A large group of masked men and women crept closer to the Morgana residence, unaware of the fact that they had been discovered by its owner. Whether it was because of that, or simply due to them obviously having little to no training in the act of subterfuge, they did an abysmally poor job of concealing their presence. They would’ve surely been spotted by one of the neighbors by now despite the late hour if not for two things. One of them was the wide-area sleep-inducing magic pulse that covered the entire block, but it was mostly because the majority of these houses had been empty for over a week.
The fear and panic caused by the Collapse had made many of Azurvale’s tree-dwelling citizens abandon their homes and relocate elsewhere. After all, if six hylt branches could just ‘fall off,’ who was to say other limbs couldn’t do the same? Even if it wasn’t a natural occurrence, the general public couldn’t help but feel doubtful the authorities could stop that tragedy from happening again.
Not everyone felt this way, of course, but trust in the government’s ability to keep the citizens safe was at an all-time low. It stood only to plummet further once the theft of the Forest Gates was made public. The fact that FIB agents were literally sleeping on the job at this very moment also wasn’t helping the Republic leadership’s image. One could argue it wasn’t their fault that they were put into a coma-like state on such an unprecedented scale, but their failure to prevent that from happening was a failure nonetheless.
“Should we not finish off these infidels, brother?” one of the cloaked men asked while eyeing the unconscious elves.
“Do not get distracted, brother,” the figure in front whispered back. “The Mistress has made her demands clear. What matters is that we eliminate our quarry, these mortals are of little concern.”
“But what if they wake up and raise an alarm?”
“Do you doubt the Mistress’s power?!”
“N-no, brother Heckel. I would never even think to suggest such a thing. I am just wary of any elven trickery that might be at play here.”
“Hmm, that is a good point,” the other man conceded. “You best remind the others not to let their guards down.”
The subordinate bowed his head and took a few steps back to start relaying his cautionary premonition. The group still continued ever forward though, walking up to the large house the FIB agents were protecting.
“Hold, brothers!” Heckel shout-whispered from the front. “The Mistress has just informed me this is not the right place, merely a decoy. Our goal lies there, across the street.”
Indeed, though both houses had heavy protection, it was only Keira’s absent neighbors that had such an obvious guard detail. And considering this lot were almost fooled by such a basic ruse, it was safe to assume they had no idea what they were actually doing. This ‘Mistress’ of theirs was the real issue. Though Drea was able to eavesdrop on their conversations and relay their words to her master, there was no telling who their mysterious benefactor was. The best guess Boxxy could make was that it was being targeted by a powerful demon who had coerced these idiots into attacking its place of residence.
“Wait… where did sister Angeline go?” one of the men towards the back of the group suddenly realized. “She was right here just a second ago…”
“Focus, brother,” another urged him. “I am sure she merely moved closer to the front. We have a glorious task to complete, after all.”
The slightly more attentive member of the creep brigade was then stabbed through the skull by an invisible scythe and had his body whisked away into the darkness. This happened so quickly and so silently that none of his comrades had noticed it. Several seconds later, the one he spoke to also went missing under similar circumstances. It was only when a total of five of them had mysteriously disappeared that the group began to realize something was wrong. However, it was far too late to put a halt to their plans. Those at the front had already broken down Keira’s front door and over a dozen of them had flooded through the open gap.
A sharp roar pierced through the moonlit night, followed closely by the thundering crash of something big and angry breaking through the building’s roof from above. A cacophony of sounds began emerging from the house as various things were broken, smashed, demolished, fractured and/or pulverized. Heckel’s bloodied body was then thrown through a window on the upper floor so hard that he dented and uprooted the solid steel street light he crashed into.
“To arms, brothers!”
The strange group obviously knew they were under attack by now, they just didn’t know by whom. At least, not until Kora burst through a wall while holding a cloaked victim’s head in each of her six hands. She landed on some poor sap’s shoulders, crushing him flat against the ground underneath her weight while simultaneously burying the six within her grasp face-first into the pavement. She then stood up swiftly, letting those gathered around her see her face. The archfiend wasn’t wearing her usual smirk of vicious delight, but rather a tight-lipped, open-eyed look that could only be described as the purest form of rage.
