A group of five Imperial soldiers were seated around a small campfire, sharing stories and drinks as they focused on unwinding before the big battle. Even if their bodies felt full of energy despite the nearly non-stop marching and physical labor, the mental exhaustion was another thing entirely. Something their higher-ups fully understood, which was why they not only allowed this current state of relative debauchery and all around undisciplined behavior, but practically ordered it. Maintaining the troops’ morale was pivotal if they were going to maximize their chances of taking New Whitehall.
Which was why one of these men was openly sharing a story that involved searching for a missing ring while heavily drunk on Rotgut.
“So when I finally woke up, I realized that the thing in my house wasn’t an angry bear, but my pissed off wife!”
The group shared in brief, but hearty round of laughter.
“But yeah, as I was saying,” continued the storyteller while wiping away his tears of joy, “that’s why you wanna be careful around a married Druid.”
“I always thought Druids would make great mothers, though,” chimed in one of the others. “I mean, what with their nurturing nature and soothing personalities and whatnot?”
“Oh yeah, great mothers for sure. Probably even better wives… so long as they’re not a feral like mine.”
“... A ‘feral?’ What?”
“That’s them, y’know, Druids what change into beasties rather than waving them pretty lights around,” explained someone in the group.
“Huh. Well how about that? Didn’t even know Druids could- Wait! So Ed’s wife was a literal bear at the time?!”
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?!” exclaimed Ed. “Well, more of a were-bear thing, but close enough.”
“Ed, I do not envy you.”
“Eh, it’s not all bad. Even if she has a bit of a temper and her sense of humor flew south for the winter… and pretty much the rest of the year… she’s still the finest woman I know. Really wild in the sack, too!”
“Oy lads!” shouted one of them while getting up and running off somewhere. “We gotta stop that!”
The others followed his finger and saw a wagon loaded up with wooden crates rolling down a small hill. It was gradually gaining speed as it headed towards a series of large tents that were draped in white-and-blue stripes as opposed to the solid, off-white canvas that the grunts could use.
The five men, along with pretty much every Imperial soldier in the immediate vicinity, ran out to intercept the runaway wagon. A dozen or so of them managed to grab it from the sides and push it from the front, stopping it just a few meters from their upper brass’s quarters.
“Phew, that was close,” commented someone in the crowd.
“Aye, that took a lot more effort than I was expecting!”
“Yeah no wonder,” called out one of the men on the side. “This thing’s so overloaded the brake’s snapped clean in half!”
He patted the side of the wagon, where the lever-operated mechanism that was meant to keep the wheels from turning had clearly been broken.
“Those idiots from logistics again? Why I ought to-”
“You ought to what, Private?!” came a commanding yell from the side.
The men almost instinctively formed two lines and stood at attention at that voice. A slightly older soldier with a large fissure-like scar on his bald head paced in front of them menacingly. He looked over the stiff troops, the formerly-runaway vehicle, the trio of extra-large tents, then turned his attention back to the men.
“Not bad, maggots,” he said in a calm but stern voice. “Good to see you’re not completely unaware of your surroundings. Now get that wagon out of here and find the one responsible for securing it. On the double!”
“Sir, yes, sir!”
While the hard-ass Sergeant was busy organizing a swift and efficient cleanup of the almost-disaster, Drea was currently rooting through one of the tents that had nearly been flattened by the wagon. Of course, this was no mere coincidence, as the Stalker was the one to set the whole thing in motion, just so she could sneak into the secure area.
And ‘secure’ was definitely the way to describe it. The large tents were in the middle of open, well lit ground and had people watching out for anyone wandering in or out of them. Attempting a direct approach was too risky, even for the Stalker. Her solution was to discreetly and carefully prepare the over-burdened wagon, sabotage its breaks and then send it careening down hill while she clung to its undercarriage. The guards noticed it and sprang into action to stop it, just as she knew they would. Taking advantage of the commotion and low cloud of dust, the nimble demon sprang into action. She slipped between the Imperial soldiers’ feet, made a long horizontal cut on the tent’s canvas, ripping apart both the fabric and any enchantments that may have been placed on it. She then slid through the newly created opening and sealed the hole behind her with her webbing. And all that took no more than two seconds.
