Gun Tarum was the capital of the Horkensaft Kingdom. It was an ancient dwarven city, built before The Great Unification brought the gnomes and dwarves together under the same banner over a millenium ago. It had been situated on the mouth of a long-dormant volcano known as Blackthroat Mountain, at an altitude where the air was much thinner than one might expect. The entire city was surrounded on all sides by a roughly 60-meter tall ring of solid black rock with countless tunnels dug through it in order to provide ease of access.
The various stone buildings oozed of traditional dwarven architecture, categorized by having six walls. The streets themselves were arranged in a hexagonal pattern, making it quite easy for visitors to get turned around and lost if they weren’t careful. Then again, if that were to happen one needed only look towards the Obsidian Palace where the king lived in order to get their bearings. The pitch black castle stood in the middle of the bowl-shaped city, towering over any and all structures in the surroundings, making it stick out like a sore thumb at a pinkie convention.
Another easy-to-spot landmark was the infamous Gun Tarum Foundry District. It was so dense with forges, workshops and refineries that the combined cloud of black smoke they belched out blocked out most of the sunlight over that part of the city. Looking over the capital also made it easy to spot a large coliseum with numerous colorful tapestries adorning its outer wall. This one was without a doubt much fancier and larger than the one in Azurvale, making it look like a cheap knock-off by comparison.
However, none of those things interested Boxxy. The Mimic had come here following Fizzy’s trail, which as expected was quite noticeable. It barely even got the words ‘mithril golem’ out of Keira’s mouth before it was bombarded with rumors of her passing through the gnomish border town of Steelhead. The most prevalent story had her cut off some poor boy’s arm off and then went to beat his friend into a bloody pulp, all because they looked at her the wrong way.
It seemed like something she’d do, but Boxxy somehow doubted that was what happened. Rumors like those had a tendency to get distorted quite fast, and it heard various versions of that particular rumor. The most ridiculous of which was the one claiming she had apparently befriended a pickpocket who tried to steal from her. Still, it managed to work its way through all of that nonsense and get its tentacles on a solid lead that was impossible to distort through word of mouth. According to a cargo manifest it ‘appropriated,’ a one-armed mithril golem had been loaded onto something called a ‘mag-rail’ and then eventually brought here, to Gun Tarum.
However, the Mimic didn’t ride on that mysterious snake-like vehicle to get to the capital like Fizzy had done. Apparently it had just missed its departure, and the next one was not scheduled to arrive for another few days. Riding on one was supposed to have been a fun and pleasant experience, but Boxxy had been separated from its prized shiny far too long and was already growing impatient. Therefore, it had ended up covering the entire thousand kilometer or so distance from Steelhead to the capital the hard way.
Which basically boiled down to having Snack do all the actual legwork while it sampled the local wildlife. It had taken a day and a half to do all that, which was roughly twice as fast as Artificer-made train anyway. Now that it was here, however, it was at a bit of a loss. It stared aimlessly over the city from its perch atop the wall of volcanic rock, wondering where to start. The coliseum seemed like it would be worth a look, as Fizzy absolutely loved being an arena fighter back in Azurvale. Being able to indulge in her violent side while thousands of people cheered her on definitely made her satisfied as a golem, so it went to reason she’d try that again.
Unfortunately, it would seem Boxxy’s guess had been off the mark, as nobody in the coliseum knew anything of a mithril golem. The same went for any of the inns and shops it visited, and even asking around the Foundry District where she would have gone to repair her arm had proven to be a bust. A few of the smiths there seemed to recall seeing a shiny gnome walking around a few weeks ago, but that was the extent of it.
It would appear her passage through Gun Tarum had been much quieter compared to the uproar she had caused back in Steelhead.
The Mimic kept walking around town aimlessly under Keira’s guise. The sun had already ducked behind the volcanic wall surrounding the city, and was just about to set if the red sky overhead was any indication. The shapeshifter had spent the better half of today working its charms on the local population, but it had all been for naught. It had also been a long while since it last slept, leaving it both mentally and physically exhausted. Under those circumstances, it decided to pack it in for the day and get some rest, then return to the search tomorrow.
That being said, the question of where to actually sleep came into mind. Being in this new place surrounded by all this new stuff made it feel a bit uneasy, as it didn’t want to just pick an inn at random. A pretty girl in a strange town all on her own - it wouldn’t be strange if some unscrupulous individuals tried to make a move on Keira while she slept. They would fail miserably and be eaten, of course, but Boxxy hated having its rest interrupted, and it needed to be sharp and on its toes if it was to have a productive day.
