Upon climbing through the door Fizzy had just opened, Boxxy found itself standing at the edge of a worn metal platform overlooking a massive, circular chamber that extended hundreds of meters downward. Various pipes and a few dials lined its walls, and the ceiling above was most definitely the underside of that platform the mecha-crab had been sitting on, complete with the automated hinges that opened and closed it.
All of this machinery lay perfectly dormant, with the chamber itself being completely dark aside from the warm light pouring in from the door behind the shapeshifter. It seemed to be in remarkably pristine condition, no doubt because of whatever magic permeated the place. The flow of ambient mana in here had a more orderly and organized feel to it, almost like that inside of a dungeon. However, it didn’t seem to be a dungeon in the way Boxxy was familiar since it hadn’t been ‘greeted’ by it. Perhaps it was so old that it was some kind of prototype dungeon that didn’t have all of the features and functions that Boxxy’s did?
Snack, Jen, and finally Fizzy filed in through the door afterwards, and the group began descending down the side of the extra-wide shaft underneath. The place got pitch black the further down they went, prompting Boxxy to hand out a few mana-powered glowing crystals to serve as flashlights. Yes, both it and its familiars could see in low light conditions, but Jen and Fizzy struggled with complete darkness like this.
“Aren’t you going to summon back Kora?” the golem inquired as they descended.
“I will, but later,” Boxxy replied. “Having that moron run free in a place like this seems like a terrible idea. She’s liable to hit a button or punch a panel that makes the whole thing go up in smoke.”
“Good call… Still, who could’ve built this? And how?”
The tech didn’t seem to be all that impressive. It was rudimentary and simple, but that was probably why it had endured for so long all the way at the bottom of the ocean. That was by today’s standards, though. It was definitely centuries, maybe even millenia ahead of its time when it was first built. Judging from what Fizzy could see by dragging her hand down the shaft’s wall, whoever was responsible had done an incredible job of it. There was not one bolt, pipe, gear, or wire that was out of place. If this place was operational, it would be so flawlessly efficient that Null would probably cream herself. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
“I think we’re about to find out,” Boxxy declared. “We’re almost at the bottom.”
The metal-clad passage abruptly opened up into a spacious yet cramped chamber. It was large enough to fit an entire factory or two in it, and that was precisely what someone had done. Conveyor belts, mechanical arms, part bins, and half-assembled ‘products’ stretched out in a complicated labyrinthine weave, all of them literally frozen in place.
Despite this being in a volcanic region, everything in this ancient workshop had iced over. The freezing was clearly unnatural considering just how organized it was. A ten-centimeter thick layer of perfectly smooth and clear ice covered every surface, tool, and part, almost as if someone had packaged the place. The water itself was nowhere near close to freezing temperatures, compounding the theory that this state of affairs was intentional rather than incidental.
At least the odd ice made it easy to deduce that this place had clearly been manufacturing war golems en-masse. Heads, arms, legs, torsos, cannons, blades, and all manner of other evidence was on display along the assembly lines, making the place seem like a museum of sorts. Fizzy clearly wasn’t taking this easily. She had believed herself thoroughly unique for years, yet that torpedo golem and now this frozen gallery made her feel disturbingly pedestrian. She refrained from voicing any idle complaints, though. Once this was all over she’d simply state she felt underappreciated, and a certain someone would immediately resolve that issue.
“Master, I think I see a light,” Xera reported. “Over there, behind that corner.”
Boxxy looked towards where she was pointing, instantly noticing the faint red glow in the sea of darkness. Fizzy and Jen shone their lights towards it, revealing a square corridor with rails on the floor. The group proceeded towards the disturbance silently and carefully, wary of any other guardians this mechanical tomb might have. What they found instead was a giant gaping hole in the wall with an underwater lake of bubbling magma on the other side.
It would appear not even this sunken and buried fortress had been able to hold back nature’s fury forever. Volcanic pressure had, at some point, burst in from the outside, resulting in a rush of lava invading the hallway. Bits of once-molten rock littered the place, making spots in the weird ice layer that covered everything. Magma had pooled in a pit of slag and stone in the floor, but it had gone thoroughly inert by now. The pocket of lava visible through the hole in the wall was still bright-hot, though.
