Chapter 4- Jewelry Heist
I’m sure that, in peacetime, the gardens were as lovely and spacious as Gardon described. Now, hedges had been sliced and burnt through, flowers were trampled in the dirt, and trees laid broken at their trunks, to say nothing of the grass kicked up in clumps and flung behind deep, robotic footprints. Dozens of robotic bodies laid strewn about the gardens, with people buried among some.
Across the grounds, catapults that hadn’t had time to set-up in position were smashed in pieces. The only defenses were atop the outer castle wall we had passed through, as troops manned the cannons and fired at falling robots, while more joined the defense of the wall.
The castle loomed over us as the knight and I neared it. It still stood, untouched, its blue-gray stone impervious and its sea-blue tiled tower tops daring the airships to attack. However, Nega wouldn’t risk blowing the castle to smithereens. He couldn’t, not with the Sol Emerald inside.
A pair of guards saluted the knight as we approached the heavy, bronze-laden doors. “Your Highness!” they said.
“Open the door!” she said. The guards fell over one another, pounding on the doors. Something heavy on the other side slid back with a chunk! Then the guards pulled the doors open by the brass rings and welcomed us inside.
A dozen troops met us at the door. “Your Highness? What’s wrong?”
There was Your Highness again. I peered closer at the knight, trying to catch a glimpse through the visors. Was she the Princess?
She ignored my stares and turned to the troops. “Who’s guarding the Sol Emerald Chamber?”
“We have a few men there,” one soldier said. “But why—”
“Come with me,” she said and we all took off down the hall as the doors closed behind us.
The walls were lined with beautiful tapestries of every color and I could point out the ones I remembered Gardon telling me were his favorite. One elaborate tapestry over an archway depicted two armies sewn on it, their cavalry and bowmen standing on opposite hills, while soldiers in full armor charged down into the valley, swords raised and spears held firm and pointed at the enemy.
I didn’t pay much attention to the surroundings, but merely followed along in the group and looked straight at the knight’s back. I couldn’t wrap my head around her being the Princess. Gardon’s words that the Princess “went out and fought if need be and wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty or her face bloodied for their sake” echoed in my mind, but I never connected that to actually dressing in battle garb, picking up a sword, and wading into battle.
We sprinted through lengthy hallways and down multiple staircases to a lower chamber, at the bottom of the castle. There we stopped and hid in the shadows of a hallway. Around the corner, at the end of the next hall, large iron doors were lit by torches on either end, casting flickering shadows across the carved rays of light on the metal.
Three guards laid collapsed on the floor, gritting and wincing in pain, their swords kicked to the side. The doors were wide open onto a large marble chamber with a tall pillar arranged in the middle and constructed of slabs of stones, like totems. Two robots, with metal vice claws for hands and bulky upper bodies, were rotating the totem slabs while several other robots of varying sizes watched. When they stopped rotating, the totems locked into place with sshlunk as stone slid on stone and the pillar retreated a foot lower into a hole. Then they would rotate the next totem.
Beside them, with his back to us, a fat man in a fashionable midnight black coat with yellow trim on his cuffs, arms, and shoulders directed their efforts. “Thirty-seven degrees to the left,” he said. “Make sure the diamond faces the door.” I peered closer and realized the pillar’s totems had a pattern of similar symbols that went all around each slab. And that voice…
“Nega,” the Princess said, darkness in her throat.
“Where is that blasted thing?” Nega said, raising his head to the top of the descending pillar. “If they hid that thing at the top, I will level this room and this insufferable pillar.”
The Princess pointed to me and a few soldiers, then to the injured guards nearby. We quietly crept over, sticking to the walls as the shadows receded. The downed guards were in full view of the door, lying on the red carpet rolled down from the door’s steps and out into the hall. We would be spotted if we reached out for them.
