Jess let out a low groan as she slowly woke up. She groggily sat up while her brain was doing its best to remember where she was and what she was doing there. Her head and neck ached a little, but that was only natural considering her bed had no pillow.
“... Bed?” she mumbled as she looked around her quarters.
Well, even it was called ‘her quarters,’ this space was just a small room in a random house in the city of New Whitehall. Although this was technically someone’s home, it had been converted into a women’s barracks in order to house the Republic’s Legionnaires. The men were, understandably, in another building. Many other buildings, actually. Pretty much every house, shop, store, restaurant and inn had been commandeered and converted into some barracks or another. Various commercial facilities - such as forges, workshops and alchemical laboratories - had been retrofitted for military use.
As for the actual citizens, they had already been evacuated via Forest Gate, along with any and all refugees from the surrounding towns and villages. There were, of course, those who did not wish to abandon their homes, but such individuals were relocated by force regardless of their intentions. Although such actions were perceived as barbaric, cruel or unfair, they were strictly for the best. Having civilians present in a war zone would only be a burden to the Republic’s Legions and lead to unnecessary casualties. Well, not unless the elves were willing to use their own people as meat shields and Spell fodder, but no self-respecting military institution would be that monstrous.
Ultimately, the only people currently present in New Whitehall were either military personnel, skilled laborers or contractors like Jess. The latter two, being non-combatants, would also be evacuated any day now.
“... Crap!” exclaimed the gnome. “I gotta find that golem before they ship me off!”
The amount of sunshine coming in through the sole window as well as the clock next to her bed both suggested it had barely been an hour or so since she had been knocked out. She quickly recalibrated her Tick Counter Skill, which had gone haywire due to that harsh yet well-deserved blow to the head, got out of bed and flung her front door open.
And then immediately slammed it shut and leaned against it. Her breath had become uneven and beads of cold sweat were forming on her forehead as her overabundant enthusiasm had once again gotten the better of her. The sheltered gnome had lived underground for most of her life and had momentarily forgotten how scary the outside world was. She was gradually growing accustomed to living under the blue sky rather than a pile of rock, stone and metal, but she wasn’t quite ‘there’ yet.
“It’s okay, Jess, gravity won’t let you fall upwards,” she quietly reassured herself. “Gravity won’t let you go so easily. Heh. Hahahah. That’s right, gravity is your ally. Gravity is your ally. Gravity is your ally. Gravity is your ally. Gravity is your ally.”
She repeated her mantra over and over as she worked up the nerve to go against her childish, supersticious and wholly unscientific fear. Even if she recognized it as such, she couldn’t help the way she felt. It was actually a surprisingly common form of culture shock among those that had been raised underground, but knowing that only made her feel more ashamed of herself. It felt like she was conforming to a stereotype, which left a bad taste in her mouth since all her life she had wanted to stand out from 'the rest.' That was part of the reason she took this job in the first place, as she was sure it would help overcome her accute case of agoraphobia.
“Alright! Let’s go find that golem!”
After psyching herself up a bit more, she took a breath, opened the door and took a cautious step outside. She kept walking down the street, allowing her nervousness and anxiety to slowly yet surely weaken. A few minutes later, her knees were no longer shaking and her breathing had become less forced. Even if she was still feeling anxious to a certain degree, she refused to show it on her face, lest she disgrace the Wobblebang name. Granted, her lineage was nothing to brag about, but it was still important to the person herself.
Jess started asking after the mithril golem she had ‘met’ earlier that afternoon once she got more accustomed to not having a roof over her head. However, she didn’t have much to go on as her memories of what happened back there were a blur. The only things she remembered was that the thing she was chasing after was a mithril golem, as well as the rather unique nickname that elven Architect told her about. He also said some other things, but Jess had already run off without hearing him out. She also distinctly remembered leaning on that marvelous construct for a while, just before it made her do several backflips with a blow to the head. She wasn’t particularly mad about that last bit though. She just assumed she must’ve set off some kind of self-defense protocol, so it was really her own fault for getting so touchy-feely with it without the owner’s permission.
