A dwarf was napping pleasantly while leaning back in his simple wooden chair. His soft snoring echoed slightly through the narrow stone hallway he was supposed to be keeping an eye on. Although this behavior was not befitting someone who had been appointed to guard duty, none of his peers would fault him for it. The actual ‘guarding’ consisted waiting for someone from the other side of the circular steel door next to him to speak the password so that he can open it from the inside. This chore was closer to being a doorman than an actual guard.
After all, not only was the door in question concealed as one of many wine casks inside a large restaurant’s cellar, but it was also impossible to open it from the outside. Granted, this wasn’t the only way in or out of the underground complex, but it was the one the grunts and enforcers of the Honeydew Cartel used the most. They had a separate entrance at the opposite end that was mostly used for carrying goods in and out of the hideout, but they avoided using that in broad daylight. After all, just because this particular criminal organization was rather small-time didn’t mean they wouldn’t take a few extra precautions so as to not be found out.
Especially considering their main source of income wasn’t something like extortion or armed robbery. That stuff was for brainless bandits that lived in the woods and slept in the dirt. Granted, they still did those things when the opportunity presented itself, but their specialty was smuggling. Being this close to the northern border and along the imperial highway meant all manner of cargo, illegal or otherwise, had to pass through this town of Bootlick, whether its owners wanted to or not.
The Honeydew Cartel’s main imports were narcotic substances that had a highly addictive nature, such as Fairy Dust or the Honeydew they named themselves after. They were produced en-masse in the Ishigar Republic to the north, where their use and sale wasn’t illegal like it was in the Empire, but was still strictly regulated. These drugs were then smuggled across the border in large quantities and resold to other organizations looking to peddle them to any commoners looking to get a fix. Overall, it was a setup that ensured a steady stream of profit for everyone involved. Well, other than the end users, that is.
Of course, that was not the Cartel’s only revenue stream. They also sold superior Empire-forged weaponry to the elves across the border. Purchasing and then smuggling quantities of weapons over the lang route was risky, but the payout was well worth the danger involved. All things said and done, this organization was doing quite well for itself even though its members didn’t even reach 3 digits. Unfortunately, they were rather lacking in the information department. Most humans and elves simply passed through the town, at most stopping only to rest for the night before moving on towards the capital. It made gathering sensitive intel quite the challenge.
That didn’t mean they did not try, however. The cartel had an informant in pretty much every guild in town, offering them a bounty of gold for any juicy info that flowed in from the Empire’s heartland. One such mole was a Warlock that went by the rather unsavory name of Grimebeard. In fact, he had informed the organization earlier today of a relatively low-leveled elven Warlock who had an Artifact-grade item in his possession. It was clear that he wanted the item for himself, but the Cartel had other ideas.
A single one of those ancient treasures could fetch thousands of GP if sold to the right bidder, far more than what the old Warlock could offer them. He was told in no uncertain terms that the Cartel would take charge of the Artifact and sell it to their contacts across the border. The old dwarf had momentarily forgotten that, no matter how amicable they seemed, this Cartel was still a criminal gang that placed their own profits first. He therefore had to begrudgingly give up on getting his hands on that staff and would need to be satisfied with the extra large finder’s fee. It wasn’t exactly what he wanted, but it would still be a lot more than the big fat nothing he would get otherwise.
After agreeing to his contact’s terms, he gave them everything he knew about one Chester Underwood, including the confidential information gleaned from his Full Appraisal. The Cartel quickly learned that this was the same ginger-haired elf with the personal steel golem that one of their own had identified as a potential person of interest earlier today. The chance of getting their hands on not only the Artifact, but also on that golem’s control rod was simply too good to pass up.
So the Cartel’s boss decided they would gobble the unsuspecting elf up. This was hardly the first time they’d done something like this, and this mark would be easy enough to deal with as long as they could take him out quickly and quietly. Six of the organization’s enforcers were immediately dispatched to track down and relieve mister Underwood of his valuables. Although a few of them thought that sending so many was perhaps overkill, none of them particularly minded ganging up on a single kid if it meant they’d get paid without losing any of their accomplices.
That was over 5 hours ago.
*Bam bam bam*
“Frozen pickles!” shouted the dwarven doorman as the sudden banging noise woke him from his slumber. It took him a few seconds to realize that there was someone outside the hidden entrance to the hideout.
