Jen’s hands moved slowly and steadily as she polished her latest trophy. The elongated skull in her grasp was clearly that of a monster, though with the skin and muscle stripped away one would be hard pressed to guess its origins. Even the harpy wasn’t sure what this used to be, as it had died long before she got her hands on it. Just a fossil that came out of a house-sized rock elemental that she turned to dust. It looked far more memorable than any of the shattered chunks of stone left behind, so she kept it as a souvenir. Getting all the dirt and grime off of the bone had been a lengthy and dull task, which made it great for killing some time.
And it worked great, seeing as how the thing Jen had been waiting for finally arrived with a sharp popping noise that echoed within the dungeon. The woman carefully set her trophy down and dashed out of her room. She kept her cool this time and merely stood before the Sandman-shaped shapeshifter with a salute instead of tackle-hugging it like she had a week ago. Part of her still wanted to do that, but a larger part recognized it as behavior unbecoming of her age and station.
“Oh, you’re here,” Boxxy stated with mild surprise. “How are you always here when I arrive?”
Though she spent the vast majority of her time out training her Monster Jobs, she had gotten a feeling that she’d get to see the ex-mimic if she stayed in today. So she did. In truth, the source of that premonition was her Disciple of Chaos Skill subtly guiding her to be in the right place at the right time, but she hadn’t realized she was invoking it subconsciously. ‘Intuition’ was therefore a perfectly reasonably answer, even if not entirely accurate.
“I see. Well, it’s fortunate you’re here,” Boxxy stated. “I have someone I’d like you to meet.”
The monster’s Storage was opened up, and a bald man Jen was quite familiar with crawled out of it.
“… Hook?” she muttered in surprise.
The harpy then rapidly realized that this was not, in fact, her former colleague. Though he certainly appeared to be at first glance, there were quite a lot of things ‘off’ with him. For starters, he looked considerably wider and more muscular than she remembered, which was readily visible despite the heavy dark green trench coat he had on. That aside, it was his face that had suffered the most visible changes. His lower jaw, right eyeball and most of the left side of his head were no longer skin, bone and muscle, but a pulsating bright pink ooze.
“There is no Hook,” the stranger smiled. “There is only Stain.”
“Quite,” Boxxy muttered. “As I’m sure you’ve deduced, your former comrade is effectively dead. What you see here is a meat puppet controlled by Warden Stain. Or should I say former Warden?”
After a lengthy and deeply insightful chat regarding a certain rogue doppelganger, Boxxy and Stain came to the conclusion that there was a good chance the latter would be evicted from Bitterhold. The Foundation was doomed to fall apart now that their leadership and financial backers were out of the picture. Some field agents like Silus Underwood had no doubt survived the Collapse, but those remnants were not enough to keep it going by themselves. Which did not bode well for the psychic slime queen considering that it was their influence that kept Bitterhold running as smoothly as it did.
However, it was by no means a certainty that the Republic would so readily compromise one of their biggest sources of revenue and precious metals. Ethical problems aside, the bottom line was that Warden Stain kept the prisoners imprisoned and the mines churning. It wasn’t an exaggeration to say that Bitterhold could not exist without her there to hold it together. The royal ooze still recognized the need for a backup, however. A fallback plan should her one-monster kingdom be forcibly disbanded.
Which was precisely why the ‘Stained’ Gilded Hand operative was now here.
Though it took many months to break him, the slimy Warden had eventually claimed Hook as her property. This allowed her to obtain the Psionic Job, giving her a new way to further her own power. The human had also proved to be an excellent vessel for her clones. The reason Hook looked so much bulkier than before was that roughly a third of his body mass was made up of compressed slime. Muscle tissue, vital organs and even parts of his brain had been either replaced or ‘improved’ by Stain. He was quite literally, as Boxxy had so bluntly put it, a meat puppet.
