The group of 6 men responsible for leading the 8th Imperial Expeditionary Force were convened in a large white tent stained red by the setting sun. They were seated around the 3-meter wide stump of a chopped down Hylt tree as if it were a table. In fact, this flat surface was the main reason they pitched the commander’s tent over this particular spot. Humans liked their large tables, after all. However, the looks on their faces was anything but jovial, and for good reason.
“So. What’s the final verdict?”
The man that spoke up first was Lord Hayhurst, who was the highest-ranking commanding officer in charge. He was a heavy-set man with a short-yet-thick black beard and hair, and spoke with a commanding tone fitting of his station.
“Permission to speak freely, your lordship?”
The one that answered him was a brown-haired, clean-shaven youth that served as quartermaster.
“Denied. Just give me the facts, Simmons.”
“Yes, your lordship. We lost all the horses, almost all our supplies, and 1,346 of our men are dead or unaccounted for.”
“Disgraceful,” said a middle-aged bald man with an eyepatch.
“You’re out of line, Hale,” replied the lord with a stern voice.
“Am I? How many times did I tell you not to underestimate those fucking twigs?! I kept telling you my scouts noted suspicious movements, but you didn’t listen!”
“With all due respect, sir,” spoke up a lanky, blonde-haired man, “we seemed to have been within their grasp even before we crossed the border.”
“The horses… the poison in their bodies was something they’d been carrying for the last several days. It’s highly likely we would have lost them even without this morning’s ambush.”
The intense-looking Hale quieted down at the chief apothecary’s words. As the one in charge of scouting and gathering information, he understood that the failure of preventing such sabotage fell squarely on his shoulders.
“How did they manage to poison them so thoroughly?” asked Hayhurst. “And why only the horses?”
“I’m unable to confirm it at this time, but they likely contaminated the grass and shrubs along our path.”
“I see. If they applied wide-range poison attacks outright then our healers should’ve been able to deal with them with their magic. We’ll need to notify the other regiments to be more careful of what their animals graze on.”
“I’ve already sent word via Comm-crystal, your lordship.”
“Very good. What of the camp’s state?”
“We’ve mostly managed to secure our position and establish a perimeter,” said Simmons the quartermaster. “However, we’re having trouble procuring lumber to establish proper fortifications, and what little remained of the supplies will not last us long.”
“What about the supply drops from the griffins?”
“They reportedly met with heavy anti-air fire and were forced to withdraw.”
“Local procurement efforts, then?”
“... We’re still looking into it, your lordship.”
As expected, feeding a force this big without the pre-prepared rations was no easy task. It was made even harder considering their location on the edge of the Clattering Plains. The seemingly endless field of green grass and shrubs had very little to offer in the way of trees or wild game.
“I guess we’re going to be stuck here, then,” lamented Hayhurst.
“Probably just what those twigs wanted,” noted the one-eyed Hale.
“... That reminds me, I heard your men captured some prisoners?”
Hale’s scouts that had spread ahead of the main force had turned around when they heard the thunderous roar of that landslide. Although not many, they did manage to intercept and delay a number of enemy combatants until their allies caught up with them. While some tried to fight back and were killed in action, others immediately threw down their weapons and surrendered.
“Yeah, we got 3 groups of them, 11 in total,” confirmed the one-eyed man, “although my men were not too happy about it.”
Those foot soldiers wanted nothing more than to get revenge for their comrades, but it couldn’t be helped. Attacking the elves once they had shown clear signs of surrender would have incurred the wrath of Axel, the God of War. That deity abhorred the idea of slaughtering those that had lost the will to fight and admitted defeat. It was something that extended towards the cold-blooded murder of civilians and other noncombatants by an invading force.
“Did you manage to get anything useful out of them?” asked the Lord in charge.
“No. They didn’t have any documents or anything like that, and they broke all their Comm-crystals the instant before or after surrendering.”
“Hm, as expected.”
It was possible to peer into how a Comm-crystal was used by reading residual magic imprinted within the crystal, due to a common flaw within their design. A skilled Enchanter would be able to use those remnants to replay any and all communications used within the last 30 hours or so. It was possible to eliminate this flaw in theory, but doing that would reduce the Comm-crystal’s range from a few dozen kilometers to about 20 meters, which would render it effectively useless.
“What about interrogations?”
“Pointless. There’s no way those twigs would tell those grunts more than they need to know. If any of ‘em knew something of value then they wouldn’t let themselves be captured in the first place.”
“Excuse me, your lordship.”
The quartermaster suddenly raised a hand.
“What is it, Simmons?”
“I’ve heard talk among some of the men about… ‘using’ the female elves we captured.”
“Tell them to keep it in their pants. We’re not savages.”