“Fifteen!” came a panicked male voice from the other end. “Twenty-two! Sixty-four! Uh, th-thirty? Yeah, thirty!”
The dwarf rubbed the sleep from his eyes as he double checked the note on the wall, confirming that those numbers were indeed this week’s password. He got off his chair and walked up to circular metal door next to his station, kicking it once to show that he was about to open it. He placed a hand on the large valve-like locking mechanism and was about to start turning it when the voice from the other side called out again.
“Hurry it up!”
“Hold yer horses, asshole!” he shouted back.
Everyone knew the door was too heavy to just magically swing open all on its own. Not that this wasn’t possible, it’s just that it was far cheaper to have a low-ranking grunt do the heavy lifting. The large valve was turned two full revolutions before the heavy locks allowed the door to open inwardly. He pulled on it with a bit of effort, and a draft of fresh air rushed in as the main entrance opened slowly.
The doorman looked through the ajar door and saw the figure of a thin, tattooed, black-haired dwarf drenched in sweat standing in the middle of a wine cellar that held dozens of wine casks. The visitor lunged through the open entrance, roughly shoving the guard out of his way as he did so, then hurriedly pushed the door closed and spun the lock. Once the entrance had been firmly sealed, he slid down to the ground, panting heavily.
“Tubbs? What the heck are ya doin’?” asked the other dwarf as he stared in shock. “Wait, where are the others?”
The ironically nicknamed ‘Tubbs’ had been one of the six people that left earlier today. The fact that he was returning alone and in such a dire state was distressing to say the least.
“Th- They’re dead!” he blurted out in between gasps for air.
“Dead? What you mean dead?! I thought you guys were just going to nab an elf!”
It was supposed to be a sure thing, so how did-
“That was no fucking elf!” screamed Tubbs, both his voice and his body quivering. “I don’t know what that… thing was but it’s nothing like what we were told!”
“So then the others-”
“It ate them, man! It fucking gobbled them up like nothing! There’s nothing I could do! It would’ve gotten me too if I didn’t run with all I had!”
“By Goroth’s tits… Did- Did that guy follow you here?!”
“I-I-I don’t know, I don’t think so- But we can’t take chances! If that bastard Grimebeard set us up, then he might have sold us out to someone! We gotta warn the boss!”
“Fuck, yer right! Wait, why ‘we?’”
“I- I need your help… I can barely walk…”
The gatekeeper looked the sweat-drenched Tubbs over one more time. To say he looked like fuck would be an understatement. The oddly slender dwarf must have run clear across town at full speed for him to be this worn out. It was also readily apparent that not all of this sweat was due to physical exertion. Although he would technically be deserting his post, this was hardly the time to nitpick.
Besides, manning the front door at this point was pointless, as the group Tubbs was a part of were the only ones scheduled to return tonight. Not to mention that their boss would want to hear what happened to her men right away. Even if she was ruthless to outsiders, she took good care of the boys under her wing. This fostered an odd sense of trust and camaraderie one wouldn’t expect from a gang of criminals. In fact, to say that the Honeydew Cartel treated each other like family would not be an understatement.
“Alright, take my shoulder!” he said while propping the exhausted Rogue up.
The pair of dwarves hurriedly moved down the hallway, making their way out of the passage and into a wide-open cavern that was dug into the side of a hill that was near the edge of town. The dome-shaped structure was created by magic and served as the hub of the Honeydew Cartel’s operations. The main chamber served as a shared living space that was dotted with tables and chairs. One side of it had been turned into a large kitchen while the center was dominated by a small arena where organized fistfights often took place. A number of doors lined the walls, each leading to a small room that served as either storage or sleeping areas.
Tubbs and his escort circled around the edge of the chamber towards the wall opposite the one they came in from, drawing curious and worried glances from the two dozen dwarves that were milling about. All of them had similar facial tattoos, marking them as belonging to the Honeydew Cartel. It served as a warning to people around the area the hideout was in. The unspoken rule in this neighbourhood was ‘don’t mess with the Cartel and they won’t mess with you.’
The pair quickly reached a pair of heavy wooden doors, beyond which lied the boss’s chambers.
“Hey Jammy, what’s up with Tubbs?” called out one of the two dwarves guarding the room.