Yet ‘Hookstain’ was also something more. With dozens of slime cores wired directly into what’s left of his brain, he was able to maintain his mental connection with Stain’s main body despite there being a literal ocean between them. As a result, the queen psychic slime was effectively back at her prison and within Boxxy’s dungeon at the same time. That way she had an ‘out’ should the Republic choose to take action against her Warden side, as her mind would be able to retreat to Velos in an instant.
However, that outcome would not be without its consequences. Not only would she lose a significant chunk of power and suffer long-term memory issues, but she’d have to start rebuilding the Slimetatorship of Stain from scratch. Quite the opposite of ‘tasty’ to say the least. That said, it was still preferable to losing her life completely. Ideally the psychic slime would prefer that she’d never have to rely on this fallback plan, but the world was never an ideal place.
And since Stain wanted something that Boxxy could provide, a deal had been struck.
“What’s important is that Stain here will become this place’s dungeon master, effective immediately,” the doppelganger declared.
“Hmm, the place could do with some work,” Hookstain said as he looked around the place. “All those bones and stuff hanging from the walls will have to go.”
“Touch those, and I will splatter you against the ground,” Jen helpfully informed her.
“Oh? It talks? How curious!” the slime-possessed Psionic exclaimed. “Ah, you must be the one I was told to watch over. You do seem… strangely familiar.”
That notion didn’t stem from Hook’s residual memories, but Stain’s own experiences. Though neither of them had realized it yet, the harpy and the slime did clash briefly at the fateful battle of Watford two years ago.
“Now, now, play nice you two,” Boxxy warned them. “I don’t want either of you at each other’s throats. You’re of no use to me dead. Jen - don’t be so quick to respond to her provocations. Though she has a troublesome personality, Stain has agreed to do her best to accommodate your requests, and she knows better than to break off a deal with me.”
“Understood,” Jen nodded. “Just so long as she doesn’t touch my stuff.”
“You heard her,” the shapeshifter turned towards the goo-filled human. “Also, please do your best to avoid ‘accidentally’ adding Jen to your ‘collection,’ will you?”
“Hmpf, she’s not my type anyway,” Hookstain scoffed. “I don’t need to be a mind-reader to tell there’s not much going on up there.”
Though strong pawns were necessary to perform the occasional heavy lifting, the slime preferred mentally or creatively gifted individuals when it came to her thralls. Boxxy still made sure to go over the ground rules once more though, as well as finalize the terms of Stain’s employment contract. In short, it was her job to ensure that the dungeon core remained secure and to provide a safe haven for Jen to rest in. In return, the slime would be paid a regular salary in the form of elven and dwarven liquors. She was also fully aware of the influence a dungeon core could have on her, but she had deemed that to be of no concern to someone like her. Lastly, she would also be given a bonus in case she managed to find any precious metals or gems buried beneath the Rancid Summit.
Other than that, Stain would be given free reign of the dungeon and the ability to do with it as she pleased. That included enthralling local people and monsters she took a liking to, but it was unlikely that this would become a second Bitterhold. Though the pink slime would’ve liked to make it happen, there was a limit to how thin she could spread her influence. Boxxy understood that, which was why it didn’t make the acquisition of valuable resources mandatory. It didn’t even know whether there was anything to be found beneath this toxic mountain to begin with.
Still, there was a non-zero chance its latest dungeon could be sitting on top of a motherlode of gold or mithril, so it at least gave Stain an incentive to dig it up.
After officially appointing Stain’s proxy as one of its dungeon masters and giving her a crash course on dungeon management, Boxxy returned to Azurvale via Nexus Access. Negotiations with the royal slime had taken quite a bit of time, so it was late afternoon by now. Unfortunately, as lengthy as that discussion had been, it was no closer to unraveling the secrets behind the Collapse. The only thing it learned was that Reggie apparently used Bitterhold as a hiding spot for a while, though Stain had no idea he was conspiring to bring down the Foundation. Boxxy was inclined to believe her, as losing her comfortable living arrangements was something she wanted to avoid.
