“What?!” Rowana protested. “Our house was just demolished for Gods know what reason, and you’re just going to leave?!”
The elf was understandably upset after waking up in the middle of the street to see her love nest almost in ruins. They were still in the middle of the ruined street with all sorts of people and officials trying to piece together exactly what had happened here. None of the house’s residents had even gotten the chance to change out of their sleepwear and were draped in light blankets provided by the authorities. These were, to put it mildly, less than ideal circumstances to be told her wife-to-be was about to go off on some adventure.
“Rowie, you know it’s not like that,” Keira tried to calm her down. “It’s just that this is an emergency.”
“Emergency?! I am your wife! What could possibly take priority over me?!”
Xera sighed internally. This was why she hated playing this part. She honestly had no idea how her Master dealt with this clingy bimbo, but Boxxy wasn’t exactly available to handle the ‘heavy lifting.’ In all honesty, she probably shouldn’t be wasting time here at all, but she needed those gullible triplets’ help. They were necessary not only for transporting the icy coffin to the Sage of the Sands, but also to help convince him to lend his aid. And in order to do that quickly and smoothly she thought it best to borrow Keira’s face, which led to this particular argument.
It was a good thing she used to be, and to an extent still was, an emotionally manipulative backstabber who had no qualms about taking advantage of a person’s misfortune.
“I don’t have all the details, but those girls’ father is in danger, Rowie,” the catgirl revealed.
“I… But… What?”
As expected, a simple mention of the word ‘father’ was enough to instantly shatter the delicate elf’s guard.
“I couldn’t save your dad… I wasn’t there for him,” she added solemnly. “If I don’t do everything I can to save theirs, I don’t know how I’ll live with myself.”
Rowana glanced over to the clearly distraught triplets several steps behind the catgirl. She then closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“Alright. But, what about us? Azurvale clearly isn’t safe…”
“I know, that’s why I convinced the FIB agents to take you and your mom to Bitterhold.”
“Bit- Bitterhold? As in the prison?” the elf asked warily.
“It’s protective custody at the most secure facility in the Republic. Plus, between you and me,” she leaned in, “the warden owes me a favor, so you’ll be treated like royalty.”
“… Okay. If you think it’s for the best, then I’ll trust your judgement. But you come back to me in one piece, you hear?”
“Always,” Keira whispered as she hugged her.
Doris, who was standing off to the side, locked eyes with the beastkin and nodded to show she understood. She took Rowana away by the shoulder, reassuring her that they’ll get through this while Keira attended to the triplets that were the cause for this mess.
“What you will witness on this trip will make very little sense to you,” she coldly informed them. “Do not bother asking questions, for they will be ignored. Understood?”
The nephilim sisters nodded affirmatively.
“Good. Now, grab what clothes or gear you can, we leave in ten minutes.”
Though the Morgana residence was a wreck, Keira’s personal armory in the basement and all of the gear inside it were completely untouched. It was also where the semi-divine sisters stored a lot of their luggage, allowing the four women to begin equipping themselves immediately. Xera put on her Master’s combat gear, mostly for appearance’s sake. Robin donned the heavy armor her Inquisition caretakers had prepared for her prior to her leaving their headquarters. Lydia draped herself in a black and silver robe adorned with the markings of Teresa’s faith, while Madeline put on some lightly enchanted travel clothes.
Once geared up, ‘Keira’ led the triplets through the swarm of guards and personnel while flaunting her Hero status to deflect any attempts at stopping her. The authorities were, of course, entirely within their right to detain her, but nobody present was stupid enough to even try that. The redhead brought the triplets to one of the hidden entrances to the Dryad’s Domain and invited them inside. Seeing the cavernous insides of the hylt tree made the girls rather speechless, more so than the fact that there was apparently a dungeon right in the heart of the city. They looked ready to explode into all kinds of questions despite Xera’s earlier warning, but that urge was instantly forgotten the instant they laid eyes upon the owner of this lair.
“D-dad?” Robin muttered when she saw the frozen archfiend. “Dad!”