Which was rather fortuitous, given the nature of her Berserker Job.
Kora’s massive armored boot surged forward, kicking the nearest opponent square in the chest and sending him flying and crashing into his comrades. The others descended upon her from all sides, having armed themselves with swords, axes, maces and clubs that were hidden beneath their cloaks and robes. The nature of their assault was surprisingly orc-like considering they were just a bunch of humans, but they couldn’t stand up to the savagery and ferocity of real greenskins.
The archfiend had fought off hundreds if not thousands of those swarming monsters during her stay on Velos, so she already had plenty of experience with crowd control. She surged towards her assailants, clotheslining two of them, punching a third, grabbing a fourth by the arm and knocking aside two swings, all at the same time. She then swung the one she had grasped in a circle around her to force the others back before slamming him into the ground so hard that she ripped his arm out at the shoulder.
Discarding the freshly severed limb, Kora slammed her foot down hard enough to cause tremors that disturbed the footing and balance of everyone around her.
She then swung her arms forward, bringing her three sets of palms together to create a powerful shock wave that left her targets’ ears ringing while also knocking a few of them over. She picked two more of them up by the collar and held them up so that they were between herself and the trio of casters preparing a Spell off to the side.
The synchronously chanted incantation produced a massive spear of frozen water that pierced clean through Kora’s meat shields. The archfiend tried to dodge the projectile, but she was too slow and it ended up gouging out part of her middle left bicep. Another infuriating mortal jumped onto her wide back, driving a short blade as deep into it as it would go. Kora lurched backwards, both to avoid the follow-up magic attack from the Spell users and to slam the pest clinging to her back into a nearby lamp post to shake him off.
She hated to admit it, but this bunch hurt quite a bit more than she thought they would. Deciding to change her strategy up a little, she stomped the ground, causing six broken-off pieces of pavement to bounce upwards. She plucked the stone rubble out of the air and threw it at those twinkle-fingers, nailing all three of them in both their foreheads and their groins. Kora proceeded to fire several more salvos of debris, her powerful arms turning the mundane materials into lethal weapons. Or at least she thought they were. However, as she grabbed yet another of the cloaked assailants, she made a startling realization.
“Hold up, didn’t I kill you already?!”
It was the same poor sod whose arm she had ripped off just moments ago. These goons all looked the same, but she was sure it was the same guy. He was missing a sleeve and the arm he was showing had unnaturally pink skin, almost as if he was suffering from the worst sunburn in history.
“You’ll have to do better than that to defeat us, foul thing!” the man howled while trying and failing to escape her headlock. “The Mistress’s grace will not permit us to die even if a freak like you kills us!”
“We’ll see about that!”
Kora flexed her powerful muscles and squeezed down on the man’s neck, making it snap in a satisfying manner. He went limp the next instant, but she kept holding onto the body anyway. Sure it took up one of her limbs, but she had plenty more to spare. More importantly, she needed to confirm a hunch of hers. And sure enough, several seconds later the dead man’s neck snapped back into place and he started thrashing and yelling all over again.
“Boss!” she called out telepathically. “These guys can regenerate!”
“How quickly? And to what extent.”
“One of them literally came back to life!”
Now it was finally starting to make sense. Even though Kora was certain she had either killed or crippled at least half of these guys, their numbers didn’t seem to dwindle in the slightest. The reason for that was that no matter how hard she knocked them down, they would all come back up within seconds. And with all of them wearing such confusingly similar attire, it took her a short while to realize she was striking down the same people over and over.
“Claws? What of the ones you eliminated?” Boxxy asked.
“I’m not sure, I left them hanging off of the side of the branch with my webbing.”
“Where are you right now?”
“I’m assassinating their back line while they’re distracted with Kora.”
“She’ll be fine for the time being, go check on your first victims.”
“Arms, keep distracting the enemy.”
“Don’t need to tell me twice! Ora!”
“Snack, how's it going on your end?”
