I'd like to take the Casba Ruins commission, please," Nalo Crain told the dark-haired Chief Secretary of the Hunters' Guild. Like several of his fellow hunters, Nalo had considered asking her out, but had never worked up the courage. Dating the person who was responsible for paying him was the kind of trouble no man really wanted to take on.
"I'm sorry, but that job has already been completed by another hunter."
"You mean, someone else escorted the Academy investigation team through the caves? And finished off that nest of dragons?"
"That assignment was only posted a week ago! Who could have done that?"
The secretary didn't even need to look it up.
"Chaz and Rika Ashley," she said, nodding at the couple who just then were coming in through the Guild's door.
"I should have guessed. What else would you expect from someone who trained under the Eight-Stroke Warrior?"
Rika's catlike ears, which were good for more than just looking cute, overheard the remark. She remembered a time from her first trip to Aiedo, when a man had called Alys Brangwin the "Eight-Stroke Sword." Now that she thought about it, it was an odd sort of nickname for a hunter, even considering that the profession tended towards silliness like "the Red Devil" or "the Iron Hammer."
"Chaz," she asked her husband as they found a table in the bar, "how did Alys get her nickname?"
"Eh?" Chaz looked puzzled. He often did; Rika found it endearing.
"'The Eight-Stroke Warrior' -- what does it mean?"
"Oh. Well, it has to do with one of her early cases for the Guild." He chuckled softly. "When I was a kid, I used to bug her and bug her about that. Alys finally gave in and told me the whole story as a reward for mastering the RES technique." Just for a moment, his wide green eyes misted over with the pain of a loss still felt, the loss of a woman who had been idol, teacher, friend, and substitute mother to him all in one.
"If it's private..."
"Oh, no, actually it's kind of funny."
"Good! Tell me all about it, then."
Just then, a waiter showed up to take their orders. They were there for the food, mostly, since both of them were fairly new to cooking. Chaz wasn't much of a drinker, and as for Rika, two years of being alive didn't give her much time to build up tolerance.
"Hi, Chaz, Rika. What'll it be tonight?"
"Um...the crawler steak, I guess, and mila," Chaz decided.
"Okay, one steak and one mila, hold the nei."
Mila was the juice of a thorn palm, highly spiced and served hot. If the juice was allowed to ferment first, it was called neimila, and had been known to put strong men under the table after the second round.
"What about you, Rika?"
"The ammonite in garlic sauce, with Torinco fried potatoes and water, please."
"Do the garlic sauce and the mila cancel each other out when you're kissing?" the waiter wondered. Rika giggled.
"You should move to Dezolis," Chaz told him. "You'd be a hit there--instead of being hit."
The waiter grinned and walked off to the kitchen.
"Oh, Light, I'm starting to sound like Rune," Chaz groaned.
"Come to think of it, you have been wearing your hair longer these past couple of months," Rika teased.
"Tell me the story; you'll feel better."
Chaz smiled at her. He really did have a nice smile, she thought.
"All right. It starts in Arcon, one of those little villages there used to be near Kadary..."
* * * * *
Viry Kenton thought the stars looked rather pretty that night. The sky was could-free from horizon to horizon, and looked like a jet-black jeweled tapestry. The pretty view wasn't the only thing that kept him on the road, though. After three hours at the Blue Lantern with his cronies, even Viry's drunken brain realized that his wife would be waiting for him at home to comment on his habits. At length. So, he wasn't all that eager to get back.
On the other hand, every hour Viry delayed would make the end result all that much worse. Since running off to Torinco wasn't really an option, the balance of fears kept him plodding along the path to his house at a more or less measured pace.
When one of the larger sand dunes bordering the path began to shake, Viry wrote it off as too much date wine. Such things had happened before; once, when the Blue Lantern had gotten a bad batch, he had been seeing pink fanbites dancing the pao-pao for hours--a trembling sand dune was nothing much. When the dune exploded in a shower of sand, though, he took notice.
When the towering giant rose out of the hole, a giant mechanical mockery of a man hissing and clanking loudly enough to raise the dead, he took very close notice.
When a huge foot slammed down onto the path not three yards from him, Viry stopped noticing and started running.
* * * * *
"We tried everything," the captain of the three-man Arcon village guard
said. "Bow-gun bolts, spears, knives, even WAT."
