The Oculus Sea that stood at the heart of the continent was a troublesome one to navigate due to the seemingly eternal thunderstorm that dominated its central region. This unnatural phenomenon, known simply as the Iris, was theorized to be left over from whatever cataclysm it was that formed the sea in the first place. Though its origins were shrouded in mystery, the adverse effects the Iris had on the Oculus Sea’s currents and weather patterns were widely known and thoroughly documented. As was its uncanny ability to confuse all manner of compasses - both magical and otherwise. Navigating using the stars was possible, but only in places where the cloud cover overhead was not permanent.
Long story short, travel by ship over this body of water was only feasible if seafaring vessels did not venture more than about ten to twenty kilometers off the shoreline. Any deeper than that and the ships would have to fight water currents that threw them off course and slowly but surely pulled them into the Iris itself. Which, as one might imagine, was a death sentence if it were allowed to happen.
And yet all manner of ships and boats still braved those troubled waters daily. Bizarre weather notwithstanding, fish were abundant and aquatic monsters were far less common than they were in the oceans surrounding the continent. Braving the Oculus Sea was also the only direct trade route between the Lodrak Empire and the Horkensaft Kingdom. Land routes linking the two nations existed, but they were not exactly ideal. Those wishing to circle around the Oculus Sea had to go either through the Ishigar Republic to the northwest, or the Sovereign State Alliance to the southeast. And considering both of those governments had less than stellar relationships with the Empire, traders had little choice but to opt for the sea route.
Under such circumstances it was therefore natural that port settlements on the banks of the Oculus Sea would be of significant importance to the human-dominated superpower. The city of Watford was a prime example of that, as it was the largest hub of maritime trade in the Empire. Unfortunately, it was also a magnet for a slew of criminal activity. Rampant corruption, slave trafficking and smuggling were three of its biggest problems. Or it’s biggest assets, depending on the point of view. It was often said that one could find nearly anything in Watford if they searched hard enough, be it people, goods, services, or rogue spy organizations.
The latter one of those was a bit of a stretch, but that’s what Stain and her Foundation contacts claimed. The mole they had within Edward’s organization had left dead drops for the elves following the failed Aurora Eve raid. Within them was information that stated the Gilded Hand would be retreating by crossing over the Oculus Sea by griffins, with Watford as their destination. Unfortunately the double agent had gotten injured during the assault and nearly died, so the intelligence he or she was able to pass on was rather minimal.
Which was why Boxxy, Stain and Xera were currently stalking the poor, run-down parts of the otherwise bustling port city on this fine evening. The sky was dyed red by the setting sun, the air stank of salt and fish and the streets were filled with various unsavory-looking individuals. Yet at the same time it was a surprisingly close-knit community, where everyone knew someone who knew a guy. That was why the monstrous newcomers would stood out and attracted a bit of attention, despite disguising themselves as a burly old sailor and his two wenches.
“You sure this is the place?” Boxxy asked.
“The sign says ‘The Crusty Lady,’ so this has to be it,” Stain replied.
“Wow, I’m surprised this place is still standing,” commented Xera.
The three of them had wound up standing across the street from an old pub of some sort. It was a run-down two-story building that seemed to be held together by spit and a prayer, with boarded up windows and a signpost so rotten that a strong gust would probably knock it over.
“Snack, you know this bar?”
“I know the building, Master. Used to be an old hunting ground of mine about thirty five years ago, though it had a different name back then. Also looked a lot nicer, but I guess fire has a way of giving buildings a makeover.”
“Fire, is it? Dare I ask what happened here?”
“I, uh, may have set fire to it when the locals figured out I was an unbound succubus. I was planning on using it as a distraction to slip away, but I got pinned beneath a burning beam and sort of suffocated from the smoke. Would’ve definitely creamed my panties if I knew to seek pleasure in such things back then.”
“Lovely,” Stain groaned. “In any event it’s best if Bo- I mean, ‘Barnacle Bill’ here went in alone. You still remember what you need to do once inside, yes?”
