The affluent guests kept admiring the radiant aurora long after the initial celebratory cheers had quieted down. It was a piece of natural beauty that could only be seen once a year and only for about fifteen minutes at a time. It was a rare sight one would never tire of regardless of how many times they’d seen it. This was because the waxing and waning of the ethereal colors in the sky were not only entertaining to watch, but were also quite moving on an emotional level. Just looking upon it seemed to remind one of how petty their grievances and problems truly were, and kindled the forgiving and charitable spirit present within all enlightened.
However, this phenomenon was considered to be magical in nature, as any warm or fuzzy feelings brought on by the aurora would fade away rapidly once it dissipated. But until then, the people would keep staring at the sky and enjoying the moment. Boxxy did the same, but for entirely different reasons. The aurora had absolutely no effect on its psyche since it was a monster, but it was nevertheless a shiny view it had never experienced before.
“Master! I’m seeing suspicious movement within the mansion!” reported Claws. “I think you have guests, the uninvited stabby kind!”
The shapeshifter’s mind rapidly switched to business mode when it heard those words. Just as Boxxy had expected, there were those who could not pass up on this golden opportunity. Strictly speaking, this party was an extremely juicy target for anyone with nefarious motives. The guards were spread rather thin, and there seemed to be very few magical security measures. Save for a few beastkin-shaped exceptions, the guests were all unarmed weaklings that wielded political and economical power rather than any form of martial or mystical might. Not only that, but all the big-shot adventurers were out of town doing their own thing.
Honestly, it was almost as if Mr and Mrs Bryric wanted their party to be attacked.
“Is it those Foundation guys again?” asked Boxxy.
“I do not know, Master. The ones I spotted appeared to be human, but it’s hard to tell since they’re all masked.”
“What are they doing?”
“I saw them take out a couple of guards and a waiter then dragging their bodies off somewhere. They seem to be taking control of the mansion before they enact whatever plan it is they have.”
“Not very elf-centric, these intruders,” commented Xera. “I do not think it is the same organization that tried to capture me, Master.”
“Who cares?! It’s an attack in force!” exclaimed an impatient Kora. “Let’s just stomp their heads flat and sort out the details later!”
Since Boxxy was expecting something troublesome to happen, it had all three of its familiars on standby. The webstalker was hiding in the yard keeping an eye on things, the archfiend was lurking inside the sewers beneath the house, and the djinn was posing as a guest. Now that an enemy had shown themselves, the immediate question turned to what their goals could be. Their objective was most likely one or more of the high-value targets within the atrium, but there were far too many of those.
“Get in position to counter-attack, but don’t do anything just yet,” it commanded. “Let them make the first move, then we’ll see.”
Therefore, it would be best to take the wait and see approach until the unknown enemy showed their hand. Sure, there would be some innocent casualties, but Boxxy couldn’t care less about a bunch of unimportant staff members. It was only about five minutes later when the aurora was starting to slowly fade away when the shapeshifter finally noticed suspicious activity in its vicinity. Using its Ranger’s eyesight, the Mimic noticed that the guards around the edge of the atrium were being killed off silently and dragged away before their bodies hit the floor. It wouldn’t be long now before things turned hectic, so it decided to take some last minute precautions. Not concerning its personal safety though, Boxxy felt pretty confident about that. However, there was a certain valuable asset that it wanted to make sure escaped this thing alive.
“Kuro, this is Keira. I think there may be trouble brewing, so be ready.”
The towering wolfkin’s ears twitched a bit when he heard the Whisper Wind message. He tore his eyes away from the light show overhead and calmly looked around the atrium, noting that the guards that had been there just minutes ago were now mysteriously absent. He then glanced over the crowd, his height allowing him to easily locate the catgirl’s head of crimson hair. He gave her a tiny nod to signify he understood while sliding a hand underneath the coat of his white uniform.
The party crashers proceeded with the crashing of said party about half a minute later. There were a series of loud sharp bangs all around the gathered crowd, followed by a thick layer of gray smoke. The guests naturally began to panic and grow unruly since their initial thought was ‘fire’ rather than ‘smoke bombs.’ A misunderstanding that was cleared up when over fifty masked figures armed almost literally to the teeth stepped out of the smog.
