“Woah. I’d heard someone wrecked the place, but even tornadoes have more tact than this.”
Kuro couldn’t help but marvel at the devastation in front of him. It was his first time seeing the aftermath of what that blond giant called a ‘Realm Scar’ from four days ago. The wolfkin initially disregarded that name as just the pompous speech of an overtly-religious twinkle-fingers. In truth, Orrin only called it that because he had misheard the demonic stranger’s chanting while observing her remotely. He just had no way of knowing that and it wasn’t as if the culprit was about to correct him on it.
“It’s like someone cleaved the earth with a castle-sized sword,” Kuro murmured, still in awe. “Wonder if this place’ll become a landmark or something?”
“I wouldn’t bet the farm on that,” Nao butted in. “As… impressive as it is, this scenery will be gone in just a month.”
“What’d you mean?”
“Things on Velos grow several times faster than they do on Atica, it’s a quirk of the land,” the Hero of Magic explained. “The jungle and its creatures spread so rapidly that it is immensely difficult for the locals to clear away enough space to build and maintain new settlements. Why else do you think the Eight Tribes are packed so tightly in just a small fraction of the continent?”
“So they’re constantly at war with the very land they live on, huh? No wonder why Axel fancies this place so much.”
“Well, it has its upsides. It cleansed itself of that leftover Blight cloud rather quickly. I’m told it was so thick it appeared like a cloud, yet you can’t even feel it at present.”
It also helped that Solus and Teresa’s followers were on hand to help cleanse the area, but the environment’s rapid lifecycle had certainly contributed to its speedy dispersal. There was a good chance the soil would’ve been able to cleanse itself of the Blight completely by itself, but that was only if there were no undead around to spread it. The land’s overflowing vitality still helped the Inquisition suppress the plague in about half the time it would have normally taken. Dealing with the curse that had been etched into the ground, though, that was beyond the abilities of Priests, Shamans and Druids. Dispelling foul magic from physical objects was a duty that required learned Enchanters or Wizards, and luckily for the locals, Nao was both.
You tread upon cursed ground.
The effectiveness of all Attributes has been reduced by 24% for 146 minutes.
A notification popped up in Nao and Kuro’s heads the instant they set foot on the tainted region. The sudden dip in strength and agility made the taller beastkin misjudge his step, causing him to stumble and nearly trip over his own two feet.
“You alright there, Kuro?”
His brother, on the other hand, had already been told what the curse’s effects were and was able to handle the transition with a lot more grace.
“Ugh, yeah. I’ll be fine,” the soldier replied. “Just gonna need some getting used to this.”
“You didn’t have to come this close with me, you know. The Inquisition have already secured the area.”
Nao gestured to the hastily erected fence around the site, which was being patrolled by human soldiers. One would think the local government would be involved, but the Imperial Inquisition denied them access. As one would imagine, the Eight Tribes were none too happy with the way these people were throwing their weight around. Even if they had come to help curb the orc threat, they were still a foreign military force, so allowing them to claim territory in such a blatant manner had some troublesome political implications.
Then again, as Sigmund Law kindly pointed out to their leaders, this particular plot of land didn’t exactly belong to anyone to begin with, so the locals had no valid reason to complain.
“That may be so, but someone has to carry you out of here if you end up passing out from over-exerting yourself,” Kuro insisted with a cocked eyebrow and his arms crossed.
“Oh, don’t be silly. That only happened that one time.”
“Really, now? Because I distinctly remember at least six separate occasions where-”
“Alright, alright, you’ve made your point. You don’t need to bring that old stuff up. Anyway, if you’re going to hover over me, then at least make yourself useful.”
Nao opened up his Enchanter’s Item Box and took out a special tool that appeared to be a long metal stake with a crystal-encrusted box on top.
“Oh, one of these things, huh? Alright, give it here.”
Kuro took the object from him and drove the oversized nail as deep into the ground as it would go in one motion, then let his adoptive brother do his thing. Nao observed the panel on top as various crystals flickered on and off in rapid succession. He kept studying it for a solid fifteen minutes, occasionally pressing down on a few of them with soft clicks. Once he was satisfied, he instructed Kuro to relocate the mana measuring device, which was called an arcanometer, to another spot about twenty meters away. The pair repeated this process a total of twenty six times as they circled the scarred landscape.
An Inquisition Scribe in a short sleeved set of fancy silk clothes approached the pair once they were done and had left the contaminated area.
“Good afternoon, Mr Shoki, Mr Kuro,” he said while putting his hand forward.
