It was early noon in the city of Watford, and the weather was uncharacteristically sunny. The ever-swirling dark clouds of the Iris were visible on the horizon if one were to look towards the sea, but the sky overhead was as clear as a summer’s dream. The city itself was incredibly quiet despite the good weather, with only a handful of people that could be seen roaming the streets. Such a thing would seem strange in most civilized places, but Watford had its own rhythm to it. The hard-working citizens were already out tending the fields or fishing with their boats, and the less reputable ones were just now waking up from various nightly activities.
Long story short, Watford’s midday was almost as quiet as the rest of the world’s midnights. However, that was only under normal circumstances. And today was a very special day indeed.
A series of massive explosions rocked the snoozing city, all of them centered around the floating slum known as the Fish Farm. Nearly twenty shacks, buildings and ships went up in a deluge of flame and smoke as a result of the simultaneous detonations. Various forms of water-based magic were called upon to quell the fires as confused and bewildered people began pouring out of their houses. Hurried footsteps ran up and down the web-like piers as the locals tried to sort out this mess.
However, the ones that were trying to sort it out the most were not exactly ‘locals.’
“What in Teresa’s tits happened here?!”
A man in a hooded blue robe was pulling one of his colleagues out of the water while their ship continued to slowly but surely sink into the bay just a few meters away.
“Koff! Koff! We- Koff! We’re under attack, sir!” replied the soaked man as he coughed up seawater.
“Shit, it finally happened,” cursed Hook in a low grumble. “Sorry about this, but time is of the essence.”
The bald Psionic then reached out and grasped the grunt’s head with both hands.
A series of images flashed before Hook’s eyes as they relayed the events of the past few minutes. He saw the man he was holding standing guard at the pier under the guise of a sailor with a terrible hangover. He saw a stumbling lanky figure trudge down the pier and head towards the guard. The man did his duty and headed him off to turn him away, intending to warn him this was no place for homeless bums.
However, when he tried to do so, the stranger suddenly lunged at him, his arm extending forward unnaturally. In a show of strength, speed and ability that no common pauper would ever have, the intruder punched the man in the head before he could react, sending him flying off the pier. The guard rose to the surface just in time to see this intruder barrel through three of his other comrades and wiggle his way into the ship’s lower decks through one of its gun ports. The ship exploded seconds later through unknown means, peppering the area with burning debris. The ‘witness’ Hook was ‘interrogating’ took a bad blow to the head from a stray piece of wreckage, forcing him back underwater with a definite concussion. Fortunately he was of a sufficiently high Level, otherwise when Hook showed up to pull him out shortly afterwards, he would’ve only found a corpse.
The Psionic let go of the screaming man’s head and turned his attention to the other smoke trails in the sky. There were quite a few of them already and they kept increasing as the rest of the city was experiencing belated detonations. Based on their relative positions and the information ripped out of the grunt’s mind, Hook was able to instantly determine four things.
One - they were indeed under attack, as all seven of the Gilded Hand’s mobile bases appeared to have been hit. Two - Edward was right in that they had a mole among them, since they had only transferred their operations to this floating shanty town relatively recently. Three - the enemy was a shapeshifter of considerable Level, whose true identity was most likely the Sandman that stopped them from taking Nao Shoki. Fourth and perhaps worst of all - this opponent was not working alone. Though this seemed like an obvious conclusion given the coordinated nature of this assault, there was also the matter of the anomalous reading on Hook’s Psychic Radar. The one that was rapidly closing in on him from behind and below.
Something shot out of the sea like a missile, flying squarely at Hook’s center of mass. The Psionic had just enough time to ready his defenses, making the mass of pink goo splash against his invisible barrier. Stain rapidly reformed herself next to her target, giggling obscenely to herself as she did so. One look at her twisted open-mouthed smile and the gelatinous tongue-like tendril that wiggled out of it made it abundantly clear she wished to do unspeakable things to Hook.
