Rex Lancer, King of the Pilots

Cohost writing prompt: @Making-up-Mech-Pilots — Mech Pilot who will find the One Key and become Rex Lancer, King of the Pilots

When you were children, and first heard the legend of the One Key and its prophesied return, Anguin immediately declared that she would find it and become Rex Lancer, King of the Pilots. One of the village boys jeered about it, that Rex Lancer couldn't be a girl; so you knocked out three of his teeth.

The other boys made half-hearted jabs about fighting her battles for her.

"Rex Lancer will have a thousand knights at her hand, ready to show every doubter his place in the mud," you said, with holy fervour.

When you were youths, marching under the banner of the gear. You trained together, standing at your appointed chalk intersections in the training-ground grid, breastplate-sized Mechanical Hearts strapped to your chests. Anguin shot a glance over at you as you followed the training sergeant's bellowed directions: insert your sabre-sized Key. Wind, deasil. Deasil, knuckleheads! Grasp the summons-handles, left and right, to complete the calling-circle across your own heart. Feel the presence of the Machine, let it fall together with you, pulling forth the substance of your mech from the Place of Living Cogs. Keep your balance. You, private! If you can't balance atop your new ten-foot legs of brass, by gods you'll learn to stand back up on them! Next one to fall over gives me twenty laps!

Neither of you fell. Her mech's lines are delicate, hull chased with silver.

You dream of it at the head of an army, crowned with light. As always, you march proudly, just a step behind her.

In the blasted dark of the Drifting Heath, battalion scattered, the two of you stumble into the shelter of a cave and are beset by witches three: antlered antennae bolted into their skulls, eyes brimful of static and skins chased with crawling blue discharge arcs. Their cauldron spins with an eternal vortex.

They smile.

"The One Key will come to your hand," they croon to Anguin, and you thrill to the confirmation of what you've never doubted. You turn, and step back toward the rain sheeting past the cave mouth.

"Cella?" she says nervously, grasping for your arm.

"I'll stand watch a moment," you says, smiling at her. "It's not for my ears."

It's not your place. It's not necessary for you to know. Foreknowledge tempts and twists people; you don't need it. You are a faithful hound.

They try to lure you, of course; one witch, the youngest, the prettiest, the most transparent ploy, asks — isn't there anything you would care to know?

"No, thank you, lady," you say, and smile enough for it to be polite. "Nothing."

You carry her from the field at Boden's Barrow, injured sore. You bind her wounds as best you can, and leave her resting as you fetch water from a small nearby lake.

It's eerie, and when the lake stirs it's simultaneously a kick of adrenaline and no more than an inevitability you've been dreadfully waiting for. Something beneath the surface draws a wake, pointed direct for you, and you can only wait, hand on your infantry knife.

When it speaks, it does so in deep, seizure-bordering mental flashes of strange symbols and inarticulable sounds. Lights dance below the water; hands thrust up from beneath it, as if stretched from impossible distance beyond. The present it to you: a Key, plain and ancient.

The Key, you know instantly.

"Thank you," you say reverently, and bear it where it needs to go.

"Cella," Anguin says, and you hold water to her lips, and then kneel, and hold out to her the Key. "Cella, what—"

"It's time," you say, brimming with simultaneous solemnity at the occasion, and joy, pure joy. It's finally time.

"Cella," she says, and falls back against the bedrolls you've cushioned her with. "I can't— you know that's not mine, don't you?"

"It's always been yours. And even the witches said so." You gesture it towards her again. Take it. Take up your mantle. I will follow you always.

She makes a choked noise, hand pressed to her side, which takes a panicked second for you to place as a laugh. "I'm a middling pilot, a nothing tactician, and I'd make a lousy King," she says. "You've seen the mech I summon, haven't you?"

"It's beautiful," you say, eyes hungry on her face. "Royal silver."

"I know what you've always thought of it," she says. "And it is unusual, not that that's any reliable sign of a great destiny. I had ego enough to look up the deep archives, whether there was any match for the design, and there is, Cella — it's a Royal retinue mech. It's not for a King."

You lick your lips. "No reliable sign," you cast back at her.

"It's you," she sighs. "It's always been you. I could have turned the things the witches told me some other way, but — that was the point of telling me them, wasn't it? And you had the wisdom to turn them down."

"That wasn't—" you protest. "It wasn't wisdom. Why would I need them to tell me anything? I just needed to follow you."

"Cella," she sighs. "Take the One Key. You're the better pilot — the best pilot. You'll be a good King. You're a good person. Let me follow you for once."

"But I—"

"I know. You did it all for me." She reaches out to gently touch you. "And I love you too; so much. Take your crown. Summon the Excalibur. Regather our forces to you and let's win this."

"But," you say. "But the rightful King—"

"Rex Lancer will have a thousand knights at her hand to show any doubter his place in the mud," she says, smiling crookedly up at you. "And I'll be first of them, always, if you'll have me."

"You've always had me," you whisper, hands numb and unable to resist as she takes them, aligns the One Key with your Mechanical Heart, and gently urges you to press it home.