Silus Underwood took a deep breath as he observed the mountainside around him. An endless sea of snow-covered pine trees stretched out to the left and right of him. Immediately behind was a large wooden lodge, while in front was a wide downward slope covered by fresh powder. Of course, said slope had not occurred naturally, but was something made and maintained by the proprietor of this resort.
“Excuse me, sir?” spoke up the elven Scribe that worked as his assistant and secretary. “Are you sure this ‘trip’ is necessary?”
“Of course I am, Astros. We all deserve a break, especially since it was our actions that brought an abrupt end to that pointless war.”
Word of what happened at Fort Yimin had spread throughout the Empire’s ranks like swine flu. The country’s leaders received hundreds of reports and sent several scouting missions to confirm them. The result was that the unthinkable situation where their force of 30,000 people and 6 VIPs had been completely wiped out was indeed real. It took a mere 4 days after the failed siege for the Emperor to pull away all his troops and agree to a 5-year peace treaty between the two nations. And since both parties made a binding oath before Teresa, Nyrie and Axel, there would be very little chance of it being broken prematurely.
Of course, this wasn’t the end of it. It was doubtless that the Empire would use this time to sharpen their fangs and evaluate the dryad threat. 5 years was plenty of time to devise countermeasures and strategies to avoid another Honeytrap. Of course, the Republic’s leaders were making preparations of their own. Their goal for this half-decade was to forge a military alliance with the dwarf-and-gnome populated Horkensaft Kingdom. It didn’t take a genius to realize those shorties would be targeted next should the Empire gobble up the Republic.
But, at least for the moment, the elves could enjoy the brief respite from that ghastly war business.
“I know that,” argued Astros, “but I personally do not feel that bringing the Exarch all the way out here was a good idea.”
The Scribe tilted his head towards his side, towards the elected leader of the Ishigar republic. He was an elderly elf, whose face was lightly wrinkled. He had short black hair with a receding hairline, and wore a pair of goggles on his face. He was dressed with a casual-looking padded jacket and trousers, both yellow in color, and wore some heavy black boots. A pair of thick gloves on his hands also served to protect him from the cold.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” said Underwood. “We reserved this place just for us, and we brought a few squads from the 3rd Legion here with us for protection.”
Indeed, the myriad of other people around were wearing similar clothes to the Exarch, except their colors were dark gray, bordering on black. About 30 of them were keeping an eye out for any potential threats and there were even several beholders floating around. There were about 15 others who had distinguished themselves during the war and were here as guests of honor. Of course, the majority of those people were the ones who survived the historic siege at Fort Yimin.
“Besides, we’re deep in the Republic’s territory. In fact, this remote region probably makes us more secure than if we were to stay in the capital.”
“And the Legate approved all this so easily?” asked Astros.
“The man’s right there, you know.”
The Scribe turned his attention towards where the Exarch was, and realized that the leader of the 3rd Legion was right next to him, and the two were having a talk about something or other. He failed to notice Aidun at first since he was wearing the same outfit as the commoners, except for a number of shining medals on his chest.
“Very well,” said Astros with a sigh. “If all of my superiors deem it a good idea, then I have no say in the matter.”
“Nonsense. It is important to speak your mind. You have to understand those in power are also capable of making mistakes. If you spot a potential problem, it’s your duty to report it immediately.”
“Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!” he replied with an enthusiastic salute.
“Ah come on, don’t go all military on me like that. We’re not at war anymore and you’re not technically part of the army, right?”
Astros was not an officer, but one of many adventurers that got drafted shortly before the start of the conflict. Of course, those people were discharged once the armed conflict with the Empire was settled.
“... Right, sorry Silus. I got a bit over-excited.”
The two of them shared a light chuckle, while two of the guests of honor walked past them. Both of them were carrying thin boards with rounded edges that were almost as long as their owners were tall. Astros watched curiously as they set them down, stood sideways on top of them and then kicked off. They slid down the specially prepared slope while turning left and right while using their whole bodies.
“This ‘snowboarding’ is quite interesting, isn’t it?” said Underwood.
“Indeed. I had no idea such a thing existed until yesterday.”
“Unsurprising. It was something that popped up recently about 6 or 7 years ago. A strange man settled down in the area and made this resort. Said he brought this ‘snowboarding’ thing over from his homeland. It’s somewhat of a niche hobby, but has been steadily gaining popularity.”
“I can understand that. It does seem thrilling in a way.”
“Oh, it is! It’s very good fun, I suggest you give it a try sometime.”
“Uhm, Silus? You know how you told me to point out potential problems?”