Which was when it remembered the ultimate safe haven for any drifters, travelers and shady individuals alike - the Mercenary Guild. Sure, the price of a room for non-members was rather steep, but it was well worth it given the level of security they had over there. Soundproof walls, sturdy locks and even guards patrolling the hallway all served as deterrents to keep small-time scum away.
Having made up its mind, the creature ducked into a dark, secluded corner where it changed back into the Sandman. The tall brooding figure was much closer to a mercenary than a bubbly catgirl, so it was sure this Facade would invite less trouble. It could have just come up with a temporary persona, of course, but it was far too tired to bother with that.
After asking some directions from people almost half its size, Boxxy was able to find the Mercenary Guild’s Gun Tarum branch office. It was probably the only four-walled wooden building in the entire city, so it wasn’t all that difficult to track down. It slowly opened the front door and stepped through it, though it had to bend down quite a bit to fit inside. This building had been built mostly with dwarves and gnomes in mind, so giants like the Sandman had to hunch over to avoid banging their head against the ceiling. The Mimic was already regretting being too lazy to come up with a new Facade, but that feeling was momentarily forgotten when it laid eyes who was behind the counter.
At the bar stood a wrinkled old dwarf wearing a long-sleeved off-white tunic and slightly baggy dark gray pants, ending in a pair of town shoes that were beige in color. He had a thick brown beard with streaks of gray in it and his head was almost completely bald. The face was extremely familiar, as Boxxy has had dealings with him before. More importantly, the barman/receptionist also knew of Boxxy.
Or rather, he knew of the Mimic’s first ever Facade, which bore a striking resemblance to the Sandman.
“Ah, Mr Morningwood I presume?” called out Grog while putting way the glass he was pretending to clean. “Glad to see you’re still alive.”
The one behind the bar was the same man that had serviced the creature many months ago, back when it was killing other monsters for gold in Erosa - the same city where Boxxy and Fizzy first met. The Mimic was barely able to contain the urge to cringe as it recalled how socially inept it was back then. It was now much sharper and capable of picking up on certain social cues, which was why the dwarf’s tone of voice struck it as a bit odd.
The cloaked figure shuffled silently over to the bar, then sat cross-legged on the ground in front of it. Even like this it could maintain eye contact with the much smaller receptionist, which was much more comfortable than having to crane its neck down at people. The other adventurers in the restaurant stared at it for a while but, as was Mercenary Guild tradition, quickly resumed minding their own goddamned business.
“You don’t seem surprised,” said the Sandman.
“Yeah, well, what can I say,” said the old dwarf with a crooked smile. “When I heard tale of a cloaked giant fighting in the Cataclysm Conflict, I couldn’t help but think it was you. And when I saw a certain someone drop by a few weeks ago, I got a feeling you might show up.”
The Sandman’s yellow eyes instantly lit up, just as Grog had expected.
“Fizzy was here?” it asked eagerly.
“Yup. Though if you want to know-”
The dwarf had barely even begun to request payment when a bag of gold was dropped onto the counter. He smiled to himself as he pocketed it, quite happy with the amount of money inside, as well as the total profit he’d made from selling information regarding Fizzy up until that point. Mr Morningwood had made the largest deposit by far, though, so he would be sure to provide him with the appropriate level of service.
“I assume you want to know everything?” he asked for confirmation.
“Yes,” came the immediate reply. “As much as you can tell me.”
The dwarf then began divulging everything he knew about the shiny golem. The first thing she’d done after coming here had been to do a bunch of Quests in order to afford getting her arm fixed up. Grog testified to having personally seen her restored to pristine condition, cursed shield-gauntlet and all, which made Boxxy feel rather ecstatic. It had to admit, it liked the golem much better back when she had both arms attached, so it was looking forward to their reunion even more.
Surprisingly enough, Fizzy had also managed to acquire two pawns of her own. One was a gnomish boy with a prosthetic arm, the other was a dwarven Shaman and Bard that was a full member of the guild. It was a move Boxxy approved of, as no matter how powerful or shiny an individual was, fighting as part of a group drastically raised one’s chances of survival. The Mimic itself would have died long ago if it didn’t have Snack to rely on after leaving the dungeon it was born in.
Nevertheless, while there was safety in numbers, that only applied if the group actually worked well together and respected authority within the party. And judging from how Fizzy’s new posse was able to kill multiple cyclopi without suffering any injury, their teamwork definitely seemed to be on point. Their loyalties also weren’t in question since it would appear that both Moss the gnome and Drummir the dwarf owed their lives to her. If they had been monsters it would have been another story, but it was fine since those two were people, and as such respected things like life debts. That didn’t mean they’d never betray her, but it would at least make them much more hesitant to stab her in the back.