“Got bad news, Rocker!” replied the doorman called Jammy. “Tubbs here says Hammerhead’s group got wiped out!”
“Holy sh- Here, let me help!”
The muscular dwarf in the plate armor quickly opened the heavy doors and supported Tubbs from the other side. The three of them walked into a rather simple room with sparse decorations, such as some paintings, an old vase and a few carpets. Some old wooden furniture such as a few armchairs, a large bed and a few bookshelves were lined up against the walls while 3 lanterns illuminated the inside, providing plenty of visibility.
A tiny, wrinkled, gray-haired woman was sitting idly in a rocking chair off to the side, enjoying a rather thick book. She shifted her bespectacled gaze away from it and stared inquisitively at the trio before them. “What’s the matter, dearie?” she asked with a soft, worried voice.
This was Granny Hilda. Everything from her demeanor, to her simple clothes gave off the impression of a kindly old grandmother, rather than the cold, calculating criminal she was underneath that facade.
“Tubbs said his group got wiped out, Gran!” reported Jammy.
The kind grandmother facade disappeared in an instant and the stern face befitting a gang boss appeared instead. The change was so drastic that 8 out of 10 people would think she had been replaced by a different person. She motioned for Rocker to leave and close the door behind him, which he did immediately. This was a dire matter that she needed to handle without being disturbed.
“Is this true, Tubbs?”
He was supposed to serve as his group’s lookout, the one who watched over them and kept an eye out for any witnesses or authorities that might interrupt their work. He was supposed to support his fellow Cartel members from the rooftops and could drop down and assassinate any troublesome pests. The fact that he claimed he was the only survivor was dire news indeed.
However, Tubbs did not answer right away. He stared blankly at his feet while mumbling something. If Granny Hilda didn’t know any better, it would almost seem like he was chanting a Spell. That was impossible, however. The Tubbs she raised was a Rogue, a damn good one at that. He was quick on his feet and skilled with his hands, but did not have a head suited for anything complicated like magic.
Unfortunately for her, this wasn’t the Tubbs she knew.
The entire room rapidly faded to black at the black-haired dwarf’s words, as if light itself was not permitted to exist within this confined space. There were some surprised gasps and a few muffled yells, after which nothing but silence. When the darkness cleared up about a minute later, the only thing left of the dwarves in that room were two puddles of blood and one chest-shaped Doppelganger savoring its meal.
The dwarf called Tubbs had been long dead. Boxxy had noticed him when he was trying to get the drop on what he thought was a simple Warlock while his 5 compatriots provided a distraction. Once the monster cleaned up the people in the alley, it quickly scaled the walls and restrained the last survivor who was skulking on the rooftops. Xera then flexed her Dreamweaver Skill to probe the unwilling dwarf’s recent memory, which is how Boxxy knew how to get into this hideout.
The plan it hatched was simple - pose as this dwarf, infiltrate the base, meet with his leader and take her out before she could organize a defense. It managed to pull off this little masquerade surprisingly well, mostly because the Mimic had played the part of the panicked and distraught dwarven Rogue. The monster already had plenty of experience watching people flee in terror from it, so it was able to replicate that unfortunate state without much difficulty. This little scenario had been good training so far, but it was far from over. The next step after removing the head was to devour the body.
Boxxy opened its Storage and brought Fizzy out of it, much to her relief. It’s a good thing the gnome no longer needed to breathe, otherwise she would have definitely suffocated by now. Still, that confined, black space was extremely unsettling, so she would prefer if she didn’t have to spend more time in there than necessary.
The monster then pulled out Voidcaller and activated its ability. The black, demonic skull’s jaw flew open as if it were laughing, while its four jeweled eyes started glowing with unnatural intensity. A doorway of bright red light almost as tall as the room opened up, and Kora stepped through it in the next instant.
“Ugh,” she grunted while holding her head. “Bubble-butt was right, doing it this way is super weird.”
It would appear the forced summoning did not allow the time needed for the demon’s consciousness to fully bond with its hastily created body. Although not dangerous to the immortal being’s soul, it still left them dizzy and disoriented for several seconds while they settled into their instantaneously conjured flesh.
“At least you weren’t treated as luggage…” said Fizzy with a small pout.
“Hey, Gran!” came a muffled shout from outside room. “You alright in there?”
