that work for him. He stands out from the crowd of other Asurans. It’s why Zojja brought him into her krewe.”

“So he’s a bit of a loony. A successful one, but still a loony.”

Sara tutted. “Jealousy does not become you.”

“I’m not jealous,” Rikbore growled. He glowered at the woman next to him. “I’m just worried he’s the final straw on a large load of straw crushing her freedom.”

“You and I both know freedom has little to do with it.” Sara lowered her hand to turn her face toward Rikbore once more. “No matter how well baited the trap, she has the freedom to not step into it. You aren’t afraid she has no choice. You’re afraid of the choice she might make.”

Rikbore said nothing, glaring at the woman with slightly bared teeth.

“Don’t flash your fangs at me, Legionnaire Rikbore Warstone of the Iron Legion,” Sara said, her voice more commanding and less smooth than its usual South Coast lilt. “I know very well what is going on here, and not just when it comes to Xandra. You didn’t come here out of any sort of sense of duty, no matter how much you claim you are merely expanding your knowledge for the good of the Legion. Here in the Mists you can fight to your heart’s content against real foes, and not just annoying, weak human rebels. Here you have someone you can talk to freely, who you can talk engineering with, and invention with, and joke with, without having to worry about a chain of command, or rank, or position.” Sara’s dark face gave a cruel smile. “Why, she even sleeps with you. How fantastic!”

Rikbore felt his hands clenched into fists as he stared at her. “For a blind person, you see too much,” he snarled.

“Yes,” Sara said, her voice sharp, the smile erased from her face. “I am blind. But that doesn’t mean I can’t notice things. Don’t underestimate Znap, Charr. Don’t underestimate Xandra. And don’t, ever, underestimate me. I have walked places in the Black Citadel itself that you have never even heard of.”

Sara was gone. He hadn’t even blinked, and she was gone from view. She had teleported, turned invisible, or been snatched away by some god for all he knew. She could be standing right next to him, he wouldn’t know it. He couldn’t even smell her, but then, he couldn’t detect a scent even when he knew she was standing right in front of her.

How fortunate for her. He knew a threat when he heard one. And Charr did not take threats kindly.

Angry, and knowing that the view off the wall was no longer a solace, he stumped off towards his bunk. Things had pretty much gone south for the day anyway, he may as well try getting some sleep.

A familiar smell woke him in the middle of the night. He felt a pressure resting on his chest. As his eyes opened they took in the sight of Xandra, her chin on her arms as she sprawled atop him.

“You’re beaming,” he rumbled.

“His idea works. If I use his discoveries I can power my golems anywhere, any time. I can even supercharge them by drawing native energy and combining it with power drawn from his containers at the same time. Can you imagine the golem I could create?”

The weight on his chest doubled, though Xandra hadn’t moved. “That’s wonderful,” he muttered.

“Is it not?” Xandra grinned, a wide smile full of tiny, sharp teeth.

Rikbore rolled his head to the side, glancing at the other bodies laying in their racks. All were sleeping, though he couldn’t be sure how much longer that would be true. The Asuran woman, for all of her being diminutive, was not exactly being quiet. “Xandra…”

She giggled, the incongruous sound implying she was feeling delighted at the risk of being scandalous. She did, however, slip off of him. She gave him a surprisingly coquettish smile. “Come on down to the lab.”

He lay there for a moment, bemused, then slipped from under the wool blanket. He was barely dressed, but felt no pressing need to throw something on beside the loincloth he already wore. The night was warm, and in truth the blanket had been a bit much in the wet marshy air that always filled the castle.

Together the pair padded down the halls, meeting no one. After a short time passed they slipped through the hidden door to the lab. As they walked down the stairs Xandra began shedding garments, starting with a shoe shucked with more urgency than caution warranted on the steep steps and finally ending with the odd form fitting leotard so many Asuran women seemed to wear as undergarments.

Near the bottom of the steps she stopped, and pushed his hairy leg around herself, urging him to finish the steps. Three fingered hands knotted into his fur, guiding him around the edge of the stairs to stand beside them, placing him at just the perfect height, in her judgement, for her intentions. He watched as she bent down a bit and knew what she planned to next. It was hardly the first time she had done this.

Fingers slipped from his fur to tangle with his loincloth, unwrapping it quickly and efficiently. The cloth hadn’t even settled to the floor before he felt warm, wet lips circling his shaft. Xandra began an eager sucking, pulling from root to helmet before nibbling their way back down as fingers explored his backside, ribs, thighs, and more. He sighed, standing there for her, letting her work his sex to her horny heart’s delight.

It was not long before she stopped. He suddenly felt unpleasantly cold as moistened bits were exposed to the air rather than the heat of her mouth. Rikbore’s eyes opened, and he looked down to the head his hands were resting gently on.

Red eyes were turned up towards his face. “You are not becoming erect.”

He found himself suddenly awkward at the blatant statement. His hands slipped out of Xandra’s black hair and fluttered in front of him as though uncertain what they should be doing. “Sorry. I’m sure if you just…”

“No,” Xandra sighed. “It is quite alright.” She descended the rest of the way down the stairs, then put her arms around him as far as she could. Her breath blew in a spot that was an awkward cap on what was already an awkward situation. “I understand.”

“There’s nothing to understand,” Rikbore whispered. “I’m just tired, I guess.”

Xandra opened her mouth, a stubborn look on her face. But then she closed it and her features mellowed. “Yes. I am certain that you are, indeed, tired. Come over to the cot. We can get some rest together.”

Unhappy with himself, Rickbore let her lead him over to the cot she frequently crashed on, but which had suspiciously been designed to be large enough to hold a body many times her own mass. She watched him as he lowered himself onto the cot, then lay on his side.

It was then his turn to watch as the nude Asuran woman plopped down onto the bed, then wiggled backwards towards him until she could nestle against his stomach. He curled an arm over her, holding her almost as though she were a teddy bear. A naked, warm, and eroticly female smelling teddy bear.

He felt horribly embarrassed and disappointed in himself.

“Xandra. If you wanted I could”

“Shh,” She interrupted. “It is alright. Try to relax and get some sleep. There is always tomorrow.”

He quieted, but didn’t sleep as he held her, realizing that, to his horror, he was very much worried that her last statement might not, in fact, be true.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

“Hand me the calipers.”

Deep in the bowels of the marsh-side keep, Xandra’s hand emerged from deep inside the Abomination.

It wasn’t really an abomination. For the most part it was based on tried and true aetheric principles, using well known golem technologies in its assembly.The fact that it had four legs, rather than two, was easily the largest gollum Rickbore had ever seen, and that its power source was aetheric energies no one else had ever harnessed before was what caused the giant cat-like Charr warrior to refer to it as “the Abomination”.

Keeping that particular appellation to himself, he handed the calipers to the tiny Asuran woman. So equipped, Xandra’s hand disappeared back inside. Her voice, however, continued to drift out. “No, no. That will not do. It is too large by 6%.”

From the workbench behind him, Rikbore heard another, less welcome voice. Znap, too, was one of the midget sized Asurans, in this case a spike haired little raisin of a male whose presence had greatly increased the difficulties in Rikbore’s life. He was the bait being dangled in the trap very powerful people had set for Xandra, one that could very well take away someone he had come to view as much more than just a fellow warrior.

“We may see a 23% reduction in aetheric recapture if I make this any smaller.” Znap complained. “Are you certain we can not enlarge the containment chamber?”

“It would take two weeks to restructure the entire power containment bay to fit it in.” Xandra sounded exasperated. “This is just for a quick test. Why go to that length when we would be doing a significant rebuild afterwords regardless of the results?”

“You know,” Rikbore rumbled, his voice far deeper and more powerful than the other two. “You could fit it in if you just left the armor plating off. It would be a jury rigged mess, but we don’t need full combat functionality. As a mere test we won’t be needing armor. Just take it outside the walls and shoot up the swamp.”

There was a moment of quiet, and then both Asurans grunted assent in a disturbingly similar fashion. The moment of kinship was not a comforting thing for Rikbore, even if it was an affirmation of the value of his participation.

Znap began working on the storage device in his hand, the second piece of what would become an entire bank of them buried in the bowels of the centaur-like beast Xandra was nestled inside of. He hemmed and hawed a moment. “I am still a bit concerned about firing the full charge at the edge of the marsh, however. We could well wind up getting the golem stuck yet again. We should just hoist it up onto a tower and mount it there.”

“We have been over this,” Xandra grumped. “I require mobility. Given that, we have to choose between the upwards mobility of legs and the surface area of wheels. Either we have good mobility on soft ground or we are good on rough terrain. Given the nature of this region we are far more likely to encounter rough terrain, the marsh notwithstanding.”

“The marsh, being right outside the wall, is inevitable.”

“It is only on two sides of the keep. The others are perfectly solid ground. Setting aside the fact that this golem has already been built, the Marsh, while good for testing, is otherwise avoidable.”

Rikbore sighed. The three had been arguing the point for two days, ever since an absurdly pleased Xandra had allowed Znap into the secret laboratory. Rikbore wanted wheels, Xandra wanted legs, and Znap was becoming convinced golems the size Xandra was making were practical only as static gun emplacements.

“We’ve been down here for two days,” he growled. “I’m going upstairs and getting some fresh air.”

He saw the look of surprise on Znap’s face. Rikbore had been certain to never leave Xandra alone with the little male that was hoping to father cubs on her. Znap had not missed that little detail and, given the dark looks she’d been shooting Rikbore, Xandra hadn’t exactly been oblivious to it either. Rikbore gave Znap a dirty look that implied he very much doubted Xandra had the patience for either of their sexual frustrations at the moment, but that Znap had best not test it, then climbed the stairs.

He had scarcely had time to feel the heat of the sun toasting the battlements when a grunt-like cough sounded behind him. Turning with a scowl he found himself facing a battleworn black Charr of considerable size. “Legionnaire Rikbore Warstone?”

“Who wants to know?”

The Charr stepped closer and held out a scroll. “You are hereby ordered to report to the Black Citadel to speak with Centurian Fahrlock. Immediately.”

“I’m on extended leave,” Rikbore growled.

“It’s been cancelled. The Legion calls, legionnaire.”

Tail twitching, Rikbore accepted the scroll.

***

Deep in the heart of the charr homeland, the Black Citadel was a monstrosity of iron and brass. It was a singular structure and a city all in one, raising high into the sky to dwarf the blighted landscape before it. Like a giant machine, everything shook and shivered with the vibrations of industry as smoke billowed into the air above its dome and armies of feline soldiers, engineers, and farmers came and went, all in the name of the Charr war machine. Like its builders it was a bold, daunting, and unforgiving a place.

Rikbore stalked into the barracks of the Stone Warband, the claws of his toes tapping on the metal grate of the floor. He moved past the common room and the entryway into the billeting spaces, turning towards the officer’s quarters. Shortly after entering he turned aside, entering into the space reserved for the centurions that were the backbone of the Legions’ discipline.

Stopping before a desk he stood as straight as he could, his fist on his chest. “Rikbore Warstone, reporting as ordered.”

The centurion on the other side of the desk rose and returned the salute. “Well, at least you still remember how to salute properly.”

Rikbore seethed at the insulting tone. “What’s this about, centurion? I was on extended leave.”

“Orders,” the grey furred bulk responded. “You do remember what those are, don’t you?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?” Rikbore rumbled.

“To my surprise.”

Rikbore leaned forward, one hand braced on the desktop. “Look, Fahrlock. You don’t like me and I don’t like you. So the sooner you tell me why I am here, the sooner we are out of one another’s hair.”

Fahrlock grunted his agreement. “Fine. Against my recommendations, the Citadel wants to promote you to centurion.”

That rocked Rikbore back on his heels. “Me? A centurion?”

Fahrlock frowned. “Damn fool decision if you ask me. You made a lousy ranker, you made a terrible file closer. There’s no way you’d be a good centurion.” With a shrug, the centurion sat back down and opened his desk, pulling out a bottle. “Far as I’m concerned you shouldn’t ever be allowed to be anything more than a gladium, stuck in pit fights for the entertainment of your betters.”

The bottle was uncorked and slid across the desk top. Rikbore plopped into the chair on that side of the desk and took a fast swig. He ignored the blatant insult and focused on the topic at hand. “What’s the catch?”

“The catch?” Fahrlock retrieved the bottle and took a swig himself. “The catch is you’re a centurion. You return to the barracks, you drill your troops, and you march when the Legion tells you to march. You stop haring about some backwater plane of existence and you try to act like a good foot soldier.”

“Ah.” Rikbore sat back in the chair. “And you said this came from the Citadel?”

“Straight from the Imperators themselves.”

Rikbore chuckled softly. “And why exactly are you the one to be telling me this?”

“I’m the one telling you specifically because I don’t like you.” Fahrlock grinned, teeth flashing as he pulled out two glasses and filled them from the bottle. “You’ve always thought you knew better than your peers. You’re always running around chasing this hair-brained scheme or that, troubling our engineers with strange notions you’ve picked up from those hairless mockeries you’re so fond of. And somehow the Legion has always let you get away with it. But today?” Fahrlock lifted his glass in a mocking toast. “Today I get to see that rebellious, independent streak crushed. You are finally being reigned in, and I get to be the one to watch the joy die out of your eyes.”

“Or not.”

Fahrlock leaned forward, eyes narrowed suspiciously. “You have no choice. Centurions stay with the troops.”

Rikbore laughed. “Sure. But I don’t have to accept promotion.”

Fahrlock’s jaw dropped. “No one refuses promotion.”

Rikbore grinned. “I do.”

Fahrlock growled. “You can’t.”

“Why not?”

The smile returned to Fahrlock’s face. “Because we know about that little… pet of yours. How do you think she’ll react if we let her know you’ve been telling us all about what she’s up to?”

There it was. The threat confirmed what Rikbore had suspected. The promotion was a farce. Someone intended it to be a way to take Rikbore out of the equation. Without Rikbore, Xandra would have no allies in her fight to remain independent. It was an elegant trap. Either he accept the promotion, and thus be forced to return to the Black Citadel, or he refused, and they alienated her by outing him as an informant.

He laughed. “Nice try, but no.” He stood up. “As long as I refuse promotion, the Legion lacks a reason to cancel my leave.”

Fahrlock flicked an ear in annoyance. “But we’ll tell her.”

Rikbore leaned over to pick up the glass that had been sitting next to him. “You think she doesn’t already know? She’s Asuran!” He shot the drink back and walked out the door.

***

“Rikbore?”

He paused as he heard the call come out from one of the canteens that lined the road leading out of the city. The voice was familiar, as was the state of inebriation that came with it. “Cammillus?”

“In the flesh!” The white-coated female embraced him in a bear hug that made the leather of his armor creak. “I never thought I’d see you back here again.”

Rikbore shrugged, returning the hug. “They tried to promote me.”

The slightly drunk woman lurched back to stare at Rikbore. “You’re joking.”

“No. No joke,” Rikbore shook his head. “I turned them down.”

Cammillus’ stare turned suspicious. “No one turns promotion down.”

“I did.”

For a moment she said nothing, then she snorted. “Actually, I’m somehow unsurprised by that. How did he take it?”

“Fahrlock?”

“Well, yeah. Somehow I doubt he’d let anyone else be the one to break the news. He’s always been determined to make a ‘proper’,” the female made air quotes, “Charr of you.”

Rikbore shrugged. “You know father.”

For a moment Cammillus’ face sobered. “Yeah. He’s probably fit to be tied” Then she brightened up again. “You should come get a drink with me, brother. We can get ploughed telling old stories. Remember the time we had that freak blizzard in the Iron Marches? That idea you came up with was genius!”

Rikbore shook himself. “What was that?”

“The Iron Marches! The snow storm?”

“The snow… Camillus, you’re brilliant!” Rikbore turned and started to run towards the gate.

“Rikbore!” Cammillus shouted. “Get back here!”

“No time!” He yelled over his shoulder. “I know how to do it! Thank you, sis!”

“What was that about?” he heard her mutter as he disappeared around the bend.

***

Rikbore threw himself down the steps with reckless haste. The thundering sound of his massive weight, burdened further by his armor, echoed throughout the hidden lab. As he reached the bottom in a rush he saw two assuran faces staring at him, one from the table, one from inside the Abomination.

“I know how to do it,” he gasped out. He hurried over to the backside of the centaur-like gollem and lifted Xandra out like she was a child.

“Rikbore!” she objected, but could get no further before his lips were crushing hers.

A cough broke into the kiss. “Do what?” Znap said, his voice snippish.

Rikbore left off the kiss and turned to face Znap, still holding Xandra in the air.

“I know how to get that monstrosity the ground contact it needs without sacrificing its ability to tackle rough terrain.”

For a moment there was silence, then Xandra spoke, her voice slightly husky. “Tell me.”

“Us. Tell us,” Znap said. “We are all ears.”

“You’re Asurans,” Rikbore grinned. “Of course you’re all ears.” He set Xandra down. “It works like this…”

Chapter Text

“You realize that you are really quite mad,” Znap commented. He huffed as he worked to drag a large metal chain across the lab floor. “Of course, research has indicated that genius and cerebral disturbance often go hand in hand.”

Rikbore gave Znap a long look out of the corner of his eye. “I’m not certain whether that is meant to be a complement or an insult.”

Xandra laughed, the first time in days Rikbore’d heard it. “It is both, of course,” she said. “But he is correct. Your little cognitive leap here was inspired by a deliciously deranged mind.” She walked over and grabbed Znap around the waist to help pull, as though she were the anchor in a particularly odd one sided game of tug-of-war. “What little bit of serendipity led you to come up with this improbable yet surprisingly plausible idea?”

With a grunt, Rikbore dropped the collection of wooden beams he was carrying on the floor. “It was something my sister said when I was refusing to be manipulated. She mentioned a snow storm.”

The two Asurans finally finished dragging the chain across the floor, and collapsed in two heaps side by side. Rikbore glanced over to them, then grabbed a second chain and dragged it out, not at all bothered by the weight. They gave him a collective look of disgust, but Xandra then gave him a go on gesture when he seemed unlikely to continue the story.

With a grin, Rikbore leaned against a nearby workbench. “It was back when we were still in the same fahrar, having been born in the same litter. We were in our final year, and apprenticed to a warband we were likely to enter when we came of age. The warband had been tasked with hunting a group of Flame Legion rebels and found one of their strongholds in the Iron Mountains.

“We realized when we found their hideout that it was well fortified. If we wanted to take them, we’d need siege machinery. We called for reinforcements, asking them to come prepared. After a few days of us waiting in the foothills, the reinforcements arrived, bringing some of our war machines for heavy bombardment. Unfortunately, just as they showed up at the rally point there was a freak snowstorm.”

Pulling himself up from the floor, Znap glanced toward Rikbore. Lifting himself from the table he was leaning against, Rikbore ambled over to another chain and began to pulling it into place between the first two chains, smiling as Znap glowered.

The little male asuran shook his head, then glanced over toward the beast they had been modifying since Rikbore’s return. “Your war machines use wheeled locomotion, do they not?”

“Yes,” Rikbore agreed, finishing his placement of the chain. He then  walked over to the timber’s he had just hauled into the lab from outside and picked up the first beam. Eyeing it a moment, he made a mark on it, then picked up a hand drill. “The wheels tend to be very good in most environments in Ascalon. They have good surface area to distribute weight. But snow? Now that is something they can’t handle.”

Seeing his industriousness, the two asurans rose from the floor and began working to modify parts they had pulled out of the golem earlier. As the two settled in behind him, Rikbore bore down on the drill, working a hole into the beam with a steady pressure. “We really didn’t like the thought of not having the artillery with us when we stormed the place, but we couldn’t get them to drive through the heavy snowfall. The wheels kept sinking into the snow, and the front end kept piling into the drifts. We were pretty unhappy about this when I hit on the idea of building a road on top of the snow for the vehicles using logs.

“Now, Ascalon isn’t the most heavily forested place in the world, so building a wooden road the entire distance to the fort would have been a logistical nightmare. So instead we chopped down enough timber to make sufficient beams for a road twice the length of the war machines. We’d lay them down in a road long enough for all of the machines, plus a little. Then, as the last one passed, we’d pick up the beams and take them to the leading edge to further extend the road as we went.”

With a grunt, Rikbore broke through the backside of the beam. He spun the beam around and began drilling a hole in the other end. “With that we basically rolled the road up behind us and unrolled it ahead. It was slow, but it was faster than attempting to get all the lumber to go the entire way. In the end, that road even took the weight of the guns firing. My sister jokingly called it ‘rolling out the bloody red carpet’.”

“Fascinating,” Xandra commented. She carefully adjusted a modified leg. “So you are now repeating that device in a fashion more economical of supply and quicker in application.”

“We have the power, thanks to Znap. A normal golem engine may have struggled with it, but with stored aetherics this beast will even fire on the move without slowing. At least, that’s what the math says. I did include far too many assumptions in the equation. No one has ever attempted this before, that I know of.”

Znap nodded. “It will be interesting to see how much endurance it has before it has to stop and be recharged, but I imagine we will be able to overcome that. Assuming this works to plan.”

“Well, we shall find out in a week, won’t we?” Xandra grinned towards Rikbore. He found himself returning it.

***

Below the keep, a face of the cliffs slid open with a groan. Though the sound echoed, the bouncing of the sound off the various canyons and ridges surrounding both the keep above and the marsh below made it impossible to localize if you didn’t already know where to look. Rikbore, of course, knew, but he had taken care to ensure no uninvited eyes were about to make the attempt of ferreting out the small team’s secrets before signalling Xandra to open up.

The Abomination crawled out of the cave with a curious scraping and rattling sound. Though it still had legs, it had gone from a “mere” four to having ten. Each leg ended in an axel from which wheels projected to the side. And, creating the clattering sound, a wrap of logs, chained together, rolled over the top of the wheels on each side, dropping from the front to the ground, then resting in place as the wheels rolled over them, only to be hoisted back up and over the wheels as the final pair passed, beginning their journey forward once again.

“Are you quite certain that this will have sufficient capability to climb over intrusive obstacles such as large rocks?” Znap asked, standing alongside of Rikbore.

Rikbore pointed to the collection of medium sized boulders he had rolled out to the edge of the marsh, interrupting the path down that the machine would have to take. “We’re about to find out.”

They both waited with baited breath as the Abomination trundled along on its wooden road towards the boulders. They could see Xandra’s head peering out from an open hatch just before the waist of the upper body, her eyes evaluating the stones with care.

As it reached the point that Xandra could no longer see the first of the stones, the Abomination slowed. It crept forward, one wooden beam at a time, until the first log scraped against the first of the stones.

For a moment the machine stopped, as though reluctant. But then they felt a low vibration in the ground as Xandra applied more power to the aetheric engine that moved the wheels, and the machine began creeping forward again. As they watched the leading wheel began to raise up higher than the others as the leg it was mounted on lifted. In only a brief amount of time the wheel, and the wooden beams carrying it, were over the rock, and then beginning to descend down the back, the next wheel in line rising, with the chained together beams carrying the Abomination’s weight regardless of where they touched the rock.

Rikbore grinned. “Perfect.”