A slender woman who appeared to be the leader took a few steps forward.
“Happy new year, ya filthy twigs,” she said loudly and spitefully. “As I’m sure you’ve all noticed, me and my associates have you surrounded, so nobody try anything funny lest they want a knife in the face.”
The gathered elite of the elven society began buzzing amongst themselves when they saw the various bladed weapons and miniature crossbows aimed at their direction. Thankfully nobody was stupid enough to make any suspicious moves. Even if there were those among them that had combat-oriented Jobs, they recognized that agitating these people would only lead to all sorts of casualties and collateral damage.
“Very good! Now, if you rich fucks could just quietly hand over the fuzzy-eared Hero then we’ll be on our way!”
All eyes immediately converged on Keira, causing Rowana to cling onto her from behind with a pale face as if refusing to let her go. The catgirl responded by placing a hand on hers and giving her a quiet whisper of ‘it’ll be alright.’
“No, not that one, you morons,” said the assault leader. “The other one.”
The center of everyone’s attention then gradually shifted to Nao and Kuro. The Hero of Magic had an extremely worried look on his face, though it was not exactly a frightened one as this wasn’t his first time being targeted. The same could be said about his bodyguard, whose sneer made it obvious he had no intention of complying. Influenced by the aurora as they were, none of the guests seemed particularly willing to just send him to the slaughter either. Something this intruder probably expected, judging by the wide smile that could be seen even under her face mask.
“Well! Hard way it is th-!”
However, the one to make the first move was not her, nor was it Kuro, Nao, Boxxy, or any of its familiars. A strange wave of something passed through the entire mansion, causing the glass ceiling to rattle and momentarily distorting everyone’s vision. A large number of the people looked upwards almost on instinct, only to realize that a stupidly large object was now looming in the sky. They could only make out the underside of its silhouette against the aurora, which seemed strangely boat-shaped.
A full suit of solid adamantite armor crashed through the glass ceiling before anyone could do or say anything, landing on the ground between the two parties with an earth shattering impact.
“Gotcha, ya sneaky shits!” shouted Hilda as she readjusted the grip on her stupidly large battleaxe. “We have ye right where we want ye!”
The dwarven Berserker wasn’t the only one to drop down from the flying vessel, which was now shining a series of blinding white lights down upon the otherwise gloomy atrium. Elven agents bearing official-looking badges and insignias upon their chests and shoulders descended through the broken ceiling and formed a protective wall around the civilians. There were quite a few big-shots among them, though Imiryl the Wizard and Lichter the Paladin were the only other ones Boxxy had personally met.
“Attention, agents of the Gilded Hand!” said a magically-amplified voice from above. “This is the Ishigar Republic’s Foreign Intelligence Bureau! You are outnumbered and outclassed! Lay down your arms and surrender, or we will be forced to use lethal force!”
The leader of the would-be Hero-nappers obviously did not comply, and instead gave the order to have her men fight back. She barely even finished saying the words when a large number of alchemically-prepared smoke bombs were thrown towards the FIB soldiers. Many of the pellets were deflected or disabled before they could do any harm, but some of them inevitably managed to disperse their payload.
The area was almost instantly covered by a thick, purple-tinged miasma, different from the dark gray smoke screen from before. It was a powerful tranquilizer toxin normally reserved for crowd dispersal and riot suppression. Both groups of spies had masks that shielded them from the effects, but the same could not be said about the guests, who naturally began panicking. The situation instantly descended into chaos as the Gilded Hand attacked indiscriminately. This forced their elven counterparts to defend and bear the brunt of the attack while they got the unarmed civilians out of the danger zone.
A task that was being handled by the Wizard VIP in their midst.
Imiryl created a large shimmering portal in the midst of all this, and the panicking noncombatants were ushered through while the FIB agents held off the assailants. The guests were all successfully evacuated in less than a minute. They were all coughing and wheezing with tears running down their faces and their legs giving out as a result of the gas. A quarter of them had gotten injured and were bleeding, but there had been no civilian casualties thanks to the swift response and sacrifices of the FIB. Keira, Rowana and the rest of the Slyth family had also gotten out safely and were busy comforting each other. They were still recovering from the shock when the catgirl suddenly made a startling observation.