Having found the source of the weird light, Boxxy turned its attention to the room itself. Though the interior eruption had ruined much of it, it seemed to have once been a warehouse of sorts. Massive shelves lined the walls, those still intact and encased in ice prominently displayed a number of spherical devices about sixty centimeters in diameter. Several of them had been tipped over by the volcanic invasion, causing a number of the spheres to be ‘washed out’ into the river of magma just outside.
Or at least that’s what Boxxy assumed, considering the ones on the ground seemed too few to fill up the collapsed shelves.
“Are these golem cores?” Jen asked pointedly.
“Almost, but not quite,” the shapeshifter declared.
“Yeah, they look like they were designed to open up somehow. See the latches here and here?” Fizzy pointed out. “Golem cores don’t have those.”
The Monk leaned in for a closer look, her gaze affixed on one of the orbs half-encrusted in cooled magma on the ground. She thoughtlessly stretched out her arm - the one that had been exposed by that crab’s final attack. She was just about to touch the thing when Boxxy realized what she was doing and promptly pulled her away from the creepy metal ball by the wings.
This immediately proved to be the right call when the thing suddenly sprang to life with a grating whirr. It broke free of its resting place and opened up down the middle like some sort of ball-shaped mimic, its tooth-filled maw snapping shut on the space where Jen had been moments ago. Fizzy wasted no time and blasted the thing with her arm-cannon, but it showed no reaction to the magical plasma-like substance that splashed over it. It didn’t melt, scream, or move. It just stood there as perfectly still as it had been for an uncountable amount of years.
“The fuck was that?!” the golem shrieked.
“A trap, obviously,” Boxxy grumbled, then turned to its bird-brained subordinate. “Obviously,” it repeated. “What sort of moron just goes up and touches a suspicious object of unconfirmed origin found at the bottom of an ancient ruin? Seriously, are you trying to get yourself cursed? Or worse?! I expected better from you, Jen! This is precisely what I was talking about when I said I didn’t want Arms down here!”
“… Expressing regret and admitting fault,” Jen replied after a few shocked moments. “Reporting that it is unknown what came over me.”
She was clearly shaken, seeing as how she’d reverted to that insufferable speech pattern of hers. She seemed to do that whenever she was nervous or uneasy.
“I have a hunch,” the shapeshifter calmed itself. “It’s an Allure enchantment. A potent one, at that.”
The magical property in question manifested itself as a sort of hypnotic effect that compelled one to touch, grab, or break something. It was most commonly used to bait a trap, and was sometimes found on cursed items. In fact, the Profanus Gloria, the golden goblet produced by the Ritual of Unholy Wealth, had a particularly powerful one attached to it, but this weird ball was not to be underestimated either.
After all, it had affected a Level 100 Monk. Admittedly her MNT wasn’t something spectacular, but she was still a Scribe with the Domination Resistance Skill. She was also the only one susceptible to the subtle manipulation. Fizzy was a golem, Xera was a demon, and Boxxy had Legendary Mentality, so Jen truly had been the odd one out in this specific situation.
“So… is it dead?” the Paladin asked, her Magitech Cannon still trained on the thing.
“It was never alive to begin with. It’s an item, not a golem.”
Or at least that was what the Eyes of the Dead God were telling it.
“Oh, I see. It’s some kind of automata made to react to living things.”
“Probably. This place certainly has the potential to make something like this.”
“Yeah, but why? Surely it’s not something as simple as a glorified bear trap.”
“That’s a good point,” Boxxy nodded. “Let’s step back so I can try something.”
The group retreated to around the corner, after which the shapeshifter took a moment to produce a corporeal body double with Mirror Image. It then had its clone transform into a knockoff krymer and swim over. It grabbed the troublesome metal ball, but nothing happened. Seeing as that failed to spring the trap, Boxxy sighed and went for plan B.
“Snack, go get eaten by that thing.”
“I thought you’d never ask!”
