“Arms,” Boxxy’s voice passed through the thought-link. “Lavender tells me you cheated during your training exercise.”
“Uh… maybe. A little,” the fiend said evasively.
“… Wait, what?”
“You managed to accomplish your task in a way I wasn’t expecting. You used your head and applied your abilities accordingly instead of just trying to brute force your way through the challenge like the moron that you are.”
Admittedly she did so by exploiting a gap in her master’s orders, but the fact that she thought to do that was part of the reason why Boxxy was praising her in its own way.
“I think that’s earned you a small reward,” it added.
“So… I get to keep the shiny gem?”
“Awesome! You’re the best, boss!” Kora cheered.
“However, I never said you wouldn’t be punished for your insubordination,” Boxxy coldly informed her.
“… You’re mad after all, aren’t you?”
“Of course, I am. Unbelievably so, actually. I’m just doing a good job of hiding it.”
“But, uh, didn’t you say that those who get scammed or cheated have only themselves to blame?” the guilty demon tried to argue.
“I did, indeed.”
“Then, by that logic-!”
“Unfortunately for you, I’m quite hypocritical.”
“Now, in regards to your punishment… Let’s see…” the shapeshifter paused, seemingly in thought. “The contents of treasure rooms three and four were left in a bit of a state after I took the things for your training regime out of them. It’s only fitting that you be the one to handle the reorganizing and polishing of every last shiny in there.”
Though that chore didn’t seem too bad at first, it was important to keep in mind the sheer scale of the treasure hoards involved. Hundreds of magic items, thousands of gemstones and literal tons of gold coins, all of which had to be carefully and thoroughly brought to an immaculate shine. Naturally the process had to be carried out by hand and each piece needed to be addressed individually. This meant that Kora had been sentenced to do the one thing her kind hated more than anything else - dull, repetitive, mind-numbing menial labor. Several days’ worth of it at the least. The frustration that she, as a hoarder demon, would be forced to endure while handling someone else’s treasure was merely the gilding on the lid.
“Oh, come on! Over one lousy brooch?!” Kora complained. “Why can’t you just have Lavender do it!? Isn’t that sort of stuff her job, anyway?!”
Though she wasn’t very good at it at first, the alraune’s housekeeping skills had gotten rather formidable over the years. Mostly due to the sheer amount of work that Boxxy had her perform. And since she was under the dungeon core’s influence, the flower-girl didn’t feel the slightest bit resentful over being treated like a slave for the entirety of her short life. Just the opposite, in fact. Being entrusted with the ‘vital task’ of keeping Boxxy’s collection sparkling was one of her greatest joys.
“Hmm, now that I think about it, she might not be thrilled about having you take over her duties,” the shapeshifter replied. “Alright, I’ll let her give you a hand.”
“By keeping an eye on you and making sure you do a proper job while I sleep,” it added.
“Ugh… just kill me now…”
Drea, who had been silently listening in since the start, turned her attention away from Kora’s troubles and towards her target. The shady human she’d been tailing since sunset had finally left the inn he was staying in. Which, considering the fact that there were at least another two hours until dawn, likely meant he did not wish to be seen. At least he had the common sense to ditch that incredibly conspicuous cloak in favor of some casual laborer clothes.
Nevertheless, the man stood no chance of hiding from or confusing the webstalker’s sight. Though faint, she could easily see the uniquely bizarre aura that emanated from his body, which marked him as belonging to the group that attacked the Morgana residence a few nights ago. Though he appeared completely ordinary to the vast majority of mortals, he might as well have been holding a massive glowing sign that read ‘I’m a cultist’ as far as Drea was concerned.
After a laughably pointless attempt at checking to see if he was being watched, the suspect began to move through the streets and winding alleys of Dirt Town. He was clearly a stranger to Azurvale’s labyrinthine slums district, as he accidentally went down a dead end and had to retrace his steps three separate times. Simply watching this bumbling buffoon made Drea rather irritated, but she wasn’t about to jeopardize the only lead she had on that unknown group.
As unfortunate as it was, the live prisoners she had captured during the night of the attack had failed to yield any useful information despite the ‘rigorous interrogation.’ Which, incidentally, was a nice way of saying they had been handed over to Stain for mental probing. Boxxy didn’t want to waste time with physical or humane methods of persuasion and had opted for the direct approach. Yet even that domineering queen slime, for all her formidable psychic prowess, had proven incapable of reading their minds.