“Nao? Where’s Nao?!” she screamed. “Oh no, he must’ve been left behind! I need to go look for him!”
“Keira, don’t!” shouted her girlfriend as she grabbed her by the arm. “You can’t! I only just got you back!”
“Those guys were after my friend, Rowie! The whole point of me becoming an adventurer was so that I wouldn’t have to abandon those I cared about when things turned out like this! If I ran away here and something happened to him, I would hate myself for the rest of my life!”
“That’s just the aurora talking,”stated Doris in a serious tone. “You need to stop being overly dramatic and calmly analyze the situation. If you go down there in your current emotional, unarmed and unarmored state, you’ll only get yourself and others killed. Trust me, I tried clashing with a few of those assholes on the way out, and they are not pushovers.”
The matron of the Slyth family held up her right arm, showing a massive gash that ran the length of her forearm.
“Even if I’m retired, I’m still a high-Level Monk. It takes serious effort to pierce through my Ki-reinforced skin. Please believe me when I say that a cub like you stands no chance against those professional killers.”
The Hero of Chaos was not one to deny the reality in front of her eyes, so she was forced to give up on getting herself involved any further. She collapsed on the floor and hugged her knees in defeat while her girlfriend did her best to comfort and reassure her. As for the male half of the Slyth family, they were busy taking in their surroundings. It would appear the evacuation point was the deck of the flying ship that had come to their rescue. Both Samulus and Elias recognized the vessel as the Endeavor, a literal flying ship that was kept in the air through a combination of the blimp-like balloon overhead and powerful wind magic.
They had no idea how such a massive behemoth had arrived seemingly out of nowhere, though. The thing was incredibly slow, making it impractical for anything other than a mobile playground for the wealthy and powerful. It was a pleasure cruiser, not a military barge, yet the FIB had still commandeered it. This was because, unbeknownst to the civilians, the Endeavor had been outfitted with an experimental device called the Gate Drive. It was a magic mechanism based off of the principles behind the Forest Gates, which allowed the ship to teleport itself and its passengers hundreds of kilometers away in an instant.
However, such a fantastical feature came at a price. The strain of the act left the prototype Gate Drive in tatters while also draining the ship’s magical power reserves. The Endeavor’s spatial transportation systems would need to be replaced, repaired and refueled before they could be enacted once again. It was a design flaw that the Gate Drive’s creators were unable to solve without making it at least twice as big, but it would then be too heavy to fit on the ship. The important bit was that the FIB had to make this trap count since, once committed to the operation, the Endeavor would be a sitting duck.
And that was going to become a bigger problem than expected, as it would appear the Gilded Hand had a few surprises of their own.
“We have incoming from the south!” shouted a voice across the deck. “Royal griffins, three of them!”
All hands immediately looked towards the direction specified to see that a trio of massive winged shadows were indeed on approach, which gave them chills. Griffins were mighty beasts on their own, but these Ranked Up versions could wield powerful wind and lightning magic on top of their immense physical prowess. They were obviously a diversion, but one the FIB could not ignore, lest the influential civilians in their care become catbird food. Having no other choice, Imiryl, Lichter and a few other big shot adventurers flew off to intercept them. The ones that stood out among the unfamiliar faces were a male Cryomancer riding a piece of flying ice and a female Priest with a pair of angelic wings similar to Lichter’s.
As for Keira, the only thing someone of her ability could do was sit, watch, and worry about Nao.
“That guy Kuro better be doing his job,” she mumbled underneath her breath.
Thankfully, ‘that guy’ was most definitely performing something that could be interpreted as ‘his job,’ though at the same time he was doing the exact opposite of ‘his Job.’
The towering wolfkin currently had his back to a corner, with Nao directly behind him. After getting somehow separated from the rest of the crowd during the confusion, the two sworn brothers had been forced to fend for themselves. It seemed like an easy win for the half-elf assassin codenamed Edge, as taking down brutish oafs was something any Rogue worth their blade should be able to do. However, there was one small problem.
“Damn, we’ve been had,” she grumbled while panting. “This guy’s not a Berserker at all!”
