“Hang on, kiddo!” shouted Hilda from the front of the line. “We’re almost outta here!”
“She can’t hear you, so stop shouting!”
Lichter, who was still carrying Keira in his arms, reminded her of this obvious fact. The catgirl had been slipping in and out of consciousness ever since they had retrieved her, so there was no way she registered Hilda’s words. Which was probably for the best, because nothing good would happen if she suddenly woke up and started making a ruckus in this tight space.
The stonekin dwarf and the high elf angel were currently climbing their way up an unevenly carved staircase inside a very tight tunnel. The whole thing seemed to have been hewn out of the bedrock beneath Azurvale’s slums district using magic and served as a discreet way in and out of that clandestine facility.
It was the same entrance Drea had followed Zilla to following Boxxy’s death, and the same one she and Xera showed to the VIPs, but it was hardly the ‘main’ one. It also didn’t lead directly to the base, but to a rather spacious underground cavern that had a literal river running through it. The Foundation was using this river to deliver supplies, personnel and cargo to the research facility via some weird submersible vessel shaped like a flounder. And the rescue party knew this, because they happened to catch sight of it just as it was leaving the small dock on the underground river’s bank.
This was right outside the facility’s main loading bay, which served as the intruders’ main entry point. There were, of course, guards posted on the dock itself, but the Stalker had quickly relieved them of their duties, and their heads. Also their livers and hearts since she was feeling a bit peckish. Normally she would leave those delectable bits for Boxxy, but the Mimic was dead for all she knew, so she took this rare opportunity to gorge herself on elf-meat. She actually preferred it to human meat, unlike her box-shaped master, as it was lighter and had a smoother texture.
Suffice it to say that the Foundation had not been alerted to the presence of intruders until they were quite literally kicking their doors down. And since all the security measures seemed to be concentrated on the inside, now that the rescue party was out, they were more or less home free. The emergency search and rescue Quest they had taken was going to end in success, even though the girl they had been looking for had been missing for five whole days. That delay in and of itself would normally mean the kidnapped person was lost forever, so Keira’s chances of being found were quite slim, statistically speaking.
Luckily for her, and indeed for Boxxy itself, the Hero of Chaos had a knack for beating the odds. True, this trait sometimes brought about incomprehensibly ill fortune in addition to extremely good luck, but overall the Mimic considered itself a winner in the game of chance that was life.
“Huff! Huff! Huff!”
Something that Hilda couldn’t say about herself at that very moment, if her incredibly heavy breathing was any indication.
“Are you alright?” asked Lichter from behind.
“Fuck no!” she cursed through gasped breaths, “but I’ll manage!”
Even if she was a Level 100 Berserker with deep reserves of stamina, they were far from inexhaustible. Sure, she had Skills that helped reinvigorate her body, but those only applied to combat situations, and climbing up thousands upon thousands of steps was not one of those. Combined with the poor-to-none circulation of oxygen in this cramped space and the undeniable fact that Hilda had been getting on in years, it was only inevitable she’d get exhausted.
“Huff! Huff! I’m wondering why the hell ye’re still so lively!”
“Paladins are better at wearing heavy armor, you know,” replied Lichter, who was trying his best not to mention Hilda’s short legs. “You really should’ve changed out of yours before we started climbing.”
Indeed, a single use of the Rearm Skill would allow the dwarf to tuck away her gear in her pocket dimension, vastly lightening her load in the process.
“No way! Those cunts might ambush us on the way out, and I need to be ready!”
“Do you really think there’s more of them?”
“Aye! I’m sure of it! Ye know how goblins are - where there’s one, there’s 50 more ye don’t see! Huff! Huff! Huff! Though ‘goblins’ is too good for those miserable cunts!”
“I’m inclined to agree with you on that. I can’t imagine what sort of filthy degenerate could do this sort of thing to such a sweet child and then still live with themselves.”
“You won’t have to worry about that for much longer,” came Xera’s voice from further behind.
The former succubus was able to keep up with them rather effortlessly, as she was idly floating over the stairs rather than having to climb them the hard way. Floating being the operative word here, as she was levitating off the ground without actually flapping her wings. She didn’t have the room to do so even if she wanted to, so she relied on her inborn levitation ability as a djinn to keep up with her beloved Master’s escape. Well, it was either this, fall behind, or slow down the whole group, so there wasn’t much choice in the matter.
“What do you mean we don’t have to-?!”
Lichter’s inquiry was cut off abruptly by a massive tremor that shook their surroundings, causing dust and dirt to fall on top of them as the tunnel threatened to bury them alive.
