A soft groan filled the messy room as one of its occupants gradually woke from her slumber. A slender girl with platinum blonde hair and pointed ears rose from the double bed while yawning pleasantly. She rubbed the sleep from her emerald green eyes as she lazily looked around her modest, single-room home.
There was a stone stove-and-oven combo embedded halfway into the wooden wall opposite the bed. It had a rectangular brick chimney sticking out of it and leading up into the ceiling. The corner immediately to the left side of the stove held a plain dining table with three chairs lazily strewn around the place. To the right of the stove was a simple wooden cabinet filled with dishes, jugs and other eating utensils. A sturdy-looking desk with a few quills, an inkwell and a small pile of paper stood opposite that cabinet, next to the same wall that the bed was up against. A few chests and drawers were lined up on the other side of the bed, under the only window in the house. Needless to say, those held the residents’ few worldly possessions such as clothes, mementos and-
“... Window?” mumbled the young elf.
Why was the window important? This was most definitely her window, exactly the same as it was the night before, so why did it seem so out of place? True, the double glass panes were so filthy that barely any sunlight got through it, but she liked it better this way. Having too much light pour in from that side of the room was annoying if she wanted to focus on her work.
“Sunlight?” she mumbled again. She blinked her eyes a few more times before she realized what had happened.
“Sunlight!” she shouted suddenly. “Keira, wake up!”
She shook the other person that lived in her house and slept in her bed. A head of fiery red, short, and slightly curly hair emerged from underneath the covers. Two triangular, cat-like ears with matching crimson fur perked up as their owner gradually woke up. The face of a young, plainly cute girl emerged next. It was yawning with a wide-open mouth, showing her extra-sharp canines to anyone who might be looking her way, which consisted solely of an elf girl by the name of Rowana Slyth.
The cat-eared girl slowly turned her head to face the panicked elf. Her dull expression blossomed into a full blown, open mouthed smile.
“Hehee! Good meowrning, Rowanaaa!”
She leaned forward and wrapped the other girl in a tight hug. Her long, bright red tail waved about happily as she rubbed her cheek against Rowana’s.
“Yes, I’m happy to see you too, but you need to go! You’ll be late!”
“Yeah! The sun’s out already! Didn’t you have a thing to do today?!”
“... Oh, snap!”
Keira’s yellow, cat-like eyes became wide as dinner plates as she realized Rowana was right. She leapt out of bed, grabbed the shortbow propped up by the wall and went for the front door at the far end of the room.
“Wait!” screamed the elf. “You’re forgetting something!”
“Ah! Of course! How silly of me!”
The catgirl ran back to the bed and gave the elf a big, wet kiss on the mouth. Their lips separated several seconds later with a loud smack.
“I was about to leave without giving you a goodbye kiss ~♡!”
“N-not that!” said the red-faced Rowana with a fluster. “Clothes, Keira! Put on some clothes!”
The red-haired catgirl was about to run out into the street completely in the nude. Although Rowana appreciated the sight of her girlfriend’s slim figure, tanned skin and adorably small breasts, she didn’t particularly feel like sharing it with the rest of the city.
“Uwah! That was close!” said Keira while beginning to dress herself.
“Honestly!” exclaimed the elf with a huff. “How are you this much of an airhead!?”
“It’s your fault!” shot back the other girl while pulling up her custom-tailored leather pants. “If you didn’t want to cuddle in the nude until late last night then I wouldn’t have overslept!”
“I-I can’t help it, okay? Your skin just feels way too good against mine!”
“That’s why you elves can’t,” Keira paused for a second as she pulled her chainmail tunic over her head, “can’t get along with others! You’re way too selfish!”
“You weren’t complaining last night though…”
“Th-this and that are completely unrelated!”
The pair shared an embarrassed chuckle as Rowana idly watched her new sweetheart get ready for her day. Keira put on a pair of wrist-length fingerless gloves made of the same gray leather material as her trousers.
“... You be careful out there, alright?” said the elf without trying to hide her concern.
“I’ll be fine, Rowie,” answered Keira with a reassuring smile. “Mister Faehorn said we’ll just be doing some light termite hunting today. Our class average is barely Level 13 so I’m sure he won’t make us do anything reckless.”
