“What do you mean ‘you don’t know?!’” Cecilia yelled in exasperation. “It’s your gods-damned job to know!”
“I, uh, well,” the junior Scribe stammered, “there’s been a lot, erm, a lot of overhead, and-”
“Overhead?! Is that what you call losing several tons of enchanted stone bricks without anyone noticing?!”
“I don’t know, okay?! I’ve only worked here for, like, a month!” the boy pleaded with her. “The only stuff I’m allowed to touch is the broom, tea kettles and envelopes! The one you should be asking about this stuff is Supervisor Shari! It’s his responsibility to keep track of our inventory!
“Then where is he?!”
“Would I be here pissing my pants if I knew that?! Nobody’s seen him since the Collapse!”
“… Well that’s just fooken brilliant, innit?” the female officer finally relented. “Fine, that’ll be all for now. You two - get this poor sod out of here and put him in protective custody.”
The pair of soldiers next to the door saluted and grabbed the upset intern by the shoulders. Being interrogated like this was clearly too much for the fifteen-year-old, as he shook and whimpered while being escorted out of the room. Cecilia was left behind in her seat, clutching her head with her elbows on the table as her mind struggled to piece together how an oversight of this magnitude was even possible. Well no, that wasn’t quite right. This was quite obviously sabotage rather than ineptitude. She just failed to comprehend what sort of administrative negligence would allow this sort of thing to happen in the first place.
Following Keira’s hunch, the two of them had gone to investigate the repository where the Republic government housed their spare Forest Gates. The massive circular portals were kept in a disassembled state, ready to be shipped out and put together the instant a node in the elves’ intercity teleportation network needed to be replaced. Hence why it was strange that the government had yet to replace the three Forest Gates that were broken by the Collapse.
As Cecilia and Keira found out, this delay was due to the fact that all of the city’s spare long-distance transit portals were nowhere to be found. The reports, documents and paperwork all stated they were accounted for, yet the warehouses where the actual goods were being kept were completely empty. According to what the city’s Architects had told her, there were enough stolen parts to build at least nine standard-sized Forest Gates. Or, and this was the truly worrisome part, six extra-large ones.
Yet she was only finding out about this now. One could argue she was not made aware of it sooner because nobody realized how this monumental screw-up would have anything to do with hylt branches falling off, but Cecilia knew better. Rather than a case of the Republic’s right hand not knowing what the left was doing, it was an intentional cover-up. A downside of having people in power be determined by popular vote was that the elected officials did everything in their power to hide their mistakes. Nobody in their right mind would vote to reelect the governor who would become known as ‘the guy that lost nine Forest Gates,’ after all.
“Gods-damned politics,” Cecilia grumbled. “Even in the aftermath of a disaster they pull stuff like this.”
“Can’t really blame them, can you?” Keira chimed in. “The more things change the more they stay the same. You know how it is.”
“Oh, hey. Didn’t see you there.”
The beastkin was currently leaning against the interrogation room’s open door frame with her arms crossed. She should’ve been remotely observing what went on in here, so there was no need for the Underwood woman to explain what had just transpired.
“Also, ‘fooken brilliant?’ Really?”
“I know, I know,” the elf sighed. “I got so worked up I accidentally let my bumpkin accent slip.”
Cecilia stood from her seat and straightened out her uniform and ruffled hair as best she could.
“In any event, I think this more or less confirms your ‘Gate Cutter’ theory,” she forcibly changed the subject. “However, there is one more issue we need to figure out before we’re absolutely certain it’s true.”
“Yeah. Power management.”
Stealing and then assembling those massive gateways without anyone realizing it was one thing, but turning them on was another. Forest Gates required monumental amounts of mana to operate, so much so that one would need a small army of high-Level magic users to do it manually. Thankfully for the elves, Tol-Saroth had designed them with the ability to draw ambient magical energy from the ground. Even then, not all locations had enough fuel to sustain regular Forest Gate usage in the long term. Though mana was a renewable resource, it took time for it to come back once spent.
That was why Forest Gates were always built on top of ley lines or, as some cultures called them, ‘dragon veins.’ These invisible pathways formed almost literal rivers of magic that allowed copious amounts of mana to course through the planet’s crust. This energy would eventually spread out and rise to the surface on its own, but tapping into it directly allowed for an effectively infinite source of power. And Azurvale was built on a spot where three of these ley lines intersected, meaning there was plenty of loose mana to go around.
The real question was how did the mastermind behind the Collapse get it all the way from deep beneath the ground to a hundred meters up in the air.
“I know it sounds ludicrous,” Cecilia said while cupping her chin, “but could the tree’s dryad have taken part in the Collapse somehow?”