Evacuation Plan 2-A was one of several failsafes that Boxxy had built into the Morgana household. It involved retrieving a pair of twinned Artifacts called the Bracelets of Translocation from a secret compartment in the floor of Keira and Rowana’s bedroom. They had the power to teleport up to two people to a previously attuned location, which in this case was Fizzy’s workshop. The plan, therefore, was to slap these onto Rowana and Doris’s wrists and send them to the mithril golem with a note requesting her presence at the Morgana residence.
“The spatial lock is still in place, Master,” the djinn replied. “I can’t break through it.”
Unfortunately the magical pulse that had put the entire residential block to sleep was also preventing teleportation. Which meant that both the XP factory and her mother were still on the premises along with the triplets. The nephilim were currently on the upper floor in guest rooms opposite the master bedroom. Boxxy initially placed their lives on a lower priority than those of the elves since they had some protective blessings upon them, but it would appear it had to babysit both sets of women anyway.
Thankfully those idiots were way too focused on Arms to think about sneaking around her, but that could change at any moment.
“Snack, forget the bracelets. Put all of the females in the same room and disguise them with an illusion.”
“As you command, my Master.”
“Master! The mortals I stabbed in the head are awake!” Drea urgently reported. “They’re struggling to break out of my webs, but they’re definitely alive!”
Well, that settled it. If a scythe through the brain wasn’t enough to finish them off, then there was definitely powerful magic of the heretical kind at work here.
“What of the aura surrounding their bodies? Has it changed?” the shapeshifter asked.
“Ah, it has,” the stalker confirmed. “It’s a subtle difference, but it’s definitely thinner than it used to be.”
“I see. It could be we just need to kill them enough times to exhaust whatever magic is keeping them alive. Claws, be a dear and test that theory out, would you?”
“Master, I’ve hidden the girls in the bathroom, behind a fake wall,” the djinn reported. “What should I do now?”
“Keep watch. Anyone tries to get near them, either lead them away or burn them to the bone.”
“Uh, boss?! I could really use a hand here!” Kora complained. “These guys are starting to get their shit together!”
Even if she was used to fighting entire warbands of orcs, this bunch had something the greenskins did not - magical support.
“Soon. You just need to keep raging to your heart’s content for a little longer.”
Truthfully speaking, Boxxy was already hovering high above the battle and could join in at a moment’s notice. However, it was wary of doing so before its familiars had gathered some information about their enemy. After all, even if losing the elves or the nephilim would have some troublesome consequences, it was still preferable to losing its own life. This precaution was also why it had opted to fly here instead of jumping straight in with Transfamiliar.
The shapeshifter was convinced this had been the right move, as it was able to learn quite a bit about the enemy’s command structure and mentality. Based on what Arms and Claws had reported about them, it was able to deduce that these people were part of a cult. Likely radical followers of Teresa’s that had been sidetracked and taken over by some other powerful entity. Unlike the average group of misguided fanatics, however, they had real, tangible power behind them. Yet if all that power amounted to was making them harder to kill, then it just had to put them down until they stopped getting back up.
“Four!” Drea exclaimed. “This one’s not waking back up after I killed her a fourth time!”
“I see. How many living prisoners do you have left?”
“Three. There should have been two more, but they managed to free themselves from my webs.”
Tracking the escapees down was going to be difficult considering they had fallen into the city below, but Boxxy was not too concerned about them.
“Excellent. Bring all three of them back to the dungeon, let Lavender imprison them for further interrogation.”
“Understood, Master. What about yourself?”
“I think it’s time I made my grand entrance.”
Back on the ground, Kora had turned Keira’s front yard into a war zone. The pavement was cracked up, the fence was in tatters and the lawn was dug up to the point where one could see the hylt bark underneath it all. The relentless assault of the cultists had left the fiend badly injured, which in turn only made her Berserker Job all the more deadly. It still wasn’t enough to cope with the constant barrage of attacks and Spells as the mortals hurled themselves at her with no regard for their lives.
