“No, I… I don’t need you to carry me,” I managed to grunt to the green girl. “Just- Maru could need some hel-”
“You’re about to faint, Edward,” Lima said as she made a noticeable effort to avoid meeting my gaze. She was breathing heavily, and the words weren’t coming as easily to her as they should have either. “I don’t know what she did, but something is going on… and you’ll need help if it starts attacking anyway.”
I couldn’t blame the girl for having difficulties interacting with me. Hell, more distance between us probably was for the best. I had been on the verge of killing her a few moments ago, and though I had thankfully not been able to follow that impulse, she had to have sensed it somehow.
The fact that the girl was able to put it all aside and keep her efforts focused on improving our chances of victory was a testament of how determined to survive she was.
Maru’s keeping her shit together too, and I need to do the same, I thought. For now, at least. Then we’ll have to talk, Ikun Omi.
There were so many benefits to being young again that I rarely missed my older body. But in my first moments back from being a djin, all I could think of was that at the very least, a broken body couldn’t feel pain this intensely.
We reached a compromise with me being held up with an arm flung across her shoulders. It was inconvenient because of her height, but I was struggling to stay conscious and being picked up like a princess would only make the task more difficult.
On Yaga’s stage, now a warped oasis at the center of a spinning sea of crackling flames, noises were muffled and the three of us were standing still.
I was still alive and the girls had taken care of the witch’s hideous hands, but there was no time for us to rest just yet. Even if I couldn’t feel the heat, the sweat and coughing from my comrades said enough about how they were faring. We had to leave this hellhole as soon as possible.
In front of Maru was a tall woman sitting with her legs pulled under her and her hands joined in a silent prayer. Her otherworldly features alone almost made her seem as out of place as the bright red words floating right above her heads.
Doll of the Beautiful
She’s the fukin’ boss?
“Glad to see that you guys won. How bad is it?” the red-haired girl said with a quick glance my way. Her sword was pointed at the praying woman, and the visible tension of her body made her relaxed tone sound even more forced.
“It’s…” I heard Lima hesitate. “He’ll be fine if we get help soon. Maru… What’s going on? The witch-”
“The witch never was the boss,” Maru said with the same oddly calm voice. “Well she might be now, but until we get some confirmation, this… thing is the boss of Yaga’s Forest,” she added with a wave of her sword toward the praying woman.
“Okay…” the huntress whispered with confusion, before repeating with more assurance, “Okay. How come it’s not attacking? What do we do?”
The mix of desperation and frustration in her voice made it sound like she would have actually preferred for the named creature to mindlessly attack us without any further delay. And maybe that really was what she hoped.
After all, the goal in a fight usually was a simple one: winning. This unforeseen situation, on the other hand, only created more stress when she was way past the point of wanting anything but the end of this day.
And this was supposed to be the last step before the end, I thought. The boss, and then Balrosh.
Maru simply shrugged.
“Not sure, I am attempting an alternative clearing method. We know that Yaga wanted it gone, so at least there is a good reason to keep it here as long as it stays inoffensive… I think. I was hoping for Edward to inspect it but… I guess he is the one in need of inspecting right now.”
There was silence.
“An alternative…” Lima repeated with boiling disbelief. “This isn’t the time to be trying things. This isn’t some epic, some story people will tell around campfires! Did you lose your damned mind!?”
The delver frowned, but otherwise ignored the girl’s frustration and kept her focus on the Doll of the Beautiful, allowing me to cut in.
“I’m not dead yet,” My throat was as dry as sandpaper, but at least my words made sense. “But you’ll have… to be more clear. What do you want me to do?”
“Really?” exasperated, she waved the tip of her blade toward the boss. “Sure, Edward, there is no need to still pretend that you are human after… all this,” she gave a half-hearted wave at the torrent of fire overhead, “but it is clearly trying to speak and, out of the three of us, you still seem like the most knowledgeable about machines.”
I had far too little energy to feel insulted by how little she thought of humans, so my brain completely dismissed the first half her comment.
Why even mention machines?
“Can you hear me, user?”
A strange question suddenly asked by a familiar voice would have confused me at any time, but the effect was even greater when I realized that it came from the dungeon’s boss.
Though the only other boss I had “met” had also been able to hold a conversation, it had turned out to be the failed re-creation of an Old God of this world, determined to free itself from the bowels of a mountain. Hopefully, this one would be easier to deal with.
Hopefully, I thought. I can’t even see straight.
Giving the Doll of the Beautiful a better look allowed me to understand why Maru thought me better suited to interact with it, even if my racial trait really was the only advantage I had over these kids regarding technology.
Not just a tall woman, I thought as I studied its appearance. An advanced robot? Or were they called android?
The Doll was a machine, and not just any kind. There was a grace to its posture, and a pull to its presence. Even I could tell that each line carved in her alabaster skin served some purpose.
Though it was perfectly still, I could sense the intensity of her inner workings, a soft buzzing that was only a byproduct of an unknown number of functions and spell operating simultaneously, with infinite precision, all for it to be able to exist.
