‘Designating new organics as Troglodytes. Exterminate. All. Of. Them.’

Custodian’s orders were immediately transmitted to every drone. In an instant, half of the scouting force took a step inside the circle, then took out their crossbow.

They coordinated their targets so that each drone was to hit one troglodyte each. With a single order from Custodian, bolts flew in every direction and most had hit their mark.

‘One bolt is not enough. Two drones per one troglodyte now.’

The drones all loaded their crossbow at the same time, as if perfectly mimicking each other for a street performance. With another order, more troglodytes fell.

Despite the troglodytes’ best efforts to dodge or harass the drones, they were simply overwhelmed by the superior fighting force.

Not a minute later, the troglodytes retreated, leaving the scouting party with an ominous silence.

‘All drones report,’ Custodian ordered.

‘Scout Two-Seven-Episilon ready.’

‘Freeholder Warrior Eight-One-Beta ready.’

One by one, the scouting force was accounted for. There were some losses, with some drones being permanently damaged, but overall, they managed to survive with most drones intact.

Without further ado, the scouts began gathering the corpses of the troglodytes. As Apoth grabbed a body, he noticed some greenish purple smudge on his hands.

He rubbed his fingers, trying to inspect what was on them.

‘What is it, Apoth?’ Custodian asked.

‘The skin of these organics excrete some sort of liquid,’ Apoth explained.

‘What is it?’ Custodian shot the same question.

‘I do not know, but I require more to identify these substances properly,’ Apoth replied as he stood.

The scouts were ordered back since their job was finished; now it was time for the others to do their part.

The troglodytes provided plenty of mana matter and some biomatter, which was enough reason for Custodian to order the extermination of every single one of them.

Besides, they didn’t seemed intelligent enough to form diplomatic relations with. Until then, Custodian focused resources on conquering the lower levels of the dungeon. Everything was left to be uprooted and sent back for processing.

While a new forward outpost was set up, small extermination parties were sent into troglodyte territories.

Armed with machetes to cut the vines, the warrior drones began to advance without hindrance. The troglodytes resisted the foreign incursion into their home, but every attack cost them heavily.

At the front, Apoth and Arcturus were busy leading the front. No, it was more like they were simply doing their own thing. Custodian was mostly commanding since only a few of the Daedali were capable commanders. The two drones were better left with doing their own things.

Apoth was gathering more and more samples of the strange substance from the troglodyte skins while Arcturus was detecting enemies from afar and letting the warrior drones do the rest. Luckily for Custodian, the troglodytes took much of the initiative attacking first, saving it a lot of time from finding the monsters.

With biomatter from wood and mana matter from troglodytes, different types of combat drones were constructed. There was even a mini-Custodian providing repairs at the forward outpost, speeding up the invasion process.

When the new combat drones had finally joined the invasion, Apoth and his forces had already penetrated deep into troglodyte territory. The air had changed, and there were more underground streams converging far into the distance.

Arcturus ordered the drones to stop as he crouched down. He rested his metallic hands against the ground, then waited. None of the drones dared to move, and it became eerily quiet.

‘There appeared to be concentrated blocks of… something straight ahead. Strangely enough, I can also see unnatural light as well,’ Arcturus concluded.

‘What are these something?’ Custodian asked.

‘Buildings. Structures, perhaps made out of mud. Artificial from what I could tell,’ Arcturus replied.

‘Head straight there,’ Custodian commanded.

‘Order executed,’ Arcturus confirmed.

The drones only took one step forward when they were attacked again from all sides. Troglodytes came from all directions, fiercely trying to wipe out the strange, foreign metal humanoids. They all screamed with a croaky low pitch as they charged recklessly into the Varangian lines.

Some of the troglodytes appeared to be using primitive tools like a pointy rock strapped to a stick. Some even wore leather armor. Leather from what? Custodian was interested in knowing as well.

Despite the monsters’ best efforts, they were in vain as the drones pushed ever onwards. From the thick jungle of vines came a large opening. Sure enough, there were huts made from hardened mud and vines.

The troglodytes panicked as they tried to run from the seemingly unstoppable horde of robots. Smaller troglodytes ran with their bigger kins into the jungle of vines, disappearing into safety since the drones couldn’t catch up because they were slower and the vines slowed them down.