Hylt trees were known for their ability to circulate vast amounts of raw mana. In fact, feeding off of the ley line intersection underneath Azurvale was what had allowed the trees here to grow so incomprehensibly large. Not to mention the mana extraction device the Forest Gates used was built using their roots. Add to that the fact that, according to the reports Cecilia had read on the siege of Fort Yimin, dryads could freely manipulate the flow of magic within their bodies. It was therefore only natural she would suspect the hylt’s tree spirit was directly involved.
“I sincerely doubt it.”
Keira, however, seemed to be of a different opinion.
“I’m no expert on dryads, but I do know they value their trees above anything else,” the beastkin explained. “Certainly far more than the lives of a few thousand people. There is no way one of them would take part in getting her branches cut off.”
“Perhaps not intentionally, but she could have been deceived or coerced. You yourself stated how naive and ignorant of the outside world the ones at Fort Yimin were. Admittedly those five were practically children, but Forest Gates are an extremely recent invention from the perspective of Azurvale’s ancient trees. It’s likely that they would not have known what they were feeding mana into until it was too late.”
“You… make a good point, actually,” Keira conceded.
Boxxy had to admit, that was a rather impressive assessment for someone who had presumably never met one of those tree spirits face to face. It had obviously considered what Cecilia was suggesting, but there was one other alternative. Though Forest Gates had the ability to tap into subterranean ley lines, that same mechanism could theoretically be hooked up to the mana stream inside a hylt tree. The dryad would likely notice her ‘food’ was being stolen, but it was doubtful whether she had the ability to react fast enough to prevent the Gates from turning on.
Unfortunately this was not a suggestion Boxxy could make for fear of revealing more than its Facade should have known about the subject, so it had to feign ignorance for the time being.
“Good point or not, it’s still just a theory based on circumstance,” Cecilia frowned. “Not the most solid of leads, but beggars can’t be choosers. Then again, we’d still be chasing our tails if not for your invaluable assistance, Miss Morgana. You’ve made more headway on this case in a single afternoon than I have in nearly ten days.”
“Well, you know. I have a lot of experience dealing with this weird stuff.”
“I suppose being thrown into bizarre and incomprehensible situations every other week has its perks, doesn’t it?”
“I’m… not sure if that was supposed to be a compliment,” Keira said with a tired expression. “More importantly, do you have any idea where we go from here?”
“Not especially, no,” the elf answered honestly. “Looking into the missing Supervisor Shari is an obvious start, but I have a feeling it’ll be a dead end. I’d much rather work the dryad angle, but to do that I’ll need your help.”
“And, uh, how do you expect me to be of any use with that?”
“By helping me get in touch with the Sandman, of course.”
“The Sandman. You know - tall, dark, brooding, wears a heavy cloak, has a voice like melted butter…” her words trailed off.
“No, I know who he is. I just don’t get what he has to do with- Wait, are you saying he might be responsible for this catastrophy?!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the elf rolled her eyes. “I already ruled him out as a suspect on day one.”
“Care to enlighten me on how you reached that conclusion?” Keira asked dubiously.
“I’m a bit surprised. You’ve worked with him on multiple occasions, surely you must realize this doesn’t fit his style at all.”
“Well, for starters,” Cecilia raised her index finger, “he’s got an impeccable sense of professional integrity. The Republic and FIB have been regular clients of his ever since the war. He values our business too much to jeopardize our partnership. Even if a rival power tried to hire him to attack us, he would just use it as an opportunity to make even more money by bringing it to our attention.”
The elf has had something of an obsession with the Sandman persona ever since she heard rumors of the ruthless vigilante. She saw him as an enigma, a mystery she couldn’t help but want to unravel. It was only natural she would’ve kept tabs on his activities even if she wasn’t involved with them in any way.
“The other thing,” she extended a second finger, “is he always makes his involvement abundantly clear. I initially thought this was just his way of building his ‘brand,’ and I would argue it was definitely like that at first. However, after years of playing the part, it may have become something of an obsession or a compulsion. It’s not too dissimilar from how serial killers always leave a mark or a clue. It may sound crass of me to say, but if the Sandman was responsible for the biggest attack on Republic soil since the nation’s inception, he would not be able to keep quiet about it.”
The woman was sorely mistaken about this point, but she could be forgiven for that. After all, she was operating under the assumption that the man in question was, indeed, a man. In truth, the Sandman was a shapeshifter, a monster whose thought processes differed greatly from those of enlightened beings. Rather than trying to spread its name, Boxxy had actually tried to conceal its involvement in certain matters as much as possible. Witnesses were silenced, rumors quelled and evidence erased, but some things were too big for a single monster to keep a secret.