Well, all things considered it wasn’t hard to track down the so-called Rustblood Juggernaut. After all, how many gnome-sized mithril golems could there be in this hick town? Less than 15 minutes later she found herself standing in front of a smithy on the edge of the 3rd Legion’s base camp. She took a deep breath and audibly knocked on the door, but there was no answer. However, judging from the noises coming from within as well as the smoke pouring out of the chimney, someone was definitely doing something in there.
Whoever that might be, they were probably too absorbed in their work to notice her knock. They probably wouldn’t appreciate some stranger barging in and interrupting them. Jess herself was adamant about avoiding any and all distractions during her own work, as it was often a case of life and death. One crossed wire, one wayward pinch of Firedust, one errant twitch - and KABLOOEY! Admittedly, not all Artificers shared Jess’s affinity and fascination with blowing shit up, but disturbing an artisan’s concentration was a universally bad idea, regardless of their Job. Blacksmiths, Enchanters, Alchemists - they all handled valuable and/or fragile materials at one point or another. Interrupting them during such projects could cost them days, maybe even weeks of progress, not to mention the cost of-
The blonde gnome fell to the ground on reflex before the echo of that sudden explosion had even faded. After taking a second or two to confirm the origin of the blast was indeed inside the smithy, Jesse leapt to her feet and opened the door, allowing a stream of pitch-black smoke to escape from it.
“Koff! Koff! Are you okay?!” she shouted while choking a bit.
“Ah? Yeah, I’m fine,” came the casual answer. “Gonna take a lot more than a little lovetap to hurt me.”
The owner of that strangely metallic voice, much like the rest of the room, was covered head-to-toe in soot. Judging from her shape and size, she was most definitely a female gnome, though not one of Jess’ colleagues. She wasn’t sure whether this stranger was seriously unhurt, but if the person herself said so then she wasn’t going to argue. Besides, she had more important questions on her mind.
“What the- Koff! Koff! What happened in here?!”
“Oh, nothing much,” answered the stranger while putting her discarded tools back in order. “Just testing how much Firedust I can mix into the impact gel before it becomes too unstable. Y’know, give it that extra ‘oomph!’ Seems 35 milligrams of dust per 100 milligrams of gel was pushing it, though.”
“Koff! Koff! You what?! Every idiot knows it’s 20 per 100 at most!”
The mixture in question was a key component when creating explosives that detonated on impact, and getting the ratio right was of key importance. Too much impact gel and the explosive force would diminish. Too much Firedust, and it became prone to spontaneous detonation. Creating it was a simple enough process, but required a steady hand and a sharp eye.
“Nah,” said the charred figure dismissively. “You can get away with 30 easy. Adding more than that gets tricky though.”
“That’s preposterous!” argues Jess on reflex. “There’s no way it’ll be safe to handle beyond 20!”
“Sure it will. Just gotta subject the gel to a mild electric current before- I’m sorry, but who are you again?!” asked Fizzy while glancing over her shoulder. “Oh, you’re that pervert from earlier, huh?”
“P-p-pervert?! I am no such thing!”
“Did you or did you not say - and I quote - ‘I want to feel your insides’ to a total stranger?”
Jess didn’t answer, but merely stared back at her in silence. It wasn’t until that moment that the reality of her situation finally hit her. Looking into those pure-white eyes made her realize that the one she was having a spontaneous argument with wasn’t a gnome, but the very thing she came here to find.
And she was having a conversation with it.
“Holy crap!” she screamed with eyes the size of dinner plates. “It’s a sentient golem!”
“Seriously? You realize this NOW?! Unbe-fucken-lievable.”
“It spoke to me! Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod!”
“Oh for the love of-”
“Yo Fizzy, what’s all the racket in here?!”
The 2-meter-tall, woman-shaped battering ram called Lola poked her head into the still smoldering smithy. Ironically, she wasn’t referring to the botched explosion from earlier. The elf had, much like the rest of the 3rd Legion, already grown accustomed to such disturbances and weren’t worried about Fizzy’s safety in the slightest. After all, that golem was already infamous for surviving what her squadmates referred to as ‘The Spicy Meatball Incident’ during the siege at Fort Yimin. The mere thought that a simple explosion could injure or even faze her was just preposterous.