The invasion force didn’t bother catching any stragglers anyway. They were focused with securing the small little ‘village’ they captured. Custodian was curious on how this primitive civilization worked, and if they were even intelligent enough to ‘experiment’ on.

The huts were primitive. Barely any thoughts except for ‘shelter’ were put into making them. They were ugly as well, but Custodian didn’t know any better since it also had no concept of beauty.

The bodies of the dead troglodytes were lined up at the center of the village, and Custodian closely examined them. While some of the bodies were chopped up badly, the A.I. was able to piece together a good picture for its experiment.

As the corpses were sent back to the core room for processing, a new prototype was being made in the same place. It was slightly larger than the average drone, and unlike its other kins, this prototype had a leathery skin made from biomatter. Upon activation, the new prototype stood up groggily.

‘Movements could use work, but this will do,’ Custodian concluded. The new prototype looked like the new monsters the Varangians were working to wipe out, though it still moved like a puppet. Custodian was planning on either manipulating the troglodytes into working for it, or use the drone to lure other troglodytes.

Another thing the AI noticed was that the leather armor the monsters were wearing were made from other troglodytes. Using the fake troglodytes, Custodian was hoping to find out if these monsters were also cannibalistic.

The underground invasion army was pulled back and was replaced by the infiltrators. If the troglodyte drones were able to fool the monsters, Custodian might make better infiltrator drones, especially for human nations.

‘I will be conducting experiments now, Master Custodian,’ Apoth reported.

‘You have acquired enough samples?’ Custodian asked.

‘Yes. I will be using them on different materials and even… organics,’ Apoth answered.

‘And you?’ Custodian asked Arcturus. Being a speed demon that he was, Arcturus would rather be scouting around than lazing around inside his master’s dungeon. The infiltrator drones would also take time to produce results, so waiting would be a waste of productive time.

‘I will scout around the tunnels first, then the surrounding nations,’ Arcturus proposed.

‘I see. It is true that we do not know much about our surroundings even with the help of the scout drones. Very well. Leave as soon as possible,’ Custodian agreed.

While Custodian was busy securing its position in Varangia, its drones on the surface were about to become busier.

The northernmost parts of Rhankia were usually left undisturbed even as Vyssians raided the mainland solely for two reasons: It was hard to get in, and it was hard to get out.

Much of the passages were either through river crossings or unstable mountain paths. Even if Mother Nature wasn’t obscuring a raiding party, the Rhankians were more than ready to throw off any invader.

The only way to get into Northernmost Rhankia from Vyssium was through a long bridge across a massive river. The Rhankians had a castle built on the other side - Castle Norwind, named after the river it was guarding.

The ruler and commander of the castle was an old veteran who had seen many seasons of war. He was standing against the castle’s balcony overlooking the bridge facing Northern Vyssium, trying to enjoy a night’s cool air in the middle of summer.

A light wind blew across the man’s face, giving him a small smile at the peaceful atmosphere.

Though, his smile died out quickly.

His squinted his eyes, and pushed his bushy great eyebrows together trying to make head or tails of what he was seeing.

“Sigburt! Get over here!” the old man shouted.

A young man dressed in loose chainmail ran up next to the old man and asked, “You called for me, Baron Clovis?”

“Look over there. Do you see what I see?” Baron Clovis pointed at the distance.

Sigburt stared at where the baron pointed at, then gasped. “I-it’s an a-army?!” he stuttered.

“Of course, you fool! Sound the alarm! Wake the men up!” Baron Clovis shouted.

It didn’t take long for the alarms to put the entire castle into high alert. The men manned the walls, prepared the defenses, and sobered up.

“Is it the Vyssians?” Sigburt asked when he came back to the baron’s side.

“Who else would it be? Now, the question is, why are they attacking here?” Baron Clovis asked himself. For many decades, the Vyssians rarely chose to from this passage, so the old man was surprised there were still fools willing to test the Rhankish mettle.

Although this was a passage to Northern Rhankia, this was the northernmost path. There were plenty of other wealthier villages and towns to raid down further south, so most Vyssian raiders chose to ignore this particular area.

“Are they attacking?” Sigburt asked.

“No. They won’t attack any time soon. It’ll be foolish to try a night battle now, especially since they might be weary from traveling all the way to this frozen craphole. If I was the commander, I would attack about five days later and-…”

“They’re making a head-on assault!” Sigburt promptly cut off the baron’s intricately detailed answer as the Vyssians made their move.