“Hahaha! Fell for it, did ya?” taunted Kuro as he twirled the pair of knives in his hands. “That’s what you get for listening in on people’s private conversations!”
‘The bodyguard to the Hero of Magic is a Berserker.’ This was the notion that both beastkin brothers worked spread wherever they went. It was an intentional bit of misinformation they went to great lengths to reinforce, even if it meant subverting Appraisal reports or lying to a fellow Hero. Thankfully Kuro’s personality was naturally confrontational and abrasive, so he fit the Berserker stereotype perfectly whenever they were interacting with others. The Hero of Magic was a public figure that could and has come under attack at any point, so such underhanded precautions were necessary. It allowed the two of them to maintain an element of surprise in case they were ambushed, and it would appear the trick had worked wonderfully.
In actuality, Nao’s bodyguard was a Blade Dancer, one that specialized in using a multitude of knives, of which he had a rather ridiculous variety. Long ones, short ones, curved ones, straight ones, throwing ones, stabbing ones, slashing ones, wired ones, multi-pronged ones, poisoned ones, flaming ones, teleporting ones - he had them all. Yet no matter how many he threw or left behind, he didn’t seem to run out in the slightest. It was to the point where one would be forgiven for thinking Kuro was a bunch of knives held together by a military uniform. In fact, if one were to describe his fighting style in as few words as possible, it would be ‘knives for days.’
The result of his handiwork could be seen all over the place. Two of the four masked goons that Edge brought with her were dead on the floor, while the other two were riddled with wounds. The half-elf herself did not have a scratch on her though, as she had used her subordinates as guinea pigs to see what this man was truly capable of when backed into a corner. His fighting style was unorthodox to say the least, but it wasn’t one she was unable to recognize.
The beastkin called Kuro was something known in the spy business as a ‘sand spider,’ an elite combatant from the Pearly Dunes desert. Admittedly being buddy-buddy with the Hero of Magic had given him access to a much wider array of trick weapons than the ones Edge had faced in the past, but it was definitely the same fighting style. The retractable daggers hidden in the soles of his boots and the way he used his flexible tail as an extra throwing arm were particularly telling. If they were on his home turf then his specially designed and enchanted uniform would let him blend in with the pure white sands to become practically invisible.
But now that his secret was out and the full range of his tricks exposed, Edge felt confident she could take him. She had already managed to cut him on his shoulder and back while also breaking one of his ribs with a point blank hand-to-hand technique, yet suffered not a single scratch in return. She was without a doubt the faster of the two, and her opponent had to be mindful of the Hero-shaped handicap behind him, so he couldn’t fight as wildly as he pleased. The odds were definitely in Edge’s favor should the two of them go at it in a direct one-on-one confrontation.
Then again, she wouldn’t be much of a spy if she fought this guy fair and square.
“Kuro?! What’s wroooaaaaaaah!”
Both of the wolfkin collapsed on the spot screaming and clutching their heads as the Psionic codenamed Hook floated in from above.
“Took you long enough!” snapped the half-elf. “I hope you weren’t off trying to get another grudge match against Imiryl!”
“Doesn’t matter, we need to move,” he deflected. “Bandit’s pets are keeping the twigs busy, but this operation has dragged on too long. We’re attracting the wrong kind of attention!”
The bald man suddenly turned around and unleashed a wave of telekinetic energy with a swing of his arm. There was a loud thwacking noise as a monstrous woman covered in an icy carapace and with six bladed appendages poking out of her back appeared out of seemingly thin air. The tundra webstalker let out an aggressive hiss as she tumbled backwards and came to a stop on all fours.
“Shit, what is that?!” shouted Edge as she and her subordinates turned to face the creature.
“It’s one of the Sandman’s pets,” stated Hook. “I’d know that creepy aura anywhere! Her Master won’t be far behind!”
“My, how observant of you!”
A deep booming voice washed over the scene as the unmistakable silhouette of Azurvale’s resident masked vigilante-cum-mercenary walked out from around a corner. He was well over two meters tall, with a billowing dark blue cloak and mask obscuring all of his features aside from those glowing yellow eyes. He also had a grim-looking black staff with a demonic skull for a head in his hands, though his sheer size made it look more like a baton. There was no doubt in Hook’s mind it was the Sandman, as the dreadful chill running down his back instinctively told him this was an enemy of humanity.