“Good, then get to it. Me and the delicious Snack over here will be probing the locals for extra information.”
The monster in the shape of a crusty old man then casually entered the dubiously named establishment. The interior had a surprisingly cheerful and warm atmosphere in direct contrast to how it looked on the outside. The patrons were far too busy having a jolly old time to pay any attention to the newcomer, allowing Boxxy to take a seat at the bar undisturbed. He was then approached by an older woman on the other side of the counter. She had a large diagonal scar on her face which went from her right temple, over her nose and down her left cheek. She might’ve been beautiful when she was younger, but her current appearance left little doubt she was the current owner of ‘The Crusty Lady.’ Or at the very least its mascot.
“Hey there, old timer. Name’s Benny,” she said in a raspy voice. “What’ll you be having?”
“Hello, madam. I’m Bill. I heard you lot had a unique beverage on tap, something called a Stainless Stein special? I’ll have me one of those.”
“Uh, you sure about that? No offense, but that thing might just kill ya.”
“Bah. Don’t lump me in with the rest of these lightweights. I used to drink dwarves under the table when I was younger!”
“Fine, but you pay up front. Can’t collect tabs on a corpse.”
Money changed hands and a few minutes later Boxxy was presented with a wooden stein plated with silver on the outside. It was an old mug that had changed hands countless of times, leading to the metal being worn and tarnished.
“The name’s ironic,” said the barmaid when she noticed her customer’s quizzical stare. “And before you ask - yes, the bubbling green liquid is normal.”
“What about this empty bowl you gave me?”
“That’s to make my job easier, don’t worry about it.”
Boxxy shrugged and brought the drink up to its lips, but hesitated the instant that foul odor hit its nose. Still, the queen slime stated this was a necessary step to getting in touch with her contact, so it decided to bear with it and took a sip. Contrary to its unsightly appearance and repugnant smell, however, the actual taste of the drink was not all that bad. In fact, it was even borderline enjoyable once the slightly fruity aftertaste hit.
“Huh, that wasn’t that bad,” the shapeshifter commented after a single mouthful. “I don’t get what all the fuss is about.”
“Hmm, guess you really are as hardy as you claim,” Benny said. “Three out of four people puke their guts out after the first drop. Guess you won’t be needing that bowl after all.”
That was only natural though. Boxxy was a monster in possession of Legendary Endurance. At this point the only drinks that would even give it pause were ones infused with its Bane like that Thunderbrew stuff.
“Let me know if you want a refill.”
“Appreciate it, madam.”
The woman left Boxxy to nurse that mysterious drink, which it kept doing for about fifteen minutes. It was at that point that someone saddled up to the bar and sat next to it. The shapeshifter turned to face it, but almost immediately saw something was very off about him. He had short, scruffy brown hair and a beard to match, and his skin was as rough and cracked as one might expect from a career sailor. However, while his left eye was a light hazel color, his right wasn’t an eye at all. It was a miniature pink slime, with a tiny pearl-like object floating inside. It was obviously connected to the man’s mind somehow, as the white core moved in perfect tandem with the man’s other eye, almost as if it were an iris.
“Greetings, stranger,” he said in a friendly manner. “Don’t suppose you’d be willing to buy me a drink?”
“Don’t bother the guy, Slimeface!” Benny bellowed from the other side of the bar. “He’s new here so he’s not used to seeing your ugly mug!”
“That’s quite alright, madam! Please, get the man whatever he wants!” Boxxy half-shouted before turning its attention back to the visitor. “So. Slimeface, eh?”
“Aye. Kind of obvious where I got that lovely label from, ain’t it? Don’t worry about this little guy though, he’s harmless,” he said, pointing to the tiny monster in his right eye socket. “Just a souvenir I picked up during me mariner days.”
“Well, good to meet you, Slimeface. Folks call me Barnacle Bill, but I never been sure why.”
“A man of the sea, are you?”
