“God fucking dammit, this Arsenal sucks. Why the hell would Zen even want this pathetic tin can crap!? This is a fucking suicide mission; Just fucking suicidal!” Guns Empress barely avoided the mace inches from her face. The dead of the night illuminated nothing; Only a one-sided solo resounded in the silence and Guns Empress was the unfortunate instrument. The beats translated deeply into her own body, ricocheting waves of crushing pain throughout. Unparalleled synchronicity, in this case, was a huge disadvantage; Compared to High Line, this experimental Arsenal was morbidly obese.
There were no planes at the drop-off point. There were no planes on the horizon. As far as Guns Empress could sense, there were no planes coming for this Arsenal at all. Only ground lights and the surrounding femto radiated visibly to the untrained eye. Was this mission a dud? There was little time to ponder about such details, not when the enemy Reclaimer was still hot on her tail. Well, technically two, if Rose Queen decided to take full advantage of the situation. For now, it seemed that she preferred to spectate.
Crow, the leader of Immortal Innocence, refused to let up. Releasing a multitude of mines into the air, Guns Empress was virtually grounded and subjected to his mercy, none graciously given. Was she going to give up though? Of course not, but the situation remained grim. How was she supposed to survive this?
Guns Empress tightened her focus upon the enemy Arsenal. Her willpower compressed into a single point that tracked and traced, but there was a single, stray spark drawing a hairline strand of attention. It was as though a single star had gained sentience to flicker against, comparatively, astronomical clashes of femto. What was this? The slightest hint of red persisted from the same direction while splashes of glaring scarlet threatened to wipe it out.
A lone Outer? It was a microbe in the world of giants.
Where did it come from? How did it get here? There were no human settlements in the area, at least none that hadn't been razed to the ground by the Immortals. If an entire village of stubborn renegades were unable to survive the emotionless rampage, this child will surely not be spared either. How could it, when Guns Empress herself desperately struggled with such a situation before?
ATTENTION: UNIDENTIFIED INDIVIDUAL DETECTED ON THE BATTLEFIELD. THE PHYSICAL APPEARANCE OF THE INDIVIDUAL DOES NOT MATCH ANY RECLAIMERS REGISTERED WITH ORBITAL. PLEASE PROCEED WITH CAUTION.’
Empathy ballooned and churned like an upset stomach, till Guns Empress could no longer dedicate herself to her own stakes of survival. Feigning ignorance would only continue to remind her about her own past. The emptiness of solitude was akin to a piece of matter in vacuum; Little by little, even the strongest minds will dissipate into null. As an artificial intelligence who was once projected towards such a fate, Guns Empress found herself spurred towards the single atom on the battlefield. She desired to ensure its purpose.
That being said, her approach will surely cause such miniscule life to be snuffed out. Crow was bent on unleashing hell upon her; There were no openings in his rifle-and-mace tactic, and it was starting to pay off. This Arsenal was much too bulky for her usual manoeuvres, and its weight was the only factor that prevented Guns Empress from being knocked around senselessly. Sturdy as the mountains, yet lacking the all-consuming prowess of avalanches; In other words…
'It's a goddamned meat shield, of course…" A shield; Or rather, a full-body suit of armour with zero offensive ability to boast of. It was an incredibly durable piece of work, probably the hardiest heap of junk Guns Empress had ever witnessed — let alone pilot. The only saving grace was its pointlessly rock-hard defence; Even though Guns Empress was unable to dodge most attacks due to its lack of mobility, it was able to lower the extent of pain she would had needed to endure. Truth to be told, such aggressiveness would have destroyed High Line by now, assuming its agility to be just as limited.
Guns Empress resented unnecessary defences, for it only served to supplement the chinks in the armour — the weakest link in a unit. If every member were as equally powerful, there would be no flaws and few burdens to drag her down. Everyone would be pulling their own weight, and each person would be responsible for their own survival. If staying alive had to come at the cost of sacrifice, Guns Empress would sooner forfeit her life than permit it. There would have been no point to paying the price for mortality if she were to succumb in fear.
That being said, no man is an island. In the middle of the Oval Link, humans will perish sooner than ember thrown to the wind.
A direct hit to the Arsenal’s right shoulder shattered its iron defence, striking right into Guns Empress’ nerves and eliciting an animalistic scream from the woman. The impact finally knocked her right into the ground. While she was still able to remain standing, locomotion was beginning to stagger. Staying any longer in this useless castle may prove fatal to Guns Empress’ sanity, let alone her life. It was time to make her move, whether she wanted to or not.