“He’s not bullying you, right? I heard some bad things about that guy…”
“Nah, he’s cool. He acts all tough and distant, but that’s just because he takes his job seriously and really cares about his students. He doesn’t treat me differently even though I’m not an elf you know!”
“Hmmm… I guess he’s unexpectedly a nice guy, huh?”
Rowana watched in silence as the beastkin pulled a dark green cloth tunic over her chainmail armor and strapped an empty quiver across her torso. Once that was in place, she put on a pair of metal plated bracers on her forearms, and finished up by buckling a set of matching shin-guards to her lower legs and ankles.
“There, all done!” she declared while doing a little spin as if to show off.
“No shoes, though?” asked the elf while glancing at her lover’s bare feet.
“Ah, mister Faehorn says a true Ranger must be in tune with his or her surroundings at all times, so going barefoot is a must!”
While most of the aged elf’s other students were of the opinion that this sort of thinking was outdated and old-fashioned, Keira took those words to heart. She considered herself extremely lucky to be able to study under a famous archer like him, so she wasn’t going to let a single drop of his wisdom go to waste. Besides, she didn’t particularly mind it, as feeling the grass between her toes felt oddly nice.
“Keira, promise me you’ll be back by sundown.”
“Ehhhh? But the night breeze feels so good around here!”
“I know, but yesterday I heard more rumors about that crazy vigilante that appeared recently…”
“Hm? Oh, you mean that Sandman character? Isn’t he one of the good guys, though?”
“He kills people, Keira! There’s no way that’s a ‘good guy’ no matter how I look at it!”
“So what, he should just have a nice chat with the murderers, rapists and slavers?”
“No! But, I mean, surely even they don’t deserve to be killed off without a fair trial!”
“The only reason you can say that sort of thing is because you’ve never been a victim.”
Keira’s uncharacteristically cold words and grim face made the elf realize she said something she shouldn’t have.
“I’m… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to-”
“It’s fine. It’s not your fault.”
The elf had momentarily forgotten that her new sweetheart carried with her some deep scars from her childhood, despite being only 16 years old. The beastkin had already stated that the whole reason she came to this country in the first place was so she could escape her past, so unintentionally digging it up like this made Rowana feel bad. Sure, she didn’t know the specifics, but she didn’t particularly need to. All that mattered was that she would be there for Keira the moment the oddly energetic and slightly airheaded girl felt like sharing her sorrows.
The beastkin grabbed her shortbow once more and, after making sure her backup dagger was on her belt, turned towards the exit to the hovel.
“I’ll be going then, see you tonight,” she said in a dry monotone while looking over her shoulder.
“No you don’t! Let me make it up to you!” insisted the elf. “What sort of girlfriend am I if I send you off with a distraught face like that?!”
“Rowie, I’ll be okay. You don’t have to-”
“Nonsense! Just have to think of something good... Oh, I know! I’ll make your favorite steamed salmon for dinner, so look forward to it!”
“Really?! Alright! You’re the best!”
Seeing her lover cheer up in an instant was enough to put a beaming smile on the elf’s face.
“Fufufu, I am pretty great aren’t I? Go on now! And stay safe out there, love!”
“I always do!”
Keira walked out the front door in high spirits and breathed in the fresh morning air while looking up at the sky. Far above her head was the loose canopy formed by a dozen or so Hylt trees, much like the one Rowana’s house was attached to. These magnificent plants grew to a dizzying height of nearly 1 kilometer, and served as traditional homes to the elves since time immemorial.
The Ishigar Republic’s capital city of Azurvale where Keira was currently living in was like that. Elaborate residences of various sizes and shapes were carved into the side of the tree’s thick trunk or built along its colossal branches as if they were streets. Countless suspension bridges connected one Hylt tree to another while sprawling wooden walkways spanned between neighboring branches to form plazas.
All in all, about half of the city’s 80,000 residents lived inside or around the colossal tree trunks up to an altitude of about 200 meters. The other half made their homes on the ground, where they were surrounded on all sides by the Hylt trees’ gigantic, exposed roots. This created a natural wall, turning the city into a nigh-impregnable fortress. For not only were those roots tens of meters thick and just as tall, but the Ironbark that covered every part of a Hylt tree was heavily resistant to both impacts and magic.
