“That’s the Sandman?!” shouted one of the male elves.
“Well yeah… Maybe… Possibly…”
Keira’s wavering response did not exactly inspire confidence.
“Look, I’m not sure if that’s really the Sandman from the rumors,” said Lola, “but I’ve seen that guy before. We caught a glimpse of him a week ago when we were sent to clear out a group of bandits.”
“Wh-what happened to those bandits.”
Lola gave the male elf a sharp glare.
“Gone without a trace. Not even blood was left behind.”
“And you’re sure it’s the same one?”
“Trust me, there’s not a lot of guys taller than me.”
There was a bright flash of light off to the side that caught everyone’s attention.
“Relax,” said Jules. “Just summoning my familiar.”
Purupururin had re-appeared out of thin air. Her pale countenance reminded everyone gathered there of a rather shameful fact - that they were all very much naked. It was a strange scene where the succubus wearing nothing but high-heeled thigh-highs, a skimpy bikini bottom and a fetishistic corset was somehow the most modestly clothed one around.
“Oh, right!” exclaimed Keira. “I managed to find everyone’s gear!”
She took the large leather bag strapped around her shoulder and set it down on the ground. She then started taking out various pieces of equipment out of it. Apparently it was a high-class Bag of Holding, and the humans had put all the confiscated goods inside.
“... You seriously went around looking for those?” questioned the man from before.
“... I know it was a stupid thing to do but… I couldn’t leave these behind…”
She affectionately rubbed the three iron rings on her right hand.
“Besides,” she added, “I don’t think we would’ve gone far just in our underwear.”
“I suppose it was the right call,” said Lola. “But how did you break out, exactly?”
“Hmm? What are you saying, Lola?” replied Keira with an aloof smile. “We were together the entire time, weren’t we? That mysterious stranger freed us, didn’t he?”
“Huh? But you got carried off by-”
“We. Got. Freed. Together. Right?!”
It was painfully obvious she didn’t want to talk about what transpired after she had been separated from the group. The others made grim expressions as they put on their gear, and shared a few silent looks with each other as if to confirm that touching on that particular topic was a bad idea.
“Say, that’s weird,” said Jules. “I don’t see my staff. Or my rings.”
His armor, cloak and bag of alchemical field kit were there, but the mithril-tipped staff and enchanted jewelry was gone. Others also found various valuable magic items they had were gone.
“I dunno. Maybe they put them in a different bag or something?” offered Keira.
It wasn’t like a certain monster obsessed with shinies had already pocketed them for itself or anything.
“I see… They pocketed the expensive things for themselves, huh?”
Unlike soldiers, adventurers had to procure and provide for their own equipment, so having their prized possessions wind up missing was a bitter pill to swallow. A few of them even wanted to question how come only the catgirl’s rings were left behind, but bit back those words. Even if they were obviously priceless mementos to her, their monetary value was barely in the double digits. Therefore, the group collectively gave up on their valuables, and instead were grateful they at least got the ever-important weapons and armor back.
Once everyone was geared up, they renewed their trek back to base. Fortunately one of the adventurers was a Shaman, a Job that had a wide range of body enhancement Spells. He put a combination of the Breath of the Wild and Windswept Walk Spells on the entire group, which raised their movement speed and stamina. He had been doing that the entire time they were on the run, of course, which was why even the weak-bodied magic users could keep running for a full hour. Which included the succubus currently masquerading as Keira.
Of course, having watched the Boxxy show with great interest while she was ‘away,’ Purupururin knew full well the catgirl wasn’t who she claimed to be. She was quite impressed her fellow demon could pull the act off that well, but it was hardly surprising considering she had a big hand in developing that particular persona in the first place. It was also fortunate succubi had night vision, otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to guide the group as well as an actual Ranger could.
Back on Boxxy’s side, it had continued its indiscriminate rampage, and had managed to slaughter around 700 of the Empire’s soldiers before being forced to pull back. It would have gladly kept going, but it was running out of steam. Even if Butcher of Humanity constantly replenished bits of its HP and MP, it didn’t mean it could keep fighting indefinitely. Still, it lasted much longer than it would have otherwise, and was genuinely thankful for having this Perk for the first time in its life.