“The hell?! Is that guy back?!” asked Hilda as she struggled to maintain her footing.
She was likely referring to the freakish creature that had tried to bury them when they first broke into the enemy base.
“No!” replied Lichter. “This is much bigger than that!”
The elf had lifted the large shield strapped to his left arm above his head as a sort of umbrella, protecting both himself and the girl on his right arm from any falling rocks.
“Move it, Hilda! This hole’s coming down on top of us!”
“Baaaalls!” cursed the dwarf as she put her wrinkled ass into even higher gear.
Thankfully, they only had to keep going for several more seconds before making it out of the collapsing tunnel. They filed out of it and into the back of an old warehouse at the edge of the slums district. Hilda practically stumbled out of the formerly hidden trap door, collapsing on the ground as a cloud of dust and dirt billowed out of the opening. Lichter, Keira and Xera were all equally unharmed, although the building continued shaking for several more seconds until the aftershocks finally subsided.
“Bloody hell!” exclaimed the Berserker that had collapsed on the ground panting heavily. “I actually gained a point of Endurance from that!”
“That earthquake was your boss’s doing, wasn’t it?” asked Lichter in a stern tone.
“You could say that,” responded Xera with a coy smile.
“What did he do, demon?!”
“Nothing much, holy man. He just made sure that everything and everyone in that place was dead and buried.”
Keira’s shaky voice came out from Lichter’s arms. It was the first coherent thing she’d said since they found her, so both VIPs were rather relieved to hear it, even though her intent was rather sinister.
“Hey, kitty-face!” shouted Hilda from the floor. “I’d get up to greet ye, but I’d probably puke if I did that!”
“Are you alright, Keira?” asked the elf in a distinctly more concerned tone.
“No. I’m not alright,” she answered on the verge of tears. “I don’t think I’ll ever be alright.”
“Is this to do with the thing in your back?”
He didn’t need to peek into the filthy rags wrapped around the beastkin’s body to tell there was a foreign object lodged in her flesh. It was in the shape of an upside-down teardrop that was just under 25 centimeters tall and 10 centimeters wide at its thickest point, a sort of crystal by the feel of things. Boxxy was unable to conceal the Soulstone permanently bonded to its body in Kera’s form, so it was forced to leave it out ‘in the open.’ It could, of course, cover it in skin and muscle, but doing so would leave the girl with a very noticeable hump, which was perhaps worse.
“… I don’t wanna talk about it,” it answered in an evasive manner.
It was, of course, lying. It wanted to talk about this thing fused to its body at length, actually. Especially on the top on how to safely remove it. However, at the same time it had to be discreet about it. Drawing too much attention to it would surely result in would-be researchers poking and prodding at its body. Which was something neither Boxxy nor Keira wanted.
“Please… I just want to go home,” whimpered the catgirl. “I want to see Rowie again…”
The Paladin looked at the poor girl in his arms and he wavered mightily. The occult object fused to her body against her will was of great concern. It might have been some sort of mind-control device, or an arcane time-bomb of some description. For all he knew, it could’ve been that shady Sandman that put this in her to begin with. Whatever the case, he strongly felt that she had to be quarantined for her safety and the safety of others, on the off chance that Keira’s captors had left behind some sort of nasty surprise.
But at the same time, he couldn’t bring himself to do so. He had personally seen the boundless joy that seemed to ooze out of Keira Morgana. A diligent, thoughtful person with her own special brand of innocence, who in her current distraught state could only plea to be reunited with the one she loved. And he knew that she was loved in return. He had spoken many times with Rowana Slyth over the last few days, and the mere thought of delaying their reunion even a second longer made his heart ache something fierce.
“... Of course,” he consented. “That’s exactly where I’m taking you to.”
That was how Lichter, for all his strength, knowledge, experience and wisdom, had succumbed to every adventurer’s fatal weakness - a cute girl’s tears.
“Hilda, I’ll be going on ahead,” he declared while unfurling his wings.
“Aye! I’ll catch up as soon as I get the feeling in my legs back!”
“What about you, demon?”
He shot a sideways glance towards Xera, who was already walking away.
“Who? Little old me?” she responded in a lackadaisical manner. “Just some urgent business to attend to.”
Having said that, the pretend succubus unfurled her wings and bolted through a broken window to find a secluded spot to kill herself so that she may be once again joined to her Master. The Enslave Demon act was enjoyable in and of itself, but it couldn’t compare to the shackles of eternal servitude that a summoning contract promised.
