First Contact

"Zed? Where are we going?" Jen followed the suit of armor that was twice her size as it left the library.

In return Zed spoke as he continued walking, acting as if Jen following was a foregone conclusion. "We have to check with the refugees coming in, meet with Shinji when Coalition? Confederation?"

The armored golem shook his head in exasperation, "What's the right word here?"

Jen shrugged as she walked, "Coalition or Alliance, though from what I'd seen, Corp was gaining traction."

The goblin laughed as they walked, thankful for the paved pathway. "A corp of Cores."

Zed laughed, then frowned at the path ahead. "You'll tire out and I'll want you there fresh faced if trouble pops up."

He knelt down to one knee and bent over.

"Are you serious?" Jen blinked, but when Zed nodded he climbed onto his back.

As Zed started running, he talked. "Wish we'd gotten to talk under less pressing conditions. I worked with Bonehead, Naoko, all of them."

This caught Jen's attention and focus. "Really? How much do you remember?"

Any hope she had was quickly dashed, however. "Only a few highlights, mostly impressions more than anything. Who I trusted, how they work? Gut feelings."

He gave a light chuckle at the look Jen gave him, "Naoko said it's weird we're all getting spun out here. All of us seemingly in this corpse of some huge mega-dungeon. All these lives focusing Here."

"Well, why weren't you part of the bone guard?" Jen shut her eyes as the golem ran faster, causing her white hair to blow in the wind of their passing. "Shinji's there. I think a few of the others too but he's stepped up while Bonehead's ..."

She couldn't bring herself to say it.

"I... wouldn't say Naoko and I are or ever were a thing romantically, but I like working with her and she says i keep her grounded." Zed pivoted, rounding a corner in the path. "Besides, I don't think we really get to pick. Things just happen. I don't like calling it Fate for a lot of reasons but why else would the whole lot of us get yanked here?"

Jen thought on that as the refugee camp came into view. It was easily as big as the settlement she grew up in. Trenches were in the process of being dug, sharpened stakes on the outer edge, tents were erected in ordered clusters. All of this sprouted up as a mushroom-work of activity around a two story brick building with a pair of automata posted at the door.

Unlike those of the library these had bulbous too-large heads with wide permanent grins. Rail thin bodies with spindly limbs ending with overlarge hands and feet. The pair snapped to attention as the pikes were held at the ready.

"Identify." Both said as their wide goggle-like black eyes looked to Jen.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

One of them spoke then. In spite of the fighting. One of the armored golems as a too-white hand ripped into its helm, extending inky black blood and ichor into the armor itself. “Keyes... Jacob."

The armor fell, dissolving in front of Jen's eyes. The shock for a moment causing her to forget her surroundings. It was only Zed pulling her back out of the way of a sword strike, taking the hit on his armored shoulder, that brought her back to the hear and now.

Through the fighting she heard it again, and again. Whenever one of the golems fell, whenever one of the skeletons broke apart. “...Keyes... Jacob... Service Number..."

She dove under one of the attacking orcs, gutting it with a dagger, using its body to shield herself from a troll's hammer. Yet the mass difference and sheer force drove her to the ground, weighting her with body and massive war hammer. She saw Zed fall as a dozen blackened hands tore into his suit.

"No," She whimpered. "No... no.... please..."

“Keyes... Jacob... Captain..." Zed's hollow voice rasped as something much like breath rattled in his chest. "Oh. God..."

Jen covered her mouth as much to keep from puking as to try keeping quiet, which allowed her to realize, with a slow dawning horror the body she was under hadn't dissolved. It took her several long moments to realize what that meant as she struggled to free herself.

She had no idea what any of this meant. Who was this Keys? Was it a message for her to pass on? Was it a Saint they prayed to?"

Questions for later. She had to run. To escape from these sickly orcs.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Jen snapped awake, startled, franticly looking around. For a moment the terror of the dream clung to her even as she realized she was sitting in a perhaps too-comfortable wing backed chair as Zed stood talking with the post's commander.

Both golem looked to her, one tilting its head one way and one the other. Zed spoke, his voice gentle as possible given his mechanical nature. "Are you alright?"

"Who's Jacob Keys?" Jen managed before getting to her feet. She'd felt embarrassed at her having first fallen asleep, then disrupting talks that she knew were fairly time sensitive.

Zed immediately looked to her. Though there were no visible eyes Jen couldn't help but feel a pair boring through her from behind the armored visor. "It's from a story from my prior life. A ship's captain that faced long odds, and fought an enemy that corrupted and tried to strip as much information as it could directly from his mind as it turned everything it infected into more of itself. Keys was a man that was able to hold back a thing that he had no hope of winning against long enough that they didn't get the information they really wanted."