“Oh, Mr Jameson, was it?” Nao replied, then shook his hand.
“Quite so, I am honored you had remembered.”
It would have been practically impossible for the beastkin to forget considering he’d been officially introduced to this brown-haired brown-eyed human when he got here earlier this morning. His full name was Gerard Jameson, and he was the administrative overseer of this little camp.
“‘Sup, pencilneck?” Kuro asked in a casual manner. “Out here to get your hands dirty?”
“Not quite. I wanted to inquire about the state of your investigation,” he politely stated. “Have you figured out what plagues this plot of land?”
“I have indeed,” the Hero of Magic confirmed. “I’d actually deduced the nature of the curse almost immediately, but had to make sure how far it had spread.”
“Wonderful. Care to enlighten the Imperial Inquisition?”
“What you have here is an Essence Leech hex. It’s quite rare, and is typically only seen in relics or places that carry strong demonic taint. I believe your men encountered pockets of it in the aftermath of the Watford incident from two years ago.”
“That is… most concerning,” the clerk said with a grim tone. “Are you saying this mysterious demon possessed might comparable to that of an Overlord?”
“Hardly. There would have been a lot more devastation if an entity of such power was responsible. The scale just isn’t right.”
Though the damaged area was sizable, it could not compete with the Four Great Apocalypse Magics that the Overlords wielded. Not to mention that the curse wasn’t even all that potent, relatively speaking. Yes, 24% reduction in Attribute effectiveness for over two hours was nothing to laugh at, but Nao had seen instances of it where both the effects and duration were significantly higher. Well, recorded ones, at least. Truthfully this was his first time personally running into the Essence Leech, but the curse here matched all of the textbook signs of it, so he was certain his conclusion was accurate.
“That is reassuring at least,” the Scribe said with a hint of relief in his voice. “Though I personally was not present at Watford, many of the troops stationed here were. I am quite sure they would not be thrilled at the notion of facing another one of those things. At the same time, not knowing anything about this potential threat can be just as worrisome. Could I be so bold as to ask if you can tell us anything about the caster, Mr Shoki?”
“I have some ideas, but I’d rather not share baseless speculation and conjecture. The only thing I can state for certain is that this Realm Scar was the work of a powerful demon.”
“I understand, Mr Shoki. What about this curse they left behind? How do we treat it?”
“Ah, the good news is that it’s rather simple. As its name suggests, the curse feeds off of the essence of whoever comes into contact with it. It will disperse on its own if you just starve it out, so you really just need to make sure nothing living enters the area. Or undead, for that matter.”
“So, keep doing what we’ve already been doing?’
“Pretty much,” Nao confirmed with a nod. “However, the bad news is this will take anywhere from two weeks to two months to dissipate. It’s quite difficult to be more specific.”
“What about the continent’s overabundant life force? Would that not accelerate the process?”
“It might. Or it could sustain it and delay its disappearance. I should be able to tell you more in a few days’ time. Until then, your boss might want to get the local government involved to help maintain the perimeter and keep the jungle from swallowing it up.”
Jameson was highly doubtful that would happen considering what he had been briefed on. The reason the Grand Inquisitor had sealed the area off from the Eight Tribes was because he wanted to keep them from studying this place. He had seen the sort of corruption that dabbling in such heretical magic could breed, and wanted to keep the raptors from repeating the Empire’s mistakes if at all possible. That was why only Nao was allowed this far in, as the chosen of the Goddess of Magic and Learning would surely not try to abuse whatever knowledge could be gleaned here.
“Understood, I will relay your words to my superiors.”
That said, the Scribe in charge of the quarantine zone’s administration made sure not to involve the young-looking Hero in such matters, and merely offered some polite words with a bow.
“There is one other matter, Mr Shoki,” he added. “A message arrived for you while you were investigating.”
The human official handed Nao a sealed envelope bearing the stamp of the Church of the Sun.
“Oh, thank you,” he replied, accepting the missive.
“You’re quite welcome. Now, I must attend to my duties. Please do not hesitate to contact me should you require anything further.”
The man left the two beastkin with another respectful bow.
“Wow, what a prick,” Kuro mumbled after the official was out of earshot. “Who does he think he is, interrogating you like that?”
“It’s the Inquisition, Kuro,” Nao replied while unsealing the envelope. “It’s their job to interrogate people. Hint’s in the name.”
“Yeah, yeah. By the way, one of those ‘conjectures’ of yours about the perpetrator? One of those wouldn’t happen to be the Republic’s Sandman, would it?”