"You're a tech-user?" Alys Brangwin asked. The dry desert wind tugged at the hunter's brown hair, making it flutter disconcertingly around her head and shoulders. It made her look something like the shy, delicate heroine of a love story, if one ignored her utilitarian red dress over black bodysuit, the cool self-confidence in her eyes, and the paired slashers sheathed at her belt.
"Not much of one, just WAT, ANTI, and RIMIT. That last one really comes in handy in breaking up bar brawls; just put 'em all to sleep without getting involved."
Alys drummed her fingers against her belt.
"So you've had no success that you could see?"
"Not even a scratch. The thing basically ignored us, stomped around, knocked over two houses and blew up another, then wandered off into the desert. When it crushed a farmhouse, I figured it wasn't going away by itself, so we called on the Hunters' Guild for expert help."
And I was fool enough to take the job, Alys thought. A village to rescue and a five thousand meseta commission had managed to get her altruism and her desire for money going in the same direction, and poof, she had signed her name next to "The Metal Titan" and was off to Arcon.
"Exactly what did you mean by 'blew up'?" she asked the captain.
He rose from the creaking chair behind his desk.
"I'll show you."
Arcon was laid out in the shape of a cross, with two streets intersecting at a small plaza where the village well was located. The captain took Alys down the west road past several typical white-brick village houses, some bearing the picture-signs of various shops.
"There," he said, pointing. It was an unnecessary gesture; Alys was quite capable of seeing the crater surrounded by shattered bits of brick and charred wooden beams from the house's interior.
"A sort of streak of light shot from its shoulder, hit the house, and bang!--there it went," he told her. "The way I figure it, this thing is some kinda relic from the ancient days those Academy fellows are always studying. Lotsa that stuff around this valley; Light knows anything could set it off and up it comes, running around and breaking things. Just luck no one's been killed yet."
Alys didn't comment on that, instead surveying the ground.
"Did you track the giant into the desert?" It wouldn't be a hard task, from the look of it.
"Oh, of course. We thought it might go to sleep or whatever that kind of thing does when it's tired."
"The tracks just stopped!"
Alys gave him a sharp look.
"No, really!" he exclaimed. "It was as if it dug a hole and pulled the ground in on top of it!"
"Which isn't a bad guess, if that farmer you told me about--the one who first saw it--was telling the truth. It may be able to burrow through the ground like a sand worm." The hunter frowned, her distaste obvious. "So, you've got a thirty-foot-tall metal giant with impressive armor, explosive weapons, and the ability to move around unseen."
"Yeah, that's more or less the size of it."
"I should have held out for ten thousand," she grumbled to herself.
Something in the blackened crater caught her eye, something metallic that glinted in the afternoon sun. Carefully, Alys picked her way down into the rubble, making sure not to set her foot wrong and bring the whole thing tumbling down onto her. She picked up the scrap of metal and looked it over. It was about four inches across, the edges were jagged, and much of one side scorched by the explosion.
"Hello, what's this?" she murmured. It might have been from the house itself, a piece of sculpture, a tool...but when she held it up to the sunlight, she didn't think so. Those pasts of the scrap that were still a metallic silver-gray color glittered with the telltale sheen of green and violet that indicated refined titanium.
"Did you find something?" the captain asked as she climbed out of the hole.
"I don't know. It's something to think about, though." Alys slipped the titanium shard into a belt pouch. "Right now, I'd like to check into an inn and eat something besides travel rations. I tool the short way here through the mountain passage but my feet are still killing me."
"Try the Mota Arms. Kessie makes the best food in town. It's on the north street."
The captain had been right, the food was good, but Alys wasn't thinking about it while she ate. Her mind was on the job at hand, and on the description of the iron giant.
Only, it wasn't iron, was it? It was titanium--or at least the shell casing of the dynamite charge it had launched at the house was.
The most important thing for any hunter's success was not skill, not technique ability, not even intelligence. It was luck, and Alys got her share when a young Motavian boy entered the dining room. Like all of his race he had pointy ears, blue fur, red eyes, and a beak in place of lips. Kessie saw him, called, "Just a second, Radi," and fetched a laden basket from the kitchen.
"Thanks, Kessie," he chirped.
"Oh, it's nothing. Tell your family hello for me."
Alys strolled over to the motherly innkeeper.
"Are Radi's family the only Motavians around here?"
"Oh, yes; they have a little farm north of the village. His uncle Doan is the village tinker, too. He made me a whole new set of cookware just six months ago that are lots better than my old pots."