The scribe pointed in the opposite direction of the slope. On the snow-covered ridge above the wooden lodge were a pair of figures. One was a gnome-shaped mithril golem. The other was a fully armed and armored dwarf. They seemed to be arguing about something.
“Those are guests from the siege,” explained Underwood. “No need to worry about them.”
“No, I know who they are. That’s exactly why I’m worried!”
“... Good point. Let’s go put a stop to that right away.”
However, before they could reach them-
“I hit plenty of stuff with this thing, but it never went off. So what gives?” complained Hilda.
The dwarf was swinging around the club-shaped Boomstick Fizzy had made for her weeks ago. It was heavily dented and a few cracks were visible here and there, showing just how much abuse it had been under.
“That’s strange,” said the golem. “The firing mechanism is pretty basic.”
“So... what? Did ye gave me somethin’ cheap?”
“Not really. The more basic a mechanism is, the more reliable and sturdy it becomes. Less moving parts, you see.”
“Right, right… So then why didn’t it go off?!”
Fizzy sank deep into thought as she examined the battered item with her eyes. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with the device, yet it didn’t work as intended. Was this some flaw in the components? No, the gnome had personally forged them so she was sure they were quality goods. In truth, the fact that this thing was still holding itself together despite all the abuse it went through was a testament to her crafting prowess. So then, if it wasn’t a structural issue, then perhaps it was an OHT problem?
“... Did you push the trigger?” she asked.
Fizzy facepalmed so hard it produced a loud, bell-like gong. As expected, it was an Operator Headspace and Timing issue. Possibly aggravated by a lack of RTFM.
“Yes, trigger,” she groaned. “You know, the small button on the handle? The one I put in so it doesn’t go off on accident? The one I told you about at least 6 times?”
“D’oh! I completely forgot! Ye mean this thing, right?”
“... Did you just-”
Hilda gave her Boomstick an overly-enthusiastic swing before Fizzy could stop her.
That proved to be the final straw, as the abused Artificer-made weapon finally broke. The sheer speed and force of Hilda’s arm caused the handle to snap, sending the now-armed payload flying off into the distance. It flew off the ridge, over the the lodge and landed in the middle of a group of people, where it once again demonstrated Fizzy’s crafting prowess.
By exploding violently, of course.
“Gah! What’s going on?!” blurted Underwood in a panic. “Is the Exarch okay? What about the Legate?!”
That mysterious explosion had originated exactly where those two were standing, so his worry was very much real. Even if their clothing had protective enchantments, it was still just padded cloth and fur.
“Primus! Sir!” shouted someone off to the side. “They’re up above!”
Silus’s eyes darted upwards, only two see two smoking and singed figures flying through the air. Their gear had done its job and absorbed much of the damage, but was ripped to shreds in the process. The members of the 3rd Legion stared dumbly in disbelief as the unconscious Exarch and Legate soared above them in a grand arc while wearing nothing but their underpants.
Incidentally, the Exarch wore briefs, while the Legate had a pair of white-and-green striped boxers.
“Secure them at once you idiots!” shouted Underwood.
“Y-yes sir!” replied the others in unison
Having snapped out of their shock, the troops all began running in the direction their leaders were flying. The pantsed duo made touchdown a few seconds afterward. The Exarch crashed into a bystander, knocking them both over and kicking up a cloud of white powder in the process. The Legate landed on the slope face-down and proceeded to slide down head-first at breakneck speeds.
“Shit!” cursed Underwood. “You guys go after the Legate, I have the Exarch!”
A dozen or so Legionnaires ran down the slope after their boss while Silus went to check on the Republic’s top brass.
“Are you okay?!” he shouted into the snow cloud.
A head covered in crimson hair and sporting two triangular fuzzy ears popped up out of it.
“Ah, I’m fine, mister Underwood!” said Keira in a cheerful tone. “Accidents like this do happen since everyone here is a beginner. It’s no big deal!”
She then obliviously kicked off and slid down the slope without waiting for the elf’s reply. Her motion dispersed what was left of the snow cloud. Underwood felt an ice-cold chill run down his spine, as he realized that the catgirl’s snowboard was left behind half-buried in the snow.
“H-hey. HEY!” he shouted. “THAT’S THE EXAAAARCH!”
Keira was currently going down the slope while using the barely-clothed Exarch as a snowboard. She rode on his back while his face dragged across the snow in front. She caught up to the group chasing the Legate and greeted them with a wave.
“Hello everyone! Having fun?”
“H-huh?” replied one of the troops. “Decanus Morgana?”