The Psionic didn’t wait for her to say anything and immediately countered with a Spell. True to its name, an invisible wall smashed into the pink slime, dealing minimal damage but throwing her off the pier and into the sea. A jet of highly pressurized water clashed into Hook’s defensive barrier from the side, prompting him to turn his head and spot another Stain bearing down on him as she bobbed along the surface of the water. He looked around and realized there were two more of them, one of whom had climbed onto the pier and was blocking his escape path.
He then realized why his Psychic Radar was giving him mixed signals - it was because the same entity was attempting to encircle him from all sides. He wasn’t sure how it was possible, but he was now certain these queen slimes all shared one mind. He didn’t need to be a mind-reader to tell that though, given how they were moving in perfect unison with that same disturbing look on all of their faces. The fact that these slimes had faces at all was another matter entirely, as it betrayed both personality and intelligence - the signs of a truly dangerous monster.
A more pressing concern, however, was the fact that this battlefield was extremely unfavorable for Hook. Slimes were very good at using fluids to both attack and defend and this bunch had an entire sea to work with. Normally he would be able to mind-rape the thing into oblivion, but the overwhelming psychic pressure he was feeling made him rapidly give up on that idea. Deciding this was not the place to pick a fight with this thing, Hook rapidly retreated into the air.
“Come back here!” cried out all four Stains. “You’ve been naughty and need to be- *SSSLURP* -punished!”
“I’ll pass, thanks!”
Several more Water Slicers whistled past Hook, but they were not enough to stop him from retreating towards the fallback point. As he flew he noticed something gleaming in the sunlight in front of him. Something transparent, about ten centimeters in diameter and shaped like a twelve-sided die. An arrow pierced the Spell Crystal before he could identify the object as such, shattering it and releasing the magic stored inside. Hook reflexively tried to change course, but the remotely delivered Momentum Anomaly had already enveloped him.
With his weight amplified in proportion to his speed, the Psionic found himself plummeting towards the ground and crashing into a shack hard enough to completely flatten it. His barrier absorbed much of the impact, but it still took him a few seconds to rise to his feet and dig himself out of the wreckage. It was then he spotted the man- no, the thing that had shot him down. A pedestrian - likely another shapeshifter in disguise - was standing on top of a nearby roof and aiming a wooden longbow right at his face.
Before the creature could let loose its arrow, however, it got a telepathic status update about an inbound threat. It leaped from its position just as Zone’s full force blow came down on it. She missed her target, but hit the roof of the house it was standing on, demolishing it in the process. Hook thought to call out to her, but the manic, broken grin on her face gave him pause. Seeing that was so bizarre that it made him doubt whether it was actually her, but the force and zealotry with which she swung that deceptively heavy staff left no doubt she was the real thing. She was without a doubt their most powerful fighter, so she could easily eliminate that thing on her own with a bit of luck. Then again, Lady Luck was a two-timing slut, and Hook knew better than to trust her, so he flew upwards with the intent of helping her catch and kill the retreating shapeshifter.
Once he gained some altitude, however, Hook’s ears picked up a distinct eagle-like cry coming from the heart of the city. He immediately recognized it as one of Bandit’s royal griffins. They only raised such a ruckus while in combat, implying that place was under attack as well. Hook didn’t know what to do or where he was needed most, so he took a moment to compose himself and think. It was times like these that communication was of vital importance, meaning the thing he should be doing right now was establishing a telepathic link between himself and the rest of the Gilded Hand’s top brass.
“This is Hook, can everyone hear me!?” he shouted inside his head.
“About damn time!” growled a frustrated Edward. “What took you so long?!”
“I had company, monster company.”
“You’re not the only one, ya cloaked baldy!” complained Bandit. “I need backup right away, some invisible spider-freak and a weird mithril golem are assaulting Puff and Fluffles!”
Although the names were cutesy, the beasts they represented were anything but. ‘Puff and Fluffles’ were the two royal griffins that helped cover the Gilded Hand’s retreat from Azurvale by running interference against the Republic’s VIPs. They did this by targeting the affluent party-goers with their innate magical abilities, forcing the adventurers on the defensive. They’d have definitely been wiped out in a straight up fight, as evidenced by how the one called Dolly didn’t make it back from that botched mission. Her surviving brothers had been kept in the aerie atop the local Lord-Mayor’s castle without the fool being aware they were not ‘his’ griffins, so it was likely that was where they were currently fighting.