“We got a screamer,” said Fizzy while gesturing towards the gnome that was currently losing her shit. “Can you take care of her? I can’t focus on my work like this.”
“Sure thing, Fizzy. Come on, you. Out you go.”
The black-haired elf grabbed the gnome by the scruff of her neck and led her outside the smithy despite her protests. The pair were given a few knowing looks as Lola nonchalantly carried Jess across the street and into the house that served as the Warrior’s assigned quarters. Incidentally, all the windows had been shattered and boarded up as a direct result of Fizzy’s ‘experiments,’ so the inside was rather murky and dark.
Once Jess had calmed down somewhat, Lola finally stopped treating her like luggage and both of them took a seat. The elf then started explaining the golem’s circumstances. About how she had been on the run from the Empire after her parents were killed earlier that year. About how her life was saved by the God she now serves. About the curse she willingly bore as atonement for past sins. Technically speaking, even if 90% of the details were omitted, everything the golem had revealed about her backstory was true. Even the part about her ‘sins’ had a nugget of truth in it, as the former gnome still felt a certain degree of guilt over her betrayal of Boxxy on that fateful day in her shop.
“I see…” said Jess after hearing the heavily filtered tale.
She had completely failed to consider the fact that Fizzy might not be ‘just a golem.’ That’s why she had spoken to her as crassly as she did in front of the gate in the first place. Back then, and even until about 30 minutes ago, she seriously wanted to dissect her, take her apart and see how she was put together - all to sate her own curiosity. She quite literally couldn’t help herself, as this was her first time even hearing about, let alone meeting an honest-to-goodness mithril golem. In fact, some part of her still wanted to pry open her chassis, but her moral standards would never allow such a cruel thing.
“I’ve done something incredibly rude, haven’t I?” she asked while looking at her feet, guilt written all over her face.
Lola crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair.
“Well, she won’t hold it against you, so don’t worry about it,” stated the elf. “Her… religious persuasion and, uh, monster-like disposition make her act out sometimes, but she means well. All you have to do is keep in mind that somewhere beneath all that heavy metal beats the heart of a living, breathing and caring person.”
The aspiring Artificer felt the need to make a comment how golems were not alive, did not breathe, and most definitely did not have hearts.
“Yeah, I will. Thanks.”
Still, even she wasn’t socially inept enough to say something so crass. Instead, she chose to inquire about something else she was curious about.
“Uhm, could you tell me her name?”
“I already said it was Fizzy, didn’t I?”
“No, not her alias, I mean her actual, given name.”
“... Now look here, Jess,” said Lola in a stern voice, “her name is Fizzy, and that’s who she is. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“But… I mean…”
Lola scratched her nose, as the gnome in front of her clearly wasn’t willing to let the matter be.
“Look, she doesn’t like others calling her by her actual name, alright? If you want to know that badly, then ask her yourself. Just don’t blame me for anything that happens.”
“Blame for what?”
The golem in question casually entered the room, the floorboards creaking under her considerable weight. Unlike her previous two meetings with Jess, however, Fizzy actually had clothes on this time. Namely a set of brown overalls that hung loosely from one shoulder. The work shirt she wore was ripped up on the left side to allow her arm to pass through and a pair of belts immediately below and above her shapely breasts kept the half-destroyed garment in place.
It was an outfit nearly identical to the one she had on when she first became a golem, complete with the rather obvious lack of underwear. No matter how many variations or combinations she tried since, this was somehow the only look she truly felt comfortable in. Other than being totally nude, of course.
Jess slid off the chair that was a bit too big for her and put her hands together with a slight bow, almost as if she was praying.
“Please forgive me for my rude behavior! I didn’t know about your circumstances and I-”
“Easy there, munchkin,” said the golem. “What you did back there? You weren’t the first and you definitely won’t be the last, so let’s just put all that stuff behind us and get down to business.”
Fizzy sat down cross-legged on the floor with her hands on her knees. Understanding the gesture, Jess quickly mirrored her example. This was the gnomish equivalent of shaking hands - a gesture of good faith when meeting someone else for the first time.
