“Hello, Professor Honoka. Ma’am.”
The two elves greeted each other in a professional manner in front of the adamantite bulkhead leading to Specimen 68’s containment cell. Zilla was, as always, following behind the elven alchemist, while the near-dozen Foundation grunts were all standing at attention. They did not dare to slack off when Simmons was around, especially not after he had been informed about yesterday’s Shaperades incident.
“I take it you’re here to continue your treatment, ma’am?”
Simmons jerked his head towards his left, where Honoka’s assistants were already set up and waiting for her.
“That’s right,” she confirmed. “Yesterday’s mixture didn’t last long, so I’m hoping we get better results today.”
“With all due respect, ma’am, why even bother taking breaks? Why not just dose the thing 15 times in a row or something? I know I’m no alchemist, but this seems like a huge waste of time.”
The proper answer to that question would be that it would be a horrible waste. While it was true that Honoka could subject Boxxy to consecutive doses of Attitude Adjuster, doing so would only result in either emotionally neutering the creature or rendering it comatose. The subject’s cognitive and motor functions had to survive the treatment undamaged, otherwise the Foundation would end up with a defective product. Doing what Simmons suggested would be easy enough, but it would defeat the purpose of the exercise, almost like breaking all four of a wild stallion’s legs in order to tame it.
Unfortunately, the former Optio was neither qualified nor authorized to know the details surrounding Honoka’s alchemical cocktail.
“That’s on a need-to-know basis, Mr Simmons,” she declared. “And you don’t need to know.”
“Why?” she inquired. “Has it been making trouble again?”
“Not quite trouble, ma’am, just a whole lot of noise. You can barely even hear it from the outside, but it sounds like it’s trying to claw its way out of there.”
The Stasis Field made a distinct screeching sound whenever something sharp and hard was pressed against it, usually accompanied by a slew of sparks if the impact was strong enough. Which was exactly what Simmons and his men had been listening to all morning.
“It stops the instant we walk in there to check on it,” he continued, “and starts back up when we walk out. I’d like to hear your opinion on this, ma’am.”
“It’s just trying to psych you out, Mr Simmons. It can’t harm you physically, so it’s trying to mess with your nerves.”
“But why, though?”
“Because it’s a sick, twisted asshole that likes to watch us squirm.”
“… Whatever you say, ma’am.”
Honoka’s biased opinion was actually pretty much indicative of the truth. Putting the guards on edge was an intentional move on behalf of Boxxy, because the more uneasy they felt around it, the more likely it was that Zilla would be forced to keep an eye on it. And it was during those times that the two of them could scheme without any repercussions or fear of spying. Well, they had to keep their voices at a reasonable level, but that was it, really.
“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a monster to manage.”
Saying those words, the Lifebinder Alchemist went over to the portable lab station and began preparing today’s dose, much like the day before. However, while the ingredients and the order in which they were introduced to the silver pot were the same, the amounts she used were ever-so-slightly different. Honoka had decided to tweak the mixture slightly so as to maximize the strength of the chemical incentive in an effort to avoid debacles like yesterday. Admittedly this would make the mixture slightly more unstable and therefore reduce the amount of time it affected Specimen 68, but she believed it was a necessary adjustment.
If she never heard about the tastiness of the human brain again, it would be far too soon.
The soft clacking and ticking of her alchemical instruments was suddenly interrupted by a pair of brisk footsteps coming from one end of the hallways. Honoka herself was thoroughly ignoring the approaching Foundation guard, but the others threw him questioning glances. Except for Zilla, who wouldn’t look away from Honoka’s masterful display of dexterity and knowledge for anything.
“Excuse me, Mr Simmons, Professor Honoka” said the newcomer with a curt salute. “Professor Gehana wants to know why Specimen 49 hasn’t reported to his office yet.”
Alright, almost anything. This was something Zilla couldn’t ignore - not just yet, anyway, so for the moment he stuck to his guns and played dumb.
“Was I supposed to do something like that?”
“He claims you should have been informed of this more than 12 hours ago.”
“Yeah, I definitely told Zilla about it,” chimed in one of the lab assistants.
“You most certainly did not,” replied the shapeshifter in a calm manner. “You told me the good Professor was looking for me. Not that I needed to go speak to him.”