With as much remaining strength as she could draw from the Arsenal, Guns Empress pushed for a final boost towards the flickering light, its intensity and strength growing with the distance covered. Seconds later, the Reclaimer found herself a girl trembling at the Arsenal’s feet. She appeared around 14 years of age. Even in the twilight, her oriental features were accentuated by what little light was available. The only article safeguarding her from the freezing, desert night was a hospital gown; Was she frightened by Guns Empress, or was she merely hypothermic? Either way, it was too dangerous to linger around this Arsenal any longer. Time was of the essence.
Launching herself out of the Arsenal, the elder instantly tackle-leaped with her shoulder dug into the girl’s abdomen. Before any sort of protesting could occur, she took a second leap — amidst abrupt clouds of sand raised around them and a deafening, scorching blast from behind — then dashed behind a boulder. It would surely buy them some time, even if Crow and Rose Queen would still be able to locate them on the radars.
The unwieldy Arsenal was useful in its final moments, at least.
“What are you doing here?!” Guns Empress all but shouted at the helpless youngling, whose expression she was no longer able to discern. Judging by the absence of heavy breathing, which was commonly associated with panic or fear, this girl was definitely calmer than most. That, or she had fainted. Guns Empress would have assumed the latter if the girl remained mute any longer.
“I…” It was a fragile sound that would have been drowned out by a gust of wind. “I don’t… Know. I woke up here. Where am I?”
‘ATTENTION: GUNS EMPRESS HAS MADE CONTACT WITH THE UNIDENTIFIED INDIVIDUAL. THE INDIVIDUAL EXHIBITS SYMPTOMS OF AMNESIA, HENCE ITS IDENTITY COULD NOT BE ESTABLISHED. PLEASE PROCEED WITH CAUTION.’
A short distance away, a hatch squeaked as it opened.
“Really now, no ideas? You’re in the middle of nowhere and close to an airbase that would have shot you down on sight. Stay low if you don’t have a death wish!” Silence yet again. This brat was either suicidal or slow. Guns Empress still wasn’t ready to ditch her, but there was no way she could fend off Crow like this. “Look, here’s a grenade.”
The device was pressed into cold, jittery hands.
“If anything happens, activate it then chuck it at the enemy. Just push this button here then… Well, you decide for yourself whether to use it. Suicide or whatever, don’t go dying like a moron.” Were her instructions clear? No matter; The dust cloud had dissipated and there were no other hiding spots in the area. Surely Crow had already figured out where she was? Guns Empress could only hope that he had not noticed this child’s presence. Considering that that tin can Arsenal was meant to be confidential, it would come as no surprise if he would eliminate witnesses as well.
Stepping into view, Guns Empress scanned the area till her gaze settled upon a lone figure, whose silhouette was illuminated by the ground lights. Similarly, his Blitz remained hung at his hips. A stare-off ensued between the two; At the same time, Rose Queen approached the duo in her Arsenal, opting to remain at a distance still. However, this time, she sensed a golden opportunity. Guns Empress may be the strongest in an Arsenal, but she was a mere bundle of flesh without.
While there was no honour in taking her revenge against her arch-enemy with a 2-on-1, perhaps Crow would appreciate a little assistance in accelerating the battle.
“So you finally showed yourself, Guns Empress. Found a little friend, didn't you? Stop resisting and let me end you right here, right now!”
A slab of broken Arsenal made an unimpactful thud.
“Give up? I don’t know what that means. You, on the other hand…”
Activating her Blitz, Guns Empress fired a cautionary shot directly at Crow’s head. It grazed his temple when he dodged it.
“Leave. Consider that your first and final warning, spoilsport.”
Her enemy merely took a step forward, activating his unit at the same time. He was barely fazed. Why would he be? The absurd durability of a story protagonist was weaved into his destiny.
“Of course you’re not going to give up… Fine, fine then! I’m tired of playing cat-and-mouse anyway! Just stay right there, you hear me?!”
It had barely been fifteen minutes, and it was getting obvious to the fugitive that the mysterious woman was starting to slow down. Based on what she could make out in the murkiness, she was being attacked by two targets; A man and a third mecha, which had been trying to catch the woman off guard. The attempts had thankfully failed, but only because she had never paused to catch her breath. Bright red shots had been exchanged between the man and the woman, but the mecha had been interfering intensely. As a result, the situation remained staunchly against the woman.