As expected, however, the Doppelganger Job barely went up to Level 22 despite having murdered a large number of people during the first phase of the attack. It was a bit late, but it realized that, technically speaking, that Job wasn’t really a combat-oriented one. It really should have looked into obtaining a melee-focused Job on the side, hopefully one that could make use of as many of its varied Attributes as possible.
It wasn’t like it didn’t profit immensely though. Once the witnesses were safely away, it switched to using Spells and fought entirely in its capacity as a Warlock. That, combined with the assistance of Arms and Claws, made its Warlock Job increase all the way up to Level 47, allowing it to pick up a tasty new Skill.
Description: The Warlock’s servants share in the burden of life.
Requirements: Level 45 Warlock, Demonology
Type: Toggled (OFF)
Activation Time: Instant
Range: 100 Meters
Effects: 30% of the damage taken by a summoned familiar will be split evenly between all other active familiars.
Beneficial magical effects will be shared between all summoned familiars.
Passively increases the HP of all summoned familiars by 3% per Level of this Skill.
This Skill had several potential applications, but they all equated to the same result - its minions would be much harder to kill. It also allowed the Mimic to use the relatively short-ranged Dark Infusion Spell to power up all 3 of its familiars at once as long as they were within the very generous 100 meter range of Soul Link. This would, in theory, also work with other strengthening effects, such as Fizzy’s Blessing of Protection or one of the Elixirs of Electricity Absorption the Mimic carried around. It was highly possible it would have some interaction with healing magic as well. Boxxy would need to experiment with the Skill to determine its limits, but it didn’t have the chance to do so right now.
It also learned 2 new Spells through the virtue of Leveling Up. One was a Ruin Spell called Reality Slash, which allowed it to launch an invisible blade that dealt physical damage instead of magical. It was a very useful tool since it would allow it to bypass anti-magic defenses and effects with ease. The other one was Mind Control, which did exactly what it said on the tin. However, Boxxy already possessed the far superior Puppet Parasite Skill, so that particular Spell would probably never see much use. It honestly found most of the Domination Spells it knew about to be rather lacking and unreliable. Even Mass Panic Spell Crystals were made obsolete considering the combination of Butcher of Humanity and Despair Aura had pretty much the same effect. Well, it wasn’t like it put in any extra effort into acquiring those Spells, so it wasn’t like it was at a loss or anything like that.
Which was unlike that Fleet Footed Ranger Skill it was forced to pick up. The slight bonuses that Ranger Skill provided to its Agility (AGI) Attribute were really all it was good for. The monster really didn’t feel like picking it up, but it had little choice in the matter. Adventurer guilds had mandatory Full Appraisals every now and then, and Essence Concealment could only hide parts of its actual Status. Therefore, Faehorn would eventually find out if Boxxy only pretended to pick Fleet Footed. Ignoring the old elf’s sage advice was a very un-Keira-like thing to do, so it already gave up on the Skill as a necessary sacrifice.
Speaking of ‘Keira,’ the group of 11 Republic escapees steadily made their way towards Fort Yimin while the Mimic was enjoying the Imperial harvest. It would appear Snack had skillfully established herself as the de-facto leader of the group and had volunteered to watch their backs while another Ranger took the lead. Well, it was unlikely any of the 8th Imperial Expeditionary Force would dare chase after them considering the living hell Boxxy was putting them through, but keeping up appearances was important. It was also the perfect excuse to allow the succubus and her Master to stealthily swap places (and clothes) while the others were taking a brief rest in the shade of one of the few Hylt trees in the Clattering Plains.
They reached Fort Yimin shortly before sundown - almost a full day after they were captured. Unsurprisingly, their sudden and unexpected appearance caused an uproar. The higher-ups had more or less written them off as dead, and yet here they were - exhausted, starving and thirsty, but most definitely alive. Their identities were confirmed through Appraisal, after which they were taken in to be asked a bunch of questions.
That was how Keira found herself in a tiny room with bare stone walls and a wooden floor and ceiling. It was completely empty, save for the presence of a small square table in the middle. The catgirl was seated at the table in one of the plain chairs and was happily devouring the pile of grilled meat in front of her. She wasn’t quite sure what animal it came from, nor did she care. The superb taste of human flesh was still fresh in the back of her throat, so she just focused on that vividly delicious memory as she thoughtlessly scarfed down steak after steak.