As for Bandit’s other three, more common flying beasts, they were likely heavily injured from the mass bombing. They would’ve been inside the cargo holds of the largest ships, right next to the blast powder and ammunition stocks for the cannons. Those supplies likely caused secondary explosions following the initial ones, and the griffins would’ve taken the brunt of them. They probably survived since Bandit’s Monster Tamer Skills were toughening them up, but it would take time for them to return to their master. The vessels themselves were a completely lost cause, however. They were designed and magically reinforced to take all manner of blows from the outside, but getting blasted apart from within was, to put it mildly, not covered by their warranty.
“He’s not the only one in trouble!” Question chimed in. “Edge and I are being attacked by that red-skinned fiend and her master! We have some backup with us, but they’re dying like flies!”
“Reporting that I am currently in pursuit of Boxxy T. Morningwood?” said Zone with more than a hint of confusion in her voice.
“What?! Then who the fuck is the guy on our end?”
“I saw a different shapeshifter enter one of our ships, it went up in smoke with it still inside. I think it’s safe to assume there’s quite a few of them running around.”
Hook saying ‘he saw’ something was perhaps not exactly accurate since he was reporting on another’s pilfered memories, but the situation demanded he keep things simple.
“Not necessarily,” Edward’s voice came in. “Our target was confirmed to be a doppelganger variant, and those things have a Skill that allows them to make body doubles out of thin air. They’re inferior copies that only last a few minutes, but they make the perfect suicide bombers. Especially if they’re carrying Artificer-made weapons. Zone, the one you’re chasing is likely another fake trying to waste your time.”
“… I see.”
The Monk had said only two words, and although they ‘sounded’ calm, the animosity attached to that thought was impossible to hide.
“Be warned, we have another enemy in the field,” Hook reported. “I was also attacked by a strange queen slime variant, likely an accomplice of the Sandman’s. She’s pink, controls multiple bodies and likely holds some mind-based abilities, so do not engage her unless I’m around.”
“Understood. Mist, open up a Gate to let Edge and Question fall back to your position, then regroup at Bandit’s location with the rest of us,” Edward ordered. “We need to work together if we’re going to salvage this disaster, and those griffins are far too valuable to abandon.”
The former Spymaster could run away here and now, but abandoning his most valuable allies and assets like that was not much of an option. The Gilded Hand’s resources and influence were already strained after that debacle at Azurvale, so losing Watford would likely render them physically unable to make any sort of major power play in the foreseeable future. Not to mention it would also destroy their reputation as the Empire’s bogeymen, making coercion and intimidation that much more difficult. In short, turning tail at this juncture would permanently cripple the Gilded Hand, so Edward’s troupe really had no choice but to fight.
There was also the matter of the old spy’s professional pride being injured as a result of clearly being outplayed by a rival organization, though that did not factor into his judgement.
“If you say so,” responded the old man. “Question, where you at?”
“We’re coming up on the corner of Elm Street and Hickory Boulevard, open it up there!”
“Got it, be ready!”
A circular spatial anomaly opened up directly in front of the retreating Gilded Hand officers, allowing Edge, Question and two of their subordinates to escape through it. The portal closed immediately afterwards, but not before their pursuers managed to throw a metal canister through it. The object bounces off the nearby stone wall and fell to the ground with a clatter, only to have a massive armored boot stomp it flat. There’s a muffled bang, followed by a loud hissing and an unsavory-looking dark green fluid that spread across the floor. The foot was lifted, revealing that the liquid in question was a virulent acid that was currently busy eating its way through the wooden floorboards.
“Tsk. Just had that carpet replaced,” grumbled Mist. “Oh well. Nice work, Bloknalthoz.”