She ran up to and pressed her hands and face against the miniature iceberg, even banged her fist against it a few times. There was no danger of her breaking that ice, though. The Artifact that made it contained a tiny fraction of Overlord Liusolra’s demonic essence, certainly not the kind of thing that could be broken by a greenhorn like Robin. Unfortunately, as with most objects of demonic origin, one had to perform a minor ritual in order to unleash their power. In the case of the amulet known as the Stalker Queen’s Kiss, said ritual was just that - a kiss.
Which was why the Sandman’s bald and heavily scarred head had locked lips with the mostly limbless Kora within the ice. There was nothing sensual or romantic about it, of course. It was just a means to an end not too dissimilar from providing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The major downside of that was that the ice would entomb a minimum of two people. And since activating the magic required a ridiculous amount of MP, Boxxy couldn’t relegate this duty to anybody else. Not even Xera’s mana reserves were enough, as she had expended much of her magical energy trying and failing to activate those Bracelets of Translocation earlier that evening.
The djinn then proceeded to briefly but succinctly explain the situation. Kora’s immortal soul was unstable and in danger of collapsing completely, so her Master put it in a magically induced cryostasis to preserve it. Before doing so, he ordered his familiars to bring the two of them to the Sage of the Sands within twenty four hours with the hope of having that old man figure out a way to save them both. It was not going to be an easy thing to do, which was why Keira needed the triplets’ assistance. Something the girls were eager to agree to without any hesitation, just as expected.
“Good,” the redhead nodded. “In that case, let’s set out immediately.”
“Uhm, I don’t mean to say this the wrong way,” Lydia piped up, “but isn’t the Sage of the Sands, y’know, in the desert? How are we supposed to get there in just a day?”
It was a very valid question, as the Pearly Dunes were literally on the other side of the continent. It would still take over a week to get there even if they flew by griffin.
“You’re about to find out,” Keira replied. “Drea!”
The tundra webstalker descended from above via a rope of spider silk, making the triplets’ eyes and mouths go wide open. It was their first time seeing such a demon, so it was only inevitable that they’d stare. Drea herself wished they’d ease off, as being scrutinized so closely made her chitter nervously. Still, she played her part and avoided tearing their eyes out, at least for the moment.
“I suggest you, tktktktktktk, stand still.”
Seconds later, the triplets and their caretaker were strapped to the block of ice via the arachnid demon’s webbing. Once she was sure they were bound securely enough, Xera accessed the dungeon management menu. As extensions to their master’s power, Boxxy’s familiars had the same authority when it came to accessing and operating the dungeon core’s features and modules. The shapeshifter normally forbade them from doing anything like that for fear that they might mess things up, but it had lifted those restrictions on their behavior in light of this emergency.
Which was how Xera was able to activate Nexus Access and transport the entire group to another dungeon. They couldn’t make it all the way to the desert in one go, however. The ‘cargo’ being moved this time around was about five times heavier than the single hylt creeper that normally used this feature, so the MP required to teleport it scaled up to match. They still arrived at their destination, though it took one or two detours to get there.
Once released from their bondage, the nephilim immediately recognized they were no longer in Republic territory. The tiny chamber they were in was built out of white sandstone and had a strangely slanted ceiling with a thin layer of sand covering the floor. It was a completely different look and feel to the bark-covered cavern they were in just minutes ago. Xera then had the others help her hoist the frozen couple onto a wooden cart near the mini-dungeon’s exit. They had to lift the combined weight of Boxxy, Kora, and the ice to do so, hence why it took a good bit of doing. It was also a minor miracle the simple vehicle didn’t just snap under the heavy load placed upon it.
“Phew!” Robin exclaimed, having done most of the work. “I think dad needs to go on a diet or something.”
“Don’t worry, your ‘dad’ will be practically weightless if you don’t shut up and get busy,” Keira coldly scolded her. “There are no beasts of burden here, so guess who needs to pull this thing.”
“… Ah, crap.”
“Don’t worry, Robin,” Lydia reassured her. “I’ll keep you energetic with my restorative magic.”
“And I’ll keep your spirits up with a lively song!” Madeline declared.
“These three seem awfully relaxed considering what’s at stake,” Drea hissed through the telepathic link.
