Silus Underwood stared out of a window while savoring a cup of hot tea. His office, stationed on the 4th and final floor of the New Whitehall City Hall building, normally had a superb view over the city’s low rooftops which contrasted beautifully with the untamed Rainy Woodlands on the horizon. Right now, however, said view had been obstructed by the morning fog, which made it hard to see anything more than 20 or so meters away. Even so, the middle-aged elf could just barely make out the silhouette of the half-dismantled Forest Gate in the center of the adjacent plaza. He took a sip of the teacup in his hands as he yet again considered just how expensive it would be to replace it after the war.
“Heheheh,” he chuckled dryly.
The fact he was allowed to even consider such a thing was an indication that somewhere along the way he started believing in the Republic’s ability to face the Empire on equal footing. Of course, this wasn’t something fleeting like optimism or hope, but the result of the gambit he and his superiors took on those five ‘little’ dryads. Being able to refocus much of the manpower and resources dedicated to Fort Yimin’s defense to this region had given them a fighting chance. And, much like the 2nd Legion’s chief analyst liked to say, chances existed to be taken.
But it wasn’t just the Republic and the Empire that felt the outcome of that siege. The elves’ resounding victory had consequences that reached beyond their borders, particularly relating to the neighboring Horkensaft Kingdom. Their royal court had been more or less gripped by indecision regarding the subject of the ongoing conflict. Some claimed it was in the nation’s best interest to cement their amicable relations with the Lodrak Empire and distance themselves from the Republic. Others maintained that a strictly neutral stance was the best course of action, while a third faction demanded they offer their aid to the elves.
Regardless of their stance, however, each noble house was motivated by the same thing - fear. Fear of the Imperial war machine that had conquered five sovereign human nations in the southern reaches of the continent over the last 300 years. Fear that, should the elves fall, the dwarves and gnomes would be next on their platter. Fear that should they turn their backs on their neighbors, they might suffer some sort of retribution in the form of a Calamity of their own. Fear that choosing a side and losing out on lucrative trade deals would cause their own coffers to suffer greatly.
Ultimately, the voice that won out was the pro-Republic faction led by a dwarf bearing the noble name of Sugrus Steelhead. The fact that the elves had shown the ability to fight back against the Imperial threat at Fort Yimin had given his cause great weight and helped him convince the king that the time to take action was now.
However, openly taking a side in a conflict seemingly unrelated to them was not something the nobility of Horkensaft could afford to do at present. Fear and speculation aside, this was still not their war. As such, the most they could do was answer the Republic’s pleas for aid by allowing them to ‘hire’ a 1,200 strong contingent of their own forces as ‘independent mercenaries.’ Although it seemed relatively minor, it was a token of support that the elves were very grateful for. After all, a dwarven phalanx was a formation so notoriously tough to break through that it was often rightfully compared to a steel curtain.
And if they could hold New Whitehall long enough, then they just might be able to stop the Imperial advance in its tracks.
*Knock knock knock*
Underwood tore himself away from the window when he heard the rapping on his office’s door. He sat behind the desk, placed the now empty teacup back in its saucer and prepared himself for his first visitor of the day.
“Enter,” he called out.
The door opened to reveal an elven woman that bore a dark green military uniform. It was almost identical to the one Silus was wearing, except for the shoulder patches that were stamped with a ‘II’ rather than a ‘III.’ She looked to be about 23 to 25 years old, had lime green hair and mismatched blue and green eyes. Her figure, if described in two words, would be ‘unfortunately flat.’ She also suffered from a condition known as ‘resting bitch face,’ which meant that relaxing her facial muscles made her look like she was pissed off at something.
“Good morning, Primus Underwood,” she said with a salute.
“Good morning, Primus Underwood,” he repeated.
Cecilia Underwood was an elf born to a completely different branch of the distinguished family that Silus also belonged to. Even if they bore the same last name, however, these two were total strangers until the latter was transferred to New Whitehall along with the 3rd Legion. They did not get off on the best foot, either, as seeing someone much younger share the same military rank as himself had injured Silus’s pride.
Such pitiful differences were quickly put aside, however, as there was still a war to win. Besides, even if they were equals in military rank, their duties were much too different to draw any kind of comparison between their abilities. Where Silus was someone in charge of helping coordinate troop movements and gathering intelligence, Cecilia was the one currently in charge of analyzing said intelligence and providing strategic counsel to the Legate of the 2nd Legion.
“To what do I owe this visit?” asked Silus.
“I believe your ‘package’ is here.”