All of it happening quietly behind an elegant design that I probably wasn’t worth appreciating. But it was the kind of beauty that sobered one up.
No, it couldn’t be just any machine. Standing that close to it felt like being in the same room as things like biological weapons, or armed nukes. Manmade Pandora boxes that arguably transcended their creators because of an ability to reshape humanity’s shared consciousness through how permanently they could alter the physical world.
The Witch and the Doll were keeping each other in check, I realized. And now that the other one is weakened, the Doll is free.
“User, can you hear me?” it repeated with its eyes still closed.
Though I was now close enough to tell that it was digitalized, I recognized the voice as the one I had heard asking for help as we progressed through the dungeon. Back then, I had dismissed it as the wailing of lost souls dwelling in the forest. However, now that I could hear it clearly, it sounded more like the firm voice was demanding my assistance.
No wonder no one else heard it. They can’t hear machines.
Now that I thought about it, Maru and Lima barely seemed intimidated by the boss. It was very likely that the awe I felt at the blurry sight of the Doll of the Beautiful was caused by my “Technomancer” racial trait. And if that was the case, maybe the situation wasn’t so dire.
“I can,” I finally replied. “I heard you ask for help.”
Maru opened her mouth to speak, but Lima stopped her with a raised hand.
The doll slightly tilted its head, startling the three of us with the sudden movement.
But it only spoke, “Good. I was beginning to suspect a trick, as I cannot detect a single augment in your body. Truly, this chance encounter must bear the touch of The Process, as the probabilities of a hippie being our salvation were low enough to be disregarded.”
Another insult, I noted in the privacy of my mind before blurting out, “What do you want?”
“By destroying her hearts, you and your comrades have allowed me to gain the upper hand in my fight against the aberration,” the machine declared, confirming my suspicions. Of the gorgeous mask it used as a face, the lips were the only part that moved when it spoke. “However, the one in need of help is my master, held captive for no reason besides her perfection. I have managed to protect her from the aberration, but I have been doing so for a long time, and her organic limitations make me fear for her health.”
As I listened to the Doll, I found myself wondering if the concern she expressed really was nothing but a clever emulation performed by a program.
It would be tragic otherwise.
“However, I do wonder,” the Doll continued. “In your current state, how did you survive in base reality?”
I could only answer with a blank stare.
Surviving in base reality? The hell is that supposed to mean?
“Edward?” Lima called next to my ear. “Something wrong?”
She sounded tense, and Maru was listening to me with matching focus.
I must have made a weird face, I thought.
Which was understandable, considering how, for all I knew, our three lives depended on the outcome of this conversation. I had to guide it toward safer subjects.
“It’s ok,” I said to the girls. “Just give me some time.”
But there was no time left.
“Verbal communication is inefficient,” the Doll said. “Requesting permission to set up Mental Root Access Connection.”
Yeah, that’s a no for sure. I wasn’t sure what Mental Root Access Connection meant, but any request with the words “mental” and “connection” from the boss of a dungeon couldn’t possibly be trustworthy.
A notification window popped up in front of me, however, it was covered by another one so fast that I didn’t even get the time to read it. The second one read “Request canceled”.
“Did you… change your mind?” I asked.
The machine tilted its head by a few more degrees lower, “The request triggered my anti-malware and self-preservation protocols,” it said matter of factly. “It seems like your mind has been severely infected, quarantine is recommended.”
“Well, I’ll pass on that,” I said. “But I heard your request for help and it seems like something my partners and I can handle. As you can tell, they can’t hear machines… Could you make it so that th-”
“I am an Inquisitor of the Nova,” it interrupted. “I am more, so much more than a machine. I am sentient,” the Doll said with enough emphasis on the last word for me to just accept that she was saying the truth. Not that a thinking machine could phase me at that point. “Your mind is a Trojan horse for potential threats to city centers and unprotected people. Within any other parameters, I would have already smitten you where you stand!”
Her words as a relic left by the humans of the past picked my interest. This dungeon, or at least the story it contained, seemed to date from a time before this world had been turned upside down, but I didn’t have time to ask for a history lesson. The Doll of the Beautiful was debating dealing with a perceived threat, and as said threat, I wasn’t going to just wait for an unfavorable decision.
What can I say? Come clean and admit that I was soul bonded to a sword that made regular people lose their mind?
“We probably want the same thing,” I said. “I came from the village outside this forest, Iwin Town. They… asked me to free the girls Yaga took away. If your master is one of them, then helping her is why I got here in the first place.”
The girls exchanged looks. They couldn’t hear the machine and weren’t aware of the quest I had received in Iwin Town. What I had just said had to have sounded like nonsense to them.
“There is no time,” I pressed on. “Will you help us save her?”
It wasn’t an outright lie, but it wasn’t the truth either.
If her master was the host of this dungeon, then she had been dead in the real world for a while already. She had died while her protector was stuck in a deadlock with Yaga, and whatever fragment of herself had remained, it had birthed this perpetual loop of her last moments.
As mere guest actors in her tragedy, it couldn’t hurt to play the part. At the very least, clearing this dungeon would bring them both peace.