"Thanks. By the way, that was the best n'dira stew I've had in ages. Most people just dump in the biggest locusta claws they can find, instead of considering whether they've been properly aged."
Kessie blushed girlishly and said, "You sound like you know your way around a kitchen."
"I know my way around anywhere," Alys replied with a smile, and left the Mota Arms after the boy. Following Radi was easy; the marks left by his booted hindpaws as he walked out into the sand left a clear trail. Following him without being seen was harder, so she didn't even bother. Sooner or later, he happened to look back and notice that the hunter was stalking him. Village gossip being what it was, Alys assumed that everyone in Arcon knew who she was and what she was doing there, including the Motavian boy. They were ten minutes out of town when Radi's courage broke and he took off running. He dropped the heavy food basket after a few steps; Alys picked it up and started pursuing him in earnest at an easy lope.
As expected, Alys' quarry didn't take any side trips, instead heading straight for home. The farm was a neat little place, with a small house, a barn, a shed, and a fenced-in patch of green crops. Notable by their absence were the usual piles of junk, the products of failed experiments, that accompanied most Motavian homes.
The young boy was standing next to an older Motavian woman, probably his mother, cradled protectively in her arm. Radi couldn't be older than eight or nine, Alys realized.
"You dropped this," the hunter said, holding up the basket.
An adult Motavian emerged from the house, his hands tense around the hilt of a heavy broadaxe.
"You're that hunter they sent for," he growled.
"Alys Brangwin, at your service."
"Why were you following my son?"
She took out the scrap she had found in the ruined house. Only the native Motavian race knew the secret of refining titanium.
"I think we need to talk about this."
Alys watched as the two adults shared a long, worried look. The man looked dangerously competent with that axe, and Alys didn't relish the idea of a fight. Especially not in front of the Motavian's family. No one would win that kind of battle.
Fortunately, it didn't come to that. The couple seemed to reach a silent accord, and both seemed to shrink in on themselves as they retreated from their protective-parent mode. The man hooked the axe back on his belt.
"We didn't think we could keep it quiet once they called in a professional," he sighed heavily.
"You're outcasts, aren't you?"
"Forgive us." Then, he shook his head as if to clear it of unpleasant imagery. "Come inside, and I'll explain, though you probably have the gist of it already."
Alys was shown into a homey little kitchen and sat down at the round dining table.
"You want something to drink?" her host offered, but she declined. "Suit yourself. Storytelling's thirsty work, as I see it." He poured himself a tall glass of date wine from a clay flagon.
"Radi, why don't you go put the supplies away in the pantry," his wife told the boy, clearly as an excuse to get the boy out of the room. To Alys, she added, "Thank you for bring those with you. It's over a week's worth of staples."
"You're welcome," the hunter replied simply, then turned to the woman's husband. "Now, how about that explanation?"
"Might as well start with the introductions. My name's Orban, and my wife is Lia. We're originally from Tonoe."
"Why were you exiled?"
"My younger brother Doan. He was always interested in the stories of the past, ever since he was a little kid, especially the ones about robots, androids, cyborgs, that kind of thing."
There were people in the Hunters' Guild who would have dismissed such ideas as fairy tales; Alys wasn't one of them.
Orban took a drink.
"That's it. It all got out of hand, though. Doan was one of those people who get big ideas and act on them without thinking things through. He didn't test things enough, just built them and turned them on. Since he didn't know how the ancients powered their robots, he decided to use steam power. His engines would blow up, or the machines would just run out of control. A certain number of accidents are only to be expected when inventing machines, but Doan went beyond that. He was so caught up in his dreams that he ignored basic safety precautions. Finally, he was forbidden to continue working with robots and steam power."
"That must have been hard."
Orban's eyes glittered sadly.
"He didn't listen, but went right on building. His next model was designed after stories he'd heard of war robots, so he built a dynamite ejector into it. The fire from the steam engine ignited the charges, and two people were killed when the dynamite exploded."
He hung his head sadly.
"The elders had no choice," Lia picked up the story. "They forbade Doan from ever working with machines of any kind again and made him an outcast from all Motavian communities. Orban was ordered to accompany his brother into the outside world and make certain that the sentence was enforced."
"You weren't cast out too, were you?" Alys asked. She knew something of Motavian law, and didn't believe that a punishment of that nature would be extended to those related by marriage only.