Beside him Znap nodded in approval. “I find myself experiencing deep satisfaction in our confederating about the design. This solution is excellent.”

“You’re welcome,” Rikbore grinned.

The pair watched as Xandra increased the speed. The Abomination began moving quickly through the field of stones. While it was clear she was being bounced around and that the machine itself was jouncing quite a bit, it moved through the field swiftly, the stones a meer inconvenience rather than the roadblock they previously would have represented.

“Our war machines would never have made it through there,” Rikbore mused.

“But what about the marsh?”

“That comes next.”

As the last boulder emerged from beneath the Abomination’s bizarre means of movement, Xandra brought it to a stop. She hopped out the hatch, running over and around checking on this and that as though to assure herself that the bouncing had not done any harm. The two males watched, impatient, until she gave a satisfied nod and she slipped back inside the machine.

A moment passed, and then the Abomination began moving forward like a self-guided boulder, picking up speed.

Rikbore found himself holding his breath as it barrelled down the gentle grassy slope towards the fetted swamp beside the keep. He could see the wooden beams begin pressing down into the soft wet ground at the edge, but then rise back out as the golem continued its headlong dash. It seemed that the Abomination would not be sinking into the muck and wind up trapped after all.

Then, throwing up a massive wave before it, the metallic creature blasted into the waters of the marsh. The wave obscured it from view completely, and the roar of water falling back to earth disrupted any stillness the evening had previously hoped to possess. Rikbore found himself wincing, knowing there was no way they were not going to have an audience after that. A quick glance assured him the cave mouth had been closed up again, and thus remained hidden from prying eyes.

He felt a brief moment of alarm when he turned back to the scene. The Abomination was unmoving, water washing off of its back and draining into the openings in its skin where they had not replaced armored panels. Xandra was standing in the hatch looking bedraggled, wringing out her jacket.

“She’s not stuck, is she?”

“It is impossible to ascertain at the moment,” Znap replied. “I suspect even she is not fully informed regarding that, as she appears to mostly be… wet.”

“Believe me, she gets wet often,” Rikbore chuckled.

Znap shot Rikbore a long suffering look. “Was that entirely necessary, Rikbore Warstone?”

Rikbore grinned, and watched as Xandra lowered herself back to her seat inside the Abomination. He held his breath watching.

The Abomination shook itself, a small spray of water dropping all around it.

And then it moved. An inch. Then two. Then a foot.

As the Abomination began moving forward at a slow but steady pace, pushing a small bow wave before it, Rikbore found himself bellowing with glee. By Ascalon, it was working. The curious wheeled road was working!

Beside him Znap was grinning, a shockingly wide and toothy expression in his wrinkled face.  “Fascinating! I have never observed anything quite like this before!”

Rikbore cupped his hands before his mouth. With a voice trained to the battlefield he roared out, “XANDRA! WILL IT FIRE?”

The Abomination rolled to a stop, immersed deeply in the water of the marsh. Xandra’s head ducked down inside to where they could not see her. For a moment all was still. But then the torso atop the structure turned a little, aimed at a tree in the marsh…

Rikbore was blinking after images away as the sound of the explosion reached him. From the wall above him he could hear shouts of excitement.

“Yeah, it fires,” he muttered. “Just how much power did it put into that tree?”

Rubbing his eyes, Znap groaned a bit. “What tree? I think she obliterated it utterly.”

Blinking, Rickbore attempted to locate the target. All he could see, barely, was a mass of swirling, muddy water where it had been.

“Yeah. That she did.” He turned his head to the Abomination. It was still where it had been when fired, not a single of its usual lights aglow. Xandra had climbed out of it and was pushing her way through neck deep swamp water towards them, her smile evident. When she drew close to the bank, she turned and gave the machine a long look.

“There was an aetheric feedback overload in the storage bottles when I fired. It destroyed everything. I doubt there is anything salvageable left in it.” She turned back around and finished wading her way ashore, shaking her leg to help remove some of the water running down it.

“We never did recalculate the loads being carried, or adapt any of the energy couplings,” Znap mused.

“True,” Xandra agreed. “But did you see what it did to that tree? BOOM!” she whooped, spinning around with her arms flung outward.

Rikbore grinned at her, then turned and looked up at the walls. It seemed the entire garrison was staring, pointing and gabbling at one another. “Looks like we have an audience.”

Pay them no mind,” Znap responded. “I shall endeavor to make all clear regarding the felicity of the occasion.” He turned and looked up at Rikbore. “You should go celebrate.”

“Huh?”

Znap pointed at Xandra. “Celebrate.”

“Ah!” Rikbore grinned and started to turn toward the still ecstatic little Asuran. But then he found himself pausing. “Um… are you certain you

Znap cut him off. “Absolutely. She has not chosen of her own free will to engage in conjugial relations with me as of yet, and I am not going to attempt to influence her by using her current exuberance as a tool.” He  sighed, but then smiled. “Besides. For me it will be to have progeny, not for the sheer joy of it. What she deserves right now is something far more rewarding.” He smiled. “We can work together to fill different needs, bookah.”

Rikbore stared down at the shriveled little man next to him. After a moment, he grinned. “Maybe so.”

The charr lifted Xandra off the ground, eliciting a squeak of surprise from her, followed by laughter. If he just went around the corner of the cliff he knew the perfect spot. And, he grinned, he doubted he’d have any issues this time. Not any at all.

Chapter Text

Their private celebration had quickly become a public one. The pleasure Rikbore and Xandra had taken of one another had been quick, a matter of fingers and tongues and almost desperate need that had quickly come to its conclusion, following which they had returned to the little keep under which Xandra kept her hidden lab.

Scarce had they entered when they had been whisked away to the keep’s dining hall. The entire garrison was there, drinking up the stocks of beers and wines, roasting excessive amounts of meat, and carrying on like it was a holiday. When Xandra had entered at Rikbore’s side she had rapidly been lifted into the air and paraded about on a makeshift palanquin as though she were a battle hero enjoying a triumph.

Rikbore had received quite a few congratulatory thumps on the back himself. He was soon seated at a very boisterous table, a beer shoved into one hand, a large deer haunch on a stick in his other. Those at the table with him were already too deep into their cups for him to make much sense of what they were attempting to say to him. Individual words made sense, of course, but as a collective whole they became rather incoherent.

Ravenous, he determined to ignore the speakers and do the beer (wonderfully cool) and meat (deliciously rare) the justice they deserved. He had just begun to put that plan into action when the bench beside him sagged rather significantly. Jolf the Titan was aptly named. Tall, like most of his Norn brethren, he easily overtopped Rikbore. Unlike most other Norn, however, Jolf was extremely broad as well, probably making him the equal of Rikbore’s 35 stone mass. The two of them combined tasked the sturdy oak bench until the wood creaked ominously.

“By Bear!” he bellowed, slapping Rikbore firmly on the shoulder. “What an achievement!”

Carefully setting down his beer lest another slap spill it, Rikbore shrugged. “It’s not that big of a deal,” he rumbled.

“No?” The tattoo marked face grinned down at him. “I’ve seen Asuran golems many a time. I’ve watched a small army of them march up to the wall of a castle. Most amazing thing I had ever seen. But they pale in size and power compared to this.”

Rikbore grunted. “Glad you approve.”

“Approve? How could I not?” The giant guffawed. “Never found the horse big enough for someone like me to ride. But I dare say one of those would fit my bulk! Imagine the hunt I could undertake on the back of one of those!”

Shaking his head, Rikbore took a large chomp out of his roast. The image of a Norn riding a golem was, in his opinion, farcical. “Never work,” he grunted. “Your legs would tangle with the road-wheel thingies.” He made a note to himself to come up with a real name for the contraption he’d devised to carry the golem’s weight.

“I’ll just have to sit with my legs crossed,” Jolf replied amiably. But then he leaned in with a conspiratorial grin. “But what is this I’ve heard about a secret weapon being built into that thing?”

Glass halfway to his mouth, Rikbore paused. He turned to fix an eye on the giant. “Secret weapon? What in Kalla’s dugs are you talking about?”

“Don’t play dumb, Rikbore.” The man winked. “Everyone knows about it. It’s all anyone can talk about. Something in that weird metal beast you three created is supposed to change the war.”

“War?” Rikbore arched a furry eyebrow. He felt the urge to tear his horns out. “What war?”

“This war! Any war. All wars!” Jold waved his arms expansively. “People are saying that that golem could take on anything. Even a dragon!”

Abandoning his stick of meat and half drunk beer, Rikbore rose. “Excuse me.”

“You can tell me,” Jold roared at Rikbore’s retreating back. “I’m the soul of discretion!”

Aside from the one still lifted high into the air, feasting on whatever was brought to her, Asurans were very difficult to see amongst the boisterous crowd. Being half the height of puny races like the Sylvari or Humans they could easily get lost amongst the masses of only occasionally washed bodies filling the hall. Thus it took a bit of time for Rikbore to find Znap in the crowd.

The shriveled little Asuran male had his own eager collection of wellwishers surrounding him, though they were less intent than those surrounding Xandra. Rikbore had to assume that this was because they’d already had access to him for a bit. Seeing Rikbore approaching Znap quickly hopped off of the chair he was occupying and pushed his way out of that group, meeting him part way.

“Something is not right,” he snapped up at Rikbore, tugging a large, floppy ear. His expression was cross and worried all at once.

“I’ll say,” Rikbore agree. “What did you tell these people?”

“I kept it simple,” Znap replied. “I simply informed the onlookers that we had just tested an experimental prototype of a new form of war golem intended to be able to traverse previously inaccessible terrain.”

“Nothing else.”

“Of course not,” Znap shot back. “But somehow people seem to think they have witnessed a new super weapon.”

“Haven’t they?” Rikbore asked quietly.

“Well, yes,” Znap responded. “But I was disinclined to offer any corroboration that there was anything out of the ordinary about the golem aside from its superior mobility.”

“Well, someone let them know there was something inside more interesting than those wheel leg things we made.”

“And that,” Znap summed up, “is somehow worrying. Who could possibly even know?”

Rikbore frowned deeply. Sure, rumors always ran rampant. But he would have expected to hear speculations about armies of new war golems buried beneath the keep, or something like that. This rumor, that something inside the machine could prove revolutionary, was too close to accurate.

“It’s worse than that. What worries me is not that someone seems to know what’s really important here. The scary part of this crowd is what people are whispering that this new development is capable of. Someone,” Rikbore muttered, “has suggested these things can fight dragons.”

Znap scoffed, but his eyes quickly turned thoughtful. “The problem with that is that they can not do so,” he replied. “Not as currently designed at least. Certainly the ability to provide them with an aetheric source that renders them impervious to the loss of energy caused by the presence of dragons gives them a certain advantage, but in terms of actual combat strength they still mount the same firepower as a standard siege golem.”

“Well, someone has them convinced otherwise. And, I warrant, our little explosion has not helped in that area.”

Znap frowned. “I owe that I find myself curious as to the identity of the source.”

“I wonder,” Rikbore rumbled, suffering from no doubts at all.

****

He felt her tiny hand on his arm before he realized she was there. “I am heading down to the lab,” she said quietly, her voice too soft to be heard by anyone else in the still crowded dining hall. “Are you going to join me?”

“Of course,” Rikbore rumbled, smiling. He turned and bulled his way through the crowd, creating a bubble of space Xandra could take advantage of as he pushed his way to the doors exiting the hall.

Enough time celebrating had passed to make the exit relatively simple. They still received plenty of questions and congratulations, but with the crowd more deeply into their cups than at the start of things the inquisitive were more easily dissuaded from pressing. They found themselves in the hall in a relatively short amount of time, and quickly passed out of anyone’s view.

A few halls and passageways later the two slipped into the hidden passageway that led down to the lab. No sooner had the door closed than Xandra stopped. Turning, she looked up to Rikbore.

“We have a problem.”

Rikbore nodded in acknowledgement. “Znap and I discussed that briefly earlier. Everyone thinks we can fight dragons.”

“And they will tell others. Word will get back to Rata Sum.”

“I don’t think we have to worry about that.”

“Oh?” Xandra cocked her head to the side.

“I think Rata Sum is where the rumor came from in the first place.”

Xandra pondered that a moment. “Zojja.”

“Aided by Sara. We know Sara comes and goes as she pleases, and that includes our lab. She could easily know what we are doing, and when we are prepared to test things.”

“So when she knows we are about to do a test outside…” Xandra looked troubled.

“She does Zojja’s dirty work by planting some whispers in the ears of a few people talking about a dragon stopping weapon being developed here in secret,” Rikbore nodded.

“Then we do a very public test of the drive, including its ability to stand up to an overcharged shot that melts the entire aetherics…”

“And everyone who has been told the ‘secret’ is suddenly sure of what they have just seen.”

Xandra cursed. “I have to admire the brilliance of it, even if I am outraged at the way I am targeted by it. Thanks to this if I continue to try working out here everyone will be looking over my shoulder, jostling me, and getting in the way. So if I stay here, I am under intense pressure. But the alternative is to return to Rata Sum. To Zojja.”

Rikbore sighed and leaned back against the wall of the passageway. He slid down it until his butt struck the floor, bringing his head to just below Xandra’s eye level. “And now it doesn’t matter which you choose. Either location will have the same result. Everyone, here or there, will want to see you progress. Every meal you take will have people grilling you over your results. Every shipment of necessary materials will be scrutinized. Every test watched like a gladiatorial bout. And they will all be demanding the same thing.”

“A dead dragon, at my hands.” Xandra plopped herself down beside Rikbore, leaning her head against his arm.

“Your experiments were about avoiding dragons, not killing them.” His arm came up and he tucked Xandra into his side. “But now the world has been told you are working on killing dragons.”

Silence descended on the passageway. Neither of them seemed inclined to speak, or to move. Instead they simply sat there, unmoving, each with their own thoughts about the situation.

Eventually Xandra stirred. “I am going down to the lab to get some sleep.” She slipped from under his arm and stood.

“Do you want me to come with you?”

She paused then, a strange expression flickering across her face for a moment. “No,” she whispered. “I think tonight I would like to be alone.”

“Alright,” Rikbore responded, his voice equally quiet. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

***

In the morning, no matter how hard he looked, he couldn’t find her. Xandra, it seemed, was gone.

Chapter Text

Znap found him located on top of the wall. Rikbore idly watched from his position kicked back on the crenelations as the shriveled, hairless little raisin struggled to climb up next to him. The Asuran hopped up to catch the edge of the stone where it was lowest, then struggled to swing his leg up and onto the top without success.

“A little help would be appreciated,” Znap shot as his foot lost purchase yet again. Wordlessly, Rikbore leaned over and offered a hand, lifting Znap into the air when the Asuran took it, then lowering him onto the crenelation. Once firmly deposited Znap sat down, dangling his legs over the edge.

The diminutive male sighed. “I have been all over the keep. Everywhere I can think of. I have not found any sign of her. The guards on the gate to Kryta have not seen her either, so it is unlikely that she has gone back to our own plane.”

Rikbore grunted an acknowledgement.

“That means she is probably out there.” Znap nodded out into the swamp abutting the keep, and to the canyonlands created by the slopes beyond it. “I am not familiar with all that. I have hardly left the keep since I came here. But you do.”

Rikbore arched an eyebrow.

“So I have to wonder,” Znap continued, “why you are not out there looking for her?”

“Assuming she is out there to be found, she’s not see easy to see. She’s not exactly large, and I’ve found that she is surprisingly sneaky for an engineer.”

Znap paused a moment, then made a rude sound. “You don’t think she’s out there at all, do you?”

“Xandra’s a smart girl. She knows there’s nothing helpful out there.” Rikbore shrugged. “There’s nowhere left for her to hide now. The mists hold nothing but Fergs.”

“Is it possible that she is looking for them specifically?” Znap asked, but the tone of his voice implied he doubted his own suggestion.

Rikbore felt a snort escape him. “Anything but,” he said. He turned to gaze out over the swamp. “Xandra once told me she had a theory about the Ferg. She’d noted that they seemed to have the same races as us, wore the same clothing and armor styles, built in the same ways… We just never could seem to understand one another, they and us.” He stared out towards the far mountains, just barely visible in the distance. “She thinks it’s some sort of parallel world they’re from, and that they’re here for the same reason we are.”

“That would mean that they have dragon troubles, too.”

“She suspects as much.”

“So even if she could find some way to communicate with them rather than being killed by them…”

Rikbore nodded. “She’d be escaping to the very same problem she was trying to escape from.”

The two lapsed into silence as they contemplated the landscape beyond the wall. It was a companionable moment, with neither of them seeming to have any sort of need to shift from their place. The sun, sinking in the West, began casting long shadows across the murky waters as the wall obscured its beams. The shadows from the crenelations began to stretch, like fingers, towards the bluff at the far end of the marsh as though seeking to clutch it in their grasp.

“Do you suppose she really is out there?” Znap finally asked.

“I really couldn’t say,” Rikbore responded. He folded his hands over his stomach. “She’s clever enough she could be anywhere, I suppose.”

“So what do we do now?”

“We wait.”

****

Znap’s head surfaced with a scowl, water running off of his bare dome. Removing his breath mask, he glowered at Rikbore. “I simply do not see why I have to be the one doing this part.”

Looking down from where he was perched atop the golem in the swamp, Rikbore grinned. “Two reasons. First, I’m far larger than you, and getting to the transfer casing on the road wheels means being able to get underneath this thing.” He gave the monstrosity a pat. “Second, have you ever smelled a wet Charr?”

Znap snorted. “Somehow I suspect that the latter is the far more important of your enumerated reasons.”

Rikbore gave a wink. “How’s it look down there?”

Znap scratched his drying dome. “I believe you are correct in your theory. I have located the transfer casing on the four motivating wheels. It will take less digging than I had feared for me to be able to get underneath and disconnect them.”

“And then we can finally get this thing out of the mud.”

“Indeed.” Znap replied. “And how are things going on your end of things?”

“I’ve finished assessing as much of the damage as I can get to. I’ll have to take this thing apart to get to some of the critical systems, but…” Ribore shrugged.

“It was as bad as I feared?”

“Worse, I think. We’ll know more when we get it back into the shop and can take some real tools to it, but it looks like you were right. It’s looking like it’ll be easier to start a new golem from scratch than to repair this one.”

Znap sighed. “Alright. What have you learned about the directional controls?”

“Lucky for us, they seem to be locked in a neutral position. If you can disconnect the transfer this thing should roll more or less straight when we try to tug it out.”

“Alright.” Znap held out his arm and waggled his fingers. “Hand me the shovel.”

Rikbore plucked the requested tool from the back of the beast and leaned down to hand it to Znap. The little Asura quickly slipped under the water, the bubbles rising from his mask the only sign he was still present.

Rikbore began replacing panels that had provided him access to the interior of the golem. Knowing it wouldn’t be long before he was pulling them open yet again he didn’t fully secure them, only tightening down components and fasteners sufficiently to keep things in place. Torquing them down would only mean having to break the torque again once the machine was back in the lab. He just wanted to make certain the panels wouldn’t fall off under tow.

Only a few panels were left when the golem lurched. Surprised, Rikbore windmilled his arms a bit, attempting to keep his balance, and then failed spectacularly. He toppled over, taking several smaller tools with him as he plunged into the water beside the golem.

The water was shallow enough for his backside to strike the muddy bottom of the swampy pond, but deep enough that his head was covered when he did so. Irritated, he oriented himself and then got his feet under him, standing up in the waist deep water.

“Znap! What are you playing at!” he roared as water ran off the fur of his face and down his back and chest. “I should hold your head under until your brown skin turns blue!” He turned around to face the golem.

“Znap?”

A quick search revealed a lack of bubbles rising to the surface.

“Znap!”

Rikbore plunged under the water.

Visibility was nearly nonexistent. The water had been muddied, probably in part because of his crash into the bottom, but also because of Znap’s efforts. Unable to see more than a few hand lengths in front of his face, Rikbore reached out and felt around with his arm until his fingers found one of the wheels attached to the side of the golem.

Pulling himself along, Rikbore felt his way forward until he found the front of the golem. Groping about in the mud, he found a small gap beneath the golem. He reached inside, feeling about until his hand found a flailing leg. Seizing it, he tugged.

The leg, and the body attached to it, remained solidly in place. Hanging onto it, he shifted about so that he could reach his other arm into the hole and give another pull. He could feel the mud of the tunnel collapsing about his arms, threatening to mire them as firmly as the asuran he was tugging on.

His lungs were growing desperate for air. He’d not brought a breathing mask himself. But he worried about what might happen if he were to let go of Znap’s leg in order to go back up for air. If the tunnel collapsed any further he might not be able to find Znap again.

Desperate, he tucked his knees up into his chest and braced both feet against the front of the golem. Pushing with his legs, he put his back into the pulling. He could feel a burning in his lungs, and his vision was beginning to get white spots in it, when suddenly the mud released, and he flew backwards in the water, Znap slamming into his chest.

Getting his feet under him, he stood, lifting Znap out of the water. The little Asuran began coughing and retching immediately.

“Are you alright?” Rikbore asked.

Znap spit mud into the water. “You nearly tore my leg off,” he choked out, then coughed and vomited, then gasped for air. “And you lost my mask in the mud.” The little Asura shook his head loosely, the rest of his body a bit limp. “And saved my life. The tunnel collapsed when I disconnected the final transfer.”

Rikbore grinned. “We’ll call that a wash, then.”

Znap started to laugh, only for it to turn into another bout of coughing and gagging. He managed to catch some air just as Rikbore was setting him on the back deck of the golem. “You were correct in your assessment,” he said.

“Hmm?” Rikbore blinked at the half drowned creature.

“You are most certainly not pleasing to my olfactory senses when wet.”

“I could put you back where I found you,” Rikbore growled, though he was smiling as he said it.

“Alchemy forbid,” Znap rasped. He lay back on the deck, staring up at the sky. “Thank you,” he said softly. “You could have left me there, and not have to worry about Xandra splitting her affection.”

Rikbore snorted. “And have to pull this thing out of this muck by myself? Forget about it. Besides,” he said, his voice soft. “You don’t do that to one of your warband.”

Znap rolled his head to look at Rikbore. “Warband?” He paused for a moment, then smiled. “Warband. I can live with that.”

Znap held out his hand, and Rikbore took it. They shook, their grips firm.

Chapter Text

“Here,” Znap said. The asuran male was pointing to one of the many complex mechanisms inside the back portion of the machine. “That is the aetheric power buffer that failed. The results were a cascading effect causing components to fail throughout the entire alchemic exchange system.”

“And the surge that then raced through the system fried everything else.” Rikbore sighed. “There's nothing left to salvage.”

“The entire device has been rendered into so much aetheric rubbish,” Znap agreed. “We may as well have allowed it to remain embedded in the swamp.”

“We couldn’t have been sure without access to the full tool set in the shop.” Rikbore put a hand on the shoulder of his diminutive co-engineer. “Sorry.”

Znap waved the apology away. “You are, of course, correct in your assertion. We had to verify.”

“Well,” Rikbore leaned back, resting his back against the upper body of the centaur-like device Xandra had created with their help. “It looks like we'll have to increase the size of the entire power system to handle the buffering needed to control these amounts of energy.”