As for why she targeted these tents in particular, it was simply because it was painfully obvious they were important. The location, the guards, the size of it, the coloration of its canvas - even that ridiculous flag pole stuck in front of them all screamed ‘I’m right here! Please come in and kill me!’ to someone like her. Even after spending a total of 500 years in the physical realm, these humans’ obsession with pointless pageantry and needless showing off still remained a mystery to her. Didn’t they realize such things only made it easier for assassins like Drea to locate their target?
Admittedly, unlike mortal professional killers, the Stalker had the luxury of returning to the Beyond no matter how many times she had been captured and/or killed. And such failures had indeed happened dozens of times, although the fault for the vast majority of those lay with her previous masters’ lack of foresight rather than herself. For example, only an idiot would think a Stalker created by a Level 7 brat would be able to infiltrate a nobleman’s estate and assassinate his entire family. Even if she had a natural disposition for such things, there wasn’t much she could do with a pathetically weak body like that.
Well, even if assassination wasn’t the main goal of this particular mission, gathering intelligence from the enemy’s base camp involved much of the same motions. Unfortunately, the objective wasn’t as simple as ending someone’s life. Indeed, no matter how much she rummaged through the dark tent, she failed to find anything of value. No documents, no maps, no memos - nothing that could be of use in a war. There were some personal items and a few letters, but none of them were related to the war effort. In fact, the only thing worth of note was the suit of armor hung up on a nearby stand. The metal was an off-white that made her think of mithril, although that wasn’t quite it. What really peaked her interest, however, was the strange reddish sheen on it.
“Master, I think I’ve found a VIP’s quarters,” she reported. “There is no intel, but there is an enchanted, custom made suit of almost-mithril armor.”
“It’s white, but nowhere near as shiny as Fizzy. I’m no expert, but if memory serves human smiths are partial to creating alloys rather than working with pure metal.”
“I see, so they diluted the shiny. That’s a shame. What about the enchantments? Can you tell me what they are.”
“I’ll check right now.”
Typically speaking, there were two ways to verify the properties of magic items. Either through a Scribe’s appraisal, or by putting them on and taking note of what effects they had on the Status. Well, Drea was not a Scribe, nor could she equip the gear due to the huge claws poking out of her hands, feet and back, but she had her own way of doing things. Stalker demons like her could quite literally taste magic and Drea’s palate was refined enough to let her differentiate between enchantments by flavor alone.
Which was she was currently slobbering all over that piece of armor as she unabashedly licked it top-to-bottom.
“All the pieces have been bestowed increased toughness,” she reported. “The chestplate has fire resistance and Endurance enchantments. Strength and Wisdom on the right gauntlet, Agility and Intelligence on the left. There’s night vision and MP regeneration on the helmet. The leg plates improve HP regeneration and provide all-purpose magic resistance. The greaves just reduce stamina consumption. All of them seem to be highly potent.”
“So it may not be shiny, but it’s definitely tasty, huh? Hmm… Any distinguishing features on it?”
“Quite a few. The helmet, greaves, shoulder pads and gauntlets are adorned with religious decorations and engravings related to the worship of Teresa.”
Both Kora and Xera felt the urge to make a rude comment or two when they heard the Goddess’s name, but they couldn’t since it would violate their orders regarding idle chatter. After all, baseless speculation regarding Teresa’s frigidness were not exactly mission-critical..
“I see,” mused Boxxy. “Definitely not standard-issue Imperial gear, and only a VIP would be able to afford something ridiculous like that.”
“My thoughts exactly, Master.”
“It’s a crying shame it isn’t shiny, but I suppose it wouldn’t be prudent of me to just leave it behind. Prepare for transfer.”
Drea relocated herself to a slightly quieter corner of the tent and waited for a few minutes. After receiving a brief update from Boxxy, she was once again flung through the reality warping rift of the Transfamiliar Spell, leaving her inside a large and mostly empty wine barrel. She didn’t question how or why her Master managed to sneak in here without breaking it apart, but she wasn’t about to complain about a secure hiding spot like this. After about another minute, she was transported back to her previous spot, which looked pretty much the same, sans the now missing set of armor.
“Looks like I got my tentacles on something valuable after all,” commented Boxxy. “Keep up the good work, Claws!”
After happily receiving that tiny bit of praise, Drea slit open the tent’s canvas on the opposite from where she entered in the first place. Now that she was within the secure inner perimeter, she could move to the neighboring one without any problems, making sure to close up the gaping holes with her webbing whenever possible. A patch job like that wasn’t going to fool visual inspection for long, but would be enough to avoid drawing undue attention from fleeting glances.