Cecilia motioned towards someone standing in the hallway, and a Legionnaire carrying a large wooden box entered the room. Following the female officer’s instructions, he carefully placed it on the desk, saluted and exited the room, closing the door on his way out. The clearly unamused woman remained at the foot of the desk with her arms crossed.
“Is there a problem, Cecilia?”
“That’s putting it mildly, Silus. When I first heard about the ‘contact’ you made at Fort Yimin, I thought it was some kind of twisted practical joke. And seeing this ‘delivery’ for myself makes it difficult for me to think of it as anything but.”
Silus stood from his desk with a sigh and walked around to get a better look at the delivery in question.
“Can’t blame you for your skepticism. I had much the same reaction when he first made contact with me. Well, at least your first interaction with him was through a box instead of a severed head.”
The woman raised her thin eyebrows and cocked her head meaningfully towards the wooden container in question.
“... He put someone’s head in there, didn’t he?”
Cecilia nodded and Silus sighed in response.
“Alright, let’s get this over with.”
The elf grabbed the box’s lid and lifted it in one smooth motion. Just as his colleague had implied, there was indeed a human head in there. Unfortunately, what she neglected to mention was that it had only half of its face left since the lower jaw seemed to have been torn off, making it a much more grisly scene. At the very least the Sandman seemed to have had the decency to drain the remaining blood out of it, although the dead people smell was just as unwelcome. Even so, Silus was not exactly the squeamish type. As a Rogue in service to the Republic’s Foreign Intelligence Bureau, or FIB for short, his past duties often involved getting his hands dirty. In fact, one could argue doing so was still very much in his job description, albeit in a slightly more figurative sense.
However, while this was hardly the first severed head he had seen, something seemed familiar about it. Even with the lower jaw missing, he couldn’t help but feel like he’d seen this man before, but couldn’t quite put his finger on it. At least, not until he saw the note glued to the underside of the wooden lid in his hands.
Sandman Assassinations Inc.
For services rendered:
Payment terms: to be received within 5 days.We appreciate your custom! I look forward to doing business with you again in due course.
“No…” he muttered as he glanced between the invoice and the black-haired head on his desk. “No. No no no no! NO! They dragged him into this, didn’t they?!”
“What’s wrong, Silus?” asked Cecilia, prompting the older Underwood to point at the head inside the box.
“This… This is… I- I thought I was imagining it at first, but…”
“Spit it out already!”
“That’s Charlton in there! The Jonas Charlton!”
“Oh, you know, nobody important,” he said in a sarcastic tone. “Only the GREATEST BARD OF OUR GENERATION!”
“Okay? Aaaand I should care about a dead Bard because… ?”
“No, of course you wouldn’t give a damn!” wailed Silus. “You haven’t seen him- haven’t heard him! The man has an angelic voice that floats such melodious and heavenly tunes, that it makes the Gods weep. The sun rises from the east just to hear his melodies. We’re talking about a man that could make thousands of people dance in joy just by banging a pair of rocks together.”
Cecilia took a few discrete steps away from Silus as he raved about the former performer.
“And yet here he is. On my desk. Dead as a doornail.”
He drooped his shoulders and leaned heavily on his desk.
“Have I mentioned how much I fucking hate this war?” he mumbled to someone who wasn’t there.
After sufficiently calming down and finding someone to take care of the late Bard’s remains, the two Underwoods began sorting through the other contents of the box. Although Charlton’s head was definitely the most… prominent object, it was hardly the only item in there. There were also a couple of brown paper packages bound together by string, supposedly the ‘sensitive documents’ mentioned in the grim invoice. At the bottom of the box was the promised signet ring with which the Bard stamped all his fan mail.
Boxxy had obviously been rather reluctant to part with that particular piece of jewelry. Not only was it sufficiently shiny, but also appealed to its rapidly developing collector’s spirit. Unfortunately for the Mimic, it had severely underestimated the Bard’s popularity, as 1 in 3 people would have probably been able to identify him even without the ring. The shapeshifter could hardly be blamed for this miscalculation since it had no idea who this Jonas Charlton fellow was supposed to be or what he looked like. At least, not until it coaxed the relevant information out of the drunken Imperial soldiers.
Back in Underwood’s office, Cecilia had taken a seat next to Silus and the two of them were currently sorting through the documents that murder-in-a-box had appropriated. They skimmed over the folded-up map, outdated Imperial scouting reports and personal correspondences, but learned next to nothing regarding the humans’ plans for the upcoming battle. They would still provide insight into how much they knew of the elves’ operations after a more thorough analysis by Cecilia and her assistants, but that would be the extent of their usefulness. As such, the only truly important piece of intelligence was what the Sandman had written in his personal report regarding the mission Silus had entrusted the hood-for-hire last night.