Lichter also took off after a bit of gentle prodding from Keira, following the succubus through the window and into the air above Azurvale. The sun was already setting, dying the city in an ominous red light and causing the great Hylt trees to cast long, thick shadows over the crimson rooftops. The demoness was nowhere to be seen, of course. Those demons and their master had a knack for disappearing and reappearing seemingly out of thin air, which put the Paladin somewhat on edge.
And their reluctance to stick around and deal with the aftermath was quite logical, considering the mess they left behind.
“Sweet, merciful Nyrie…”
The Paladin couldn’t help but gasp in shock when he witnessed the mark the Sandman had made on Azurvale. The tremors caused by whatever he had unleashed were felt all the way to the surface, resulting in a seismic event that had damaged quite a few buildings. Not only that, but there was a visible dent in the terrain - a 300-meter or so circular indentation where the ground had collapsed in on itself. The dust cloud kicked up by this event lingered heavily in the air, almost as if a volcano had erupted.
Thankfully, there seemed to have been little-to-no casualties as a result of this crater’s sudden appearance, as it had manifested itself immediately south of the city’s boundaries. However, this was clearly the result of some unnatural tampering, as evidenced by the fog and ice that seeped through the cracked ground. This scene gave the angelic elf unpleasant flashbacks of Armageddon Day, and the destruction wrought by both demonic Overlords.
There was no doubt in his mind that the facility they had rescued Keira from used to be beneath that receded plot of land. Meaning that the Sandman had kept his promise of wiping it off the face of Terrania. And for once, Lichter was actually glad at how thorough and ruthless that man was. His only regret was that he didn’t have a deep hole of his own where he could bury the unpleasant things he’d seen while he was down there.
Not wishing to waste time just gawking at the scenery, he shot off in the direction opposite that bowl-shaped gash in the ground as he flew towards the Slyth household with all haste. He landed in the mansion’s front yard several minutes later, only to find Rowana already waiting for him. She watched with baited breath as the Paladin delivered her beloved Keira to her on wings of light, setting the unsteady catgirl down on the ground a few meters away from her.
The two lovebirds immediately dashed at each other, leaping into each other’s hands. What followed was the standard fare of sobbing, hugging and kissing one would expect from a tearful reunion.
“I’m so glaad! I’m so glad!” repeated Rowana over and over again. “Thank you, Mr Lichter! Thank you so much!”
“Ah. My pleasure, miss Slyth. However… I feel it may be a bit too early to celebrate.”
“What do you mean?” asked the elf with a look of utter confusion on her face.
Her precious Keira was back in her arms alive and well, wasn’t she? So then what the hell was the Paladin talking about? The beastkin in her arms was cold, frightened, and unsteady, but she was most definitely her Keira. The elf hugged her lover even tighter, as if fearing she might slip away again if she ever let go. And it was through this tight embrace that she was suddenly made aware of the solid object attached on the girl’s back.
“… Come on, let’s get you inside,” she whispered.
She quickly led the upset girl inside, passing by her surprised parents on the way into the mansion. Sensing that the two young ones desperately needed some alone time, Lichter stepped forward to fill in both Doris and Samulus on the day’s events while Rowana led Keira straight into the bath. She of course had plenty of questions, but her first priority was wrapping the beastkin in warmth and washing away the stress of the last few days, both literally and figuratively.
The Slyths’ family home had three grand bathrooms, each of them as luxurious as the rest of the house. The one Rowana and Keira entered together was covered in bright yellow tiles with floral patterns and was well-lit due to the magical lamps on the walls and ceiling. The large bath that was almost like a miniature swimming pool was filled with hot water in a matter of seconds, after which the elf urged Keira to get in. The catgirl put up a little bit of a fight as she was a bit unwilling to part with her sole piece of ‘clothing’ at first, but in the end the two of them climbed into the bath together.
The elf diligently washed Keira’s crimson hair and tanned skin, even going so far as to shampoo her tail. Once both of them were thoroughly clean, Rowana drained away all the filthy bath water and refilled it, allowing the two of them to just sit and soak in peace. With only their upper bodies above the waterline, Rowana was gently brushing Keira’s damp hair with her right hand in a soothing manner while hugging her across the chest from behind with the other. The catgirl let herself be pampered in total silence, which she maintained until Rowana inevitably brought up the elephant in the room.
“… Did they hurt you?”
“… No. Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t remember much beyond waking up in a cell with this thing in my back. I have no idea what they did to me… and that terrifies me, Rowie.”
The catgirl glanced over her shoulder as if trying to look at her new extreme body piercing with a look of apprehension.
“I’m completely a freak now, aren’t I?”