It was at that point Boxxy realized it should really learn how to properly preserve meat. Thoughts of human jerky, smoked liver, pickled hearts and dried fingers passed through its head, causing its appetite to flare up even more. Eating those things bloody raw was perfectly fine, of course, but there were simply way too many bodies for it to devour back in that fight. It had to regretfully leave most of them behind, and the 6 corpses it put inside its Storage were going to start rotting pretty soon. Besides, cooking those tasty things with other moderately tasty things was bound to let them reach new pinnacles of tastiness, right? Therefore, it resolved itself to take a class and properly learn to cook.
Wait, come to think of it, it didn’t really need to do that personally, right? Surely Snack would be able to handle that. Or perhaps Claws could spy on the lessons? Ah, but then again, those two would be unable to learn the Cooking Skill. It was a General Skill that anyone could acquire, but one that took a lot of effort and hard work beyond simple repetition in order to truly master, much like Meditation. While things could be tasty even without it, a high Level of Cooking would definitely be able to make them even better. Thankfully, it knew just the right plant for the job.
Boxxy: Ambrosia, are you there?
Ambrosia: Greetings, milord! ‘Tis good to hear thou art in good health!
Boxxy: Ah yes, hello. Anyway, you can’t cook, right?
Ambrosia: ‘Tis so, milord. I get mine sustenance from the ground beneath mine roots and the sun above mine leaves, after all.
Boxxy: Can you learn to cook, then? For my sake?
Ambrosia: It would be mine honor- nay, mine pleasure to master the culinary arts in thy name, milord!
Boxxy: Very good. Just make sure you focus on meat-based recipes. Use the prisoners for ingredients.
Boxxy was quite looking forward to seeing the very capable dryad’s results. Well, it had some doubts whether their tastes would align, or whether a plant could actually taste things in the first place, but it was worth a shot. However, that would have to wait for later. For now it reigned in its enthusiasm since its MLG detected the presence of people gathering outside the room it was in.
The door opened to reveal the grizzled face of Faehorn, as well as the stern-looking communications officer Keira had been in touch with until recently. The older gentleman sat down opposite the catgirl while the other stood at attention behind him.
“Keira Morgana,” he said with a dry voice.
It made Keira swallow her mouthful of meat audibly while breaking out into a cold sweat. It was the same atmosphere the two had back during her training. A few tense moments passed before a relieved smile floated onto her teacher’s face.
“It is good to see you’re alive, kid.”
“... Ah! Th-thank you, sir!”
“And I believe you already know intelligence officer Underwood from the FIB.”
He gestured at the man behind him, and he and Keira nodded to each other in greeting. Of course, Boxxy was more than a little surprised when it heard the name ‘Underwood’ during its briefing more than a week ago. In the end, it appeared to be little more than a coincidence. After all, the reason it had chosen the name ‘Chester Underwood’ back in Bootlick was because it thought of itself as a wooden chest that had gone undercover. It thought it was being clever at the time, but Snack had kindly pointed out this was actually an idiotic name, so it picked something far less obvious the second time around.
Faehorn then began interviewing Keira regarding the events that had taken place since they last saw each other while Silus mostly stood and listened. The catgirl relayed a similar story as the others. Their team had found themselves surrounded and surrendered as prisoners of war under Axel’s protection, but not before shattering the Comm-crystal as instructed. They were then stripped of their belongings, locked up, and took the opportunity to escape when a mysterious figure raided the Imperial army’s camp.
There was just one discrepancy that Faehorn wanted to address.
“So you say you were freed by this Sandman character?”
“... I already know that’s not what happened, Keira.”
“Wh-what do you mean?”
“Some of the others said you were taken away in the middle of the night by some men and came back looking… different.”
The beastkin fell silent and looked down at her hands.
“Did they do anything to you while you were separated?”
“You’re absolutely sure? Nothing happened to you?”
“Keira. Don’t make me fetch an interrogator.”
“Ah… damn, I’m no good at this…”
“Allow me, sir.”
Silus spoke up for the first time since he had come into the room. He and Faehorn traded places.
