They came at night, without any fanfare to speak of.
Tatiana stood at the Southern wall of the Erickson Steel compound and looked down over the sparse trees and grassland below her. A small wind came, lightly touching Tatiana’s hair and causing the grass below to sway. The only noise in the night was the soft rustle of grass. Then they arrived.
The first group came silently, which such abruptness that Tatiana had to blink. These Riders were different than the ones she had seen in the past. Their steeds were tall and long-legged, possesses none of the brutal horns or preter-natural agility that she remembered. They simply looked like lumpy horses, calmly grazing the grass below the compound’s walls.
These initial Riders kept their arms folded and weapons sheathed as they studied her, almost a dozen of them in all. Then, seemingly satisfied, they turned and regarded the dark grassland behind them.
Next came the rumbling. It built slowly, while Tatiana waited alone on top of the wall and the dozen outriders milled about below her. It was a hum, then a buzz, the a rumble, and then a roar.
Out of that rumbling darkness next skittered a strange variant of the Riders with additional legs and a ridiculous amount of mobility. They hopped and scrambled up toward Erickson Steel’s walls. They didn’t move in formation, but came in some sort of strange circling wave. As Tatiana looked down over them, her eyes were drawn into their beguiling shifts and woven movements of their current-like formation.
Then, as the roar had reached a volume that it had begun to resonate in Tatiana’s chest, the final column careened out of the darkness. These Riders were perched atop hulking monsters of muscle, moving rigidly in tight groups and columns. Despite their obvious power, they managed to control their momentum to an incredible degree.
As they came closer, their wide hoves smashing the various undergrowth in the sparsely vegetated landscape, Tatiana had a brief moment of fear where she believed they would simply smash into Erickson Steel’s walls. The reinforced concrete would crack and disintegrate, and then the Riders would continue charging, leaving a wide swathe of destruction through the core facilities of Erickson Steel…
They would not stop. They were more freight train than an actual train, bound together in a tight knot of weight and momentum.
But of course, they slowed before that could happen, falling into an easy canter up to the gate. The rumbling drifted off to silence, leaving the night empty except for rustling grass.
Tatiana’s mouth quirked upward. “Was this for dramatic effect?”
“Nah,” Randidly leaned against the wall next to her, having simply appeared there a few moments ago as though he had been standing there for hours. Tatiana privately believed he was relying on pure Agility rather than stealth, but it was hard to tell with Randidly. “Mostly this was to see how tight control I can keep on them if I make my orders explicit. Honestly… it went better than expected. One less reason to worry about what comes next.”
Tatiana opened her mouth to reply, but then she paused. Narrowing her eyes, she carefully examined the Randidly next to her. Same short black hair, same lithe musculature, same piercing emerald eyes… but standing beside him, Tatiana felt like this was not the Randidly that she had once known. The air… felt different.“You… how long have you been away?”
Long enough to completely lose the desperate edge he had before…
Tatiana thought idly.
Or has he simply gotten better about hiding it?
“Quite a while,” Randidly chuckled. “A year. And I’ve learned a lot in that time. For one thing… ah, by the way, I have a project that is going to take up a lot of space; is there any land around here that we own but we haven’t built anything…?”
Tatiana opened her mouth. The thing he had learned but then got distracted from wasn’t patience or elaborate manners. She then closed her mouth. She reconsidered her question. She opened it again. “Weren’t you the one who bought all this land…? And how much space do you need?”
Randidly ignored the first question. “Quite a bit. The more the better. If I need to, I can simply dig down into the Earth to open up enough space… but I’ll need to do that later for the final assembly. It will be better if I have some surface area to begin with.”
“I’m sure we can find you something….” Tatiana rubbed her temples. “By the way, both the Order Machina and the Order Ducis arrived earlier today. I sent away Machina, but the Order Ducis is within the compound, per your orders. Will they also need some sort of base area to set up a headquarters…?”
Randidly grinned down at the Riders who continued to stand without any movement as the two discussed. “Heh, more than a headquarters. They are going to be setting up a training camp nearby in addition to a headquarters within the Erickson Steel compound… So yea, we will need space for that too. Will it be easy to expand the walls here?”
Tatiana sighed. “So basically, all you want right now is more land…? Well that seems doable but… the government is insisting that we give the land back to them and rent it from now until we move away from this location. They want to make a Village here, for Erickson Steel. Or at least that’s what they claim, but I bet it’s just to get a leash on us.”