As for why the old doppelganger sent that coded message to Keira, it seemed to have been because he left a convenient scapegoat in the slime’s care. It was a survivor of the Gilded Hand, a man that bore the slightly silly codename ‘Sparky,’ who had been turned into one of Stain’s mindless thralls. The blame for the Collapse could easily be placed upon the poor sod, and the slime could puppeteer him to say or do anything Boxxy wanted. Turning him in would have to be handled very carefully and required a good deal of preparation, but doing it right would doubtlessly net the ex-mimic a lot of points with the Republic.
Boxxy didn’t like it, though. Using Sparky to take advantage of Azurvale’s situation seemed like the best option, but doing so would also cover up Reggie’s trail and dissuade the FIB from chasing after the real perpetrator. The hylt creeper would still go along with it, it just hated the thought that it would be doing exactly what that slimy old ‘ganger wanted it to do. Boxxy hated to admit it, but it had underestimated just how crafty and sneaky Reggie could be. Those traits were certainly worthy of its respect, even if they were incredibly annoying and frustrating when used against it. Bottom line was that the younger shapeshifter was clearly no match for its senior when it came to subterfuge, but that didn’t mean Boxxy would just give up.
It still had some daylight left, so it needed to gather more information. Utilizing the scapegoat required that it obtained, forged and/or planted evidence to convince the authorities of the man’s guilt. That meant it had to figure out exactly how Reggie caused the Collapse. It was, however, feeling a bit unenthusiastic about going to the tree’s dryad, as it was fairly certain she would be hostile to visitors. Deciding to leave that as a last resort, it donned Keira’s visage and went to assist the FIB investigation currently in progress at the disaster site. The Hero of Chaos had officially gotten permission to do so through her guild master before going off to visit Bitterhold, so it just had to show up at the destroyed part of the city.
When Boxxy finally arrived at the scene, it was greeted by a familiar face.
“Ah, Decanus Morgana. I was told you’d be assisting this case by lending us your… unique point of view.”
It was a female elf in her mid twenties with lime green hair tied in a short ponytail, mismatched blue and green eyes and draped in a green military uniform.
“Hello, Cecilia,” the beastkin shook her hand. “I would say it’s a surprise to see you here, but I would be lying.”
Cecilia Underwood was the elf strategist and analyst that Keira worked with during the battle of New Whitehall almost three years ago. A priestess in service to the Goddess of Coin Flips, she had an uncanny ability to spot and identify patterns where none existed. Though this led her to constantly spout ridiculous or outright insane-sounding theories, far too many of those had turned out to be true for her superiors to disregard them completely. She was someone the government would not hesitate to enlist when there was an incomprehensible mystery to solve, and the Collapse was one of those without question.
“Please refer to me by my official title,” she whispered to Keira. “I know, it’s a bother, but we need to maintain an image of competence and professionalism.”
“That’s not exactly encouraging to hear, Primus Underwood.”
“Well, it is what it is. Come, let’s get you caught up.”
Cecilia led Keira through the various uniformed men and women milling around the place, taking her towards the edge of the severed branch they were all standing on, roughly a hundred and twenty meters up in the air. Seeing the street-sized limb come to an abrupt and sudden end like this was even more surreal from this up close. Especially considering the pavement built into the bark and the two park benches to the left and right.
“As you might’ve guessed, we suspect some form of magic was responsible for this,” the woman began explaining. “I know, big surprise, but we’ve been able to narrow it down somewhat. See these burns?”
Keira knelt in front of the charred spots in question. They were a series of black rectangles roughly a meter wide and half as tall that dotted the edge of the bark where the cut was made. These burns were spaced out evenly and seemed to envelop the entire circumference of the limb, almost as if it was some sort of zipper-shaped graffiti. The Ranger carefully leaned over the edge of the branch and looked at its cross section, noting that the markings were barely even a centimeter deep.
“As you can probably tell, this rectangular pattern is our only real lead,” Cecilia claimed. “It’s also present at the other five stumps and on the remains of all the branches. These traces lead us to believe the cause of the Collapse was not a Spell or a Skill, but an array of magical items or devices. We’ve also been able to determine that the incredible amount of mana poured into the objects caused them to burst.”