“That means we are going to have to make a larger and more robust road belt to carry the weight.”

Rikbore grunted. “We do that, we’ll need to make the drive system larger as well.”

“But if we make that larger, we'll have to make the power plant larger, and with that the buffering. Ad infinitum.”

“It's a vicious circle.” Rikbore sighed and slid off the back of the device. “Let's grab some paper and start crunching the numbers. We'll have to see if we can find a sweet spot.”

“Indeed. Finding the optimal balance of power to weight ratios would be the starting point.”

“I've already done it.”

Rikbore and Znap both turned to look at the bottom of the stairs. Xandra was smirking as she sat on the bottom step, looking as though she had been there for some time. “It is gratifying to see the two of you playing well together.”

Rikbore grinned. “Told you so,” he said to Znap.

“Fine, fine. You were correct to make us wait to go looking for her.” Znap slid off the back of the metallic beast, landing on both feet and propping his fists on both hips. “And where have you been, young lady?”

Xandra grinned and stood, walking over. “I am so glad you asked. Having thoroughly analyzed my situation and options, I made the decision that, if I was trapped, which I am, I should at least endeavor to make it as comfortable of a cage as I possibly could.”

“You went to see Zojja,” Rikbore surmised.

“I went to see the head of the Pact. Trahearne.”

Rikbore felt an eyebrow lift. The Pact was a peculiar alliance of nearly every rival faction in Kryta, all assembled with one goal in mind. Defeating dragons. It’s goal was lofty, and the price the members of the Pact paid was almost inconceivable. However, despite it’s near total destruction multiple times, Trahearne had, through sheer force of will, managed to bring it back time and again. Despite being a scholar rather than a warrior, the plant like Sylvari man had proven to be a force to be reckoned with, even for the dragons themselves.

Znap nodded. “I see. This makes sense. Zojja is not actually part of the Pact. They may have a common interest in destroying dragons, but it's Trahearne, not Zojja, that's interested in the weapon. Zojja merely wants Xandra involved in its construction.”

Rikbore nodded his understanding. “And it was Sara, not Zojja, that did the mousetrapping. Sara is Pact, not part of Zojja’s krewe.”

“Exactly,” Xandra agreed. “With that understanding clearly in mind, I went straight to the top and spoke with Trahearne. I told him he got his weapon, but only if he agreed to my terms.”

Znap smiled. “And just what were those terms?”

“I get to pick my krewe. I want someone, I get her. I also get to pick the location of the lab, and Trahearne, not I, am responsible for ensuring I get all the supplies I need for it.”

“Not bad,” Rikbore grinned. “Let me guess, you picked here, and us?”

“Of course,” Xandra waved her hand. “We will have to do a final assembly on the other side of the gate back to Lion’s Arch. The final machine will be too large to pass through fully assembled.”

Znap and Rikbore gave one another a sidelong glance. The most recent machine would have had no problem squeezing through the gates. One too large to fit would be significantly scaled up.

“There is more,” Xandra's grin was even larger. “I might as well be hanged for a wolf as a sheep, right?” She held a paper out to Rikbore.

Rikbore took it and grunted, reading the text. He felt both eyes widen. “Centurion?”

“I told Trahearne that if this was going to be a Pact project I insisted on a properly authoritative technical adviser from Iron Legion. Since I already had just such an adviser, he merely needed the authority for such a tech exchange. So he had a little chat with Rytlock. You are now, officially, one of Iron Legions chief R&D officers engaged in detached duty with the Pact.”

Znap punched Rikbore's shoulder. “Congratulations, Centurion.”

Rikbore blinked. “Er... Thank you?”

“As for you, Znap, we are officially a Krewe.”

Znap looked surprised. “We are not part of Zojja's Krewe?”

“She will simply have to learn to live with it. I suspect she will get over it quickly.” Xandra shrugged. “I wanted to retain autonomy. I may be caged, but at least I can pick my jailer.”

“There is that,” Znap grinned. “So, a krewe of our own.”

“There will be a few additional assistants soon, but make no mistake. They will be here strictly as wrench turners. It is the three of us that will be the brains of this outfit.”

Znap grinned.

“Don't let it go to that oversized melon you call a head,” Rikbore chuckled.

“Just because you have insufficient cranial capacity to be truly brilliant does not mean the rest of us are so handicapped,” Znap sniffed, but he smiled back at the large feline-like Charr.

“Do not make me regret my decisions,” Xandra chastised, though she too was smiling.

“So,” Rikbore rumbled. “What next?”

Xandra patted the immobile wreck they stood beside. “Well, now that our proof of concept demonstrates that the theory is sound, it is time to make a fully working device. Come with me.”

Together the three of them walked over to one of the work benches on which Xandra had an Asuran data console assembled. Powering it on she brought up a large schematic.

Rikbore whistled. “You weren't kidding about not fitting through the gates.”

“The test may have been brief, but I learned quite a bit from it. The first is that the unique drive system takes additional attention above what is required by the traditional siege golem. Instead of translating the simple act of walking into the act of making the golem walk, you now have to use a complex system of controls to lock or lay down the track that the device rolls on. In combat that could take all of the attention of a driver by itself, leaving no cognitive capability for gunnery.

“Given that, I have chosen to separate that function into a dedicated driver, located here.” Xandra tapped a spot on the screen. “A second operator, located here, focuses exclusively on the weaponry. The gun operator is going to have a rather significant task as well. Given we are designing this to take down a dragon, rather than simply knocking down castle gates, the cannon on this thing will have to be truly enormous, nimble, and capable of multiple shots in short order. Given our reliance on a source of energy that the dragons cannot absorb, we are, for the first time in history, capable of actually running out of aether. The gunner is going to have to use smaller weapons against targets that a full cannon-load will be wasted against. As such I am adding auxiliary guns with which minor nuisances can be dealt with. That means the gunner needs to have her entire mind on the weapons systems.”

Rikbore grunted. “And this third seat?” He tapped on the screen.

“No matter how strong we make this thing, one swat from a dragon and the fight is over. This new golem is going to require careful managing and support.” Xandra sighed. “Because we can easily run out of Aether, we need someone to ensure the most efficient use of it, directing and controlling expenditure. The third individual will be responsible for this, as well as any additional coordinating communication with support forces.”

Znap eyed the projection. “Agreed. Even so this thing is significantly oversized. The krewe compartments are adding considerable bulk. If we reduce them in size we can make a leaner machine, which translates to power savings.”

“We could, except that we're making this for the Pact, not for Asurans,” Rikbore countered. “There are Asurans in the Pact, but unless we want to consign them to operating these things instead of leaving them to their trained professions we need the controls to be adjustable for everything from an itty-bitty Asuran to a Norn or Charr.”

“Exactly,” Xandra agreed. “So we have to have compartments that are not only large enough for a big, fat Charr...”

“I have a thick coat,” Rikbore commented.

“... but which also has room for all of the adjustable parts to allow the controls and seating to be fitted to the user.”

“Ah, that is true,” Znap nodded. “There exist certain advantages in that case, however. Since we have to have a larger compartment for each krewe member we can simply extend that expansion back to the power system and increase the power storage.” He reached up and began manipulating the schematic.

“Well, if you do that, we can slide the upper works holding the guns backwards. That cannon is enormous.” Rikbore gestured to the offending part. “Pulling it back will actually reduce the overall length as much of the gun will actually be above the golem instead of in front of it.”

“Which will make it easier to maneuver in tight spaces.” Znap grinned and began making the adjustments.

After several hours of tweeking and adjusting, Xandra and Rikbore managed to slip away to have their own personal little reunion. Rikbore found himself grinning at the ceiling as he managed to finish catching his breath.

Curled up on top of Rikbore's chest Xandra made a very content sound. “It is good to be back.”

“But you're never on your back. I'd smother you to death,” Rikbore chuckled, making the diminutive woman bounce up and down atop him.

“You can keep your little moments of humor to yourself, you oversized, hirsute feline. You know what I mean.” Xandra slapped Rikbore on the pectoral, an act about as effective as slapping a wall.

“Yes, I do,” Rikbore smiled. “It's good to have you back. I missed you. We. Missed you.”

Xandra sighed, a small frown on her face. “Rikbore...”

“What do you think of him, Xandra?”

“Do we have to do this now? After we just...”

Rikbore shrugged, then folded his arms around the little Asuran atop him. “We have to face it sometime. Why not now?”

Xandra squirmed a bit. “I do not wish you to feel as though you are being...” She trailed off.

“Cheated on?”

“Yes.”

There was silence between them for a short bit, and then Xandra spoke again. “Would you?”

Rikbore thought a moment. “I don't know. I honestly do not know.” He looked down at Xandra. “Would it feel like it to you?”

“I honestly do not know,” Xandra echoed.”I really don't.”

Chapter Text

“Give me a hand with this,” Rikbore requested.

The promised assistants had arrived only a day after Xandra's return. They were two more of the tiny asurans and one of the plant-like sylvari race. Xandra had snorted a bit at the sight of the green-grey hued woman, but had admitted she'd handpicked her for the roll. For all that the sylvari were the “at one with nature” sorts Rodhlann was a master with fabricating metal parts, easily the match of any Iron Legion engineer.

Rodhlann turned from the lathe she was working at. “What do you need, Centurion Warstone?”

“Haven't I told you to call me Rikbore?”

“You have.”

“And?”

“And what did you need my help with, Centurion?”

Rikbore sighed. The other assistants had been quite happy to use his given name, but Rodhlann was a stubborn case. “We need an adjustment to this fitting made. The coolant hose wasn't as flexible as we'd hoped. We need to add a 90 degree angle.”

“Of course. How soon were you wanting it?”

“As quick as you reasonably could. We were hoping to do a pressure test of the cooling system components before we started installing them today.”

Rodhlann nodded, her mushroom cap ‘hair’ bobbing slightly on her head. “I didn't know we were that far along.”

“All we really needed for the test was the frame. Most of the power system rests on top of the main coolant tank. That's why we want to test things before installation. If there's a problem we'd have to pull the whole thing apart to replace a bad component.”

“Of course.” She reached out and took the offending fitting from Rikbore. “I'll work on it right away, Centurion.”

Shaking his head in chagrin, Rikbore turned to go back to where the metal bones of The Monster were forming. He could see Xandra's butt wiggling between two of the frame members, with Znaps butt similarly sticking out between the next set over.

“No, no,” Xandra was admonishing. “We need to twist it to the left in order to get them to interface correctly.”

“The far end needs to twist to the right, first. Otherwise it will catch on the central dorsal and wedge in place,” Znap was disagreeing. “We need to clear the dorsal.”

“Hold on,” Rikbore rumbled. “Let me get that for you.”

Snatching up a pair of wrenches he walked over to the large metal beam that ran front to back on the upper portion of the golem's frame. Loosening several bolts, he took a hold of it and heaved. The entire frame pulled upward, the sides collapsing inward slightly as the previously solid bolts became pivots.

With a twist, Xandra and Znap slid the frame piece they had been working with into place. “Thank you, Rikbore,” Znap said, sitting upright and sliding from his place between the ribs.

“No problem,” Rikbore grunted. He eased the dorsal back in place and began carefully adjusting bolts, making sure that frame members were back in their correct alignment. “So why wasn't that already in place?”

“Jakka forgot to put it in.”

Rikbore arched an eyebrow. “An Asuran forgot to do something mechanical?”

Xandra shrugged. “Even a race as advanced as ours still produces individuals capable of making mistakes. I will talk to him about it.”

“Isn't he in charge of assembling the cannon?”

“He is,” Znap agreed. “But he needs some parts fabricated by Rodhlann. Until she can get to them he is at a bit of a standstill, so we asked him to help assemble the frame.”

“I see. He's a weapons expert?”

Xandra nodded. “I poached him from Qibb's krewe. They were doing some advanced weapons development for the Pact.”

“I'm not sure what I think of a cannon builder that leaves out parts,” Rikbore muttered. “Let's keep an eye on him.”

“Agreed,” Znap nodded. “In the meantime, shall we grab some lunch?”

“Mm, that sounds like an excellent idea,” Xandra agreed. She slithered out from between the ribs and dropped to the ground before pocketing a wrench. “What is on the menu?”

“The kitchen delivered cold cuts, bread, and a pair of salads, one full of fruit, the other vegetables.”

“Which one has the tomatoes?” Znap quipped.

“While we may be smart enough to realize that tomatoes are fruit, the keep's cook is wise enough to know not to put them in a fruit salad.”

“It is good to know they have at least that much wisdom.”

Xandra coughed politely. “While you two are having an enjoyable time debating the relative culinary merits of the keep staff, I would like to make a proposal.”

Rikbore arched an eyebrow. “Not the most romantic of settings,” he rumbled. “I do believe romance is one of the requirements the humans have for proposals.”

“I believe the humans require the term 'smartass' for individuals such as yourself,” Xandra shot back. “Seriously, however, I think we could all stand having a day off. I do not think any of us have been out of the workshop at all for two weeks.”

Rikbore scratched his head, thinking. The additions had arrived two weeks ago to the day, and the entire krewe had sequestered themselves in the cave below the keep ever since. That was one of the occupational hazards of being a very sharp group of people on an unprecedented project. There was a tendency to obsess.

He sniffed the air for a moment. “I think that would be a good idea. We should air the place out while we're at it. Things are getting a bit stale down here.”

“If by 'stale' you mean smelly, I agree,” Znap replied.

“I'm surprised you noticed,” Rikbore chuckled. “Given that those flat faces of yours barely have a nose I'd have thought you didn't have a sense of smell.”

“Our olfactory capabilities work just fine, thank you. Unfortunately.” Znap grinned. “I agree. Let us be certain to complete the pressure test this evening and then tell everyone to take a day for themselves tomorrow.”

Rikbore reached over and grabbed a large slab of cold beef. “Sounds good to me. But first, lunch.”

Dawn of the next day, while not particularly late in coming, was not particularly early, either. Summer was finally giving way into fall, and the morning was just a little cooler than was necessarily pleasant. The dawn sky matched the leaves of the trees in the swamp bordering the keep, bright shades of red and orange.

Znap smiled as Rikbore lumbered out of the keep's gates. “It is about time. We were growing impatient waiting for you.”

“Actually, I was thinking I might let the two of you go without me.”

Both Asurans looked surprised. “Are you certain?” Xandra asked.

Rikbore scratched behind his ear. “Yeah. I have some questions I need answered, so I thought today would be good for that.”

Xandra gave him a knowing look. “Well, we shall be off, then.”

“Have fun, you two,” Rikbore smiled. He watched as the two set off down the path.

Rikbore sighed as they took a turn around a low rise and disappeared from view.

“So, how do you feel?”

Rikbore growled as he turned to face Sara. “Like someone should put you down for the good of everyone's mental well being.”

The dark skin of her face dimpled as Sara smiled beneath the rags covering her non-functional eyes. “I suppose some might feel better about that. I, however, can't say as I would be one of them. But that was truly not the question I was asking.”

Rikbore glowered.

“You are resigned to your fate then?” Sara pressed.

“I'm resigned to nothing,” he grumbled. “But I also am a realist. She deserves cubs.”

“And you think those two are going to just pop off and take care of that right now? Biology doesn't guarantee that it would work immediately, you know.”

Rikbore shot the woman an irritated look. “I think that I need to know. I need to know what all of this means to me.”

“If you love something, let it go?”

“Like hell. I'll drag her back here by her ears if that's what it takes.” Rikbore smiled. “I can't guarantee that Znap'll live through it though.”

“Well, good luck, Rikbore Warstone,” Sara said. She turned and began walking down the path herself, then paused. “Oh, one thing.” She turned back to face Rikbore. “Not everyone wants to see your project succeed. I'd keep a weather eye out.” She turned and walked away.

“A weather eye?” Rikbore snorted. “At least I've got working eyes to use for that, you blind old biddy.” He turned and began walking past the walls of the keep. He had a nice spot in the canyonlands picked out for some light reading. Sharl Darkwater was said to have been a fantastic poet.

Chapter Text

There was no denying things were strained when they all returned. Rikbore found himself on edge, constantly watching the two Asurans who were his companions on the project, looking for signs of a closeness he kept telling himself he did not want to know about. Yet every comment was scrutinized, every movement analyzed, every glance searched for added meaning.

For their part, neither Znap nor Xandra made a comment on Rikbore's somewhat neurotic behavior. They continued to work on the massive machine beast being assembled below the keep. Their movements were efficient, their conversations on task, their hours dedicated to completing the beast.

For all that efficiency, nothing was the same as it had been before. No one offered any sort of banter. There was no horseplay. Everything was professional, without any of the friendliness that had previously made them a team.

It was late on the afternoon of the second day that Xandra finally snapped. With a loud snort of displeasure she suddenly reached over from her perch high on a crossbeam and seized Rikbore by the larger of the two ears on the right side of his horned head. She gave it a jerk that left the mountainous warrior's eyes watering, and leaned into it.

“Centurion Rikbore Warstone,” she hollered directly into his ear canal. “Cease and desist this absurd bit of feline snittery. You have gotten the entire team worked up into a state, and if it goes on much longer I am fairly certain that some unfortunate happenstance will occur because everyone's attention is on you and not their work!”

Znap stared a moment, then suddenly became absolutely engrossed in the connection of a coolant hose to a large, low slung tank on the beast. The other, newer members of the team were less circumspect. After a moment of gaping at the two, they quickly found a need to be elsewhere in the lab.

Rikbore winced. As suited their small size, Asurans had voices pitched far higher than those of the Charr. When fired directly at the eardrum from close proximity and at high volume, the effect was considerably painful.

“Sorry,” he rumbled quietly.

Xandra let go of his ear. Quieter, and with definite sympathy, she spoke again. “I would ask what has gotten into you, but I think we both know how absurd such a query would be.” She sighed. “Rikbore, we did not do anything.”

“I know,” Rikbore whispered. “It'd be almost easier if you had. Then I wouldn't feel like a centaur's ass about my behavior.” He shrugged. “Or at least less like a centaur's ass.”

Xandra patted Rikbore on the shoulder. “Come here, you hirsute meat headed bookah. Let us go have a conversation.” She hopped down from her perch and began padding across the floor to one of the more remote and cluttered corners of the lab. She glanced over her shoulder to see if he was following, and he lurched into motion in reply.

Ensconced in the corner, Rikbore found himself seated on the floor as Xandra's feet dangled from the edge of a workbench. The differences in their heights meant that this allowed their eyes to be close to level. Despite this, Rikbore's gaze quickly dropped.

“I feel like a cub. A particularly petulant one.”

Xandra nodded and waggled a finger in a “go on” motion.

“I don't...” Rikbore paused and took a deep breath. “I know nothing happened, even though I set things up for the two of you to work things out. Yet in spite of that I keep watching for... I dunno... Anything. Anything at all that says that...” He sighed “I don't even know how to put it.”

“I understand.” Xandra looked down at Rikbore with an amount of compassion many members of the other races would have thought Asurans too arrogant to possess. She sighed, closing her eyes a moment. “We did work some things out. We took the time for a serious talk. About all of this.” She waved her hand vaguely at the lab. “About the trap I have been snared within, about me and him, about me and you.” She leaned forward. “I am not going to lie to you, Rikbore. I admitted that I am starting to view him as a potential paternal source, just as they intended. I even admitted to starting to like the idea of it. He has many of the qualities an Asuran woman looks for in a mate.”

She hopped off the table and walked over to rest a hand on Rikbore's knee. “But I also told him, forthrightly, that I felt... different about you. That there was something I felt for you that I do not think he ever could stir in me. I told him I want you to always be there at my side, and yes, in my bed as well.”

Rikbore reached his massive, fur covered hand up to cover hers, but said nothing.

The Asuran woman sat down, then scooted in beside him. She leaned against his side, her head snuggled against his rib cage. “We had a very long talk about that. He said he understood completely, and that he was perfectly alright with that truth. But...” She sighed.

Rikbore felt an eyebrow arch a bit, and his head turned to look down at the diminutive, pale creature beside him. “But?” he asked.

“I am not yet completely convinced. I think...” She stopped a moment, clearly gathering her thoughts. “I think that this predicament has him hurting a bit as well. I think he is not as easy with the peculiarities of the situation we have become embroiled in as he thinks he professes.”

Rikbore cocked his head to the side, surprised. “He's jealous of me?”

Xandra gently punched Rikbore’s ribs. “He genuinely likes you, you obtuse, colossal furball. But at the same time I think he is just as worried and uncomfortable about all of this as you are.”

He grunted, then lifted his hand to wrap his arm around Xandra and pull her tightly against him. “I had no idea.”

“Of course not, bookah.” Xandra commented.

“What about you?” Rikbore asked quietly. “I...” His eyes closed. “I don't think I've ever even thought to ask you about how you feel about all of this.” He sighed. “Rather selfish of me.”

Xandra leaned her head back, her eyes gazing at the ceiling thoughtfully.

“I am confused, Rikbore.” She sighed and shook her head. “I hate being confused. I am, with no statistical likelihood of error at all, the most brilliant of my most excellent species. Even our ignoramuses simply do not abide confusion. We focus our brains on all situations and determine the optimal solutions to any puzzles to present themselves.” She sucked on her lip. “But I am confused.”

“Of course you are,” Rikbore felt himself smile for the first time in several days. “Yes, you’re brain is focused on this, but it isn’t the sole party involved here. Your heart is thinking too. As are your ovaries.”

Xandra turned her head to give Rikbore a look that was hard to interpret.

“Think about it. All of us civilized peoples like to consider Asurans to be all intellect, with the Norn their opposite, a people ruled by passion and nothing but. Humans are, as a lot, people whose hearts are slowly giving up, while Charr are driven by honor to go beyond anything reasonable. And Sylvari are...”

“Vegetables.”

Rikbore chuckled. “And yet you brought one into this strange little warband of ours.”

“Very capable vegetables,” Xandra allowed.

“Regardless, the more I've seen of all the races, the more I am convinced we are all creatures with passion and reason at constant war. We all like to think of ourselves as smart, and able to figure everything out without any undue influence from things like emotions or instincts. But really, we're wrong.”

A clawed finger reached out and poked Xandra on her flat chest. “You have a heart, Xandra. Just like me. Mine is busy telling my oh so reasonable self that I could lose you to Znap, because he can do something for you I can't, and all the things I can.”

“Rikbore, that's”

Rikbore gently shushed Xandra. “I didn't say it's correct, just that it is pounding away in my ears shouting that as loud as it can. Well, you have a heart too, and asuran or not, it's speaking to you as well.” He shrugged. “I don't know what it's saying, but it is certainly shouting.”

Reluctantly, Xandra nodded.

“And we have instincts. When you really get down to it, we're still animals, with animal needs and motives.”

“Sylvari are plants.”

“Details,” Rikbore shrugged. “The point is, animals are driven to survive, and to continue the species. If we want to look at it absolutely animalistically, I cannot create the next generation with you. Your ovaries know that.”

“Maybe they do, but my vulva could not care less.”

Rikbore felt a chuckle force its way out of his chest. “How well I know it.” He grinned, but then his expression turned serious again. “Your ovaries are very aware that Znap can produce absolutely excellent cubs with you, and they are being very demanding about it.”