It was then that a massive shadow loomed over them. With wings woven from the blackest night, a heavy cloak that billowed in the evening wind and a piercing yellow gaze that seemed to lick everything it fell upon, the Sandman slowly descended upon them. All of this made all the more eerie by the pale moonlight that shone upon the monstrous vigilante. Add to that the Warlock’s Despair Aura and the fear-inducing pheromones that only a doppelganger could release, and there was only one outcome that could happen.
The cultists were frozen with terror. From their perspective, it was almost as if Mortimer himself had shown up to claim their souls. Not a man, monster, or demon, but an unstoppable force of nature that was beyond their comprehension. That was what Boxxy was to them at this point in time, and why they couldn’t help but sweat, stare and swallow their saliva as it soft landed next to the wounded archfiend.
The shapeshifter then punctuated its psychological warfare by unleashing a piercing unearthly howl while dozens of bladed tentacles poured out of its cloak. The cultists were already taking small steps back, and many of them were mere moments away from running while soiling themselves.
“Stand firm, brothers and sisters!”
However, their leader - the one Drea identified as ‘brother Heckel’ earlier - did not seem to be affected. He was standing at the rear of the cultists and commanding them with an authoritative voice full of vigor while waving around a staff that had a giant fleshy eyeball for a head.
“Do not be fooled by appearances! This demon-lover is nothing more than a heretic! A hateful thing that will be cleansed from this world in due time! Do not worry yourselves with these distractions and find the demon-spawn! Exterminate them for the glory of the Mistress before they have a chance to spread their vile seed!”
“For the Mistress!”
“Well, that could’ve gone better,” Boxxy grumbled as the cultists began to cheer. “Arms, take this and go upstairs, get the nephilim down to ground level.”
It tossed the fiend a flask of Rejuvenation Potion that she drank without a second thought and ran inside. The spatial lock around the area was making it impossible to access its Storage and retrieve Voidcaller, so it couldn’t afford to have one of its demons fall in combat. Nor could it allow these amateurs to accomplish their objective. It was a good thing they were so bad at what they did, otherwise it wouldn’t have guessed that it was Teresa’s offspring that were being targeted. In retrospect, it made a lot more sense for these delusional zealots to be targeting what appeared to be enlightened women with demonic features rather than going after the Hero of Chaos.
“Master? I caught a glimpse of that staff the leader is using,” Xera said. “I’d wager it’s either the source of whatever magic is keeping this bunch alive, or a conduit for it.”
“Yeah, I figured as much.”
That wasn’t all that hard to guess considering the object gave off a similar sensation to that of a cursed item bearing an exceptionally potent hex. The fact that the eyeball at the top of it moved around on its own only added to the creepiness factor. Yet it seemed intensely inspiring to the cultist rabble, seeing as how simply waving it around was enough to send them charging towards the house as if the Sandman wasn’t standing in their way.
“Snack, Arms, you two focus on protecting the luggage. Claws, help me take down the leader once you’ve secured the prisoners.”
The shapeshifter’s body flared up with Power Overwhelming as it prepared to make its… opening statement.
“Massive Rejection,” it chanted calmly.
A wave of pure force radiated out from it, knocking the advancing cultists back and throwing them to the floor.
A translucent dome of reality-warping magic from the Beyond then enveloped the area, followed closely by a Warlock’s movement restriction Spell. However, rather than having restraints forged from solid shadow wrap around Boxxy’s target, what instead happened was that ropes of white light shot out of the cultist’s torso. They wrapped themselves around four of his nearby allies before pulling all five of them together into a single heap.
The Sandman then tossed a Spell Crystal containing a Wizard’s Spark Blast right in the middle of them. The conjured object shattered open like usual, except that what came out of it was not an electrical discharge that would make Fizzy want to lubricate her joints. Nothing seemed to come out of it at all, actually. What happened instead was that the ground beneath the cultists’ feet opened up, swallowed them whole, then closed around them. Burying them like this wouldn’t kill them - at least not for good - but it was enough to keep them out of the picture for a while.
Having been tasked to capacity, the Pandomenium field dissipated, allowing Boxxy to unleash the nastiest parts of its magical arsenal.
“Shadow Plague. Lethargic Mist.”