“The thought did cross my mind, but like I said, I don’t have any evidence to support that theory.”
“Come off it. Who else do we know that dabbles in demonic powers that much?”
Well, they didn’t really ‘know’ the man considering they only met briefly two years ago and Nao was passed out at the time, but it was hard to argue with his reputation.
“Just because we don’t know of others doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” Nao mumbled absentmindedly while skimming the contents of the letter. “More importantly, we need to move. Orrin tells me they’ve managed to gather enough orcs at Castle Arin for our needs.”
One would think getting 3,719 greenskin corpses would have been a simple task considering the jungle was crawling with them, but it really wasn’t. Even though the enlightened coalition had killed over twelve thousand of them since Nao’s arrival, most of their bodies were not exactly usable. The ones that Hesk’s platoon fought, for instance, got turned into zombie-chimney food. The undead ones that Orrin and Sigmund found, on the other hand, were reduced to dust by their holy magic. Of that first fateful day, only Keira’s group had produced usable corpses, but even those were a small fraction of the mangled and abused bodies those four left in their wake. Collecting the intact ones also had to be handled carefully since the Hero of Magic had been adamant about keeping his book’s existence a secret.
Under these circumstances, meeting the body quota in just a few days was already more than acceptable, even if the major threat seemed to have passed.
After notifying the Inquisition official from earlier of his imminent departure, Nao opened a Gate that transported himself and Kuro to Castle Arin’s outskirts. Well, technically it was two successive Gates, but that was necessary since the distance was rather large and Nao’s MP pool was not infinite. Once back in the fortress, they met up with Orrin and Gux, who led them to the entrance of a heavily guarded brick warehouse.
“Hold on a minute,” the giant told the two beastkin before any of them could go inside. “Gux, do your thing, will you?”
The razorscale raptor nodded in agreement, then calmly channeled his magic.
A highly transparent spherical membrane wrapped itself around the slightly delusional lizard-man’s head. He then repeated the process three more times, once for each of the others.
“What’s all this?” Kuro asked while poking at the see-through film of magic around his face.
“A precaution,” Gux stated plainly. “Unless the black one wishes to experience the smell of over four thousand dead orcs that have been held in a hot room for a few days? Gux guarantees it is not something that is easily forgotten.”
The fact that his words sounded like a genuine recommendation made Kuro cringe with a weird sense of disgust.
“Uh… I’ll pass, thanks.”
After confirming everyone was ready, Orrin pushed the large barn-like door ajar, allowing the four of them entry. Once inside, they were immediately confronted with the body pile in question, though the phrase ‘four thousand dead orcs’ was woefully inadequate to describe just how revolting it was. The mere sight of this rotting flesh heap was so overwhelming that Nao threw up on the spot despite Gux’s odor-blocking enchantment. Even Kuro, who was no stranger to blood, guts and bile, felt a bit sick. The other two seemed to have grown accustomed to this particular sight, so they were mostly unaffected.
“You alright there, lad?” Orrin asked as he kneeled over the retching beastkin.
“Don’t call me ‘lad’ you big buffoon!” the boyish beastkin snapped, much to the giant’s surprise. “S-sorry, I was just, urk, caught by surprise.”
After spending a few moments gathering his wits and drinking some medicine to pacify his queasy stomach, Nao rose to his feet and pulled his godly grimoire out of his pocket dimension. He told the others to hang back and approached the corpse pile while waking the divine tome from its slumber. The face made up of floating scribbles appeared shortly, and spoke to its owner in that enigmatic voice that changed tone and inflexion with every word.
“The Librarium Infinitus Arcana Refactorium stands ready to hear thy query, o’ blessed child of the moons.”
“LIAR, I wish to know all of the details surrounding Gutzstompa’s rise to power.”
“Query received. Compiling… Done. Thy fee amounts to: three thousand four hundred and fifty six adult orc corpses. Doth thou agree to these terms?”
It would appear the price for that information had been lowered now that Nao knew more about the situation. He really should have checked the thing more regularly, but at the end of the day it wasn’t too big of a discount. Which was actually more troubling than it would appear at first glance, as Nao felt it should have been much cheaper now that he was aware of the Boneshaper’s hand in this. Unless… he and the other Heroes were mistaken about the Boneshaper’s involvement?
Thankfully he didn’t have to ponder the implications, as the answers were just two words away.
“Approval received. Commencing transaction, please stand by.”
