The world had frozen over faster than anyone could have predicted. Windrider, now the Lady of Winter, had been relentless in her efforts. Soon, even Metal City was covered in a sheet of ice. It was an eternal winter.
Stingray walked through the frozen streets of Metal City, rubbing his hands together. Neon stayed tucked inside his jackets. When they had returned to the city, Stargazer had immediately started to organize the survivors, creating plans for how to feed them. Lenz had helped her. Artificer had all but disappeared. Even Photon was busy building machines to use their light to create pockets of warmth and break the ice, even if only temporarily.
They had all seemed to accept that the world would remain frozen and sought to make the best of the situation. Each one had been too busy to help Stingray find a way to reverse all of this. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, Neon! This is too big a job for us to do by ourselves!”
The skies turned grey again. Another ice storm was coming in. Stingray pulled his jacket hood up and wrapped his scarf tight around his face. He needed to find cover quickly, before the ice fell like daggers.
As he started to run, Stingray felt the ground shake below him. The ice split under his feet, revealing the hard ground buried beneath. “Woah! Hey! What’s going on?!”
Looking ahead, Stingray got his answer. Rampage sat at the center of a mechanical monstrosity, blades and scrapers everywhere. The crazed and angry mechanist was slicing through the ice-covered ground around a heating facility owned by his nemesis, the Maximatics Corporation. Rampage was building a deadly pile of ice and metal that would knock over any wall in its path. Maximatics had been one of the first to offer warm havens. They had also charged for it, of course. Yet there were innocent people there!
“Stop! Rampage, you have to listen to me!”
“It’s all ruined!” Rampage shouted, not even looking at Stingray. “Frozen. Dead. Lifeless. It’s time to just bring it all down!”
Stingray could tell it was useless to try to reason with the berserker. He looked over the strange machine that Rampage had built. Its blades would cut through ice, no matter how thick, as the machine kept chugging along. If they could just make it withstand the cold assault…
That was it! That was what Stingray needed!
“You want your warm world back, Rampage?! I’m in! And I know just who we have to start with! What do you say?!”
Stingray rode inside his modified machine. Once he had gotten Rampage lucid to the point of listening, it had not taken much to convince the mechanist to help. They needed to stop Windrider, the Lady of Winter. The two had refurbished both their machines to last against the extreme cold.
Once more, after many months, Stingray found himself driving up the icy roads of the mountains in the North. Only the hardiest had survived the ice storms that battered the peaks daily. Worse, those who she found useful were made unwilling pawns of the Lady of Winter. Many pilots had been saved from death only to end up as Windrider’s slaves. Stingray had seen it with his own eyes, when he learned what had happened to Little Monster. The young pilot now drove without her own will, mindlessly serving the Lady of Winter.
“Wait, what’s that?” . It was a Machine. Tree branches jutted out. Snowbanks piled to the side of it. Tiny crystals shimmered in the cold light. “Careful, Rampage, it might be one of Windrider’s minions!”
“Then they will have a long fall down the mountain.”
“It can’t be… That’s… That’s Judge!”
Indeed it was. As they drew closer, the long shape was unmistakable as the barrel of Full Metal Judge’s Machine. The tree branches were horns, carved from mighty bucks. Laid out before it were the frozen bodies of a few of Windrider’s minions, burning in a pale fire.
“He is not one of them, he doesn’t bear the signs,” Rampage said, sounding almost disappointed. Stingray was not sure that he wouldn’t push Judge off the mountain regardless.
“You’re still alive, old man?! We thought you died out here long ago, in the first frost!” Stingray’s shock overpowered his anger. It was Judge’s fault, after all, that all this had happened! Yet seeing Judge, the bounty hunter looked more tired than ever. He almost looked… remorseful?
“Perhaps I did. I know what it is to die and be reborn. I have felt that twice now,” Judge said, his gravelly voice the same as Stingray remembered it. “Yet I am still trying to atone for my mistakes. The Lady of Winter evades death once more. I have tried… and failed… to bring about her end.”