“So, who are you anyway?” asked the golem.
“My name is Jessiwick Wobblebang. I’m an Artificer that was hired to assist in the city’s defense.”
“I’m Fizzy. Paladin, Artificer and Golem, currently in service to the 3rd Legion. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
With the official introductions out of the way, Fizzy moved onto the meat of the matter.
“Please, call me Jess.”
“Alright then, Jess - why did you approach me in the first place?”
“Uhm… I guess I’m just interested in you. I mean, purely academic, of course! It’s just that something keeps nagging at me to find out how you’re put together - what makes you tick! I mean, I’ve never even thought golems like you existed! You’re just way too fascinating!”
“Oh, I totally get you! I mean, there’s no denying that I’m pretty awesome, right?!”
“Oh boy, here we go,” mumbled Lola while resting her face in her palms.
“Even though it’s my own body, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it! Like, take for example the joints and mechanisms that move my fingers around! I’ve had these bad boys for months and I’m still amazed at how smoothly and efficiently they operate! It’s downright hypnotizing, I tell you! Why, just last night I ended up staring at my hands for 3 hours!”
“Well, that aside,” said Jess nervously, “could I ask for your real name?”
The golem’s excited face froze for a second, then slowly deformed into a peeved one. She eyed Jess up and down and then gave a defeated sigh. If a gnome truly wanted to know something they were curious about, then they would find it out eventually.
“What the hell, might as well get it over with,” she consented. “I don’t go by it anymore, but my given name is Cornie Fizzlesprocket.”
“Fizzlesprocket!? As in the Fizzlesprocket clan?!”
Lola was taken aback by Jess’s overreaction, although Fizzy seemed to have more or less expected it.
“Yeah, that Fizzlesprocket,” she confirmed.
“Oh wow! It’s such an honor!”
“I don’t get it, is it really that big a deal?” asked the dumbfounded elf.
“Yeah it is!” insisted Jess. “The Fizzlesprockets were among the first generation of Artificers, and had been tinkering and building gizmos long before the Job came into existence! And if that wasn’t enough, they’re also the ones that brought the Arclight Artificer specialization into the world 34 years ago! I mean, they don’t hold as much political influence as the Castmaster clan, but they’re widely considered to be at the forefront of Artificers! In fact, Rory Fizzlesprocket was considered to be the most likely candidate for the first Level 100 Artificer before he left Horkensaft for… the… Empire… Oh.”
A grim realization dawned on Jess. Indeed, the Fizzlesprocket name carried a good amount of weight within the tinkering community. That’s why even someone like Jess was aware that there was only one person who carried that distinguished name beyond the borders of her home country. Add to that Lola’s story and Fizzy’s apparent age and, well, it didn’t take a genius to put two and two together.
“I’m, uh, sorry for your loss.”
“Hmm? What’s this now?”
“Your father, he’s… dead. Isn’t he?”
“Oh. Yeah, he is.”
“You seem… oddly okay with this.”
“It was a long while ago. Besides, my father was a fool. His idiotic views were the reason why our branch of the clan was disowned by the head house in the first place.”
“They did what?!”
“Oh yeah, we didn’t leave Horkensaft. We were practically forced out of it!”
“I… I’m sorry, I didn’t know!”
“Look, I don’t wanna get into politics or dig around the past - both of those are a huge waste of my time as well as yours. If you wanna talk about something worthwhile, then make it snappy. I have somewhere to be.”
“Right, yes, of course! Then, uh, if you don’t mind me asking, what is it you were working on back there?”
“I was preparing a custom set of Boom-tubes for a friend of mine.”
“You mean those explosive arrowheads they’ve had us making for the past week?”
“Probably. Why? Got a problem with ‘em?”
“No, not at all! Just the opposite, actually! The schematics we were provided with were absolutely beautiful and well-documented! The instructions were so thorough that even the idiots that came with me had learned to make them in less than a day! Whoever designed those things was a genius!”
As an explosive nut herself, Jess felt particularly exhilarated to be working with something like that.
“Huhuhuhu, well that much is only natural. I am pretty brilliant, after all!”