Countless slender tendrils made up of what appeared to be black ink burst out of the floating book’s pages and stabbed into the corpse pile. There was a cacophony of disgusting squelches as precisely 3,456 orcish corpses were skewered in rapid succession. The tendrils then began to leak a goopy substance, which spread over the mass of dead greenskins, staining them with a sort of wet blackness. A loud slurping noise echoed inside the warehouse as the book, for lack of a better word, drank up the bodies. One could even clearly see clumps of fluid travel up those slender limbs and disappear into its pages, never to be seen again. If a certain ex-mimic had been here to witness this, it would have found the similarity between this and its Cadaver Absorption to be quite uncanny.
All in all, it took about two minutes for the LIAR to process the orc corpses, leaving several hundred of them and all of their crappy gear behind as ‘change.’
“Transaction complete,” it stated in a dull monotone. “Executing query… … … Done. Transmitting results.”
A single black tendril like the ones from earlier shot out of its spine, circling around Nao and jabbing him in the back of the head at the base of his skull. The beastkin shuddered and shook for a few seconds as the relevant information was deposited directly into his mind. It wasn’t painful or anything, but it was quite uncomfortable. This part of the process only lasted for a few moments before the grimoire released him and returned to its normal active state.
“Query complete,” it reported. “Acknowledged. The Librarium Infinitus Arcana Refactorium thanks thee for thy patronage and wishes thee an enlightened day.”
The arcane tome then instantly reverted back to its original appearance as a white leather-bound tome with no title, then deposited itself back into Nao’s Item Box.
“Ugh, never can get used to that,” Nao mumbled while rubbing the back of his head.
“You alright over there?” Orrin called out.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Can one of you go grab Sigmund? I think he’ll want to hear this.”
“Teresa’s Hammer is currently preoccupied negotiating with the heads of the Eight Tribes on matters of politics and jurisdiction,” Gux explained. “It is unlikely he will be available unless it is urgent.”
“Oh. Well, I don’t think it is, but you never know…”
“Why don’t we get the fuck out of here so you Hero types can do your important talking while I go take all the showers?”
The others readily agreed with Kuro’s suggestion and vacated the warehouse. True to his word, Nao’s bodyguard immediately went to get himself scrubbed clean, insisting that he now reeked of dead orcs. The others instructed the Inquisition guards to cleanse the place with copious amounts of fire, then convened in the same meeting room from their first meeting.
“Yo! *Munch munch* You boys get what you need from the dead?”
There they found Kaede, who was already sitting in one of the chairs with her feet on the table and a half-eaten apple in her hand. That piece of fruit alone begged several questions, such as where she got it or how she managed to take a bite of it with her mask on, but those were far from the first question on Orrin’s mind.
“Kaede? How did you know-”
“Nevermind the small stuff, big guy. Let’s skip straight to the juicy bits.”
Seeing no reason to object, Heroes gathered around the table, after which Nao began explaining what the LIAR had revealed to him.
Gutzstompa’s hidden ally was someone named Aleister, an intelligent and powerful undead being called a Blight Lord, and one of the Boneshaper’s lieutenants. He helped the massive greenskin amass power from the shadows, which was how he organized this super-sized scourge so quickly. His purpose in doing so was to not only weaken the continent’s defenders, but also use him and his ilk to fuel the creation of a so-called smokestack. Or a ‘plague belcher,’ if one were to use the proper terminology.
Aleister accomplished this by implanting Gutzstompa with something called a Blighted Symbiote, presumably one of his many unknown Blight Lord Skills. Apparently this ‘gift’ boosted the orc’s already considerable strength and vitality while he was alive, which was how he was able to obtain kraken-like levels of HP. It was also responsible for his reanimation and subsequent transformation, implying Aleister was going to have the warlord killed one way or another.
To nobody’s surprise, the undead being’s ultimate goal was revealed to have been the subjugation and conquest of Velos. It was something that could easily have been interpreted as the Boneshaper finally making his move, but the LIAR had revealed that this was not exactly the case. Aleister had arrived on this continent without his master’s knowledge or permission to pursue his own ambition. This revelation hinted at some sort of internal power struggle within the Boneshaper’s ranks, something none of the Heroes had considered beforehand.
Which they really should have, as the wonderful thing called ‘free will’ existed within all beings that possessed self awareness, regardless of their species or gender.
“So, this Aleister guy, is he still on Velos?” Orrin asked after Nao was done.
“I have no idea,” the beastkin shook his head. “I can’t ask LIAR anytime soon either, as it would probably take at least a week before it wakes back up.”