“First of all, I apologize for Faehorn’s stern words. I want you to understand, you are here among friends, and you are not under any suspicion or in any sort of trouble.”
The catgirl gave a small nod, showing she understood.
“Now, as good as it is to see you’ve made it back, we need to know where and how you obtained the documents you brought us.”
He was referring to the ‘present’ that Keira brought back - a bunch of maps and letters that she really couldn’t understand.
“Is it okay if I ask you a few simple questions?”
“Very good. Now then, according to your dossier, you have low-Leveled Lockpick and Stealth Skills, is this correct.”
“And I am also led to believe that your claws can be quite dangerous when used properly.”
“Meaning you used your natural born gifts and basic Skills to break free of your bindings while your captors were otherwise distracted.”
Faehorn raised an eyebrow in admiration. He was honestly quite impressed at how tactfully Silus avoided the heavy topic of rape. It was quite clear that, judging from what he had heard, the catgirl had been sexually assaulted. While that both was and wasn’t the case in reality, it was still the only conclusion he could reach. And it was one that he had no idea how to approach.
“Why did you not escape immediately by yourself?” asked Underwood.
“I wouldn’t get far. Even if I slipped away, I’d be killed by the first monster I ran across.”
“So you took the extra risk to go find your gear?”
“Yeah. Facing the wilderness without the right tools is tantamount to suicide, after all.”
She seemed to visibly cheer up at those words, and Faehorn felt even more relieved, not to mention proud. It felt good to see that at least someone had properly listened to his ramblings.
“Did you run across these papers while you were searching for your gear?”
“No. The Sandman started making noise and the way back was filled with soldiers running all over a place. I ended up skulking around at random, trying to hide myself from sight. I ended up in this big tent that had all those important looking charts and stuff, so I swiped them and stuffed them in the bag.”
“I see, so that’s how it was. Tell me, this ‘Sandman’ character - do you know him?”
“No… we did meet though, back in Azurvale. Well, not ‘meet’ meet but-”
“You had an encounter.”
“What happened then?”
“Well, I was taken in by the guards and we had a long talk.”
“Really now? What then?” asked Silus with a serious face.
“Then I went home to my girl- roommate along with Minic. I got scolded for being careless… then we had dinner and went to bed.”
Faehorn failed to stifle a chuckle, while Silus let out a relieved sigh.
“I mean what happened after you got those papers,” he clarified.
“Oh! Right! Sorry!” apologized Keira with a slightly red face. “I, uhm, I followed after the path that guy opened up. He was just cutting his way through their camp, you know! He was super strong and really amazing! And he had all these demons and these flashy lights and-”
Underwood raised a hand to simultaneously interrupt and calm down the overly-enthusiastic catgirl.
“And that’s how you re-joined the others, did you?”
“Ah, yeah. That’s right.”
“Very good, miss Morgana. That’s all I needed to hear from you.”
The stern-looking elf stood up from his seat, leaned over the table and whispered gently.
“I know some excellent people that can help you deal with any and all emotional troubles you might have. I can point you to them if you ever feel the need to let something heavy off your chest.”
“I… I don’t-”
“Remember, the wounds we can’t see are often the deadliest. Best to get them treated immediately.”
“... I see… Just a wound, is it? I think I’ll do that, then. Thanks, mister Underwood,” she said with a weak smile.
“Think nothing of it, my dear,” he answered with a faint smile of his own. “Now then, it’s a bit sudden and informal, but we’re in a bit of a rush, so please bear with me and step outside.”
“Eh? Ah, yes sir!”
Underwood’s face became serious once more as he stood upright with his hands behind his back. Keira and Faehorn followed him out of the room and into the hallway, only to be met with over 30 people that seemed to be waiting for them. Most of them were adventurers, and they were lined up on either side of the hallway while wearing their respective guild uniforms. Among the familiar faces were Keira’s team members - Lola and Jules - as well as many classmates and fellow adventurers she hadn’t seen in awhile, such as the tasty-smelling Lia. The other former prisoners were naturally present, and even Fizzy was there for some reason.
“Legionnaire Keira Morgana of the 3rd Republic Legion’s 1st Scouting Battalion!”