On the other side of the river, flying the Sea’axfeared banners, were the Varangians. As soon as the castle was in their sights, the Varangians immediately set upon building siege weapons based on their experience of besieging the castle under Mount Varangia.

Not long after, the Varangians began pushing a battering ram across the bridge, while warriors moved ladders from the flanks. Custodian and its Daedeli were confident that they had a good chance of taking down this castle. On the other hand, the Vyssians were worried.

“Your men had been marching for days, and you’re already assaulting it?” Eoforwic voiced his concerns.

“Is there a problem?” Weaver asked.

“Aren’t your men exhausted? Are you not going to scout out the castle first for weaknesses?” Ecgbert asked.

“That is not a problem,” Weaver answered as he looked up.

Hovering in the air, several of the new scout drones equipped with hoverblades scanned the surroundings. Since the enemy had no way of countering or being aware of the small flying drones, Custodian had free reign of the air.

Thinking about this, the A.I. was wondering if it could modify some combat drones to be able to fly as well. But for now, it was focused on the battle. It was using every tactic it learned from both the books found in the ruined city under Mount Varangia and its experience.

The lightly-armored warrior drones marched forward with their shields raised, while the plated ones simply marched under the rain of arrows.

‘Master Custodian, scouts report that some organics left the castle,’ Slayer reported through the hivespeak.

‘Are they retreating? Find where they are going,’ Custodian instructed.

Custodian’s forces also built two catapults to support the assault, but it seemed that the castle had prepared counter-artillery. Even as the castle walls were peppered with boulders, the enemy retaliated with their own catapults. The last castle attacked by Custodian also had catapults so this was where its super-A.I. capabilities kicked in.

‘Mage drones. Forward,’ Custodian commanded.

Three robed figures accompanying the Daedeli moved forward, just in front of the bridge. They stood ready, which prompted Aefelred to raise an eyebrow in curiosity.

‘Target the catapult. Aim high. Use one fireball each. Cast,’ Custodian ordered.

All three mage drones stamped their staves repeatedly against the ground, then simultaneously raised their staves together. Small concentrated fireballs were launched into the air, arcing down onto the castle.

Although the castle was hit, it didn’t do much damage to the stone fortifications, and the fireballs missed the catapults. But with eyes in the air constantly feeding information back to Custodian, it wasn’t hard to correct its drones.

‘Adjust your coordinates. Fix your elevation and turn 9 degrees clockwise. Fire one fireball each. Cast,’ Custodian commanded.

The drones cast their spells once more, but this time with adjustments given by their master. The fireballs arced over the walls and dived straight into the enemy catapults and burnt several soldiers.

With the Rhankish catapults out of the way, sections of the castle outer walls fell as the siege drones did their work. Several warrior drones went for the breaches while majority of the drones continued with their ladders or the ram.

As the ram reached the castle gate, rocks and boiling oil were poured down. A few warriors were melted down because they were right beneath the oil pot, but most weren’t affected. Even as some of the drones’ arms melted off, they continued pushing the ram with their other arm.

Meanwhile, the castle walls were being scaled with ropes and ladders. Several parts of the walls were fought over, and ladders were flung out of the way. As soon as the drones were up on the wall, they immediately charged into the chaotic fray.

Despite the fact that the Rhankians had the local numerical superiority, the warrior drones were heavily equipped for extermination. With their entire body, even the face, draped in chain and armor, some of the defenders even lost the will to fight even before the drones could reach them.

After all, the Rhankians expected a raiding party of ragtag Vyssians which were as poorly equipped as they were. Who would expect to bring a professional army here at the north - in the middle of nowhere?

Seeing as the assault had progressed steadily, Slayer got off his horse and prepared his long sword.

“Joining the battle?” Ecgbert called out.

“Yes. You coming?” Slayer asked as he continued forward.

“No. My kin and I are only here as observers. Good luck out there, warrior,” Ecgbert replied.

Slayer and a contingent of huskarls ran across the bridge just as the ram had finally broken through the gate. Taking the easy shortcut in, Slayer charged through the gate first even before the warrior drones at the front could even react.

The humans didn’t even realized what was happening. One moment the gate was open, another moment several men at the front were immediately cut down by a group of armored soldiers.