However, that wasn’t because they had some kind of superhuman mental fortitude that was able to resist Stain’s influence. It was because someone else had gotten to them first.
Though the captured cultists were fanatically devoted to this ‘Mistress’ of theirs, Boxxy’s newest business partner had revealed this was not by choice. That behavior had been instilled in them through a combination of brainwashing and mental domination. This condition polluted their memories and twisted their perceptions. Though Stain could read each of their minds like an open book, said book’s pages had either been ripped up, covered in incomprehensible doodles, or otherwise vandalized. Not the sort of thing one could hope to extract a coherent story from, to say the least.
Upon learning this, Boxxy had naturally tried to lift this haze from their minds by using the hylt tree’s Waters of Life, but that too proved fruitless. Unlike Reggie, who had been programmed over a long period of time with a powerful alchemical compound, these people were enthralled through curse-like magic. Something that seemed to be beyond the abilities of Ambrosia’s miraculous fluids to heal. Seeing no other option, the hylt creeper left the captured humans - or at least the ones that survived the interrogation process - in Stain’s care for the time being. The slime was to try and untangle the cobwebs in their heads, but she seemed doubtful that she would be able to do so. It was, after all, like trying to cure a sick person by exposing them to another, more virulent disease.
Drea, on the other hand, had been working a different angle. While her master was rooting around in those people’s heads, she had been prowling around the capital trying to find traces of the cultists’ unique mana signature. Focusing her search on Dust Town had proven to be the right decision, as this was where she happened across her current target. This particular rat didn’t seem to be abandoning a sinking ship, as he soon met up with another of his comrades - an older woman who was missing an arm.
The two of them made their way out of the city on foot while trying to act as casual as possible around the guards. The authorities still gave them looks of suspicion, however, mostly because they were humans and not elves. Old prejudices reared their heads at troubled times, after all, so the racial profiling was rather unavoidable given the circumstances. A few guards even stopped the couple to question them, but none of them seemed willing to detain them just because they were humans. It wasn’t as if martial law or mandatory curfews were in effect, after all.
Once out of the city, the incognito cultists kept walking for another hour or so before arriving at one of the dozens of farms surrounding Azurvale. This particular one seemed to focus on growing various magical herbs within their fields, but that obviously wasn’t why the man and his one-armed companion were here. They trampled straight through the blooming gardens as they made a beeline for the large two-story house in the middle of it all. They knocked on the door, exchanged a few hushed words with the person that answered them and went inside.
Rather than make a move right away, Drea positioned herself atop the ten meter tall windmill overlooking the house. The place had a magical security system which she didn’t want to risk tripping unless she was sure this was the cultist’s final destination. And sure enough, one after the other, more ‘tainted’ humans started arriving in groups of two or three at a time. The stalker counted a total of nine newcomers enter the house before dawn, not including the ones that had led her here.
With both the sun and foot traffic on the surrounding roads on the rise, Drea concluded that it was unlikely for any stragglers to show up and made her move. After studying the farm’s anti-intruder enchantment from the outside, she determined that it didn’t cover the roof. She landed softly on top of the house, then began to make an entrance for herself. Her sharp claws and scythes effortlessly and silently cut through tiles and timber alike while her sticky thread made sure the resulting debris didn’t fall and cause a racket.
Once inside the attic, she started carefully searching the house from top to bottom. She found traces of the farm’s owners on the second floor, but the people themselves were nowhere to be seen. More importantly, neither were any of the humans Drea observed entering the building. She did hear voices from the lower floor, however, prompting her to go down the stairs and investigate. It then became apparent all of the humans had gathered in the living room, likely because it was the only one large enough to fit all of them in there.
That said, a cozy home like this was not the ideal place for a human-sized spider-demon to hide. It was well lit, the hallways were tight and the floorboards old and creaky, so she couldn’t get too close to the ongoing meeting. She didn’t need to, either, as she could overhear what was being said even from two rooms away. Though she wasn’t going to complain that those amateurs weren’t even worried about eavesdroppers, she did find it insulting that this lot, of all people, thought they could pull one over on Boxxy.