Judge looked above to the summit. A never-ending storm of ice and wind crowned the peak. That was where Windrider dwelled, that was where it had all began. The frozen remains of previous efforts were immortalized in ice. Even the nuclear cloud from a Manfall bomb stood frozen in ice. “It’s been a long time coming. She is weakened. She has hidden away, behind ice and snow.”
“There’s no hope of restoring her, is there?” Stingray asked, his shoulders slumping.
“No. The power of the artifact is bound to her. Only her destruction will end this winter.”
“Then I’ll tear down the entire mountain if I have to!” Rampage said. His teeth were chattering as he grit them together, yet the heat of his anger gave his skin a sweaty sheen. “I’ve had enough of this cold! I’ve seen enough ice and snow to last a lifetime! This ends here!”
With the roar of his engine, Rampage’s ice-breaker rolled forward on its treads, the picks and blades smashing through everything in their path. The machine moved slowly but like an unstoppable force as it cleared a path.
“Ah! Wait! Darn it, Judge, this is your mess! You better join us!” Stingray said, following after Rampage. The giant bulldozer consumed a lot of energy, and even though the two had enhanced their machines with engines to draw energy from the cold, it still needed time to recharge.
And so the minions came. Machines covered in frost and icicles, their half-dead drivers locked in a state of icy misery in the service to their mistress. “Deploying shields!” Stingray said. This was something he had borrowed from Stargazer. A ring of towers, giving off heat, materialized around him. The Lady’s minions found themselves held back, not sure how to approach the radiating heat. Rampage’s machine slowly cut its way towards the cyclone.
“We’re almost there!” Stingray said.
With a primal roar of fury, Rampage charged the dozer into the final ice wall, shattering it as cracks ran along its face. The shards went flying. Behind it, Windrider hovered, at the center of the storm, her machine looking very much like it was made of the same ice as the cyclone spinning around her. Pointing her finger at the pair, she unleashed a burst of lightning. It struck Rampage’s machine, causing frost to form spontaneously.
“This is where it ends…” Rampage muttered. “Finish it!”
Stingray turned his laser on Windrider as he focused all the energy of their machines. It had taken knowledge both scientific and magic, but not even the Winter Wraith could survive this, weakened as she was.
With a terrifying shriek, Windrider shattered like an ice statue. The pieces fell to the ground as the magic that had enchanted her was freed. Blue wisps of ethereal light left trails of ice crystals as they swirled in the air. Laughter from the spirits of ice and frost surrounded them with the sound of wind through chimes.
The sound of the Horn blowing rolled through the mountaintop. The magic rushed towards the sound. Stingray and Rampage could only watch as the ice and magic was absorbed by the artifact once more.
Full Metal Judge stood on the peak above, blowing the Horn until the last of the magic was gone “Winter is over. At long last, I’ve completed my task…The Sect will be pleased with this offering to the Metal Gods.”
Judge took off, leaving the two in the center of the dying storm. Behind him, the Horn bounced and shook on the cart.
Stingray and Rampage sorted through the remains once the storm finally cleared. Already, the ice was beginning to melt. The remains of Windrider’s machine were scattered everywhere. Stingray managed to find her steering wheel.
“I remember, this was special to her and her people.” He said. With a heavy heart, he hung the steering wheel in a tree on the mountain. “Come on, Rampage, let’s go. It’ll be good to focus back on fighting the Sect of Metal after all this…”
“You fight your Sect,” Rampage said. In his hands, he held a crumpled piece of paper, wringing it and tearing it. “For me? Maximatics has much more to answer for…”
Spring returned to the world as the Great Thaw began. In time, the people of Metal City resumed their normal lives. The Arena opened once more, and the daily struggles between the powers of the city quickly reestablished themselves.
On the tree where the steering wheel hung, a leaf sprouted…