Part 5 – Negotiations

"Are you sure we have the time, Sergeant? We have three major tasks to complete before we get moving. Securing or otherwise seeing to the prisoners, determining what to do with our informant, and determining how much time we have."

"I can help with some of that, LT," Pistol reported. "Ambient arcane energy levels have reached ninety percent. Once the levels hit one hundred and ten percent, a dimensional breach is virtually certain. I'll begin formulating a data packet to send to command, and then speak to Red."

"Very well, I'll begin the diagnostic. Sergeant, watch the prisoners with Bass, and Pistol, get that report together. I'll transmit it before we move."

"Yes Sir." And with that, Pistol pivoted Gewnneth, and strode towards Red, George, and Aggrandize.

As the Sergeant opened up his armor and dismounted, he extracted a data cable from a rack by the chest plate hinge, and brought it to the Lieutenant, who had opened up his own armor, but had not dismounted. He handed off the cable, and then retrieved his sidearm from Gloria's escape kit, before heading over to where Bass stood near the now slowly rousing minotaurs.

"Red, you all right?" the young Corporal asked.

So, this is your squadmate? He seems eager…

"I'm doing fine, Pistol. Aggrandize and I are getting acquainted. Looks like she's just like your wight; another victim of whomever or whatever's at the heart of all this."

"I wouldn't call her "my" wight. She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I had an opportunity to help."

You want me to give him my take on the situation?

Look, I know you want to prove to us that you aren't a threat, but are you sure you want to just take over my body out of the blue? That won't go very far in convincing the squad you're not dangerous.

Let's be honest, Mary (can I call you Mary?) I am dangerous. Just not to you, or to any other person who isn't dangerous to me in return, be they human or mamono. I can, as you humans say, "jump through hoops" to try and prove I'm not a threat, but we're running out of time. The unfortunate reality is that the vast majority of mamono who could have crossed into this world have done so, and our former one can no longer sustain life. We can't go home. I myself just want someone to talk to, and maybe someday someone to love. I can't do that if I'm stuck on a wall or in an armory somewhere collecting dust, or even worse, mind-jacked and enslaved by a monster.

So you're just helping us out of self-interest?

Partially. Also, I was a sword of heroes long before I gained consciousness. Helping in the service of others is practically ingrained into my very metal.

I guess I'll trust you, then. It is nice to have another girl in the squad. I swear, sometimes it's like being home again, with my dad, and brothers.

I'd like to apologize in advance. Borrowing concepts from your memories tends to let… other things leak through.

You mean… Dammit. You'd better not tell them! Or him, if we survive this.

Don't worry, your secret's safe with me. I think guys who are good with machinery are a big turn-on as well. If I ask nicely, do you think you can convince him to give me a good polishing?

I… I have no way to respond to that.

Look at is this way: If I tell him what I am right off the bat, he'll probably be interested, just not in the way you want. If you ask him to polish me first, that'll give you an in, and we can start turning your relationship into something a little less one-sided.

OK, fine, you've made a convincing case. Provisionally. If you can do something to indicate it's you talking, that'll make things a bit easier.

I can make a sort of orange glow appear in your iris' when it's me doing the talking. Will that help?

At making you seem super creepy? Be my guest. Are you sure you can't use some of that metal webbing you had your old body wrapped in to make a speaker, or something?

You know… I hadn't even thought of that… But, that's enchanted metal drawn from the mass I've stored inside my blade Making complex structures takes time, and uses energy, neither of which we have enough of. Tell you what, you get me some nanotech, and I'll see what I can do.

How do you even… Oh, right. Nanotech repair packs are scheduled to be a part of our armor upgrades in a month or two. Will that do? I can put in a requisition when/If we survive.

I guess we'll have to burn that bridge when we get to it…

We'd better start talking to Pistol. If we stay inside my… our head for too long, he'll start to get worried.

Although their internal dialogue had only taken a few seconds, shifting back to the outside world still took them a moment, before Aggrandize answered the human.

"You know, boy, If what Red here says is anything to go by, I think you've been marked, if not outright claimed."