Silus suddenly called out the catgirl’s full rank and name, causing her and the others to stiffen up and stand at attention. She tracked Underwood with her eyes as he walked up to her and stared at her intently, but she didn’t move a single muscle.
“For your exemplary service to the Republic,” he said in a clear, commanding tone, “for showing outstanding bravery and ability in the face of adversity, for going above and beyond the call of duty, for risking life and limb to safeguard the lives of your fellow countrymen, you are hereby awarded with the Golden Crescent.”
The elf reached into his coat’s inner pocket and took out a tiny black box. He opened it to reveal the medal in question - an 8 centimeter-wide literal golden crescent that looked like an exaggerated half-moon. It was delicately engraved with various vine-like patterns, and the initials ‘K. M.’ were clearly stamped in the middle of it. Silus deftly pinned it to the right breast of Keira’s green tunic with the edges pointed upward, almost as if it were a smile. Once he was done, he stood aside and the others applauded and cheered in a rather disorderly manner.
“For your meritorious deeds,” continued Underwood, “you are also hereby promoted to the rank of Decanus. We expect great things from you! Take a good rest and report to my office first thing in the morning the day after tomorrow for your next assignment!”
“Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!” came the genuinely enthusiastic reply from Keira as applause and congratulations kept pouring down on her.
Of course Boxxy was happy. Well, it wasn’t quite sure exactly what this award signified as it had never even heard of it until just now, but the acquisition of a uniquely shiny things such as this was already well worth all that effort. As for the Decanus thing, it simply meant Keira would have ten or so people under her command. She was basically an officer now, even if a low-ranking one.
“People!” shouted Faehorn, causing the noisy atmosphere to grind to a complete halt. “There’s a time and place for celebration you know!”
The others looked at each other with difficult expressions, as if someone had just farted in their salad.
“Which, by the way, are 30 minutes from now, and in the mess hall! Drinks are on me!”
The cheers resumed once more as the gathered rabble dragged the hero of the day off to celebrate. Faehorn watched them go with a smile, while Silus maintained his serious expression. Once the rabble had cleared off, the two veterans stepped back into the tiny, soundproof interrogation room.
“She’s clean,” said the intelligence officer almost immediately. “Well, she probably feels sullied after what happened, but she seemed genuine enough.”
He was lying through his teeth when he said Keira wasn’t under suspicion earlier, although the brief chat seemed to blow most of his worries away.
“That’s good,” sighed Faehorn. “I’d hate to have to put her through any of the more… rigorous interrogation. Especially considering what she brought us.”
The plans Keira had brought back were still undergoing analysis, but they clearly showed the humans were aiming to siege Fort Yimin within the week. This was much earlier than anticipated, and the forces they were sending were overwhelming.
“I just hope the poor kid isn’t traumatized by the end of all this,” said the worrywart of a Ranger.
“Indeed. Well, that’s why it’s important to let her and the others make happy memories while they can.”
Objectively speaking, their chances of holding the fort were next to nothing. An ambush in the wilderness was one thing, but a siege was a place where soldiers had the definite edge over adventurers. Well, it wasn’t like the Republic didn’t have any trained military personnel, but it was sorely lacking when compared to the Empire. They would be able to delay them considerably with the forces they had on hand, but they would undoubtedly fall within 10 days.
“This Sandman character, though,” said Faehorn with a frown, “Just how is he related to all this?”
“I can’t say. His motives, methods and movements are all unclear at this point. However, like it or not, we do owe him.”
Silus reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a torn, wrinkled and slightly stained piece of paper.
“Literally,” he stressed while passing it to Faehorn.
“Something that was dropped off in front of the gates earlier today. It was nailed to the dismembered head of one Lord Hayhurst, former commander of the 8th Imperial Expeditionary Force.”
Faehorn took the piece of paper and looked at it with ever-widening eyes.
“Is this a joke?”
“Do I look like I’m laughing?”
Sandman Assassinations Inc.
Att: To whom it may concern, 3rd Republic Legion
Payment terms: to be received within 5 days. Tell the cat-eared beastkin to drop it off at the 600 year-old Hylt tree south of the fort. Or else.
We appreciate your patronage and look forward to doing business with you again in due course.