The demon in question snorted once in response as he returned to his station near the room’s only entrance. He was as big and as intimidating as fiends got, standing at nearly three meters tall when he stood upright. His skin was dark red and his hair and eyes a fiery yellow. He had a massive underbite, making his wide face look rather dumb. He had three pairs of silver-plated horns poking out of his head. The rest of his humanoid body was as wide and well-muscled as one would expect from a fiend, though only the left half of it was covered by armor. The handle of a massive greataxe poked over his shoulder, while his left forearm had a shield-like vambrace affixed to it.
“So. Question. Care to explain what happened out there?”
“We got fucked is what happened,” the blond man replied. “The ship we were on went up like a bonfire. Luckily the two of us were on the deck so we mostly just got tossed around, but then that monster gave chase to us.”
“The real one?”
“I would certainly hope so. If that was just a body double, then we don’t stand a chance against the real thing.”
“Hrmm… What’s up with the girl? Is she okay?”
Edge was currently collapsed on her knees, panting heavily and trembling while hugging her own shoulders. She was also mumbling some barely audible yet clearly incoherent gibberish.
“She will be in a bit. She got hit with a Delirium Spell just before we got away.”
And true to Question’s word, the half-elf assassin’s breathing and demeanor calmed down significantly after a few seconds. However, it was clear she was still shaken. Even though the physical injuries from her first ‘meeting’ with the Sandman were healed, her mind still bore a nasty scar. It just went to show that monster was very proficient at using fear as a weapon, both through magical means and psychological warfare.
“I’ll be fine,” she said after noticing the others’ gazes. “By the way, Question, how long are you going to maintain those constructs of yours?”
The blond man waved his hand at the two Gilded Hand foot soldiers, only to have them disappear into a cloud of sparkling particles. The real foot soldiers were already sacrificed to help the officers escape, so these two were merely imitations conjured by Question. The man was a Lightbinder by trade, a rare breed of magic user that, as the name implied, focused on the manipulation of the light element. The Job’s strong points were its use of sturdy barriers, realistic illusions and constructs of solid light called Lightborn Guardians to support one’s allies. It had some purely offensive magic too, but Question was never much of a fighter. The main reason he even had the Job was for its exceptional clairvoyance and scrying magic, which he needed to fulfil his duty as a strategist and coordinator. He was no stranger to combat, but the most he could do during that shameful retreat was provide cover and stall for time while he and Edge ran for their lives.
“I have some old gear and supplies in the wardrobe over there,” said Mist while nodding his head towards a corner of the dark room. “Suit up and get ready, we need to rejoin the others as soon as possible.”
The other two looked at each other as if only just realized they were wearing plain civilian clothing. Well, the boat where they were keeping all their stuff got slightly blown to pieces, so they didn’t exactly have a chance to grab anything of use. The duo therefore gladly took Mist up on his offer and opened up the wardrobe, though they paused for a moment when they realized the ‘old gear’ was a bunch of blue Gilded Hand uniforms. They even had the gold-colored palm-print insignia on them.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” grumbled the wrinkled old man. “I don’t particularly want to be wearing this old thing either, but it’s high-quality gear nonetheless.”
He patted his chest for emphasis, and only then did the younger ones realize he was already wearing his ‘official’ robes. Not only that, but the gold-plated staff he was using as a walking stick had a bunch of Imperial heraldry on it. It was like shouting to the entire world which organization he belonged to, which was less than ideal considering the Gilded Hand’s status as outlaws. Edge and Question ultimately had very little choice in the matter, however, so they grit their teeth and donned the incriminating equipment over the course of the next few minutes.
“Where are we anyway?” the younger man asked as he looked around the dimly lit room. “I don’t recall seeing this place before.”
“It’s an old tower of mine, from before your time. I teleported here when I heard the city was under attack.”
“I mean, like, geographically.”
“Ah. It’s actually the old lighthouse just east of Watford.”
“I see, that’s good. In that case I will remain here so I can observe the fight remotely and coordinate everyone through Hook’s telepathy.”
“What, chickening out already?” Edge sneered.