“Not exactly. Used to sail the Shimmering Ocean, actually. At least ‘till my crew ran into a really nasty white kraken. Took down the entire ship and my left leg with it.”
Boxxy pulled its trousers up a bit, letting Slimeface have a good look at its peg-leg.
“Yeesh. No wonder you downed that drink so easily. You’d have to be one tough son of a shark to survive something like that. Me, I’m more of a diver than a sailor. I mostly explore them old ruins at the bottom of the sea and whatnot. There was this one time that-”
However, just as ‘Slimeface’ was starting his story, Boxxy felt a certain tugging inside its head. It was a distinct feeling it had grown familiar with over the past few days with Stain. It was a certain sign that someone was trying to establish a telepathic link through magic, and it was rather painfully obvious who that individual was. That was why the monster wasted no time in accepting the connection, and Slimeface’s voice spilled into its head.
“That damnable woman sent you, didn’t she?”
It was rather impressive he was able to speak both with his thoughts and his voice at once, but then again he probably had plenty of time to practice.
“If by ‘damnable woman’ you mean the slime called Stain, then yes,” the Mimic replied.
“Hrn, at least she wasn’t stupid enough to walk in here herself this time around. What does she want?”
“Did you find any packages or letters marked ‘For Charlie’ since the new year?”
“Yeah, two of them. One’s three weeks old, the other’s from five days ago. I’ll leave them buried in some trash beneath pier two of the Stormchaser guild’s ports by tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, and word of advice. I don’t know who you are or what you do, nor do I want to. However, if that bulbous bitch offers you a parting gift, reject it immediately. It’s a ‘stain’ that will never come off, no matter how hard you try.”
Slimeface continued the meaningless verbal chatter for a few more minutes before stumbling out of the bar. Boxxy waited around drinking by itself and lightly interacting with any other curious patrons for another half hour before leaving. The sun was already completely gone by the time it met up with Stain and Xera. The trio went to an inn in the more reputable part of the city, where they paid for one of the larger rooms and retreated inside it to pool their information.
“Were you able to meet with Slimeface?” asked the moist monarch.
“Yeah. He said he got two packages from your mysterious spy. I’ll pick them up at dawn.”
“… That’s it?”
“Should there be more?”
“Typically people have all sorts of questions for me after meeting that guy. Like where he came from, or why one of my offspring has bonded to his face.”
“I don’t actually care, so please spare me the explanation.”
“How did it go on your end? Were you able to find something?”
“Not in the slightest, Master,” answered Xera. “All we did was wander aimlessly. We didn’t even speak to anyone.”
“I don’t need to speak to people to know what’s on their minds, you scrumptious skank,” Stain interjected. “My Cold Reading Skill allows me to perceive up the idle thoughts of plebeians around me without them realizing I’m doing it. Through it, I found out that a pair of royal griffins were sighted flying over the city in the early days of the new year, causing a good deal of ruckus.”
“Are these the Gilded Hand’s griffins?”
“Hard to say for certain, but the odds are good. The timing fits, and griffins are not a common sight around these parts, and their royal variants even less so. In any event we shall find out if our target is here tomorrow. I suggest we wait here until then.”
“What? But it’s barely sundown! Isn’t now the best time to investigate?”
“I must agree with Stain on this, Master. Watford is not like other human cities. It sleeps while the sun is out, and only truly comes alive during the night.”
“Quite so,” Stain agreed with a nod. “Wandering around aimlessly at this hour is a good way of stumbling across naughty children who do not wish to be noticed. They will no doubt turn violent should that happen, and while I do not doubt your propensity for murder, I fear causing a bloodbath or two might tip off our quarry.”
It was hard to argue with that logic. Having the element of surprise on the likes of the Gilded Hand was a rare and extremely valuable opportunity. It would be foolish to waste it at this juncture because Boxxy happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I can’t just sit and do nothing, though.”
However, the Mimic did not like wasting its time like this. It wanted to do whatever it could to improve its chances of winning, even if by only 0.1%.