Realization dawned on the assistant’s face, which was promptly introduced to his right palm. It was a known fact that while Zilla was perfectly obedient to Foundation personnel and respected its chain of command, it was also quite literal. Orders that were implied or ambiguous sometimes produced questionable results. Therefore, the fact that the living weapon never arrived at the good doctor’s appointment rested squarely on the lab rat’s shoulders.
“Dude, you would make a terrible Warlock,” remarked his colleague in a teasing manner.
“Not funny, Miguel!” he snapped back. “Malon’s going to have my hide for this!”
“Gentlemen, please,” said Simmons in a firm yet quiet tone. “Let’s not disturb the Professor’s work.”
There was hardly any risk of that, though. Honoka wouldn’t mess up her mixture even if the room around her was filled with naked clowns killing each other with crossbows. The only way to make her hand slip was to physically disturb her, although even that method was up for debate. Whatever the case, Simmons’s goal with that remark was to get everyone to shut up, which he did.
“Specimen 49, go to Professor Gehana and see what he wants from you,” he ordered. “And make it quick, will you?”
Neither Simmons nor anyone else around him wished to meet that repugnant man in person if they could help it. Even if his skills were first-rate, his personality and his Taboo made him unbearable on a personal level.
“Right away, Mr Simmons,” responded Zilla before somewhat regretfully tearing himself away from Honoka’s side.
The timing of this was a little unfortunate, but it was his own damn fault for shirking his responsibilities for so long. Well no, the one actually at fault here was that scumbag Malon. The whole reason he requested these meetings was so that he would question Zilla regarding Honoka’s personal life. The pitiable man was feeling threatened by her abilities, and was eager to get any dirt he might leverage against her in an effort to keep her from claiming his vaunted director’s chair.
Which was ridiculous, as the woman never wanted it in the first place. Truthfully speaking, it was too much of a managerial position. Honoka wanted to immerse herself in her work, and endless meetings, security briefings, budget balancing, and committee hearings was not her idea of ‘work.’ She was doing Alchemy for Alchemy’s sake, and the purity of her craft shone through her actions. Compared to someone like Malon who had taken the ‘easy’ way up to Level 100 by dabbling in numerous forbidden practices, she was practically an angel.
Recently that hobgoblin had gotten it into his head that he might lose his influence, and since he couldn’t secure his position through ability, decided to instead do so through slander and politics. It was a thoroughly pointless effort to begin with, as the Foundation knew every excruciating detail about its employees’ exploits. There was nothing Malon would learn from Zilla regarding Honoka that they weren’t already aware of, making this whole act so futile it couldn’t even be called an ‘exercise.’
Still, orders were orders, and the sentient wardrobe had a Facade to maintain. He was a bit worried his former owner might ask Boxxy some damning questions, but he was confident it wasn’t going to come to that. Earlier that morning he had convinced her that he should be there for all further questioning, so she wouldn’t start the interrogation without him.
Zilla walked through a labyrinth of metal corridors and branching paths until he reached a large, spiral staircase. The prisoner containment cells were on the lowest floor of the facility to minimize the risk of escape, so he had to climb all the way up to the top. He would normally do so on foot like a regular person, but this time he had certain circumstances to consider. He was eager to return to Honoka’s side, not to mention he was told to go meet Malon ‘quickly.’
That being the case, he temporarily took off his leather breastplate, grew a pair of Thunderbird wings from his back and flew straight up in the air. He ascended rapidly through the large gap in the middle of the cylindrical staircase chamber, reaching his destination in a matter of seconds. Once there, he undid his transformation, put his shirt back on and greeted the thoroughly surprised guards with a small wave before passing through the door between them.
Beyond it was a small, barren office, pretty much identical to Honoka’s. A youthful-looking elf with short gray curls and a pair of thick glasses was seated at the sole desk in the room. He looked up from the stack of papers in front of him and greeted Zilla with a polite business smile.
“Ah, hello, Specimen 49. Professor Gehana is waiting for you inside.”
“Thank you, Theodore.”
Theodore returned to his secretarial duties while Zilla approached the door behind the young lad. However, when he got closer to the door to the director’s office and raised a hand to knock on it, the shapeshifter noticed an odd discrepancy.
“Theodore, excuse me, but is there someone in there with Professor Gehana?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” answered the secretary without looking up from his desk.
“Then why is his door ajar?”
The young Scribe’s Never-ending Quill™ came to a screeching halt, at which point he turned his head towards the door in question with a puzzled look.
“I don’t… know…” muttered Theodore.