“Exactly. I’m useless when it comes to high-Level combat, after all. I’d only be dead weight if I showed up in front of that incomprehensible monster.”
“That’s not something to be proud about, you know.”
“We’re short on time, we need to go,” Mist called out. “We’ll be porting into a hot zone, so be ready to come out swinging. The enemy has a stalker so we need to get through the Gate as soon as possible and close it behind us. Bloknalthoz, you take point.”
The fiend in the corner grunted in response and gripped his greataxe with both hands. He lowered his stance as if he was ready to dash, with Edge and his master taking position behind him. After briefly coordinating with Bandit through Hook’s telepathy, Mist threw open the Gate and the trio dashed through immediately. They found themselves in a flower garden that had been ravaged by combat. The tall stone walls around them and the imposing keep at their backs made it abundantly clear they were inside Watford’s castle grounds.
They didn’t get much of a chance to sightsee, however, as one of the royal griffons was rolling around on the ground while the other was fighting a short mithril golem. Both of them had their wings webbed up, and Bandit could be seen riding the second one’s back, trying and failing to cut the magical thread. Edge immediately went for the one that looked like it was playing in the dirt and expertly kicked off the barely visible webstalker that had been crawling all over it.
Drea fell off the massive beast’s feathery mane and landed on the ground with a short roll. She hissed aggressively at the half elf, but an axe swing by Bloknalthoz made her fall back. Over with the griffin called Fluffles, the monster was trying to use the armored talons on its forelegs and its mighty beak to swat its much smaller opponent. However, Fizzy was a hard target to pin down. Parallel Plot and Engine of Destruction were already running on full blast, allowing her to focus on dodging. At the same time, Plus was keeping her healed and Minus was using Geomagnetic Grip to slam her wrench into the griffin’s hide over and over.
This was where Mist was allowed to strut his stuff, blasting away at the mithril construct with its elemental Bane. He hit her from a blind spot, causing Fizzy to quite literally freeze in her tracks. It didn’t last long though, as the ridiculous amount of heat coming off her body freed her from her icy shackles almost immediately. She then used Lightning Warp to dodge another Freezing Beam while simultaneously returning fire with her Magitech Cannon.
Her bright blue shot splashed against Mist’s Mana Shield, dealing no damage but successfully obscuring his view. She used this opportunity to throw a Basilisk Flashbang, hoping to temporarily disable the troublesome magic user. Yet the old man was able to expertly launch the explosive device far into the distance with a blind Air Hammer, thanks to Question’s voice in the back of his head giving him directions.
As for where that explosive even came from, it would appear the golem was actually using a magic item, a leather belt with about a dozen large circular crystals built into it. Boxxy had loaned her the use of Aethereal Repository #3, an Artifact-grade belt that had almost identical functions to its Storage Skill, and was currently filled to the brim with bombs and devices. And yes, it was technically a belt, even though the way Fizzy was wearing it made it look more like a bandolier.
More Gilded Hand reinforcements showed up almost immediately afterwards, as Zone flew in and tried to smash the golem in a fly-by strike.
However, the Champion of Chaos had seen this attack coming and was able to counter it with a Martial Art. The Monk’s metal staff smashed against her glowing shield, causing much of the force behind it to be neutralized. At the same time it also allowed the powerful electric charge permeating Fizzy’s body to travel up it, shocking the Monk and making her pull away. Meanwhile Mist had tried to skewer her with a spear-shaped piece of magic ice, but Drea leaped in and took it instead, her Cold Affinity completely neutralizing the damage.
While this was all going on, the dapper-looking gentleman called Bandit had managed to free one of his pets from the webs limiting its movement. He had taken it over to the other one, where Mist, Edge and the axe-wielding fiend currently were. There was a shrill cry from the sky as one of Bandit’s missing griffons crashed into the courtyard while burning heavily. The fact that it still clung to life in spite of all the punishment it had suffered both during and after the initial bombing was nothing short of a miracle.
One that was quickly rectified out by a Meteor smashing into it for a direct hit, finishing it off. The resulting rush of flames, hot air and smoke put the ground battle to a pause as Xera descended from the sky with a wicked grin on her face.