The Rhankish garrison wasn’t entirely composed of ragtag levies as their own elites began taking the front. Similarly armored as the drones, Rhankish soldiers covered in chainmail and geared with scaled armor rammed into Slayer and his huskarls.

Axes met swords, arrows flew in every direction, and the clash of flesh against metal caused the siege to grow ever more chaotic. Fortunately, the drones were all being commanded by a commander that had inhuman capabilities and foresight.

‘Squad 1 move to Point B. Squad 3, disengage. Prepare to assist Squad 4 against the human elite soldiers.’

Drones broke off seemingly at random, and many groups of drones converged together at different places as if they had already rehearsed this siege multiple times. One would even think they built the very same castle somewhere else to practice sieging this specific castle.

Though, even with the advantages such as better coordination or equipment, the drones weren’t as powerful or as smart as the humans. The Rhankish elites were simply better and faster than the slow-thinking warrior drones. To take down an elite, five drones had to group up together to swarm their target down through overwhelming force.

The only ones who could stand toe-to-toe against them were Slayer and his huskarl bodyguards.

‘Bio-iron frames seems to be a poor choice if I’m to seriously consider creating security measures…’ Custodian noted as it looked over its mounting casualties.

Nevertheless, the Varangians still had some advantages. As more drones swarmed the castle, specialist drones began taking their positions. As the castle walls were taken, warrior drones discarded their shield and axe to equip their crossbows.

‘No matter how skilled you are, it only takes a split of a second for a bolt to find your neck.’ Custodian thought.

As Slayer was about to strike down a Rhankish elite, the human was peppered with several bolts from above. The mage drones were also beginning to slaughter the Rhankish levies by the masses with their spells. They shot their flames through the warriors at the front, since drones were unaffected by the high heat, and into the frightened Rhankish militia.

The castle was slowly being engulfed by a sea of flame and metal, and the last remaining defenders ran into the inner keep.

‘Slayer, don’t slack off now. Finish them off,’ Custodian ordered.

‘Affirmative. All able combat drones, form up,’ Slayer announced in hivespeak.

The Varangians gathered up at the castle courtyard, then charged into the inner keep in force. Despite the tight corridor spaces and stairwells, the drones made full efficient use of their numbers. Warriors at the front would raise their shields, and the warrior behind them would thrust their spear out.

Even with the valiant efforts of the Rhankish elites, there were too little of them to make a big difference. At last, the inner castle was almost taken over.

Slayer and his huskarls marched into the castle’s main hall, where its seat of power was at. There, several heavily armored Rhankians were standing in a line in front of a human garbed in ornate armor.

‘That must be their leader,’ Custodian noted.

‘It matters not, as they will provide matter all the same,’ Slayer commented.

The human leader shouted some words Custodian couldn’t understand. When he noticed that the drones didn’t respond, he began speaking in Vyssian.

“You dogs of Vyssia. What business do you have fighting in my homeland? How much should I pay to make you leave?” the human yelled.

“Pay?” Slayer asked.

“Yes. Pay. You mercenaries know where the money is at, right? Tell me how much silver the Vyssians paid you, and I can pay more,” the human offered.

“How much wood can you give?” Slayer inquired.

The human leader glared at Slayer, then shouted, “Even in at the face of death, I will not be mocked. Our talk is over. Come face me and my serjents!”

Custodian and Slayer didn’t understand what they did since they were seriously asking for wood.

Even though the Rhankish serjents broke formation and charged at individual drones, Slayer’s huskarls formed into a shieldwall and braced against the Rhankians. The human leader brandished a shield and a bluish sword as he charged straight towards Slayer.

He swung his shield horizontally against the warrior drone in front of Slayer, causing his shield to topple backwards. Without even a chance to respond, the warrior drone’s head was cut off by the bluish sword.

He didn’t stop as he kicked the warrior approaching him, then stabbed straight at the drone's chest. Another drone swung his axe at the human, but was stopped by the bluish sword. Using his shield, the human smashed the drone’s neck with a blunt swing.

“You! Hear me! I am Baron Clovis of the Kingdom of the Rhankians! My family has held this castle for decades and I refuse to go down without taking your head!” the human leader screamed as he pointed at Slayer with his bluish sword.

‘What type of metal is that?’ Custodian thought as it analyzed the sword. ‘You should be careful, Slayer. The human's sword appeared to be much stronger than your own weapon.’

‘It is impressive, but it won’t be a problem for me,’ Slayer responded.


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