The operation had three key objectives. The first was to infiltrate the enemy stronghold by any means necessary in order to gather intelligence. The mysterious vigilante-cum-mercenary had obviously accomplished this judging from the other documents, but the actual means through which he had done so were omitted from the report. Not that such details mattered to Silus. The Sandman had claimed he could do it and had delivered on his word, which was all the elf needed to know.
The second objective was to discover the means through which the Empire had mobilized so quickly and, if possible, eliminate the cause. Apparently, this is where Jonas Charlton’s assassination had factored in. According to information gathered from interrogating Imperial foot soldiers, the Bard in question was actually an Ultimate Skill user, which came as a surprise to Silus. The elf didn’t doubt the talented individual would reach the peak of his craft eventually, but had no idea he had done so already. All things considered, perhaps even calling him a musical genius would be an insult to his abilities.
As for the Skill itself, it was something called the Song That Never Ends. It was a powerful tune that gave anyone and everyone within earshot nearly limitless stamina, while also both preventing and curing hangovers. That secondary effect implied it was an Ultimate intended to be used for celebratory purposes, but its military applications were plainly obvious. The Skill also supposedly had two downsides. One - that unlike a certain dwarf’s Tempest of Rage, it provided its beneficial effects to all targets within the effective range, regardless of allegiance. And Two - the user was exempt from the effects, and performing it was extremely exhausting. This meant that even a Level 100 Bard could not perform it for more than 12 to 14 hours a day.
However, that still proved sufficient as it simply meant that the Bard took shifts between playing and sleeping on the move while the troops marched forward without end. Fortunately for the Republic, it would appear that Charlton was a relatively recent addition to the Empire’s forces, otherwise they would have already reached and raided the city before the siege of Fort Yimin had even begun.
Thus, having successfully identified the means through which the Empire’s advance had suddenly sped up, the Sandman had carried out his mission and ‘eliminated’ the threat. As much as the musical aficionado in Silus wanted to condemn him for doing what he did, he couldn’t bring himself to do so. Not only was this for the good of the Republic, but it was his own orders that caused it in the first place. Logically speaking, the Sandman had done nothing wrong, and if anyone was to blame for the Bard’s untimely demise, it would be the ones who put him in that camp to begin with.
The third and final objective of the shadowy mercenary’s mission was tied into gathering any and all information regarding the status and movements of the enemy army, particularly regarding the three VIPs purportedly attached to it. Well, the previous segment already revealed it was actually four VIPs, but the Sandman had already corrected that mistake, as it were.
The first among them was already known to Silus as one Bernard Samson. Although far from Level 100, he was still a significant threat. As Teresa’s chosen Hero of the Hammer, he wielded fearsome divine power that made him a formidable threat. His signature Skill - Judgement From Above - had the power to turn his conviction into a weapon, smiting down everyone and anyone who he saw as evil. And considering how the Empire publicly blamed the Republic for the Cataclysm that destroyed the place their Hero was born and raised in, the young man completely believed the elves to be the villains. After all, things like ‘justice’ and ‘evil’ were not concepts, but perspectives. And if the FIB knew anything of Spymaster Edward Allen, it was that he was not beyond further twisting the Hero’s broken heart just to turn him into a weapon against the Republic.
And indeed, just as Cecilia had speculated, the young man had received a lot of favor from the Empire. The Sandman himself seemed to have deduced this much based on Bernard’s much-too-expensive suit of heavily enchanted armor. At the very least he had deprived the Hero of his little ‘gift’ by disposing of it. As for the Hero himself, while he was present at the camp last night, the Sandman didn’t even try to assassinate him since it would put both his life and the operation at unnecessary risk.
After all, the blond, spiky-haired human was wide awake and surrounded by soldiers, unlike a certain Bard that had been accidentally turned into Stalker food.
The second VIP that the Republic had been expecting was the angelic Monk that had identified herself as Zone during the siege of Fort Yimin. While not present at the camp last night, the Sandman had at least managed to confirm she had been re-assigned to this front. He also managed to obtain some news regarding the third and final VIP that the FIB had caught wind of. It wasn’t much, but it was still a lot more than what the Republic’s intelligence agency had caught wind of beyond him simply being ‘there.’
According to the report, the VIP in question was a man bearing a uniform that marked him as a member of the Gilded Hand, just like Zone. His equipment suggested he was a magic user, although the details regarding his Job or Level were unclear. It was, however, safe to assume he would be a formidable threat considering he was a member of that ruthless Spymaster’s squad of hand-picked elites.