Xera surged forward almost as if she’d known this would happen and straight up embraced the strange orb. Now that an actual living being with a soul was once more within its reach, the thing pounced on her and slammed its mechanical jaws clamped shut around her torso like some kind of much-too-small tortoise shell. What followed was a mess of bubbles, whirring, blood, screaming, and moaning as the mechanism gradually unfolded itself to replace Xera’s fleshy bits with its own metallic parts. It was like a gruesome jigsaw puzzle, though the djinn’s body gave out and expired long before it was done. Her conjured flesh vanished shortly afterwards, leaving nothing behind but the lower half of the world’s sluttiest war golem. Clearly ill-equipped to deal with this turn of events, the machine sputtered and rattled to a stop, after which a weird glowing blue liquid leaked out of it and into the surrounding water.
“I see. So that’s how Nora became a golem,” Boxxy declared confidently.
“You… sure about that?” Fizzy questioned it. “I mean, yeah, the thing was definitely turning that pervert into a war golem, but there’s no way that silver harlot made it down here.”
Not only was the facility completely sealed, but she’d have never made it to the bottom of the trenches as a helpless disease-ridden glass-boned meatbag.
“Maybe not, but one of these things could have found its way to the surface,” Boxxy pointed at the hole in the wall. “These golem eggs are clearly superbly durable, seeing as neither the lava it had been encased in nor your plasma shot had broken it.”
It seemed more than feasible that some sort of magma current could have carried the ones that had spilled into the breach into the Trenches while leaving their internal mechanisms intact. Nora had most likely happened upon one by chance when she had visited the region in her desperation, and the physical trauma of the conversion had clouded her memories of the event. In fact, CR-4B might have been like that as well, and was only guarding this place because it had made its lair on top of it.
Fizzy understood all that, and agreed with it for the most part, but she still took issue with a certain something Boxxy had said.
“We are not calling them ‘golem eggs,’” she stated firmly.
“This coming from the Artificer that named her invention after a sex toy?” Boxxy pointed out.
“I- Th-that was- You suck!”
“Quite. Now let’s grab a few of these eggs for the road and go explore the rest of the place.”
Fizzy raised a finger as if to protest, but quickly gave up. Boxxy totally had that ‘found a new toy’ look in its eye. Arguing with it when it was like this was about as effective as digging a well with a toothpick. Jen had been sulking quietly in the background this entire time like a freshly spanked child and seemed unwilling to offer any opinion on the matter. With nobody to stop it, the shapeshifter had its body double safely deposit two of the unfrozen ‘eggs’ into its Storage. That taken care of, it resummoned Xera - just in case another scapegoat was needed - and replaced her diving equipment with spares from its Storage. It then beckoned the harpy over and the group delved deeper into the golem factory.
After ten minutes of nearly getting lost in the maze-like conveyors, shafts, and corridors, Boxxy finally found something that looked to be of importance. It was a circular desk-like thing resting at the floor of the mansion-sized central chamber. Thousands of buttons, dials, and switches of various shapes and sizes covered it from end-to-end. Of particular note was a big, red, and square-shaped button in the middle of it all. All of this had been safely frozen beneath that thick layer of ice, making it impossible to operate any of these controls without melting or breaking something.
Not that Boxxy had any intention of doing that, of course. It was just looking around for anything else it could loot without unleashing some sort of ancient evil war golem army. Or at least it had been at first, but its deeply curious nature refused to let things be until it had figured out exactly what was going on around here. And, more importantly, how it could be turned to its advantage, if at all. Not the easiest thing to do by just looking and not touching, but not impossible.
After investigating the stupidly complicated control panel more thoroughly, it noticed a small plaque of some sort had been bolted on the side of it, near the base. The engravings on it had been wonderfully preserved beneath the ice, but they made no sense to the shapeshifter. They looked like a collection of various lines, dots, and brackets, completely unlike any other script it had ever seen. However, the repeating patterns here and there seemed to imply this was, indeed, a form of written language.
And as luck would have it, it just so happened to have a language expert on hand.
“Snack, can you translate this?”
Boxxy moved to the side, allowing Xera plenty of room to bend over on all fours and get a closer look at the plaque.
“It seems I can, Master,” she confidently stated. “My Versatile Tongue Skill identified this writing as an ancient language called Cogton.”