Two clouds of magically conjured disease beset the cultists. The former caused their bodies to atrophy and rot almost as fast as they could regenerate while the other sapped their energy and left them physically and mentally exhausted. Yet all of these measures were merely temporary so long as Heckel kept pumping that weird magic power into his followers through the staff in his hands. It would appear he could do more than just imbue and empower others, however, as he pointed it straight at the Sandman.
“Die, fiend! Eldritch Blast!”
A lump of malicious energy that was like a Shadowbolt on steroids flew towards the towering interloper, only to be sliced in half by a freshly returned Drea.
Having been forced to temporarily reveal herself, the stalker chittered in an annoyed fashion as she reactivated her Clear Ice Skill and slipped back into the shadows. Now that she was here, the shapeshifter decided it was time to get physical and began carving its way through the group of cultists in true Boxxy fashion. A few of the humans slipped past the whirling dervish of teeth, blades and malice while some of the ones it cleaved into multiple pieces would get up after a short while. It sent a few Mirror Images to keep them busy, but it was obvious it couldn’t stop all of them from entering the house.
It wasn’t worried though, as Kora had just leapt through the roof and went off of the side of the branch while holding her unconscious daughters in a triple princess carry. The cultists changed course and started jumping down after her without any hesitation. Now that the enemy had lost interest in the house, Xera was free to join Drea and Boxxy on crowd control duty. The djinn’s Scorching Rays and Fireballs began burning the unnaturally tough cultists so thoroughly that they were condemned to suffer several lifetimes’ worth of pain. After all, it didn’t matter how much they could regenerate if nobody was around to put out the demon’s ravenous flames.
Realizing that things were not going his way despite having his Mistress’s full support, Heckel decided to make a strategic retreat. He tapped the gruesome staff’s bottom at the ground near his feet, causing the air around him to shimmer ever-so-slightly. He had taken down the spatial lock around the area and was already chanting a Teleportation Spell. Drea attempted to intervene, but some kind of barrier prevented her from getting near the man. Her back-mounted scythes clanged loudly as she tried to cut through it, but it was too powerful even for her natural anti-magic weapons.
Something Boxxy had anticipated, seeing as how it unleashed the same move that took down a plague belcher in one hit. Admittedly this one was supported by far fewer magic amplification effects, but Power Overwhelming and a triple Synchronous Chanting were more than enough to do the job. The miniature version of the ‘Realm Scar’ cleaved clean through Heckel’s defenses, his robes, his torso, his heart, and his staff all at once. It was that last one that proved to be the most impactful, as the profane object shattered with a burst of power that knocked everyone around it off their feet. Even Boxxy was flung backwards, though it managed to recover and land on its feet,
“That did it, Master!” Drea exclaimed. “That weird magic is dissipating rapidly!”
That much was obvious enough even without mana-sensitive eyesight, as all of the cultists suddenly started crying out in pain. With the staff no longer around to renew their life force, they were rapidly succumbing to the grievous wounds that Boxxy’s group had already inflicted on them. Several of them died in seconds and there was not a single one that was left completely unhurt.
“Snack, Claws, clean the stragglers up,” Boxxy commanded.
“Yes, Master,” they answered in unison.
“Arms, what’s your situation?”
However, there was no reply from the third familiar.
Boxxy got a bad premonition. The fiend should not have fallen in combat, right? It was not possible it might have missed the notification in the flood of messages, as the shapeshifter had access to the Legendary Intelligence Perk. It had a flawless recollection of the evening’s events, so it was absolutely sure the ‘Your familiar has been banished’ message did not appear. So why was she not answering? She wasn’t unconscious either, as demons were impossible to knock out without killing them.
And then it tried to remotely check Kora’s Status, only to be greeted by a flickering screen full of incomprehensible gibberish. Something it had witnessed only once before.
“Oh… crap,” it muttered. “Don’t tell me!”