“What do we know of the Imperial Spymaster’s movements?” asked Silus after he and Cecilia finished poring over the report.
“Nothing, as per usual. We have no way of knowing that monster’s whereabouts unless he wished us to know. But, judging from the movements of his colleagues, he seems to have taken an unhealthy interest in dungeons, regardless of which side of the border they’re on.”
“Dungeons, you say? What could places like that offer to a man like him?”
Cecilia briefly pondered whether she would share her suspicions, but decided it couldn’t hurt.
“... Probably has something to do with Tol-Saroth,” she declared. “Sealed records regarding the sage’s research had references to a stolen dungeon core he used in his experiments.”
“Huh. Are dungeon cores a thing that can be stolen in the first place?”
“Judging from how at least two of the dungeons on our soil no longer have them, I’d say that’s a yes.”
“What? But what would the Empire want with them anyway?! They only spew monsters, not to mention that I don’t see how Tol-Saroth is involved in-”
Silus’s words ended abruptly as the gears in his head started churning away at high speed.
“Tol-Saroth… Dungeon cores… Monotal was near a dungeon… The Calamity? Surely the Empire aren’t trying to weaponize something like that, right?!”
“Of course they are,” shot back Cecilia. “So what if thousands of their countrymen died to it? You think that’s going to stop those hypocrites from using it against us? Or the rest of the continent, for that matter?”
“I see… Then, could it be that the whole Monotal incident was their doing?”
“That’s my current hypothesis. That entire region is- was secluded and low profile - not the worst place to conduct experiments on dungeons. However, I doubt they’d willingly bomb their own people - they’re not that stupid. An accident or misfire would be the most likely explanation.”
“And of course the Empire would never own up to their own fuck-ups,” added Silus, “so they used the Hero’s testimony as leverage to paint the Republic as the one responsible for it. After all, nobody would doubt the words of the one chosen by the bloody Goddess of truth and justice.”
“And bingo-bango, they suddenly have a ‘just cause’ to attack us,” finished Cecilia.
“I must say, this is quite the theory. It makes sense, but is a bit too far fetched.”
“I will admit, it’s out there. Of course, it doesn’t help that we’ve found no hard evidence to either confirm or deny it. In my personal opinion, however, there is a non-zero chance that this scenario is frighteningly close to the truth.”
“... A ‘non-zero’ chance, huh?”
“What? Did I say something strange?”
“Kind of. It’s just that, prior to the war’s outbreak, a friend once told me he heard there was a ‘non-zero chance’ of the Sandman aiding our cause.”
The elven woman closed her mismatched eyes for a few seconds as she sorted through her memory.
“Ah, you would be referring to Milo Faehorn, yes?”
“Indeed. Did you know him?”
“Yes. I did. Professionally and personally. You know, I was the one who told him about that in the first place, although I wasn’t being entirely serious at the time.”
“That still means you were at least partially serious, no?”
“... I admit, I may have been slightly obsessed with the Sandman at the time. At least with the idea behind him. A vigilante with a mysterious past working outside the law in order to enforce it. It’s quite the romantic notion, isn’t it?”
“Heh. I guess you weren’t thrilled to find out he’s just another common killer.”
“No, I really wasn’t it. Although I would hardly call him ‘common.’ Tell me, Silus, what do you think of him?”
“Don’t play dumb, Silus. You’re the one that’s had the most opportunity to interact with him. Not to mention you’re a ‘people person’ to begin with. I’m sure you’ve already profiled him.”
“... I have noticed certain behavioral patterns, yes.”
“And those would be?”
Silus didn’t particularly want to share his professional opinion of the shady mercenary, but he did technically owe Cecilia since she told him about the Spymaster’s supposed movements and shared her theories.
“For one thing,” he began, “his primary goal is to make money without antagonizing the government or the populace. That’s why he offers his services in exchange for coin rather than resorting to thievery or banditry, and also why he strives for a certain degree of quality in his work.”
“Repeat business is good business, huh?”
“Precisely. Which leads me to the second point - he is a shrewd and intelligent individual. Extremely resourceful and with a superhuman amount of foresight. It’s like he sees a completely different world from the one you and I live in.”
“Ugh,” groaned Cecilia. “He’s not one of those people, is he?”
“No, definitely not. He may not be from around here, but I seriously doubt he’s from another world, mostly because he’s too ruthless. His personal might may be considerable, but judging from what little I’ve seen, he wields it with both conviction and purpose. He’s not someone who would ever pull his punches in a fight. A far cry from those weak-willed realm-hoppers.”