“I do not know how much longer we can keep this up, brother Zeke,” a male voice said. “The longer we linger, the more we risk being found out.”
“I share brother Nathaniel’s worries,” a woman backed him up. “Has there been no word from brother Heckel’s group?”
“I am afraid I have some dire news in that regard,” a third voice answered. “The Mistress has informed me that brother Heckel has been taken from us. By agents of the Nemesis, no less.”
This caused something of a stir within the group as a series of shocked gasps and inaudible whispers reached Drea’s ears.
“To make matters worse,” the man continued, “the Nemesis has hidden the demon-spawn from the Mistress’s sight through foul trickery.”
“What are we to do then, brother Zeke?” someone else asked.
“We, her faithful servants, can only pray that she delivers us to them, so that we may enact Her righteous will. Praise be to the One Truth.”
“Glory be to the One Truth,” the others replied in a chorus.
“Surely we are capable of doing more than simply waiting?” yet another cultist questioned.
“Your devotion is appreciated and your eagerness noted, brother, but now is the time for vigilance and discretion. Information is the Nemesis’s greatest, but also only weapon. We must strive to deprive him of it at every turn, as we have for decades. Even now the fool remains unaware that it was our Mistress who brought the Great Collapse upon this foul city and created the opening through which we were able to strike!”
A small round of cheers and affirmative murmuring emanated from the crowd, which only made Drea roll all eight of her eyes. Whoever this ‘Mistress’ was, she certainly didn’t seem to have a problem with claiming responsibility for Reggie’s handiwork. It was also ludicrous to think these idiots had any sort of involvement in the ‘ganger capo’s masterstroke. Still, this did present an interesting opportunity, as Boxxy could potentially pin the fault for the attack on these guys and let its Facades reap the benefits.
That was a matter for later, however. Right now, what the stalker was most interested in was this ‘Nemesis’ they kept talking about. The most likely suspect was Monique, the Goddess of Instability, with Boxxy’s familiars and vigilante persona being her ‘agents.’ The consistency with which they referred to their Nemesis as such seemed to suggest otherwise, but Drea knew better than that. It was possible to refer to Matilda via an unofficial alias or nickname without having it change involuntarily every time it was mentioned. It was the same ‘loophole’ that all demons used to refer to the God of Causality as ‘the Progenitor.’
Another thing to consider was that this ‘One Truth’ bunch seemed motivated by religious purposes, which was odd to say the least. Though different faiths and orders often had conflicts of opinion over one matter or another, the Gods actively discouraged armed conflict between their followers. Then again, the Empire has had some troubles relating to their faith in Teresa over the past few years, due in no small part to Boxxy’s interference. It was entirely possible someone might have taken control of a group of radicals by posing as the Goddess of Truth and Justice. It seemed unlikely that such a goody-two-shoes religion would inspire this sort of extremist attitude, but that was just the kind of creatures humans were.
Hungry for power and quick to suck up to anyone that would give it to them. It was the same mentality that led to corruption becoming so widespread within their society in the first place. And seeing as how their Mistress was giving these gullible idiots real, tangible power unlike what any religious order could offer them, it was only natural they’d play along. Then, once the brainwashing came into play, they’d carry out any order they were given with little to no questions.
Nevertheless, the failed assassination attempt on the nephilim triplets had clearly given them pause. They may have been zealots, but they were not raving lunatics foaming at the mouth. The cultists therefore continued to raise various grievances towards brother Zeke, who seemed to be in charge of this little congregation. However, he quickly and skillfully deflected their various concerns either by blaming them on the Nemesis or by urging them to trust in the power of their Mistress. He also justified the slaughter of innocent bystanders by dehumanizing them as heathens, sacrifices, and the ever popular anti-elven racial slur - ‘twigs.’
Drea wasn’t much of a people person. Just the opposite in fact. She typically spent every waking moment, be it in the Beyond or on Terrania, actively avoiding all forms of social activity. Yet even she could recognize brother Zeke appeared to be incredibly well spoken. He was charismatic and clearly knew a good deal more about what was going on than he let on. The kind of thing one might expect from a scam artist or sleazy politician. Not to mention that he sometimes punctuated his sentences by slamming what sounded like a wooden stick into the house’s floorboards. Drea couldn’t see it from her hiding spot, but she was fairly confident he had the same kind of staff that the late brother Heckel did.