The shapeshifter leaped off of the branch in an effort to track where Kora had gone. As it fell, it saw one of the lower habitable limbs had a fair amount of destruction on it. Realizing this was where the archfiend landed, the Sandman-shaped monster altered and aimed its fall straight at it and hit the ground running within seconds. These lower branches were less abandoned than the upper ones, hence why there was a small crowd gathered around something.
Boxxy didn’t even bother asking the onlookers to make way and waded through them as if they were nothing more than blades of tall grass. And sure enough, it found what it was looking for, though at the same time it wished it hadn’t. The fiend was laying down on her back in the middle of the road with several pulverized cultists around her. Her breathing was shallow and her tomato-colored skin was strangely pale. The most worrying part was both legs, six arms and all three horns, were steadily disintegrating from their outer ends inward.
“H-H-Heya, boss,” Kora lifted her head and smiled weakly. “Lookie who’s here. Say hi, girls.”
Robin, Lydia and Madeline had awoken and were standing over her with shocked expressions, clearly unable to comprehend what was going on. Only when their ‘father’ spoke did they realize the Sandman was standing there. Seeing the ominous stranger, Robin stepped forward as if to protect Kora, only to be effortlessly shoved aside by the shapeshifter.
“You monumental idiot!” Boxxy shouted at the fiend. “What did you do?!”
“Just… my job, Boss… ‘Don’t care who or what you break’ is what you said… Remember?”
“You!” it turned towards Lydia. “Explain!”
“I- I- I- don’t know what’s going on,” she stammered while Madeline whimpered. “We just woke up here in the street, and first thing we saw was her fighting those strange men! One of them hit her with this black hammer and, and, and then she screamed, and then there was all this blood, and then she broke it by crushing it between her fists, and she just fell over, and there was more screaming, and-”
Boxxy scanned the area while the oldest nephilim was running her mouth in a frantic manner. It easily spotted the handle of a weapon next to one of Kora’s victims. It was clearly that of a two-handed warhammer, yet its business end had been shattered like a block of ice. This was without a doubt the item Lydia was going on about. Taking a second look at the fiend’s body, it seemed like fragments of it had embedded themselves deep within her. Far deeper than shrapnel should’ve been able to bury themselves in an archfiend’s dense muscles.
It knelt down and shoved two fingers into one of Kora’s bigger wounds, causing her to wince in pain as it extracted one of the metal shards. It was pitch black, had a tiny fragment of a blood red gem in it, and carried faint traces of a curse. One that Boxxy was able to easily identify, as it was the most dangerous hex that a demonic familiar could encounter. It was the same thing once wielded by Bernard Samson, Sigmund Law’s predecessor.
A hammer imbued with Demonbane.
“Rrrgh, damnit,” Kora groaned as more of her faded away into nothingness. “And just when I finally got to meet those girls…”
Boxxy’s mind raced as it tried to figure out a way out of this. Some way to keep its familiar’s clearly destabilized soul from falling apart. Dozens of scenarios and options coursed through its head per second, but time was not its ally. If the familiar it was responsible for disappeared into oblivion, its life would be forfeit as per the terms of the contract. It half expected Demons ‘R’ Us to start calling with the intent of collecting.
With both its options and its familiar declining rapidly by the second, the shapeshifter decided its first order of business was to buy time. It picked the archfiend up off the ground, hoisted her up onto its shoulders and invoked a Gate Spell that placed the two of them in front of one of the hidden entrances to its dungeon. Once inside, it teleported itself to one of its treasure rooms and pulled a small Artifact out of a display case - a circular crystal pendant with the image of a ten-legged spider etched into it. It started pouring every last bit of its remaining MP into the item while clutching it tightly.
“Snack, Claws, I have a priority assignment for you,” it called out while the trinket was charging. “Arms is suffering from heavy Demonbane exposure and is fading fast. I will halt her deterioration with the Stalker Queen’s Kiss. Your task is to get us to the Sage of the Sands and have him figure out how to save her and, by extension, me. I am lifting all other restrictions and standing orders. You have twenty four hours, starting… now.”
The amulet of demonic origin was activated in the next instant, causing the Sandman and Kora to be enveloped in an egg-shaped block of jagged ice that put both their bodies and their souls in stasis.