“You know, I always wondered whether those things burned good, what with all those feathers,” she said calmly. “I give it a seven out of ten.”
“Took you long enough!” Fizzy complained. “Where’s Boxxy?”
“Master and that pea-brain are on their way. They should be here any moment.”
What followed was a brief moment of calm as both sides waited for their allies to arrive. Boxxy and Kora showed up by leaping over the wall, while Stain burst out of a nearby drainage grate. Meanwhile Hook finally flew in to take part in the battle personally, standing side by side with the rest of the Gilded Hand.
It was thus that the proverbial line in the sand was drawn. On one side stood Boxxy, in a slightly more compact version of its Sandman persona. Kora was standing resolutely in front of it, ready to take any sort of attack that came their way. Xera floated overhead while Fizzy and Stain stood on either side of the shapeshifter. Drea was nowhere to be seen, but then again, that was only to be expected.
Standing opposite them, the Gilded Hand assumed a similar formation. Bloknalthoz took point, shielding both Hook and Mist with his massive body. Edge was standing a bit off to the side in a crouching position, her body coiled at ready to snap like a spring. Zone spread her wings and took to the air, staring hungrily at the Mimic on the other side of the smoldering crater between them. Bandit was standing shoulder to shoulder with his half-elf niece, sword in one hand, buckler in the other, and his now freed royal griffins flanking either side of this group of war criminals.
“Come on out, Edward!” Boxxy shouted, its voice deep and booming. “Or would you rather just watch as we butcher your precious followers?!”
“Dear oh me, I guess I can’t just take that threat lightly now, can I?”
Much to everyone’s surprise, the former Spymaster of the Empire strode out from behind one of the massive griffins like he had always been there.
“How did you know he was here?” Fizzy whispered.
“Lucky guess,” the Mimic whispered back.
Edward, on the other hand, had clearly been expecting this sort of development, as his equipment was the same blue uniform he had when he first ‘met’ Boxxy. Not because of nostalgia or symbolism or anything. Much like Mist had said, this was some of the best gear the Gilded Hand had at their disposal. Which was probably why Hook and Bandit were also wearing their respective blue-tinted uniforms. It was also the group’s way of saying the time for hiding was over, and that the time to fight was now.
“What is it you hope to achieve here, you naive little box?” Edward shouted as he stood besides Bloknalthoz. “Is it vengeance you seek? Justice, perhaps? Or did the twigs just buy you off like a common sellsword?”
“And since when did monsters need a reason to do what we do?”
“Precisely. Since when did monsters need reasons to ally with one another? Since when did monsters need reason to pointlessly risk their lives for a bunch of elves? Do you honestly expect that the slime and golem over there will not stab you in the back when the opportunity presented itself.”
“Betrayal is a purely human problem,” Boxxy countered. “Us monsters expect treachery at every turn, so we’re ready for it. You enlightened idiots are the ones that choose to foolishly trust one another and leave yourselves exposed to it. In fact, why don’t I let my companion here demonstrate. Stain, if you will.”
The queen slime slithered forward, her face bearing a twisted smile that was quivering with excitement. This put the entire Gilded Hand group on guard, as Hook had already warned them she seemed like a powerful mind magic user. Still, between himself and Mist, he was confident they could repel whatever Domination Spell she threw at them. What he didn’t account for, however, was that the mindfuckery he was on the lookout for had already taken place.
Because even the Foundation’s spy had no idea of their own treacherous identity.
“Would you kindly kill Bandit, my dear girl?”
No sooner did those words leave Stain’s mouth that Edge’s serrated dagger found itself lodged underneath her uncle’s jaw and driven halfway through his skull in a single motion. Hook immediately reacted and pushed her off him with a telekinetic blast, but it was already too late. The Monster Tamer fell backwards, his body limp, and his heart making its final beat.
It was thus that a showdown nearly a year in the making truly kicked off.
Not with a bang, or a whimper, but with the thud of a dead body hitting the ground.