“Savages that would resort to ambushes and poison, then run away from a fair fight?”
“Pretty much anything goes in war, Simmons. The fact we got done in so easily merely proves our own failure as soldiers. Hmm, no, that’s not quite right. We got outplayed by adventurers, didn’t we?”
Although similar on the surface, there was a huge difference in mindset between those two occupations. While trained military personnel were generally speaking stronger in a straight up confrontation, they were not nearly as flexible or adaptable as a skilled adventuring party. The main problem with including both types of people into an army was that of authority, as adventurers generally had trouble following orders. Not to mention they lacked crucial knowledge and discipline required when pulling off large scale tactics and formations. Even if that ambush earlier was effective, that disorderly retreat proved just how hard it was to coordinate between so many small groups of people.
Still, the Empire’s opponent this time was the Republic, who freely used those imaginative and free-spirited individuals. What they had accomplished today was a one-sided victory, even if it was a relatively small one.
“Shall I send word to hire some consultants, your lordship?” offered Simmons.
“Indeed. Just make sure we triple-check their backgrounds. Next, I want to discuss our steps for the future.”
The setting sun slowly but surely descended beyond the horizon as the post-ambush meeting carried on. By the time it was disbanded, it was already pitch black out, aside from the well-lit and hastily constructed guard posts. The fact the humans had managed to erect guard towers and fences to protect themselves in the span of half a day was already a testament to their tenacity.
Quartermaster Simmons walked out of the command tent, parted ways with the other officers and made his way over to where the prisoners were being kept. There were a total of 5 steel cages lined up in the open, and were also surrounded by a several guards. Two of the men stationed there greeted the officer with salutes. However, the quartermaster was not there for idle chit chat and merely informed the soldiers of Lord Hayhurst’s decree - the elven prisoners were not to be touched.
“... That’s a shame,” said one of the guards after his superior had gone back to his tent. “They really are quite the beauties, aren’t they?”
He turned around and looked them over. Of the 11 prisoners captured, 6 were female, and all of them were quite attractive. Although this ratio was pretty common among adventurers in the Republic, the Imperial army was overwhelmingly male.
“I’ll say,” murmured his colleague. “The tall blonde one is especially my type, you know.”
“The abs are a turnoff for me. Much prefer the soft-looking green-haired one on the right.”
Of course, being made prisoner meant the vast majority of their possessions were stripped from them, leaving them in just their undergarments. Not only that, but the fact they had MP-draining collars around their necks and iron bindings around their wrists and ankles only seemed to fuel certain fantasies. In short, the sight of those women was like spotting an oasis in the middle of a desert.
“Still, that Simmons sure is something to take our joke to the Lord himself.”
“I’ll say. Gotta be careful what we say around that guy.”
Naturally they wouldn’t just rape these women just because they felt bitter or pent-up. They still had their pride as soldiers. In fact, the widespread rumor that Imperial soldiers raped those they conquered was really just that - a rumor. Just something that the Republic government quietly spread among their populace in order to make their adversaries seem more evil than they were. Well, such incidents did happen when discipline was allowed to slacken. Even if they were rare and the responsible parties were thoroughly punished, it meant that, unfortunately for the Empire, it wasn’t a completely unfounded rumor.
“It really is a huge shame though,” repeated the first guard.
“Hey, come on, you’re better than that.”
“Easy for you to say. I haven’t had a chance to do it in months.”
“Well, you heard Simmons. The elves are not to be touched.”
“... So it’s okay as long as it’s not the elves, right?”
The guard nodded his head towards the cage at the far end - the one that had only a single occupant in it. It was a beastkin girl with cat ears and a tail. She had been given her own cage since she had made quite the unfavorable impression during the battle and the guards were wary of her. More than a few people were able to identify her as the main culprit behind torching the vast majority of their supplies. The eye-catching crimson hair, the bright yellow eyes and the healthy-looking tanned skin just stood out way too much, even in the heat of battle.
“You can’t be serious.”
“She’s a prisoner. Also she’s basically still a kid. Not to mention she’s a freaking cat!”
“A cat is fine too.”
“I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation!”
“Have you actually taken a good look at her?”
The sensible one rolled his eyes, but had to admit he hadn’t really done so. He ended up almost unthinkingly staring at her exposed body. Of course, the person in question could hear them perfectly, and she glared daggers at them while curling up to cover up her features with her hands and knees. That did little to conceal her unearthly charm, however. The guard found himself momentarily captivated by the sight of her slim-yet-feminine body as the light of the surrounding torches danced around her. Even that thoroughly disgusted face she was showing was somehow enticing.
“... Okay, you might have a point there,” he consented after a while.