“That’s gonna be way too late,” Kaede butted in, having finished her apple without anyone noticing. “This Aleister guy would have surely launched some sort of contingency by then. Assuming he hasn’t already done so.”
“What makes you certain he has one?” the wolfkin asked.
“Because the guy is clearly skilled at employing deception and subterfuge. I know, it doesn’t fit the undead stereotype where even the supposedly smart ones like liches can’t help but flaunt their power, but it makes a lot of sense. You think it was mere coincidence that Gutzstompa showed up on top of Hesk like that just after all the Heroes started arriving?”
It was hard to argue with Kaede when she put it like that. The enlightened certainly didn’t try to hide their activities since the only time the words ‘orc’ and ‘subtlety’ were in the same sentence was when one had to state the former’s lack of the latter. Under the circumstances it would not have been too difficult for Aleister to gather information without anyone noticing. It may have all been conjecture, but it was hard to argue with the idea that the series of events that led up to the appearance of the plague belcher had been orchestrated in some way. After all, the ‘smokestack’ would have certainly not survived the full fury of the Hero of the Sword’s Eternal Crusade, yet it seemed to have conveniently missed that.
That said, even if Aleister had somehow set the whole thing up, he clearly didn’t anticipate the mysterious figure that annihilated his creation with that Realm Scar.
“Hmm, you raise a good point,” Orrin murmured while stroking his beard. “On second thought I think it would be best if I go and inform Sigmund of this matter right away.”
“I thought Gux said he was busy, though?” Nao asked.
“Trust me, he will not mind in the slightest. He is a man of incredible valor and respectable muscles. Not the kind to waste his time with politics when there is justice to be carried out.”
“That’s true. I suppose I should inform Keira as well when I get the chance.”
“This reminds Gux, what of the Crimson Lotus?” the raptor spoke up. “Gux has not seen her since after the Blighted Tower fell.”
“Oh, she’s still busy helping the locals with the orcs however she can.”
Even if the ‘head’ had been cut off, the grunts and warlords that Gutzstompa had unified under the same banner were still a problem that needed to be dealt with.
“Really, now?” Kaede asked, her voice oozing with doubt. “I’m pretty sure she said she was ‘super glad she missed the shit-storm for once’ and that she was ‘looking forward to gibbing some greenies for funsies.’ Or something to that effect.”
“I feel the need to point out that that was a private conversation,” Nao protested.
“Hey, I just happened to overhear it by chance.”
“Really now? By chance? Late at night? In the privacy of my own quarters?”
“It’s not my fault you two talk so loudly.”
Nao let out a deep sigh and made a mental note to eavesdrop-proof his room later today before he continued.
“Look, she only says that stuff because it helps her cope. I’m sure that deep down she feels guilty for not being there when you and Hesk needed her, even if there’s nothing she could’ve done. That’s why she’s doing everything she can right now to make up for it.”
The Hero of Magic was, of course, completely wrong about that, as the ‘deep down’ version of the Hero of Chaos was rather elated to hear Hesk was no longer around. After all, that raptor was Axel’s Hero, which made her a potential threat to the monster’s existence. Not a major one and certainly easier to deal with than Sigmund and his Inquisition, but a threat nonetheless. It had also been surprisingly honest with Nao when it told him it was going to slaughter orcs as a form of recreation.
In fact, that was precisely what Boxxy was doing right now. It waded through a roving warband of orcs like a tornado of steel and teeth, ripping them to shreds en masse as it attacked without restraint. It didn’t even bother using weapons or Spells, it just ripped them apart limb from limb with pure shapeshifting and unrestrained Skill Use. Sometimes it took the shape of a vaguely arachnid abomination, other times it charged them head on and flattened them dead in a fiend-like manner. The most satisfying method was pretending to be one of their own, sneaking into a roaming warband, then gutting them when their backs were turned.
That said, its actions weren’t all that helpful in the grand scheme of things. It was so far away from the Eight Tribes’ territory that it was extremely unlikely any of its victims would ever have been a danger to the raptor populace. It was fairly certain this bunch weren’t even part of Gutzstompa’s scourge to begin with considering how disorganized they were.
“Damn, boss! Leave some for me, will ya?!”
Kora complained as she chased after her Master, stepping over unrecognizable piles of what was probably orc meat all the while.
“No, these ones are mine! Find your own!”
“I can’t exactly do that when you mind-fucked one of their warlords, though!”
The orc in question had been enslaved by Boxxy’s Mind Control, and was currently roaming around the area in a stiff manner. The shapeshifter was using him to call out to the grunts through the Green Tide and either ordering or challenging them to converge on its location. The only way the archfiend would get to pummel one of these green meatheads was if she was allowed to put some distance between herself and her master.