“Be careful, okay?!” said the catgirl as she picked up even more speed.
“W-wait! What’s that you’re riding!?”
However, the man’s shouts fell on deaf ears as Boxxy was focused entirely on doings its best not to fall over and make a fool of itself. It even had to get rid of its MLG due to all the beholders flying around, which only made it more nervous.
“Huff huff huff huff huff huff!”
The severely panicking and heavily sprinting Underwood caught up with his men almost immediately after.
“S-Sir! Decanus Morgana just-”
“I know! Huff huff huff! I’m working on it! Huff huff huff!”
I’ll never catch her at this rate, his racing thoughts said. I need a board! Oh, there’s one!
Jumping on the snowboard that was conveniently around let him use gravity to more easily accelerate down the fairly steep slope. He lowered his body and stabilized his stance, allowing him to gain that crucial bit of extra speed. He had already learned to snowboard years ago, so he was able to steadily catch up with the oblivious catgirl.
“Stooop!” he screamed several times, but to no effect. It wasn’t until he came up to her side that she finally seemed to notice his presence.
“Didn’t you hear me telling you to stop you airheaded fuzzball?!” he shouted angrily.
“Huh? Mister Underwood, what are you doing here?”
“Who cares about that?! Look below! Below!”
Keira glanced down at her feet, only to realize the strangely soft board she was riding was, in fact, a person.
“Ack!? When did this happen?!” she blurted out.
“Don’t give me that shit! Do you even recognize who that is?!”
“And just who do you think your board is?!”
Silus dumbly looked down, only to realize he was riding the Legate in much the same way.
“Ack!? When did this happen?!” he blurted out.
“You’re the same as me then, aren’t you?!”
“Doesn’t matter! You have to stop right now!”
“I’d have stopped if I could! I’m barely a beginner at snowboarding, so how am I supposed to know how to stop a person?!”
Of course Keira had plenty of ways to stop. Unfortunately, all of them would blow her cover. Well, since she was already in this mess and Underwood was basically an accomplice, Boxxy decided to play this one out.
“So what do we do?!” she asked. “Pretend we’re out in the country where it’s warm and fuzzy?”
“And how is that supposed to help?!”
They argued back and forth as the Legate and Exarch’s faces bounced off small bumps in the snow.
“Wait! I think I’ve got it!” exclaimed the catgirl. “His underpants - when I pull on his underwear I slow down!”
And indeed as if to prove her point tugging on the Exarch’s briefs kicked up a good amount of white powder and visibly slowed her down.
“What?!” said Underwood wide-eyed. “You can control elfboards with their underwear?!”
He then tentatively tried pulling on the Legate’s boxers.
“Oh! It works! But, we’re leaving a strange track behind, aren’t we?”
Indeed, looking at their path there was a long, narrow and slightly curved gash in the snow.
“What is that?” he asked incredulously.
“It’s the track left behind by the brake, of course!”
“Brake?! Where would be there be a brake on an elf’s body?!”
“The penile break!” she exclaimed while tugging on the Exarch’s briefs with a confident smile on her face.
Underwood’s stressed out mind nearly snapped in half at those words. It would seem that pulling on their underwear caused their members to extend, which dug into the snow and slowed them down.
“Wait!” he shouted. “You mean this is that?! That’s not a break!”
“Close enough. It’s long and hard, and does the job right!”
“Cut that out! And please stop using that break! He won’t be able to leave behind any children!”
“We don’t have time to argue! The priority is to stop them both right away! We can just give them a potion or something later!”
Just as Keira finished her argument, she, Underwood, and their two elfboards hit a snowy ramp that caused them to gain a good deal of air. They somehow managed to land without crashing or falling over, but heard a strange squelching sound as they did. Looking behind, they noticed a pair of red stains in the snow, along with two trails of what could only be blood leading directly to them. It took but a moment for realization to hit them.
They broke. The brakes.
Looking back in stunned silence, both of them completely failed to realize where they were headed. Before they regained their senses, the slope suddenly became much steeper and countless green pine trees sped past them on either side.
“Shit, we veered off the trail!” shouted the elf. “Gah! Someone stop us already!”
As if to answer those prayers, a female voice came from the side.
“Primus, sir, are you okay?! I’m coming to help!”
The green-haired Ranger Lia, who was also one of Underwood’s subordinates, was catching up to them on her own board.
“Hold on!” she shouted.
She expertly dodged and weaved between the trees, until she was right on Silus’s left side, while Keira was to his right.
“Miss Torlee, you’re...” muttered the elf who was at his wit’s end. Seeing that marvelous performance and control made him feel relief for the first-
“Everything’s fine now that we’re here!”