“Look,” whispered the other guard. “We can just take her in for ‘interrogation.’ Nobody has to know, right? The other lads can all have a turn. It’s the least we can do to pay her back for all she’d done earlier.”
The sensible one found his resolve wavering. After that grueling day, he was one of the unlucky ones assigned to stand out here for most of the night. To say he was feeling stressed out would be an understatement. Not to mention he couldn’t get the image of that near-naked catgirl out of his head, no matter how much he tried.
“... It’s not technically violating orders…”
Despite his better judgement, he ended up going along with this clearly immoral plan. The other guards stationed there were also quietly let in on the scheme. There’d be repercussions if they were found out, and it was a clearly stupid idea, yet they all eventually fell in. Thus, in the middle of the night, while they were sure everyone but the perimeter guards were asleep, a pair of guards quietly carried off the heavy cage with the catgirl in it.
Of course, she woke up almost immediately and rattled her chains around in a panic. She opened her mouth to scream, but the magic collar on her neck prevented her voice from leaking out. Her resistance was cut short when one of the guards pointed a blade at her, sending a very clear message. Even if they were unwilling to outright kill her, that didn’t mean they couldn’t hurt or mutilate her.
She was silently brought inside a small tent in the darker section of the large camp. One of the guards unlocked her cage and started taking off the lower portion of his armor. The other one remained inside the tent and kept a close eye on her, presumably to make sure she didn’t try anything funny.
It was thus that the beastkin girl’s lower garment was thoughtlessly ripped off as the man forced himself on her without holding back in the slightest. Her mouth opened wide as she failed to scream, while tears streaked down her eyes. The man grunted with a primal edge as he eagerly thrust himself in and out of her deliciously tight passage. He found the world around him become fuzzy and unimportant, all that mattered to him was the warm, undulating hole wrapped securely around his member. His orgasm came almost all-too-quickly as he pumped his seed into his seemingly unwitting receptacle. His seed just kept flowing out of him as his climax rolled on. And on. And on. And on.
10 minutes later, all that was left of him was a shriveled-up corpse. The catgirl silently licked her lips in delight. Her wrists and ankles deformed as if they were made of clay, allowing her to easily slip out of her shackles. She then walked out of the cage and reached down to pick up the keys that had been simply left there. She unlocked her collar with a small click and let out a satisfied sigh. It really had been far too long since this succubus called Snack had a real snack of her own, and the fact she was bound and gagged only stimulated the masochist inside her.
Her performance was all part of the plan that the real Keira - or at least, as real as a persona made up by a murderous box could be - had put into action earlier in the day.
Boxxy and Xera had traded places during the chaos following the ambush with relative ease. The Mimic then silently guided its ‘comrades’ so they would be captured and forced to surrender. Purupururin was killed on the spot, as expected, while the others were taken into custody. It then stealthily took over the guise of one of the guards using the Broken Reflection Skill and had enticed the others into falling for the succubus’ wiles. It would have done so itself, but severely doubted the effects of its Butcher of Humanity Perk would let it do that. After all, the Pheromone Control Skill was already working overtime just to counterbalance it. And then, once it and the lust-addled guard got to the tent, it allowed the succubus to ‘occupy’ the man while the Mimic went off to make itself useful.
And the reason it went through all this was quite simple - it was to let ‘Keira’ have a plausible means by which she could escape. Not only that, but Boxxy had silently been able to procure some important-looking documents while Xera was having her fun. That way, it would surely be lauded as war hero by the time it came back to the elves. Receiving more recognition and more trust would only allow its Doppelganger Job to soar to new heights, not to mention some other tasty advantages.
But what about the other prisoners? The kind-hearted Keira would probably not selfishly escape by herself, right? Even if it was objectively speaking the right course of action, she was hot-blooded and rash, and would not just abandon her comrades like that. Besides, it clearly saw some of the other prisoners stir, and they most definitely noticed that the succubus-turned-catgirl was being carried off somewhere. They were important witnesses that could testify as to her awesomeness, after all.
Returning with those guys in tow was therefore bound to be even more impressive, but doing it without revealing its nature was immensely difficult, especially with those guards around. A Level 29 Ranger being able to take down 5 of those soldiers in close quarter combat was impossible no matter how one looked at it. It was plausible she could somehow deal with 2 guards while unarmed due to the catgirl’s sharp claws, but this and that were different stories.
Still, there was a way around it.
Back at the other 4 cages, the stationed guards as well as the now-awake prisoners were both getting restless, albeit for entirely different reasons. It was not a secret to any of them as to why Keira was carried off somewhere, but more than 40 minutes had passed since then. Just as the guards were thinking of doing something about it, however, they spotted something in the air. Something so surreal, it took them a few moments to process it.