However, she had no obligation to interfere. It was much safer to remain in hiding just as she was instructed. However, a debt had already been incurred; The woman had recognised her existence, and in turn gave her a purpose: To stay alive, or to die purposefully. Honestly, there was no point to staying alive when she had been all alone, but she finally had an associate when she was gifted with parting words and a grenade.
The dangerous device remained firmly nested within her grip, and her fingers tightened reactively to her thoughts. What if her existence was forgotten again?
That wouldn’t do. No, that definitely must not happen. Grenades were not made for suicide. Surely there was something she could do with it!
The mecha hovered closer; Somehow it had not noticed the outsider in the situation. The girl trained her eyes upon it intently, studying its movement and attack patterns, and noted that it was complacent. Even though it was visibly equipped with several other weapons, only a handgun was used. Perhaps it thought that that was more than enough to keep the woman on her toes? Well, it was not wrong, but carelessness on the battlefield would lead to one’s downfall. That much was common sense to the girl.
After making some mental calculations, she disabled the grenade’s safety mechanism. It was an incredibly odd sensation but her body seemed to act with muscle memory. It neither felt like her first time activating a grenade, nor her first time throwing it at a target. Even the explosive impact of the grenade upon the mecha came as no surprise, as well as the critical malfunctions that resulted. Nevertheless, her own abilities mortified the girl.
“AAAAAAARRRGH! What the fuck hit me?!” Sirens and glaring alarms blasted all around Rose Queen while she attempted to regain control in her cockpit. The haphazard pushing of the buttons led to no avail; Buster Chariot had been fallen by an unknown assailant, and in one shot! Needless to say, her hopes of tormenting and eliminating Guns Empress tonight were crushed as well. Rose Queen was absolutely livid .
Clambering out of the cockpit, she emerged to stare face-to-face with a brat of all people. Four had been warning about her, wasn't she? Why would she be assisting Empress? It made zero sense, but this brat was definitely not normal; No way would any untrained person be able to destroy an Arsenal in one hit, much less so with a single grenade.
"My name is Rose Queen. Depending on your answer, I will either let you live or shred you to pieces. Who are you and why are you helping Empress?" Her voice dripped with corrosive rage as her Blitz activated. If this brat was that wretch's accomplice, then there was no room for sympathy.
"I… I don't know, I woke up here. W-Who's Empress, that woman over there? I… Wanted to help her — she saved me."
" Empress? Are you trying to make some sort of twisted joke? That witch — that green fuck over there — doesn't have the heart to care about anyone, let alone pity someone like you." It was obvious that this brat was at least a stray, judging by her attire. However, that did not excuse the fact that this little bitch ruined her chances tonight. “You bloody stay still while I tear some new holes into you!”
The first shot was charged, which gave the fugitive just enough time to leap out of the way. Rose Queen was completely consumed by her fury, and it was rendered into chaotic shots. As a result, it actually seemed possible to survive the rampage. Nonetheless, there was a limit to what can be done against an armed foe while empty-handed yourself. This was going to be a psychological battle.
“Empress saved me! She was nothing like you described, but you… You’re trying to kill me. We’ve only just met!”
“You started it first, kiddo! You dare to pick a fight with me, you’d jolly well see it through!”
“That’s because you’re taking advantage of her weakness! Why are you picking on her?”
Scooping a rock into her fingers, the girl bruised Queen’s hand with pinpoint accuracy. It had been reaching to disable the safety mechanism on a grenade. The device landed on the ground in an anticlimactic manner.
“ Picking on her? You don't even know what she did to me… What are you, an imprinted mutt?!”
“I-I won’t deny that! I don’t have family, no friends, not even memories of who I was; And you're telling me to abandon the only person I know? Are human ties that dispensable to you?" A beam of red nearly hit its mark out of sheer anger. That question definitely crossed a line somewhere.
"Of course not, but she definitely gave no shits about me! She screwed my life up to make me her fucking money-laundering pawn!”
"So instead of picking yourself back up, you're letting that continue getting to you?"
Rose Queen flinched, then paused.
“I… You…Get out of my way; I’m after that bitch!" The assault was faltering.
“You're staying here with me. What would you even achieve by killing her? It would never change the fact that you were once her scapegoat.” Survivability was starting to surge dramatically.
"Fuck that , she deserves to die for what she did. My pride will never recover as long as she still draws her next breath!" Progress nearly returned to square one.
"Playing the victim card is nothing to be proud of."
