"What is it?"
"Could it be a Guadia?"
"I've never seen a Guadia that looks like a child before!"
Haggleman kept his eyes firmly shut against the ache of too much light and tuned out the unfamiliar voices as best he could. His mind was spinning, gears cranking in an effort to make the world stop reeling drunkenly and to remember what exactly had just happened, but his body was stiff, gears jammed in place. It happened sometimes, when his brain shut off too suddenly.
"Does he have a heartbeat?" A light voice, pleasant and filled with air and breath but also a shade of fright. Not Koume's.
He remembered doors, of course, flipping in and out and practically strobing through a spectrum of colours, he remembered a frightening shadow of himself stalking the heights of Chingensai's castle, he remembered feeling queasy for the first time in his life...
"I can't find one, and his body is cold, but... listen to his chest." A deeper voice, throat-thick and serious. It didn't seem as if he was in any danger, judging by the way the strangers were fretting over him. If anything Haggleman wished they would just go away so he could reboot in peace and figure out what would have possibly happened.
“A puppet? How would a puppet get all the way out here?”
Finally, achingly, the joints in Haggleman's left arm cranked to life, and his hand snapped up to his face. Three sharp yelps greeted his return to motion as he clumsily wrapped his fingers around the gear on the side of his head and turned it slowly to open his mouth.
“N-n-not a puppet,” he managed, speaker crackling. “One moment please...”
The rest of his body woke up in quick succession and he stumbled to his feet, head still spinning with the efforts of thought and balance. When his eyes finally slid open one after the other and focused on the scene before him, he nearly fell right back down.
This was most certainly not Chingensai's castle.
Grass stretched before him, lush green and thick. He'd never seen so much wilderness before, plains stretching into tree-spattered foothills and then mountains that struck bold, dark crags against the lightness of the sky. There wasn't a single building in sight to interrupt the expanse. He was so jolted by the sight of the land that it took a few moments to look away and take in the three humans standing startled a few paces away, just safely out of his reach.
“H-hello,” he said, bowing a little at the waist. “My name is Haggleman. I'm s-sorry, but... wh-where am I?”
“Haggleman? What kind of name—”
“Ban!” The helmeted man got a smack in the arm from one of his shorter companions, a man with leathery clothing and a mushroom of brown hair that framed his angular face.
“These are the plains outside of Centraan, Haggleman.” The shortest of the three was a lady with sandy blonde hair and a dark pink tunic. She was also the only one without a blade. “Are you lost?”
“Um.” Haggleman flicked his eyes between the three strangers. “Very. I've n-n-never heard of Centraan before...” He silently attributed his stammer to the sudden reboot and not the dread that was seeping into his frame, turning his nerves cold. “This isn't Neo-Nippon, is it...?”
The three strangers shared a look, faces blank and searching for recognition in the others. After a silent moment the first man who had spoken, the largest and toughest-looking with the biggest sword, held up a hand. “Maybe we should start from the very beginning.”
It didn't take them long to sort out that Haggleman was further from home than any of them could have imagined.
“Could the strange doors in your castle have something to do with your appearance here?” Namko, the blonde-and-pink, took up the end of their party alongside Haggleman, who was wobbling along on a twisted socket joint. The rather rudimentary plan was to return to the castle and ask the King for a new set of orders, but at their current pace they likely wouldn't reach Centraan before nightfall.
Dai, the slimmer man with the lighter clothing, nodded thoughtfully. “It wouldn't be the first time mysterious powers have gone wrong.”
“You know that firsthand, don't you! Hah!” The tallest, and as it turned out the oldest of the trio of cousins, Ban, brought a hand down on Dai's shoulder as he bellowed a laugh.
“Don't be rude,” Dai replied, in a deadpan that suggested he was used to Ban's boisterous attitude. “Haggleman is technically a guest here.”
“Oh, fine. What about those scrolls he mentioned? They sound a bit like summon magic to me. Maybe they got mixed up and summoned Haggleman here.”
“The sc-scrolls aren't quite...” Haggleman paused. If they didn't even have robots in wherever-it-was, surely they wouldn't be able to understand how the scrolls worked. Command prompts and cybernetic implants and networking were complex even for most of the humans in Neo-Nippon. “They only work between myself and m-my friends,” he simplified. “The words on them... let me disable the shields around the castle.” Firewalls. “My f-friends aren't... summoned, per se, they just... drop in to help, once th-there's an opening.”
Namko nodded. “Then the doors must be the cause.”
“We have doors here,” Ban said.
“...Yes we do, Ban. Lots of places have doors.”