"Oh, you're the sword? Are you able to talk on your own? It's more than a bit creepy to hear Red talking like that."

"I have a name, boy. I am the blessed sword Aggrandize," Mary's body stated, rising to her feet, and regarding the mech-suited man with an imperious air. "And I demand to be treated with a certain air of decorum." The severe expression on her face lasted only a few seconds before an easy grim broke through, and her stance relaxed. "Look, just treat me like a person, OK? That's all any of us can really ask for in this world."

"I apologize, miss Aggrandize, but things look like they're going to get a lot worse before they settle down. The LT said you had some information?"

"Getting straight to business, then? Good. You're right, we are running out of time. Long story short, I wasn't the only mamono who got suckered. Besides the four over there, I can categorically identify at least two wurms, an ushi-oni, and a dragon were also enthralled. To make things worse, the dragon's a zombie, so she's even tougher than normal. The wurms are probably enhanced in some way, and the ushi is probably the controller."

"Do you think there are any other heavy squads between us and the center of this… facility?"

"No, or at least, probably not. My best guess, judging from the sheer volume of magic needed to mind-jack so many powerful mamono, and secure the cooperation of those baphomets you first encountered, is that we're dealing with a lich. Or more likely, more than one. If she's mind-jacked some other liches, or they've synchronized their power, we've got a real fight ahead of us."

"On top of this 'heavy squad' you say is likely waiting for us upon the main level… Ammo storage is good, but not great. How easy do you think it'll be to just blow past them, and confront the main boss directly?"

"Not easy at all. If we're lucky, there may be a gap in either their coordination, or an opportunity for one of you to escape, but I won't lie, I don't see any of us getting out of this intact."

"So all we can do is buy time?"

"I wouldn't go that far either. This squad is strong, but even if we successfully stop the gate from opening, we'll need to either fight our way out, or take enough of them down that reinforcements can clean up the rest when they arrive."

"So the odds are stacked against us, then."

"Welcome to my world, Pistol. I was literally forged for victory against long odds. I have a lot more reasons to fight now, but I've been here before. If your commander is as good as you and Red think he is, we may yet triumph."

The first thing to come back was hearing.

Aina's memory had been… fuzzy, ever since she'd taken the job offer from that lich, and when she and her sister had made the crossing, there was a bright flash, and then it was like being in a dream. It was a fairly mundane dream, as far as dreams went, but living was relatively easy, if boring. 'Go here', 'do this', 'carry these', she felt like her mind was wrapped in cotton, and somehow couldn't bring herself to care why this was a thing to be concerned about.

And then the orders had changed. Now she had to fight golems. But not fellow mamono. Metal golems made by… who made them? Why was it important to fight them? At least her mind felt clearer than it had in what felt like a long time, so she left her eyes closed, and listened. There were large somethings several feet away, and their footsteps thudded against the stone she was seated on. Her back was against more stone, and she could feel enough warmth to know someone was sitting next to her. The entire situation felt dangerous, so she cracked one eye open slightly.

Golems. Definitely golems. Definitely made of metal, and definitely armed. So it hadn't been just a dream. But if this wasn't a dream, then… She felt a surge of anger and embarrassment. Something had been done to her, and her sister. But that was for later. Right now, she had to wait until the golems weren't looking at her, and try to make a break for it. Except she didn't know where she was, if there was any way out, or how fast the golems could react. Most of them weren't moving, that she could see, but if her fuzzy memory was any indication, there were at least five, and she could only see two standing over by a better lit area.

Any further observation was cut off by an angered half snort/half shout, as the presence beside her woke up abruptly. Asteria! At least now she knew where her sister was… Although things were likely to get very busy from this point forward.

Bass was keeping an eye on the prisoners, while he let Genny run a diagnostic. His mech had taken a beating, but there were no breaches, and all the joints looked good. He had plenty of propellant, and the ATEC unit was running smoothly. Remaining ammo stocks looked good, as he hadn't needed to fire anything in the last battle. The manipulator digits were going to need an overhaul once they got back to base, though. The grip-based grapple he'd gotten into with that minotaur had stressed the joints. Not to failure, but enough that maintenance would want to replace them, just to be on the safe side.