The second tent seemed more like someone’s private office rather than sleeping quarters, although the owner was currently out. There was a table with a chair in front of it in lieu of bedding, a total of 7 books strewn about the place and a lit lantern hanging from the canvas overhead.
On top of that simple table was a rolled up parchment, which upon further inspection was revealed to be a map of the Rainy Woodlands around New Whitehall. It looked subtly different from the one Boxxy showed its minions during the briefing and had a few areas circled in ink, but was otherwise unremarkable. There was also a stack of what appeared to be reports regarding the Republic’s activity in the region, although the dates stamped on them revealed that they were at least 5 days old.
The Stalker contacted Boxxy and reported her findings.
“It’s not much, but it’s something,” answered the Mimic. “Gather the intel and bring it with you, I’ll pick it up later.”
“At once, Master.”
Drea quickly gathered up all the documents and books she could lay her claws on and bound them together with some of her sticky webbing. The resulting pure-white pouch was then securely strapped to her abdomen. One might think covering paper with that stuff would be ill advised as separating the pieces of paper from one another could damage them, but that wasn’t necessarily the case. Since the white spider silk Drea released from her hands was manufactured with magic, it would evaporate into nothingness in about an hour or so anyway. This was a far cry from the lavender-colored Demon Silk produced by the spinneret between her butt-cheeks, which used the Stalker’s food intake as raw materials to make permanent spider thread.
After double checking she had taken everything of note from the area, Drea moved onto the third and final tent of this little enclave. This one, however, was completely different from what she was expecting. For one thing, it was much better furnished and more lavishly decorated than the other two. Animal skin rugs covered much of the ground and various ornaments and small sculptures were placed atop high-quality wooden furniture. The desk, the cupboard, the wardrobe full of fancy clothes and the honest-to-goodness queen-sized bed made the place look like a high-class residence rather than a hastily erected tent in the wilderness. Not only that, but the temperature was probably regulated by magic, as the air in here was noticeably warmer.
The ornaments laid out were also quite intriguing. The nearby desk, for example, had a gilded pen and a golden ring with a large, square-cut gem resting on it. A jewel-encrusted sword was propped up against the wardrobe, although Drea got the distinct impression it had never tasted blood and was probably ceremonial in nature. On the nightstand next to the bed stood a mithril statuette of a half-naked woman dressed in some type of flowing robe. The Stalker was slightly taken aback by that one, as she was honestly surprised the figure could stand upright considering how… disproportionately top-heavy it was.
And the likely owner of all this stuff that had no place on a battlefield was the person snoring quietly on the bed - probably the only human who was currently sleeping in the entire Imperial camp. As if sensing Drea’s puzzled gaze on his back, the man began shifting under the covers. The Stalker instantly ducked behind the wardrobe and kept a close eye on him.
Several minutes of staring later, she had been convinced that he hadn’t awoken, but merely turned over in his sleep. Drea left her hiding spot and silently skittered over to get a close look at his face, as she felt somehow drawn to it. She loomed over him and nearly squealed in response to just how ridiculously handsome he actually was. It wasn’t just about the perfectly sculpted facial features. It also wasn’t the silky black hair and well-groomed goatee. Neither was it about the roguish smile that naturally formed even when he was asleep.
It was all of that and more, as he practically exuded charm, ruggedness and elegance all at once just by lying there… breathing. His presence alone was so enthralling, that he could probably sweep any woman, and perhaps even a man or two, off their feet just by saying ‘Hello.’ Drea, who was also technically a female, had also been captivated by this man. Without even realizing it, she had already climbed onto his bed and was looking down at him while on her knees and hands. She lowered her body and her head, allowing their face to draw closer together in one long, smooth motion. A few agonizing moments later, they were so close that she could feel his hot breath on her skin. She kept shortening the nearly non-existent distance between them even further as she unknowingly, unwittingly and unerringly placed her lips on his.
Her mandibles then dug into the sides of his face and dug deep into his immaculate flesh. The human woke up and tried to scream, but his lungs had already been pierced by a quartet of scythe-like blades. What pathetic voice he managed to get out was stifled as it went down the demon’s throat, along with his entire lower jaw. He struggled in vain for a while longer, until Drea put him out of his misery by stabbing him through the heart.