“They’re idiots just like their moron of a father,” Xera replied. “Honestly, what was she thinking trying to take on a Demonbane weapon?”
“We’ll probably find out once we reach the Sage’s place. We better get a move on.”
“Right, that’s enough chit-chat,” Keira shouted out loud. “Stop whining and get this crate over to the nearby town.”
After getting the triplets’ butts in gear, the djinn guided them out of the dungeon through the massive sliding stone door in one of the walls, which sealed itself back up behind them. They were now in a dark cave that used to be a bandit’s hideout before they were ‘coerced’ into relocating. A few minutes of navigating the narrow passageways brought them outside, where the nephilim were stunned for the countless time this evening as the Pearly Dunes stretched out before them.
With pure white sand stretching out towards the horizon and an endless sea of stars up above them, it was an odd sight that was impossible to behold anywhere else on this world. It was also a lot colder than the triplets were expecting from the desert. They almost felt like this was another planet altogether if not for the ghostly pale light of Terrania’s three moons in the night sky above.
“So… uh… which way do we go?” Robin asked after a few moments of soaking in the eerie atmosphere.
A small ball of white luminescence appeared out of thin air in response to the djinn’s words. The beetle-sized construct spun around her a few times before coming to a rest in front of her face.
“Gwoooahn?” it asked her.
“Lead us to the closest village,” she commanded.
The mote of light darted around the place like a lost firefly for several seconds before drifting off northward. Robin grunted with effort as she began pulling the cart after it and the others followed on foot. Thankfully she had Kora’s idiocy-powered strength, so she was making surprisingly fast progress given her relatively low Level. The other two nephilim naturally asked what that Guiding Light was, but Xera firmly deflected their inquiries by stating it was a ‘trade secret.’ She’d wipe their memories of the trip anyway, but there was no reason to cause a scene by revealing that she was not, in fact, Keira.
It was then that she was reminded of something else she needed to take care of.
|Xerababadubuth: Stain, you there?
Hookenstein: I am here indeed. Who might you be, though?
Xerababadubuth: This is Boxxy’s favorite Snack.
Hookenstein: Ah, the scrumptious demon-morsel. So this is your true name, hm? Quite the mouthful.
Xerababadubuth: What about yourself? What’s ‘Hookenstein’ supposed to be?
Hookenstein: Oh, just a fun little moniker I had your pet bird assign to this child. More importantly, why do you seek my attention?
Xera then spent the next few minutes explaining the situation through the chat feature of the dungeon network’s Surveillance Net. She didn’t think it wise to give the slime all of the details, however, so she summed up Boxxy’s current predicament as being ‘temporarily indisposed.’
|Hookenstein: I see, so you need me to pacify these two elves for a while, yes?
Xerababadubuth: Exactly. Can you do that without, you know, mentally scarring or traumatizing them?
Hookenstein: Where’s the fun in that?
Xerababadubuth: Stain, you know my Master does not appreciate damaged goods.
Hookenstein: I know, I know. Worry not, I’ll put them in a mild coma and feed them some manufactured dreams.
Hookenstein: If all goes well, they’ll simply be left with some pleasant memories.
Hookenstein: I will, of course, charge extra for this service.
Xerababadubuth: That is agreeable.
The djinn had to admit, that certainly sounded impressive. What Stain was suggesting was beyond the realm of possibility even for her Dreamweaver Skill. Then again, that ability was merely an addon to her succubus nature, whereas the queen slime’s psychic abilities were her main weapon. She has also yet to boast of doing something she could not, meaning that Xera had made the right call by sending the elves to her.
|Xerababadubuth: Incidentally, how long could you keep them in such a state without permanently damaging their minds?
Hookenstein: Depends on the individual, but about ten weeks on average.
Xerababadubuth: Would they not die of starvation?
Hookenstein: Nonsense. Stain provides for her subjects.
Hookenstein: And her guests.
Xerababadubuth: I see. Well, if all goes well I will only need you to oversee those two for a few days at the most.
Hookenstein: I shall make sure to welcome them with open arms.
