The dwarf adjusts kaj’r collar, watching the Queen’s face closely. Her gaze sweeps the cavern, blue eyes and reptilian face unreadable as she takes in the rows upon rows of automatons. Lamplight shimmers in the gold thread woven into her mane of feathers.
“How many did you say you’d made, Kah Samaq?”
“Close to two thousand, your majesty.”
They lie on their stone tables like corpses laid out for burial, steel skeletons with flesh of hewn stone and poured concrete, empty crystals in their hands and hearts. Every stone face is identically blank.
Samaq hates their faces most of all. There’s some vague resemblance of life there, their angled brows and stumps of horn a distant echo of the Queen’s own features. But there are no eyes, not really, only a slit in the stone. That feels wrong.
Samaq saw the Queen’s other automatons as they escorted up from the docks. They were tall, graceful things, with long, side swept horns like minotaurs, made all of filigreed metal and shimmering blue light. They were beautiful. And they were so unlike these stone brutes that it seemed a crime to give them the same name. But then, those shining creatures had been built as protectors, companions. They hadn’t been built to fight a war.
The Queen steps closer to the nearest slab, bending slightly to inspect the automaton. Her hand, blue scales glimmering, seems almost painfully alive as it traced the shapes of dead concrete. “Did you know, my foremothers shaped their companions with their own hands? I’m indebted to your people, Kah Samaq. I never could have made so many so quickly. And so strong.”
“We hope so.” Samaq pulls at kaj’r beard, embarrassed. “If I may be so bold, your majesty, some of the crew have been laying bets that the beasts won’t be able to wake. We’ve made mechanical kaj before, of metal and gears that wind up with a key, even as toys for children. But this -” kaj gestures helplessly to the ranks of waiting autos “- I assure you that we made them to your exact specifications, your majesty. But – how can stone walk?”
The Queen turns her head, looking down at Samaq with a faint smile. “I know that the deep kaj reject magic as a weakness, but I thought the kij were more enlightened.”
“We know the elements we work with, your majesty,” Samaq waved a hand, “Charged crystals, steam engines, lightning cells, it’s all power. Only, steam can’t think, lightning can’t speak. I know the stories I’ve heard of previous dragons, I’ve seen your metal autos with my own eyes, your majesty. I know it’s possible. But it still defies belief.
The Queen turns back to the stone auto, her hand resting on the side of its face. “Magic is life, Kah Samaq. And in the griffins, in unicorns, in me, it takes on a purer form.” She frowns, blue eyes pained. “And it is precious. It must be defended.”
There’s a commotion at the door, a sweat stained and panting centaur in a royal scout uniform charging her way through the assembled dwarves and down the cavern, hooves clattering to a halt. “Your majesty,” she gulps for air, “I have news.”
The Queen straightens, turning. Her hand lingered on the auto’s chest. “What is it, Joen? Are any unicorns hurt?”
The centaur’s head is low, her hands on her hips as she tries to regain her breath. “Agent Rilur has been in the north of Echalia, he’s been there for weeks. There are herds, ma’am.”
The Queen’s shoulders are tense. “We’ve had unconfirmed reports of the Echalians herding unicorns. It’s a perversion, but it’s not news. What’s changed?”
“He’s…” Joen’s knuckles are white. “He’s been watching the herds, ma’am, trying to get close, to… our outpost got his message only a few minutes ago. He made it into the camp, got close enough to talk to the unicorns, to give them your message, tell them we were coming to s-save them, but -” her voice cracks, “They didn’t talk back.”
There’s a silence. Samaq looks from the scout to the Queen, struggling to understand.
“Your majesty,” Joen looks up. There are tears streaming down her face. “The unicorns just – they just – bleated at him! Like sheep! They couldn’t talk! They – they’re just, animals now! We’re too late!”
The Queen’s expression doesn’t change. Her fingers, resting lightly against the stone auto’s chest, spasm. She lifts her hand and covers her face.
A sound begins. Samaq flinches, ears flicking, looking up at the ceiling of the cavern as he hears the crack of stone. But it’s not a cave-in, the noise is all around them, a great grinding and splintering, a nightmarish screech of metal on rock, and the autos are getting up.
The nearest automaton moves, two tonnes of stone sitting bolt upright on its slab, its horrible blank face turning back and forth. The slit where its eyes should be burns a dark, electric, purple. It has no mouth, but when it raises its clawed hands to the sides of its head, fists clenching and unclenching, it screams.
Samaq will remember that noise forever. It shakes kaj to the bone like the shriek of metal on metal or the roar of an earthquake, reverberating with anger and grief.
The scream is echoed around the cavern as autos leap from their worktables, crashing through shelves and stumbling into each other. Some of them are clawing at their own blank faces. Some of them grab at others that are only just sitting up, hauling them to their feet. As if with one mind, they begin to run. Staggering at first, then faster, they charge toward the double doors at the far end of the cavern, running on clawed hands and feet, scrambling over each other in an avalanche of screaming fury – the doors are shredded from their hinges. The howling fades as they disappear from sight, heading toward the dockside.
In seconds, the cavern is empty.
Slowly, the Queen lowers her hand from her face.
“How many did you say you had in production?”
“Uh -” Samaq swallows with a mouth suddenly gone dry. “We’ve got about five thousand, almost -“
The Queen blinks. She looks at Samaq. Her eyes are cold.