The Stalker lifted her head and sat back atop the corpse as she savored the taste of this irresistible meal she had found for herself. After licking her bloodstained lips and letting out a few tiny moans of satisfaction, she unhinged her lower jaw and took a huge bite out of his right shoulder, which she chewed slowly with full cheeks and a smile on her face.
“Claws!” shouted Boxxy, directly into her head. “What did you just do?!”
“Oh hey, Master!” she replied in a jovial tone. “Just ate some guy. No big.”
“Guy?! What guy?!”
“Dunno. He was sleeping here and he looked so incredibly cute that I could help but eat ~♪. Him ~♪. Up ~♪!”
“Wait, you just killed someone who was sleeping?”
“Inside one of the big tents in the camp?”
“And he was good looking, with short black hair and beard?”
“I see… So that’s why I got 5 Levels out of nowhere…”
“Nevermind that, what’s the condition of his body?”
“Reporting that it is extremely delicious!”
“That’s not what I meant, idiot!” it roared angrily. “I need to know if he’s still in one piece or not!”
The demon snapped out of her gluttonous trance and audibly swallowed her mouthful, even though it wouldn’t impede her telepathic conversation.
“Uhm, w-well, the, uh, half the face is gone. So is his right arm. And shoulder. And liver. Also a third - no, make that half of his left leg. Oh wow, I didn’t even realize I had taken so many bites out of him already!”
“... Is the heart still there?”
“What do you mean sort of?!”
“W-well, h-half of it is still in his chest.”
“And the other half?”
“I… may have eaten it.”
In the next moment, Drea could’ve sworn she heard unmistakable sound of an open palm colliding with a face at high velocity resound within her skull.
“Well, it’s not a big a deal anyway,” said the Mimic with a disappointed tone. “His corpse wasn’t going to be of much use anyway. Yeah, on second thought, absorbing it could backfire anyway.”
Oddly enough, those words seemed to be directed at itself rather than Drea.
“You’re still eating the body, aren’t you?”
Technically speaking, although ‘stop eating the guy’ was heavily implied in Boxxy’s words, it was not directly stated. And since it wasn’t, the gluttonous Stalker saw no reason to stop sampling the delicacy in front of her eyes.
“... Did you eat the other half of the heart, yet?” asked Boxxy expectantly.
“Of course not, Master. I was saving it for you since it’s your favorite part!”
She also made sure to slobber all over it in order to try out this ‘indirect kiss’ thing she heard about from Zolmegnara, her demonic sister. Apparently it was kind of a big deal in the Pearly Dunes where her sibling’s contractor lived, and Dreaheath had to admit the concept definitely sounded exciting.
“Oh, nice! Then you can just eat the rest. Except the head… what’s left of it, at least.”
“Aww… But I wanted to carve the skull into a bowl and slurp out the brain!”
“Too bad. My orders still stand - do not touch, nibble, bite or even lick the head.”
“... I can still eat the neck and spine, though, right?”
“Hmm? Yeah, sure, just make it snappy. The mission’s more or less over so we’ll be leaving after a few minutes.”
“So boss, about that distraction,” butted in Kora, “is it still a thing that could happen?”
Inquiring about her role in this operation had allowed the fiend to bypass the ‘idle chatter’ ban that Boxxy placed on her earlier.
“No, that won’t be necessary.”
“Not even as a ‘farewell gift’ to the Empire? I’m sure that Bonerwood fellow wouldn’t mind if we thinned out their numbers a bit!”
“Uh, no. There’s no reason to declare our retreat like that, you idiot.”
Even if the shapeshifter’s meddling would be impossible to hide at that stage, it was better that the humans found out about it later rather than sooner. Besides, tough as she was, Arms could not kill more than 3 or 4 of those guys if she was all by herself.
“Oh. No, I suppose not,” said the fiend dejectedly. “I mean, both Bug-face and the Slutmeister got to enjoy themselves during this field trip, so I just thought… y’know… you’d let me smash some skulls just for the heck of it…”
“Reporting that Koralenteprix is being particularly pathetic right now,” butted in Claws.
“You’ll get plenty of that in a few days, so quit your moaning,” declared Boxxy.
“... Yes, boss. Sorry, boss.”
Meanwhile, the succubus that was on her way back to New Whitehall was currently working on solving an age old philosophical conundrum. Namely - ‘If a succubus mocks someone behind their back but nobody is around to hear her, does it make her a bitch?’
Unsurprisingly, the answer she eventually arrived at was a resounding ‘Yes.’