“Edge, grab the package and run, I’ll follow behind!”
The Psionic wasn’t deluding himself into thinking he could beat someone this notorious outright. He was a Warlock of considerable power, so it was unlikely his Domination Spells - which were his main weapon - would have any effect. However, his telekinetic abilities would allow him to easily stall the guy and his pets for as long as necessary to let his colleague complete their mission.
“Yeah, about that…”
Hearing the assassin’s voice, Hook turned around on the spot only to see that a second Sandman had appeared between them and their objective. He was literally at a loss for words, because he could not feel the presence of a mind from within that figure. Hardly surprising, considering Mirror Images were essentially meat dolls with no free will of their own. However, they could still use magic thanks to Boxxy’s Spirit Echo Skill.
The body double unleashed a wave of pure force, similar to the Psionic’s blast from earlier. It crashed against his defensive barrier while Edge took cover behind his back. The two grunts that were with them were unfortunately not as quick on the uptake and got thrown away towards the arachnid demon. Drea moved in and gutted them while they were still in mid-air then rapidly moved onto the other two, forcing the lithe assassin to move in and intercept her. One would think she was crazy to jump in against a thing with that many bladed limbs, but it wasn’t too different from fighting her way into that sand spider’s flurry of knives. The real Sandman unleashed a horizontal Reality Slash at the pair, forcing Hook to block it. It was much heavier than he anticipated, so he couldn’t send it back at its caster like he had intended.
The Mirror Image had taken advantage of this situation to finish that obnoxiously long chant, allowing it to disappear in a puff of green smoke while holding onto Nao and Kuro. The beastkin pair had thankfully passed out from the mental strain the Psionic put on them, so they were incapable of protesting or asking questions. Things were going from bad to worse for the Gilded Hand agents, however, as the body double had swapped places with a certain murder-happy archfiend.
Kora let out a primal roar as she descended upon the Psionic, who had trouble knocking her back with his telekinesis since she was much heavier than the stalker. He still managed to stop her from getting near by smacking her with an uprooted tree, but that was a very temporary measure. Edge was holding off the other one by taking advantage of the fact that those scythe-tipped appendages couldn’t attack all at once without getting in each other’s way. Nevertheless, the pair realized this was not a fight they could win with just the two of them since there was nobody around to stop the Sandman from chanting his magic. It was precisely the situation Boxxy had been aiming for. In fact, the shapeshifter was already looking forward to seeing what Skills it could absorb from such prime specimens.
Unfortunately, the Sandman wasn’t the only one who had backup. The monster felt a reaction from its MLG, informing it of a new threat approaching it from behind at high speeds. It was approaching so quick that it had no choice but to abandon chanting its Spells and turn around to block the incoming overhead strike. A deep gong-like noise resonated throughout the area as Boxxy’s Artifact-grade adamantite staff clashed against another one. The force behind that blow was so severe that the shapeshifter felt like its arms and legs were about to snap, even causing some damage despite being blocked.
The one who had just barged in was a woman - a black haired yellow eyed beauty with a face so thoroughly expressionless one might think she was dead on the inside. She was dressed as just another of the Gilded Hand’s grunts, but it was plainly clear she was no ordinary assassin or spy. The absurd amount of strength behind that one attack made it clear she was far above them in ability, and her choice of weapon was completely unsuited to covert operations. Frankly speaking, Boxxy didn’t really need to see the angelic halo above her head or the brilliantly glowing wings sprouting from her back to recognize her.
She was the Ranked Up human who served as the personal secretary to Edward Allen, the former Spymaster of the Lodrak Empire. The one who had killed her former teammate Milo Faehorn in cold blood during the recent war. A person whose past exploits, once uncovered by the Inquisition, had led to her gaining a rather outstanding bounty in both the Empire and the Republic. Yet at the same time, one could argue it was by her hand that Edward Allen and his clandestine organization had fallen from grace.
She was Jennifer Jackson, the operative bearing the codename Zone, and the woman who was about to experience the sort of unintended consequences a careless Job Removal could have.