“What does it say?”
“It appears to be a poem of sorts, Master. Or perhaps a song?”
“Read it aloud.”
“I… do not think I can make these sounds without a rock and a cheese grater, Master.”
“I meant translate it, you worthless twat!”
It then elbow-dropped onto her spine, sending shivers of deliciously numbing pain all the way down to her toes.
“Hnnn!” she bit back a moan. “Y-yes, Master.”
Xera gathered her wits while Fizzy rolled her eyes while Jen put her utmost effort into not touching anything. It wasn’t another Allure enchantment messing with her, she just really wanted to click some switches and buttons. In any event, she held herself back stoically as the djinn cleared her throat and started reading aloud.
“Our receptors witness glory from the burning of the flame,
The fires of the forge are like the trumpets which proclaim,
Our engines at full power, total conquest is our aim.
Our Truth has come online.”
“… It rhymes?” Fizzy raised a mechanized eyebrow. “Why does it rhyme?”
“She did say it was a poem or something,” Boxxy shrugged.
“Yeah, but it’s translated. It shouldn’t rhyme if it’s directly translated… right?”
“… Good point. Snack?”
“I’m just saying what the Skill tells me, Master,” she shrugged. “I would say it’s doing its job a little too well, that’s all.”
The ability in question didn’t quite make the user fluent in nearly a dozen languages, not exactly. It was more accurate to say that it acted as a highly advanced automated translator. It clearly had a mental component since it could even account for dialects, context, and other things one wouldn’t find in a simple dictionary.
“I see. Carry on, then,” Boxxy decided.
“Yes, Master. Let me just find where I left off…”
The djinn tracked her finger across the ice covering the plaque, muttering the first verse under her breath until she arrived at the next one.
“With heat and iron and industry we'll purge flesh from this world,
It will sunder, melt, and shatter from the bolts of wrath we've hurled,
And upon its ruined end, our steel grey banners stand unfurled,
Our Might has come online.”
Fizzy kept glancing around, unable to shake the increasingly nagging feeling that she was being watched by someone. Well, someone other than Clinton, at least.
“Orcs, Undead and Heretic - they are as one to us,
We will scorch them from existence with our engines devious,
Our hate for them encoded into every bolt and truss,
Our Wrath has come online.”
Jen raised an eyebrow at the mention of ‘heretic,’ and another one when she noticed the syllable count was rather inconsistent. Neither of those seemed worth commenting on, though.
“Golems striding forward, war machinery by the score,
They will drown out the blasphemers 'neath their great mechanic roar,
Blessed metal is our bulwark, it endures forever more,
Our Victory comes online.”
Boxxy finally began to wonder whether it was a good idea to speak what was now clearly a religious text of some kind aloud. Certain words had power beyond their sounds and meaning, after all. Then again, this wasn’t spoken in ‘Cogton’ or whatever, so it was probably fine.
However, still unbeknownst to the shapeshifter, a certain divine Skill had been making the improbable far more likely than the probable for several days now.
“Engage the linkage, blessed Udar,
Our Victory comes online.”
The group leapt to their feet on high alert as something deep beneath the ground thumped itself awake. This was followed by a distant chugging sound, which was instantly drowned out by a sharp noise that sounded a lot like the stone and cheese grater the djinn had mentioned earlier. This aggressive drone petered out a few moments later, leaving the group nearly deaf.
A deep, metallic voice then echoed throughout the facility, its tone flat and cold.
“Holy War Chant of the Cult Automata - confirmed,” it continued. “Startup rites - commencing.”
“Uhhhh! Boxxy?!” Fizzy nearly screamed.
“Just don’t panic,” the shapeshifter urged her. “Whatever this is has much bigger problems than us.”
“Warning: Multiple hull breaches detected. Warning: Structural integrity compromised. Warning: Operational efficiency below zero-point-one percent.”
“See? It’s more concerned with itself than-”
“Warning: Unauthorized entities detected. Sonic countermeasures now in effect.”
It then let out another robotic screech that seemed to put cracks in the ice that covered every square millimeter of this place before it abated.
“Okay,” Boxxy nodded. “Now you can panic.”