Which she wasn’t, for the sole purpose that she was extremely recognizable as Sandman’s familiar. Yes, there were other red-skinned green-haired female pit fiends out there, but Arms was the only one with that many… well, arms. It may have let her run wild at first, but it could no longer risk someone making a connection between the Sandman and the ‘mysterious demon’ that flattened the smoke stack. As far as the world was concerned, the shady mercenary was not currently on Velos, and Boxxy wanted to keep it that way. The only reason Kora was even ‘out’ was because Claws was keeping an eye out for peepers and eavesdroppers.
Both of which seemed to be in frighteningly high supply not only among the Heroes, but also a plethora of entities of either the divine or demonic persuasion.
Hey. Just wanted to let you know I smoothed things over with Lunar. She got a bit pissy over that Realm Scar thing (love that name, by the way) but I managed to convince her it was necessary. Mostly so she’d shut up and stop bothering me, but she ended up forgiving you too along the way. For the record, I was actually pretty stoked with what you showed me. Never personally seen someone stack magic boosters that high before, it was quite the show.
You can consider this message and subsequent partial refund on your spent FTH as symbols of my appreciation for what you’re doing. Keep up the good work!
You have received a divine revelation from the Goddess of Happenstance. FTH +10.
Well, that was rather unexpected. It had been a very long while since Boxxy last heard from Fernando. It wasn’t going to complain for the extra FTH, which was quite hard to come by, but being outright praised for what it did? Even this amoral monster could recognize something was wrong with that. Having him standing up for Boxxy, even if it was ‘along the way,’ was also a bit out of character considering Peggy was significantly more hands off than her fellow deities. Something the shapeshifter’s recent experiences with the other Heroes had confirmed over and over again.
Knowing Emanuel’s personality, Boxxy took his words to mean that the ‘incident’ set in motion some series of events he’ll be more than happy to watch unfold. Which in turn meant that it was best if the chest-obsessed shapeshifter got its square butt off of Velos before things got any messier. It wouldn’t have even gotten involved as much as it did if it knew the Boneshaper was involved before it deleted that smokestack thing. Raising the ire of one of the most powerful beings in existence was not on the doppelganger’s agenda.
“Snack,” it called out telepathically, “is Fizzy done yet?”
“She says she mostly is, Master,” the djinn replied after a few seconds. “She’s also asking if that means you will be returning to town.”
“Yes, it does. Stand by for Transfamiliar.”
Boxxy could have used other means instead, but the calculations necessary to make a Wizard’s spatial magic work were a colossal pain in the lid. It was far easier and slightly more MP efficient to use a Warlock’s Beyond-themed equivalent. It also briefly wondered what would happen if it were to invoke Transfamiliar in the divine language, but it didn’t exactly have the spare FTH to use that method willy-nilly. Not to mention it was entirely unnecessary, as even the normal version allowed it to swap places with Xera and appear next to the mithril golem in a puff of green smoke.
“Hey Boxxy,” Fizzy said with a cheerful voice. “Had fun?”
“Lots,” it answered. “Shame orcs taste so bad. Would’ve had a feast otherwise. What about you?”
The radiant Paladin was currently in her Service Mode, as she had spent most of the day surveying the area for magic metals and minerals. She still had some dried up blood stains on her though, as combat was inevitable even if her primary objective was excavation.
“It was so-so,” she said with a shrug. “I’m not used to this thing yet so I’m pretty sure I missed some stuff.”
Author’s note: I retconned the ‘Stonekin’ race’s name from Fizzy’s side-story into ‘Stoneborn’ to avoid conflicts/ambiguitiy with ranked up dwarves.
She held up the brass-plated metal gauntlet on her right arm. It had six oval shaped gemstones embedded in it - a small one on each knuckle and a much larger one in its palm - each emitting its own distinctly colored glow. The item itself was much too big for her tiny hand, but the same could be said about anyone that wasn’t a stoneborn. It was called Seeker’s Grasp, and was one of the few Artifacts those subterranean dwelling proto-dwarves had. They had given it to her as a gift, a form of thanks for saving their collective asses two years ago and convincing them to reconnect with the surface. Aside from attaining a satisfying degree of shininess once the metal was sufficiently polished, it also allowed the wielder to scan the ground for even more shinies.
A fine prize befitting of the world’s shiniest woman, at least in Boxxy’s opinion.
“But did you find something good?” it asked in a slightly excited tone.