“I suppose,” Xandra mumbled.

“But the instincts of the brain also know that having the cubs is just a start. They also need to be protected and raised to adulthood themselves. And I,” he grinned, showing teeth, “am a very powerful animal, capable of being very protective indeed.”

“That is hardly the logical basis for why I lo...”

Xandra's voice jerked to a stop, her expression confused and a bit betrayed.

Rikbore's own throat had suddenly tightened, and he felt his eyes opened wide as he stared at Xandra. “I...” He squeaked embarrassingly, his throat suddenly dry. “Xandra...”

Before either of them could manage to work free of the sudden jumble their conversation had turned into, the jumble was rudely crashed into by a rushing Znap. “Come quickly,” the male Asuran snapped. “There has been an accident.”

Chapter Text

“It was the support struts. They gave out.”

Rikbore waved Znap’s comment away with a hand as they hurried around the corner into the main area of the workshop. “Save that for later. Was anyone hurt?”

“Jakka’s arm is clearly broken.” Znap replied. “He was adding some of the leads needed for the gun mount when the frame tilted. We think it is just the arm, but…”

“Send for a medic to examine him thoroughly immediately,” Xandra ordered. “That is, if you have not done so already.”

“I have not. I was concerned that the inclusion of someone not a part of our endeavor might finally end the secrecy we have been able to maintain here.”

Rikbore snorted. “Not much secrecy left. Everyone knows what we’re doing here.”

“But they do not know how to get here.”

“No?” Rikbore shook his head, but said no more. The monster had come into view, laying in a twist, half on the supports and half on the ground below. He winced at the clear indications of significant structural damage.

Rodhlann and Griasi were flanking Jakka, both exhibiting signs of concern as the male asuran cradled his arm. “Unhand me, foolish female,” Jakka commanded. “The pain is quite manageable, and I am quite certain medical aid shall soon be forthcoming.”

Rikbore wasn’t certain which of the two females Jakka was addressing, but both quite insistently remained in close proximity. He cleared his throat, causing all three to look up. The women cleared the way.

“Anything besides the arm, Jakka?”

“I have bruised my side, but I assure you it is nothing worse than that. The arm is all that needs proper tending.”

Rikbore grunted and nodded. “Rodhlann, run and fetch a medic, won’t you?”

The sylvari woman snapped to an attentive pose, her leaf-like hair waving as though a rabbit had just lept into a bush for safety. “At once, Centurion.” She hurried away to the stairs.

“Tell me about the accident,” Rikbore commanded. “Every detail you can think of.”

From the corner of his eye he could see Xandra and Znap both arch eyebrows in an almost identical fashion. He didn’t indulge their curiosity yet, however. There would be time enough for explanations later.

Jakka shifted in his seat, grunting as it shifted the broken ends of his arm, then settled into a more comfortable position. “With the frame and coolant system nearly complete I decided to install the portion of the aetheric leads that would be connecting to the main storage components. It would be far more difficult to install them after that system is in place owing to the cramped conditions. As such I had brought several conductive harness over,” he gestured with his good arm to a pile of cables that were now trapped by one of the ribs of the twisted frame, “and climbed into the frame. While attaching connectors, I heard a loud snap and felt everything shift. When the frame began to twist I lost my footing. I fear I may have damaged some of the cooling system ductwork when my arm struck it during the fall.”

“Ductwork can be replaced,” Znap commented. “Arms take longer.”

“I shall be fine,” Jakka replied. “I am certain that Griasi can be of quite able assistance until I have full use of the hand again.”

Rikbore couldn’t help but notice that the female asura’s flush of pleasure at Jakka’s comment was not wholly professional. Was there anyone not fucking around here? He winced and veered away from that line of thought before it wandered back into the strictly non-professional concerns he currently faced. “You said you heard a loud snap?”

“Yes,” Jakka nodded. “It was a metallic sound, like something had snapped under a great strain.”

“It was one of the supports,” Znap replied. “I saw it happen. Jakka was reaching over to grab one of the laterals. I saw a slight shift in the frame as his weight was redistributed, then the aft support split violently. You can see the lower half over there.”

Rikbore turned to where Znap was pointing. The foot of a metallic support beam could be seen laying a good ten feet from where it was supposed to be, an indication of the significant strain it had been under. He walked over and began examining the edge of the break. “What about you, Griasi? Did you see it happen?”

Griasi shook her head, her large lop ears flopping about. “No. I was in the stores area fetching more bolts in preparation for tomorrow’s energy storage installation install. I came running as soon as I heard the snap. By then Jakka was already crawling from the frame.”

Rikbore nodded. “What about Rodhlann? Do any of you know if she saw anything?”

Znap shrugged. “She was over fabricating some of the control rods. It is possible, but I could not be certain.”

“I’ll ask her later. For now, I think Xandra and I should go over and see how bad the damage is.”

Everyone nodded.

Several hours later Rikbore and Xandra were sitting at a workbench looking over the plans. Xandra was pointing at individual beams with a stylus as she indicated damaged parts that would need replacement.

“Several of the coolant ducts are bent or twisted. We may be able to salvage them by bending them back into shape, but we have four laterals and two longitudinal frames that are too twisted for reuse. Rebending them would induce fatal metal fatigue into the core of the golem.”

Rikbore grunted. “Interesting, that. Metal fatigue...” He cupped his chin in his fingers, staring at the design sheets as he mused.

Xandra looked over to the giant orange and black tabby. “Rikbore. I know I suggested the friction between you and I was causing enough tension that there was a risk someone could be hurt through distraction, but I assure you I do not believe this to be any fault of yours.”

“Quite,” Rikbore turned to look at Xandra. “How long do you estimate it will take to repair everything and get us back to where we were?”

“Given the need to hoist the frame back up in place and re-brace it before we even begin removing the damaged parts I would suggest three days.”

Rikbore nodded. “Sounds about right to me.” He stood up.

“Rikbore?” Xandra cocked her head up to look into his face. “Something is worrying you.”

He grunted again. “There’s no way that the frame should have bent the way it did. Black Citadel steel is the best in the world. But these beams folded like noodles.” He tapped the schematic with a claw.

“You suspect that there is some flaw in the production of the steel?”

He bent down and placed an affectionate, but distracted kiss on Xandra’s forehead. “I suspect something,” he replied. “But I’m not completely committed to it.” He turned and walked towards the stairs. “I’ll be back in two days.”

Xandra said nothing as he began his climb.

Chapter Text

Rikbore stared out over the Plains of Ashford. He could have travelled to the Black Citadel directly, using the gates that had been created by the Asurans. It would have saved time. He’d chosen to travel overland once he’d returned to the plane of his birth, instead. He felt it necessary to remind himself just what he was, what it was to be Charr.

The Plains of Ashford had once been a verdant and green place. Rich farmlands had created a vast, rolling sea of yellow wheat. Islands of wildflowers had risen amidst those golden waves. In the west, built up against the Wayfarer Foothills, men had raised the great city of Rin, capital of the Kingdom of Ascelon.

All of that was gone now. The humans that had built that kingdom, and grown those crops, had done so on land that had originally belonged to the Charr. Driven far to the north, Rikbore’s feline ancestors had come back, with a vengeance, to reclaim their ancient homeland. They had torn down the Great Northern Wall and flooded into Ascelon. And in that great invasion, that horrible slaughter of Human and Charr, the leaders of both had done the unthinkable.

After the Charr had suffered a devastating reverse on the field of battle, Bonfaaz Burntfur had called on the gods and rained fire and brimstone on Ascalon. The land had been seared, blasted beyond recognition, Rin, the once proud city of the king was a charred ruin. Ascalon was devastated.

King Adelbern, last of his line, knew that the end had come. In despair he summoned the Foefire. As Charr legions poured into the palace they were greeted by a wall of white flame. Their ranks were blasted away, not even ashes remaining to mark where they had died. But if the Charr had paid a terrible price, it had been far, far worse for those humans that had somehow survived Burntfur’s searing and the march of the legions. The Foefire had needed fuel for its flame, and Ascalon’s people had been the fuel Adelbern used.

The Plains were now a bleak land. Once verdant fields were now a barren waste of dirt and ash, where little more than brambles could grow. Human souls wandered the land, attacking all Charr they came in contact with, eternally trapped by the Foefire’s curse. Though the war was long over, the land knew no peace. It was a place that would kill all but the hardest of creatures.

Phyrric victors, the Charr that had survived knew nothing but bitterness. Angered at the blightening of the land they had hunted down and killed the very gods that had enabled their victory, then destroyed the remaining humans in those few areas of Ascalon that had not been swept by the Foefire, before finally settling in to survive in a land no longer survivable.

Bereft of gods, the legions had turned to the only thing left that would help them to survive in the wasteland that had been Ascalon - Iron. It had come to represent everything that it meant to be Charr. Iron weapons had won them additional lands where they could grow the livestock that fed them and the fermentables that slaked their thirst. Iron carts had hauled food, leather, cloth, wood, charcoal, and the countless thousands of items that allowed them to live in the bones of Ascalon. Iron had dug deep into the mountains and plains, creating channels to bring water to a parched land, and formed pipes and pumps to keep it flowing.

To be Charr was to have iron in your blood, your spine, and your soul.

And it was iron that had brought Rikbore back to the Black Citadel. Every race had their defining characteristic. Humans, a puny, hairless, dying race dwindling away in their sole remaining kingdom produced heroes no other race could. Norns, the giant human-like race of the north, were storytellers par excellence. Squat, large featured Asurans were the greatest (and maddest) inventors the world had ever known. The plant-like Sylvari, the youngest race, had the imagination of youth. And the Charr… The Charr knew Iron.

The Black Citadel epitomized this. Built on the ruins of Rin as a final insult to Ascalon, its outer walls were an impenetrable cliff of steel. The streets held no dirt, no stone, no brick, but were plates of steel laid end to end. Every building was bolted together, with iron bones and steel skins, streaked the colors of rust and polish. Every breath of air was redolent with rust. Every step echoed with the sound of hobnails on metal. Every shadow was stark, sharp, with knife sharp edges stretched out against the precise, measured precision of the city’s architecture. The Black Citadel was the largest steel structure that had ever been created.

At its heart lay the foundery. Raw iron ore came in from throughout the charr world, thousands of tons daily. All would be dumped into one, single open air furnace, the bubbling and burning surface of slag and iron hotter than the mouth of any active volcano. Countless channels ran off from that caldera, the molten iron flowing through them to be mixed with other materials to create every variety of steel the mind could conceive. Spring steel would be shipped out to to form the shock absorbers of Charr war machines. Ordnance steel would be formed into rifle barrels and mortars. Carbon steel was forged into swords and knives.

When Trahearne had agreed to supply Xandra everything she needed, there was no need to even discuss where the steel for her monstrous machines would come from. Every shipment had proudly born the label of the Iron Legion, and had come straight from the Black Citadel. There was no other source that could be relied on to meet her standards.

And yet, in a strange accident, braces meant to be as inflexible as the mountains themselves had twisted into abstract shapes. Mounts that could have taken the weight of the Citadel itself had snapped simply from the movement of a single, diminutive little Asuran engineer. One failed metal part would have been an unfortunate happenstance. Two, a terrible coincidence. Three? That would have been simply out of the question.

The machine had suffered no less than seven different, independent failures in the steel during the wreck. There was absolutely no way, whatsoever, that this could have been accidental. Sara had warned that there were some who did not want Xandra to succeed. The ability to corrupt that much steel indicated that those opponents had a long reach.

Not long after reaching the heart of the foundry, Rikbore was elbows deep in paperwork. Every pound of ore to pour into the foundry was documented, every ingot of steel accounted for. In the archives of the Black Citadel were the birth certificates of every single item to have been created from Charr steel since the beginning. If anything had been tampered with, it would show in the paperwork.

Hours later Rikbore sat back in his chair with a pained sigh. Engineer that he was, he had never been one to spend long hours going over figures. He’d always been much more of a hands on wrench-turner, designing by building scale models instead of drafting out parts on paper. Spending that long in a chair that had been designed for practicality rather than comfort made his tail hurt.

A grunt from the door to the records archive caught his attention. He turned to stare at the grey furred figure in the doorway, then rose to his feet. “Centurion Fahrlock,” he rumbled.

“Centurion Rikbore,” his father replied. The large soldier stepped into the room, and took a position across the table from Rikbore. “Did you find anything?”

“Yes,” he replied. “And no. Every single record is here. None of them show any sign of being altered or replaced. All of the shipping records match the receipts I brought with me. Everything is exactly how it should be.”

“You expected something different?” Fahrlock’s expression was just short of a sneer. “Just how long have you been out there rutting around with others beside your own kind? Doubting your people like this…”

Rikbore frowned. “It is not that I doubted the integrity of the Legion. It’s that I wanted to clear them of any possible suspicion first. It seemed simplest to verify the impossibility of it before diving into the probables.”

Fahrlock gave a grunt of his own. His expression did not seem all that mollified, but he didn’t press. “Very well.”

“How did you know I was here?”

An unusual look of amusement crossed Fahrlock’s face. “You may be surprised to know it, but you are actually a bit of a celebrity these days.”

Rikbore’s eyes widened a bit. He made a go-on gesture with his fingers, and sat down.

Brandishing a smile that showed a smidgen of teeth, Fahrlock sat across from him. “You’ve always been able to stop just short of being disgraced, cub. You’re an engineer, and yet you always acted alone, wandering about like some Ash Legion scout. There was even an open betting pool as to when you would be declared a gladium.”

Rikbore winced. It had always been a possibility, of course. Anyone who didn’t fit into the legions properly, whether because of willful disobedience, or being dishonored by surviving the complete destruction of their warband, was declared to be a gladium. They were the lowest of the low. No longer legion, and no longer welcome among the charr, unless they could redeem themselves in some way.

Fahrlock went on. “You even refused promotion to Centurion. No one does that. No one.” The grey male shook his head. “You’ve never been much of a Charr.”

Rikbore bristled. “I’ve always done what I thought was best for the Legion.”

“That’s the problem.” Fahrlock scratched his cheek with a talon, then sighed. “Rikbore, our entire society is a war machine. It’s had to be ever since the humans took this land from us fifteen hundred years ago. We don’t have farmers, we have soldiers who provide the first step in a supply chain that feeds our armies. We don’t have craftsmen, we have armorers. We don’t have husbands and wives, we have mates to provide new recruits.”

He kicked back. “Don’t you see, cub? Everything we are, and everything we do, is for the legion. Each and every one of us is a part in the machine of war. From the day we enter the fahrar we are crafted into an integral part, each vital to the smooth operation of an engine that propels the survival of our race.”

“The problem with you is that you have always known better.” Fahrlock leaned forward over the table as though trying to force the idea upon Rikbore. Despite this, Rikbore felt a shocking lack of pressure. Fahrlock’s face, always fierce, had a strange sadness on it. “From the moment your mother delivered you to the fahrar on your first birthday, you quietly rebelled. Your Primus couldn’t get you to attend your training properly, because you always had a better idea about how to train. You couldn’t simply build the practice machines the Primuses used to teach the basics of mechanics and engineering, you had to make improvements. And when you entered the Iron Legion with your warband…”

Fahrlock put his face in his hand. “Your warband was meant to build and design new weapons for the Legion. You were intended to be part of a future that would ensure that Queen Jenna and her remnant kingdom could never attempt to rebuild Ascalon. With your innovative way of thinking…”

“Centurion,” Rikbore interjected. He then chose to phrase it differently. “Father. There was so much we didn’t know, though. The Asurans and their golems have been known to us for two hundred years, and yet we barely even give their technologies a thought. They have harnessed resources and designed weapons we never could have come up with on our own. I thought it best to try to gain an understanding so that we could

“Yes, yes,” Fahrlock waved his hand. “I know all this. And I also know you were right. The things you’ve learned by studying Asuran technology in the Mists have advanced our own thinking and capabilities in unmeasurable ways. But that’s not the point. That has never been the point.” Fahrlock sighed. “No matter what you have done for us, the one thing you never have done is the one thing that makes us Charr. You’ve never done what the Legion has asked of you. And that, cub, undermines our entire society, and our ability to survive everything the world keeps throwing at us.”

Rikbore sat quietly, thinking about what had just been said. Fahrlock had never acknowledged that anything Rikbore had done was valuable. As such, Rikbore had never felt Fahrlock’s acerbic commentary on his life had deserved any respect in reply. Suddenly all that had shifted. His worth had been acknowledged, and somehow that made Rikbore’s refusal to be a simple soldier mean something. He felt ashamed.

“What do I do now, then?” He quietly asked.

“Oh, it’s much too late to be asking that now,” Fahrlock replied, some of the normal acid returning to his voice. “Despite your best efforts, the Legion finally has managed to find a place for you in the machine that you seem to fit. You’re a centurion now, and under orders to make certain that mysterious machine gets built, and used.” He rose, and gestured to the piles of records on the table. “This is your mission, now. Those Pact inventors of yours are your company. You find out what gladum in your company is messing with our steel, and you spit out his bones when you’re done with him.”

Rikbore sighed. “Sabotage?”

Fahrlock snorted. “You already suspected it. You simply came here to make sure it wasn’t being done from the outside.”

“Yes,” Rikbore mused. He thought a moment, then shook himself. “Is that why you came to find me?”

“No.” The grey male shook his mane-framed head. “That was simply a happy coincidence. I simply came to ask why you haven’t visited your sister yet.”

“Cammillus?” Rikbore gave Fahrlock a sharp look. “Why, has something happened to her?”

“Something?” Fahrlock grinned. “More like someone. Two someones, in fact. She’s had her first litter. Two weeks ago.”

Rikbore blinked, then chuckled. “Well, I’ll be.” He rose, and gave Fahrlock a sharp salute, fist clenched and pressed to his chest. “I’ll be sure to see her before I leave. Centurion.”

Fahrlock stepped back, then formed a salute of his own. “Centurion.” He turned and marched out the door, leaving Rikbore with much to contemplate.

Chapter Text

Cammillus’ white pelt had certain noticeable changes to it, Rikbore observed. For one, it had attained something of a luster to it that had been previously missing. Pregnancy hormones, Rikbore guessed. For some reason pregnant or newly post-natal females just had this glow to their coat that would normally be absent. For another, the previously smooth coat of her belly now bore six regularly spaced bare patches, each with a nipple sticking out of swollen mammaries. Most importantly, two of the nipples were presently being sucked at by two contrasting bundles of fur, each dribbling some of the milk into their mother’s fur.

Rikbore had no doubt that getting milk in one’s fur while nursing was a distinctly unpleasant experience. He received no confirmation of that from his sister, however, as she stoically sat there, both hands occupied ensuring the two cubs didn’t slip and fall.

“They should be able to hold on for themselves already, but they seem stubborn about it,” Cammillus grumbled. “They can already walk on all fours. They just seem to refuse to latch onto my fur so I can use my hands for other things. I could stand to read a book while they feed. They nurse six or seven times a day!”

Rikbore tried not to chuckle at her clear annoyance. “You could have kept your legs crossed, you know.”

Cammillus tossed him a dark look. “I like sex, thank you, and Gritt is hung just right to tickle all the good spots. Besides,” she smiled, looking down at her cubs. “Inconvenient as they are, you do have to admit they’re quite cute.”

“True,” he agreed. He peered closer at his niece and nephew. His niece, the older of the pair by five minutes, was somewhere between tawny and buff in color. Hard little lumps were already pressing out of her skull just above each pair of little ears, promising the horns she would have finished developing by the time she was six months old. Her little brother was little in more than just birth order. He looked to be a good two pounds lighter in weight, though Rikbore knew that he, like all charr males, would eventually be significantly larger than his sister by adulthood. His fur was charcoal black. He, too, bore the nubs that would eventually be horns. One of his four ears was folded funny, a birth trauma that likely would never be set to rights.

Cammillus noticed Rikbore’s attention. “I’m calling him Knockear, for now, and his sister Henna. I’ll give them more permanent names in six months, when I have a good feel for who they are going to be.”

“Not that you need my approval, but I like those names.” He grinned.

Cammillus grinned right back. “You’re right, I don’t need your approval.” The smile dropped. “Father’s right, you know.”

Rikbore grunted as the conversation returned to where it had been before his new relatives had woken up and expressed dissatisfaction with the empty states of their bellies. He frowned and nodded his head. “Reluctant as I am, I have to agree. I’d never even thought of it like that until he mentioned it. What I saw as doing what was best for our people was also a threat to the self-sacrifice that keeps us a people.”

Cammillus shook her head thoughtfully, eliciting a small squall as the motion shook her two cubs a bit. “That’s true, but let’s be careful about taking that too far. Yes, you stand as the example of defiance that has not received its proper comeuppance. So long as you are still visible you’ll be the boogeyman of every legionnaire trying to keep her warband welded into a single blade. That will never change. But at the same time, your defiance has clearly benefited us. A number of the new weapons I have been designing directly draw on your findings studying asuran tech. A few of our fahrars are already experimenting in teaching some asuran theories and thought methods to see if it will produce far more flexible thinkers amongst our engineers.”

Leaning back, Cammillus carefully detached her two spawn, who were already falling back to sleep after filling up. She rose, settling them back into the crib they shared, then turned back to Ritlock, daubing away moisture at her teats before drawing her top back down to cover her belly.

“I think we have, as a society, benefited a great deal from your failure to fit in, brother mine. I hope that, in the future, there will be additional charr who walk down that same path. But I also sorrow for them, and for you.”

Rikbore arched an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“When’s the last time you sat down at a canteen and got completely knackered on beer and meat with your warband? Or strolled along the walkway of an iron watchtower, knowing that everything you saw belonged to you? When is the last time you’ve been saluted after a hard fight, and knew that you belonged?”

Rikbore thought on that. He sought out the memories of time with the warband, and the fahrar. He shuffled through old dreams and experiences for the feeling of companionship, of friendship, and of the bond every charr shared with those who spilt their blood alongside of one another. He sought, but what he found…

“I don’t remember.”

“Do you really belong, Rikbore? With us?”

Rikbore sighed, but didn’t answer. He didn’t need to.

His sister stepped up beside him, placing a paw on his shoulder, and looked out the window next to where they stood. “Rikbore, you have spent so much of your life out there. You have explored and seen so much that few charr ever have, and ever will. We have benefitted so much from your learning. But we have always benefited by receiving it from afar. You no longer think like us. You no longer act like us.” She inhaled through her nose. “Hell, Rikbore. You don’t even smell like us. Not completely, at least. The smell of your asuran warband has seeped into your skin so deeply a dozen baths wouldn’t get it out of you.”

Her paw dropped, and she turned to face her brother. “Tell me, truthfully. Are you really one of us?”

“I’m a centurion,”

“With no company to command.”

“I have an assignment straight from the tribune himself,”

“Detached duty, out of sight, and out of mind.”

“Everything I do, I do for our people,”

“But not with them. Do you really belong anymore”

Rikbore’s shoulders slumped. “No, I don’t” he acknowledged.

Cammillus nodded her agreement. “You’ll always be charr, but you’ll never have a place here. Nor will you have a place among the asurans. Because you are charr.”