“Why do you not assemble more of those queer devices of yours?” suggested Stain.
“We ran out of materials two days ago, remember? Frankly speaking Fizzy and I made entirely too many as it is, and I’m not sure how effective they’ll actually be.”
Grenades, bombs, gadgets and traps could not gain Levels like living things did. Their power was static, and could easily fall short of doing significant harm to powerful creatures. Boxxy, for instance, was at the stage where it could take a basic frag grenade to the face and be mostly fine. It was extremely likely the Gilded Hand’s top brass were the same. That was why it and its golem partner focused on making trick weapons that did more than simply blow up in a rain of fire and shrapnel.
Not that any of that stopped the duo from making a good number of plain old high-explosive devices anyway.
“Master, may I suggest training your body by gouging out my insides with a gigantic thorny cock or two?”
“Make another idiotic statement like that, and I’ll hand you over to your mother for a full month.”
“… Understood, Master.”
The hopeless pervert’s deluded fantasies aside, she did remind Boxxy of something. Arms was currently sparring with Fizzy some twenty kilometers south of the city in order to help hone her fighting style. Surprisingly enough, this was something the archfiend suggested herself. Apparently she felt humiliated after losing to ‘a mere human’ like Zone, which motivated her to actually learn how to fight instead of blindly relying on brute strength. Boxxy tried training her initially, but teaching a stubborn moron like that proved to be more difficult than anticipated. That was why it let Fizzy handle Arms’s training for the most part, as she had already proven herself to be a capable instructor. It wasn’t clear whether Boxxy would be able to help with that process, but checking on them was better than doing nothing.
Thankfully Claws was tagging along with Arms and Fizzy to serve as a lookout in case anyone came to investigate the odd noises, so going there and back was a simple enough matter. After informing Xera and Stain of its intentions, the shapeshifter disappeared from the room with Transfamiliar and arrived in a dimly lit cavern. The sound of battle immediately filled its ears as Arms’s fists smashed against Fizzy’s frame. Both of them were so engrossed in their duel that neither noticed its arrival. Not wanting to ruin their focus, Boxxy decided to just silently observe the archfiend’s progress.
Though it was normally ludicrous to think that a three hundred year old demon would learn anything from just a few days’ worth of tutelage, that was decidedly not the case. Kora always had a natural talent for combat, not to mention the high Brawling Mastery Level already gave her mind and body the know-how it needed to fight effectively. Her attack pattern was not lacking in any way from a mechanical standpoint, but was utterly devoid of any forethought or tactics. This flaw could be blamed on Boxxy and its absurd MP making her so powerful that she didn’t need to bother with such things. After all, there was no need to form a plan or battle strategy when the enemy would just go splat in one or two hits.
Such naive behavior was nowhere to be seen now, though. Her face was lacking her usual murderous grin, instead sporting a focused, tight lipped scowl. Her movements were completely different as well. Rather than wide swings that anyone of her relative power level could easy dodge, her punches and kicks were now quick, compact, and light. She didn’t try to squash her opponent with a big hit or overwhelm her with a wild rush, but was attacking carefully and steadily.
Arms was also making surprisingly good use of her large frame’s reach. She had found a distance where she could bash away at Fizzy while at the same time being just slightly out of range of the golem’s attacks. The demon was forcing the smaller opponent to close the distance on her rather than doing her the favor of rushing into close range all on her own like a moron. Frankly speaking, the shiny Paladin could probably reach her if she did a full swing with her bizarre wrench, but that would leave her wide open of a counter-attack.
Speaking of which, wasn’t Fizzy behaving differently? The style she learned from Boxxy was one where she would constantly try to ruin the opponent’s balance and rhythm, then strike when an opening presented itself. This time, however, she had adopted an extremely defensive approach, one that relied on blocking and parrying as many blows as possible as if waiting for her opponent to tire out. It wasn’t a bad idea since golems had effectively infinite stamina, but then again, so did archfiends. It was not a winning strategy in the current matchup, to say the least.