“Yup, quite a few things,” she stated triumphantly while gesturing at the Bags of Holding piled up against a nearby tree. “The highlight has to be this head-sized chunk of mithril though.”
“An entire chunk of mithril? Where did you dig that up?”
Fizzy pointed over her shoulder at an unreasonably deep hole in the ground about ten meters away. Upon seeing it, however, Boxxy realized that ‘dig’ was probably not the right word for how that ore had been acquired. ‘Ripped out of the earth itself’ was a far more apt phrase considering it looked more like an exit wound than an entry wound.
“It had a large Star Sapphire in it,” Fizzy continued, “and I’m pretty sure part of it’s mutated into scourged orichalcum. Not much of it though, maybe enough for a ring or some other small trinket. Will know more once I get it properly appraised. And before you ask - no, scourged orichalcum is not all that shiny.”
It actually looked like rusty or tarnished mithril with a slightly green hue, certainly not something that would meet Boxxy’s standards.
“Well, that’s rather disappointing. Then again, I could say the same thing about this entire blasted continent. All this jungle terrain and not a single thing that tastes good. Not even the raptors have any decent flavor to them, and I’m running out of human jerky.”
Admittedly the shapeshifter had explored a very tiny part of Velos in its entirety, but it had very little desire to see more of it. Even if it the maps said it had more land mass than Atica, the endless jungles were so monotonous that treading it was mind-numbingly boring. It would’ve been far less boring if there was something here that could actually be considered a danger to Boxxy, but that simply wasn’t the case. The wholesale slaughter of weaklings was starting to get rather dull, especially since the corpses were not worth eating. It wasn’t as if the shapeshifter was looking for ‘worthy opponents’ or whatever, but it would’ve at least liked to find a creature or person that would last for more than a few rounds of ‘Hide the Knife.’
Well, other than that Blight-spewing thing, but that didn’t really count since undead opponents made for very poor entertainment.
“Right then, let’s get you cleaned up shall we?” Boxxy suggested.
Fizzy took off the Seeker’s Grasp and spread her arms wide as if asking for a hug. The shapeshifter coiled itself around her, filling every nook and cranny it could find with countless tiny tongue-like nubs. It meticulously scrubbed off all the dirt, grime and blood while Fizzy giggled as if she was being tickled. This lasted for several minutes until the compact golem was literally spotless, at which point Boxxy peeled itself away from her. The mithril woman looked at her immaculate frame with a mild sense of wonder. She was now so radiant that the light bouncing off of her looked brighter than the actual sun beams she was reflecting.
“Woah! New metal polish?” she asked excitedly.
“Yup! Got the formula for it from one of Orrin’s people. I’m told its a special ointment they use to shine the Sun God’s relics. You like it?”
“Very much so! Thanks, Boxxy!”
The metal golem then gave the doppelganger a real hug, one so strong that it would have made any other meatbag’s head pop clean off. She also got a bit too excited and accidentally upped the voltage coursing through her. Not so much as to hurt the shapeshifter, but enough to make it feel a profound tingling sensation. The monster didn’t want to ruin the mood and kept quiet, mostly because it honestly thought that a happy Fizzy was the shiniest Fizzy despite knowing that made no logical sense.
Besides, the accidental stimulation was… not entirely unpleasant.
“Shall we get back to town before something stains?” it suggested after a short while.
“Oh! Sure,” Fizzy exclaimed as she released Boxxy from her ridiculously strong grip.
About thirty minutes later, a Gate suddenly opened up in the outskirts of Oar's Rest, the port town where the vast majority of northerners had arrived on Velos. A haggard and blood-stained Keira stepped out of the portal, followed by an immaculately shiny Fizzy. The golem already had a reputation for maintaining her radiant appearance as much as possible, so their mismatched appearances were hardly out of character. The locals certainly stared at them as they walked through the gates and into the town square, but that was also nothing out of the ordinary for these two.
“I’m gonna go visit the local miner’s guild and find out just how much stuff I collected,” Fizzy said while tapping the bags on her back. “I’ll probably be at the smithy by the east gate if you need me.”
“Sure thing,” Keira replied with a tired tone. “Guess I’ll go clean up and check on Rowie in the meantime.”
The two women parted ways and went about their business. They were now in civilized territory, so both of them had to act their respective roles. Fizzy was getting much better at her own part as of late, though that was probably because Keira’s personality had gradually shifted over the years to be more in line with her inner self. The catgirl didn’t outright crave ‘shiny’ and ‘tasty’ things per se, but she still adored ‘fancy stuff’ and ‘good food.’ She also did not hesitate to resort to violence should someone dare to threaten her or those around her, regardless of what sort of standing they had.