A good example of things spiraling out of the shapeshifter’s control was the incident that had taken place earlier that spring. What started as a simple Artifact hunt ended with the uncovering and subsequent destruction of an elven terrorist cell with strong anarchistic beliefs. Boxxy wanted to keep its involvement a secret so as to not alienate or piss off other radical groups, but too many people had seen Kora go berserk at the time. With the archfiend being so easily identifiable, it had no choice but to play the whole thing off as an intentional move on the Sandman’s part.
It did get paid in a small fortune of magic jewels though, so it wasn’t all that bad.
“Thirdly,” Cecilia extended another finger, “he shares a bond of mutual trust with dryad-kind. He is the bearer of an Elder Dryad’s Authority, and I seriously doubt he would’ve gotten that by force.”
‘Mutual trust’ was not the most accurate term to describe the relationship between Boxxy and Ambrosia, but it was close enough, so the shapeshifter internally conceded that point.
“And lastly, the Sandman hates competition. This is something we’ve seen multiple times, but his defense of the Hero of Magic during the Gilded Hand assault on Azurvale is the most telling. This, combined with the other traits I mentioned, are not the hallmarks of a deranged killer or an honorless mercenary, but of a shrewd businessman. Rather than being responsible for the Collapse, I expect him to be searching for the perpetrator as we speak just so he can deliver them to us on a silver platter. He would no doubt charge a premium fee for his services, but my superiors would gladly pay any amount to give the populace someone they can hate instead of themselves.”
On the whole, Cecilia’s arguments were insightful, logical, and - barring a few minor points - surprisingly accurate. This little lecture of hers perfectly demonstrated why the government trusted her to spearhead the efforts into unraveling the web of mystery surrounding the Collapse. As for Boxxy, it was somewhat relieved to hear all that since it meant it wouldn’t have to worry about proving the Sandman’s innocence. Even better, the woman said something that could be used to steer her towards the conclusion Boxxy wanted her to reach.
“Hmmm,” Keira closed her eyes and furrowed her brow.
“Do you find issue with anything I’ve said, Miss Morgana?”
“No, not that. What you said made total sense, but there was one thing in your last argument that got me thinking. Could the scumbags that attacked Nao be somehow responsible for this?”
“The thought had crossed my mind,” Cecilia noted. “And honestly, after everything we learned today, it’s starting to sound more and more like their handiwork. Pulling off the Collapse with the use of stolen Forest Gates would require resources, manpower and expertise that is laughably beyond the capabilities of your average group of radicals. Not to mention the surgical degree of precision involved, or the fact that none of them have dared to claim responsibility for it.”
There was also no telling how many of the disbanded spy ring’s operatives survived the events at Watford when their leadership was wiped out. In fact, as Boxxy had just realized, Reggie might have reached out to and recruited them to assist with his operation. They’d certainly not pass up the opportunity to strike at the elves they seem to hate. Then again, they might have not even known they were doing a doppelganger’s bidding if Reggie replaced their ringleaders with his own agents. It’s what Boxxy would’ve done.
“Very well, I’ll put those guys back on the list of suspects,” Cecilia declared after a brief pause. “For now, I want you to try and use whatever means you have of contacting the Sandman and ask for his assistance. And don’t even bother telling me you can’t do it. He has a soft spot for you and I’m certain he’d answer if you called.”
“Fair enough. I’ll contact you if something turns up.”
“Likewise. Stay safe out there, Morgana.”
“You too, Underwood.”
The two continued to cooperate fully as they pursued various venues of investigation in the following days. Granted, one of them was looking for the perpetrator while the latter was trying to create a convincing enough scapegoat, but their interests aligned for the most part. However, both Cecilia Underwood’s official channels and Boxxy’s unofficial ones failed to dredge up any new information. It was now five days since Keira officially joined the investigation, and the shapeshifter’s only remaining option seemed to be approaching the unknown dryad directly. It had at least learned the tree spirit’s name was Alderis, which it hoped to be of help during the meeting.
And a meeting there would most certainly be, unfortunately. As much as Boxxy dreaded it, it was rapidly running out of options and Reggie was getting further away by the hour. Somewhere along the way the shapeshifter had given up on its need for petty revenge and was now chasing after the old ‘ganger purely as a way to challenge itself. After all, Boxxy T. Morningwood was not one to dabble in half measures. Once it had its mind set on something, the stubborn creature would always try to see it through to the end.
Provided said ‘end’ wouldn’t come at some sort of significant personal loss, of course.
Which was how Boxxy found itself standing at the very top of Alderis’s tree at midnight on the night of the sixth day since returning to Azurvale. It could have reached out to the dryad sooner, but tonight was a night when all three of Terrania’s moons were visible in the sky at once, a celestial event known as the Lunar Convergence. Nights like these not only had special meaning in regards to certain magical ceremonies and rituals, but also caused certain creatures to behave differently from normal.