Just as Boxxy was wondering what the former gnome was up to, she suddenly leapt at the much taller demon’s chest. Kora threw her arms up to form multiple cross-guard blocks with her gauntlets just in time to take a massive blow from that weird wrench. The golem then disappeared in a flash of lightning, appearing above and behind the fiend. She swung her wrench down in a massive arc in a repeat of the finishing blow she used during their first bout in Boxxy’s dungeon a week ago.
The archfiend didn’t fall for it this time, though. She spun around on her left heel, avoiding the huge vertical swing while putting her entire body weight behind the first full force attack she’d thrown in the duel. Two of her right fists slammed into Fizzy’s exposed abdomen, sending the golem flying into the nearby wall with a thunderous impact that made part of the cavern collapse on top of her.
“Booyah! How’s that, pipsqueak?!”
“Good, but not good enough!”
Fizzy emerged from the rubble raring for another round, but she stopped in her tracks when she realized she had a visitor.
“Oh, hey Boxxy! Didn’t see you there!”
“Yo, boss! How’s it hanging?” said Kora with a wave.
“Hey. What’s going on here?”
“We’re sparring, duh?”
“I’m not asking you, Arms. Fizzy - what was that just now? Why are you not attacking with the arm cannon and the floating wrench technique? You’re not using Parallel Plot or Engine of Destruction, either.”
“Because there would be little point to me doing those things,” she claimed. “I’m the only one in the world who can use that combination of Skills, so training her to handle them is pointless. In any event it’s far more productive to cover the basics, which includes opponents that turtle up.”
“Ah, of course. I guess I really should’ve known better than to doubt your teaching methods. You know, I’ve thought this ever since I first walked into your shop way back when, but you’re one amazing teacher, you know that? You can even teach an ignorant musclehead like Arms!”
“Hehe, that’s right, that’s right. Praise me more!”
“Ugh, here we go again.”
Kora rolled her eyes, as she was already familiar with this pattern. If things proceeded like normal, then Boxxy and Fizzy would engage in another needlessly long polishing session. It was somehow vexing to watch, though she wasn’t quite sure why.
“Well, I’d like to, but I actually need to speak with Arms about something.”
However, it would appear her Master had different intentions for once.
“Oh? What’s up, boss?”
“I think you should consider adding some basic grappling attacks to your moveset to make the most out of having so many hands. You’re bigger and heavier than most enlightened races, so enemies will have a hard time throwing you off if you manage to grab them right.”
“Huh? But that’s no fun. What was the point of fondling someone when I can just smash their skull open?”
This attitude was what gave Boxxy so much trouble when it first tried teaching Kora. She said she wanted to learn, but at the same time she didn’t want to do things she found dull. Her master could order her to perform the motions anyway, but none of it would sink in if she wasn’t personally invested. After all, the Mimic couldn’t be expect to micromanage each of her movements during a fight. Fizzy had somehow found a compromise and taught her the basics, but what would-
Just then, Boxxy had something of a brilliant idea.
“Think of it like this - if you manage to immobilize a powerful opponent in the middle of a duel, then you can rape them on the spot.”
“I mean, I guess. But I can do it after I break their face and legs, right?”
“Or… you could do both?”
“That-! Boss, you’re a bloody genius! Alright, show me how I can make that happen!”
The shapeshifter and the golem then proceeded to instruct Kora on the finer points of locking people down with grappling moves. She already knew some basic grabs and tackles thanks to Brawling Mastery, but she needed to recognize when was a good opportunity to use them. The Mimic was something of an expert on the subject, due in no small part to its extensive anatomical knowledge. It knew all the sweet spots where one needed to apply pressure during a submission hold to inflict pain and/or limit movement. And with six powerful arms at her disposal, the archfiend could securely grab hold of an adult person and still have a hand or three free to deal with others. She still needed all half-dozen limbs to hold Fizzy down for more than a few moments, but that was besides the point.