The least surprising piece of information was the fact that Fizzy had gotten herself renamed off the books by abusing a legal loophole concerning golems. Her new name was now officially Fizzy Rustblood, though Grog himself seemed quite puzzled as to why she would do something like that. Boxxy knew, though. Fizzy absolutely despised her old self, to the point of getting borderline violent when someone called her by her given name rather than her nickname.
The only mystery here was why she waited this long to have the label of ‘Cornie Fizzlesprocket’ purged from her Status.
As for where she was right now, the only thing the dwarf could say was that she went north to a place called Dragunov, which was within spitting distance of the Vault Beneath the Mountain. It was painfully clear to Boxxy she had gone to try and open it in order to claim whatever shinies were inside, much like the two of them had talked about. The Mimic had to admit, this Fizzy was much more proactive than the one that was bound to its service, which was definitely a good thing. Having minions that could think and decide things for themselves was most assuredly a tasty thing, as orders were not infallible.
“So then if I go to this city called Dragunov, I can find Fizzy?” asked the monster for confirmation.
“Possibly. However, there’s been a troubling lack of news from that place as of late. The mag-rail express running from here to there hasn’t come back for a little over two weeks. It could be the train had broken down and people are just waiting for it to be fixed rather than risk traversing the old monster-infested highway. It’s not the first time it’s happened, but it’s never taken this long before. I can’t help but worry that something terrible has happened.”
“Oh? Like what?”
“Sorry, but the most I can offer is baseless speculation,” said the dwarf with an apologetic shrug. “We haven’t gotten any news from our sister office over there since the break, so your guess is as good as mine.”
“I see,” stated the Sandman thoughtfully. “Is there a finder’s fee for finding out what’s going on over there?”
“Heheheh,” chuckled Grog while shaking his head. “It is good to see you are as business-oriented as always, Mister Morningwood, but I’m afraid I must disappoint. There’s been no such Quest issued to us, nor to any other major guilds. At least, not to my knowledge.”
Boxxy wasn’t actually looking to make money this time around, though. It was simply curious whether other adventurers had been sent to investigate, which didn’t seem to be the case. It would appear the people of the capital were just now starting to get worked up over Dragunov’s silence.
“We do, however, have a rather rich selection of commissions available if you’re interested.”
The old dwarf gestured at the Quest Board near the bar in an expectant manner.
“No, thank you,” it declined. “I’d just like a room for the night. A quiet one.”
Part of it wanted to depart and rush to Fizzy’s side at once, but showing up in a sleep-deprived and catatonic state to a potentially volatile situation was not a smart decision. Besides, whatever was going on in the city of Dragunov had started at least two weeks ago. It was highly unlikely that blindly rushing over there right away would make any sort of difference. Resting up while it could and challenging the mystery of what, if anything, had happened over there on a clear head was definitely the call here.
Not to mention that it also had a loose end to tie up in this city first.
After paying for the room, the Sandman briskly walked upstairs and locked the door. It then summoned Snack, causing the voluptuous demon to appear before it in a flash of light.
“Greetings, my Master,” she said with a respectful curtsy. “How may your Snack assist you tonight?”
She looked around the modest room, her eyes lingering on the bed. It was painfully clear she was imagining all sorts of naughty things and pointlessly getting her hopes up, but Boxxy was too exhausted to deal with her perversions.
“Get your mind out of the gutter, I have a very important mission for you,” it stated bluntly. “I want you to tail that Grog person on the ground floor discreetly, find out where he sleeps. Then purge his memories of me and Fizzy from his head, both recent and long-term.”
That dwarf was a security risk that the Mimic didn’t want floating around. Considering the Inquisition stuff going on in the Empire right now, it was actually a stroke of luck he was way over here. Needless to say, it wanted to eliminate any possible connections that could be established between the Cataclysm and the Sandman.
“Be as thorough as you need to be, but try not to kill him if you can help it,” it added. “Too many people saw us talking and I don’t need the Sandman needlessly becoming a murder suspect. Once you’re done, head north along the rail so I can get a head-start on the trip tomorrow. Now hop to it.”
The djinn was obviously disheartened she wouldn’t be getting boned tonight, but still managed to reign in her supernatural libido long enough to respond accordingly.
“… If that is my Master wish, then as your genie it is my duty to see it fulfilled.”