“No,” he disagreed. “Oh, you’re right that I’ll never have a place here at the Black Citadel, or in Rata Sum. But you’re wrong to feel sorry for that. I do have a place. I have a warband. I have a family.” He glanced over to the crib. “Another family. That family will help me to create the best world I can for this one.”

Cammillus smiled. “I don’t doubt it one bit, brother mine.”

Straightening his shoulders, Rikbore walked back over to the crib. Resting his paws on the rim he stared down at the two sleeping cubs. “Are they worth the pain of birth, and the time you have to take away from your warband, legionnaire?”

Cammillus’ smile changed, and in her face he saw something he’d never seen there before. Her expression held several things at once. Pride. Awe. Fear. Hope. But most of all, contentment.

“Every last bit of it, centurion.”

He grinned at her smile, gave a salute, and walked out the door into the passageway beyond.

Chapter Text

“When did you get back?”

Rikbore could hear the surprise in Xandra’s voice as she walked towards him. He inhaled, savoring the scent of her, but did not turn to face her. Instead he adjusted the equipment he was leaning over, making it more accessible to someone of less than his considerable stature.

“Take a look.”

Xandra gave Rikbore a look of mild irritation at his lack of answer, but climbed up onto the bench beside the table. She placed her eyes to the aetheric magnifier, and took a good long look, then lifted her head away.

“This is one of the parts that failed?”

“Part of one,” Rikbore agreed. “I sliced it vertically. What do you see?”

“Cracking. There are cracks radiating away from the break in the metal.”

Rikbore grinned. “That is to be expected.”

“Agreed.” Xandra bobbed her head, then gave Rikbore an inquisitive eye. “We already had Rodhllan do a full analysis of the metal. She mentioned the cracking as a primary cause for the failure.”

Rikbore waved a stack of papers. “I read the report.”

Again, Xandra gave him a bit of a glare. “Seriously, when did you get back?”

“Several hours ago.” He gestured to the viewer. “What else do you see?”

Sighing, Xandra turned back to the magnification of the sliced specimen of steel. “The metal has a different color in the area where the cracks are formed than the color seen outside of that region. This is common in metal that has experienced high stresses and bending.”

“True,” Rikbore agreed. “And nicely highlighted in the report as well.”

“As corroborating evidence.”

Rikbore sat back on the bench. “Anything else?”

Xandra stared into the viewer for several moments before backing away and shaking her head. “I am unable to ascertain that there are any additional things to be seen. Is there something I am missing?”

Rikbore slipped the slice of metal out of its examination chamber, then replaced it with another.

“Take a look at this one.”

“Are you going to explain to me what it is that you are up to, Rikbore?”

“Indulge me.”

Xandra rolled her large, red pupiled eyes, then bent over the viewer again. “This also has radial cracking extending from what appears to be a broken edge. The metal is also discolored there.”

“Is it the same color?”

Xandra paused a moment, clearly thinking, and then her breath caught. She lifted her head and shook it. “No.”

“I sliced the piece you just examined off of the good end of one of the support beams that failed. I then spent almost an hour flexing and bending it until it snapped.” Rikbore held up the first piece for Xandra’s examination. “This one is part of the original failure from that same beam.”

“Rodhllan reported that the crack had occurred as a result of metal fatigue caused by the steel being lower quality than it should have been.” Her voice sounded thoughtful. “However she didn’t do a comparison like you just did. If this,” she gestured at the viewer, “is what a fatigue crack looks like, then why does the metal look different than the failure?”

Rikbore grimaced. “Because this piece wasn’t originally low quality steel. Someone caused it to weaken.”

Xandra’s face scrunched up with anger. “You are talking about sabotage.”

“Yeah.” Rikbore agreed. “We’ve got a traitor on the team.”

Half an hour later the team began to assemble, looking bleary eyed as the result of being woken only a few hours after going to bed. With the exception of Xandra, they each eyed Rikbore quizzically as they entered the laboratory.

“When did you return?” Znap asked.

“A few hours ago,” Rikbore responded. He silenced any further questions with a sharp look and a brief flash of teeth that was anything but a smile. Znap quieted immediately, sensing something was up.

The last to enter was Jakka, arm still in a sling, a slight limp indicating that any twisting of his ribs still caused discomfort. He took one look around, arched an eyebrow, then shuffled over to a workbench and carefully sat.

Rikbore smiled at the asuran weapons designer. “How’s the arm, Jakka?”

“It is still less than optimal. However, with the careful ministrations of a medic it should be adequate for use within the week. Griasi can continue to aid me in my work until then.”

“She has been quite handy,” Rikbore agreed amiably. He turned to the asuran woman, who was smiling at the compliment, though her eyes still showed a mixture of being half asleep and half confused. “Remind me, Griasi. What is your specialty?”

“Logistics.” The smile was replaced with a serious mien. “I had been working on finding means to streamline the flow of supplies for the Pact and improve security when Xandra picked me to take over all part and supply matters for the project.”

“Improve security?” Rikbore lifted an eyebrow.

“Yes,” Griasi nodded. “The Pact had been suffering with losses from both external and internal causes. A number of pirate bands as well as adherents of the dragons were raiding our supply lines, and certain greedy individuals were skimming supplies and funds for their own personal use.”

“Interesting,” Rikbore commented. It wasn’t really interesting to him. He’d already known this from the outset. He had asked anyway, however, as the setup for what came next.

“Griasi, with that sort of knowledge you would be able to know without any doubt if anything was wrong with our supplies, wouldn’t you?”

Griasi nodded, her eyes shifting to glance first at Jakka, then at Znap, questioning. Both held expressions making clear neither of them was sure where this was going either. Uncertain, Griasi nodded. “Yes.”

Rikbore leaned over to the table he was standing beside. He picked up a stack of papers and held them out to her. Frowning, she took them and looked at them. She then looked back up at Rikbore. “These are the manifests for several shipments of steel from the Black Citadel.”

“I took the liberty of fetching these documents from there myself,” Rikbore explained. “They are the originals. You should find the originating document, signed and sealed in the Black Citadel, as well as the receiving documents signed and sealed right here.”

Griasi nodded. “I recognize those. I signed and sealed them personally.”

“Do examine them quite closely. Tell me, are there any discrepancies whatsoever?”

Griasi carefully went through the papers, spending some time on each. Finally she shook her head. “Everything is in order. These show that we received twelve shipments of steel plates and bars of the highest quality, with complete and thorough inspection of quality, and verification of same.”

“Thank you.” Rikbore held his hand out for the papers. “I’ll be needing those back. The Black Citadel will be very unhappy when they find I lifted the originals, but copies simply wouldn’t suffice for this.”

“For this?” Jakka stirred. “Just what is this?”

“All in good time.” Rikbore turned back to Griasi. “Is there any possibility that the shipments were ever tampered with in transit?”

“Tampered with?” Griasi repeated. Her large ears, already flopped down against her head, pressed down even more tightly as her eyes narrowed with anger. “No. There is absolutely no possibility they were interfered with in any way. I supervised their transportation personally for each and every shipment. The seals remained unbroken on every load until such time as the metal was needed for use here.”

Rikbore stared at Griasi. Tiny as she was in comparison to the giant catlike warrior, her angry return glare never wavered once. After a few heartbeats Rikbore relaxed and nodded. “You are right, of course. The Black Citadel’s representative verified the seals when you arrived here with the shipments. Even if you had meddled with a shipment, she would have noticed a seal having been tampered with.”

Griasi gave a fierce grin, clearly feeling she had won some sort of contest, but then the grin fell. “Someone tampered with the shipments?”

“No,” Rikbore shook his head. “They arrived here in perfectly good order. The tampering occurred after they arrived, and after you had broken the seals to provide the metal when it was needed.”

Znap shook himself. “You suspect someone here did something to the metal.”

“Not suspect. Know. Xandra, tell everyone what I just showed you.”

As was typical, Xandra’s description was concise, precise, and full of excessively large words. It was also gripping. No one said a word as she discussed the odd discrepancy in the metal edges.

When she was finished, Znap frowned. “Someone did something to make the metal weaken.”

“Yep,” Rikbore agreed. “They made it soft enough that even the small amount of flexing caused by our construction work bent and then broke the supports and some of the structural members.” He turned a sly eye to Znap. “You know a thing or two about how the flexing of soft metals can cause breaks, do you not?”

“Of course,” Znap responded dismissively. “Aetheric channeling often requires conduits of softer metals that can be bent to follow the needed flow path. In a golem you have to be very careful to plan this out as moving parts can cause excessive bending and the resultant…” He suddenly paused. “Patently absurd. You cannot possibly be suggesting I have something to do with this?” His face quickly went from superior to something decidedly unusual for an asuran. He looked wounded, as though a pang of grief had suddenly struck through him.

Xandra’s face took on a concerned expression. “Rikbore, I hardly think Znap would sabotage what would be the absolute proof that his concepts are sound. Just because he and I might

Rikbore forestalled her with a raised hand.

“You didn’t do it,” he said. He gave Znap a grin. “You may know all about cracks and breaks caused by the flexing of metal, but you wouldn’t have any idea how to weaken steel to the point that it would have been possible. Besides that, Xandra is right. This is as much your invention as Xandra’s. She may have created its body, but you gave it its heart.”

Znap’s expression turned hopeful, then quite happy. This was quickly replaced, however, by a scowl. “You could have said that from the beginning, you sapient tomcat.”

“That was a surprisingly plebeian insult of you,” Rikbore laughed. “You’re usually more eloquent.”

“Bastard,” Znap muttered, but there was a twinkle in his eye.

“You’re regressing,” Rikbore shot back. “And I’m digressing.”

“Is this really the time for humor?” Xandra commented.

“Only of the gallows kind,” Rikbore replied. “While I have demonstrated that three of us didn’t do it, someone did.” He turned his eyes on Jakka.

“Do not be absurd,” Jakka responded to the unasked question. “Of course I did not do it.”

“Perhaps by accident?” Xandra questioned. “Your weapons design is excellent, but we’ve already seen you make mistakes while doing practical hands on work. The missing cross beam a few weeks ago was rather an unfortunate lapse.”

“There was no lapse,” Jakka shot back, his voice nearly choking with indignation. “I installed every component shown on the plan, and tested the installation. How that piece came to be removed is beyond me.”

Znap lifted an eyebrow.

“You aren’t serious.” Jakka huffed at the implications of the eyebrow. “I was injured by the accident!”

“How convenient for you.” Rikbore leaned towards the asuran. “It makes for an awfully nice bit of cover. No one would expect the saboteur to risk injury by providing the very stresses needed to make things break.”

“And you have the knowledge needed to find ways to damage and destroy metals.” Xandra looked thoughtful. “After all, you are a weapons manufacturer. Yours is a constant battle between the imperviousness of defensive measures and the unstoppability of armaments. You have a very good understanding of how to apply force to armor.”

Znap nodded his agreement. “Add to that the fact that you were effectively drafted into this project. You had your own projects with the Pact, and your own krewe, before you were yanked away to work on someone else’s project. It would not be very difficult to imagine some resentment being stirred by that.”

Jakka said nothing, but simply gaped at the three, his mouth working a bit as though attempting to make some sort of statement  but failing to find the words for it.

“It is not true,” Griasi whispered. Then, louder, “It cannot be true.” She stood. “I refuse to believe that Jakka would do this. Yes, there is some resentment.” She shot Znap an angry look. “Who would not feel some when their own project is deemed to be of lesser importance than some other? But Jakka is Pact. He volunteered to work in the Pact because he understands the need to defeat the dragons!”

Silently, Rikbore rose. He stalked towards Jakka, gently pushing aside a resisting Griasi to do so. “Volunteering doesn’t always mean patriotism and loyalty. Sometimes, it can be quite the opposite. Spies and saboteurs are usually volunteers.”

With one final step, he loomed over Jakka. “There was just one problem with all of this, Jakka. The moment I examined the damage to the support beam I could see something wasn’t right. A flaw in the metal like that would have been spotted before it was ever crated up, had it happened in the Black Citadel. It couldn’t possibly have been done during the shipment, either. Too many people could verify the seals on the shipment. That meant it had to have been done here.”

Xandra and Znap also rose, beginning to move toward Rikbore as well, their eyes on Jakka’s. As they approached, Rikbore continued. “It was a clever scheme. Oh, it wouldn’t have stopped us, ultimately. But it would delay us. That, of course, was the key. Delays gave the dragons time to move. Perhaps they’d have taken the Suncoast Isles and turned them into another wasteland like Orr. Maybe it would have been the Norn lands that felt the wrath of those damned lizards, and their cold, snowy lands have become inhospitable even for those giant folk.

“And that would have been the point. The loss of one, or even two of the regions would have created utter chaos. The rulers of the various nations and organizations would have lost control, being forced to step down, or overthrown for their failures to stop the dragons. Refugees would have flooded the remaining lands, overwhelming order and straining the ability to feed everyone. Society itself would have completely broken down. Isn’t that right, Rodhlann?”

Suddenly all eyes turned as one to stare at the Sylvari woman who had sat quietly at the edge of the group. She blinked, her mouth agape, and then she uttered one tremulous “what?”

Znap and Xandra immediately flanked her. Rikbore, however, went straight at her. He seized her by the shoulders, lifting her into the air so that her feet dangled forlornly. He slammed her backwards, smashing her into the wall hard enough for everyone to hear the crack of her leaf-covered skull bouncing against the stone.

Griasi gaped at the scene, frozen, then forced herself to speak. “Then, Jakka…”

“Is innocent,” Rikbore replied. “And owed an apology. I’ll take care of that later. For now…” He leaned in, letting his claws sink into the barklike skin below Rodhlann’s collarbones.

“How,” she gasped, then gave an airy whine of pain as sap-like blood began to flow around the claws penetrating her.

“Jakka is a weapons specialist. He’d have gone with what he knew. He’d have used the usual means he was familiar with and applied force or heat to damage the supports and cross members. Force wouldn’t have changed the actual composition of the metal. Heat would have, but heat always leaves a radiating graduation between various states of steel. When I examined the metal, however, it was clear to my eye that the boundary between good steel and bad had no gradation. It was uneven, and very irregular in shape, but it was still a sharp contrast.

“Xandra wouldn’t have caught it. She is an engineer, but she’s an asuran engineer. Metals are simply the things they shape to fit onto their aetherics. They aren’t metallurgists. But me? I’m a charr. I’m an engineer. Most importantly,” Rikbore leaned in, his snout crinkled in a snarl that bared a carnivore mouthful of teeth only an inch from Rodhlann’s face. “Most importantly, I am IRON legion. Identifying when metal has been altered through some form of chemical etching is cub’s play for someone like me. Chemical etching is a specialty for smiths, as it allows them to create ornate designs in armor. Or to create a seam of weakness in metal that looks natural to the untrained eye.”

“It is too bad you got greedy,” Xandra added in, standing at Rikbore’s side. “One or two beams failing would not have raised suspicion. It would, however, have added numerous delays, not just because of repairs, but because of doubts about our supplies, our suppliers, and our manufacturing capabilities. We would have slowed down, adding additional measures to ensure the veracity of everything we did. During that you could have fabricated additional ways to delay us. Like the trick with making it look like Jakka had made the unforgivable error of failing to add all of the required ribs.”

“Not being an engineer like these two, however,” continued Znap, “meant you could not be certain how to ensure that an accidental break occurred satisfactorily. So you overdid it. By damaging so many structural components at once you raised the suspicions of our hirsute friend.”

“Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. Three times is enemy action,” Rikbore agreed. He twisted his paws a bit, digging the claws a little deeper and causing new beads of sticky blood to flow as Rodhlann gasped in pain before biting back a whimper.

“But why?” Griasi asked. “Why would she want so much chaos? What if we weren’t able to defeat the dragons after they had made such gains?”

“Status,” Rikbore commented. “And a touch of revenge. The Sylvari are the youngest of all of the races, civil or savage. Us Charr have little regard for them. We look for disciplined soldiers, not reedy little flowers full of florid language and dreams. There was little they had to offer us, and we had no charity to waste on them. Humans are too busy dying off to have time for a young upstart race. The Norn are too far from Sylvari lands, and too carefree as a race to respect the affronted dignity of a species barely a generation old. As for the savages, The Centauri are brutal. Tribal. And engaged in a slowly winning war to reclaim the last of the human kingdoms. The Dredge hate all outsiders. Skritt? They are

“Monumentally stupid,” Xandra sneared.

“That,” Rikbore agreed. “Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Only one race has ever interacted heavily with the Sylvari.”

“Us,” Griasi commented.

“And you’ve always treated us as jokes,” Rodhlann spat.

“More like ‘naive opportunities’,” Xandra replied, casually.

“You experimented on us!”

“We thought you were simply particularly mobile plants.”

“I won’t rest until

Rikbore cut Rodhlann’s comment short with a flex of his thumb, causing the words to be replaced by a whistling hiss of pain.

“By creating such a level of chaos, everyone would be set back to square one, culturally, politically, economically,” he said. “Sylvari would stand just as much of a chance of coming out on top of that as anyone else. It doesn’t hurt that Asuran lands are closest to Orr and Abbadon, both lands long lost to the dragons and their servants.”

Rodhlann said nothing, but simply did her best to smirk in spite of the pain in her shoulders.

Everyone was quiet, contemplating the scope of what Rodhlann had attempted. It was clear that the implications, not just for their project, but for the Asuran race, disturbed the Asurans, and they weren’t completely certain how they should proceed. Rikbore, however, was neither Asuran, nor catching up to all of this, having figured it out the day before.

After a few moments, Rodhlann took in a deep breath. Defiant, she looked into Rikbore’s eyes from a level plane, the only advantage that being hoist up in the air gave her. “So,” she rasped. “Now what?”

“My father suggested I eat the gladium that did this when I found her.”

Rodhlann went very, very still. There had been rumours that Charr sometimes ate their defeated foes since the Charr and Humans first went to war fifteen hundred years ago, and the Charr had never gone out of the way to disabuse anyone of the notion. Quietly she whispered, “You wouldn’t.”

“Of course I wouldn’t,” Rikbore replied. “I’m a carnivore. I don’t eat vegetables.” He grinned, then smashed his head against her face. He shrugged as the Sylvari woman lost consciousness and dropped her to the floor, wiping her blood on his pants to clean his claws. “Griasi,” he called.

“Y… yes?” The asuran woman looked up at him from beneath her large ears.

“Think you can logistics her into a crate and ship her back to Trahearne?”

“The leader of the Pact?”

“Yeah. He’s also Sylvari, isn’t he?”

Xandra gave Rikbore a long look. “You don’t suspect him of anything, do you?”

“No,” Rikbore shrugged. “But maybe he could use her as mulch.” He paused a second, then scratched his chin. “How do Sylvari eat, anyway? Do they actually use their mouths, or do they sink their toes into the soil and use them like roots?”

Xandra rolled her eyes.

Chapter Text

Rikbore twitched his ears as a cold breeze ruffled them. From the vantage point high on the wall of the keep he could survey the swampy area just beyond. The tracks of the first test of his drive system still tore great brown trenches in the sickly brown-green of dead reeds leading into it, with patches of ice forming in the individual imprints left by each beam. Winter had come to the Mists, echoing the seasonal pattern he’d have experienced back home.

Znap padded up to him, breath puffing out in clouds of steam. The Asuran male was wrapped deeply in winter clothing, a knit cap on his bald head and thick boots on his ordinarily open toed sandals feet. He squinted at Rikbore, eyes narrow. “Are you not cold? You are wearing metal, with nothing more beneath it than you usually wear.”

“I have a winter coat,” Rikbore replied idly, his eyes still contemplating the swamp.

“I do not see…” Znap’s jaw clamped shut. “You mean your fur is thicker?”

“A bit,” Rikbore agreed. “It’s not as thick as you would expect from a wild cat, but it still helps a bit. Enough that breaks from the heat of the lab are pleasant. I do apologize for what will be happening come spring though.”

Znap snorted, a puff of smoke from the nostrils transforming him into a particularly small and misshapen dragon. “Do you think we will even be here come spring?”

“No.” Rikbore turned his head to eye Znap. “Now that we don’t have someone undermining everything we do, our progress is remarkable. I expect we’ll be ready to start testing the beast by midwinter.” He slapped the wall next to him. “Have a seat.”

With a shrug, Znap pulled himself up onto the crenelation. “Do not expect me to remain long. The stone will rapidly cause cooling within my posterior despite all of the layers I am wearing.”

“No worries. I’ll be wanting to head inside myself in not too long.” He contemplated Znap a moment. “What was life like in the crèche?”

Znap gave a surprised look. “This is a bit surprising a turn of the conversation.”

“While investigating Rodhlann, I visited with my sister. She’d given birth to her first two cubs. It got me to thinking about my time in the Fahrar.”

Znap nodded. “Did you enjoy it?”

“Mostly. We were training every day, growing strong. Morning exercises and combat training, then afternoons learning the skills to be engineers.” Rikbore smiled. “I tended to get into trouble more than most. I was always thinking about ways to improve what I was learning. Some of my comrades didn’t approve of that, but at the end of the day, we were still Fahrar. I never lacked for friendship or any sort of basic requirements, was never bored. I can think of worse ways to grow up than surrounded by the Fahrar, training for the legion.”

“What about your progenitors?”

“My parents?” Rikbore shrugged. “They visited as often as they could. My mother was killed guarding a settlement from human rebels when I was still fairly young. But my father always took an interest in my sister and I. He approved of her more than me. She was more traditional than I. But he still kept an eye on my progress and took time to talk with me during visits.”

Znap nodded. “Life in a crèche is not dissimilar, I suppose. We spend long hours learning, but we do so actively, through experiment and design. We mingle more, I believe. Rather than a single small group that is always together, we move from group to group depending on what we are learning that day. There is still an overall large collection that we come from, though, all belonging to our crèche. I made friends who I still know and compete with. My progenitors visited frequently, one of the advantages of our network of travel gates.” The Asuran paused a moment and gave Rikbore a knowing look. “You are wondering what would become of any progeny that Xandra might birth.”

Rikbore nodded. “That and more. Questions of what family means, what belonging means.”

“Would you be allowed to be a part of any of it?”

The large feline shrugged. “Something like that, yes.”

“If you had to categorize your feelings toward Xandra, how would you classify it?”

Rikbore sighed. “I want what is best for her. I want to be the support she can always count on. I want to share her life.”

“Love, in other words.”

Rikbore chuckled wryly. “I never thought I’d see the day an Asuran would use a single word to describe something complex.”

It was Znap’s turn to shrug. “Even we understand the value in a summary.” He leaned in, breath puffing towards Rikbore. “Asuran couples are brought together out of mutual admiration and a desire for collaboration on an enriching project expanding into all aspects of life. When the project ends, or the inventiveness becomes too intense to maintain, the couple splits apart. But that does not mean a total abandonment.”

Znap rummaged inside a pouch hidden deep on the folds of his thick coat, then pulled out a small case. Clicking it open he revealed a pair of small paintings. “These are my progenitors. Though they dissolved their partnership before my birth, they always included me in their lives. This was not done separately. They often visited together. Though being collaborators and sexual partners had come to an end, their admiration for one another remained. I was very much a part of their lives, even as they both found additional partners, and produced siblings which shared only one parent with me.”