Nevermind it being slightly open - Malon would never even leave it unlocked in the first place. Visitors had to knock, announce themselves, then wait for him to let them in, otherwise they didn’t get to see him. The only possible way it would be left open was if there was someone already inside.
Which clearly shouldn’t have been the case.
Getting a bad premonition, Zilla barged into the room immediately. Much like the other offices in the compound, it was left quite plain and depressing, as most big-shots kept their personal belongings in their quarters rather than their working space. Still, it had a few significant differences that put it aside from the others. Things such as the two rows of portraits on the right wall, the extra-large and opulent mahogany desk, the six or so potted plants lining the bookshelves, and the checkered carpet in the middle of the room.
The massive bloodstain and the dead body on top of said carpet were a new addition to the decor. As was the hooded figure looming over it with a bloodied dagger in its hand. This intruder was very obviously neither man nor elf, as the skin-tight pitch-black bodysuit he was wearing revealed a disproportionately thick torso and a pair of legs that had an extra ankle joint. He also had a pearly white skull mask covering the upper part of his face, but that felt like a wasted effort. After all, the whole world could see the long crocodile-like snout poking out from beneath, not to mention the large talons on his his three-toed feet and three-fingered hands, and the thick muscular tail behind him. All of which were covered by a layer of thick, brown scales.
This man was undoubtedly a raptor, a race of aquatic people that hailed from the dense jungles of the continent to the far south, nearly half the world away. And there was only one bog-stalker in existence that would find himself in the middle of a subterranean government black site while standing over the corpse of the facility’s Taboo-ridden director.
Namely the current Hero of Death and the Gods’ personal garbage man - Accatau of clan Rakka.
Their silent stand-off was broken up by a sudden quake that shook the entire compound. As if taking that disturbance as a signal, the bipedal alligator sprang towards the exit. Misinterpreting the lizard man’s attempts at escape as an attack on his own person, Zilla’s honed reflexes made him respond immediately in force.
Moving with speed and agility that belied his thick build, the Hero of Death slid under the incoming thunderbolt, making it strike and obliterate the desk behind him. He slashed at his opponent with his serrated dagger, which failed to penetrate the basilisk scales and defensive Skills of the Foundation’s greatest weapon. However, that wasn’t entirely because Zilla’s hide was incredibly sturdy, but because Accatau wasn’t trying to puncture it in the first place. He merely wished to scratch the surface of this obstacle’s skin with his blade, marking his body with a cross-cut mark that immediately began glowing a bright red.
Life is a promise, death - its fulfilment.
Your injuries will not heal for the next 24 hours.
Automatic HP and MP recovery are now disabled.
Seeing this notification immediately gave Zilla pause. The Mend Flesh Skill was an incredibly potent asset in battle, and pretty much the whole reason his body had been spliced with a Queen Slime to begin with. Although by no means his only means of defense, having one of his trump cards sealed away so abruptly naturally made him more wary of his opponent, and clearly drove home the point that he was fighting a Hero.
After all, who else but an envoy of the Gods would have this sort of unfair Skill?
Fatal Promise was hardly the only Hero Skill available to Accatau, as he also possessed the Eyes of the Dead God. Just a simple glance at someone would inform him of their true name and the amount of HP they had left. It also highlighted people with high Taboo, allowing the Hero of Death to see them clearly through solid objects. This went triple for Malon, whose heretical act of forcibly resurrecting one of the Gods’ chosen, had caused his Taboo Skill to max out at Level 10. At which point he not only became a target for Accatau, but was also visible to him even from hundreds of kilometers away and buried deep underground.
Which was how the raptor had tracked his target so quickly, though he had to borrow a little bit of help locating the entrance to this place. And now that his target was dead, he had no wish to pointlessly fight the creature in front of him.
“Stand down, Wardrobzilla,” he growled in a raspy deep voice. “You are not my prey, but I will not hesitate to disssspose of you if you stand in my way.”
Zilla took stock of the Hero’s words and calmly evaluated the situation. On one hand, this reptile had denied him the pleasure of ripping out that sniveling bastard’s still-beating heart and showing it to him, not to mention he slashed up his favorite armor. On the other hand, he nearly died the last time he tangled with a Hero, and with Malon gone he no longer had the Soulstone insurance policy to rely on.