That last line struck Xera as a bit worrying, but she had more important things to worry about right now. Preserving the Keira Facade was preferable, but pointless if it came at the cost of Boxxy’s and Kora’s lives. She therefore focused her attention on the piece of clairvoyance magic guiding them through the night. It was necessary because, even though she knew there was a village nearby, she did not feel confident navigating this bleak and repetitive landscape.
The group arrived at the village about an hour later. The people here were not as familiar with Keira, so convincing them to sell one of their emeraldian camels at this late hour was not easy. Thankfully Boxxy always kept the Aetherial Repository now wrapped around Xera’s waist stocked with a small fortune in coins and gems, so money was not a problem.
After purchasing the camel, Drea used her webbing to make some durable reins for it. Robin was then put in charge of guiding the animal. Thankfully it was docile and well trained, so she got the hang of it rather quickly. The actual navigation was left to the Guiding Light once more, though not because Xera didn’t know the way to the Sage’s place. It was because nobody did. His home was surrounded by bizarre winds, sandstorms and mirages that were designed to confuse people and get them turned around. Tracking down that elusive bastard was literally impossible without divination magic.
“Uh, Keira?” Madeline suddenly chimed up. “Isn’t… Isn’t this place, like, dangerous?”
“Every place is dangerous,” the redhead replied coldly. “But don’t worry, we have Mr S’s familiar clearing the way for us.”
Indeed, rather than waste her time navigating or pulling the cart, Drea put her efforts into eliminating the various creatures and monsters. Moving around was a bit slower than usual since there were no trees or rocks to swing from, but at the very least it was the middle of the night. As one might expect from a cold-attuned demon, Drea was not a fan of the blazing heat that would surely befall her once the sun rose.
And rise it did.
After several hours of trekking through the arid wilderness, morning eventually befell the group, followed closely by the day’s insufferable heat. Drea found herself running out of stamina much quicker and the triplets were at their wits’ end by noon. Even with the supplies they had purchased from that village, traversing the Pearly Dunes was a harrowing experience. This was where the chunk of magic ice they were transporting came in handy. The cool air constantly radiating from it helped fight off the sun’s pounding rays, but that only went so far.
Those four aside, Xera and the camel were completely undisturbed by the heat, as one might expect. However, that didn’t mean they did not tire. With the animal doing all of the legwork and the djinn having to maintain her focus on the Guiding Light, it was inevitable that the group would have to take breaks. They all grew more and more worried and anxious as the day dragged on and were on the verge of panicking by the time the blasted sun began to set. Their deadline was drawing ever closer, and there was no telling whether they’d make it in time.
Then, just as the ball of flames in the sky ducked behind the horizon, the Guiding Light began behaving strangely. Rather than pulling them in a specific direction, it started constantly changing its position as if it was trying to figure out where to go next. Keeping up with it was something of a challenge, but one that Robin handled perfectly. She seemed to have a knack for controlling the camel despite the fact that she claimed she wasn’t an ‘animal person.’
A little while later, on the twentieth hour since Boxxy’s self-imprisonment, they finally arrived at their destination. A massive stone mansion revealed itself before the weary travelers immediately after they passed an illusory wall of some kind. Though it certainly looked ancient, the building was by no means run down or in disrepair. Just the opposite. Its white walls and golden spires were so impeccably clean and pristine that it looked fit to be the palace of some great king or emperor. Certainly not the sort of place one would expect a ‘sage’ to live in.
“Well, now! I was not expecting visitors today!” an unsettlingly cheerful voice echoed around them. “This is quite the surprise!”
There was a sudden gust of wind that picked up countless flakes of white sand. A blinding whirlwind formed in a matter of seconds and then dispersed just as quickly, leaving behind a widely smiling individual.
“And I do so enjoy surprises!”
The man was, at a first glance, a fox-eared beastkin. He had slicked back fiery orange hair, eyes so narrow they almost looked like they were perpetually closed, and so many bushy tails that it was hard to count them all while they swished back and forth. As for his face, though the proportions and features were a bit odd, it was impossible to deny he was practically oozing with charm. His winning smile in particular had the power to put men, women and children alike at ease. His attire also did not disappoint. He was wearing a gentlemanly business suit with a white undershirt, red bow tie, black dress shoes and white gloves. In his hands was a fashionable black cane with a golden handle that he twirled around playfully as if it were a baton.