“How certain are you of this?” Keira asked.
“Very. Witnesses reported a series of small multi-colored flashes and dull bangs immediately before the branches started falling. Though it clearly wasn’t the explosion that caused… this. I can’t imagine that sort of crude method would leave a cut this brilliantly smooth.”
“And if the discharge was hot enough to singe Ironbark, then whatever caused it was likely completely vaporized.”
“Exactly. We’ve been sifting through the rubble and debris since day one and haven’t found anything other than wooden splinters, stone shards and bits of broken glass. Not the sort of thing that an arcane object of terrible power would leave behind.”
“Hmm… Cec-, I mean, Primus Underwood? Can you help me out with something real quick?”
A few minutes later, Keira rappelled down the side of the branch with the help of some FIB agents that held onto the rope tied around her waist and torso. The Hero of Chaos was strong enough that even a fall from this height was unlikely to kill her, but that was no reason to risk it. After being lowered down to the center of the branch’s cross-section, Keira swung to the side while pressing her feet against the flat wall of timber. After wall-walking for a few minutes and inspecting the tree from point blank range, Boxxy was able to confirm a certain oddity.
This massive cut wasn’t just clean, it was pristine. The surface Keira’s feet and hands were touching was so perfectly smooth that it would probably give a carpenter wet dreams. It was ridiculously flat to the point where the catgirl’s limbs would slide right off of it if she wasn’t careful. The only imperfection to be found here was at the very center of the cross section. A meter-long twig was poking out of it, no doubt a sign that the hylt tree was already hard at work regrowing that which had been lost.
Once Boxxy was done with its inspection, it had Keira’s helpers pull her back up to the top.
“Well? Were you able to figure something out?” Cecilia asked with a hopeful tone.
“Yeah. It’s flat.”
“That’s an understatement. I’ve never seen something this flawlessly flat before. And now that I have, I dare say the rest of the world looks a tiny bit more crooked than it used to. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Not particularly,” the beastkin replied while untying her harness. “Then again, unlike you, I have seen this sort of thing before.”
“You… You have?”
“Well, the scale was a lot smaller, but yeah, I have. It’s actually more common than you might think, you just hadn’t asked the right people.”
The FIB had understandably cordoned off the area, allowing only authorized individuals to approach the site of the Collapse. Though they naturally hired experts and consultants to help them along, they had failed to contact someone that was well-versed in a particular type of magic.
“Until now, that is,” the catgirl added.
“Well?! What is it?!” Cecilia asked, unable to contain her eagerness.
“The Gate Spell.”
“… Gate Spell?”
“Gate Spell,” Keira reiterated with a nod.
“I’m afraid I don’t follow…”
“Tell me, do you know what happens if a portal made with spatial magic closes with something in the way?”
“Of course. It gets ejected to one side of the portal.”
It was a common safety feature present in all portal-based Spells and Skills that enlightened magic users had access to.
“That is what normally happens, yes, but there is another possibility. The collapsing dimensional rift could also sever any solid object caught in its wake clean in half. However, such incidents occur rarely since the object in question needs to be too big and heavy for the magical failsafes to push out of harm’s way. Things like… Oh, I don’t know…” Keira paused as she looked down the length of the missing branch. “Massive tree branches, for instance?”
“Surely you’re not suggesting someone opened a stupidly big portal right through the tree branch?”
“That’s exactly what I’m suggesting,” the redhead insisted. “And don’t call me Shirley.”
It sounded ludicrous at first, but Boxxy’s Storage portal behaved in much the same way and left behind the same type of impossibly smooth cuts as the one on this stump. There was therefore no doubt in the shapeshifter’s mind as to what had caused this.
“But… What could possibly be big enough to-” Cecilia mumbled to herself before realization hit her. “By Jonathan’s polka-dotted fishbowl!”
“I think you and I should look into exactly why the Forest Gate network is still offline.”