“Huh. Well, that should be fine…” Then Randidly smiled wolfishly. “Just make sure we own the mineral rights to the land. The rest will work itself out in the next month.”
“You want to do all these things in a month…?” Tatiana asked. Her mind tried to imagine how much manpower would need to be mobilized to accomplish not just the tasks that Randidly had stated, but the laundry list of things that he undoubtedly wanted to do with that land.
Randidly nodded. “I have the feeling… I will need to go away for a while at the end of the month. For quite some time. I’m not too sure of the details, just that it’s something I can’t avoid. In the meantime, I need to finish the upgrades to Erickson Steel and take care of some other loose ends… Oh, how has steel production been? Since my demonstration.”
Tatiana shrugged and turned away from the edge of the wall. She was growing a little unnerved by looking at the completely still Riders below. “It’s been a week, Randidly. And fuck, there are already results. It’s slightly aggravating. I’ve been looking at some of the raw numbers from the Quality Assurance Department. In terms of uniformity and density-”
Randidly gave Tatiana look. She rolled her eyes. “Fine, fine, 5% increase in quality on average across the board. And the best part is that most of this growth is fueled by the
smelter. Some of the top end producers have only changed by 3-3.5%. Which is still a great boost, but the fact that it’s the lower end that is improving the most-”
With a wave of his hand, Randidly cut her off. “I’ll do another demonstration in another week. But before that, we need to expand the drone production and Engraving divisions. A lot. Double their member count. Or at least try. On such short notice, it might be difficult.”
“We can’t recruit locally, but we have quite a few connections with some of the Academies and Universities in Zone 1.” Tatiana did some quick calculations in her head. “In fact… several have been pushing for us to offer internship programs. With that, we can probably get about 40 applicants within a week. I can screen-”
“Don’t bother, you work yourself to the bone already.” Randidly gave Tatiana a sharp look. “I missed it before… but I’ve asked a lot of you, haven’t I? I’m sorry. Heh, I know someone that I should introduce you to… well, you will meet eventually.”
Then Randidly shook his head. “Well anyway, just bring them in for an interview. I’ll screen them myself. I should be able to cut through the riff-raff pretty quickly. Plus, we need to be sure that they would be willing to work for Erickson Steel for an extended period.”
“Only you would casually call Zone 1’s brightest students riff-raff,” Tatiana said warmly. Despite how much she loved working at Erickson Steel and managing so many spinning plates, it still felt pretty nice to hear Randidly so frankly acknowledging her contribution. Tatiana’s face twitched as she suppressed the urge to smile. “But that works. Anything else you need?”
“Seeds. You should start stockpiling foodstuffs as well… and water filtration systems. We will be able to take care of most of our needs if we have a few high-Level individuals, but its always better to be over-prepared.”
Tatiana felt a strange sense of foreboding. “Randidly… you told me to get more land and be sure to secure the mineral rights… now you want to gather seeds and water filtration systems. Maybe I’m just overreacting, but do you plan to-”
Randidly held up a finger. “It’s better not to say, even here. But yes. It’s just a matter of building the scaffolding right now. That’s what I need the space for.”
Tatiana considered that. “If you extract all the value from the land here and then leave, the Zone 1 Government won’t be very happy.”
“Yea well… I don’t think most governments will be satisfied with me, for as long as I exist,” Randidly laughed quietly as he looked out into the night. Tatiana’s eyes swept down to the several hundred strong army that Randidly had returned with. That he had created with a single Skill.
I suppose someday I’ll stop being shocked…
“…whatever do you mean, governments will not be satisfied with you?” Tatiana asked wryly. “Your constant stream of jaw-dropping surprises is exactly the sort of thing on which governments thrive.”
Randidly gave Tatiana a look laced with amusement. “Even so, better to draw a clear line now, so no single government gets any ideas about to whom I owe my allegiances. That’s why, for all the trouble that Erickson Steel has had to endure, I’m glad we’ve been ostracised. It will make it easier for everyone if the break is a clean one.”
“…as opposed to how messily you broke things off with Donnyton…?” Tatiana said quietly.
Randidly just smiled in response. For several seconds, the two figures stood in silence as they watched the statue-like Riders waiting below. A low wind came through the area, causing the grass to stir in mute revelry at surviving the pounding of heavy hooves they had just endured. The Riders seemed to be fixed in place. Tatiana couldn’t resist the shiver that burrowed into her body from the unnerving display.
“Things are going to get strange again, aren’t they?” Tatiana asked.
Randidly shrugged. “Maybe. Give it a few months. It will feel normal to you in no time at all.”