He glanced over at the LT and Sergeant's mechs, which now had a data cable linking them. The two machines were partially open, and their operators conversed in low tones, while glancing at their displays when the diagnostic reached a specific milestone or other. He'd just turned his attention back to the prisoners, when one of the minotaurs awoke with a snort and a shout, before cradling her face In both hands with a groan.

"What the hell happened…"

Well, there was no time like the present, so he decided to play things by ear. "You were in a fight."

At his words, she froze, and then carefully looked in his direction, before freezing again, before her eyes narrowed. "Who the hell are you?"

Seeing her sitting against the column, Bass had to respect the instant aggression, but he could see the nervousness it hid, especially since he saw the ear closest to her fellow minotaur flick in her direction once, while she flexed her hands, and shifted her hooved feet slightly. As he could tell she was getting ready to spring, or at least try something, it was time to try and redirect.

"Corporal Matthew Hayes, US Army, 451st Heavy Assault Battalion, Team Seven."

That got her to stop, at least for the moment. "What did you do to me?"

"Nothing. We were fighting, and you collapsed. You've been out for maybe ten minutes, so we put you and the others where we could keep an eye on you."

"You fought me? I don't think so. I know I'm stronger than some golem."

Time to have some fun, then. "This isn't a golem, it's powered armor," the Corporal stated flatly, before opening the top half of the main entry assembly, and then closing it again.

"Now I know you're lying! No human could move armor that massive. And there's no way you'd get a living armor to-"

"There a problem, Corporal?" Sergeant Rawling interrupted, having observed silently, and out of direct view of the now increasingly agitated minotaur. Letting his hand drift to his sidearm, the human kept a wary eye on the monster obviously getting ready to try and attack his squadmate.

"No Sir, just bringing the prisoner up to speed. Although she doesn't seem to believe we were in a fight just a few minutes ago."

Assessing the situation, Rawlins determined the root cause in moments, and decided on a different approach. "Sorry miss, but it's true, you were in a fight with us, and we did win. But to be fair, you probably weren't at full power." The sergeant said, surprising his squadmate with how gentle he was keeping his voice.

"So I lost… But why can't I remember much of it?" She seemed to jolt as another thought struck her. "Where's my sister? If you've hurt her-" Clearly, waking up from what had been done to her was making her mood hard to control.

"I'm right here, Asteria." At that declaration, the minotaur – Asteria-, whirled, and seeing her sister, immediately latched on to her. "Aina, you're alive!"

*sigh* "Yes, I am. Please stop squeezing, my head still hurts."

The sergeant and the corporal shared a look, but decided to let it pass.

After a bit, Bass cleared his throat. "So, miss, Aina, I presume? What can you tell us about how or why you were sent here?"

After carefully rising to her feet, Aina kept both of her hands in sight, and helped her sister to stand as well. "I wish I could, Corporal, but my memories ever since we came to this world have been… fuzzy. It's clear we were affected by… something, but I'm sorry, I cannot help you."

"Look, all I know is I was fighting you, what more do you want?" Asteria put in, before Aina laid a hand on her shoulder, trying to calm her.

"Well, in that case, I can fill in some gaps." The Sergeant put in. "According to another… person we fought, the five of you were 'enthralled' by a lich, and used to carry out security tasks, before being linked to her, and sent after us. Looks like whatever this lich did to you kept you from thinking too much."

"That is... concerning," Aina replied, taking a moment to sit back down, while Asteria crossed her arms, and tried to look tough, but the way her tail flicked from side-to-side betrayed her nervousness at the revelation.

"So, what? Now we're not 'enthralled', so what are you gonna do with us?"

"I can understand your nervousness, but the reason we're even here is to rescue any humans who have been taken, and dismantle the group running this place." Rawlins summed up.

"Sergeant, if there were humans taken… then it stands to reason there are more mamono here as well. And further, they are likely enthralled as we were. I cannot stand by while others like me are under the control of someone else." Aina declared, before rising to her feet once again. "Please, let us help."