"I love my husband," Lia said simply.
"Can you imagine?" Orban said plaintively. "A Motavian scientist, reduced to...to fixing pots for Parmanians just to feel metal under his fingertips? For ten long years?"
Alys sympathized, but no more than that. She had a good idea of where this story was heading and didn't approve of the conclusion.
"He couldn't take it any more, could he?"
Orban shook his head sadly.
"He used to go for long walks in the desert and up into the hills, spending more and more time away from home. It got so he'd be spending days away from the farm at a time. He always said that nothing was wrong when I asked, and I...I guess I wanted to believe that."
He took a deep drink to steady himself.
"Then he went away for an entire week, and I couldn't just accept his absences on faith anymore. I went up into the hills and, after some searching, I found that Doan had made a second home for himself inside a cave. He'd found a deposit of raw titanium ore on one of his walks, you see, and couldn't hold out against what must have seemed an omen. He unearthed it himself with hand tools, refined it, and started to work on a masterpiece."
Lia rested her hand lightly on her husband's shoulder.
"That in itself was bad enough," Orban continued, "but at least he hadn't hurt anyone this time. I begged him to come back home, to forget about the monster he had built, but he told me that it was already finished, that he had to find out if it worked."
* * * * *
"It's absolutely wonderful, big brother!" Doan shouted, wild-eyed. "It's the perfect embodiment of the spirit of the ancients!"
"Ancient Parmanians!" his brother snapped back. "Look what their robots got them...society in ruins, their home planet destroyed. Grandfather Dorin was right; machines are meant to be our tools and no more."
Doan just stared in amazement.
"How can you think that? This is my ultimate creation! How can you deny me this?"
"You've already made us both outcasts with your crazy dreams! I'm not going to let you do the same thing here that you did in Tonoe!"
He grabbed his brother's arm, but with frenzied strength Doan ripped free and ran back into the cave towards his machine.
"I'll show you, Orban! You'd never talk that way if you saw it in action!"
He scrambled up the wooden ladder that stood beside the giant titanium figure and opened a panel in the side of the thing's head. Doan reached inside, turned a gear, and pushed up a long lever. Almost at once, the hissing sound of escaping steam filled the cave, and Doan shut the panel.
"You see!" he crowed! "You see, Orban! It works! I've finally done it!"
The elated inventor thrust his hands upward, shaking his fists at the cave roof and the sky above in celebration. The thing lurched forward, taking its first step, then another.
With its second step, its broad, armored shoulder brushed against the stepladder. The rickety wooden contraption teetered, then toppled over. There was just enough time for Doan's cries of triumph to become a scream of terror before he struck the cave floor.
* * * * *
"We buried him ourselves," Lia explained as her husband finished off his wine, the hand that held the glass shaking with emotion. "We wanted to tell what had happened, but when Doan's robot started running wild, we were afraid. We've already been cast out from one community..."
"So the monster is on the loose, obeying who knows what orders, and the only person who would know how to stop it is dead," Alys summed up bluntly. She felt sorry for the family, but there were bigger problems for her to deal with. "Do you know how long it will take for the engine to run out of fuel?"
"Years," Orban said. "One of the few things Doan ever invented that worked as it should have was a new, slow-burning fuel compound for steam engines."
So much for the easy way. "Is the whole thing made of titanium?"
Alys cursed inwardly. Ordinary swords and slashers would be about as useful against the robot's heavy armor as a monsterfly's bite against a leviathan. She supposed with some fancy acrobatics she might get to the access panel in its head, but what then? Randomly operating controls could do as much harm as good.
"What else do you know about it?"
"It can tunnel through sand. Other than that, I only know what its weapons are," Orban told her. "He raved about them when he was explaining what he had done. Its main attacks are with its fists, but it also can use knee-mounted blade launchers and...oh, what did he call it?...an octoreflexive dynamite ejector pod."
Alys smiled wolfishly.
"I think that I may still collect that commission after all."
* * * * *
"Exactly why are we here, Alys?" the guard captain asked. The hunter had asked the Arcon town guard to cordon off an area of the west street and evacuate everyone who lived there.
"Your monster isn't attacking at random. When you start plotting times and sightings against a map, you can tell that it's moving out and in along a spiral path from where it was originally built, rotating the spiral four degrees clockwise each time out. Only at the very edge of the spiral does it actually enter the village."