Blazing through the night sky was a Meteor, a destructive siege-type Spell available to mid-Level Pyromancers. And judging from the size of it, this one held quite a bit of power. The guards and the prisoners all stared in silent shock as the inexplicable thing crashed somewhere into the opposite end of the camp.
The thunderous roar and gigantic fireball it raised instantly kicked the soldiers’ trained bodies into gear. The sounds of battle could be heard in the distance within the next few seconds as the Imperial army engaged whoever or whatever was attacking them. There was shouting, and metal clashing against metal. The lights of multiple Spells lit up the night sky as more and more soldiers scrambled to their feet, geared up as best they could and went out of their tents and rushed towards the site of the disturbance.
The quintet guarding the prisoners felt like joining in as well, but they couldn’t just abandon their posts. The possibility of this being a distraction to free the prisoners were high - the timing was too good, and the absence of their 2 colleagues confirmed that. They resolved themselves to stay firmly in place unless ordered to otherwise. However, much to their surprise, they learned that they didn’t need to go to the battle.
Because the battle came to them.
Two towering figures, each of them well over 2 meters in height, made their way through the sea of Imperial soldiers in front of them. One was a four-armed, red skinned woman that sent grown men literally flying with each swing of her armored fists. The two massive horns on either side of her wild green hair made it perfectly clear she was a demon. Her well-muscled body was covered in wounds that oozed with black blood, yet they didn’t seem to slow her down in the slightest. In fact, judging from the ecstatic look on her face, she was having the time of her life.
The other figure was that of a heavy-set man wrapped in a plain, brown cloak that had been thoroughly soaked in wet, sticky blood. His face and hair were wrapped in a blue cloth, showing only a pair of circular yellow eyes that glinted from within. He held a sword in each hand, and wielded the twin blades with deadly efficiency. Soldiers lost their lives every time he moved, finishing them off with high-speed consecutive slashes that turned their bodies into minced meat. It wielded them with deadly efficiency, and Imperial troops lost their heads every time those arms moved. Although the demon was quite formidable, she couldn’t even match up to the sheer horror the humans felt towards that thing.
Combining the effects of Butcher of Humanity and the newly-acquired Despair Aura had produced a terrifying result, in every sense of the word.
Of course, it wasn’t just Boxxy and Kora running wild. A black, vaguely spider-shaped shadow moved across the chaotic battlefield, reaping the lives of humans with silent glee. Drea happily impaled, stabbed, dismembered and took bites out of any soldiers she came across within her Master’s vicinity. She had no idea a noisy place like this could be to her liking, but the way her Master’s terror-inspiring presence demanded everyone’s attention meant she was free to move as she pleased. Some of those men didn’t even realize that those standing right next to them had been beheaded in an instant. The ones that did, well, they just succumbed to their panic and only added to the confusion.
And as if to punctuate all this, another Meteor - the third one of the night - came crashing down on top of them. The resulting shockwave and flames quickly scattered the surrounding army, creating a lull in the battle. The elven prisoners were awestruck, so much so that they hadn’t even realized when the 5 guards around them had been beheaded. The cloaked man that was undoubtedly the perpetrator glanced over in their direction, sending shivers down their spine.
However, much to their surprise, he didn’t attack them. Nor did it free them. It simply took a breather, re-summoned its fiendish familiar to replenish her strength, and moved on with its rampage.
“Guys! I’m here!”
Just as the sounds of battle started picking up once more somewhere out of sight, a scantily-clad Keira appeared from the shadows. She hurriedly unlocked their cages and bindings with a set of keys she must have lifted off her captors, and swiftly directed the 10 ex-prisoners to follow her. They managed to take advantage of the chaos spreading throughout the camp and made their escape while relying on Keira’s excellent eyes to guide them through the darkness.
An hour later, they found themselves, naked, cold and hungry while standing in a wide-open plain with absolutely no cover, but they had managed to put several kilometers between themselves and that hellscape. Most of them were still reeling from the harrowing experience of being imprisoned, not to mention the truly terrifying creature they briefly locked eyes with. The mad dash they had underwent immediately after was only the icing on the cake, pushing them to the brink of mental and physical exhaustion. Even the stoic and abnormally athletic Lola found herself gasping for air under the faint light of the night sky.
She had been so focused on running with all her might, that she completely forgot to ask any questions. And now that she finally had a chance to catch her breath, questions were all she had. About what happened to Keira. About how she managed to escape from her captors. About what was in that bag she was carrying. About how they were supposed to make their way back to base without any gear or weapons.
However, looking into the still-blazing camp in the distance, there was only one her troubled mind truly wished to know.
“Who… What was that?”
“I believe, that,” said Keira with an exhausted smile, “was the Sandman.”