Rowana’s house wasn’t built on the ground, though. It was a little hovel built into the side of the Hylt tree’s colossal trunk, near the upper edge of the district’s residential area. This placed it a good 140 meters off the ground, which was more than a little inconvenient to someone like Keira who was used to plain old two-dimensional cities. That didn’t last long though, as the aspiring adventurer had already gotten used to getting around this strangely vertical city.
The catgirl took a running start and leapt unhesitantly from the large wooden platform that served as Rowana’s front yard. A sea of dull-red rooftops sprawled out beneath her as her small body threatened to drop towards them like a rock. Her arms reached out and grabbed one of the many vines that dangled off the Hylt branch directly overhead, her forward momentum causing the rope-like plant to sway back and forth wildly. Undisturbed by the erratic lateral motion, she wrapped her legs and arms around it and let herself slide down to the ground with practiced ease.
Once she reached the end of it, she threw herself off and landed deftly onto the slanted roof of one of the buildings that was erected at the ground level. Taking another small run up, she leapt down from the 3-story-high rooftop, kicked off the wall of the neighboring building to redirect her momentum and landed on the mossy ground with a small roll for a perfect 10-point landing.
“Ow! What gives?!” she protested while turning around. A wrinkled old elf with balding gray hair had lightly but firmly bonked her on the head with his cane.
“Oh, it’s only Pedro,” she mumbled while rubbing her head.
“Don’t ‘Pedro’ me, you hooligan!” said the clearly annoyed elf. “How many times do I have to tell you to stop doing that sort of thing!”
“How else am I supposed to get down, then?!”
Although cozy, Rowana’s cheap house was located in a really awkward part of the neighborhood. Keira had to go all the way down to ground level or climb up to the thick branch further up the tree if she wanted to access any of the city’s shops, guilds or services. At the very least the government had installed a robust plumbing infrastructure into every tree, so that those living in the upper levels didn’t have to worry about clean drinking water or waste disposal.
“Use the public elevators like the rest of us!” shouted the old elf while waving his cane around.
Of course Keira’s method of swinging on vines was hardly the standard way of getting around. Large, house-sized platforms served to provide the city’s residents with easy vertical access to all major levels of a Hylt tree. One merely had to patiently wait at a designated spot for one of those enchanted slabs of Ironbark to float by and stop briefly, then ride it until it reached a stop closest to their destination.
“Those elevators don’t stop anywhere near our house!” protested Keira.
“Then use the damned walkways! That’s what they’re there for!” shouted Pedro while waving his cane around.
Those who were unwilling or unable to use the elevators still had the option of traveling up and down the large ramps that spiraled around the trunk of every Hylt tree. That was how the elves of old typically got around before those magical floating platforms were introduced. All things said and done, the number of people in Azurvale who performed elaborate acrobatics just to get from A to B was limited to one.
“But doing it my way is much faster!” insisted the catgirl while getting off the ground. “Besides, t’s super fun!”
“Fun?! You’re going to get yourself killed if you keep doing those antics! Not to mention you’ll ruin the roof tiles of my inn! And my guests are already complaining about the racket you make up there every morning! How are you going to reimburse me if my business suffers because of your careless behavior, huh!?”
“Business? Geh! That’s right, I’m late!”
She suddenly remembered the whole reason she had to land on this geezer’s building in the first place.
“I can’t waste my time around here! Catch you later, Pedro!”
“And for the last time, my name is not Pedro!”
Keira ran off towards her destination while magnificently ignoring the elder elf’s protests about some ‘crazy whippersnapper.’ She’d be in big trouble if she missed today’s outing, as Faehorn was quite the strict instructor. Even if she managed to catch up with the rest of her group, she’d likely still have to suffer some sort of punishment for her tardiness. And the scale of her punishment would be directly proportional to how late she was.
That’s why she wasn’t using just her legs, but ran through the streets on all fours. Beastkin like her had a natural aptitude for quadruped running, which made them considerably faster than any other enlightened species. Keira demonstrated this trait magnificently as her graceful, coordinated movements allowed her to move at nearly double the speed of her ‘human’ way of running. Granted it was also far more tiring, but this was an emergency.