All of which pointed towards him being a far more bountiful source of information than the rest of those low-ranking grunts.
“In closing, I would like to remind you all of the importance of the task the Mistress has entrusted us with,” Zeke declared. “Those abominations must be exterminated before they begin to breed and spread their taint, or else they will forever smother the One Truth.”
“Glory be to the One Truth!”
“Your devotion moves both myself, and our Mistress. You are dismissed, and may She watch over you.”
There was an avalanche of footsteps as the cultists began to disperse. Naturally it would be quite suspicious if this many people were to leave a random farmhouse at once, so they departed in the same manner in which they arrived. Which was to say in groups of no more than three people, with a gap of five to fifteen minutes between each group. They would stroll through the herb fields, acting like they were in no particular hurry. Then, the instant they went around the old windmill and out of sight of the house, would get their heads lopped off by one of the very demons they seemed to hate so much. Their blood would be soaked up by the thirsty soil, their bodies gobbled up, and their personal belongings stowed away in a web sac inside the windmill.
As Drea expected, that bothersome revival magic didn’t seem to function all that well when its user wasn’t aware it was needed. The humans stopped coming out after the stalker’s fourteenth kill for the day, though it wasn’t because that was all of them. The demoness had picked out at least seventeen distinct voices while eavesdropping on their meeting, meaning there were at least three more left inside including their spiritual leader. She wasn’t in any particular rush, however, so she waited patiently for them to either come out or do something stupid.
Which was precisely what they did a little over an hour after the previous bunch had walked out. Five of them attempted to leave through the back under the guise of some kind of invisibility Spell, but such tricks were pointless before a webstalker’s eyes. Deciding it was time to finish them off, Drea gunked up the windmill’s mechanism with some of her webbing, causing it to grind to a halt with two of its five wings forming a V-shape in front of her. She attached a strand of elastic thread to each one, then pulled back on them as far as the building’s roof and her own strength would allow her.
With her preparations complete, Drea took a deep breath and hopped, causing her stalker silk to contract and slingshot her forward. Her light and invisible body soared through the air in the desired direction, though it appeared she would slightly overshoot her intended target. That was alright though, as this wasn’t her first time performing an aerial takedown. Twisting her body around and using her back-mounted limbs to alter her trajectory allowed her to land right on top of Zeke’s back.
Having been caught so completely unawares, the cultist lieutenant had no time to activate that infuriatingly tough barrier before Drea turned his eyeball-tipped staff into splinters. A flash of her scythes and a blink of an eye later, the four unimportant humans fell to the ground, blood spraying liberally from their neck stumps. Zeke struggled against the demon pinning him to the ground, but could do little to stop Drea’s mandibles from biting into the back of his neck. His bloodstream was then flooded with paralyzing venom courtesy of the demon’s Venomous Sting Skill. She didn’t need to necessarily go that far to restrain him, but she didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to use that nostalgic ability. It was a leftover from her pre-Ranker days as a hornet stalker and she rarely got to use it since her master was not in the habit of leaving people alive.
Today’s hunt was obviously an exception, however, and she took advantage of it while she could.
It wasn’t until later that morning that Boxxy woke up, having spent much of the previous night tending to Snack’s reward. Yes, it was time consuming and exhausting, but it wouldn’t be here to complain about it without her exemplary performance. The shapeshifter threw open the lid of the gem-encrusted mithril treasure chest it used as a bed, and groggily stood up. It yawned mightily, performed a series of stretches that would kill any non-doppelganger, then climbed out of the shiny container. It opened its Storage, retrieved a severed human arm and took a lazy bite out of its tricep.
*SHLOCK HROK HRUNCH*
“Morning, Claws,” it said casually while chewing on its pre-breakfast snack.
“M-m-morning Boxxy, tktktktktkt,” she chittered awkwardly. “S-sleep well?”
“Well, you know. *CRUNCH MUNCH SLURP* Can’t complain. What’ve you got there?”
Drea was standing in plain view, right in the middle of its gold-filled sleeping chamber, waiting patiently for her master to address her. She was also speaking aloud instead of using her ‘indoor voice.’ This was rather uncharacteristic of her to say the least, as the webstalker had yet to get over her ill-fitting bashfulness around Boxxy. The way she was fiddling with her claws while her back-scythes twitched nervously certainly implied that trait of hers hadn’t disappeared since her master last saw her. However, she clearly had something important to talk about, as evidenced by the huge pile of white gossamer behind her.