It would appear that the dwarf called Rocker had heard the unfamiliar voices and was about to barge in.
“What’s the word, Boss?” asked Kora while cracking her knuckles.
“At least 27 targets, 10 of them armed,” explained Boxxy. “Likely more in the other rooms or outside, but this should be this gang’s main force. Snack is keeping watch on the exit in case any of them try to break out.”
The half-chest-half-spider then put Voidcaller back into Storage and exchanged it for its favorite mithril daggers.
“I need three or four of them alive, get rid of the rest,” it commanded.
“Gran, I’m coming in!” yelled the guard from outside.
He put his hand on the door handle and was about to open it when Kora’s armored boot sent the heavy wooden object flying off its hinges along with the dwarf that was on the wrong side of it. It smashed into a nearby table, pinning Rocker and another befuddled Cartel member under its weight.
The loud crash gathered the attention of everyone present, who stared in shock as a gigantic pile of muscle more than twice their own height stepped out of the relatively tiny door. Then came a flash of something shiny and the sound of steel scraping against stone as the golem activated her Armored Charge Skill. She closed the gap between herself and the nearest unfortunate meatbag in an instant, slamming into the poor sod with enough force to break multiple bones and send him crashing into a group of his friends.
“Alarm! Enemy attack!” shouted someone, sending all the dwarves into high gear.
The ones who weren’t armed quickly went to retrieve their weapons, while the ones that were engaged the strange duo. They wanted to confirm on Granny Hilda’s condition, but most of them had already reached the grim conclusion that she was done for. These monsters emerged from her private chambers, so hoping she was still alive was a fool’s errand. The least they could do right now was avenge her. Arrows, throwing knives and Spells flew at the bigger target while a trio of dwarves armed with maces, axes and shields engaged the smaller one.
Kora activated her Demonic Carapace, which covered her skin in tough metal scales. She took the barrage of projectiles head on as per usual as she charged forward, intent on stomping these dwarves into paste. After a few running steps, she leapt through the air and landed right in the middle of a group of 4 crossbow-wielding targets, who rolled away and scattered in panicked response. However, the fiend’s long and powerful legs easily caught up to them as she kicked at them with all her might. Having to fight this way was a bit irksome, but these guys were way too short for her to throw any good punches at them.
Fizzy on the other hand was struggling. Her wrench flew at the heads and bodies of her opponents with deadly force, but the experienced combatants either deflected the strikes or evaded them completely. It was ludicrous to think that the former gnome could match up to these people. After all, she hadn’t even been in a real fight until about a month ago, and even then she only fought monsters. These dwarves on the other hand would have had ample experience fighting other enlightened due to the nature of their occupation, so they managed to fend off her amateurish attacks despite being of a lower Level. Even if the pint-sized Paladin’s Champion of Chaos Skill gave her glimpses into the future, it wasn’t particularly useful when dealing with reactions rather than actions.
However, the other side had their own share of troubles. The golem’s thick steel hide and cursed shield repelled all attacks aimed at her. She still suffered minor damage, but not nearly enough to be worried about. If things got bad, she could use her Holy magic to heal herself in the middle of combat. And if this turned into an endurance race, then her near-tireless body would win without question. Not that this scuffle would get a chance to reach that stage, though.
Boxxy had quietly and stealthily skittered out of the boss’s room while the dwarves were preoccupied with its minions. It crawled along the chamber’s dome-shaped ceiling, looking for a good place to strike. Once it was in position, it dropped a Mirror Image of itself onto the dwarves Fizzy was having trouble with. Its imperfect copy landed directly behind them, using its downward momentum to pierce their scalps with a trio of iron sickles it had forged out of its own flesh. It then proceeded to follow its orders and provide backup for the inexperienced gnome as she charged towards the next group of combatants.
Kora on the other hand was faring better than the Mimic was expecting. The fiend had already stomped 3 of her assailants flat and was currently chasing down the last one. Her body was riddled with wounds from all the projectiles she took, but she seemed to still be going strong. She hadn’t even used her Second Wind Skill yet, which would provide her with an instantaneous burst of HP should the need arise. Still, it created another Mirror Image to watch her back all the same.
Chaotic energies swirl around you. Your MP has been depleted.