Dryads were one of the species affected by the Lunar Convergence, which caused them to become considerably more mellow than they normally were. Something Boxxy had found out from personal experience after living with Ambrosia for most of its short yet eventful life. Alderis was sure to be in a less-than-agreeable mood after being mutilated, so the shapeshifter was hoping the celestial event would help facilitate the civil discussion it was after. Exposing the plant-woman directly to the soothing moonlight was also the reason it had climbed all the way to the top of her tree rather than going at it from the roots.
After making some final preparations in case things went south, the Sandman reached into his cloak and pulled out an Elder Dryad’s Authority. It held the amber orb out with one hand, then spoke the magic words.
Or at least it tried to, before Xera so rudely interrupted it.
“This better be good, Snack. Kind of in the middle of something here.”
The djinn was currently pulling Keira duty, having been given the bothersome task of consoling Rowana. The elf was still coping with her father’s death, which seemed to only make her clingier and clingier with each passing day. It was at the point where Boxxy could not investigate Reggie’s disappearing act in peace without having its familiar fill in for it most of the day.
“I just felt a powerful wave of magic pass over the house,” the demoness claimed. “I do believe your public place of residence is under attack!”
Boxxy sighed and put away the dryad doorbell as the phrase ‘when it rains it pours’ passed through its mind. It wasn’t all that worried though, as it had all three of its familiars on guard duty either in or around the Morgana residence as per usual.
“Claws, what’s the situation outside?”
“The FIB guards collapsed just as Xera said that,” was the immediate reply. “I’m checking on one right now. They appear to have been afflicted by a magically-induced coma, not unlike the Sleep Spell.”
Which meant they were alive, but not in any position to do their jobs.
“What about my kids?!” Kora asked, clearly agitated.
“They’re probably in a similar state,” Xera chimed in. “If this pulse could put veteran FIB operatives to sleep, those whelps have no chance.”
In fact, the djinn herself would have surely passed out if not for the nigh-invulnerability to mental attacks that all demons had. It was possible that the triplets’ heritage might have given them above-average resistance to such things, but they were far too weak to hope to withstand mind magic of that magnitude. It was also questionable what could produce such a thing, as Boxxy had never heard of a Sleep Spell that could encompass the small mansion Keira and Rowana called home. Which meant this was most likely either an Ultimate Skill or some sort of Artifact, a notion that was both worrying and welcome.
“Claws, do you have eyes on the enemy?”
“Yes, Master. There’s… about forty of them creeping up to the front gate. However, there’s something ‘off’ about them.”
“I felt it too, Master,” Xera said, her voice oddly serious. “That magic just now, it did not feel… wholesome.”
“Understood. Stay where you are so I can take a look for myself.”
Boxxy sat cross legged on the high branch it was standing on and began chanting the Spell given to it by the final Level of the Demonic Insight Skill.
The shapeshifter became perfectly still as its consciousness was hurled across the city. The next thing it knew, it was hanging upside down from a signpost by a string of web. Its eight mana-sensitive eyes blinked away the moment of disorientation before they soaked in the sight of a large group of people skulking around Keira’s house. There were a total of thirty eight targets, all of them draped in dark robes, cloaks, hoods, and other suspiciously concealing attire.
However, this was clearly no common group of assassins, burglars or kidnappers. Having temporarily assumed control of Drea’s body and all of the Skills attached to it, Boxxy was able to confirm why its familiars sounded concerned. The Detect Magic Skill revealed these intruders were coated in a bizarre miasma the likes of which neither the arachnid demoness nor her master had seen. Just looking at it gave Boxxy an oddly familiar skin-crawling sensation. It took a few moments for the shapeshifter to identify that feeling, but once it had it released Drea from the Familiarize Spell and both of them returned to normal.
“Curses,” it said through the four-way mind link. “Be advised, our visitors are using curse magic to strengthen themselves.”
“Are… Are you sure, Master?” the stalker asked nervously. “That doesn’t seem quite right.”
“Who cares?!” Kora roared. “Those assholes are creeping up on my kids! My kids! I’m going to stomp them flat, then molest every goddamn orifice they have!”
“Well said, Arms.”
Admittedly Boxxy wouldn’t have used those words exactly, but it very much shared in the archfiend’s desire to inflict unspeakable violence upon these trespassers. If anything, their timing was rather fortuitous, as it had some Reggie-induced stress it needed to relieve.
“Claws, start picking off the stragglers, try to distract them and keep them away from the house. Snack, enact Evacuation Plan 2-A. Arms, I don’t care who or what you break, you get in there and you secure those triplets.”
A massive pair of raven-like wings sprouted from the Sandman’s back as the shapeshifter gave its familiars their orders.
“I will be there shortly to exterminate the vermin.”