Ban laid another good-natured but heavy smack on Dai's arm. “I mean unusual doors! We have our share of Underworld doors, don't we? Maybe there's a Haggleman door somewhere!”
Haggleman felt a gear in his stomach skip. He wasn't a pessimist, his programming didn't allow for that, but he certainly hadn't been very glass-half-full about the situation. Just the thought of returning home, even to a fight to the death in Chingensai's castle, was a little thrilling.
“The Dungeon of Darkness might have... there are lots of places in there we haven't even begun to explore...”
“I-is it close?” Haggleman tried not to sound too terribly eager, but his voice wavered nonetheless.
Dai and Ban glanced at one another.
“Perhaps an hour's walk?” Dai guessed, scanning the surrounding terrain with a hand at his brow. “We could probably be there by sunset.”
With a belly-deep and determined laugh, Ban turned on his heels and marched off in the direction of what must have been the Dungeon of Darkness, leaving his cousins and Haggleman scrambling to follow.
If he ignored the moisture, and the bats, and the rather moldy texture of the walls, the narrow passages and angular layout of the Dungeon of Darkness reminded Haggleman a little bit of home.
“Mind your step, Haggleman,” Ban warned, taking the lead with his sword and shield at the ready. “Probably don't have to tell you with a name like the Dungeon of Darkness, but this place is lousy with fiends.”
“I can fight,” Haggleman said, perhaps a little too indignantly. “It's wh-what I was built for.” Though he certainly wouldn't be doing any hand-to-hand combat with his leg twisted up the way it was. Still, he kept one hand near the pouch of shuriken at his waist, just in case.
“Do you sense anything?” Namko asked, hand coming to rest on Haggleman's elbow. “I know you aren't magical, but do you have any strong feelings about where your door might be?”
Haggleman stopped and closed his eyes, and the footsteps around him came to a halt as well. He listened, intently, the faint opposition of a distant drop of water and the muffled ticking of his own mechanisms the only sounds in the tight caverns.
“I... I don't know,” he finally said, voice quiet. “I wish I did, but...”
“Don't worry about it!” Ban interrupted, and Namko's hand squeezed gently. “We've scoured a lot of this place already and we haven't seen any doors like the ones you talked about, so all we have to do is explore some more!”
“We'll get you home,” Dai said, glancing over his shoulder at Haggleman. “You can trust us. We're the saviours of the realm.”
Namko huffed out a laugh. “I don't think I'll ever get used to that.”
Not ten steps after she spoke, Haggleman froze, eyes wide and unfocused. It took a few moments for Namko and Dai to stop as well, and a few more for Ban to turn around.
“I-I know I just said I didn't feel anything,” he muttered, turning slowly towards a small passage they had passed by, “but...”
Ban stomped over and peered around the corner into the gloom. “We've been here before, though, we picked this floor of the Dungeon clean for sure.”
Dai leaned around Ban to look as well. “I suppose it's possible the door could have appeared when Haggleman did.”
“A-assuming there is a door,” Haggleman muttered.
“Well, Haggleman's feeling is the only lead we've gotten so far,” Namko decided, stepping past her cousins and soldiering onward. “We can't just not investigate.” Dai followed wordlessly, rushing to catch up, and left Ban and Haggleman standing together at the angular fork in the Dungeon's passages.
“We'll never catch them with your leg all beat up like that,” Ban sighed, frowning at Haggleman's twisted ankle. “No offense or anything, but... would you mind if I carried you for a bit?”
Haggleman was almost glad to be off the ground and against the sturdiness of Ban's back, because the further they trekked down the passage the more of a twisty and dizzy feeling he got. He couldn't pin it down as being good or bad, but it was strong enough that Haggleman was absolutely sure it was something more than simple nerves. It was easier to think with his eyes closed, and so he heard rather than saw when Ban caught up with Namko and Dai.
“Haggleman!? Ban, what—”
“He's fine,” Ban's voice rumbled, “just feeling out of sorts.”
“I don't think there's much further to go until this reaches a dead end,” Dai said.
“Wait.” Namko must have held out a hand because the trio halted with a stumble. “Do you hear that?”
A pause. Faintly, in the stretch of the Dungeon before them, a ticking sounded out, identical to that coming from Haggleman's inner workings. It was too strong to be an echo, coming perfectly in the offbeats of Haggleman's not-quite-heart.
He pat a hand gently against Ban's shoulder. “Let me down.”
Ban craned around to look at him, bewildered. “What? What's going on, what is that?”
Haggleman's ankle wobbled dangerously when his foot touched the ground— he needed repairs, badly. His head was still spinning, but he suspected he knew the source of his discomfort.