The ceiling-bound monster nearly fell to the ground when its Chaotic Disposition triggered with a really dangerous effect. Even if it had mountains of HP, its MP was still a very important lifeline. Thankfully it wasn’t in any immediate danger as the dwarves on the ground were too busy dealing with its copies and its minions. After several seconds it had recovered enough MP to open its Storage and take out a few mana potions, which were immediately consumed to restore 600 of its MP.
It was just in time too, because Boxxy spotted a troop of 10 or so dwarves pour in from one of the side chambers while fully armed and armored. It re-opened its pocket dimension and withdrew two of the Big Bang Balls it had prepared in advance. The Spell Crystals were triggered and thrown into the pack of dwarves a few seconds later. The Cartel’s reinforcements were hit by two high-powered magical explosions that turned them into a fine red paste before they could even react.
Congratulations, you are now a Level 35 Warlock! INT +2. MNT +2. END +2.
Not wasting any time, the monster dropped down onto the ground and went through the same door those people had come out of. This appeared to be some sort of armory, as weapons and armor sets lined the walls. Several of the slower dwarves were still gearing up in a rush, but the monster had no intention of letting them finish what they started. It dashed through the room, slitting throats and severing spines with every movement. Once these had been dealt with, it quickly gobbled up the corpses and returned to the main chamber, where the battle had already been settled.
It was another relatively easy victory, just like Boxxy wanted. Except for that speed bump where it lost all of its MP due to an unlucky Chaotic Disposition. It honestly felt like one of these days it might just hit a ‘Your HP has been depleted’ effect and just die on the spot. Well, that was probably not going to happen. Surely even that whimsical God of Chance wouldn’t give his Hero a Skill that might just outright kill it.
No, that was actually exactly the kind of thing that deity would do. Knowing him, it would probably be some incredibly tiny chance that would bring him no small measure of entertainment should it happen. Then again, Chaotic Disposition’s effects were always temporary, so maybe instant suicide wasn’t a part of the deal. Boxxy one-sidedly decided this latter possibility was the more probable one and that it wouldn’t worry about it. The monster then shifted its attention to the remnants of the criminal organization it had dismantled.
Three of the dwarves were still alive and were currently being restrained by Kora, just as her Master had instructed. 30-something corpses were strewn about the area with varying degrees of damage. A quick check-in with Xera revealed that only 2 of the dwarves had tried to run and were immediately burnt to ashes. The other entrance to the hideout appeared to still be sealed shut, so it didn’t seem like any witnesses escaped.
In short, the underground compound was completely under the monster’s control. Boxxy told Kora and Fizzy to keep an eye on the three captives and make sure they didn’t die just yet. It then quickly checked all the rooms at the edge of the large chamber. Other than the armory, there was also a warehouse with a number of unmarked crates, a well-stocked pantry brimming with good food and alcohol and several common sleeping quarters that had enough beds for 80 people.
That last one was a bit worrying, as it likely meant there were still quite a few of these Cartel people on the outside. Boxxy didn’t fret too much over them, though. It was going to leave this town behind after it was done with this place anyway, so having a few rats scurry around the place was probably not a big deal. It had already tracked down and assassinated Grimebeard before coming here, so it really had no more reasons to stick around.
And so the warehouse was looted, the food in the pantry devoured, the corpses diligently absorbed or eaten and anything else of value was taken. Overall, the haul from this place was rather disappointing as it amounted to only about 2,400 GP worth of coins and valuables, much lower than the haul it got from that village. Still, the monster was able to get a lot of infiltration practice and filled its Storage with a number of interesting substances, so it was hardly a bad day.
Wait, actually, wasn’t this day going almost too smoothly? The last time it had so much good fortune in a single day, it got captured and imprisoned. Fearing the backswing of bad luck, Boxxy immediately moved onto the last thing it would need to do in the Lodrak Empire. It would perform a certain demonic ritual, right here on the edge of town. That was why it was so adamant about keeping a few of those dwarves alive, as this particular ritual demanded a sacrifice of three lives. The ceremony itself was a bit complicated since it involved a bunch of dancing in addition to the weird chanting and squiggly blood sigils, but Boxxy was confident it could pull it off on the first try. This was hardly its first time performing this sort of ritual, after all.
The tricky part was to make sure it had a clear escape route before it performed the Offering to Liusolra.