As she was confronted by the similarities of this and the enemy they faced, Jen's pupils contracted. "That name was from my dream. Everyone in it repeated that name as they fell, and a number."

Now both golem were looking at her.

Jen frowned, her eyes closing as she focused on the memory. "Oh One Nine Two... Something..."

"Keys. Jacob. Captain. Service Number Oh One Nine Two Eight Dash One Nine Nine One Two Dash Jay Kay." Zed rattled the quote from memory as Jen stared up at him, fear now overtaking confusion.

The golem knelt down so his face was at eye level for Jen as he hugged her close. "It's OK. You're safe. It's from a story." There was a clear forced attempt at remaining calm in Zed's voice. "Do you remember where you heard this?"

"I don't know?" Jen looked about as she wracked her mind. "Maybe Bonehead mentioned it? Maybe Shinji?"

Zed nodded slowly. "Alright. You said all of us had fallen in this dream? Do you remember what happened before that happened?"

There was an immediate and definite shake of Jen's head. "No, it started right when things went wrong." She paused then, "I'm not a seer. This isn't a vision. It's. A..."

"Lonely Hill." Her eyes immediately focused. Everything else about her suggested confusion, but her eyes were steady as she looked to Zed. "I can't say how but he's warning that's what they're trying to do to Bonehead. Take what it views as... Damala's heir's strongest champion and pump everything out of it."

"But-" The other golem spoke. "That makes no sense. Dungeons can reach out to people, but, no offense meant, you have no training, and aren't a magic user."

Zed grunted, "Problems for later. We have to assume initial defensive formations are known." He looked to Jen, "You run faster than me. Spread word through the camp. Exact words. I need this to be an Exact message. Do you understand?"

Jen nodded, fear was forcefully shoved aside as she listened.

"Cole Protocol is active." Zed looked to Jen expectantly.

"Cole Protocol is Active." When Zed nodded. She nodded to him and started running.

The golem that they had been sent to meet nodded once. "Cole Protocol is Active." With that, it took a heavy medallion hanging from a slender silver chain from its neck and hung it around Zed's neck. "You are now in command of this outpost. What are your orders?"

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

When Midori's forces crossed into the Library's holdings they had been harassed continuously. Those within the ground forces would respawn when killed, but equipment that had been crafted for the siege was not so easily replaced, and even if death was cheap it was still a logistical headache to find the quartermaster was on a respawn timer and the only other person who knew who had what was on the opposite end of the formation.

Four Kobald had been very busy making life difficult. Those four never engaged long. Always a single death, a single key piece of gear broken. A swirl of smoke heralding no attack. Even a few instances of decoys being left in the marching path to cause platoons to peel off to make sure they weren't real.

By the time the formations had reached their goal the proud boastful army of 'liberators' were demoralized, paranoid, and they now were faced with curving paths with trees and shrubbery rather than straight pathed wide roads.

They had their intel, however, and it seemed to be correct. There were the trenches and staked lines There were suits of armor there, weapons ready. Those at the fore quickened their pace in anticipation. Magi were called up to form a shield wall as archers rained down spell-infused arrows hat rained down thunder and fire into the enemy camp.

Yet not one suit of armor moved. None of the confusion such an attack would generate came. No pannicked units caught unawares, for this was a place that wasn't in an obvious place. This was a nexus point where information flowed. That was what they hoped to do here, blind the enemy.

The enemy, however, rose from the ground itself. Suits of armor rose from shallow pits dug into the earth amid the invading army. Spiders leapt from their hollow shells to ensnare and bind even as the armored golem hacked limbs apart, struck with blunted blade, and rushed to join with their own at the opposite end of the formation.

There had been losses by the defenders. No plan yielded perfect victory. However as a majority of the formation lay coated in webs the trees themselves bent, their branches spreading wide and flattening. Their limbs entwining as they grew together into a wooded net, entrapping but not killing.

Jen looked to Zed as he limped to where she had been told to hide. After she hopped from cover she looked to him. "Why didn't you open with that? Looked pretty effective to me."

"Because we had no way of knowing they would attack Here until your warning. the initial plan counted on them laying siege and encircling rather than whole companies of men rushing an intelligence nexus."

He looked to the goblin girl, "Anything else? That was a lucky break that worked out. Any intel? Any.. anything?"

Jen's head shook, "Maybe I have to be asleep? Maybe it was a one time thing? Either way I think we're on our own. So, now what boss?"

Golem looked to Goblin and knelt so the smaller of the pair could get on his back. "If Bonehead's being drained for intel. Either we're going to save him, or put him out of his misery, but we're going now."

As the pair started running the way the invaders came, a spider sat there watching fro matop the wooded prison that had been flash grown. As her spawn continued to entwine and enmesh its occupants in silk she scuttled off. "This was a victory, an important victory. It was not The Victory, however, so her task was not yet done.


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