I aimed my palm at one guard, raising him off the ground by a few inches and holding his body perfectly flat. Without a sound, I floated him over to us and carefully handed him to one of the soldiers. The second guard was no trouble either and the soldiers toted them both back to safety. The whole time, the Princess watched me thoughtfully and I grew self-conscious. Was my power that odd? Or perhaps it was that she still didn’t trust me.
However, when I guided the last guard over, Nega turned and coughed. I panicked and quickly pushed the guard into the waiting soldier’s arms. Their armor clanged together, the sound echoing throughout the hall.
Nega looked full on at us in the shadows. He was far younger than I had ever seen him. Much like Gardon, I always thought the world ending had aged him. A few trace wrinkles hid in his brows and his mustache was fuller and a healthy jet black. In fact, his overall appearance was healthy and full of life. His cherry red bodysuit with a zipper down the front made him look like a tomato that someone had started to cleave. His black jacket was spotlessly clean and pressed, and his yellow striped black boots were shined to a sheen.
The pillar sank another totem and Nega ignored us. We retreated to safety around the corner and the Princess order three of the troops to take the injured men away. “Bring reinforcements,” she added as they left.
“They won’t get here in time,” I said.
She nodded and peered out. “I know.”
“Is there any other way in there?”
“No,” she said, pulling off her greaves and exposing her gloved hands. “We’ll have to hit them fast and hard.” Tiny flames flickered on her fingertips and spread into her palms, collecting themselves into fireballs. My mouth drooped open and I marveled at her power. So it was true. She could wield fire.
“What?” she asked, catching me staring.
“Nothing,” I said, straightening up. “Just, you know,” I could feel a raised eyebrow through her helmet, “nothing. Anyway, what if I flew you and me up near the top of the door and we attacked from the ceiling?” As soon as I said it, I mentally slapped myself. No flying for her. I forgot.
“No, they would notice us either way,” she said without skipping a beat. Good excuse. And true. Another totem slid into place. “We need to go now.”
“Wait,” I said. “I have another idea.” Focusing hard, I created a large blob of energy that filled the width of the hall. Slowly, I shaped the blob into a ferocious beast, with razor-sharp teeth and massively curled claws. It raised up on its hind legs, snarling and snapping the air without a sound. The troops jumped back, but the Princess studied it, intrigued.
“Not bad,” she said. I smiled and calmed it down. “Mind if I add to it?”
I stepped aside and she laid her hands on the beast’s cheeks, her palms heating up. I understood her idea and created a hold in the side of my creation’s mouth. Fire welled into the mouth, swirling with fury and intensity in a void that contained it. It was an intimidating sight to say the least and the troops cleared a wide berth for it.
“Nice touch,” I said. She nodded and I directed the beast to the end of the hall, facing the open door. It coiled on its legs, laying low and homing in on its prey with its blank eyes, then leapt forward, covering the hall’s length in seconds.
Nega barely had time to scurry away before the robots were bowled over and the beast belched out flames in a circle around it, catching some of the robots on fire. The machines sputtered and flailed, running about as gas barrels popped out of their backs. “Auto-cooling defenses, activated,” a mechanical voice said on each as the barrels spouted a cooling smoke, trying to douse the robots’ burning circuitry.
We chased after my creation and I had the beast snatch a robot, throw it in the air, and catch it in its teeth, crunching hard. It thrashed its head, shaking the robot like a rag doll, and spat it on the ground
Unfortunately, maintaining the beast drained my energy fast. As we piled into the room, I backed the beast off to stand at our side. I needed to catch my breath and the beast was wavering at its hind legs.
“Well, Your Highness. What an unpleasant, though not unexpected, surprise,” Nega said as his robots lined up beside him, putting out the last of their flames and pointing their guns at us. He regarded the beast with curiosity. “That, on the other hand, is new. Yours, I presume?” he asked me.
I had the beast stamp both its feet, hoping to scare him. No good.
“With that get-up,” he said, indicating my desert outfit and cloak, “I’d say you’re not from around here. And yet,” he peered closer at me, lowering his sunglasses, “you do seem awfully familiar.”
“Step away from the Sol Emerald,” the Princess said.