“C-could it be!? You invented them?!”
“You know it! Well, the idea came from someone else, but I was the one to put it into practice!”
“That’s seriously amazing! As expected of a Fizzle-”
“Will you shut up, Plus?!” shouted Fizzy, causing Jess to swallow her words of praise.
“Yes, I know, but we still have some time right?” she continued while staring at an empty spot to her left. “Okay, yeah, but how often do I get to meet someone who truly appreciates my creations?!”
Jess looked to Lola, who was giving her a ‘don’t get me started’ look while gently shaking her head.
“Oh! That could work! Let’s go with that then,” said Fizzy as she arrived at some sort of agreement. “No, you can’t do something like that!”
Well, at least until she resumed arguing with herself.
“Because that would be retarded. And I am not retarded, am I? Yeah, didn’t think so!”
The seemingly unstable golem stood up and went for the door, but suddenly stopped and drooped her shoulders.
“Oh, alright, fine! But not tonight. We’ll do it sometime tomorrow, okay? Okay.”
The golem looked over her shoulder at the aggressively neutral-faced elf and the hyperactive gnome who was opening and closing her mouth even though no words came out.
“Hey Lola, you coming with or what?”
“You know it.”
“Jess, what about you?”
“Uhm… I- that is- Where- What- Who-”
“She’s coming, yes,” interrupted the towering elf as she stood from her seat. “And she’s going to be very quiet and respectful while she’s with us. Right?”
“Yes! Of course!”
After instantly succumbing to Lola’s intimidating tone, Jess rose from the floor and silently followed after the other two even though she had no idea what was going on. As the trio stepped out of the murky house, however, the gnome had her breath stolen away by Fizzy. The golem had understandably cleaned herself of that disgusting black soot, but it wasn’t until she stood in the sunlight that Jess understood just how thorough she had actually been.
Fizzy wasn’t just clean - she was absolutely spotless. She had completely and thoroughly rid herself of even the tiniest speck of griminess, leaving behind nothing but lustrous, polished mithril. Her skin was so smooth, so pure that Jess could see her own reflection staring back at her in blinding detail.
The sunlight that bounced off her frame was so bright that it bathed her surroundings in a warm, gentle light. Her radiance was so extraordinary that even Lola - who had obviously known her for a while - couldn’t help but marvel at it. It even made the clean-yet-simple clothes she wore look like a high-class outfit worth thousands of gold pieces.
Jess eventually realized that what she was doing was extremely rude and turned her eyesight away from the back of Fizzy’s head. She was, of course, completely unaware of the fact that the golem actually genuinely enjoyed brazen, awe-filled stares like hers. The ignorant blonde gnome wiped the drool from the edge of her mouth and looked around as if to get her bearings.
“Are we going towards the central plaza?” she asked Lola.
The vast square in question was roughly 60 by 120 meters and also pretty much the only landmark in the entire city. One could easily find it at any time due to the repurporsed city hall building, a trio of grain silos and a stone tower that belonged to some adventurer guild, all of which were built around it. Those structures were without question the tallest ones in the city and could easily be seen from street level.
“Yeah,” confirmed the elf. “We’re gonna meet up with someone we know.”
“Oh, okay. But, uh, why did you insist that I come along?”
Lola’s stoic face took on a rather uncharacteristically worried face.
“Well, to be honest, Fizzy has been a bit down in the dumps lately, even though she hides it well. I just thought making a new friend might cheer her up.”
“Really? She seems pretty cheerful already, doesn’t she?”
Indeed, the faint ‘muffin man’ lines coming from the golem in front gave Jess the distinct impression she was smiling happily even though she couldn’t see her face.
“Well, yeah, but today’s kind of a special day. What about tomorrow? Or the day after? We all need good companions to keep us grounded, and I doubt anyone can relate to her as well as you could.”
“If you say so…”
“What? You don’t like her or something?”
“Nonono! Nothing like that! I would totally love to get to know her better! Er, as long as she’s okay with it, of course!”
“I don’t mind, just keep your filthy meatbag fingers to yourself, yeah?” called out Fizzy from in front. “I really hate stains, you see.”