“Is he really that strong? I’ve read the reports but I doubt they paint the whole picture.”
“He’s personally taken down over a thousand soldiers and one VIP so far. Actually, make that two VIPs. That alone should tell you enough.”
“Damn, he’s even giving our own Ultimate users a run for their money.”
“Tell me about it. You have no idea how glad I am he’s on our side,” lamented Silus.
“... Are you certain he’ll remain on our side? Surely the Empire could buy him off if the chance presented itself.”
“I wouldn’t count on it. He’s a professional, a real stickler when it comes to deals or contracts. That’s probably how he’s able to keep 3 demonic familiars in line in the first place. Or perhaps because of it? Either way, I don’t see him breaking off an arrangement he’s already agreed to. Especially the rather lucrative deals we’ve been giving him.”
“Interesting. Aren’t those the traits commonly associated with the Hero of Death?”
“That was my initial thought as well. His behavior fits in almost perfectly with that long line of master assassins, but the current heir to the title is staying as far away from this conflict as possible. There’s no way our Sandman is the current ‘Reaper,’ but he might become one in the future.”
“I like how you just assumed a God can only appoint a single Hero at the time.”
“Come off it, Cecilia. Even you have to admit that a God having multiple Heroes is impossible.”
The lime-haired woman cracked a mischievous smile at that word.
“Not impossible. Improbable. While I do not presume to know or understand the wills of the Nine, the only thing we know for sure is that only the worthy are chosen as Heroes. Just because they appear decades or centuries apart doesn’t mean there can’t be more than one ‘worthy’ recipient at a time!”
“Look, your conspiracy theories aside, this is the God of Death we’re talking about. It’s not exactly a secret that the Hero of Death is chosen by their predecessor, not Mortimer himself. Even if your outrageous theory is true there’s no way that- Why are we even discussing this?!”
“... My apologies, Silus, I got carried away again. I guess I’m not as disinterested in this Sandman as I thought.”
“It’s quite alright. I’m also guilty of chasing after patterns that don’t exist, but time isn’t exactly on our side right now. Even if the Empire’s advance has slowed and the Sandman’s disturbances would have caused confusion, they’re still within walking distance of our position. We need to keep planning and preparing for anything that can happen out there.”
“I think we’ve done all that we can, though. The only matter left unsettled is to assist the gnomish Artificer corps with the placement of their landmines. After that all we can do is sit and watch how the battle unfolds.”
“See, you say that, and I know you’re right. But at the same time I have this nagging feeling that something horrible is going to happen out there.”
“Odd. I had you pegged as someone who doesn’t believe in things like hunches and gut feelings.”
“Normally you would be right, but I can’t help myself considering the… religious beliefs of certain people. You know, I initially disregarded the rumors about followers of the Goddess of Probability being heralds of incomprehensible bullshit as baseless hearsay and superstition. But looking back on what transpired at Fort Yimin makes it hard for me to deny that there is some truth to that notion.”
It was somewhat of an unwritten law that, whether by fate, divine guidance, pure coincidence or all of the above, no major event unfolded without there being a Champion, Disciple or Apostle of Chaos nearby. Be it violent coups, the discovery of a new Job, unearthing signs of an ancient subterranean civilization or a quintet of juvenile dryads defending an elven fort - so long as a world-changing event was taking place, a follower of Kyle would unerringly be there to bear witness to it.
“I mean sure,” continued Silus, “we lucked out with the dryads back then, but that was with just the Fizzlesprocket girl. You’ll have to forgive me if I can’t help but wonder whether the ground would suddenly decide to split open and swallow us whole when there are two of that maniac’s flock present.”
The elf shook relaxed in his seat and threw the pleasantly smiling Cecilia a sideways look.
“None taken. If I let a few stray comments get to me, then there’s no way I would be able to call myself High Priestess of the Sisterhood of the Receding Waffle.”
“Uh, huh. And do tell, ‘High Priestess,’ just how large is your following?”
If this Sisterhood of the Receding Waffle was anything like Fizzy’s Order of the Gilded Chest, then it probably consisted only of Cecilia herself.
“Just me and Mister Bosco.”
“And Mister Bosco would be?”
“My stuffed bear.”
“I see, a stuffed bear, huh... I never would’ve guessed. Wait, he’s not a sentient golem is he?”
“No, of course not! There’s no way, right? At least, I don’t think there is… Then again… that would explain all those missing panties… Perhaps I should investigate this further…”
Silus stared silently up at the ceiling, seriously reconsidering his stance on what constituted as ‘too early to start drinking.’