“Cut the theatrics, Lucius,” Xera cut him off. “We’re in a hurry.”
“Keira?” Robin turned towards her wide-eyed.
The nephilim couldn’t help but notice the rather drastic change in voice and tone, but the djinn was through playing with them and knocked them out with consecutive Sleep Spells.
“Well! That’s a fine ‘how do you do!’” Lucius raised an eyebrow. “There’s no reason to be so rude to your fellow guests, now, is there?”
He then conjured a trio of sandy hands that lightly slapped the triplets awake, much to Xera’s dismay.
“What are you doing?!” she shrieked at him.
“The same thing I’ve always done, my dear,” his smile somehow widened even more. “Whatever I want. And a single look at your precious cargo over there is enough to tell me you’re in no position to complain.”
“Can someone please explain to us what’s going on?!” Lydia insisted.
“But of course, my dear child! Allow me to introduce myself,” the beastkin bowed theatrically. “You are in the presence of Luciirzassen Ghignaphaul, but you may call me Lucius.”
“Why does that sound like a demon’s name?” Madeline remarked.
“Because it is, of course! Though I am not surprised you guessed that, given the company you keep.”
Lucius then waved his cane like a wand, enveloping ‘Keira’ in a puff of smoke that, upon dispersing several seconds later, revealed Xera’s true form. The triplets gasped in surprise, confusion and disbelief that made the old fox giggle in delight.
“Well, that’s more work for me later,” the ex-succubus grumbled in dissatisfaction.
“Where is Keira?! What did you do with her?!” Robin bellowed.
“Shut it, whelp,” the djinn snapped at her. “Nevermind her. We’re here to save both my Master and your moron of a father from oblivion.”
“She’s right, sis,” Madeline grabbed her sibling’s hand. “I do not want the first time we met daddy face-to-face to also be the last.”
“I hate to say this, but I agree with Madeline,” Lydia took hold of Robin’s other hand. “Kora was ready to sacrifice herself for our sake. It is therefore only right that we do everything we can to save her. Even if it means looking the other way.”
“Hah! Hahahaha!” Lucius laughed while merrily applauding them. “An archfiend sacrificing herself! Hahahahahaha! I haven’t heard that one in centuries!”
“It is no joke, old man,” Xera said in a stern manner. “Even if it sounds ridiculous, it is nevertheless the truth.”
Both Lucius’s smile and jubilant attitude diminished, though they did not disappear completely. He looked over the nephilim once more. However, rather than a potential source of entertainment, he now studied them with a bemused curiosity. At nearly twenty centuries old, the ancient demon had never once heard of an instance where an archfiend would try to play the good samaritan. Misguided fiends or other lesser demons, sure, but a Ranker? That was both unprecedented and incomprehensible.
“And you saw this yourselves?” he asked the triplets.
“Y-yeah…” Robin replied while the other two nodded.
“Excellent! Then I can skip the boring explanation and see it for myself!”
He then flickered out of existence like a dispersing mirage and appeared behind the nephilim. His uncountable tails wrapped themselves softly around their heads and necks, causing Robin, Lydia and Madeline to suddenly freeze stiff as a statue. Lucius himself stood facing the boxcicle in the back of the cart the triplets were sitting on. His hand was cupping his chin and he let out insightful humming noises, but he didn’t seem to be studying the frozen duo given that his eyes were firmly closed.
“What is he doing?”
Drea, who was keeping out of sight by hiding behind the block of ice, couldn’t help but question his motives.
“He’s reading their minds,” Xera said matter-of-factly. “We should let him, though. It’s much faster than explaining things with words.”
“With three people at once? Can your kind even do that?”
“Fairly certain we can’t. However, that guy is an exception.”
In fact, he could probably say he was capable of shitting literal diamonds and Xera would still be inclined to believe him.
That was just how ridiculous an existence the world’s first and oldest djinn was.