Long story short, Fizzy was having far less trouble keeping a straight face in front of others now that Keira had basically turned into a milder version of Boxxy. In the past she had secretly been worried about the shapeshifter’s Facade influencing its behavior, but it would appear the opposite had happened.
After the not-a-beastkin woman returned to the inn and made herself more presentable, the owner lady helpfully informed her of two things. The first was that a message had come for her while she was gone. It was a letter from Nao stating they needed to talk about something called an ‘Aleister,’ but it didn’t seem to be an urgent matter. The other helpful bit of information was that Rowana was apparently at the docks, something about handling a shipping error on behalf of her parents’ shop.
Deciding it had nothing better to do, Boxxy set out towards the shore to check in on its investment. It found Rowana sitting at the end of a pier on top of a wooden crate, her elbows on her knees, her chin resting against her hands and her back slumped over forward to a rather unhealthy degree. She was staring absentmindedly at the Shimmering Ocean that stretched all the way into the horizon, its waters glistening enticingly in the late afternoon sunlight as if to give credit to its name.
“Hey, honey,” Keira spoke softly as she approached the elf. “You okay?”
“Oh, hi sweetie,” Rowana responded, her face visibly lighting up upon seeing her wife-to-be. “I’ll be fine, just had a long day is all.”
“Well, you’re not the only one, so scoot over a bit.”
She did as instructed, allowing the catgirl to sit next to her and throw her arm around her pink shoulders.
“I heard there was some shipping trouble?”
“That’s one way of putting it,” she said with a sigh. “Turns out we’re missing an entire crate of assorted potions. Nothing vital, but the damned captain refused to take responsibility for losing it mid-transit. Why do men always have to cling to their pride so hard even though they’re clearly in the wrong?”
“Can I help somehow?”
“You already are, sweetie.”
Rowana smiled and placed a wet kiss on Keira’s cheek, then rested her head against the redhead’s neck and shoulder.
“You already are,” she repeated in a whisper.
The two lovebirds then spent most of the afternoon just sitting in total silence and gazing at the horizon while cuddling. Even the monster within Keira found this to be a relatively relaxing experience. It seemed like a mundane thing, but it very rarely allowed its mind to just wander aimlessly like this. Which was nice. Tasty, even. It hated to admit it, but perhaps Rowana had some tangible use other than being a Doppelganger XP factory. Over the years the shapeshifter had gradually began to see her as something of a pet - something dumb and useless that was nevertheless fun to keep around. Almost like-
That oddly familiar noise suddenly snapped Boxxy out of its daydreaming. It mostly definitely didn’t imagine it either, as Rowana’s face had a look of puzzled surprise that perfectly matched Keira’s. But it couldn’t have been that, right?
However, there was no longer any doubt about who that high-pitched voice belonged to after hearing it a second time. Keira stood from her seat and leaned over the side of the pier to look down at the water underneath, with Rowana almost unthinkingly doing the same. They saw a vaguely boat-shaped pile of driftwood that was barely holding itself together, with what looked to be the Pixie Powder Pavillion’s logo on it. And yet, seeing the Slyth family’s flagship business on what were presumably the leftovers of Rowana’s missing crate was far from the most surprising thing about this scene.
“Yip! Yip yip yip!”
For riding along like it was some sort of captain was Minic, which now sported a black leather strap across its lid that looked suspiciously like an eyepatch. It wasn’t alone, either, as riding alongside it was a bright red hermit crab that was using an old pirate’s hat as its current home, even though it was far too big for its current owner. A green sea turtle sporting a gnarled neck scar was pulling the miniature vessel along with the help of some stringy seaweed that tied the two together. What looked to be a bright yellow baby squid - possibly a kraken, it was hard to tell - was resting on top of its shell, splashing playfully with its tentacles as the aquatic reptile did literally all of the work. Last but not least, a seahorse was poking its head through the water’s surface and keeping pace with the others as if it was some sort of escort.
The sight of this strangely adorable crew raised an obscene number of questions, but none of the observers - mortal or otherwise - were currently in any condition to form the sentences or words required to ask them. However, if either Keira, Rowana, or Boxxy had the ability to articulate their most pressing inquiry, it would probably have been the following one:
“How in the raspberries of Clarence’s honey-soaked holy muffin did Minic get all the way here from Azurvale?!”
Though perhaps not in as many words.