Rowana responded by hugging the girl even tighter with both hands, pressing her plump breasts against the hard surface of the blood-red crystal.
“You are not a freak. Never were. Never will be.”
She could tell it had the right effect, as Keira’s tail started brushing against her stomach in a strangely excited manner. This part of the beastkin at least appeared to still be honest.
“Uhm, Rowie. I appreciate the words and all, but I feel two very hard things poking me from behind…”
The catgirl squirmed a bit in the elf’s lap as she said that. However, rather than it being awkward, she seemed to be trying to rub herself against her nipples even more. This reaction was hardly Rowana’s fault, though. And it wasn’t her amped up sex drive that was causing it, either.
“S-Sorry,” she said with a red face. “It’s just that this thing is pretty cold, even though it’s submerged in- Wait, you can feel those?! Even through the crystal?!”
“… Now that you mention it, yeah, I can.”
The elf abruptly put an end to the cuddling session and lightly pushed Keira way so she could get another good look at the object in question. Her attention was particularly focused on the skin around the edges of it.
“Of course!” exclaimed the elf. “It’s a Spirit Stone! Why didn’t I realize this sooner!?”
“I’m sorry, a what?”
“It’s an artificially made material used for magical implants! High-Level Alchemists can make it using a sample of the subject’s blood to reduce the risk of rejection!”
It was something Rowana had read about as she had been leaning towards becoming a Lifebinder Alchemist, which was the primary branch of alchemy to make and use the stuff. She just failed to make the connection at first since Spirit Stones were supposed to be no bigger than a child’s fist, not the size of a dinner plate.
“That’s… good?” asked Keira in a confused tone.
“Uh… I don’t know, actually. Do you know what this thing did to you?”
“I think… they were trying to control me with it.”
“Yeah… There was this fat lady that came to visit me every day. She told me to do things and I… I couldn’t say no.”
“Things?! What things?!”
“I-I don’t know!” snapped back the catgirl while raising her voice. “I remember being asked a lot of questions and having to do laps around my cell, but it’s all a big blur!”
“Okay! It’s okay, baby. I have you now. You’re safe.”
The two once again embraced each other as the steam and hot water calmed them back down.
“… So this Spirit Stone or whatever, can you take it out of me?”
“That’s… I’m sorry, sweetie. I think it’s fused to your spine. Tampering with it could leave you paralyzed… or worse…”
This was the professional medical opinion of a senior apothecary, and Boxxy was inclined to agree with it. Well, it could probably sever the thing and recover from any paralysis or whatnot, but it was legitimately concerned that doing so would kill it instantly.
“So it’s permanent…”
“Well no, not quite,” said Rowana reassuringly. “Your body has already started absorbing it and breaking it down, so it will gradually go away on its own. It’s made from your blood so it will gradually heal over as if it were a super-sized scab.”
“That’s what normally happens to Spirit Stones, yeah. But one this big… it could be years before it fades away.”
“Oh… I see…”
Hearing the thoroughly depressed noises coming out of Keira’s throat made Rowana regret her words. The beastkin probably wanted to put this all behind her as soon as possible, but she just found out she’d have to carry that constant reminder with her for who knows how long.
“I’m here for you,” muttered the elf reassuringly. “We’ll get through this.”
There was a 5 minute lull in the conversation before Keira spoke up again.
“Uhm, Rowie? Where’s Fizzy? I didn’t see her around…”
However, that question immediately soured the elf’s mood even further.
“Don’t tell me you’re worried about that traitor!”
“We went to look for her to get her help since you’d gone missing, but we couldn’t find her either! I was worried something might have happened to her, but then I found out she went and skipped town in a huge rush! She’d fed her guildmates some line about the two of you having a falling out and just abandoned you to your fate! Is that any way to treat a friend in need!”
“… I see. It’s all my fault then.”
“It… It is?”
“Yeah. She really did leave because of me. And frankly, I don’t blame her.”
She must’ve found out about Boxxy’s death from Ambrosia or one of the familiars and immediately moved to cover her own ass rather than throw her life away on some pointless vendetta. Honestly, speaking, if she had actually shown up along with Snack and Claws, then the Mimic would’ve been quite disappointed in her. After all, those demons are immortal, so they didn’t value their lives in the slightest, and with good reason. But Fizzy was far too precious to Boxxy. It would never allow that sort of pointless risk if it had a say in the matter.
Which it shouldn’t, since it would be dead in that scenario.
“So you two really did have a catastrophic argument?” asked Rowie with a guilty expression.