Therefore, Zilla lowered his guard, calmly stood aside, and let the assassin exit the office without much incident. He heard Theodore let out a surprised yelp when he saw the hired killer that had slipped past him just moments ago, but what really made Zilla’s ears burn was the alarm that had been blaring ever since that quake just now. He exited the office immediately, noting that Accatau had already vanished, and that the late Professor Gehana’s assistant was cowering under his desk.
“S-S-S-Specimen 49!” he called out when he saw Zilla standing in the doorway. “What’s going on?!”
“Calm down, boy! I might as well ask you the same thing - what’s this alarm about?!”
“Intruder alert! Intruder alert!” blared a slightly distorted female voice over the emergency announcement system. “Breach detected at sector B-24! All hands, move to repel the intruders! I repeat - the facility has been breached at sector B-24!”
“Well, that answers that,” mumbled Zilla under his breath.
“What about Professor Gehana?!” screamed the elf. “Who or what was that thing that came out just now?!”
“Oh, that? Just an assassin, nothing to worry about.”
“Just a what?! Then the director- How could you just let him go like that?!”
“Because I’m not an idiot who doesn’t know when he should keep his head down.”
The sniveling elf was then summarily kicked in the head, relieving the rest of his body of that useless burden in the process. His corpse slumped to the ground while spurting blood everywhere from his neck stump, as Zilla pondered the timing involved in these intruders’ arrival. Was it somehow connected with the very successful attempt on Malon’s life? Of course it was - it had to be. There was no way this was all a big coincidence. Maybe the raptor arranged for this major distraction so that he could slip out of this place easier? It certainly seemed plausible, and was definitely something Zilla would have done in his place, if the opportunity presented itself.
Right now, however, the former House Mimic didn’t have the luxury to worry about some overgrown iguana’s plans. Whoever these intruders were, for them to be making this much noise they had to have some considerable power. That being the case, the Foundation grunts currently fighting probably needed backup, and Zilla determined that he would oblige. He wasn’t just doing it just to maintain his Facade, but because he wanted to stop them before his plans were disrupted even further.
After all, if anyone was going to ruin the Foundation, it would be him. It had to be him. He’d already had the dessert snatched from right under his nose, and wasn’t about to let the same happen to the main course.
Zilla ran to the central spiral staircase, leaped over the railing, landed on the next floor down, and made his way due north. The metal corridors around here were designed for regular foot traffic, unlike the prison part of the complex, so they were much wider and taller. As he made his way forward he joined up with a squad of 20 or so ex-soldiers who were already on their way to the site of the breach. They ran until they reached a giant metal door that had ‘B-24’ painted on it in blocky yellow letters.
However, the reinforcements never got the chance to unlock the sliding door and pour through it in force-
-because the enemy was already making their way through it.
The door shook ominously with every blow it took from the other side, causing the gathered grunts to swallow nervously.
*CLANG CLANG CLANG*
Even Zilla was taken aback by how the solid steel door was buckling with every blow, bending ever-so-slightly under the assault. But it held up all the same.
There was a sudden moment of silence so severe that one could hear a fly sneeze. However, the sound that came next wasn’t some insect’s respiratory system acting up, but a woman’s voice.
The center of the massive metal square began to redden with frightening speed as a beam of supernatural heat bombarded it from the other side. The bright red circle began spreading gradually, until the entire bulkhead was giving off an intense reddish-yellow glow while radiating heat. But it still refused to buckle.
Or at least it did until a vertical swing of an impractically large axe sliced the 3-meter-tall and 5-meter wide sheet of half-molten steel clean in two. The absurd entity that owned said oversized weapon then kicked at the seam with all her might, causing both halves of the superheated door to swing open and crash into the metal walls on either side with an ungodly din. Once the smoke, sparks and errant embers sent loose by this violent act subsided, Zilla and the others were able to make out three distinct figures.
One was a golden-horned demoness with bat-like wings, outrageous breasts and flawless light blue skin that promised an eternity of nightly pleasures. On her right and floating in the air on a pair of angelic wings was an elf, clad head-to-toe in highly ornamental plate armor holding a normally two-handed mace in one arm and a large greatshield in the other. On the ground beneath them was a vertically challenged mass of violence, anger, and alcoholism seemingly only held together by her pitch-black adamantite armor.
There was also technically a fourth one, but Stalkers were not in the habit of being seen.
“Sorry to barge into yer little clubhouse uninvited, lads,” said Hilda while adjusting her grip on her weapon and stepping through the molten wreckage, “but I do believe ye have something of ours!”