“I’m not certain that is meant to be reassuring.”

“It is.” Znap gave Rikbore a serious look. “If I were to become a sexual intimate of Xandra, and impregnate her, that portion of our lives would eventually end. Perhaps it would be when we have finished with building the golem. The beast, as you call it. Perhaps it will be later. But I would always have an interest in Xandra as a friend, and in our progeny. It is our way. But you…” Znap shrugged. “You are not Asuran. Your approach to her, your interest in her is not driven by our cultural mores. What the two of you have is outside of that. It is in undefined territory, that only the two of you can map out. Tell me, were you a part of her golem work when first you became her lover?”

Rikbore grinned, remembering a saucy conversation with a fellow warrior that had led to an interesting evening. “Not at all.”

“You see, already you are experimenting with new formations of relationships that stand outside of our normal expectations. The start of your relationship with her did not follow the Asuran way. I doubt that an Asuran pattern will impose itself this late in your relationship. If Xandra wishes you to be a part of her life outside of the bonds created by this project, I strongly suspect her incalcitrant nature will brook no dissent.”

Rikbore felt a chuckle rumble in his throat. “I suspect so.” He gave Znap a grin.

“Just so,” Znap grinned back. “And I suspect that means that you would be there when she gives birth, and as she raises the progeny to the age it can enter the crèche. You would certainly be a part of that, and, in your own way, partake in a roll of parentage with it.”

Rikbore found himself thinking back to the expression on Cammillus’ face as she stared at her young cubs. It had been a beautiful thing, full of pride, and hope, and particularly, of love.

“And you think Asuran society would be alright with that?”

Znap laughed. “My dear hirsute friend, you are a key collaborator in the creation of an Asuran weapon that will bring down dragons, and the lover of one of the most sought after golem specialists in history. I dare anyone to try keeping you out of any such progeny’s life. But for now, I am going to return to the lab. My posterior is beginning to become glacial in both temperature and ability to flex.”

Rikbore laughed as well. “Sounds good. I’ll be in soon myself.”

Darkness had long fallen over the keep by the time Rikbore slid into the portion of the lab he had commandeered as a bed chamber. Winter nights always started absurdly early, and the progress of the project was addicting. He’d found himself working far later than he should have, and eating a late dinner of whatever was left in the keep kitchen.

He began unbuckling and unbuttoning the bits and pieces of padding and armor that served him for clothing, stacking the parts neatly in the corner, when a familiar scent wafted through a gap in the curtains. Just afterwards, Xandra followed her particular mix of grease, asuran skin, and femininity into his space. She stepped up behind him, wrapping her arms part way around him, reminding him of just how small she was compared to his bulk.

“I had an interesting conversation with Znap,” she whispered, her fingers digging into his fur to feel the soft fluff of his winter undercoat.

“Oh?” he rumbled, enjoying the feel of her warmth pressed to the back of his thighs.

“You were asking him about my progeny.” She paused, but Rikbore waited her out. After a moment, she continued. “You remember that you cannot give me progeny.”

“True. But Znap can.”

Her hands tensed in his fur, and he heard her voice catch in her throat. “You would find that acceptable?”

“I think he’d be quite acceptable as a sire.”

Xandra let go of Rikbore and walked around to face him.  “For our progeny?”

Rikbore slowly smiled. “Yeah. For our progeny.”

The smile he received in return was beatific.

Chapter Text

Rickbore stifled a snort as he heard the muffled sound from the other side of the curtain. He could have told them that they didn’t need to be discreet, as everyone knew that Xandra and Znap were sexually involved (often and vigorously), but the pretense of secrecy seemed to be part of the fun for them.

The only reason for him to interrupt their fun would be pure spite on his part. To his surprise, he found himself completely free from any sense of such bile. He had agreed to Znap impregnating Xandra, knowing she desired cubs, but had harbored some suspicion he'd be fighting a certain degree of jealousy, but it never came about.

He suspected that Xandra was the reason for this. Rather than spending all her time (and sexual energy) on Znap, like a new toy, Xandra had been anything but neglectful of Rikbore. Nearly every night had found her cuddled up to him, sleeping in his over-sized, furry arms with a peaceful and contented smile. Occasionally she had woken with the sort of amorous desires they'd shared before the Pact had intruded into their lives. To his relief, he’d discovered his own vigour was renewed in response. He had not minded the reawakening in the least.

“Rikbore?”

Evidently his effort to be quiet while collecting some notes from the curtained off corner of the workshop had not been as successful as he'd hoped. Xandra's voice, somewhat breathy, had called out to him and all other interesting sounds quieted down.

“Sorry. Just grabbing some things. Hadn't meant to interrupt.”

To his surprise, the curtain slid aside to reveal the two Asurans looking at him. Xandra was ensconced beneath Znap, hands on his chest helping to hold his upper body up, while he used an arm of his own to support himself, his other still on tangled with the curtain. The blanket that had at one point been covering them had slipped down to rest over their calves, and little else.

“It is no interruption,” the visibly male Asuran replied. “Is there something happening we should be aware of?”

“No.” Rikbore shook his head, determined to be as unflappable as Znap. “I just wanted to review some notes on the gearing for the power to propulsion transfer system. Hadn't realized you were in here.”

Znap nodded thoughtfully, then smiled. “You know, you could join us if you so desired.”

Rikbore felt his eyebrows climb high towards the base of his horns at that surprising offer. He'd known Asurans were experimental and adventurous. His own relationship with Xandra had started as just such an experiment. Still, it was something he had not even considered, let alone thought to be on the table.

His eyes slid to Xandra's. Far from looking embarrassed by the conversation taking place while she was still very much full of Asuran masculinity, she had looked amused by the entire situation. It was clear that she was completely comfortable with Rikbore's presence, and trusted him to take things perfectly in stride. Her expression had changed, however, with Znap's offer. Rikbore read the expression and understood it perfectly.

Asuran romantic partnerships could get quite complex, he'd come to learn. The little hairless beings were intensely competitive in all things, including their sexual pleasure. Things would typically start out being fairly tame, as they clearly still were with Znap and Xandra at the moment. But over time the need to be the more inventive lover, providing ever increasing levels of pleasure to the other would escalate, until eventually the partnership dissolved out of sheer exhaustion, and not a little bit of a sense of self-preservation.

Such an escalation had never occurred between Rikbore and Xandra. Certainly the two had occasionally thrown in a new wrinkle out of curiosity, adding what they liked and discarding what had proven to be undesirable. But there had never been any pressure to it, no sense that things needed to be forced to be better, or more exciting. In fact, slow, simple love making had proven to be a favorite neither Xandra nor Rikbore had felt a need to break away from.

Znap was Xandra's exciting, vigorous experiment, her sexual competitiveness given a free hand to express itself. Rikbore was her safe place, her comfortable and always reliable spot to simply luxuriate in an uncomplicated, comfortable affection. If Rikbore became part of what Znap offered...

No. Xandra needed what the two males were separately, not what they could become together.

He gave Xandra a small nod, and a smile.

“I appreciate the offer, Znap, but I'll have to pass.” He grinned and reached up for the curtain. He started to pull it closed, then paused. “Oh, one thing. She loves having her ears nibbled on. It makes her curl up and shudder in the most exciting way.”

“Rikbore!” Xandra shouted, her skin flushing red, but there was no anger behind the shout.

Laughing, Rikbore slid the curtain closed, collected his notes, and headed back to the other end of the lab.

A few days later Rikbore stood beside Xandra as they looked at the all but complete machine. The wheeled legs and belt of beams they rolled on had not yet been attached, but sat behind the main body of the beast. In front of it, also as of yet detached, the upper body, bearing the massive gun Jakka had designed and built for the monstrosity.

“I must say,” Xandra mused, “even with the three main components still unmarried, it is a far more intimidating looking golem in person than it looked to be on paper.”

Rikbore grunted. “It's a big bastard, that's certain.” He grinned. “Bigger'n any vehicle my people have ever built, that's for sure.”

Xandra reached over and punched Rikbore in the arm. “Do not feel bad. It is not as though size matters.”

Rikbore choked down the sudden laugh that comment inspired. “Don't worry. I won't tell 'em.” He looked around. “Where's the rest of the krewe?”

Xandra propped her hands on her hips and grinned up at the giant mass of fur beside her. “I instructed Jakka and Griasi to take the rest of the day off. I also gave them tomorrow off as well. It is my belief that the entire krewe has earned a little rest. I firmly suspect that Jakka is, as the humans say, 'balls deep' in Griasi at the moment.”

The laugh he'd squelched just a moment for escaped Rikbore in an explosion of air and sound. “Pervert,” he commented once he'd regained control. “Still, that's not surprising. They've been eyeing each other for a while, and with the amount of hormones you and Znap are flooding the air with...”

“That's not how Asurans operate, you bestial creature,” Xandra smirked.

“Of course not. Not with such little noses.” Rikbore grinned down at Xandra. “But speaking of hormones...”

“No time for that. We have a problem.”

Xandra and Rikbore both turned at the interruption. Znap had come up behind them, a clearly unhappy expression writ large across his wrinkled face.

Xandra frowned. “What is it?”

“Something was nagging at me, so I went back and double checked the schematics. We seem to have underestimated Rodhlann.”

Rikbore felt all four of his ears twitch. “How so?”

Znap pulled his body into a stiffer pose than his usual slouch, a position Rikbore had come to think of as 'lecture mode'. Gently gesturing with one hand, Znap began to explain.

“Rodhlann was selected for the team as our resident expert in the forming of all metallic parts. Given the choice of anyone in the Pact, Xandra chose the absolute best available.”

“Naturally,” Xandra agreed.

“The assumption we all made, of course, is that Rodhlann's high level of skill fabricating parts came from a great deal of experience combined with a well developed intellect. Our mistake, however, was to assume that she was a specialist in this to the exclusion of all other fields of study. This was an error on our part. It turns out that Rodhlann actually had quite a bit in common with you, Rikbore.”

Rikbore grunted. “What do you mean?”

To his surprise, it was Xandra, not Znap that spoke next. “I believe I understand what he is intimating. We Asurans are specialists, focusing on our field to the exclusion of all else. It makes us extremely good at what we do, but also means we have to rely on the assembly of good, well balanced krewes to accomplish any large tasks. Znap and I have similar enough fields of study to be able to combine to create a machine that can operate on a previously untapped source of alchemic energy while still being separated from that source. But neither of us could manufacture the needed components for a project this large because our specializations have left us with only a rudimentary understanding of fabrication.”

“Exactly,” Znap agreed. He waved a hand towards Xandra. “Continue.”

Xandra nodded. “You, Rikbore, are not a specialist. Though your primary work on this project has been the development of a propulsion system capable of tackling any terrain we could possibly throw at the golem, you have shown a great deal of skill in other areas as well. When Rodhlann was thrown out as the ignominious traitor she is, you took over manufacture of parts quite ably. While investigating the sabotage that she had been engaged in, you were able to quite capably trace all of our logistics chain through every turn in order to eliminate all false possibilities. This is something neither of us would have been able to do. Griasi could traced the supply route, had she suspected she needed to, but she could never have been able to study and test the metal parts that led you to realize the failures of our structural components were not mere accidents.”

Znap took over. “Unlike Asurans, you Charr diversify yourselves. You do certainly take specialties, but not to the focused degree we do. You liberally add a good deal of supporting fields to your primary focus, allowing you to develop a broader understanding of the 'big picture' of a project.” Znap waved his hand at the nearly complete golem. “Frankly, I suspect that you could have developed most of this golem single handedly, given the time. The only field you did not have sufficient understanding of through your own study is the alchemical principles of the power source.”

“I'd have needed help outside of that,” Rikbore grunted.

“Help, yes. But you would have grasped every part of it, and only needed help for the details, not the generalities.” Znap frowned. “It turns out that Rodhlann has a mind structured more closely to yours than ours.”

Rikbore groaned. “She sabotaged more than just the parts fabrication.”

Znap nodded unhappily. “Yes.”

“How?” Xandra asked.

“As you recall, our original test model destroyed itself upon firing its first shot. A flaw in the energy supply system allowed the alchemic storage system to dump its entire store of energy into the gun at one time. The gun fired, but the strain blew every component in the system on release.”

“We immediately redesigned the system to hard-wire it with a fail-safe to prevent that,” Rikbore rumbled.

“Rodhlann had enough of an understanding of the alchemic power system and storage unit to be able to understand how to alter the plans to bypass the fail-safe.” Znap grunted. “Because I was certain that we had solved the problem I never went back and re-examined our diagrams. This means I never caught the alteration. I only began to suspect it during some low level tests of the power unit yesterday. There was an unusual bit of feedback in the crystals that should not have been possible.”

“We could melt the entire golem on the first shot,” Rikbore deduced.

“Exactly.”

Xandra snarled. “That would result in our having to build an entire replacement golem. It would take months to get back to a point we could begin field tests.”

“Maybe I should have eaten her after all,” Rikbore growled.

Xandra focused her gaze on Znap. “How long will it take to rework the alchemics and prevent this?”

“It will take a week just to completely expose the system. Given the weight of the storage system it is located in the bottom of the golem, but the routing equipment sits on top of that. The energy to motion transmission system sits on top of that. We either have to drop the power unit from underneath or pull the transmission from the top to get to what I need to repair, and we have armored both heavily to prevent damage from cascading throughout the system and killing the crew.”

Rikbore felt Xandra's exasperated sigh as though it was his own.

“Very well. I suppose I shall have to cancel tomorrow's day off so we can rectify this as quickly as possible.”

“It's too late for that,” a voice interrupted. While Znap and Xandra both visibly tensed up as their heads turned to find the source of the intrusion, Rikbore simply sighed.

“Xandra, Znap. Allow me to intrude my personal boogeyman, Sara.”

The dusky-skinned woman stepped out of the shadows, the split in her purple skirt allowing it to swish and flare in a way that would be teasing in less unpleasant circumstances.

“Centurion,” Sara nodded amicably, although the bandages over her blind eyes made the gesture seem ominous.

“Explain yourself,” Xandra snapped.

“There is no time for the repair you need,” Sara responded calmly. “We have simply run out of it. The elder dragon Jormag has made his move. He is attacking the icy homeland of the Norn.” She frowned, the first expression of concern Rikbore could recall her ever making. “Flawed or not, we need your war machine now, or we may never have a chance to use it at all.”

Chapter Text

Rikbore watched as the wagon bearing the body of the beast carefully rolled into the gate. Though the gate was a fairly large edifice, appearing to be a stone ring several times taller than even the tallest of the gigantic Norn, it had never been designed with the size of Xandra’s ego in mind. Her golem may not have been particularly tall, even with the gun mounted on it, but it was definitely wide. With the wagon beneath it, holding it dead center in the ring, and with the wheels, legs, and belt of wooden rails it rolled on removed the machine was clearing the sides of the gate with only a hand's width of distance to either side of it.  Taking the golem through fully assembled would have been a physical impossibility.

“It’s quite a large machine.”

He turned his head to contemplate the Sylvari man standing beside him. Trahearne looked ill at ease inside the armor he was wearing, leaving Rikbore with more of an impression of a stalk of broccoli stuffed into foil than of the leader of an organization that had already taken down one of the great dragons. In fact, Rikbore wondered why the man bothered with armor at all. He was a scholar, not a warrior, who led as a result of his ability to work well with all of the various fractious factions out there, not because he was good with a blade.

“We designed it to carry as much of the aether found in the Mists as we could squeeze in and still fit through the gate.” Rikbore turned his attention back to the slowly moving wagon wiggling carefully through the glowing stone ring. “We’d have made it bigger if we could have.”

“I can’t say as I blame you. We were only able to defeat Zhaitan because I had spent decades studying his every move. We don’t have that advantage this time.” Trahearne looked pensive. “This will be a battle won purely as a result of sheer power.”

Rikbore grunted. “Big as it is, it still seems a bit small compared to the sheer size of a dragon. How large is Jormag?”

“We’re not certain. Veterans of the battle with Zhaitan say he’s roughly the same size. Given that I’d say he’s probably a quarter of a mile long from nose to tail.”

Rikbore’s head slowly pivoted toward Trahearne. “A quarter of a mile long?”

“I don’t expect you’ll miss often.”

Rikbore chewed on that one for a few moments before slowly responding. “No, I don’t expect we will.” Then he chuckled and turned his head back to the operation. “That large, he might not even notice something so small and pathetic as our little golem.”

“It’s possible,” Trehearne shrugged. “We anticipate that the largest threat to you will be from his various minions. Some of the Norn have turned on their own people out of the belief that Jormag will give them power, and spare their lives. In fact, they’ve done far more damage during this invasion than Jormag has done himself.”

“Then why go after Jormag?”

Trehearne turned to look at Rikbore. “Why don’t you tell me.”

“He’s the head, the one directing and inspiring the body. His minions are advancing boldly because of the confidence that he is going to win. Destroy the head, the body will fall apart and flee in terror.”

Trehearne nodded. “As dangerous as his minions are, they are a force we can deal with on an equal basis. Jormag, however, was able to drive the Norn out of their homelands long before he had any followers. We could destroy every last minion he had and still lose to the dragon. We have to confront him directly.”

“And how do you plan to ensure that he’ll come right to Xandra’s little toy?”

For the first time he saw Trehearne grin. “Simple. I’ve made certain he knows that Sara, Zojja, and I are going to be meeting with Knut Whitebear and Eir Stegalkin at Kyesjard. Having the two most important of the Norn Elders and the three primary slayers of Zhaitan gathered in one place makes for a juicy target, wouldn’t you say?”

“And guarantees the decapitation of both the Pact and the Norn if we fail,” Rikbore grunted.

“I recommend you not fail.”

Rikbore cocked an eyebrow. “Duly noted.”

After the body of the golem finally completed passage through the gate, Rikbore stepped up and followed it. He stepped directly through the pulsing purplish mass swirling about inside of the stone ring, no stranger to traveling by the Asuran’s gates even if he’d never crossed through this particular example.

The wind struck him with a particularly vicious kick as he exited on the other side. Owing to the fact that the various races and factions trusted pirates more than one another when they originally sought out a hub to connect the entire network of gates together, the center of the network had been built in the balmy port of Lion’s Arch, a warm water harbor on Kryta’s Bloodtide Coast. The contrast between the semi-tropical temperatures of Lion’s Arch and the icy Shiverpeak Mountains couldn’t have possibly been more extreme. Despite the heavy winter cloak he had put on just before the crossing he felt as though he was being stabbed by daggers made of icicles.

Znap waved Rikbore over toward a large, arch shaped structure made out of a combination of logs and mounded dirt. Norn buildings tended to dig into the extreme land they lived in, allowing the wind to flow over and around them rather than smashing into them. The open doorway he was being waved toward looked more like the glowing mouth of a cave than the entry to a home to Rikbore’s eyes, but it also promised warmth, so he darted over and through without a word towards his diminutive companion.

Znap closed the door behind Rikbore, then turned and removed the heavy gloves and thick overcoat he’d worn to meet Rikbore. “Welcome to Hoelbrak,” he commented as he set the garments down on a chest beside the door. “I presume everything has made it through the gates successfully then?”

“I followed right behind the wagon carrying the body. Everything else went through ahead of it.”

“Excellent!” Znap grinned. “They’ll be taking it to Master Blackforge’s Steading, then. That’s just a little north of here. They have a large, deep cavern that several steadings have been built within that will be quite nicely sheltered while we assemble the golem.”

“Is Xandra there?”

Znap nodded. “She is supervising the uncrating of our tools and spare parts with Jakka. Griasi?”

“She should be along tomorrow. She was supervising the packing of the last of the nonessential equipment at the lab, making sure it will make it to Zojja’s facility.”

“Excellent. We can head over and begin assembling the golem shortly. I recommend some food first. There is marvelous sustenance here.” Znap gestured toward a doorway from which the glow of a fire shone.

“I could stand to have a nice haunch of meat,” Rikbore agreed with a grin. “And it will give you and I a chance to talk about something important.”

Znap looked up at Rikbore as the large feline passed through the door behind him. “And what might that be?”

“Getting Xandra to stay back while you and I take our monstrosity into combat.”

Rikbore watched as Znap froze just before the fire place holding a large spit of roasting meat. Slowly the Asuran male turned his head, giving Rikbore an inscrutable look. “Why would we do that?”

“Because she’s pregnant.”

Again, Znap was silent for a moment. “How would you know that?”

“I can smell the change in her hormones.” Rikbore tapped his nose with a clawed finger. “This thing isn’t just for looks.”

“I see.” Sighing, he sat down. “Just what makes you think that we would have any chance of stopping her?”

“I don’t know,” Rikbore rumbled. “Maybe the fact that so much of what has been done of late has been to assure that her cubs have a future? A future free of dragons? That kind of goes to pot if she dies just after conception.”

“Better us than her?” Znap commented.

“Yeah.”

There was a cough from the doorway. “What an absurd idea.”

Rikbore turned to find Xandra in the doorway. “Um…”

Xandra smiled. “How very articulate of you.”

Feeling like he had just been caught doing something wrong, Rikbore gave a wry grin. “We were just talking about you.”

“I noticed.”

Znap shook his head slowly. “How long have you been here?”

Xandra cocked her head to the side, causing a long ear to slip down and cover one cheek. “From ‘She’s pregnant’.”

“Ah.”

Xandra strolled in, picked up a skewer and knife and began carving a slab of roast off the spit. “Let us analyze what was said immediately before I interrupted. The basic premise was that I have to be kept away from the fight in order to preserve the future of our progeny, yes?” Her eyes slid to Rikbore.

“Yes,” Rikbore replied.

“And if the golem is destroyed with me in it, then that future has been destroyed, correct?”

“Again, yes.”

Xandra sat down and eyed the skewer. “What happens if it is destroyed, and I am not in it?”

“Well…”

Xandra waved a hand at Rikbore and took a bite. After a few chews she swallowed. “If it is destroyed, then there is no future anyway. The Pact has killed one dragon, yes. But it was an extremely costly victory. Much of the Pact’s resources were used up or destroyed, and many lives lost. If our golem and its use of alternate aetherics don’t change the balance, the Pact will never be able to win. Living or dead, there would be no future for our progeny in this case.” She took another bite, chewing it casually.

Rikbore and Znap were quiet for a moment. “Well…”

“In addition, if our progeny is born into a world where the golem has failed, she will be born into a world where she has lost both of her paternal progenitors.”

Rikbore and Znap gave one another side glances. Znap shrugged after a moment.

“We have designed the golem to fight this dragon. In truth, I, and our progeny, have the best chance of survival inside the golem, rather than outside of it. Besides,” Xandra gave a shrug and a smile. “I suppose it is something of a romantic notion of mine, but I would far rather that we see this through to the end together. All three of us. We live together, and if it comes to that, we die together.”

Znap sighed. He turned to face Rikbore. “Can you think of any counter arguments?”

Rikbore scratched his chin. “A few.”

“Do you think they will work?”

Rikbore sighed. “Nope.”

Znap cracked a grin. “Then I suggest you give up, grab some food, and help us assemble the golem as perfectly as possible to ensure we all survive this.”