“Not a chance,” he said. “I have big plans for this beauty.”
I gritted my teeth, remembering all the death and destruction from my world. “Like releasing,” I paused as Nega and the Princess turned their attention to me, “chaos everywhere.” They both studied me and I cursed my tongue, jamming it between my teeth.
“Not quite, but you’re not too far off,” he said. “There may be a period of chaos. Yet it won’t last long, I assure you. I’ll bring about total control.”
I wanted to swat Nega and his robots into the wall. But I was losing my focus and the beast flickered in and out for a moment. Only for the blink of an eye. That was enough for Nega and his forces.
“Looks like you’re having some trouble controlling that thing,” he said, raising his hand. All the robots’ guns clicked and they leveled them to their eye sights. “I wonder how well you do under fire?”
“Funny,” the Princess said, producing a large fireball from behind her back. “I was about to ask you the same.” She lobbed the fireball and Nega dodged out of the wall. She got a couple of his forces, blowing them apart.
“Kill them!” Nega shouted.
I let the beast loose to run through their line. It barreled through a few of the robots before shrinking to the size of a mouse and disappearing into thin air. The robots were on the feet instantly, shooting and taking down a couple of soldiers.
A robot charged headfirst into our ranks, a beeping noise coming from his chest. “Scatter!” I shouted. Its chest burst in a powerful explosion, throwing the Princess, me, and our forces around the room, and catching some of Nega’s machines in the process.
Through the smoke clouds and dust of debris, I spotted Nega running to the pillar. “Nevermind the others,” he told the pair of robots who had been rotating the totems. “Get me that emerald!”
Dizzy and unable to stand, I pointed at the pillar, feeling my way to the previous totem to disappear underneath the floor. I twisted it several inches, hoping against hope this would work.
To my astonishment and happiness, it did. The pillar rose, showing the totem out of place. Nega cried in alarm. “What?!” I did it for the next totem and the next, raising it higher and higher. “No, no, no!” Nega beat his fists on the pillar, willing it to come down. He caught me aiming at it. “You!” Nega waddled over, kicking me upside the head, and my vision bounced all over the place.
Through the smoke and dust, it was impossible to pick out the symbols on the totems unless you had your face pressed against the stone. “Bring it down! Break it! I don’t care how!” Nega told his robots as he picked up a gun. They blasted at the stone, chipping tiny fragments here and there. But it was sturdy and refused to give. He roared and threw his gun at the pillar.
“Sir,” one of the robots said in a flat, monotone voice. “We must escape. I sense enemy reinforcements approaching.”
Nega tore at his hair, punching the pillar and cradling his hand. He grumbled, muttering dark curses under his breath. “Very well,” he said. “But first.” Rounding on me, he fixed me with a murderous glare. “I can’t leave you to get in my way again.” He picked up a gun and aimed at my head. “So long, hedgehog.”
A crackling fireball erupted from the smoke, hitting the gun. It went off, the laser bouncing off into the unknown, and Nega yelped. “Let’s go!” he said, running out of the room and into the hall with the rest of the functioning robots.
I tried to crawl after him, yet I was tired and sore. So very tired and so very, very sore. I collapsed, the marble floor cool against my cheek. We did it. We won. The Sol Emerald was safe.
The next thing I knew, hands were lifting me up, dragging me out of the room. Halls passed by, swarming faces hidden in helmets. One person removed their helmet. She had lovely golden eyes, filled with concern and confusion. Was that because of me? Was I that bad off? I didn’t know. Those eyes disappeared in a watery mess of purple and white.
Then I was on a soft mattress and people hovered over me, opening my eyes, my mouth, lifting my limbs, examining me all over. Brief pain here and there and I moaned, but someone said, “Ssh. It’s okay. This’ll prevent infection.”
I laid back and drifted off to sleep, mumbling to myself. “We did it. Gardon.” Gardon, we did it. “Stopped Nega.” We stopped Nega, stopped Iblis. “It’s over. All over.”
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