“Th-the only robot model I know of that s-sounds like me is D-Dark Haggleman.”
Ban stepped forward, placing the bulk of his body between his companions and the omious ticking. “That doesn't sound good at all.”
“They were designed after me, t-to protect Chingensai's castle fr-from me.” Haggleman retrieved a shuriken from the pouch at his hip. “Th-they're very fast and very strong.”
“With all the noise this one is making I wouldn't be surprised if it's injured, like yourself.” Dai fell into step behind Ban, and Namko stood beside him, the air around her crackling with an uncast spell. It was automatic, a comfortable formation— they'd battled like this many, many times before. “With any luck we can take care of it quickly and find the door we need to get you home.”
“Th-thank you,” Haggleman said, suddenly realizing he hadn't expressed his gratitude for these strangers who had gone entirely out of their way to help him, some robot from a different dimension who stumbled into the middle of their quest and evidently brought at least one fiend along with him.
“Don't mention it,” Ban grinned, and with a whoop he raised his sword and charged forward towards the dead end of the passageway. Haggleman found himself hobbling along with the cousins despite his bad leg, energized equally by the comraderie and magic tingling through the air.
They reached the dead end in seconds, but it took a moment for Haggleman to realize what exactly he saw waiting there for them.
It was robotic, undoubtedly, the haphazard gears sticking out of its torso at squeamish angles one of the only recognizable things about it. It had eyes, but they were bulging out of a damaged head, it's clothing was torn and its arms and legs were twisted and nearly immobile. Haggleman took the mangled sight in, top to bottom— it was an incredibly damaged version of himself. Fright shivered through him. How close had he come to looking like that when he made the jump between universes?
Not more than a second after the reality of the Dark Haggleman settled in his mind, a blur of metal sent it flying into the wall of the dungeon so hard that the damp rock crumbled and fell to the floor along with the heap of metal, limp and heavy.
Ban looked back almost sheepishly at the three standing behind him, sword held out in the space the Dark Haggleman used to be.
Dai stepped forward gently, put a hand on Ban's wrist and slowly pushed his sword down. “...Nicely done, big guy.”
The swirling dizziness that was fogging Haggleman's thoughts lightened, then washed away fully, ebbing more with each click of his gears. He closed his eyes, relishing the feeling of calm, only to open them and find the cousins standing around, staring at him with concern painted across their features.
“I-I'm fine,” he hastened to explain, “the D-Dark Haggleman was using... a kind of m-magic unique to robots to try and m-make me an easier target.” At least he suspected it was some kind of jamming frequency, judging by the way it disappeared, and wasn't robot magic the easiest way to explain something like that?
“I'm so glad!” Namko smiled with a sigh of relief, taking him by the hands. “And I think I might have even better news for you!”
She led him to a door, mostly in shadow but absolutely unmistakable. If Haggleman could cry he might have, looking at the bright primary red at the top and bottom and the loose calligraphy of the character in the middle. Without a doubt the door in front of him was one from Neo-Nippon.
Haggleman reached out with one hand, more out of overwhelming relief than an effort to test the door. It turned open easily, hinged at the center, and through the cracks at the sides he could see a familiar skyline, buildings that faded out of sight into a smoky purple sky. He nodded, slowly at first then with an almost frantic delight. Namko dipped her head down to Haggleman's shoulder to let out a relieved laugh and behind them Ban whooped and clapped.
“Do you need anything else before you leave?” Dai stepped forward. “I would heal you, but... I'm afraid I tried back when we found you, it doesn't work on robots...”
“N-no, no, you've done more than en-n-nough already! Th-thank you,” he said, turning to look at them, “y-you've done so much for me. It's b-barely been a day, and I'm a total st-stranger... if there's anything I can d-do, to repay you...”
“Go home already and save the place!” Ban laughed, “Make sure you get to tell everyone about your incredible adventure!”
“And please, if you can,” Namko hastened to add, “try to come back? It's... it's nice to know there's someone else out there with the fate of a realm on their shoulders. That we aren't all alone in fighting.” She seemed on the verge of tears. “Oh, I'm being silly!”
“It would be a delight to have the opportunity to know you as a friend, Haggleman,” Dai said, smiling as wide as Haggleman had seen since he awoke, “and I know it would put my mind at ease to hear from you once you've succeeded in your quest.”
Namko nodded, scrubbing at her eyes. “Yes, all of that!”
Haggleman took another careful look at all of them— hopefully not the last— and with a final quiet 'thank you' he turned and stepped through the familiar door, wobbly but resolute.