The statement glared so harshly that avoidance was impossible. Was it because of the abyssal night, or was it because of the (subjectively) late sunrise? Frustration formed the grit between Rose Queen’s molars. The hateful knot in her heart swelled and tightened from each defiant beat; Her chest felt like it could burst any second, as the prickling at her heart ceaselessly intensified from the pressure. As much as it was killing her to admit so, the amnesiac was right.
A window of opportunity finally presented itself; The girl threw her entire body into a tumbling tackle at Rose Queen. It rejuvenated the elder woman into fending for herself as though it were a drunken street brawl. Her body kickstarted into the hussy-style of combat, but her mind was flung into further disarray.
The girl's words were echoing within her mind; The more Rose Queen tried to deny it, the harder it latched into her psyche. Deep down, she knew that vengeance had to end somewhere, but she was not ready for it. Her lust for blood refused to call it quits. Her name was already tainted by a crime she did not commit. Dishonouring its scars was the most ridiculous notion.
Was she supposed to accept her misery then?
"Instead… You could maybe, I dunno, picking yourself up again?" It took nearly an hour before the struggle finally settled down.
“You… Fucking …-ns Empress... Such agility, it’s… Ridiculous! ” Ever since the mysterious Arsenal seemingly self-destructed, Crow sustained a perforation in the left shoulder, another through his guts and one through his chest. One of his lungs had definitely collapsed, and many shots had grazed his neck and temple. The slightest whispers of wind tickled his knee to the bone, pitilessly and literally. Such injuries were expected from a mercenary of such calibre, but the younger mercenary did a fairly decent job himself.
“Spouting nonsense now that the hunter got cornered like a bloody- hurk... R-Rat?” The callousness in her voice was undermined by the compromised throat. Similarly to Crow, she had been shot in several areas but none as fatal nor debilitating. Considering she had been shot at from two different directions — with one of the assailants floating out of sight no less — it was a miracle she wasn’t killed yet. However, fatigue had already settled deeply into her flesh and her vehicle was close to being brought to its knees. Guns Empress had to finish this soon. “Will a hole in your head kill you? Or will you just show up the next day again, all fine and dandy?”
“S-Shut up! Y-You… Stay out of my family’s business!” Famous last words from the head of the immortal family as a flash of red ended his life, before he could take another step. The body fell to the ground, unceremoniously snuffed. Guns Empress, who had been partway between holding her breath and bursting her lungs, could only allow her dissatisfaction to exhale and tumble. For the moment, she was humbled. It was tempting for Rose Queen to take her life there and then, but she had made a promise to herself.
“He was… Mine! Why did you steal… my prey?!”
“Aw look, someone’s finally taking me seriously now. Guns Empress, I want compensation.”
“For what?!” The question was harshly spat into the ground. It was a surprising facet of the elder that Rose Queen had never experienced herself. Immensely refreshing and satisfying as it was, it stung to confirm that Guns Empress had been looking down on her the whole time.
“Really? You don’t know? God, Empress. Look, I realised that your life is worthless to me in the grander scheme of things, but y’know what?”
Rose Queen made a head gesture towards the girl with amnesia.
“This girl needs help and I’m not good enough for her because… Ugh, I can’t support her myself; You fed me enough times to figure that out surely? What do you say to us forming a group? I was an accountant, you’re a cash cow, and this girl puts up too much of a good fight to let her go just like this. Besides, she’s taken a huge liking to you.”
Guns Empress squinted her eyes with an indecipherable expression. Was it the strain of battle that wrinkled between her brows, or was the sunrise grandly stinging at her eyes? Either way, the displeasure from having her quarry stolen, as well as the revolting proposal, was undeniable. A grouchy frown marred her otherwise picturesque profile. Her gaze had been focused upon Rose Queen, before she turned her attention towards the girl. No words were exchanged, but the elder’s face gradually softened; Albeit, the frown merely straightened itself out tautly with little change to the strain in her brows. “Colour me surprised... I’m not dead yet. We’ll talk when we get back. Girl, you don’t remember your name either, do you?”
“From now on, your name is Crown Princess and I’m taking you under my wing.”
A pointed glance was then aimed at the other Reclaimer. In an ironic twist of fate, both parties lost the battle but won the war. Despite Guns Empress’ initial repulsion to embrace her hatred of weaklings, she found herself rather willing to accept the terms. Perhaps it felt more like a proposal to start a family?
“... Our wing. Welcome to Panzer Crown.”