This carried on for about nine hours straight. Everything was quiet on Snack, Claws and Stain’s end, allowing the training session to continue undisturbed until morning. Boxxy had taken on more of a coaching role, so it was able to preserve its energy just fine. It was also rather surprising how much of its insight Arms was able to soak up in that short amount of time. Was it because she was a fast learner once motivated properly? Or maybe the act of strangling people and binding their limbs came naturally to a species that lived to assert their dominance over others?
In any event, Boxxy transferred back to the inn and went to secure the dead drops Slimeface promised yesterday. As it walked the early morning streets, it could clearly smell the stench of blood wafting from a few of the alleys, and a number of smoke trails could be seen rising from the cheap part of town. It would appear Watford did indeed ‘come alive’ during the night, just like Stain and Snack said.
Thankfully the Mimic’s destination was in a more affluent and civilized part of the city, where violent confrontation between unsavory elements just didn’t happen. It was also the place where a rather large contingent of the Inquisition had set up shop. They were most likely here trying to eradicate corruption from the local government rather than trying to suppress criminals directly. Their forces might become a problem if Boxxy were to make a ruckus when fighting the Gilded Hand, but that was a matter for later. For the moment the shapeshifter did as the locals did and avoided any places or patrols that bore their eye-adorned black banner.
Once it reached its destination, the monster fired up its Mana Locator Gland and tracked down the two packages labeled ‘For Charlie’ in no time flat. It discreetly dug them out and returned to the inn. It made a quick round trip to bring Fizzy in, after which the golem, the doppelganger and the slime began poring over the information. The older package contained dossiers on each of the Gilded Hand’s chief officers. Their fighting styles, Job setups, tendencies, looks - everything short of a Full Appraisal report was contained within.
However, the most troublesome among them, other than Edward himself, was undoubtedly the enigmatic Spell-caster called Mist. According to this intelligence, he was once Nao’s predecessor as the Hero of Magic, but was ‘fired’ when his interests turned from mastering the mystic arts to politics. That would certainly explain why and how the Gilded Hand knew of the LIAR, but there was another, more pressing issue to consider.
Mist had at least 25 Levels in most Caster Jobs, which included Warlock. This gave him access to a bound familiar, a fiend named Bloknalthoz Kuuszotrath. The problem with this was that, according to the file, this demon was genuinely loyal to the old man. If that fiend had been keeping an eye on Killinger’s broadcasts of the Boxxy Show recently, then he would know an attack on the Gilded Hand’s headquarters was imminent. Even if he couldn’t outright reveal this information to mortals, it was still possible he might somehow tip the humans off, or put them on high alert. It would therefore be best if Boxxy and its monstrous cohorts struck sooner rather than later.
Which was where the second, more recent message proved to be immensely useful. It revealed that the rogue organization had not one, but seven different hideouts in the city. All of them were located within a neighborhood the locals referred to as ‘the Fish Farm.’ The area in question was a shanty town built atop a series of piers, rafts and boats in the shallow waters of the Oculus Sea. The Gilded Hand bases themselves were large seaworthy vessels that were ready to depart at a moment’s notice should it become necessary. It was unclear who would be stationed where, so there was no telling which one Edward was hiding in. Or if he was even around, for that matter.
In any event, the consensus amongst the monstrous kill-team was that all of those ships needed to be destroyed simultaneously. Doing so would thin out the Gilded Hand’s numbers while also cutting off a potential escape route. The man called Bandit apparently still had five griffons under his command, which would also need to be brought down for the same reasons. The flying beasts were going to be tricky, but at least the ships would be easy enough to deal with. In fact, while it was at it, the Mimic decided it would probably be best to throw the city into chaos. Doing so would surely delay any sort of armed response from whatever it was that pass for authority around here. And it was certain its method would work due to one simple reason.
Even though the city of Watford may have seen all kinds of murderous scum and traitorous filth pass through it, those people still had the common courtesy of avoiding collateral damage.
Something that Boxxy and its cartload of high-explosive devices were not the least bit bothered by.