“W-well, you know how those humans I caught turned out to be, tktktkktkt, no good?”
It wasn’t like it was her fault those cultists had scrambled eggs for brains.
“I kinda felt bad about it, so I hunted down and captured one of the cult’s leaders.”
The shapeshifter’s arm froze just as it was about to devour the last of its handy meal.
“You did what?” it asked dumbly.
“I tracked down and caught one of their, tktktkt, field commanders,” she repeated while desperately trying to hide her blushing cheeks.
Boxxy looked at the stalker, then at the white cocoon, then back at the stalker, then back to the cocoon. Only then did it realize what - or rather who - was in there.
“… Okay then,” it mumbled after a brief pause. “When, how, and why?”
“Errr…. Well, you see…”
Drea then summarized the events of the last several hours, leaving Boxxy impressed and worried in equal measure. The shapeshifter rarely saw the need to restrict her movements since Claws always liked to hang around it whenever she wasn’t doing anything else. Unlike certain green-haired muscle heads or blue-skinned perverts, she didn’t need to be told not to cause a scene or go on a rampage. All in all, she had the greatest degree of freedom among Boxxy’s three familiars yet she never really did anything with it.
At least until last night, when she decided to take a more proactive approach and acted on a hunch. According to her words, she wasn’t sure whether her efforts would pay off, so she kept silent about her intentions lest she pointlessly get the shapeshifter’s hopes up. She had also judged that she alone was enough to handle the cultist remnants, hence why she hadn’t asked for backup or assistance at the farmhouse. All of which culminated in the here and now, with Boxxy having awoken to a surprise gift from the most unlikely of sources.
“You know I hate surprises,” it grumbled at her. “You should never go off on your own like this without at least telling me. I don’t need any more of you getting Demonbaned because I wasn’t around to stop you from being stupid, understood?”
“I, but, I wasn’t-”
“Y-yes, master, tktktktkt….” she answered dejectedly.
Seeing her gloomy expression, Boxxy let out a tired sigh and stretched its hand out to gently pat Drea’s head.
“I’ll make an exception this time, though. You did good, Claws. Really, excellent work. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Drea’s face lit up like a kid that had just been given candy. She stomped around in place and flailed her arms around while a high-pitched squeal emanated from her throat. Getting this sort of glowing recognition for her hard work felt like the greatest reward she could’ve asked for. Realizing that she might be getting a bit too excited, Boxxy took its hand off her head and turned its attention towards the fresh meat its pet spider had presented it with. Peeking inside the webbing with its MLG, it couldn’t help but be genuinely impressed with how thorough Claws had been. She had not only thoroughly restrained and sedated the human, but had even gagged him to prevent him from doing something unfortunate like biting his own tongue off.
Yet as tasty as this surprise was, it couldn’t help but feel worried. Not about the stalker’s catch, that poor sod would be delivered straight to Stain for mental probing. No, what Boxxy was concerned with was that yet another of its familiars was acting in a way unbefitting of her species. It desperately wanted to avoid having a repeat of what Arms went through, especially the part where it had its soul partially corrupted by a demon.
“Uh, Master?” Drea piped up after calming down a bit.
“What it is, Claws?”
“Are you going to, tktkktktkt, eat that?”
“Eat what?” Boxxy asked while looking over its shoulder.
The stalker was pointing at the bloodied forearm on the ground, the leftovers of her master’s morning snack. The doppelganger had completely forgotten about that, but the request did strike it as a bit odd. Didn’t Claws say she had eaten almost twenty people just an hour before? Ah, but this was no ordinary living being it was dealing with.
“No, you can have it,” it replied with a shrug.
Drea then grabbed the discarded limb and disappeared from sight, likely headed for the darkest corner of the dungeon where she could enjoy Boxxy’s leftovers to her heart’s content. Her master still wasn’t sure why she was so elated over a tiny scrap like that, but it saw no reason to deny her request. If anything, it was rather relieved to hear it.
After all, it was quite encouraging to see that, despite her odd behavior, Claws was still as gluttonous as any true-blooded stalker should be.