In her haste to avoid getting on her instructor’s bad side, Keira caused quite a bit of trouble for the people she passed by on the streets. She ducked under carriages, leaped over stalls, swung around street lights, charged between people’s legs and other such unbridled behavior. While she didn’t really cause any property damage, that wasn’t to say she didn’t startle the crap out of a lot of bystanders.
One such person was a stocky elven housewife who was carrying a bucket of water when the beastkin girl suddenly zoomed past her at breakneck speeds. The old woman freaked out a bit, causing her to drop her bucket on top of an old, disused well she was walking past. Although the rusty grating covering the top prevented the bucket from falling through, the clean water inside it ended up spilling out into the dried up water hole. And although the old housewife was more than a little perturbed at this turn of events, the one who was the most upset about the situation was a certain fiend at the bottom of that well.
“GAH! What the fuck?!” screamed Kora as the cold, filthy water splashed over her head.
“Be quiet you moron!” chastised Xera in a harsh whisper. “This area is off limits, remember?! Nobody’s supposed to know we’re down here!”
“Yeah, I know, I know.”
The two demons continued scouring the old, disused tunnels much as they had been doing for the past week. The reason Xera and Kora were down here was because Boxxy had been looking for a good place to establish a hidden lair ever since it infiltrated the city 12 days ago. It couldn’t just pick any old place for this, because it wanted to make a home using the dungeon core it had stolen from the Spire of the jade King. The blue crystal orb had shrunk down to about 50 centimeters in diameter once it completely lost its MP charge and had been sitting quietly in Boxxy’s storage ever since.
However, in order to properly establish a dungeon, the crystalline core needed to be installed in an environment that already had a high concentration of ambient mana. The Mimic had learned that those colossal plants the elves used as apartment buildings were magical in nature. They pulled vast amounts of mana up from the soil in order to sustain themselves, which sounded like just the thing it was looking for. After all, there was bound to be an overflowing stream of magical energy coursing through the ground somewhere near or under those gigantic roots.
Which is where this ancient, decrepit series of tunnels came into play. Unfortunately, they were unmapped and in horrible disrepair. Searching through this literal maze of tight, winding passages based on nothing more than simple assumption was not the most productive use of the Mimic’s time. The shapeshifting monster was already hard at work establishing a new identity within this city, so it had neither the opportunity nor desire to waste time and energy on something that might end up being a wild goose chase. Thankfully, it knew of two eager demons who could be volunteered to do the grunt work in its stead.
“I just don’t see why that damned pipsqueak was the one who got the fun assignment,” complained Kora as she cleared out a collapsed section of the tunnel.
“Because she actually knows the value of gold. Unlike you, who only knows the value of a tight hole.”
“... Okay, can’t argue with that.”
“Besides, it will be a good opportunity for that girl to spread the Progenitor’s name, not to mention practice her anti-personnel combat.”
Fizzy’s current task was really a win-win-win, no matter how one looked at it. Well, provided she didn’t go and get herself killed while fulfilling her duty, but that was unlikely. Mostly because her recent Rank Up had made her far too durable for her own good.
“Yo, bubblebutt,” whispered Kora. “I think I see something.”
The fiend had just opened a small hole in the pile of rubble blocking their way and was peering through it. Xera leaned in and put her cheek next to Kora’s in order to get a look for herself. And indeed, just as the red-skinned meathead had said, there was a lit torch visible on the other side of the tunnel. Distant shouts could be heard coming down it, although no words could be made out. The succubus immediately contacted Boxxy through the telepathic link.
“Master, sorry to disturb your practice, but I think we found another group down here.”
Xera and Kora were hardly the only ones skulking through these decrepit tunnels, as many gangs and other unsavory elements often occupied them and turned them into hideouts. This was the third time the two demons had discovered one such place. The first time they ran into people down here turned out to be an illegal slave market. The second occurrence was some weird underground pub that could only be described as a wretched hive of pickpockets, thieves, con artists and other assorted scum and villainy. Needless to say, none of those people survived their encounter with Boxxy and its familiars.
“Have you been spotted?” inquired the Mimic.
“No. Not yet, at least.”
“Then stand by and keep an eye on things. I’ll come clean them up in a few hours.”
And it would appear that ‘Mister Sandman’ was about to make yet another appearance.