Blowing a raspberry, Rikbore turned to the spit and began carving off a sizable chunk for himself. “I suppose I’ll have to.”

There was a charitable moment of silence as no one rubbed Rikbore’s nose in his defeat. As he sat down at the table next to Znap, the small Asuran male leaned towards him and whispered far too loudly for any sense of privacy.

“So, does the fact she is pregnant mean I am no longer allowed to indulge in carnal relations with your female, my dear overgrown, hirsute tomcat?”

Rikbore snorted. “The sexual phase of Asuran relationships tends to last only a year or two, I am told. I can wait you out.”

With a chuckle, Znap punched Rikbore in the shoulder as Xandra laughed.

Chapter Text

“I have a suggestion for the next design.”

“A heater?”

“A heater.”

Rikbore could practically hear Znap’s teeth chattering from inside the golem. The lands of the Norn tended to be cold even in summer. With winter in full roar they were nothing less than the icebox of the gods. While Rikbore’s fur could help to cut down the worst of the chill a bit, the mostly hairless things that were Asurans were completely at the mercy of the weather. Being inside the belly of the beast they didn’t have to deal with the wind coming off the field of ice before them, but that was, quite literally, cold comfort.

“Perhaps,” Znap’s voice mused, “a certain felinoid creature could drop back down and close the hatch?”

Rikbore grunted, but remained firmly in place, his head and chest sticking up above the golem’s upper body. Once the battle started he’d have a very limited view of the battlefield. He wanted to be certain he’d memorized it as much as was possible in the time permitting.

The golem was hidden away behind a low hill. From his vantage point he could see (barely) over the crest of the hill to the ice field beyond, but no one out in that field would be able to spy the golem in return. On the other side of the hill a force of roughly one hundred Norn fighters were gathered, dressed in improbably low amounts of clothing and acting slightly bored. Ostensibly these were there to protect the three figures standing at the crest of the hill, discussing the field below them.

Tucked away in a side valley an additional thousand fighters lurked, waiting for the battle to come. While most of them were additional Norn warriors, mixed among them were far more heavily dressed soldiers from the Pact. Hidden away, they were supposed to be the steel jaws that would clamp down on any minions Jormag would be launching into the “ambush” the dragon thought it was about to spring on Trahearne, Knut Whitebear, and Eir Stegalkin. By engaging the dragon’s followers they would keep these dignitaries safe, and also keep the golem from being overwhelmed while it engaged Jormag.

The battlefield itself was a frozen wasteland sloping gently downward away from the hill to eventually end in the Gentle River. By summer it was a grassland full of flowers and bees, the perfect place for the small settlement of Kyesjard to produce honey for the mead the Norn loved so much. Winter buried it beneath deep piles of snow, the wind scouring anything crossing it with airborne crystals of ice. Layers of ice crusted over the top of the snow, the result of sunlight melting just enough snow to refreeze into thins strips that could tear at the legs of those not careful as they attempted to travel across it.

The Norn, warm bodied giants that they were, absolutely loved it. Everyone else thought it a manifestation of hell.

“Seriously, Rikbore.” Znap’s teeth were chattering even worse than they had been just a moment ago. “Please descend into the golem and seal it up. Your body heat is escaping upward, and I am beginning to lose all feeling in my ears.”

Sighing, Rikbore dropped down inside and closed the hatch. The seat settled with a creak of complaint as his substantial weight came down on it. The interior was large enough for him, but it wasn’t exactly designed for comfort. He was wedged in between the housing for the massive alchemic energy cannon that was the entire point of this exercise and the golem’s outer skin. Controls in front of him would allow him to rotate the golem’s torso and adjust the gun’s aim. A foot pedal was all that was needed to fire.

Below and in front of him sat Xandra, firmly ensconced in the lower body of the beast. Her position was far more roomy than his, chiefly owing to the fact it had been designed so even a Norn could operate the golem. Try as he might he couldn’t see one bit of her, the seat she was in being so much larger than she. Controls similar to the ones he would be using allowed her to drive the golem. Steering would essentially be accomplished by controlling the speed of each set of wheels. To turn left, Xandra would simply reduce the speed of the wheels to the left as they rolled over the self deploying road encircling them. With the right side attempting to go forward faster than the left, the whole machine would slew itself to the side like a drunken polar bear in a spray of mud and snow.

Znap was far less fortunate than Xandra. His station had originally been designed similarly to hers, with a seat large enough for any engineer imaginable. Controls would have allowed Znap to shunt alchemic energy about as needed, prioritizing speed or firepower depending on the situation. Rodhlann’s sabotage had made a complete hash of that. In order to prevent a total discharge of all of the stored alchemic energy from occurring the first time the cannon was fired, Znap had hastily torn the seat out and forcibly cut away the metal bulkheads that would originally have been between him and the alchemical energy system, then shifted the transfer system into a fast, makeshift rack on the bulkhead behind him so that he could access the storage bottles. He would be controlling the flow of alchemic energy quite literally by hand, installing and removing the bottles as the battle progressed. It would work, but it left him sitting in a truly horrifying mess of strewn about parts and cables.

Rikbore’s thoughts on the giant golem’s design was interrupted as he heard shouting outside. Ignoring Znap’s protest, he popped the hatch back open and stuck his head out.

Across the frozen river he could see figures pouring out of a narrow valley. Many of them could quickly be identified as Norn, dressed in the iconic armor of the Sons of Svanir. A fanatic cult, these men had devoted themselves to the worship of Jormag rather than fight him, with promises of power and their choice of whatever Norn women survived his destruction. The rest of the figures were icebrood, beast like creatures formed from living ice crystals.

Rikbore grunted. “This isn’t good.”

He heard Xandra stir below. “What is it?”

“There are more of them than we expected. A lot more of them.”

“How many would happen to count as a lot?”

He made a fast estimate, then dropped back inside, the hatch clanging shut behind him. “At least three thousand.”

“Our allies are outnumbered three to one then,” Znap assessed. “Should we deploy?”

“No,” Rikbore grumbled. “We’re not supposed to reveal ourselves until Jormag shows himself. If we pop out too early he may choose not to join in.”

“With a ratio of three to one he may not need to,” Xandra pointed out.

“I know,” Rikbore muttered. “We’ll just have to trust to luck, then.” He lurched back upwards and began watching the battle unfold.

As Jormag’s followers began pouring across the river, a motion caught Rikbore’s eye. He turned and watched with a dreadful fascination as the Pact warriors abandoned the plan and began rushing out of their hidden valley. Rather than slamming into the side of Jormag’s forces they would, instead, be meeting them head on.

“So much for luck,” he sighed.

The two forces smashed into one another with a sound like thunder. Bodies flew in the air, steel rang on steel, and he could hear the sharp cracking sounds of rifles and pistols splitting the air. The Pact forces seemed to come off better in the initial collision, the downhill charge lending them a strength that temporarily offset their inferior numbers. The forces of Jormag were pushed back, their own charge stalled at the frozen river as men and beasts at the rear of the charge collided with those at the front.

The initial advantage shifted quickly, however. Once battle had been well and truly engaged the Pact no longer had a downhill run to empower them. The fight quickly devolved into a chaos laden melee. In such a scrum tactics and strategy became impossible, leaving it a game of numbers. Numbers were something the Pact simply did not have. It was not long until the Sons of Svanir were surging forward, forcing the Pact soldiers aside as they pushed towards the small bodyguard standing on the hill and surrounding their three leaders.

Rikbore snarled as he watched a gap open in the Pact line. Simply overwhelmed, a thin spot had succumbed to pressure and given way. Icebrood the size of clydesdales poured through the opening, rushing towards the hill and Jormag’s prize.

He dropped back into the golem and slammed the hatch shut. “Take us out, Xandra.”

Znap swore behind him. “What about the plan?”

“The plan just went tits up,” he replied. “Show us what this thing can do, Xandra.”

Xandra replied with a sound that was a bit too intimate for the circumstances, and the machine lurched forward. Rikbore rocked back in his seat as he felt the wooden planks grip the snow and ice beneath the wheels. Various bits and pieces of the golem groaned at the sudden acceleration, but everything held together, and Xandra gave a war whoop from her seat.

“Where are we going?” she shouted.

“Bring us to the edge of the hill, then swing us around it. Put us between the Svanir and Trahearne.”

Xandra grunted in agreement, and Rikbore felt the golem begin a skid turn he was sure was throwing snow and mud everywhere. He glanced out through the small viewport cut into the golem’s upper body. Objects on the surface of the snow were flying by at a prodigious rate, blurring past before he could make out details.

“Znap,” he called. “Let’s be a bit cautious with our first shot. I want a minimal charge applied to the cannon.”

Xandra threw the golem into a sharp turn as the golem cleared the end of the hill. Rikbore grunted as his shoulder slammed into the bulkhead beside him, then righted himself and glared through the viewport. Gripping the controls, he began rotating the upper torso, watching until he caught the sight of icy beasts crossing in front of him.

Without a thought, his foot stomped down on the switch in the floor. An unimaginable roar filled his right ear and an electric blue light lit up the world beyond the viewport. To his surprise he felt the golem stagger in its tracks, temporarily slowed by the power pouring out of the cannon’s maw.

“By the Eternal Alchemy,” Xandra swore. “Please do me the courtesy of warning me next time so I can close my eyes!”

Rikbore sympathized. He struggled to blink away the afterimages of the beam that had shot outward so that he could assess the results of his first shot. After a moment things began to come into focus.

“Fuck me…” he muttered. Beyond the viewport he could see a trench cut into the snow. At its bottom mud steamed and bubbled. Several chunks of icebrood were scattered along the edges of the trench, while several additional monsters staggered and circling, injuries spraying drops of water in the place of blood.  “That was a minimal charge?”

“As minimal as I can get,” Znap shouted. “It drained a full bottle, but until I can properly fix the design, that is all I can do to control the power feed.”

Rikbore nodded, though he was certain the Asuran wouldn’t be able to see the gesture. He looked around the compartment around him, checking for any signs of damage. Nothing seemed to be out of order. “How’s everything look for you?”

“I am not finding any problems here,” Xandra shouted. “We are fully mobile!”

“There are no problems here,” Znap huffed. “It will take me a moment to swap out the bottle, but we currently have two dozen available for immediate use.”

“Perfect.” Rikbore grinned, and put his eyes back to the viewport. “Ready to try that again?”

“Absolutely!”

Xandra throttled up, and the golem roared forward. “Hold on!” She shouted.

Rikbore felt the thump of a powerful collision throw him forward. His muzzle smacked into the armor plating beneath the viewport and he immediately tasted blood. “What was that?”

“Icebrood! It jumped in front of us!”

Swearing, Rikbore swallowed a mouthful of copper and snot. He swung the upper body again, staring at the viewport and watching for a new set of targets to line up on. Seeing several icebrood fill the port, he shoved the controls forward, lowering the barrel.

“Firing!” he bellowed. He hesitated only long enough for an eyeblink, then smashed the trigger in the floor downward.

Eyes closed, he felt the golem rock again as the roar of the cannon smashed into his ear. The moment the movement settled and the sound subsided he opened his eyes and looked out again.

Another trench, another scene of devastation.

“This may not be the most efficient way to do this,” he mused. “Perhaps a smaller gun for small targets might be a good addition.”

“Where would the fun in that be?” Xandra called. “I like them big.”

“I heard that,” Znap quipped. Rikbore heard the clink of aetheric bottles as he chuckled at the banter.

“I think those two shots blunted the tip of their breakthrough,” he called. “Xandra, bring us around. I want to go right down their throats.”

“We run the risk of having them attack us from every side if we do that,” she called.

“Not for long. All we have to do is get down to the main battle and we’ll have plenty of allies to keep our back clear.”

“Right.” The golem whipped about, this time slapping Rikbore up against the housing for the cannon. With a grunt he pushed himself back onto an even keel, then thrust himself upward, popping his head through the hatch to look behind the golem.

The beast was throwing up a colossal roostertail of ice and rocks. The detritus from their movement was insufficient to fill the peculiar tracks the golem was leaving in its wake, allowing him to track their movement back to the point they had come around the hill. Beneath one set of tracks an icebrood had been crushed in a gruesome fashion.

Careful to avoid the spray falling behind the golem, the bodyguard were rushing forward. They were unable to keep up with the pace of the machine, but this was unimportant. They were soon engaged with icebrood that had not been stopped by Rikbore’s shots. Reduced in number, their charge slowed by the rampaging mechanical beast in their midst, the icebrood attack slowed, then began to falter completely.

Rikbore dropped back down into his seat. The movement may well have saved his life. The entire golem rocked, one side smashing downwards even as the other side flew up in the air. The entire body rang like the world’s largest and most discordant bell, accompanied by smaller clangs as chunks of something fell onto the golem. Just as he began to believe the golem was going to roll over onto its side, the motion stopped and he felt the roll reverse, slamming the golem back down onto the level.

A muffled cry cut through the din from behind him.

“Znap?” he shouted.

“I am fine,” Znap replied, though pain could be heard in the Asuran’s voice. “I fell against some of the active bottles. I am bruised, but fully functional.”

“Xandra?”

“The seat protected me.”

Rikbore sighed with relief, but didn’t linger on the feeling. “What was that?”

“Someone dropped a giant spike of ice on us. It did not hit square on.”

“Damage?”

He could hear both of his companions scramble, checking everything within view as quickly as possible.

“None here.”

“I think we are fine.”

“Good. Xandra, try getting us moving again. It’s possible that blow broke something in the propulsion system, but we won’t know until we try moving.”

“Right.”

The golem wobbled and groaned. For a moment he thought that the beast had been rendered immobile, but then it gave a sick lurch and began moving forward again.

“The right side feels a bit strange,” Xandra called, “but we are moving!”

“Alright,” Rikbore grunted. “Let’s not do that again.”

“I concur,” Znap groused.

Rikbore smashed his face back to the viewport, seeking out targets for the gun. Swearing, he noted that everything near to hand was an unfortunate mix of friend and foe. Any shot he took would inevitably result in friendly casualties. Xandra seemed to be facing a similar difficulty, as he felt the golem began to slow in order to avoid running down any Pact soldiers.

“Left!” He shouted. “There’s a path to the left you can run down!”

Xandra immediately flung the golem into motion, spinning it around and accelerating hard. Rikbore winced as several Sons of Svanir ended up under the wooden trackways, causing the golem to bounce and rock as though going over a field of small boulders.

He didn’t dwell on it long, however. The motion carried the golem past the main area of fighting and into a body of Jormag’s minions free of any Pact soldiers. Without even taking the time to aim, he bellowed a warning and then triggered the cannon.

Assessing the damage of the shot, he felt momentarily sick. Creatures made of ice crystals one thing. The effect of the cannon on flesh and blood was another thing altogether. The path the bolt had taken was strewn with body parts, some bleeding, and others too badly burnt for such unpleasantness.

He sensed more than saw the shudder that ran through the Sons of Svanir. While the battle raged on, those closest to the golem seemed intent on ensuring they quickly found other parts of the fight to involve themselves in, scattering away from the beast. Shoving aside the horror he’d just looked out on, Rikbore sped them on their way with several additional shots. Xandra gave them additional encouragement, chasing after them at a pace they simply couldn’t match.

“You know,” Rikbore mused, swinging the gun around to line up for another shot. “We may just have a chance of winning this.”

Any comment his companions might have made in response were lost in that moment. A sound like the tearing of a sheet of paper the size of a castle overwhelmed all other sounds. A shadow passed overhead, and he felt the golem rock in a sudden blast of wind.

Thrusting himself upward, Rikbore slammed the hatch open and searched the sky. It didn’t take him long to spot the source of the disturbance. A thing that large was very hard to miss. Rikbore gave a long sigh as his fists clenched on the controls.

“Jormag.”

Chapter Text

Rikbore eyed the behemoth dragon flying overhead. With only the sky around him, it was nearly impossible to estimate the true size of Jormag, but there could be no question that he was truly the colossal creature Trahearne had described. His motion across the sky seemed slow, but Rikbore knew that only his size created that appearance.

“We’re supposed to take that down?” Rikbore muttered to himself.

“What was that, Rikbore?” Xandra’s voice was muffled by the interior of the machine Rikbore stuck out the top of.

“Nothing,” he replied. “Quick! Bring us about hard left if you can.”

The machine had not slowed during his first look at the monster above, but now it skewed hard in a turn. The wooden beams the wheels lay down spat snow, mud, and rock out, slinging it across nearby Norn warriors as it traded momentum for a new direction.

As it spun, Rikbore reached down and seized the controls for the upper body, slinging it around in a left turn of its own. The movement of both lower and upper works sped the cannon around rapidly, allowing Rikbore to squeeze off a snap shot. The actinic flash blasted outward, streaking across the sky.

It came nowhere near Jormag, but then, Rikbore hadn’t expected it to. Jormag’s path had been taking him towards the low lying hill behind which Rikbore had hidden the beast, and atop of which Trahearne and the Norn leadership had been overseeing the battle. The blast hadn’t meant to strike, it had only been intended to divert Jormag’s attention away from the dragon’s intended prey.

Rikbore felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as Jormag jerked in the air, changing his path, and craned a long neck around to search for the source of the interruption. He’d gotten Jormag’s attention, alright. Now he just needed to survive it, along with Xandra and Znapp.

“Xandra?” he called.

“Yes?”

“Wherever we are, we don’t want to be there.”

“Where do we want to be?”

“Anywhere else. And we want to keep being anywhere else no matter where we are.”

“I understand.”

Xandra cancelled the turn, and began racing forward at an angle to Jormag’s flight. He felt the beast of metal leap forward, moving even faster than it had before, bouncing and jolting with every small rock or icebrood body it ran over.

“Znap?”

“I have diverted additional power to motivational uses. I sense there is some urgency to our being able to move.”

“Yeah, you sense that right. How quickly can we fire the cannon?”

“I believe I have worked out an efficient means to replace and connect storage bottles. Perhaps every ten seconds?”

“I’m holding you to that.”

Rikbore eyed Jormag carefully as the dragon swung about in an arc above the village of Kyesjard. An adjustment to his wings, and he began dropping downward, moving in a straight line towards the battle site. The dragon’s jaw dropped, and even from the far distance Rikbore could hear a sucking sound.

Swearing, Rikbore dropped back inside the beast and slammed the hatch shut. He jerked the controls again, smashing his face to the viewport and watching the scenery swim by until he caught sight of Jormag in the air. Making a fast estimate, he ceased the upper body’s turn, slamming his foot down onto the trigger.

The searing beam flashed just past Jormag’s eye, expending itself in the far distance. Again, however, the shot served a purpose. Jormag’s head gave a jerk just as a powerful blast came out from his maw. It landed past the battle site, creating a long path of jagged ice crystals pointing up and back into the sky as if reaching back for its origin. No one had been struck, but Rikbore shuddered as he realized what would happen to anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in such a blast.

The metallic beast he rode in gave another harsh jerk as one of the dragon’s minions narrowly missed it with a far smaller, but more personal jolt of ice. The destructive power had vented its fury on the ground, spraying the golem with a shower of icy shrapnel.

“Xandra!”

“I know!”

Rikbore quickly jolted the cannon barrel down, and sent a devastating blast outward, rending additional attackers into char and debris. As he heard the clanking of Znapp swiftly working to change out bottles, he turned his eye back to the sky.

Jormag was wheeling back for another attack run. This time, however, there was no guesswork involved in figuring out exactly where the monstrosity was planning to lay down his attack. Jormag had spotted the strange centaur-like golem. The dragon was directing its path straight at the beast, and at Rikbore personally.

“Faster, Znap! Faster!”

“That is not helping!” Znap shouted back. A click emerged from somewhere near Rikbore’s feet. “Ready!”

Rikbore leaned into the site. The fact that Jormag was both large and coming straight to him made aiming very easy. He hammered the trigger down.

This time, as the golem rocked back with the shot, Rikbore’s aim was good. Having been more deliberate, and having Jormag himself make it easy, the bolt ran true. Rikbore blinked away darkened spots swimming in his vision, and glowered at the now hissing dragon.

Jormag swept past overhead, allowing Rikbore a good look. Several scales along the dragon’s neck had been torn away, revealing torn and swollen flesh beneath. A slight glimmer that might have been blood flashed in the sunlight as Jormag roared out of sight.

“That was a hit!” Rikbore shouted. Beneath him he heard Znap give a pleased shout of his own, even as Xandra whipped the golem into another jolting turn. “It didn’t do much, but it was still a hit!”

The upper body spun in response to Rikbore’s hand on the controls as he sought out Jormag. Frustratingly, he found himself unable to see the dragon through the viewport. With a growl of frustration he popped out of the hatch yet again.

He spotted Jormag immediately.

“Left!” he screamed. “Left!”

The golem slid sideways as Xandra jerked it around in reply. A crackling roar overwhelmed all other sounds and Rikbore’s vision was filled with a world of white. The golem slammed into something, spinning it violently and Rikbore felt his ribs bash into the hatch frame hard enough to drive his breath from him.

Trying to catch his breath, he jerked his head around wildly, taking in a transformed landscape. Ridges and spikes of ice juddered upward beside the golem. Trapped inside some of these unnatural upward icicles he could see the murky shapes of Icebrood and Norn, along with the occasional Pact warrior. One such victim, a human, was screaming in an animalistic way as he tried to pull his lower body free from one such protrusion. The scream cut mercifully short in only a couple of seconds as the extreme cold raced upward, mercifully ending the warrior’s life and pain.

“Rikbore!” Xandra’s shout tore him away from the horror he was feeling over the sight. “Rikbore! We have a problem!”

“What is it?”

“Something does not feel right. We are still moving, but the golem is trying very hard to turn to the right.”

He glanced downward, over the side of the upper body, but he was unable to see anything but the top of the lower body. Twisting, he looked behind the golem, following the trail it was leaving behind in its motion. Among the disrupted jags of ice and rock he saw wooden timbers sticking up.

“We’ve lost some of the planks!” he shouted.

“We will not be able to take another hit like that,” Xandra shouted as she nursed the golem into another turn.

“Then don’t let it happen!”

Scanning the sky, he watched as Jormag swung around into a turn of his own. Jormag was fast, and powerful, but he paid for that speed with very wide turns. It took time to slow enough to be able to twist about and come back, and that gave Znap time to change out bottles.

Rikbore spun the upper body, bringing the cannon in line for Jormag’s next attack run. Gritting his teeth he waited until Jormag had straightened out, then smashed out another shot. Again, the bolt flew straight, striking Jormag across the face and causing the next gout of ice and death to smash into the ground off target.

Swearing, Rikbore rotated the upper works around yet again as he felt Xandra carefully bring the golem into a new path. Two shots had now hit Jormag, but neither had done much more than rip a few icy scales away. Despite the power of the gun, he was a mosquito to Jormag’s sheer mass. He’d have to hit repeatedly, subjecting Jormag to a death of a thousand cuts. Jormag, however, needed to only get lucky once.

Squinting at the wheeling dragon, Rikbore made a snap decision. His foot smashed down on the trigger button well before Jormag had straightened out. He heard Znap give a yelp of surprise and pain, but the sound was replaced by the hot oil in a pan searing noise of the cannon belching out another shot.