The actual ‘mission’ would be a walk in the park for her current self. Her Mist Form combined with her Invisibility allowed her to bypass virtually any physical security measures. An ability she demonstrated immediately by turning into a highly transparent cloud that left the room silently through the gap under the door. Her particular method of infiltration would fail to bypass magical wards and such, though it was unlikely some lowly bartender would have those in place.
Boxxy then summoned Drea once its MP had recovered a bit, and ordered her to guard it while it slept and make sure its rest wasn’t disturbed. The Stalker demon was very much overjoyed to hear her assignment, as watching Boxxy sleep for a whole night was one of her favorite things to do. With everything in place, the Mimic curled up into the chest-bound form it was most comfortable with and fell asleep almost immediately afterwards.
It woke up the next morning at the crack of dawn, feeling extremely refreshed and full of energy.
“Good morning, Master! Did you sleep well?”
“Good morning, my Master. That vile baldy has been quietly relieved of his memories as per your orders.”
Drea greeted it with a huge smile from the upper corner of the room while Xera reported she’d done her part without a hitch. Boxxy went out of its room and checked downstairs to inspect her handiwork. It saw Grog nursing a killer headache over at the bar while hunched over a bowl of warm soup, presumably a homebrew hangover cure of some kind.
The Sandman passed through the restaurant nonchalantly to see what sort of reaction Grog would have. The bartender threw the shady mercenary a curious glance, he didn’t seem at all interested in calling out to him. He obviously failed to recognize the hooded figure, and his body language seemed to imply his head hurt way too much to deal with some gigantic stranger prancing about. Frankly speaking, it was a wonder he hadn’t been reduced to a babbling idiot considering how much information had been ripped out of him last night.
The Mimic would likely return to permanently silence him later on, but had more important things to worry about right now.
Having concluded its business in the dwarven capital, Boxxy immediately began going north along the train tracks Grog had mentioned last night. It traveled in much the same fashion as it had done over the past few days - by letting Snack do all the actual traveling while it eagerly hunted for breakfast. The distance between Gun Tarum and Dragunov clocked in at about 300 kilometers, which the Mimic could cover in about 7 hours by using this leisurely method. It was actually even less considering it had ordered the djinn to go on ahead while it slept.
“Master, there is an… obstacle in my path.”
However, Snack had delivered a rather questionable report shortly before what should have been either the last or second-last Transfamiliar jump before reaching the city.
“Then fly over it!” it snarled in response as it was ripping apart some kind of monstrous tortoise.
“I don’t think I can fly that high, Master.”
“Why not? What is it that’s in your way?”
“It’s… hard to describe. I guess you could call it a wall of ice, snow and thunder that reaches up into the heavens.”
“… What kind of ‘obstacle’ is that?”
“This worthless slut has no idea, my Master. I have never seen anything like it before.”
“Alright, I’ll take a look for myself. Land in a secure spot and standby for Transfamiliar.”
A long chant, an interdimensional hop, a puff of green smoke, and a lightning-fast round of shapeshifting later, the cloaked figure of the Sandman appeared on top of a small plateau. Once the customary moment of disorientation passed, Boxxy was made instantly aware of how much colder it was around here. Chilly weather was to be expected considering winter was about to go into full swing, but the difference between its previous and current position was like night and day.
As for the source of this thermal discrepancy, it was so painfully obvious that Boxxy could spot it even with its eyes closed.
A snowstorm of unimaginable proportions was swirling roughly a kilometer away due north. Looking left, right or up made it impossible to tell where it began and where it ended. Thick clouds of white and gray surged back and forth at unimaginable speeds, blotting out both the sky and the horizon. Numerous flashes of lightning could be seen within the massive storm, drowning the Mimic’s surroundings in thunderous echoes. The howling tempest was so intense that it almost seemed like the entire pantheon of gods had gathered together and unanimously declared ‘fuck this place in particular.’
A dreadful chill ran down Boxxy’s spine as it stared at this unspeakable storm front. However, it wasn’t due to the frigid winds that could be felt all the way over here, nor was it a byproduct of the sheer awe it felt at witnessing the unbridled fury of this clearly unnatural phenomenon. It wasn’t even the grim realization that not only was this colossal whiteout showing no signs of abating, but it actually seemed to be growing ever-so-slightly larger.
No, what the Mimic was worried about was something far more personal, though not something quite as mundane as the very real threat of being struck by lightning. It was a possibility that had no evidence or facts to support it, and would make very little logical sense. At least, not until one considered the timing involved, coupled with the nature of the patron deity that Boxxy and a certain mithril golem had in common.
It was the nagging feeling that Fizzy had caused a Calamity of her own.