The guard reached up under his leather helmet to scratch at his ear.
"Lady, just thinking about that makes my head hurt."
"Five thousand meseta is worth a little math."
"All right, then, how much longer do we have to wait? I've got a bunch of people here who want to go home." He pointed his thumb over his shoulder at the assembled crowd of gawkers, who looked to be most of Arcon's population.
Alys looked up at the sky and gauged the sun's position.
"About two minutes."
The sun was apparently running thirty seconds slow; a minute and a half later the ground began to shake and the well-trod street began to buckle upwards. The metallic titan burst up from the earth.
Light, that thing's HUGE!
Alys drew her twin slashers and snapped the blades into their open, locked position. If she didn't get this right, a lot of west Arcon would be flattened under the giant's feet and people might be hurt. Concentrating hard, Alys let her inner strength begin to build, and she hurled the first slasher. It shot out from her hand at ground level, then launched itself upwards in an ascending spiral around the titan.
"One...two...three...four," she counted as the blazing energy of her Vortex skill cut into the makeshift robot--or at least tried to.
"It's not working!" the captain protested. The fearful gasps and shouts from the villagers echoed his dismay.
Alys' slasher did not fly back to her hand as it should have. Instead, the steel blades had been so badly damaged from repeated contact with the rigid titanium armor that the weapon would no longer fly at all, so it fell uselessly to the ground. That was all right, though; she had two and that would be enough. Quickly, Alys launched her second Vortex.
In the middle of the Vortex, the robot had suddenly pivoted to its left, and the slasher crashed into the underside of its arm for the seventh hit. Its ascension forcibly halted, it too dropped to the ground.
The giant machine continued its rampage, walking squarely into another home and crushing it heedlessly, almost as if it didn't realize the building was there. Which, Alys suspected, was the truth. The villagers were milling about, screaming; they would be no help.
Then again, I wasn't actually HURTING it with the slashers, Alys realized. She picked up a broken piece of brick and hurled it at the robot's back, hoping she really did understand what "octoreflexive" was supposed to mean. Stupid scholars with their made-up language...
Before then, Doan's creation had simply walked around aimlessly, not actually punching or shooting anything. Suddenly, it spun to face Alys with dreadful purpose. A thunderous hissing and clanking heralded a bulbous projection extending itself from its left shoulder.
"Eight!" Alys cried exultantly.
The dynamite ejector locked itself into place, pointing directly at the beautiful warrior.
"Get down!" she screamed. Most of the crowd obeyed instinctively.
"What?" someone asked, looking around in confusion.
The burst of fire leapt from Alys' outstretched hand and plunged down the barrel of the ejector. The fiery attack met the dynamite shell as it was rising into place within the launch tube, and just as had happened ten years ago in Tonoe, the explosive was ignited by the flame.
Fortunately, most homes on Motavia did not have windowpanes. There wouldn't have been one left unbroken in the whole village after the explosion. Most of the shrapnel passed harmlessly over everyone's head; thankfully, the only injuries suffered were minor.
"I definitely should have held out for ten thousand," Alys groused, looking at the remains of her favorite weapons.
* * * * *
"Chaz," Rika said dubiously, "are you telling me that Alys' nickname came because she was counting the number of times she hit the robot out loud?"
"Uh-huh. It started getting around that she could destroy any enemy with no more than eight attacks, so, she became the Eight-Stroke Warrior."
"There were nine attacks," Rika pointed out as gently as possible. "Or possibly four, depending on how you were counting."
Chaz grinned and tossed back half of his drink.
"Can you see Alys wasting the time to correct any of those stories? Or to explain that the counting was only so she wouldn't lose track of when the dynamite launcher would pop up?"
Rika couldn't argue with that.
"What happened to those poor Motavians, though? Once it got out that Doan was responsible for the robot..."
"Well, it seems that they mysteriously came into four thousand meseta," Chaz replied with an unholy smirk, "which they donated to the people of Arcon to pay for the property damage their family had inadvertently caused. Since no one was actually hurt, the villagers were willing to forgive them." Rune probably would have added something cynical like, "Especially since the one who actually built the thing was conveniently dead," so Chaz didn't say any more.
"Four thousand? Not all five?"
"We are talking about Alys, after all. Being a hero is nice--"
Rika laughed, and finished the sentence for her husband.
"--But getting paid for it is better!"