This was a point that Jess could wholeheartedly agree on. Sullying that impeccable frame with her oily fingers almost seemed like a crime against nature.
“Oh, wow,” exclaimed Lola in a rather subdued way. “She must like you quite a bit.”
“H-how can you tell?!”
“She’s known you for a whole fifteen minutes before she called you a filthy meatbag. That must be a record,” claimed the elf with an approving nod.
The trio continued walking in relative silence for several more minutes until they reached their destination. The plaza was still as huge, unroofed and crowded as the day Jess got here. If she was the same as she was back then, this sort of environment would have her hyperventilating and looking for a rock to crawl under. This Jessiwick Wobblebang was a different person, however. A little older, a little wiser, and dealing with so much shit that it made her agoraphobia seem like a pleasant memory.
“See? We made it just in time,” stated Fizzy, probably to herself. “Yeah, I know, I’ll take care of it later.”
Make that definitely to herself.
As to what they were in time for, that was plainly obvious. The large archway of stone and vines in the middle of the plaza - the very same Forest Gate that all of them had arrived through - was currently warming up. As usual there was a crowd of people, wagons and guards on one side of it as they waited for the teleportation circle to activate. Fizzy, Jess and Lola went to stand at the edge of the designated arrivals’ area just in time for the magic device to begin ripping open a hole in space. Although the spectacle of a gigantic portal had surprised Jess the first time she saw it, she had already grown used it to it. She was also silently praying to whatever gods might be listening that nothing weird or bizarre came out of that portal.
Unfortunately for her, the only deity that might have cared about such a wish was actually quite partial to shenanigans. And indeed, said shenanigans had occurred mere seconds after the Forest Gate came online.
*THUM THUM THUM THUM THUM*
A dull thumping noise echoed repeatedly throughout the buzzing plaza as row after row after row of dwarves exited the portal in perfect step. They were well-disciplined, extremely organized and armed almost literally to the teeth. Not only that, but each and every one of them wore matching full-plate armor that was as dark as charcoal, save for the allegiance-marking silver tabards draped over their chests.
“Independent mercenaries,” stated Lola, as if sensing Jess’s confusion.
“... I’m pretty sure those are my country’s armed forces, miss Lola.”
Indeed, there was not a single citizen of Horkensaft that would not immediately recognize the sounds of the Obsidian March.
“... Experienced independent mercenaries,” insisted the elf.
“No, no, no, there’s no way- You know what, nevermind.”
There were obviously some political goings on at work here, but Jess knew better than to open that particular can of worms. Instead, she simply looked on with a mix of awe and nostalgia as exactly 1,200 of her countrymen passed by her in an orderly fashion. She even waved to them as if they were doing a parade, although none of the men responded to her or the other onlookers who were doing the same.
“Oh? Here she comes!”
As for Fizzy, she wasn’t even registering their existence.
“Here who comes?”
The golem’s genuinely excited voice caused both Jess and Lola’s attentions to shift towards the portal once more. However, the only thing the gnome saw was the disorderly convoy of carts that had arrived alongside the dwarves. Compared to that inspiring march, there really didn’t seem to be anything of interest on that side. In fact, they were so unimportant in her eyes that she barely even realized they were there until just now.
And yet she easily spotted the person in question. How could she not? It was a head of fiery red hair that was thoroughly designed to be instantly recognizable, topped by a pair of large, triangular ears. The young, tanned girl that owned said marvelous crimson mane momentarily stared directly in the gnome’s direction, after which she broke out into an unrestrained quadruped run. The guards immediately moved as if to block the suspicious individual, but she just idly leaped over them, rolled on the ground and kept running with all haste right towards the shiniest of shinies that ever shined.
The strange catgirl hug-tackled Fizzy with such speed that it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if she had injured herself. However, that didn’t seem to be the case as she eagerly embraced the golem with her whole being. She rubbed her cheek against Fizzy’s, licked her nose, stroked her back and patted her head - all at the same time. As for the one on the receiving end of such extreme skinship - she was giggling with delight. An odd reaction that caused a singular thought to drift into Jess’s mind.
… I wonder if she’d let me do that?