“That’s putting it mildly. It actually happened the day before… you know… so she was probably already halfway across the country by the time you would’ve needed her help. And I need to find her and make it up to her.”
“… Do you even know where she went? Nobody I spoke to could tell me.”
“I have a pretty good idea, yeah.”
The two of them had discussed visiting the Horkensaft Kingdom’s capital in order to get her arm fixed up, so that’s probably where she was headed. The Mimic was sure it could track her down, as it was impossible for the living embodiment of shininess not to leave a trail of witnesses behind. It wasn’t worried about her safety or anything, either, as the psychotic Paladin it had single-handedly created was a fighter. A survivor.
However, she would have to wait until Boxxy settled its domestic affairs before looking to tackle foreign ones.
“I had no idea she was so important to you. It makes me a little bit jealous,” admitted Rowana.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong. You mean the world to me. But… as wonderful as you are, I don’t think you’ll ever understand what it’s like to have your life spiral out of control while you were forced to just stand by and watch, powerless to stop it. She’s a kindred spirit, and I owe it to her to make amends.”
“… Okay. Maybe I don’t know the kind of suffering you’ve been through. And honestly, I pray that I never will. But I’m here for you, here and now.”
“I know. And you have no idea how grateful I am that you are.”
The two continued to comfort and cuddle each in the bath for another half hour before getting out. They got dressed, had a good meal and then went to bed without speaking much for the rest of the evening. The next morning Keira found herself in the Slyths’ sitting room, wearing a fancy green dress that covered up her ‘Spirit Stone.’ She was seated on the couch with Rowana next to her, Doris and Samulus opposite her, and both Hilda and Lichter off to the side.
What followed was a rather exhaustive back-and-forth as they attempted to piece together what had happened.
The version of the story that Boxxy fed them started with Keira’s chaos senses tingling, which was why she had so abruptly left the tea party almost a week ago. She was then captured, experimented on, and rescued, but couldn’t offer much more than that since her memory was hazy. However, she had also made it abundantly clear that she wanted to keep the whole thing as much of a secret as possible. She had only just gotten used to being treated with kindness and respect, and did not want others to think she was a freak due to the crystal in her back.
Surprisingly enough, both the VIPs and the Slyths had decided on doing just that the night before. It had become quite apparent that, based on what Hilda and Lichter saw and heard, Keira might have been captured by some secretive government organization after all. It wasn’t a certainty, but they thought the chances were high considering how well supplied and well equipped the place seemed to be.
And yet the Sandman had seen to it that the place was completely destroyed. An act that might get him branded as an enemy of the state. And unless all the people in that room wanted to be considered accomplices, then this whole thing had to be kept under wraps. Which was why Samulus had already gotten in touch with the authorities and seen to it that Keira’s missing person report was quietly and discreetly disposed of.
The topic then turned to Keira’s Soulstone, although none of the people gathered there knew anything about its true purpose. It was an awkward, long-winded conversation that involved a great deal of bullshitting on Boxxy’s part, but it ultimately got the result it wanted. Partly because it had its hooks into Rowana so deeply, that the elf took Keira’s side without question, even if it seemed like a bad idea to their elders.
The bottom line was that the beastkin would not be sent to be studied like some lab rat, and that they would let the Soulstone run its course naturally. This was something of a stopgap measure for the Mimic, however, as it had no idea whether the Soulstone disappearing would lead to its death or not. It had no idea if the item needed to be renewed or recharged in some way in order to maintain its grip on life, but given how that Malon guy positively reeked of Taboo, it wouldn’t find the answers it needed through ‘proper’ channels.
However, Boxxy still had something of a lead in that regard.
During its escape from the Foundation base, it had used Honoka’s stolen memories to plunder as much sensitive information as it could in as little time as possible. Its intent was to use said intelligence as leverage against the secretive organization should they ever come after the Sandman. Or Keira, for that matter. It could either threaten to release these documents to the general public, use the research data as bargaining chips, or maybe even sabotage their other facilities and endeavors to send a warning.
Unfortunately, while there was a lot it could potentially do with the plundered documents, there didn’t seem to be anything among them regarding Malon’s research or Soulstones in general. Time had been of the essence and Boxxy did not have the luxury of scouring every last nook and cranny of that underground complex, so it wasn’t able to get much. But what relatively little it got certainly had value, especially the series of reports documenting the progress and ongoing status of an undertaking codenamed Project Lighthouse. It still needed to examine them more thoroughly, but what it had managed to sneak a peek of them was already quite promising.
Especially the part that detailed the Foundation’s interactions with one Reginald Namhel and his underground network of shapeshifting operatives.