Jormag’s twist in the sky suddenly changed. The blast had struck one of the leathery wings holding the monster aloft. Free of scaly armor, nothing had absorbed or deflected the aetheric energies this time. A large hole opened up in Jormag’s flesh, accompanied by a titanic scream of pain, and the wheeling turn became a tight spiral.

“Ooh, you felt that one, didn’t you?”

“Rikbore! A little more time would be appreciated!”

The Charr soldier found himself ruefully chuckling. “Sorry, Znap. But trust me, that one was worth it.”

Znap’s only reply was the sound of bottles being banged around into place.

Jormag had come out of the spiral. With one wing held a bit awkwardly, the dragon was making a wide, slow turn in the sky, clearly watching the golem that had done the damage and evaluating.

“Go ahead,” Rikbore grinned. “Take your time.”

The icy blue titan banked, coming back into a straight line run. Rikbore could see flaps of leathery skin rippling in the slipstream the dragon rode as it approached, and wondered whether the action would serve to worsen the wound. Still, it would hardly matter if it did. The lives of all three on board the golem couldn’t depend on such an event. The only thing that could be counted on to keep them alive, along with the new life quickening in Xandra’s belly, would be a shot that didn’t just ground Jormag, but one that would kill him outright.

As Jormag streaked in, Rikbore waited, wanting to time the shot just right. Just as the great beast opened its maw, ready to breath out death once more, he stomped the trigger, shouting for Xandra to jerk right at the same moment.

Another shot rent the sky into overbright pieces, and again it landed, this time striking Jormag squarely on the snout. The shot carried not just a blast of energy, but a kinetic force akin to that which jolted the golem with every round, and Jormag’s head rocked back just enough for his icy breath to fly overhead. It missed the mark, but Rikbore could feel an unnatural cold in his ears quickly flash from cold, to frostburn fire, to nothing at all.

Snarling, he jerked the upper body into motion, tracking Jormag as the dragon began another, slower turn. The change in pace gave him the chance he was hoping for and, with a vengeful scream, he triggered another shot, striking the wounded wing a second time.

Jormag staggered in the air, then slid backward as he lost all forward momentum. Twisting, the two holes in his wing joined, and then the wing tore completely, the leather membrane no longer taught but instead a flapping, loose streamer hanging from the meaty bones that had held it tight.

Rikbore could feel the ground quake beneath the road and wheels on which the golem ran as Jormag smashed to the ground. A cloud of ice and snow blasted upward, obscuring sight where Jormag had struck. For just a moment, all seemed still.

Jormag swarmed out of the cloud in a twist, lurching upright with a teeth baring snarl on his lips. He shook himself, then fixed the battlefield in his vision with a baleful glare that Rikbore could feel go right through him. He threw off the shudder of terror that threatened to unman him, and tossed a grin right back.

“Now we’re even, bastard.”

Jormag lurched forward, racing forward on four legs, his wings packed tightly to his back. Beneath him, Rikbore could feel Xandra’s reply to the challenge as she turned the golem straight toward Jormag and put on a burst of speed to match.

No longer airborne, Jormag’s approach was much slower, granting Rikbore the luxury of two more shots before Jormag was within the range of his own weapon. Both struck, one glancing off of Jormag’s belly scales, the other drawing a burnt streak along a leg. Neither, however, seemed able to do significant damage.

Jormag’s jaw dropped, and Rikbore braced himself for what was to come. He heard a roaring sound begin to swell, watched as a mass began to form down Jormag’s throat, and knew that there was nothing to be done. Jormag was too close. No matter which way Xandra turned now, it would be too late.

Hands grabbed his legs, and Rikbore felt himself jerked off his feet. He slammed downward, striking the side of his head against the hatch as he fell back into the golem’s interior. He didn’t even have time to register the fact his head was hurting when the golem was suddenly transformed into a gyrating, spinning bit of debris.

Everything seemed to come unglued. Bottles floated in the air, then suddenly arced away to smash into metal sides with a flash of sparks. He saw Znap float upward, then bash downward again, striking the floor with his hip in a painful way. From the corner of his eye Xandra’s arm waved amidst a flash of stars threatening to overwhelm his vision completely. It was a world of chaos, noise, and pain.

Then everything became still. Rikbore lay in place for a moment, wedged painfully between the cannon and the seat he had previously been seated in. Once he was certain everything had stopped moving, he groaned, and struggled to push himself upward.

“Xandra?”

Rikbore heard no answer in the suddenly quiet world. Alarmed, he began looking around the debris strewn insides of the golem.

“Xandra!”

He saw something shift beside his leg. Fixing his eyes on the motion, he quickly recognized the other member of the krewe.

“Znap!”

The Asuran male shoved himself upright, then gave a strangled cry of pain, falling back into a prone position. Both hands clamped down on his hip, and Znap bit down on his lip hard enough for Rikbore to see blood as he tried to strangle down a second scream.

“Znap!”

Pained, Znap cracked open an eye. “My hip,” he squeaked.

Rikbore nodded.

“Xandra?” Znapp asked.

“I don’t know.”

“You have to…”

Whatever Znap was about to say, a shudder running through the golem interrupted it. As the machine shivered and groaned, Rikbore and Znap locked eyes.

“Jormag.”

Painfully, Rikbore pulled himself up. He shoved against the hatch, which stubbornly refused to budge. Giving up on that, he dragged himself up to the viewport and stared outward.

“Oh, you bastard,” he muttered.

Jormag was coming straight at them. No longer running, the more sedate pace seemed not just confident, but smug. Triumphant. Rikbore realized in that moment that Jormag was just as aware as he that the blow had been crippling. Now the dragon need only take his time, gloat, and finish the golem from close enough to make it a very personal victory.

“Znap,” Rikbore spoke softly, slowly. Fear had been replaced with something else. He felt outraged at Jormag’s contempt. More than that, he felt tranquil, at perfect peace with himself and the world. He could see it with perfect clarity, how everything had come to this moment, and he knew what to do.”

“Connect all the bottles.”

Voice filled with pain, Znap grunted. “We’ll blow the leads,” he cautioned.

“So be it.”

With a squeal of pain, Znap drug himself back to the jury-rigged collection of bottles that fueled the beast with the aetheric energies of the Mists. Shaking fingers began pulling rods, tubes, and wires into place, forcing connections to lock with a slow, but determined effort.

Rikbore shook his head, trying to clear his vision. Something had begun dripping down over one eye. He had little doubt it was blood, though he could not say whether it was the result of his crash into the golem from before Jormag’s blast, or from the pounding that had resulted after. With a twist that made his head swim for a moment, he forced his way back into the seat and his foot found the trigger as he continued to watch Jormag approach.

“Xandra?” he asked, one last time.

Hearing nothing, he snarled. With a jerk, he smashed the control for the upper body sideways, felt it slew in response. He watched Jormag’s head, larger than most houses, open up, saw the cannon line up with the dragon’s throat. With a scream, he stomped down on the trigger.

The world exploded, and then he knew nothing.

Chapter Text

Awareness came slowly, starting with pain and growing progressively worse. Rikbore could feel a groan escape his lips, leaving them seemingly the only thing currently working. His eyelids seemed completely resistant to any effort to open them, his limbs seemed to be heavy weights with no capability to move. Even breathing seemed to be a pain.

“Are we awake this time?”

Griasi’s voice, Ribore realized. This time the groan he made was voluntary, though it had originally been intended to come out as words responding to Griasi’s question. He attempted to roll over and look at her, but his body did little more than wiggle. He did feel one eyelid open, though all he could see was orange-lit fuzziness.

“Well, that is certainly an improvement,” Griasi commented. He saw shadowed movement in the fuzziness, and felt a three fingered hand pat his shoulder. “I will assume that you are, indeed, awake. I will also anticipate the questions you surely have and answer them before you strain yourself attempting to ask them.”

Rikbore would have chuckled if he felt he could. Instead he stopped attempting to move and focused on just trying to finish coming awake.

Griasi continued. “To begin with, and most urgent in your mind I am certain, Centurion, both of your erstwhile partners live. In fact, you are the last of the three of you to awaken, assuming you are actually awake and not about to relapse into sleep yet again. Further, both of them, and you as well, shall live, though it was touch and go for a time. None of you were in particularly good shape when we managed to carve our way into the golem to retrieve you.

“Next, as you may surmise by your survival, Jormag is quite dead. Had he not been, I very much doubt we would have had the chance to rescue you. While your final shot may have been rash, by many standards, the sheer amount of alternate aetheric energies you channeled directly down his throat did considerable damage. It also disrupted his icy blast, causing it to back up and unleash itself down his own esophagus. There are pieces of his head and neck scattered across two miles.”

This time the chuckle did emerge, and was even recognizable, though it quickly devolved into a rasping grunt of pain.

“Congratulations,” Griasi commented. “You are officially a hero of the Pact, and of all five races now.”

Rikbore twitched his arm dismissively, and was pleased that it responded clumsily, even as it shot spikes of pain up his shoulder to do it.

“But enough about that. For now, I shall fetch your doctor to assess your progress.”

The shadow shifted away, allowing him to realize he was slowly beginning to separate out patches of light and dark in the open eye. Footsteps faded away, soon to return with an accompanying set. Slowly he rolled his head toward the sound, finding himself able to make out the shapes, if not the details, of a short figure and a tall one.

“Please don’t rush yourself. It’s quite alright to lay there a bit longer.”

Rikbore didn’t recognize the voice, but could tell by the depth of it that it came from a barrel-chested Norn male. The taller figure stepped next to where he lay and rested a hand on Rikbore’s wrist.

“Your pulse is good. How do you feel?”

“Mangled,” Rikbore rasped.

“A grand improvement, my friend.” Fingers pulled the eyelids further apart on the eye he’d managed to open. “Griasi, would you be so kind as to bring me a light?”

Brightness filled his vision and Rikbore found himself fighting the fingers to close his eye against the invasion. The fingers retreated, allowing him to block out the light and deal with the after images floating in the darkness that ensued.

“Not bad.”

Hands roamed over his body, feeling strange at times and comforting at others. He could feel bandages being checked.

“Well,” the physician commented. “You’ll certainly live, even if you don’t currently look like it. By bear, you Char are tough customers.” A chair scraped on the wood. “Do you feel up to visitors?”

Rikbore mustered himself, forcing his eye open. He found himself wondering at the fact that the other seemed altogether unresponsive. “Water… first.”

“Griasi?” The male Norn turned and sat. “Why don’t you go see if anyone wishes to come say hello.”

A gentle hand lifted his head, stirring an unbelievable amount of dizziness up within his skull, and then a cup was pressed to his lips. Eagerly he sipped, through the water was carefully metered to be a slow trickle rather than satisfying gulps.

“I suppose introductions are in order. I’m Bjorn Icefjord, your kindly healer. You’ve been in my care, and my home for almost a week now.” Bjorn’s hand settled Rikbore’s head back on the pillow. “And you are Rikbore Warstone, Centurion of Iron Legion, one of my three patients.”

Rikbore turned his head and considered the man. His vision was still not clear, but he could start making out details, such as Bjorn’s brown hair and the blue blur of tattoos. He grumbled at the fact he still couldn’t get both eyes focused on the task, and willed his hand into reaching up for his face.

Bjorn’s hand caught his arm. “You don’t want to do that just yet.” The Norn’s voice was gentle, but a little wistful. “I’m afraid the socket hasn’t healed up yet, and we wouldn’t want an infection.”

“Socket?”

“Ah, you wouldn’t yet be aware of the extent of your injuries, even if the rest of us have become quite familiar with them.” A hand reached out and patted Rikbore’s shoulder. “Well, being a soldier and centurion I am certain you can handle it, even if you’ve only just rejoined us. So yes. Your left eye is gone I’m afraid. Your right is intact, of course, but I can’t guarantee that you’ll ever have the vision from it you once had. The amount of light your final shot emitted may have burned it somewhat. A number of people on the battlefield have vision loss.”

Rikbore sighed. “My fault.”

“Oh, rest easy, Centurion. We all know you did what you had to. No one faults you for injuries sustained in a battle we were losing.” Bjorn leaned back. “In addition to your eye, you have lost most of your fur. Some was burned off by the explosion of aether when your gun overloaded. More was shaved off so we could evaluate your wounds and patch you up. I imagine that, when it grows back in, you’ll have quite an amazing patchwork of white hair growing over the scars. We had to dig a considerable amount of the gun out of your muscles.”

Carefully, Rikbore reached up to his body. His hand slid along his torso, feeling numerous bandages wrapped around it. “Ouch.”

“Ouch indeed. Luckily, nothing vital was injured, but you did lose quite a bit of blood. Several of your ribs are broken as well. Also, you managed to lose a couple of ears to frostbite. A close call with Jormag’s breath, I understand.”

Bjorn sighed, then continued. “The worst of it, however, was the damage caused by the unleashing of all that energy inside your clever little device. You had quite an amount of aether run itself through you. You have suffered a remarkable amount of burning, some of which may have been internal. Frankly, we were worried you might not ever awaken owing to damage to your brain.”

“It is not as though he uses it.”

Rikbore chuckled. “Hello Xandra.”

Even with his difficulties seeing he could recognize Xandra as she stepped into view. Her shape, the way she moved, all of it was a picture he would always know, even were he blinded altogether. Her movements were stiff, but distinctly hers.

“Hello, Rikbore.”

He felt her take his hand and hop up on the bed next to him. She leaned over, and he felt her lips brush his, an action he quickly lifted himself to meet. The kiss lasted only a second, but that was all he needed to feel his day brighten despite the news of his maiming.

“Znap wanted to join us, but he is not yet mobile.”

“Ah, yes.” Bjorn nodded. “It shall be some time for him. Though his overall injuries are less than yours, Rikbore, you are more likely to be back on your feet first. His leg was shattered in several locations and will be quite some time healing. We’ve restricted him to bed until we can be sure the bones are healing correctly.”

“I’ll visit him as soon as I can,” Rikbore muttered, feeling his energy slowly sapping. “But what about you, Xandra?”

“I am fine,” she commented, her tone slightly dismissive. “I bumped my head a little, is all.”

Bjorn snorted. “You bumped your head a lot,” he countered. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

“You are not,” Xandra snapped. “I do wish you would stop asking.”

“You still have dizzy spells, occasional slurred speech, and moments where you struggle to figure out what you are trying to say. Until we are sure you’re head is screwed on tight, I’m going to keep asking.”

Xandra sighed. “I am fine, I assure you, Bjorn.” She turned back to Rikbore. “And so is our progeny.”

Rikbore smiled. “Good. That’s good.” He felt his eye closing. “Xandra?”

“Yes?”

“Sorry, I think I need to sleep now.”

He could hear the soft laugh she gave. “Well, I suppose you have earned it. Besides.” The laughter crept into her words. “You are quite cute when you catnap.”

“Flatterer,” Rikbore rumbled, then dropped back into sleep.

Chapter Text

“Stop that.” Xandra swatted at Rikbore’s hand, her voice exasperated. “You know I do not like it when you do that.”

With a wry grin, Rikbore pulled his finger out from under the eyepatch covering his ruined eye. “It itches.”

“Show some discipline, you overgrown, hirsute catboy. You are supposed to be a Quaestor of the Legions.”

Rikbore turned to look at the chair next to the one he was seated in. “Help, Znap. Our mate is henpecking me again.”

Beside him, Znap shrugged. “I refuse to make myself a target for your sake, Rikbore.” He patted his leg, stretched out to rest on a comfortable foot stool in front of his chair. “You can run far faster than I can. Besides, it is a bit disturbing to see you poking your eye socket.”

“I am beset on all sides.” Rikbore sighed dramatically.

“Here.” Xandra leaned over Rikbore and plopped a squirming, wrapped bundle in his lap. “Maybe holding our progeny will keep your hands busy.”

“Now hold on. I need to double check those plans Belladonna Quicksilver submitted for an improved drive system for the Mark III.”

“Sure you do,” Xandra snorted. “That’s why you’re cuddling Jexxi like she is the most precious thing in the universe?”

Rikbore grinned and looked down into the face of Xandra’s daughter. The week old infant stared back up through large watery eyes and stopped wiggling inside her tight wrappings. She made a little grunting coo, then blew little bubbles between her lips. “Perhaps she is.”

Xandra gave a beatific smile, then plopped down carefully into her own chair. She sighed and leaned back, massaging her breasts, one plump, one less so. “Why can she not drink from both of them in one setting? I feel asymmetrical.”

Znap laughed. “I’m sure she will when she has grown a little. She is only five pounds. By the time she’s three months old I am certain she’ll be draining you flat every feeding.”

“Thank the Eternal Alchemy,” Xandra sighed. “This is doing horrible things to my clothes. I finally manage to shrink my stomach, and now my chest explodes.”

“To be fair, your stomach hasn’t shrunk completely,” Rikbore pointed out.

“I would throw something at you,” Xandra rumbled, “but you are using an innocent as a shield. Besides,” she shrugged. “You are not wrong. I have been assured the weight should come off in a month or two, with proper exercise. Just as soon as my reproductive organs are settled enough for exercise.”

Rikbore glanced over to Znap. The Asuran male glanced back.

“Are all Asuran women this frank about what sex and childbirth does to their body?”

Znap shrugged. “Mostly. Xandra takes it a bit further though.”

“Do not be ridiculous,” Xandra laughed. “It is not as though you are not both quite intimately acquainted with the parts in question.”

“True,” Znap nodded.

Rikbore grinned and began gently bobbling Jexxi, earning a spit filled raspberry as a reward. “So, how goes the new production?”

“Good,” Xandra nodded. “This new lab Zojja gave us is a marvel. It looks like we’ll be able to produce five Mark II golems a month instead of the four we initially expected. Trahearne should be pleased. By the time he takes on the next dragon he should have at least a full company of golems available. Perhaps even two.”

Rikbore nodded. The Pact had officially named the golem design they had ridden into battle against Jormag with the unimaginative ‘Mark II’. The original test model that had destroyed itself in the swamp outside the keep had been lovingly dubbed the ‘Mark I’. Zojja had then agreed to help Xandra’s krewe, officially titled by the Pact as the “Technological Augmentation Nexus Krewe”, establish a lab and manufactory near her own lab in Metrica Province, the homeland of the Asura. The resulting facility had been far more than merely a lab space for the three of them, Griasi, and Jakka to continue developing golems. Instead it had been large enough to expand their research team three times over and held space for an additional several dozen Pact members to build Mark IIs.

Technically, Xandra (and by extension Rikbore and Znap) was responsible for overseeing the construction of the Mark IIs, as that duty was part of what her Krewe now did. Realistically she had mostly left that duty in the hands of a human named Rebecca Shamhat, a native of Divinity’s Reach. Still, she did occasionally pull surprise inspections just to ensure everything was going well. This being her first day back after giving birth, she had just performed one such inspection.

She turned and looked at Znap. “And the research side of things?”

“That is as good as could be hoped,” Znap grinned. “The new additions to the Krewe are coming along nicely. Once we demonstrated the concept, brilliant minds immediately began working out ways to improve our golem designs.” He shook his head ruefully. “I am afraid I have to admit that some of them may be better than we are, in their specific fields.”

Rikbore chuckled. “Don’t let that worry you. We had to be skilled in a number of areas to make this work. They all got to focus on one thing each. I doubt any of them would have our flexibility.”

Znap chuckled. “There is some truth to that.”

Xandra smiled. Then looked to Rikbore. “And what about you?”

Rikbore grinned with pride. “Training is going well. Now that we have five Mark IIs, I can drill a number of Pact trainees in their operation at once, and even use them to work out group tactics. Give me a half a year and I expect the first graduates to make life hard on any dragons that come calling.”

“Excellent!” Xandra smiled.

“I’m glad to hear it.”

All three of them turned to look at the open door to the private office the three of them shared. The dark skinned, purple clad speaker stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame.

“Sara. It’s always good to see you,” Rikbore snarked, turning his head so that only the eye covered by the patch would have been able to look at her.

The woman smiled and walked fully into the room, then popped a hip up onto a desk loaded with papers and small design models. “This time you might actually think so. I have news I am certain you’ll be glad to hear.”

Rikbore exchanged a glance with Xandra, then turned his good eye to Trahearne’s professional sneak. “Oh?”

“In light of the success you have had in developing these tanks for the Pact…”

Znap cut Sara off. “Tanks?”

Sara smiled. “I suppose you haven’t heard the term. I am a bit surprised that Rikbore is unfamiliar with it. I would have thought the recruits would be using it.” She leaned back a bit. “To differentiate your golems from the standard asuran combat golems, people have taken to referring to them as Technological Augmentation Nexus Krewe Specials. Since that is a bit cumbersome, they’ve simply started using the acronym, T.A.N.K.S.”

The three gaped for a moment.

“That is the most preposterous thing I have ever heard,” Znap muttered.

“As you like,” Sara chuckled. “Regardless, the success you’ve achieved with them, particularly in light of your using the first, sabotaged Mark II to kill Jormag, has resulted in an alliance that has agreed to a number of rewards you should all enjoy. First off, Rikbore, you are officially now ranked as a Primus. True, Primus is a rank the Char usually give to the teachers of a fahrar, but we’ve never had a formal school to train people to use massed war machines like this before. It was deemed appropriate. You’ll be its first head Primus. As you are training people from all five races as part of the Pact, your official rank in the Legions won’t be affected, but the Tribunes have agreed.”

Rikbore arched an eyebrow, but said nothing.

“As for the Pact itself, in recognition of your extraordinary efforts, and heroism, you are all being formally granted recognition as Warmasters. Congratulations. At this point, only the generals can muck with you now.”

There was a moment of silence, then Rikbore cracked a grin. “So does this mean we can finally tell you to get bent?”

Sara laughed. “You might even have the authority to make me. Might. But for now, there is one more bit of news you should like.” She shuffled over and looked down at the tiny asuran baby Rikbore held. “The marriage of Asuran and Char technology that was created by the cooperation between the three of you has caught the eye of the Asuran’s Arcane Council. They have decided to foster further cooperation and innovation between your races, and any of the other races as well. As such, they have decided to create the first crèche that will be open to the children of all races, with instructors drawn from the best minds of all races as well.”

She carefully lay a hand on the wrappings surrounding Jexxi. “It is hoped that Jexxi will join it. Along with her Char cousins. Knockear and Henna, was it?”

Rikbore nodded. “Yeah.”

Xandra coughed quietly. “I suppose I could do worse in picking a crèche for her. She might learn a thing or too from having overgrown cats as crèchemates.”

“Good.” Sara smiled, then turned around. “I suppose I shall leave the three of you to your domestic bliss, then.”

“Not so fast,” Rikbore called, his nose wrinkling.

“Warmaster?” Sara asked, looking back.

Rikbore picked up Jexxi and thrust her into Sara’s surprised arms. “It’s your turn to change her, Aunty Whispers.”

At the look of shock on Sara’s face, all three of them grinned, in spite of the eye-watering smell, quickly filling the air. As Jexxi began to fuss, Sara looked down at the infant. “As you wish, Warmaster.” Peals of laughter rang out as she turned to search for a fresh diaper.