Underwood glanced at the direction that second female voice came from. Namely - at Lia’s feet. He saw the figure of the fully armored, two-meter-tall Lola, gliding across the snow on her back with a confident expression on her face.
“Why the heck are you two acting like elfboarding is a perfectly normal activity?!”
“I was learning how to snowboard,” explained Lia, “but I accidentally ended up riding Lola instead. And then I discovered she’s much easier to handle than an actual board! I guess it’s because we’re such good friends, huh?”
“You’re not supposed to use your friend as a board, you know!” complained Underwood.
“Let me show you how to properly ride an elfboard, okay?” she continued, seemingly ignoring her superior’s remarks. “First, you grab onto your board’s Comm-crystal.”
She held up a blue, softly glowing cube.
“This will serve as a handle and let you steer your board.”
“No, no, no, that’s impossible! In the first place, please understand that not all elfboards come with Comm-crystals!”
“Oh my! That’s terrible! You can’t control your board if you don’t have a-”
A random protruding branch knocked the Comm-crystal out of her hands and nearly threw her off balance.
“Nooo!” she wailed as it landed softly in the snow far behind her. “What do I do?!” she started panicking. “I can’t do anything like thiiiis!”
“Why did you even bother coming out here in the first place!?” snapped Underwood.
“I have some advice for you,” said Keira calmly with a wide smile. “Have you ever heard of a penile break?”
Those ridiculous words that were inappropriate in every way possible sent poor Silus into total despair. His mind had completely given up and was drawing a complete blank as the trio of runaway elfboards glided ever downwards the narrow corridor in the forest.
“Oi Undy! Ye okay?!”
The elf turned around when he heard a voice that could belong only to Hilda. However, while that dwarf was indeed there, she had brought something outrageous with her.
*THUMP THUMP THUMP*
Namely a gigantic snowball that bounced around as it headed right towards them, threatening to crush them into paste. Hilda’s head that was sticking out of the center of the snowball and moved around along with the ball’s rotation. The speed was so high that Underwood only caught glimpses and after-images of her.
“I’m comin’ to help ye!” she stated confidently.
“You liar!” retorted Silus. “Clearly you’re the one who needs help! You can’t do jack shit!”
“That ain’t true! I’m gonna save ye all, just you wait!”
Just then, the afterimages of the dwarf’s head were replaced by those of a pigtailed, pure white gnome.
“We’re all going to die…” came the despaired, metallic voice.
“... Huh? What?!” shouted Underwood.
“If ye give up now, then that’s game over!” came Hilda’s high-spirited words.
“The worst part is,” wailed Fizzy, “you’ll die while still clinging to false hope.”
“There’s someone chiming in with really negative remarks in there!” pointed out the male elf to nobody in particular.
“Oi! Don’t be fooled!” cautioned the dwarf.
“By your bullshit?” argued the golem.
“What the heck are you two doing? This is like that whole angel/devil whispering in your head thing!”
“No,” came Hilda’s suddenly dark voice. “I am not me. I am not you.”
“But I am me and I am you,” echoed Fizzy.
“That’s right!” they called out in unison as a black miasma spread across the snowball. “There is no black or white! All will return to true darkness!”
Underwood was about to completely lose what few marbles remained in his possession, when the pitch-black ball suddenly glowed with a prismatic radiance so bright it nearly blinded him. He, Keira and Lia all stared dumbly at the inexplicable phenomenon before them. As the dazzling light faded away, they were able to make out a third, completely new head that blurred past their vision. It was a grizzled male human with a large scar across his cheek and a stoic expression on his unshaven face. Both Silus and Boxxy instantly recognized him as Edward Allen, spymaster to the Emperor himself.
“I’ve been waiting inside the snowball this whole time,” he stated, full of confidence.
“Say, Hilda-” uttered Underwood.
“Fizzy-” chimed in Keira.
“Have you ever heard of a penile brake?” they uttered at once with cold glares in their eyes.
“Huh?” replied Edward with a stupid look on his face. “What are you two on about? I mean- Hey! What are you two doing in there! No, wait-”
Every creature on that mountain then heard a shrill voice.
Charlie, the God of Probability opened his eyes. He had just finished running a practically impossible simulation inside his divine noggin.
“Heh, that’d be fun if it could happen for real,” he said to himself. “Should I make the necessary arrangements? Ah, but I already know how it ends, so that’d be no fun, huh? Mmm, but part of me wants it to happen so bad…”
He let out a deep sigh.
“Better not. I always tend to go overboard at this time of year.”